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

## Synopsis

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.

## Excerpt

Everything that happens just happens because
everything in the world just happened.

—Uncle Herman

When I was a child, my uncles would gather every Saturday at my grandparents' house to sit at a long dining room table telling jokes while accounting their week's gambling wins and losses. My grandfather Morris would retire to a musty back room, crank up his red-brown mahogany Victrola, lie diagonally across a double bed with his eyes closed and his feet off to one side, and listen to the distant voice of the velvety soprano Amelita Galli-Curci sing Gilda's arias from Rigoletto.

Gambling was the family pastime. During those moments when my grandfather was half asleep on the bed next door, my uncles were eager to hook me onto horse racing. My uncle Sam would give me a quarter and betting instructions.

“You gotta analyze,” he said one day. “You gotta know the value of the odds. But the first and most important thing is to be sure that your horse has a good chance of coming in on your bet. If you don't like a horse 'cause of its name or 'cause you don't feel lucky that day, don't bet on it. And don't bet on a horse that's overly backed. Here, look at Victory Dancer, she's a three-to-one favorite, whaddaya think?”

“I don't like the name,” I said.

“Good! Then it doesn't give you good luck. How about—”

I was a very impressionable young boy and took good luck to be some invisible thing enigmatically passed from one person to . . .

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