The Result of Chance
Desk Notes explores writing, travel, and literature—with a new issue every Friday.
For many years I preferred to swim in a pool rather than the ocean, to play volleyball on a court rather than the beach, to sit down for a game of chess rather than learn backgammon, and I never felt, most especially, any desire whatsoever to join in a hand of poker. For the latter examples I saw the inclusion of chance, imprecision, and uncertainty as quite obvious drawbacks—with too much importance placed on variables outside the scope of each contest. Ocean waves are unpredictable and influence your form and trigger adjustments beyond your control; an intense volleyball match on the beach imposes the forces of wind and sun and certainly the sand unevenly on the teams; both backgammon and poker require skill and intelligence and, crucially, a bit of chance. For the other environments, however, the systems are closed: a temperature controlled regulation-sized pool gives you precise times and comparisons, an indoor volleyball court with a net measured to precision equalizes the teams, and even though a chess board has, for a human mind, what we could pretty much call an infinite number of positions, the board removes all extraneous variables until there’s nothing left but the parameters of the game.
And in nearly all competitions I once thought it reasonable to limit those extraneous variables. Only in a regulation pool can I truly measure my swimming times and improve my technique. Only on a chess board can I truly assess whether I’m improving, as the differences in outcome aren’t mysterious or hidden and are simply determined by my choices. The acceptance of chance—of mere flukes, of probabilities beyond my control, of timing and serendipity and accident—seemed, for many years, a wasteful distraction. Because it left every outcome muddied while also making measurement, along with performance, too contingent on that chance.
Somewhere along the way—in a shift that began more than a decade ago—my thinking reversed. What I once preferred began to feel deceptive. Perhaps illusory or even utopian. The need to control the variables within a game to concentrate on that game began to look like a fanciful desire—the artificiality of every closed system had a new implication, because I couldn’t deny the simple truth that there’s nothing more lifelike than the amalgamation of skill and chance. But this shift didn’t come from any awakening. There’s no moment of revelation. Instead, it seemed to occur as an almost imperceptible shift in my construct of the world, a shift in thinking that I can only describe in retrospect. Competency still mattered, of course, as did experience and virtuosity, but at some point I started to relish the notion that there’s no jurisdiction where you escape the role of chance. It is what you find whenever a decision meets an opportunity and it is what faces you whenever you close your front door.
Perhaps I should have been more primed for how I would change based on my experience with swimming. Although a regulation pool attempts to control the environment for each swimmer, that’s only a partial truth. In a competitive race, for instance, the faster swimmers are awarded the middle lanes of the pool, which groups them together and keeps them away from the walls. Swimming alongside the fastest competitor helps you to better sense the pace during a race and, as every swimmer kicks water outward, staying away from the wall helps you to avoid the wake. And if you’re swimming a competitive race, you might be tired, or too eager, perhaps you’re rundown after an earlier race, in some cases you might be sore and numb and fighting a cold, whereas your competitor is taller and rested and this is their only race today; but if you didn’t sleep last night and there’s water in your googles and you’re in the outside lane and you just swam two races in seven minutes there’s absolutely no complaint that’s reasonable: the moment when your fingers touch the wall is all the counts in the end, because there’s no point whatsoever in mentioning any disparities in chance and, if you think about it, there’s a lot of freedom in that ideal. The alternative—a world that’s ordered and regulated and predictable and where all metrics are measured—is actually a horrendous sight.
We’re left with a few aspects in every moment of life for which you are responsible, and a much larger component that redounds to you in a whimsical manner without any thought to your preferences, and somewhere in that mixture is probably where we discover that elusive aspect of life called artistry. Because we need an explanation for why the nighttime jazz performance where everything imaginable goes wrong still thunders with meaning, leaving us a recording of one night that’s still compelling fifty years later; or we need an explanation for why the writer who lives in squalor and faces a lifetime of sickness writes pages that still come alive one hundred years later; or we need to somehow understand how the deaf composer managed to make everyone else cry without hearing his own notes; or we need to know why the sculptor who faced an imperfect, cracked, overlooked slab of marble crafted the form that we now deem perfect.
It is in the delicate interplay between the extremes of control and chance where we discover that always-elusive cocktail of artistry. And this is an ideal that gives us a perfectly good reason to take control while never dismissing the role of chance. Because to wish away all the messiness of chance is to wish away what we find most beautiful—a quality that’s never revealed through control.