A new book explores the many important insights academics have found in gambling – and those who have tried to “turn hard science into hard cash”.
Adam Kucharski, lecturer in mathematical modelling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, University of London, said that the possible application of his scholarly work to gambling had been “a side interest throughout my mathematical career”. Although his research focuses on the outbreak and transmission of diseases, the techniques still depend on “the ability to measure risk and whether something other than luck is involved”, so he was intrigued “to find out where the ideas I use every day actually come from”.
This is the story he sets out to tell in The Perfect Bet: How science and maths are taking the luck out of gambling.
“Gambling is a production line for surprising ideas,” writes Dr Kucharski, and has long “influence[d] scientific thinking, from game theory and statistics to chaos theory and artificial intelligence”. At the same time, it has often been academics who have spotted loopholes overlooked by casinos and bookmakers and have sometimes tried to reap the rewards.
The Perfect Bet describes, for example, how “researchers at Athens University looked at bookmakers’ odds on 12,420 different football matches in Europe and found 63 arbitrage opportunities”, ie, where one could be sure to win money by betting on both sides.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology used to offer an extracurricular course called “How to Gamble If You Must”, which included details of mathematician Edward Thorp’s card-counting techniques for winning at blackjack.
A team of enterprising students, as Dr Kucharski tells it, took up the challenge and struck it rich, avoiding detection by “exploit[ing] common casino stereotypes. Smart female students would put on low-cut tops and pretend to be dumb gamblers…Students with an Asian or Middle Eastern background would play the role of a rich foreigner, happy to spend their parents’ money.”
Seemingly innocuous academic papers on predicting the results of football matches or horse races, the book explains, have helped create “a multi-billion-dollar industry”, with recruitment teams from sports betting companies, as well as banks and oil companies, now “descend[ing] on the world’s best mathematics departments” looking to “us[e] scientific methods to take on the bookmakers”.
However, it has sometimes been difficult for academics to get universities to take gambling-related research seriously.
When the pioneering statistician Karl Pearson wanted to obtain as much data as possible to understand the nature of randomness, he was reduced to spending his summer holiday flipping coins. Somehow he just knew he was unlikely to get funding for a research trip to Monte Carlo.
Today, The Perfect Bet concludes, “the relationship between science and betting continues to thrive. As ever, the ideas are flowing in both directions: gambling is inspiring new research, and scientific developments are providing new insights into betting. Researchers are using poker to understand artificial intelligence, creating computers that can bluff and learn and surprise like humans.”
Adam Kucarski’s The Perfect Bet: How science and maths are taking the luck out of gambling will shortly be published by Profile Books.