Picture the scene: Galileo, a true polymath and titan of science, sits in Monte Carlo, that most glamorous of gambling venues. But today, he isn’t contemplating the spinning of the planets. Instead, his gaze is concentrated on a smaller spinning object: a roulette wheel.
Ok, it’s an unlikely scenario, but there’s a real question here. Let’s put it another way: if gaming is all about probability, why aren’t all mathematicians insanely wealthy? There are plenty of theories as to why expertize in math doesn’t necessarily make for gambling riches, but here are three possibilities:
- firstly, we might – just might – win big at the casino, but we can’t escape our psychology
- secondly, it takes money to make money
- and sometimes – just sometimes – there are more important things than cash.
But back to Galileo, studying roulette. In previous centuries, he might have noticed that some numbers come up more often than others. After all, Joseph Jagger observed the wheel, crunched the numbers and broke the Bank in 1892. Jagger noticed that tables are prone to wear and tear, not always uniform – so, with a lot of patience and careful attention, he worked the probabilities on individual tables. But digital tracking means the casinos now get a heads-up over bettors and rebalance the tables, getting the odds back in the house’s favour.
So, Galileo turns his attention to blackjack.
After all, mathematicians have been successful in the game, like the MIT team featured in the movie “21.” But Galileo’s in 21st century Monte Carlo and card counting has been well and truly dealt with. The number of decks, the vigilance of pit bosses and CCTV surveillance mean our genius would have to work very long hours – likely equating to less than minimum wage – to count and bet effectively, and he’d probably be kicked out of the casino, first.
Basically – and literally, in the case of roulette – equilibrium is restored, and the casinos have gotten back to their business. The chances of beating the house are not good.
Fear and Superstition
When gambling against other bettors, there’s more to it than probability, there’s psychology – and even Galileo is only human. Nick Dandolos, one of the best known high rollers in gambling history, turned this to his advantage. Legend has it “Nick the Greek” took Albert Einstein on a tour of Las Vegas, introducing him as “Little Al from Princeton.” In his autobiography, Richard Feynman recalls an encounter with Dandolos – Las Vegas again – where Nick explained how his winnings were accrued not from playing the tables but by betting against the other players, using their superstitions and his own formidable reputation against them.
Human psychology can kick in at any point.
But maybe especially when the stakes are highest – and when it comes to gambling, that’s adrenaline and fear. Fear of a big loss and fear of continuing with a strategy when you’ll likely need loss after loss before you get to the point of a win. Combine this with a demoralizing loss of face at the table, and the emotion that can override the intellect becomes a potent force.
Financial Embarrassment and Some Very Deep Pockets
There’s another minor detail of financial capacity. If Galileo lived in 18th Century Paris, he could have tried any number of strategies to beat the roulette wheels starting to appear in the casinos of the day. He might have put his faith and money in the martingale – after all, it was apparently foolproof. All he’d have to do was to bet on black or red, doubling his bet after every loss. Eventually, he’d win back all his lost money and a profit equal to his original stake. But, as we know, solvency is a bit of an issue – when the stakes required to get far beyond the reach of the player and even of the casino. As Alexandre Dumas put it:
So, you can need very, very deep pockets as well as nerves of steel to keep to a strategy. And money wins out over math.
Take Zeljko Ranogajec, possibly the wealthiest gambler in the world, and his syndicate unsurprisingly known as “the Bankroll,” aka “Bankroll Punters Club.” While Zeljko is a bit of a recluse and his worldwide company is generally pretty secretive, the scale of the syndicate’s activity came out in a high-profile court case in 2008 Zeljko was aiming to bankrupt a former business partner.
With a declared turnover of $1billion, Zeljko’s syndicate definitely had deep pockets. But, even employing mathematicians, statisticians, data analysts and computer programmers to finesse their algorithms, the actual gambling wasn’t the big money-spinner – it was the kick-backs, the infamous “rebates.” Zeljko himself admitted:
“You bet to lose so that you actually turn over more money, and the win comes from the rebates … If you bet $100 and lost $5, but you get a 10 percent rebate, you still make 5 percent.”
Zeljko’s own estimate of $52m earnings over three and a half years of betting on US horse races included just 15% from actually picking winning horses. And that’s quite a sobering fact for any would-be lone gambler like our Galileo, whatever their level in mathematics.
Satisfaction and the Real Payout
Last but not least, ambition and the desire to win – and life itself – is about more than money. Commentators have written at length about how counterintuitive it is for a gifted mathematician to be drawn to a full-time gambling career.
There are the intellectual satisfaction and reward of following an academic path and/or heading for a lucrative career in industry, with greater status and more stable – sometimes very rich – rewards. Even for the most successful gamblers, the singular pursuit of money can eventually ring hollow. Zeljko’s closest friend, David Walsh, made a fortune from gambling before establishing the Museum of Old and New Art (Mona) in Hobart. As he wrote in his 2014 autobiography :
``It’s fair to argue that I built Mona to absolve myself from feeling guilty about making money without making a mark.``
Could he, and Would he?
Back to Galileo, contemplating that roulette wheel in modern-day Monte Carlo. Of course, he might find himself working for the casino – they employ mathematicians, probability experts, computer programmers, after all.
In the 16th Century, Galileo did work in gambling, in a way.
While under the patronage of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, he was tasked with explaining why the chance of throwing a total of nine with three fair dice was less than the chance of throwing a total of ten – resulting in Galileo’s Passedix game.
With everything we know about the chances of beating the house, the influence of human psychology and the impulse to make life about more than the singular pursuit of money, then there’s only one conclusion we could come to – on the balance of probabilities. Perhaps, given everything Galileo achieved and his influence to this day, we can be glad that he turned his mind to more than just the dice. Perhaps we should be reassured that it’s unlikely that Galileo would break the Bank at Monte Carlo today – even if he could.
Listen to a Podcast