I feel that now would be a good time to discuss the nature of the overused saying “Good luck.” In my eyes, to wish someone good luck is to assume that that person is unprepared. A friend of mine wished me good luck before the midterm in Music 15 today, and I asked him why. Why should luck be a factor? I knew the material. I wasn’t going to bubble in random choices and hope that I’d get more right than I would by pure chance. Perhaps if I were to walk into a random class to take a midterm and not be permitted to look at the questions, I would be relying on luck. If I were to roll dice or flip coins to determine the answers, I would be relying on luck. If I were to take the test properly and answer the questions after giving them a fair amount of thought, I would not be relying on luck. I would be relying on knowledge and skill. Of course, it doesn’t make any sense to wish “good skill” on someone. After all, what does that mean?

Suppose that his wish of good luck were to mean that he was hoping that the questions just happened to be the ones to which I knew the answers. Is that the way someone should take an exam? Should I take an exam with the expectation that I’ll have studied exactly what happens to be on the test? If so, what’s the point? What does one gain from only knowing the answers to the questions that are on the exam?

What about good luck for a math contest? Am I going to be “lucky” and just guess the answer correctly? Perhaps that happened to a certain on AIME 2001, but whenever I guess the answer correctly on a math contest it’s a result of doing something that’s not quite mathematically correct but having the intuition that it will work out well enough. Is that luck? I don’t think so. Maybe it’s experience. Maybe it’s intuition. What it isn’t is luck.

The good luck wish I resent the most comes before a game of chess. Since chess is a game of complete information, there is no luck involved. It is possible to calculate chess out from the beginning to the end since it is a finite game with complete information. Isn’t that why people play chess? Whatever the result, I am the one responsible. Whether I win, draw, or lose, I can find no one to blame but myself. There isn’t a supernatural force propelling my hand toward a random piece. I get to choose. That’s skill. It’s my skill versus my opponent’s skill. That isn’t luck.

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About Simon

Hi. I'm Simon Rubinstein-Salzedo. I'm a mathematics postdoc at Dartmouth College. I'm also a musician; I play piano and cello, and I also sometimes compose music and study musicology. I also like to play chess and write calligraphy. This blog is a catalogue of some of my thoughts. I write them down so that I understand them better. But sometimes other people find them interesting as well, so I happily share them with my small corner of the world.
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21 Responses to

  1. aknoln says:

    “In my experience there’s no such thing as luck.”

  2. z9r4c3 says:

    hm… maybe they just want to wish you well, and have no other way to express themselves? the math problem is coming (I hope) very soon. I don’t know how to express summations or choose online…

  3. rippledance says:

    They say it b/c they always do. It’s just habit. *shrug* Most of the time they don’t even mean it.

  4. dksph says:

    most of today’s scientific community believes in probabilistic distributions of microscopic events, and that the human brain is almost definitely subject to this. the assumption people are making is that some of these events are more “desirable” to you than others. if the brain was a conventional (pure logic circuit) machine, luck wouldn’t really exist there. as it is, the world is pretty uncertain. if some chemicals mix in the wrong cavity and you get a sudden urge to move into a mate in one, what point is there in blaming yourself?

    • Simon says:

      What a lame excuse for losing a game of chess! When I move into mate in one (really, this doesn’t happen very often, I promise!), it’s because I purposefully played what I considered to be the best move, but I was wrong. It’s my fault, not the fault of some chemicals mixing in the wrong cavity.

      • mathfanatic says:

        But isn’t what you considered to be the best move just what your brain thinks, and what your brain thinks is based on chemicals moving in and out of cavities and blowing up and other fascinating outcomes like that?

  5. pflueger says:

    Well, regardless of how well you know the material, or how good you are at chess, there will be days that your brain just functions better than other days. So perhaps by wishing good luck, one is saying that they hope that your brain will work very efficiently on that particular day.
    Also, luck will always come into play. No one is 100% consistent; sometimes they make mistakes, sometimes they don’t. In chess, maybe you just happen not to see one possible plan of attack that you ordinarily would. Your skill level has not changed. So it seems logical that one would hope for good luck in all circumstances.
    It just seems as if you cannot discount luck totally as a factor. Last year’s national mathcounts champion, who is clearly very skilled in math, did not make the USAMO because of a poor AIME score, but he had gotten 15s on practice AIMEs in the past. Did he all of a sudden lose his skill for that one day? I would suggest that he simply had a very unlucky day.
    Of course, I’m just playing devil’s advocate here; I never really took the time to consider that the phrase is fundamentally an odd thing to say…

  6. goreism says:

    I think what you are perhaps forgetting is that the meaning of a phrase isn’t always determined by its component words. What I mean to say is that “Good Luck”‘s meaning doesn’t depend on the meanings of “Good” or “Luck” any more than “light” depends on the meaning of “I” (bad analogy, but heck, it’s the best i can come up with at 1:20 in the morning). Despite the fact that “good luck” is etymologically derived from “good” and “luck”, a word’s meaning stands independent of its historical context. Through usage and observing usage, people associate “good luck” — as a phrase — with a certain meaning, something close to “I would be happier if you do well than if you do not” (obviously only an approximation). People make the mistake of confusing etymology with meaning all the time — when meaning is clearly determined by how a body of speakers understands an (arbitrary) word or phrase.

  7. intrepia says:

    “Good luck” is somewhat shorter than “I hope you do well,” and there might still be a few subjective factors in things that seem objective…

  8. Anonymous says:

    I think “good luck” on a math contest is relevant. Since you won’t be able to do every math problem the writers could come up with, it’s merely a way of expressing the view that they hope, for your sake, that the questions they *did* come up with are those that coincidentally lie in the set of problems that you will be able to do.
    Seperately, how can you distinguish between the chemicals that determine your thoughts and actions and yourself? You are your chemicals.
    Joel

    • Simon says:

      I would, to an extent, be able to agree with what you say in the first paragraph if the wish of good luck were to come before the contest had actually been written. However, after the contest has been written, either a person will be able to solve a given problem, or that person will not be able to solve the given problem.
      Furthermore, wouldn’t a wish of good luck in this case be equivalent to saying “I hope you beat me on this contest”? I don’t think very many people have such wishes for others.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Maybe “No Bad Luck For You” ?
    If it wasn’t bad enough that I thought the CCS Qualifying allowed 90 minutes (my own fault I suppose), the whole time there was loud construction outside the room and we had no place to move to. So while I don’t mind people saying “good luck” to me, I much rather they say “no bad luck”.

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