What's luck got
to do with it?

Joseph Mazur

The title of this ones carries the tag line "The History of Mathematics, and Psychology of the Gambler's Illusion". It caught my eye when I was browsing the bookshelves in a charity shop somewhere and as soon as I saw it I just had to invest the £1.25 being asked for it to see what was between the covers - which incidently didn't look as though they'd ever been opened. As it's currently retailing at around twenty quid at Amazon it was indeed a steal. Having said that, I did have some reservations at that point that this might turn out to be another dry, theoretical, academic piece of work that would be an excellent cure for insomnia. It isn't.

The hardcopy version of What's luck got to do with it? is a hardback that runs to 277 pages, although the acknowedgements, appendices and index account for 60 of them. Following an Introduction chapter, the main text is split into three distinct sections: The History, The Mathematics and The Analysis, each with several chapters. Within the Introduction Mr M writes of his childhood recollections of his father and uncles, for whom gambling was a principal pastime, of his Uncle Herman, who didn't gamble and who was a sceptic ("Look at your uncles who sit around this radio every Saturday afternoon after they've called their bookies. Do they look rich to you?") and of being given a quarter to chance his luck - and which he used to back the winner on his first ever punt on the horses. He writes "Collecting fifty cents, I felt the heat of the torch and was hooked." (earlier on he had referred to being passed the "torch of luck"). He tells of Uncle Herman being vociferous in his disapproval when his success became known.

The History describes ancient attitudes to luck, the development of the maths of probability, the basics of how odds work and the history of how gambling enveloped the world as a distraction, leisure pursuit and means of getting rich quick - from Roman times right up to 2008, when speculative, telephone number trades made on Wall Street (the place considered by many to be the biggest casino in the world) went bad and the rest of the world suffered an extended bout of debilitating financial pneumonia as a result.

The Mathematics is all about the numbers; probability, odds, variance and the bell curve, the law of large numbers and plenty of formulas to keep those of a numeric disposition busy - although if you're not that way inclined the accompanying text explains everything in easy to assimilate language (no need for any maths degrees here).

The Analysis examines the psychology of it all; what makes a gambler and individuals' motivations, attitudes to risk, how the "House Money Effect" can impact players' decisions and why people cling unrelentingly to the illogical, as well as the thoughts of Sigmund Freud and a discussion around why people fall into uncontrollable cycles of gambling and self-destructive behaviour. Dostoyevsky's rush novel "The Gambler" receives many mentions and is quoted several times in order to illustrate the points he makes - so much so that one wonders why Mr M didn't include the whole thing as an appendix. For me this section of the book was the most absorbing one of the three and and I felt it a great shame that some of the themes included weren't developed further.

Overall an enjoyable and stimulating read and a definite ray of sunshine in amongst the grey skies and drizzle (read drivel) that so many of the gambling related titles I've worked my way through over the last five years have turned out to be. If I was awarding points out of ten for the books I review this title would receive a nine. Certainly something worth your time if, like me, you have an interest in gambling related reading and the thoughts of others on the subject. What I think is missing is Mr M letting the reader in on whether, despite all of his mathematical prowess, he followed in his father and uncles' footsteps and regularly indulged in putting some of his pennies on the line?

Now in his late seventies, Joseph Mazur is Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at Marlboro College, Vermont, and has been at Malboro since receiving his PHD in 1972. He is the author of six other titles; Euclid in the Rainforest (2004), Motion Paradox (2007), Zeno's Paradox (2008), Enlightening Symbols (2014), Fluke (2016) and The Clock Mirage which is due to be released next month. His personal web site can be found at www.josephmazur.com.

May 2020.