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The Perfect Bet: How Science and Math are Taking the Luck Out of Gambling

Adam Kucharski
Publisher: 
Basic Books
Publication Date: 
2016
Number of Pages: 
288
Format: 
Hardcover
Price: 
26.99
ISBN: 
9780465055951
Category: 
General
[Reviewed by
Peter T. Olszewski
, on
02/10/2016
]

Regardless of the type of gambling — table game, horse race, slot machine or lottery — the house always wins. People are lured into casinos, racetracks, and lotteries, however, for the chance of winning big. For hundreds of years, mathematicians and scientists have been trying to figure out ways to increase the odds of beating the house and winning big payoffs. In The Perfect Bet, the award-winning writer and mathematician Adam Kucharski takes us on an exploration of how experts (and people who never thought of betting before) gamble using mathematics and science.

Kucharski has accumulated various stories in his book, ranging from Galileo to Alan Turing, describing how they bet using scientific methods. The reader is introduced to various secretive casinos, such as the Ritz Club, located beneath London’s Ritz Hotel, where high stakes betting is a daily affair. Right from Chapter 1, Kucharski grabs the reader’s attention by talking about how a group of three, one blonde and two men in elegant suits, walked into this underground room only few are privileged to know about, turned down many of the free amenities, and were able to rake up £100,000 playing roulette. They returned the following night where they won even more, £1.2 million.

Feeling jealous? Wondering how you yourself could have this same luck? Don’t forget the old saying, “if it is too good to be true, it probably is,” and in fact, security cameras found these three used a laser scanner to analyze the roulette table. This is first of many stories leading the reader deeper into the bright lights of casinos, the knowledge to have some advantage over the house, and the hunger to win big.

Kucharski presents many mathematicians, scientists, and geniuses who are thinking of ways to play smartly, whether this play is actually at the casinos or at home. One of the most extreme stories is of a mathematician who flipped a coin 25,000 times to determine fairness. There is also a story of college students who investigated the Massachusetts lottery, which resulted in millions of dollars in profit. The horse-betting syndicates found in Hong Kong’s Happy Valley, a method to winning the lottery used by Stefan Klincewicz, an accountant who planned to win the Irish National Lottery in 1990 by buying enough tickets to guarantee a win, and Edward Thorp rolling marbles on his kitchen floor to understand where a roulette ball would stop are some of the scenes and people we meet. Throughout the book, there is a search for the perfect bet and the reader is left wondering, could this work for me?

One of the most interesting stories is about Stanislaw Ulam, whose enjoyment of card games led to the Monte Carlo method. This method is now used in 3D computer graphics in the analysis of disease outbreaks. In addition, we read about how game theory came about with John von Neumann’s analysis of poker.

Kucharski points out that the science of gambling is a way for us to explore luck and to develop scientific and critical thinking skills. For example, when Ruth Bolton and Randall Chapman wrote their paper on horse racing predictions, this was the only paper Bolton had written. As Bolton points out, “That way of thinking about the world stayed with me.”

For Kucharski, the perfect bet is a scientific bet. Before modern technologies, there were certain rules, tricks, and tall tales on how to place perfect bets. But now there are new methods for gambling and hitting the big payoffs. In addition, it is not only the people who are regulars at the casinos or the professional gamblers who know of these secret spots under the Ritz or certain tables and hush-hush rooms in Las Vegas’ labyrinth of casinos who are winning big. Today, the people hitting the big payoffs are the non-gamblers: accountants, business specialists, statisticians, and college students who wonder which lottery will be the best to play and look for any loopholes. As Bill Benter points out, “Success came when an outsider, armed with academic knowledge and new techniques, came in and shone light where there had been none before.” Of course, common sense will tell us not to make gambling our full-time job, but this book sure gives one hope that one can win. So, why not try our luck? If these lucky people could do it, why can’t we? I highly recommend this book to all who dream big and want to try out their theories. Let’s hop on a plane and head for Vegas!


Peter Olszewski is a Mathematics Lecturer at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, an editor for Larson Texts, Inc. in Erie, PA, and is the 362nd Pennsylvania Alpha Beta Chapter Advisor of Pi Mu Epsilon. He can be reached at pto2@psu.edu

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