How to master the ancient art of luck

My dad has the best poker face I’ve ever seen. Looking at him, you never know if he’s frustrated or just plotting how best to finish you off.
When he and I are playing board games like Risk, a world domination game, I always assume his look means the latter. He’s an expert at games of strategy and tactics, and I think he’s glad I have a similar interest.
My mom once told me about his attempt at teaching her to play chess. She said he promised he would take his time and explain the rules of the game to her so she would have a fair chance.
“The only two words he said to me the entire game were “check” and “mate,” she said. Dad was just too involved in his own tactics to bother telling her what to do, I guess.
Sometimes, there is little difference between Dad playing chess with Mom and he and I playing Risk, which is what we did during the last couple days of my Christmas vacation. He always won.
Most of the play time consisted of Dad and I staring at the board motionless. Well, I should say Dad was motionless. I, however, am a chronic fidgeter, and therefore can’t hide my most anxious moments from him. Like a predator, he smells fear and can stay motionless, waiting for the right time to attack.
I’ve got one last stand left on the board, a troop of 10 men in Greenland, and they’re giving Iceland a pounding.
I roll once, and lose two men. I roll again, and lose two more. I roll a third time, and Iceland loses one, but so do I. Now my men are cut in half, and Iceland still has three.
If a young antelope spots a lioness stalking in the grass, the antelope has one choice: run. If the antelope trips even once, it becomes her pride and lunch for the lioness. I spied Dad in the grass, started to run, then stepped all over my own feet.
My forces were outnumbered five to one. I sat back, let out a forced sigh and told him I forfeit.
Finally, I saw a break in that stoic face. He looked up and smiled, starting to laugh.
“Forfeit?” His shoulders shook slightly with his chuckle. “Naw, you could still come back. There’s a chance.”
I explained that it was pointless because the odds were stacked so heavily against me.
“I just had a string of bad luck with the dice against Iceland,” I excused.
Dad just shrugged, holding his palms upward. “Hey, it happens,” he said. “But it’s not about luck; it’s tactics.”
“No, rolling the dice is all about luck,” I replied.
He shook his head. “Luck has nothing to do with it.”
I put my arms behind my head, then stared down at the board with my eyebrows lowered, looking purposefully frustrated.
“See,” he continued, “You put all of your troops in Greenland and then attacked Iceland. Iceland is weak enough, but you’re not looking ahead. There are several other countries you have to get through after that.”
The reason I attacked Iceland, though, wasn’t because I thought it was good tactics. I had been making poor decisions all along and had reached such a point of frustration that I was attacking Iceland because it made me feel like I was accomplishing something, even though, in reality, I was getting my butt kicked.
Dad reached back and picked up the copy of “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu that he bought me for Christmas. It’s an ancient book of Chinese war strategy and philosophy. The book was rediscovered in the mid-1980s by businessmen who saw many ways to apply its teachings to their careers.
“It’s all in here,” he said, shaking the book in the air and smiling.
“Tactics, Chris. That’s how the whole game is played.”
Dad had read it years before it became popular, and lived his life according to its teachings, whether he was making career decisions, family decisions or battle decisions in a game of Risk.
Tzu’s book has two chapters dedicated to terrain.
“Configuration of terrain is an aid to the army,” said Tzu. “Analyzing the enemy, taking control of victory, estimating the ravines and defiles, the distant and near, is the Tao of the superior general.”
“One who knows these and employs them in combat will certainly be victorious,” Tzu wrote. “One who does not know these or employ them in combat will certainly be defeated.”
I saw how I could relate this to my current career choice, the online editor of a marketing agency. Marketing isn’t my thing, but developing Web pages is the future of publishing. I wanted to get experience in this new terrain, so I would know it better than other generals.
Tactically, the job I have is a good move. Attacking Iceland, however, wasn’t.
“A wise rabbit always digs two holes,” said Dad, quoting an old Chinese saying. “And you only dug one hole: Greenland. If you have two holes, you always have an escape route when the fox tries to block one of your holes.”
I conceded to his analysis of the game, but still decided to forfeit. He agreed I was right in assuming the game was over, and chuckled again.
Two weeks later I was no longer in the world of fantasy and game playing, I was back in the real world of my new career, finishing up my degree and writing my new weekly column at the Daily. I was longing for those relaxed nights playing tactics with my dad as I struggled through my job and tried to apply for a winter quarter class.
I assumed that the University offered Shakespeare at the 3000 level as a night class this quarter. I was wrong, that class is offered spring quarter. I’m only two classes shy of graduating, and neither of the classes I needed was being offered during winter quarter.
Still, I needed to take a class, because I had just gotten a new job: this column. To write for the Daily, I needed to be enrolled. But what was the point of taking a class I didn’t need? The simplest solution was to drop the whole idea of taking a class or writing for the Daily, and take a rest this quarter.
The next day, I told my boss at the full-time job I would not have to leave work early one night a week for a 4:15 class.
“Oh, good,” he said. “I was hoping to get you moving more on some of these projects.” He went on to tell me he thought I was prioritizing school ahead of my job, and wanted to see more commitment out of me.
I went home that night tired, frustrated and defeated. I called Dad, and told him about what had happened and about my decision to not go to school this quarter and to tell my new bosses at the Daily that I couldn’t write for them.
“I just had a string of bad luck,” I said.
“It has nothing to do with luck, Chris,” Dad said. “It’s all tactics, just like playing Risk.”
He carried the analogy further, saying by giving up school and the column to concentrate on a job that’s not entirely fulfilling was like putting all my troops in one country and hoping my dice would roll right. I was only digging one hole.
“But if I take a class this quarter it won’t go toward my graduation,” I explained.
“So? This column is what’s really important, isn’t it? It’s a step in the direction of what you most want to do with your life. Who cares if you have to take basket weaving? Just take something!”
The next day, I relocated my troops, and rolled the dice.
On the first roll, I discovered fiction writing classes wouldn’t work — advanced or intermediate. No big deal, I was feeling lucky this night. I blew on the dice for luck, gave a flick of the wrist and snapped my fingers once the numbered cubes hit the table. All the basic sculpture and basic drawing classes remained full, refusing any more students. I wasn’t worried. That last roll was just a warm-up. This time victory was mine! I was defeated by introduction to philosophy and logic courses — all full for the hours I had free.
My luck had run out. I had no more troops with which to fight. The dice were against me, even though my tactics were sound. I tried to dig a second hole like my Dad had suggested — an alternate escape route — but the ground-breaking ceremony required a shovel I just couldn’t get.
It was a Wednesday night, and I had to fill out the paperwork at the Daily that Friday, for which they needed a fee statement showing I’d registered for class. I called my editor, and told him the bad news: no classes. I was down to one option … I could feel the fox closing on me.
“Oh, that’s no problem,” he said. “We’ll have to give you a grace quarter.”
Out the corner of my eye I saw a third hole, one neither I nor the fox knew existed. Rather than dashing for my life, I made relaxed bunny hops to the next hole, confident I would make it.
A grace quarter. Every Daily staffer is allowed one. Most grace quarters are taken during summer, so a staffer doesn’t have to worry about re-applying in the fall. I was enrolled last quarter, have enough money to enroll for next quarter, and therefore could keep my new, more satisfying job.
My editor then sounded concerned: “This isn’t an excuse to get out of the columnist position, is it?” he asked.
My eyes widened. “No!” I said, almost stunned. “Oh, no, no. I want to keep this column.” I smiled to myself, then peeked out through the entrance to my new hole and saw the fox safely out of reach.
Chris Druckenmiller’s column appears every Tuesday in the Daily.