By In Stuff


I do realize that the stuff we call amazing coincidences are often, in fact, not all that unlikely. Still,  coincidences FEEL amazing. Thursday around lunch time, I was getting some Mongolian barbecue at a restaurant in the Charlotte airport when I felt a hand tap my shoulder. I turned around and two customers behind me was Michael, one of my best childhood friends in Cleveland, a guy I have seen, maybe, three times in the last thirty years.

At that moment, it seemed like the most impossible thing imaginable. What are the odds, really, in this huge world, of an old Cleveland childhood friend going to the same restaurant in the same Charlotte airport at the same time? My initial thought was that the odds had to be astronomical.

Then, well, I started to think about it using some basic facts.

1. Michael travels a lot on U.S. Air, which means he goes through Charlotte a lot.

2. I travel a lot and Charlotte is my home airport.

3. The restaurant is in the center of the airport, so anyone changing planes will probably go by there.

4. It was lunch time.

5. Everyone loves Mongolian BBQ.

6. Michael was one of my best, but not my only, childhood friend.

Putting all this together I realized it was kind of amazing we had never run into each other before.

The sixth of these facts, by the way, seems to me (as someone who really doesn’t understand probability or math or anything else) important and something that we too often miss when thinking about coincidences.  The other day, I wrote something about Pat Tabler, who went 43 for 88 with the bases loaded in his career. It is super unlikely for Pat Tabler, a lifetime .282 hitter, to hit almost .500 with the bases loaded in his career.

But is it super unlikely for someone LIKE Pat Tabler, someone with his general hitting skill and durability, to do it? How many hitters in baseball history have been roughly as good as Pat Tabler? Figuring out stuff like this is fun and based on a few dubious calculations, I would guess there have been somewhere between 750 and 1,000 Tableresque.

To say: Pat Tabler will go 43 for 88 in his career with the bases loaded … hugely improbable.

To say that one of the Tableresque hitters would do it — not nearly as improbable.

So, seeing Michael — even given his tendency to travel through Charlotte — might have been somewhat unlikely. But realistically I would have been just as surprised if I had seen 100 or 200 people — an old high school friend, a parent of an ex-girlfriend, an old teacher, even a sibling of one of my friends. Any one of those would hit me as just as unlikely (if not more unlikely) as seeing Michael. If I woke up that morning and said, “What are the odds of seeing my old pal Michael today,” then I’m sure those are pretty long odds. But, like every morning, I woke up yesterday not expecting to see anyone from my past would have been just as surprised to see any of them. That lowers the odds considerably and makes amazing coincidences happen much more often than the brain believes possible.

I should add here that Michael and I sat down for a while and talked about childhood stuff, but mainly we talked about the Cleveland Cavaliers, who are now officially playing a ridiculous brand of basketball. I might argue that no team since Magic’s Lakers has poured in points the way this Cavaliers team does when the offense is clicking. Kyrie Irving might be the best in basketball at attacking the basket. Kevin Love has not yet won Cleveland’s love, but dammit night after night it’s 18 points, 10 rebounds … 16 points, 12 rebounds … 20 points, 8 rebounds. And LeBron, even slightly diminished, is still the best guy in the world to have on your basketball team.

There are, of course, countless things that can go wrong … and I really do think the Hawks are sensational, and the West is loaded with good teams, and the Cavs can still go into painful lulls. But after a lot of dubiousness, I now think this Cavs team really could win the championship. I’m not saying they will. But I honestly think they could.

And Cleveland winning a championship, now THAT would be amazing.


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28 Responses to Coincidences

  1. Faye Schlift says:

    Many years ago I stayed in a hostel in Amsterdam. It was after the summer season and there
    were only 3 of us there. A guy from Pittsburgh who was biking across Europe and a guy
    from a village in Iran. He spoke a broken English but we could communicate. Something
    came up about my old high school in L.A. and the Iranian guy said “I went there”. I laughed
    at him until he blurted out the nickname of our school teams. I was stunned trying to figure
    out how he could possibly know that. Turns out he was a foreign exchange student for 1 year and that was his school, too. That was probably the 2nd greatest coincidence for me ever.

    • Faye Schlift says:

      okay, okay. here’s my numero uno coincidence. in the 90’s going to lunch
      with a friend in show biz. on the way a discussion started as to why some
      comedians make it big and some others who are just as funny, do not. Park
      the car and walk into cafe. sit at table as discussion continues. i bring up
      a comic i’d seen at the comedy store in the 70’s who i thought was hilarious.
      i started to tell my friend a couple of his lines when 3 guys walk up to the
      table. they are acquaintances of my friend. they compliment him on a recent
      tv appearance. my friend introduces me to them. 2 guys from a network and,
      yes, the comic who i was in the middle of quoting. that happened. wyatt earp

  2. jlc21 says:

    Joe — This makes me think of the “Wyatt Earp effect”. Good summary/explanation of it here:

  3. Steve says:

    This column makes my brain hurt. Math is hard.

  4. EnzoHernandez11 says:

    You understand probability far better than you think you do. That was a great explanation of why even amazing coincidences are not “unbelievable”. If something has a non-zero probability of occurring, it will eventually occur somewhere, to someone (unless, you know, the sun supernovas in the meantime). I used to tell my statistics students on the first day of class to think about probability this way:

    1. Somebody is going to win the Megabucks jackpot.

    2. It won’t be you.

    Pat Tabler won the jackpot. Nobody else did. And your meeting up with your childhood friend was probably more like winning the $1,000 scratch-off. It doesn’t happen often (if at all) in a lifetime, but it likely happens to somebody every day of the year). And even Tabler’s odds were almost certainly better than winning Megabucks.

    Or, to tie this in with your previous post, the “Miracle on Ice” maybe has a (let’s pick a number out of the air) 5% chance of occurring, given all the circumstances: pretty good U.S. team, home ice advantage. The game was “miraculous” because of the circumstances surrounding it, what with the Cold War and all that. But, statistically speaking, the win itself was a pretty ordinary event. One-in-twenty moments happen all the time.

    Anyway, fun read. Thanks.

  5. Thanks, Joe. As you probably know, in statistics they call this The Wyatt Earp effect. It is extremely unlikely for someone to survive as many duels as Wyatt Earp did. But it’s actually quite likely that SOMEONE would have his streak.

    • John Leavy says:

      I understand what the Wyatt Earp effect is supposed to mean. But just to be a pain, I should note that in real life, Wyatt Earp wasn’t much of a gunfighter, and readily admitted it. He took part in the famous gunfight at the OK Corral, but he was not the type who engaged in fast-draw shootouts in town square at high noon.

      As a lawman, he often didn’t carry a gun at all.

  6. mrh says:

    Christmas 1980 a group of us stationed in Italy went to Vienna. A couple of us went to a cafe and I made a joke about a cafe in Vienna being like Times Square – if you were there long enough, you would run into someone you know. A couple of minutes later a guy and his wife came in and sat at the table next to us. He had been an instructor of ours at West Point.

  7. AndyL says:

    As Seinfeld fans know well, there are no amazing or big coincidences, just coincidences:

    • mnaftolin says:

      Interestingly (coincidentally?), Rava’s boyfriend Ray refers to Jerry as “Lord of the Manor” during this episode; this phrase reappears during “The Contest”.

  8. judgeknott says:

    The same bias is seen in people who argue that humans could not have evolved because too many improbable things would have to happen–perfect mixture of gases in the atmosphere, perfect distance from the sun, perfect mix of elements and chemicals in the ocean, etc.. We are here, so it happened, but there may be billions of other planets where it didn’t happen. We are Wyatt Earp!

    • There is a big difference between “evolution” and the idea that humans have evolved over time (which is not difficult to believe) and the Big Bang theory. The problem with the Big Bang theory is not the idea that gasses mixed in a certain way, exploded and created life. That’s certainly possible, and if you take a billion planets, maybe it’s even likely. The issue is the law of physics that says that something can’t come out of nothing. If you have nothing, which is the beginning state of the world, you have to mix it with something (which is not nothing) to get something. Nothing X Nothing = Nothing; Nothing + Nothing = Nothing. The Big Bang theory essentially handles it by saying the Laws of Physics didn’t exist until after the Big Bang. To many, that’s like the “back of the book” theorem, where you look up the answer you want & insert some sort of logic to fit your conclusion. I’m not saying that all of it is wrong. But there is a significant gap in the theory that is pretty much impossible to bridge.

    • Albert says:

      I see this argument a lot with the probability of the universe having at least one planet that contains intelligent life. The estimate is that there are approximately 1 x 10 to the 24th power total stars in the universe. Assuming 10 planets per star results in 1 x 10 to the 25th power of planets. Thus, with so many planets, it is not unusual or improbable that there is at least one that developed intelligent life.
      The trouble with this argument is that it ignores the probability of there being a stable universe in the first place. Why is a proton so stable? Why are the subatomic particles that make up the nuclei of most of our chemical elements so stable that their half-lives cannot even be measured? Why is there such a small preference for matter over anti-matter that we have all of this matter in the universe, and it continues to expand, but doesn’t immediately contract and snuff itself out? I’ve read that there are so many subatomic physical variables making up the universe that the chances of them all working out well enough to have a stable enough universe that life could develop is approximately 1 x 10 to the 500 power. That is not a likely outcome.
      There are two current views on why we have a stable universe and why life developed in this universe. The first is the universe exists because life must exist. That is, “life finds a way.” The second is string theory. That is, there are many separate universes. At least 1 x 10 to the 300 or 400 power. Most of them last only a short time (a few milliseconds). Others last longer. And at least one, ours, lasted long enough and is stable enough for life to develop.
      In short, it is highly improbable that intelligent life could ever form in any universe. But yet, here we are. And on top of that, the Royals won the American League Pennant.

  9. MikeN says:

    Like when they point out the record hot temperatures vs cold temperatures as a sign of global warming, but in fact it SHOULD happen more often because it is now warmer than 150 years ago, so it could be the 3-1 disparity is a sign of the opposite.

  10. MikeN says:

    Actually, I get the probability is .0001568 for a .300 hitter to go 43 for 88 or better, with 1000 hitters the probability of at least one is 14.5%. It is just 2.4% if it is 750 hitters batting .282.

  11. David Strauss says:

    Let me talk about the greatest coincidence I’ve had in many years, because it occurred two weeks ago so it’s fresh in my mind. And I will use this story from now on whenever someone tells me something I wrote is “too much of a coincidence.”

    I live in Orlando. I do a lot of theatre, and someone I had done several shows with at a local theatre moved up to NYC about three months ago to be near his girlfriend. I was up in NYC with four other friends for a weekend just to visit and see some shows.

    We took the 6 train up to Harlem on a Friday afternoon to have some pizza at Patsy’s, and on the way back, one of the group said he wanted to visit the business office of a company he works with but had never met in person. So he asked if we could get off and walk to 61st and Broadway. Well, we got off at 59th and discovered the address he needed was actually 61 Broadway, all the way downtown. So we started walking towards the theatre district to look around and grab a train downtown. All of a sudden we hear someone calling the name of another member of our group. We turn around and there is our theatre friend from Orlando, sticking his head out of the Bank of America where he works in midtown. He had no idea we were up in NYC and we were all bundled up for the cold weather, and yet he saw and recognized us.

    So, think about how many things had to happen so we’d run into our old Orlando theatre friend in NYC. Hell, even if we’d known he was working there we still happened to be walking by right as he was standing by the door to notice us. Just freaking crazy.

  12. Reagan says:

    I once did this type of analysis on state lottery data (one state, constant rules, 50-6 lottery). The probability of any one specific person playing once on a given lottery winning were one-in-some-huge-number (1 in 50!/(6! X 44!), if I remember correctly). But given the number of tickets sold for each drawing, the probability that someone would win was approximately one in three. Actual lottery results over three or four years showed that approximately one out of three lotteries were won. It should be a little off because people selecting their own numbers weren’t random number generators (people play their birthdays, etc.), but it was really close.

  13. jalabar says:

    I went to my ex-brother-in-law’s wedding in Grand Rapids, Michigan where the bride was from, from my familial home in Maryland. While there, I met some childhood friends of the bride’s who had moved to Maryland, and found that they had bought and lived in my grandmother’s house when she sold it to move into a retirement community.

  14. Dan says:

    I’m a professional tutor, and a few years ago, I ran into one of my students and her dad one summer night in Amsterdam right as I was walking out of a “coffee shop”. The family decided to go in a “different direction” that fall.

  15. Willie Mays says:

    the word is not coincidence. the word is unis. there is no such thing as coincidence.

  16. Karyn says:

    There’s a book written for the lay reader about probability that I quite like. It explains the Monty Hall problem in simple terms, goes into the history of games of chance and gambling, all kinds of stuff. It’s called “The Drunkard’s Walk”, by Leonard Mlodinow.

    • Spencer says:

      Absolutely fantastic book

      • GeneClaude says:

        Agreed. I think early in Drunkard’s Walk, Mlodinow eloquently explained the phenomenon Joe is discussing. Relating a stat teacher walking into his class and saying:

        On the way here, I saw a license plate that said EFQ 194. What are the odds?!?

  17. invitro says:

    This is a good note on coincidence. But I must take exception to “I might argue that no team since Magic’s Lakers has poured in points the way this Cavaliers team does when the offense is clicking.” Cleveland’s offense is exciting and very good, but come on, now. It doesn’t compare to the super-offense Dallas, Phoenix, and Sacramento teams of about eight years ago. Even if we choose a recent period that makes the Cavs look best, like January 15 to today, they’ve scored “only” 108 points per game. Golden State has scored 110 points per game for the season.

    I’m immensely excited for the NBA playoffs. This is a great time to be an NBA fan.

  18. zeke bob says:

    Might as well add my own coincidence. Back in 1993 my parents took us on a two week vacation in Europe that they had spent several months planning for. My best friend’s family was also taking a European vacation, but with different start & end dates, and not including the same countries. His and my parents initially tried to plan a meeting in some city or other, but in the pre-Internet days of yore, they eventually concluded that it wasn’t really practical or feasible.

    About midway through our trip, we were in line at the Eiffel Tower when I noticed a very familiar looking small child giving me a strange look. It was my friend’s younger brother, who was walking around out of line about 25 places up from us and had happened to notice me. They had some changes in their itinerary and had come to Paris on a different day than planned, and we happened to meet up at the same time and got to spend several hours together. Every now and then I think back on just how improbable that was.

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