Monday, April 30, 2012

The Mathematics of Games and Gambling

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By now, most of my loyal readers probably know that I teach college mathematics.  In fact, I’ve been teaching at the college level since the year I got out of undergrad (starting with a teaching assistantship in grad school).  I’ve been fortunate that I haven’t had to scramble (too much) since then in order to have a teaching job for each upcoming academic year.  For the past five years, I’ve been teaching at a four year undergraduate institution (which I love) teaching mainly Calculus and PreCalculus (though I’ve also dabbled in Combinatorics and Statistics a couple of times).  Well, I’m pleased to announce that next fall I’ll be teaching a brand new course titled “The Mathematics of Games and Gambling.” 

Throughout the summer (as I plan the course), and perhaps throughout the school year as well, I plan to occasionally post a blog entry or two on my teaching progress along with any ideas/problems that I have with the course.  It is my hope that I’ll have a bit of “diary” of sorts in regards to the course.  For now, I’m thinking I’ll post the entries here at Nachos Grande but I may end up starting an “education only” blog just to keep things somewhat on theme at both blog destinations.

Luckily, for today’s post, there is a tie between one of the first topics I want to discuss in my course and the main ideas of the blog – namely, gambling!  In my course, we are going to mostly look at gambling in terms of casinos but we may also dabble in sports gambling a bit, specifically with odds and various ways to make (or lose) money.

The college that I work at is located in Pennsylvania, but we draw a lot of students from surrounding states (including a whole bunch students from New Jersey).  As such, current articles such as that discuss the legalization of sports betting in places like New Jersey will probably get a lot of play in the course.  As someone who tries to teach without always resorting to the “lecture and exam” pattern that so many math professors find themselves trapped in, I am always looking for new and exciting ways to draw my students in to the material and concepts.  Anytime you can draw in a student’s hometown (or at least home state), there is an instantaneous connection!

In fact, this particular course is designed entirely around the idea that interested and motivated students will learn mathematics!  The course isn’t for our majors (though I think there is a math major or two signed up “just for fun”), but rather, it is designed to give our distribution students a different outlet for their mathematics requirement (other than the usual statistics course).  Obviously I have no idea at this point whether or not the plan will work, but I can say that the course had strong numbers during spring registration which leads me to believe that I am on to something!

Anyhow, back to the structure of the course – one of the things that I’m debating about in my head (and now on the blog) is how much weight and importance to give various topics.  The course description is intentionally vague, and I do want to be sure to feature some games/activities that the individuals in the class find interesting, but there are other topics that I always want to make sure I include within the course. 

There will be a few topics that are no brainers – poker for one since we get a fun way to experiment with ideas of permutations and combinations.  Other no brainer topics will include roulette, black jack, and Monopoly.  I’d like to include backgammon because there’s a lot of approachable mathematics in that game, but quite honestly, I’ve never played the game myself so I don’t know that I’d be the best instructor for that one!  I plan to look at games like Chuck-a-Luck, Bingo/Keeno, and Connect Four as well.  I’d also like to discuss and investigate some online casinos, like bwin casino (which also happens to be a huge sponsor for the Portuguese soccer league cup)! 

Besides the common (and not-so-common) games in the course, I also want to spend a bit of time discussing gambling.  We will take a look at state (and multi-state) lotteries – and I have a fun little “Tips to win the Lottery” article that I printed off back when the gigantic MegaMillions lottery was all the rage.  That should draw some laughs (or at least I hope it will draw laughs by that point in the semester once students realize the follies in “hot numbers” or “numbers due”)! 

I also plan to spend a little bit of time discussing sports (and prop) betting – specifically talking about betting lines and how they affect payouts (and betting practices)!  I have already spoken to one of the psychology professors about a guest lecture on the psychology of gambling as well – it should be a great, well-rounded course!  Who knows, it may even help to shape the future direction of other distribution mathematics courses, both at my current institution and at other colleges!


Robert said...

Sounds like a very interesting course. As someone who worked in the casino industry for a handful of years, I'm into the psychology of why people play, especially games that have a high house advantage (Caribbean stud, Let it Ride, etc.)

If you do switch the posts to an education blog, please let me know because I am very interested in following these posts.

The Baseball Card Snob said...

Not just poker, but Video Poker. The permutations for several different games is astounding. I'm a Jacks or Better player myself. With optimum play, on a 9/6 machine you can return 99.54% of your bets. Of course that is over several thousands of bets.

Matt said...

I love seeing the practical applications of math like this. A little software programming or at least some Mathematica and you can try all kinds of "strategies" and show why they won't work. And don't forget to show them that even if the casinos gave non-advantaged odds, the table limits keep the "double your bet when you lose" system from working. :)

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