Book Review: The Perfect Bet
by Adam Kucharski
Basic Books, 2016
“After all,” writes Adam Kurcharski, lecturer in mathematical modeling at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, in his new book The Perfect Bet: How Science and Math Are Taking the Luck Out of Gambling, “wagers are windows into the world of chance. They show us how to balance risk against reward and why we value things differently as our circumstances change. They help us to unravel how we make decisions and what we can do to control the influence of luck.”
The tumblers ticking away in that description, the interplay between risk and reward, and especially the struggle to control the influence of luck, these are at the heart of Kucharski’s debut, which is a fast-paced and wonderfully light-footed study of high-stakes gambling. He delves into the long history of games of chance and the gallery of hucksters and mathematicians who’ve broken ground with those games and sharpened them and tried ceaselessly to subvert them for gain. For the long majority of the lifetime of those games of chance, any possibility of that kind of subversion boiled down to very human elements, especially in what was typically viewed as the most human game of them all:
Poker might seem like the ideal game for a mathematician. At first glance, it’s just a matter of probabilities: the probability you receive a good hand; the probability your opponent gets a better one. But anyone who has played poker using only probability knows that things are not so simple. “Real life consists of bluffing,” [scientist John] von Neumann noted, “of little tactics of deception, of asking yourself what is the other man going to think I mean to do.”
Asking yourself what the other man is going to do, yes, which makes Kucharski’s discussion about the prevalence and astonishing success of poker-playing ‘bots’ in modern times all the more counter-intuitive. And yet such bots have been rampant in the booming market of online gambling and routinely out-play even seasoned experts at every game and betting system. A ‘bot,’ it seems, can calculate the numerical factors with such speed and accuracy as to render the human factors immaterial – which tends to throw those human factors into even greater contrast. Gamblers are a pathetic lot even in the best of circumstances, but gamblers who can be beaten by an algorithm using a fake name?
Throughout The Perfect Bet, Kucharski defies the odds himself by transforming his sordid and somewhat abstruse raw material into a genuinely compelling story (in this is compares favorable, for instance, with Mark Bowden’s fantastic 2010 book Worm), one whose implications he periodically widens to take in the human experience outside the casinos:
In life, we most often choose (either consciously or subconsciously) what abstractions to use. The most extensive abstraction would not omit a single detail. As mathematician Norbert Weiner said, “The best material model of a cat is another, preferably the same, cat.” Capturing the world in such detail is rarely practical, so instead we must strip away certain features. However, the resulting abstraction is our model of reality, influenced by our beliefs and prejudices.
Gamblers should certainly read this book, although it has nothing in it that will please them. And non-gamblers? Well, when it comes to The Perfect Bet, just this once they should take the chance.