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Luck Matters More Than Skill When You’re at the Top

What? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? No, because… Prof. Gary Smith explains

With basketball fever at a high pitch… when LA Times sportswriter Jim Alexander talked to Pomona College business prof Gary Smith about what it takes to win, he got a different answer than some might have expected. If you are really good, it takes luck to win, Smith explained.

What? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? No, because…

“You can take the four best golfers in the world – any sport, but let’s do golf because it’s head-to-head,” Smith said in a phone conversation this week. “And they play a round of golf and see who gets the lowest score, and it’s pretty much random. Nobody’s going to win every single time. One guy might win more than 25 percent of the time, but a lot of luck goes into winning. And then you take an amateur who plays a pro, and the pro wins every time.

“So the paradox of luck and skill is, the more skilled the players, the more the outcome is determined by luck. In the same way, you take two really good basketball teams, the NBA or NCAA or whatever, and the outcome is more likely to be determined by luck than by skill, whereas you take a really good team and a really bad team and skill becomes more important.”

Jim Alexander, “Alexander: How luck brings madness to your NCAA Tournament bracket” at Orange County Register (March 24, 2022)

In short, when you get to the top, everyone you play against is skilled. That’s why luck matters more at the top. Smith wrote a book about that, (2016).

“Humans are very uncomfortable with the idea that luck or chance or randomness plays a large role in their lives,” Smith said. “They like to have explanations, theories, patterns, whatever. They like to have reasons. Team A won because they’re better. Team A lost because the referees conspired against them. It’s never, if there were a few lucky breaks, if they played again, (Team B would) probably win.

“It’s true in every sport and it’s also true in life. A lot of things that happen to us are just chance, coincidental, serendipity. Not completely random, but an element of randomness.

Jim Alexander, “Alexander: How luck brings madness to your NCAA Tournament bracket” at Orange County Register (March 24, 2022)

Dr. Smith is certainly not saying that skill and smarts don’t matter at the top. Sometimes, performances are just spectacular by any measure. For example, as he told Alexander, “hot hands” is not just a basketball myth:

Superficial evidence, like someone making several shots in a row, may well be due to chance—like heads coming up four times in a row in ten coin flips. Even when we identify something as memorable as Joe Harris making 12 shots in a row in 2019, it might be explained by the fact that we cherry-picked—like flipping ten coins 1,000 times and noting that heads once came up ten times in a row.

Fortunately, there are ways to account for chance and cherry-picking and, when we do, Craig Hodges’ streak of 19 in a row in the 1991 contest is still too incredible to be explained by luck or cherry-picking. He was hot.

Gary Smith, “Is “hot hands” just a basketball myth?” at Mind Matters News (February 14, 2020)

Statistics might come off as a boring subject at school but it can provide surprising insights into life.

Smith, for example, has also tackled the question of why intelligent women marry less intelligent men. Basically, it’s lonely at the top and if women (or men) don’t want to live alone, they may need to find a suitable partner who happens to be less smart. As he put it in an article, “This seeming paradox of highly intelligent people marrying people who are not as intelligent is but one of many examples of regression toward the mean that we encounter all the time.” He applies the same thinking to baseball and golf.

In short, he says, it takes all the skill we can muster to get to our top game. After that, we must accept that, usually, great success also depends on luck.

You may also wish to read:

Why intelligent women marry less intelligent men. Are they trying to avoid competition at home as well as at work? Or is there a statistical reason we are overlooking? Psychological theories abound but the true explanation is a statistical one: Regression to the mean. It also applies to many other choices in life.

Is “Hot Hands” just a basketball myth? Not so fast… This myth-busting paper is justly famous. But there are good reasons for being skeptical of the skeptical professors.

The World Series: What the Luck? Who will win the World Series? I don’t know, but I do know that baseball is the quintessential game of luck. Enjoy the World Series; I know I will. But notice the luck and remember the 1969 Mets and the 1990 A’s.


Why did Shane Lowry win the British Open golf championship? Because someone had to. In any competition including academic tests, athletic events, and company management where there is an element of luck that causes performances to be an imperfect measure of ability, there is an important difference between competitions among people with high ability and competitions among people of lesser ability: The competition between people of high ability tends to depend more on luck.

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Luck Matters More Than Skill When You’re at the Top