In November 1934 a team of American baseball stars, including Babe Ruth, toured Japan. When they arrived for a game in the town of Narashino, each man was presented with a horseshoe-shaped flower wreath. Ruth detested the gift; he later told a Japanese baseball magazine that he considered such wreaths bad luck and had never hit a home run after receiving one.
In July 2003 details leaked of a new venture from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency: an online market for financial speculation on possible terrorist attacks, assassinations, and coups. “Futures markets have proven themselves to be good at predicting such things as elections results,” the Defense Department argued. “They are often better than expert opinions.” DARPA—already under fire for its proposed Total Information Awareness program—was forced to abandon the idea.
Legend regarding the horseshoe as a lucky symbol holds that in the tenth century, while St. Dunstan was working in England as a farrier, the devil entered the forge and demanded his hooves be reshod. During the process, the future saint caused as much pain as he could, and the devil begged him to stop. Dunstan agreed—on the condition that Satan never enter a house where a horseshoe is on display.
A twelfth-century-bc Chinese king consulted an oracle and was told his lucky charm would not be a tiger, dragon, bear, or leopard but rather a wise counselor. He soon came upon a sagacious old man fishing in the river and conscripted him into service. It is said the man’s virtue was such that he fished not with a hook but with a straight piece of iron; acknowledging his integrity, fish impaled themselves voluntarily.
On Friday, January 13, 1882, thirteen men met in New York City as the Thirteen Club; they walked under a ladder, ate lobster salad sculpted into the shape of a coffin, and sat beneath a banner reading morituri te salutamus (“we who are about to die salute you”). The following year, the club’s newsletter gleefully reported that “not a single member is dead.”
In Serbian oral tradition, fate often appears written on foreheads. A typical story tells of a man on the run from a plague personified as a woman. “It is not fated that I should kill you,” she says on catching him and seeing his forehead’s inscription. “You’ll be killed by a turtle.” Later, the man mows a field. His scythe hits a turtle, ricochets off its shell, and slices his leg. He dies soon after from blood poisoning.
A young nobleman in ancient Athens fell in love with a statue of Agathe Tyche, goddess of good fortune. He hugged and kissed it, then offered the local council a large sum of money to purchase it. When his request was denied, he decorated the statue extravagantly with crowns and garlands, offered a sacrifice, uttered a lengthy lamentation, and killed himself.
Archaeologists found in a Utah cave as many as seventeen thousand carved sticks, canes, and bone pieces—gambling items used in the thirteenth century by ancestors of the Apache and Navajo. “Seventy to eighty percent of dice games were for women only,” one researcher said about the find, which may have been America’s first casino. “So what do we have here? Women who knew the games of other women.”
When Apple released its Shuffle feature for iPods, users were deceived by the true randomness of its playback; songs from the same album or artist were often grouped by chance. Complaints led Steve Jobs to alter the device’s programming and begin offering Smart Shuffle, which allowed users to adjust the likelihood of hearing similar songs in a row. “We’re making it less random,” he said, “to make it feel more random.”
According to Pliny, after an oracle predicted Aeschylus would die from being hit by a falling house, the poet began “trusting himself only under the canopy of the heavens.” His precaution was futile; he was killed that day when hit by a tortoise dropped from the sky by a hungry eagle eager to crack open its shell.
Suetonius reported that Caligula often cheated when playing dice. The emperor once interrupted a game to go into the courtyard, where he spotted a group of rich knights passing. He had them arrested, stole their goods, then “resumed the game in high spirits, boasting that his luck had never been better.”