On March 7th 2003 I was flying from Alicante to Birmingham on a flight where you could sit wherever you pleased. I chose an aisle seat of row twenty-three.
A stewardess commented to one of three young men sat behind me that there was an empty seat in row thirteen, if he wanted to move to it. Maybe they had made some remarks about being cramped (?!)
He thought about it and then said that he would stay put.
I turned around and said that perhaps it was no coincidence that there was a vacant seat in row thirteen.
Years earlier I had read of a tendency for people not to want seats in that row. Maybe it was also no coincidence that it stayed vacant?
Then I thought of the belief of Gary Kasparov, one which he shared with the late Sir Laurens van der Post, that for him thirteen is actually a lucky number.
When recording the video series of his life story I had commented to him upon this (he was the thirteenth world chess champion) and other of his beliefs and said that, for a man charged with representing the rationality of mankind, he seemed extraordinarily interested in superstition.
Later that evening I picked up part of a discarded copy of The Times on a train and noted on page twelve the headline
Thank your lucky stars if you’re not superstitious.
It was about how Dr Richard Wiseman (to whom I had sent a gift copy of Coincidences shortly after publication), had embarked on a search for British superstitions.
His online survey was one of 1000 events to mark National Science Week in the UK, and it would, after a week, reveal just how superstitious the British were.
Dr Wiseman, author of a book called The Luck Factor, which had examined the lives of four hundred people who considered themselves either exceptionally lucky or unlucky, said that he really did not believe that there were such things as good or ill fortune.
"They [superstitions] give us a feeling of control over uncertainty and so it might be predicted that the current feeling of instability in the world would create an increase in superstition", he said.
Successful people, he believed, were those who were not superstitious and tended to make their own luck, whereas the unsuccessful blamed theirs on fate. "It’s nice to believe that if you are not good at something, it’s nothing to do with you."
He marked the launch at the Savoy, London, with the help of Kaspar, a lucky black cat made of wood, resident at the hotel.
Kaspar, three feet high and complete with dinner napkin, is brought out to make a fourteenth supper guest whenever there are thirteen people at a table. He has been making his appearances since 1927 and became a personal favourite of Winston Churchill who started his dining society, the Other Club, at the Savoy in 1911.
I had never before heard of Kaspar nor of the reason for his occasional dinners.
I later picked up part of The Guardian left on on the same train and saw another article about it headed
The science of superstition.
I gave commentary on several of the games of the 1993 Times World Chess Championship match between Nigel Short and Gary Kasparov, and attended almost all of them.
It was played at the Savoy theatre.
During it Kasparov stayed at, and certainly sometimes also dined at, the Savoy.
The Russian suffix ‘ov’ might be taken as the English ‘of’.
But then, what’s in a name?
A question that a professional sceptic of the paranormal like Dr Wiseman, might ponder...
N.B. Re The Other Club, Kasparov himself helped found and head a party in Russia -