Hideki Inoue has never been all that lucky -- especially when it comes to money. But yesterday he stood in front of hundreds of his business school classmates at the University of Virginia, nicknamed "Darden's luckiest student" after getting through five rounds of random contests. He was facing two briefcases: Pick the wrong one, and he'd get nothing. Pick the right one, and he'd get $17,500.
He felt good -- he'd already beaten the odds to be there. Japanese samisen music was pumping through the sound system, students were cheering and two Darden School of Business professors dressed kind of like Mr. Peanut, in rented top hats, were standing at the ready.
He'd already imagined the plane tickets he would buy for spring break.
Not bad for a required course. With a gift from an anonymous donor, equivalent to almost a year's tuition for in-state students, professors Phil Pfeifer and Sam Bodily brought real stakes to their Decision Analysis class. Along the way, students learned to calculate odds, gauge their fear of risk and see how people try to explain away chance -- finding patterns in coin tosses and stock market picks, in lottery winners and blind dates.
The main goal was to get them thinking about the role of uncertainty in life, Bodily said: You can make good decisions, "but you don't get to choose outcomes. They happen."
And, Pfeifer said: "Part of this is to have fun. It's February."
On the first day of class, the professors asked students to consider a hypothetical situation: If they had a 50-50 chance of getting $17,500 or nothing, and someone offered them money for that chance, how much was a sure bet worth?
That was random, Garrett Ederle, a student from Boca Raton, Fla., thought.
But in the 10th class, the professors told them there was a real contest, with real cash.
This time, they had to write down the number they chose, and it was binding.
The expected value was $8,750, half of $17,500. They were aggressive, Pfeifer said, more so than he had expected; Inoue's $8,000 cutoff was about in the middle.
All 335 students were given a number, and five were chosen at random.
No. 563 was Inoue, a 29-year-old from Tokyo who had worked for an oil company until he took a huge risk: He and his wife left their jobs and families so that he could study business in the United States.
He hadn't done well investing, missing the ups and hitting the downs. But his dream has been social entrepreneurship, he said, maybe starting a company that would help the environment.
In the beginning, the five winners came to the podium. Bodily, acting as emcee, got to Inoue last, and asked whether he was ready.
Are you asking if I'm ready? Inoue asked.
"Yes," Bodily said. "Are you ready?"
Inoue pulled out a Japanese headband, and the crowd roared. He tied it on, pushed up his hair so it stuck out, grinned -- and made it to the next round.
As he kept going, some students had a theory about why: He was having the most fun with it.
For each round, Pfeifer cued up the theme music, "Free Ride." In one, students unwrapped packages to see whether there was a Darden pen inside -- or a blue one, signaling elimination. In another, they tore open loaves of bread hoping to find bills with Thomas Jefferson, not an unlucky $1 bill.
Each time during the week, Inoue wore a Japanese costume, playing it up to entertain everyone. "He was definitely the crowd favorite," Ederle said.
When three students remained, Ederle opened an envelope with a glossy photo of Paris Hilton and had a bad feeling about it. He looked at the other two men: They had photos of the dean. So much for the party he had promised to throw his classmates in a Charlottesville bar.
People like lucky people, Pfeifer said. If Inoue won the money, he would be more likely to get attention in interviews, he speculated, and a good job offer.
Fair? No. But that's just life.
Yesterday, students crowded around as Inoue arrived in traditional Japanese attire. "I felt confident," he said, and he held onto that, thinking it would keep his luck going.
He picked one of the two black briefcases.
The offer was $5,769, well below Inoue's cutoff. So Inoue opened the briefcase. The crowd gasped.
He had picked the wrong one.
Inoue was crushed. Within a few hours, he rationalized that he hadn't lost anything. Friends told him lottery winners always end up miserable anyway. "I guess I learned that taking a risk is really stressful, but . . . I can take a risk. I can enjoy it. And still, maybe it will work out next time."
Besides, if he had bought those plane tickets to Florida for spring break, he and his wife wouldn't get to stop in Savannah, Ga., as he wants. They will when they drive. He heard it's really nice there. It could be his lucky break.