What Poker, Basketball and Mike Whitaker taught me about Luck

Here’s a little thought experiment.

Consider all the people you’ve known for a moment.  Now focus on the five who have been least successful and the five who have achieved the most.  Ask yourself, what is their attitude regarding luck?  In my experience the contrast is striking.  What I notice is this:

  • Less successful people attribute a large part of their situation to (bad) luck.  They tend to use it as an excuse and as a tool of their envy. It allows them to be content with their position while dismissing the achievements of others.
  • More successful people tend to dismiss luck altogether.  They focus on their own blood, sweat and tears.  They see their achievements as theirs alone.  They fail to give the blessing of luck its due.

If you play poker you know it is a game of skill.  No surer money making opportunity exists than having a player sit down at the table and announce that the winners will be chosen this night by the capriciousness of Lady Luck.  That happens, I can already feel their money in my pocket.  Talk about luck!

Will you cowboy up when you meet her?

But you also don’t play poker long, or with success, before learning some times the cards run with you and some times they run bad.  Ignoring these runs of luck is a dangerous and arrogant mistake.  Expensive, too.

I can remember one long poker night with Johnny,  and for all his formidable skill he couldn’t catch a break.  Every strong hand he pulled only won him the right to come in second.  A very costly proposition that.  Lord protect me from second best in a poker hand.

Around 3am he pulled a hand with 4 Fours. I’ve played a lot of stud and draw poker over the years and I can count the number of times I’ve seen four-of-a-kind on one hand.  It is as close to a sure thing as you can expect to get.

Several players were contending hard and the pot was huge.  When the dust settled one guy had a straight (and what the hell was he doing still in the hand?).  There was a flush and a full-house.  Each waiting to kneel before Johnny’s beautiful 4 Fours.

Then the last player rolled over his cards.  4 Queens.

Johnny tossed in his hand and turned to me.  “Ya know,” he said, “when you can’t win with four-of-a-kind it’s time to pack it up and go home.”  Better luck next time.

Since business entertaining was always a key part of my career, over the years I’ve found myself attending about half a dozen professional basketball games.  Inevitably we would be sitting in the best best seats in the house.  Equally inevitably I be sitting there wishing I could be home (to steal a wonderful phrase from Brave New Life) throwing rocks at trees.  Not my sport.

Yawn.

As my mind would wander boredom would morph into meditation and the same few thoughts would occur each game:

  • This primo seat is tragically wasted on me.
  • There are people in this arena, maybe all of them, for whom sitting here would be the realization of a life’s dream.
  • Damn, those players are big.
  • Damn, that court is small.
  • The players put in the absolute least effort possible for the first 7/8ths of the game.
  • Even I can appreciate the intensity of the last few minutes.
  • These guys are getting paid millions to do this?  Really?

But the thought I dwell upon most is just how exceptionally lucky these guys are.

This is not to take anything away from their remarkable athletic talent, or the hard work it surely takes to play at this level.  Rather, how incredibly lucky these guys are to have this talent combined with those unique body types right now and in this place.

we’ve been looking for luck a long time

Until this moment in history and in this particular country, those same skills would have had zero economic value.  Had they been born at any other time in the last 200,000 years or so Homo Sapiens has been roaming the planet, nobody would have cared.  But today, in this golden moment, they are worshiped and showered in gold.  Not hard to see the luck in that.

This is not to pick on ball players.  The same is true for all of us if we have the humility to look for it.

One day in 1992 a venture capital pal of mine, Chris, gave me a call.  I had been searching for businesses to buy and he had an interest in backing me in the effort.  A guy in Kentucky needing cash to take his company to the next level had reached out to him.  Chris asked me to take a look, and that’s how I met Mike Whitaker.

Over the course of the next three months, working closely with his team, we developed a detailed business plan to guide them forward and secure the venture capital needed.  We got to know each other well and one night over dinner, at my request, he told me his story.

Mike was a South Illinois country boy growing up near the Kentucky border.  He loved his rural roots and home.

In the 1970s, as he came of age, the CB Radio craze began sweeping the country.  These things were the cell phones of their day.  Suddenly every motorist on the road was chattering away, CB in hand, irritating the hell out of truckers who’d been using this tool forever.

Ten-four, good buddy

Mike found himself making a pretty good living selling the things until this fad, as fads will do, disappeared even more quickly than it had arrived.  Suddenly unemployed he had some thinking to do.  Living in South Illinois, he was not exactly surrounded by other options.

He sat with a beer and took inventory.  He wasn’t going to leave the place he treasured.  He wasn’t going to be able to replace the CR Radio job.  He wanted to make money doing something he loved.  What he loved was fishing for bass.

Big Business

Bass Fishing, as it happens, is big business.  At the time that business was dominated by an organization called B.A.S.S out of Atlanta, Georgia.  B.A.S.S ran big-time bass fishing tournaments all across the country. But they couldn’t be bothered with little old South Illinois.

Mike figured if he could organize a few local bass fishing tournaments each year, he’d live what he loved and maybe make 10 or 15 thousand a year in the process.  More than enough to meet his modest needs.  He figured correctly as it turned out, and Operation Bass was born.

Over the next several years he ran his tournaments, generated about 150k in revenue and took home the 10-15k he needed.  He got pretty good at it.  He fished whenever he pleased.  Life was sweet.

The money in bass fishing tournaments comes from two sources.  Equipment and boat manufactures pay to be associated with the event.  Prizes and bragging rights are awarded.  Contestants pay to enter, hoping to win them.

Mike reveled in being Master of Ceremonies.  Who needed CB Radios anyway?

two guys showed up one day

One day two guys showed up at Mike’s door.  They were from the Pinkerton Tobacco Company.  Among other tobacco products, Pinkerton owned the Redman Chewing Tobacco brand.  Guess what?  Bass fishermen are a key chewing tobacco demographic.  Pinkerton wanted a Bass Fishing Tournament.

Mike’s question was, of course, why would this national brand (and certainly a plum sponsor prospect) be interested in his little regional events?  Why didn’t they go to the national company, B.A.S.S?  Turns out they did.

But  B.A.S.S would only offer sponsorships in their existing tournaments.  Pinkerton wanted something more.  They wanted to sponsor a brand new national event.  They wanted it to be called The Redman Tournament Trail.   Would Operation Bass be interested in creating it?

“Yes,” said Mike, “we’d be interested.  But we simply don’t have the financial resources to do it.”

“We’ve already thought of that,” said the two Pinkerton Tobacco Company guys.  “You need to be bigger to do this for us. That’s why we are prepared to give you all this money.”  Then they figuratively pushed a huge bundle of cash across his desk.

“You take this, create the tournament and we’ll be your lead sponsor for as long as you are willing to run it.”

By the time I met him, Operation Bass was a multi-million dollar nationwide company.  The Redman Tournament Trail was a premier event in the Bass Fishing world.  He owned it lock, stock and barrel.  He was still doing what he loved and where he wanted to do it.  It had made him a wealthy man.

Mike did a lot of things right and deserves a lot of credit.  He analyzed his situation.  He followed his heart.  He looked for opportunity. He focused on what he knew. He set his goal.  He came up with a plan.  He created his tournaments.  He bootstrapped their growth.  He built a reputation.  He became precisely the one guy the Pinkerton Tobacco Company needed.  He delivered for them.  He earned it.

But what gave Mike his gracious aura was his unassuming humility and his cheerful recognition of the luck that had flowed his way.

even when we’re not looking it keeps on flowing

Working with guys like him, playing poker and watching basketball I’ve come to see luck as an ever present flowing stream.  Most of the time we are unaware of it, or maybe just not ready to reach in.  Our eyes are closed.  But sometimes we can be ready and sometimes our eyes are open.  Sometimes we recognize it and sometimes we know what to do with it.

It is said luck favors the prepared.  Seems it also is drawn to those who in failing, learn and keep trying.

It is seen by those who know when to step back to rest, reassess and look.

It is recognizable to those who pursue their dreams and what they love.

  • If life hasn’t been turning out the way you’d hoped, take a moment.  Look around.  Open your eyes.  There might just be some luck flowing past waiting for you to grab it.
  • If you are basking in the glow of your hard work, initiative and success, congratulations.  Now, when you’re done patting yourself on the back, take a moment and, like Mike….

…give a little thanks.

Addendum #1:

Unfortunately for me, ultimately Mike decided that as much as he wanted to expand into TV and magazines per our plan, he wasn’t willing to give up the ownership equity my VC backers would have required.  Bad for me, probably best for him. We parted friends and lost track of each other as too often happens.

Google tells me he sold the business in 1996 and the new owners executed an expansion in 2001 that sounds very much like our plan.  I take some satisfaction in that.

Addendum #2:

Here’re a couple of great articles on this whole luck v. skill v. effort balance:

http://calnewport.com/blog/2013/01/02/does-luck-matter-more-than-skill/

You make your own luck

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13 Comments

  1. Posted February 15, 2012 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    Wow, what a fantastic story. It’s amazing to hear of people “living the dream” like your friend Mike and making a living doing what they love. So many of us work a job we dislike just to make a buck.

    I think it was The Richest Man in Babylon (coming back to that story again) that said luck was equal parts preparation and opportunity. There’s a certain other element to it I think. The biggest factor one can attribute to luck is your parents. That’s one thing that’s completely out of your hands and can make a huge difference in your ability to succeed.

    • Posted February 15, 2012 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

      Hi DD….

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. Your thoughts add a lot to the blog here and I appreciate it.

      Glad you enjoyed the story.

      One of the best things about writing this blog is that it has given me a chance to remember and reflect on some of the interesting people I’ve been privileged to meet along the way.

  2. Posted February 17, 2012 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

    Great post! Those basketball players are extremely lucky, but also have to work incredibly hard to be able to play in that league. SO much competition.

    I agree that to some extent we make our own luck. Although there are undeniable times when you’re simply in the right place, doing the right thing at the right time. Like Mike.

  3. Posted January 3, 2013 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    Hi Jim and Happy New Year. I learned so much from your blog last year and took much to heart. Thank you so much for your blog.

    You said: The same is true for all of us if we have the humility to look for it

    I read the other day (to paraphrase), “if we don’t fall on our knees everyday and gives thanks, we’ve got problems”. Well, something like that anyway.

    My mentor, Dennis Prager, says happiness is a moral obligation. http://www.prageruniversity.com/Life-Studies/Happiness-is-a-Moral-Obligation.html

    • Posted January 3, 2013 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

      Hi Michael….

      and Happy New Year to you as well.

      Thanks for your kind words and especially for the time you’ve taken to add the occasional comment. Hope to hear more from you in 2013.

      Cheers!

  4. steve
    Posted July 5, 2013 at 4:59 am | Permalink

    Great blog but I disagree with this point. My father in law is rich beyond belief but he thinks a lot of wealth comes from luck. He made his money as a foreign currency trader.

    • jlcollinsnh
      Posted July 5, 2013 at 10:27 am | Permalink

      Thanks Steve….

      and welcome.

      But I’m confused as to with what you disagree. While your father-in-law suggests that much of his success has come from luck, does he give no credit to his own efforts?

      Did he not choose to be a currency trader, a profession with the potential to make him wealthy?

      Did he not learn and train in the skills needed to do this?

      Did he not go to work and practice those skills?

      If having done all those things, and more I’m not thinking of at the moment, had he not positioned himself to take advantage of any luck that happened to flow his way?

      What am I missing?

  5. financialblogger23
    Posted March 20, 2014 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    I love this blog more than getting a cold beer in Afghanistan! THANKS! With any luck I’ll buy you a cup of coffee somewhere int he world.

    • jlcollinsnh
      Posted April 10, 2014 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

      Track me down and the coffee’s one me! (Probably not in Afghanistan….)

  6. Scott W
    Posted March 22, 2014 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

    Great article Jim. I’ m a big believer that people create some of their luck but I think its important if you are doing well to be appreciative for some of the good fortune you may have had along the way.

    Unfortunately many people who make bad decision after bad decision blame their lot in life on bad luck. I have a good friend who has a terrible attitude and he is convinced his lack of success is 100% bad luck when it is actually his attitude holding him back.

    • jlcollinsnh
      Posted April 10, 2014 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

      Thanks Scott…

      Sorry to hear about your friend, but all too many people seem to fall into that trap. It becomes a vicious cycle and a self-fulfilling prophecy. Help if you can, but be sure not to get drawn into the vortex.

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