November 27, 2020

Credit: David Madison / Getty Images

This article was originally published on March 13, 2020.

You might not think that a simulation meant for kids could change how something plays out in real life, but in the 1990s, the arcade game NBA Jam did exactly that. One feature of the game allowed players to be “on fire.” The more a player scored, the higher chance he or she had of scoring again.

Fast forward to today and you can’t escape the concept of a hot streak, or a “hot hand”' as it’s called in basketball. Athletes swear by it, even refusing to touch another player’s “hot” hand. But is a hot streak as real as some people believe it to be?

Ben Cohen, a sports writer for The Wall Street Journal and author of “The Hot Hand: The Mystery and Science of Streaks,” argues that the idea of a hot hand is very real — and it isn’t exclusive to basketball either.

Three Takeaways:

  • According to Cohen, pretty much everyone at some point has a winning streak of some kind. Take Rob Reiner, a director who by 1986 was celebrating a string of hit movies. Cohen says Reiner’s hot hand was what won him the green light to pursue his dream project: “The Princess Bride.” 
  • How do we know that hot streaks aren’t just coincidences? The debate among academics has been raging since “The Princess Bride” went into production. While researchers originally thought the hot hand only existed in people’s heads, Cohen says that a new paper looking at the statistics of coin flips is effectively changing minds. Researchers found that after one coinflip resulting in heads, there was only a 40% chance of it landing heads again.
  • Not all streaks are infallible. Cohen cautions against confusing a hot hand with a lucky streak at the casino. Cohen says control is the defining factor — an NBA player has some control over every shot but when it comes to gambling, the house holds all the cards. 

More Reading: 

  • Check out Steph Curry’s record-breaking hot hand where he scored over 50 points.
  • Mark Turmell, one of the creators of NBA Jam, had a hot streak that almost landed him a job at a (then) relatively-new company called Microsoft. Learn more about him and his career in this Q&A with Kill Screen.
  • “The Princess Bride” is an enduring cult classic, and according to Cohen, wouldn’t have been made without director Rob Reiner’s hot streak. Read more about the making of the film in this article from Variety.

Rob Reiner, basketball, streaks, NBA Jam, Steph Curry, Ben Cohen, The Princess Bride, sports

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