Luck, Chance and Probability

‘You know Hobbes, some days even my lucky rocket ship underpants don’t help’

Bill Waterson, Calvin and Hobbes 

What exactly is luck? Can we attract luck? Can we share luck? When an event in our life has been influenced by luck or we wish someone ‘good luck’ what do we mean? It is hard to really define. It probably depends on our cultural view of luck or fortune and how we personally believe some mysterious force it is involved in the unfolding of events in our daily lives. Most cultures have expressions or a word that describes what we know as luck or fortune although the ideas might be a little different.

One simple definition of luck is: ‘an unpredictable and uncontrollable force that shapes events favourably or unfavourably.’ This idea of luck has three distinct characteristics which are (1) luck can be good or bad (2) luck can be an accident or chance and (3) luck only applies to sentient beings.

So winning a random draw competition could be seen as good luck as against being caught in an unexpected rainstorm or fire (bad luck). If you were born into a wealthy family this might also be considered good luck as against being born during a depression in a poor country. The idea of being in the right place at the right time is often considered good luck. Winning a random draw competition can also include a lot of luck but there are also the elements of chance and probability at work too.

Luck is related to chance in that in order to believe in luck there must also be a reasonable chance of the event occurring – chance meaning that some degree of occurrence is possible. Probability is the mathematical way of measuring this.

If we are told or think to ourselves that there is a good chance of winning a competition – what do we believe? Essentially we believe that our odds of winning are favourable (and we might be feeling a little lucky too!). This is where it might be worth considering probability – the chance that something might happen. Or how likely it is that an event will happen. This can, of course range from impossible (not actually entering the competition) to unlikely (a large number of other entrants besides you) to an even chance to likely (only a few other entrants) then finally to certain (you are the only entrant).

Very few events can be predicted with total certainty. If we are into the idea of making predictions the best we can do is determine how likely something is to happen. One mathematical equation for determining this probability is:

the number of ways it can happen divided by the total number of outcomes

If, for example, there is only one prize in a competition and there are 100 entrants then the probability will be 1:100. Let’s say there are 100 small prizes and 500 entrants. This will then increase your chances because the probability changes to 1:5. All of this, of course, obviously meaning that competitions with more prizes and less entrants are the best to aim for. I think we all already know that!

     Having covered all this logical, mathematical stuff I am going back to the concept of luck again. It has actually been found that people who believe in luck (good that is) are more likely to be optimistic and make better choices and by doing so seem to attract it. Those who are more pessimistic and concentrate on the negative things happen in their lives don’t seem to be able to.

I’ll leave all this pondering up to you and in the meantime….good luck!

After working for thirty years as a journalist/historian, Jenny started writing sci-fi for children and adults and occasionally illustrating them (when she was not spending time with her grandkids). Most have been published in The School Magazine, anthologies and online. She has also been contributing to a wide variety of magazines such as Antiques and Collectables for Pleasure and Profit, Australiana and Nurture. Now essentially retired Jenny has taken up a challenge of entering and (hopefully winning) competitions. Jenny will track her journey through this challenge here at

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  1. Dan

    A very good analysis of luck Jenny.

    If we were told how many people were likely of entering a particular competition, we could definitely perceive, from an intellectual point of view, our odds of winning, and decide whether or not it was worth entering. Obviously this is something that Lotto does, and, surprisingly, the low odds don’t seem to affect the number of people buying tickets.

    I especially like that you included a non-intellectual understanding of luck (faith, hope, etc), as this is my preferred approach to competitions. After all, you could still enter the most popular random competitions on the net and come out the winner, despite the odds against that happening. I mean, at the end of the day, someone has to win, don’t they? It could be you, just as much as anyone else. If you chose not to enter based on low odds, you are giving away your luck right at the get-go. Mind you, it would raise the odds/luck for those that do enter, lol, so maybe knowing the odds is a good thing for those who have faith.

  2. Paula

    Luck to me is mysterious and fun whether win or lose. Alongside the old saying “you have to be in it to win it”

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