The Beauty of Chance

I was forwarded an interview with a poker player named Maria Konnikova. Most of the interview involved her approach to poker, but the interviewer (Kevin Berger) led her into a discussion of the skill-versus-chance debate. While many top players insist that poker is a game of skill, Konnikova agrees but adds that there is always some chance and luck, on which you need to capitalize.

[Carl] Sagan was awed by chance. He didn’t let it get him down. Instead he wants us to look at this beautiful universe, this beautiful world. Look at how many things there are to amaze us, to fascinate us. Look at the power of wonder, embrace it, and don’t be afraid there are things we don’t know. Don’t be afraid of uncertainty, be grateful for it.

By ‘chance,’ Konnikova means something other than wholly random or haphazard. She claims that chance is not completely passive, in that we have luck amplifiers and luck dampeners. If you are really present in the moment along with all your training and habits, then you are better equipped to take advantage when luck comes your way.

How might this idea from a poker expert (who also holds a PhD in psychology) apply to the realm of aesthetics. Konnikova, after all, claims that there is a kind fo beauty in chance. Maybe, there is an ‘aesthetic luck’ that could apply to both the makers and the appreciators.

For makers, it seems clear that occasionally (happy) accidents alter the path of your art or design. But it is the instincts and habits of the trained maker (e.g., designer or artist) that is able to take advantage of chance. The philosopher Kant wrote that there is no precise formula to guarantee the creation of beauty, which is why the artist or designer must rely on their training and instincts. Another thing to consider from this perspective is that there is some luck in how a work of art or design is received—timing, presentation, advertising, and more—which is why the beholders also have to consider the role of chance.

For appreciators, it may be easy sometimes to write off or overlook some potentially wonderful objects of aesthetic experience. We may be distracted. We may miss the subtlety. We may not have attained the requisite knowledge. Similar to the maker, it is the person who has developed a sense of art and design that is often better equipped to experience the aesthetic more fully. This is not limited to formal education (though that plays a role), it is more about developing habits to be able to spot the details of a given work or product.

Chance is something we don’t really like to think much about, probably we want there to be certainty. We don’t want the banker to tell us that she believes we may have $1000 give or take. We want an exact figure. However, it was argued (fairly convincingly) that chance plays a huge role in our lives in the book The Drunkard’s Walk by Leonard Mlodinow. If there is at least some truth to this, then we should embrace chance, but try our best to amplify our potential for luck. And I think part of that, as Konnikova notes, is seeing the beauty in chance.

More needs to be written about ‘aesthetic luck,’ but it seemed like this brief overview could be the start of that conversation.

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