What's Luck Got to Do with It?: The History, Mathematics, and Psychology of the Gambler's Illusion

What's Luck Got to Do with It?: The History, Mathematics, and Psychology of the Gambler's Illusion

Joseph Mazur

Language: English

Pages: 296

ISBN: 0691138907

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


Why do so many gamblers risk it all when they know the odds of winning are against them? Why do they believe dice are "hot" in a winning streak? Why do we expect heads on a coin toss after several flips have turned up tails? What's Luck Got to Do with It? takes a lively and eye-opening look at the mathematics, history, and psychology of gambling to reveal the most widely held misconceptions about luck. It exposes the hazards of feeling lucky, and uses the mathematics of predictable outcomes to show when our chances of winning are actually good.

Mathematician Joseph Mazur traces the history of gambling from the earliest known archaeological evidence of dice playing among Neolithic peoples to the first systematic mathematical studies of games of chance during the Renaissance, from government-administered lotteries to the glittering seductions of grand casinos, and on to the global economic crisis brought on by financiers' trillion-dollar bets. Using plenty of engaging anecdotes, Mazur explains the mathematics behind gambling--including the laws of probability, statistics, betting against expectations, and the law of large numbers--and describes the psychological and emotional factors that entice people to put their faith in winning that ever-elusive jackpot despite its mathematical improbability.

As entertaining as it is informative, What's Luck Got to Do with It? demonstrates the pervasive nature of our belief in luck and the deceptive psychology of winning and losing.

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number, but once those old instincts became grounded in mathematical explanations and connected with the confidence of being explained by mathematics, gambling took a new direction and became a business that bankers could count on. For the professionals who knew the mathematical odds, gambling was no longer a risk. In the long run, it was almost a certainty. If you were a sixteenth-century professional gambler, you would have done well with some capital, a table, and three fair dice. You might

troupes of professional gamesters and cardsharps turning innocent social pastime sports into a cunning, crooked business. Gambling had its grip on all ranks of society and both genders. Our English word crook (as in thief) comes from that era when crooked dice were used by gambling cheaters. Unless widowed, women were still regarded as a father’s or a husband’s possessions and still required a chaperone to appear in public places. Yet genteel women were becoming social gamblers and by the end of

slot machines.13 And so, the cycle of gambling continues. Perhaps, as Edmund Burke put it in a speech to the House of Commons at the end of the eighteenth century, “Gaming is a principle inherent in human nature.”14 And perhaps gaming is natural for the survival of our civilization. The biggest gaming houses in the world are not the casinos of Atlantic City or Nevada but the stock exchanges in New York, London, Frankfurt, Tokyo, and Hong Kong, and 115 other stock exchanges around the world,

tosses, the number of twos would have to be greater than fourteen to conclude with some probability of being correct that the die was biased toward two. That seemed like a generously relaxed nearly, but I had recently read an essay by Sir Ronald Fisher called “Mathematics of a Lady Tasting Tea” in James Newman’s The World of Mathematics2 that told the story of an English lady at a tea party who claimed that she could tell by taste whether milk had been added to her cup before the tea or after. No

hand . . . yea, ya do. But with aces, for some reason, ya start on the left until for some reason ya move them over. Now that’s interesting, right? (Leo shows three aces.) And, I also know ya really, really hate to throw middle cards early, except if you’re protected and fishing. So I would bet that seven of hearts came off a pair of them. Since I got the six of hearts, ya got the eight of hearts. . . . (Leo shows the eight of hearts.) Along with the eight of clubs . . . (Leo shows the eight of

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