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One has to work at good luck | (KRT) "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars/But in ourselves, that we are underlings." - Cassius, in William Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar"


Brutus believes in luck. Cassius doesn't. Cassius apparently never bet on a horse.

Here is John McKay at the end of a Friday night of racing at Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie, Texas, standing near the betting windows toting up his wins and losses:

"Tonight we're down a little bit," he said. Recently he and his wife, Michelle, were in Vegas. Cassius apparently never rolled the dice at Vegas, either. "It was the most we've ever lost," said McKay, shaking his head. "But we were due."

Conventional wisdom tells us some people have luck and some people don't.

But luck is not something you have, according to a British psychologist and his research team. Luck is something you do.

Dr. Richard Wiseman, a University of Hertfordshire psychologist and former magician, debunks the idea of luck in the May/June issue of Skeptical Inquirer, a magazine that specializes in debunking. For the study, he and his research team gathered 400 volunteers who answered ads calling for folks who considered themselves fortunate or unfortunate.

To start with, researchers asked each volunteer to buy a lottery ticket. You might expect "lucky" volunteers to end up with a disproportionate share of winning tickets, and the "unlucky" ones to hold losers. In fact, Wiseman discovered, lucky and unlucky came out about the same, winnings-wise. There are no lucky stars. Friday the 13th is just another day.

But when the researchers took a closer look at the lives of their subjects, they discovered a big difference: "The lucky people expected to win," Wiseman said.

Not only do lucky people expect to win, he said, they prepare themselves to win and they pounce on good fortune when it arrives. When things are going badly, they assume it's only a temporary setback. Things will get better. And sure enough, most of the time they do.

He could have had Janeen Heath in mind. Library director for a Dallas law firm, three years ago the Mesquite resident considered herself very lucky indeed.

"I thought, here I am, 35 years old. I've got a great job, a great salary. I've been elected to offices in my professional association. I've got a new house. Everything's going great."

Then it was like lightning: Boom!

On Christmas Eve 2000, the house burned down. Her husband got the children out, but their dog, a miniature dachshund, perished.


Two months later, not sleeping well and still in a funk about the house and the dachshund, she dropped the kids off at school, fell asleep at the wheel on her way home and totaled her new car, breaking her arm in three places.


She eventually found a dachshund pup to replace the one lost in the fire. She drove him home from the kennel feeling happier than she had in months. Three days later, the dog suffered a seizure. He died in her lap.

At this point, even Wiseman's research team might characterize Heath as unlucky.

Not so, she said.

"We could have sat there and cried and boo-hooed everything," she said. Instead, family, friends and co-workers rallied around. They showed up right after the fire, walked through the charred wreckage with the Heaths. "Then we all started singing the old Talking Heads song, `Burning Down the House.' "

Folks collected money, clothes, dishes, even a Toys "R" Us gift card to tide the family over.

"It's amazing how people will rally around you and turn bad luck to good," Heath said. "Luck is what you make it."

Heath may not realize it, but she was following at least two of the four principles of luck Wiseman's study uncovered. (He details them in "The Luck Factor: Changing Your Luck, Changing Your Life," Hyperion, $23.95.) Despite everything, she expected good luck and was ready when it arrived. And she managed to turn a run of bad luck into good. Lucky people, Wiseman said, also create opportunities for luck and know how to capitalize on them. And they follow their hunches.

"We found lucky and unlucky people have no insight into why they're lucky or not," he said. "But the lucky ones would tell us, `I went to this party and chatted up these people.' The fact that they went to the party and explored commonalities, people they both knew, created opportunities for luck."

They get out and meet people. They schmooze. They frequently change the patterns of their lives.

"I'm not a passive person to sit and wait for something to happen," said Lydia Player, a stay-at-home mom in North Dallas.

Shortly after she was married, Player said, she and her husband, struggling like every other young couple, needed to remodel their house. And so she did what any resourceful do-it-yourself homemaker would do: She decided to win the money on television.

"I watched a lot of game shows and decided which one I want to go on and wrote them, and then flew out to Los Angeles and tried out," she said.

The tryout went well. She came back and assured everyone she was going to win $10,000. "My husband would whisper to me, `Yeah, but what if you don't win?' I just said, `I'm going to win!' "

Sure enough, she was called back for a second tryout, got on the show and won $12,000.

The woman who beat Player during taping for the next day's show - and won $40,000 - was another example of self-made luck. "She was a single mom, overweight," Player said. "But I noticed she was reading this book, `Think and Grow Rich.' And she told me she was going to audition and become an actress."

The next time Player saw her, she was on television, doing a Pine-Sol commercial.

Luck seems to run in the appropriately named Player family. Her husband retired from Arthur Andersen, the troubled accounting firm, to start his own business. "Six months later," she said, "Arthur Andersen didn't exist. He would have lost everything. That was lucky!"

"We've lived in six different houses that we've remodeled," she said. "We sold each one at a profit.

"Part of it is I worked with a good Realtor. Of course, I put a lot of work in on them."

The point is that one has to work at good luck.

"You can't control events," said Ginger Hilley, who conducts seminars for bereaved spouses. "But you can control your reaction to them."

Hilley thinks she's had a lucky life. You judge.

Married, divorced with children and remarried, she walked into her living room one evening to find her second husband, a Dallas anesthesiologist, dead of a self-administered lethal overdose. They had worked together; she kept his books, his schedule. Suddenly, she was without husband, job, income, and with two teenage children.

During the year that followed, she said, her life was mainly "crawling around in the dark, barely breathing." They had been a physically active couple - biking, running, scuba diving. Now, she said, "to go to the mailbox was a huge exertion. I literally had to force myself to go out for a walk. I would cry volumes all the way." It wasn't that she wanted to walk, she said. She had to escape.

"A year out, I was out one day for a walk and I clearly remember thinking, `What is my life going to look like? Will it always be so dark?' I started thinking, `Do I deserve to have happiness?' And I finally got it: Yes, I deserve happiness again. I started crying, but they were tears of joy. There's a difference between what happens in your head and in your gut. I finally got it in my gut."

It was tough at first. But she started a business. She began dating. "I didn't know what happiness and joy felt like. I had to go out a little bit at a time. It's very comfortable staying in your space."

Looking back, she thinks she must have had a certain resiliency that had become dormant after years of marriage. Its rediscovery, she said, "was a gift that has come to me out of the death of my husband, because of the depth I had to go through."

John McKay, the unsuccessful bettor at Lone Star Park, has a philosophy. He has survived a killer asthma attack. He has gotten jobs by talking to the right person at the right time.

But luck, he said, is only part of it.

"It's not just throw everything in the air," he said. "It's a gathering of all your experience."

Steve Asmussen, one of horse racing's top trainers, believes in luck - to a point.

"We consider ourselves lucky whenever we have success," he said.

By his own standards, Asmussen's horses were lucky 407 times last year, earning more than $10 million in winnings. He is standing where the horses are shortly to be led out for the next race at Lone Star Park, a big grin on his face.

"A large percentage of horse races are won by a small margin," he said. "You're lucky if the horse next to yours doesn't act up in the chute, if the horse in front of yours doesn't fall. Luck is getting the right horse and nothing gets in his way to keep him from winning."

Everything else is preparation.

Asmussen once trained a horse named Fortune 500 whose career speaks volumes about the role of luck in life and in racing. The horse ran second almost all the time. Seldom first, seldom third.

Fortune 500 was not unlucky, the trainer said.

"He was just afraid to lead."

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© 2003, Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services