Book Review: What’s Luck Got to Do with It?

Joseph Mazur. What’s Luck Got to Do With It? The History, Mathematics, and Psychology of the Gambler’s Illusion. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010. 277 pages.

I’m on a real book-reviewing tear. I’ve got five more in the hopper, including two for academic journals that I’ll only post synopses of here. Today I’m sharing my thoughts on a book that’s not about gambling per se, but luck.

Joseph Mazur is a mathematics professor who’s written books about math for the popular audience, and his writing style is wonderfully suited to discussing a complex subject in a friendly way. Maybe the greatest compliment I can pay Mazur is that he doesn’t come across like a professor in his writing–he’s more like a very interesting guy sitting next to you on a plane ride out to Las Vegas, who’s got several hours worth of anecdotes and an occasional mathematical proof to back them up.

What’s Luck Got to Do With It? tackles what might be the million-dollar question when it comes to gambling: why do people consistently bet against the odds? Demonstrating that he’s not approaching his subject from too great a distance, Mazur treats the reader to a debate between his uncles–two of whom are racetrack devotees, one of whom insists that gambling is a sure path to ruin and warns against feeling to sure that luck is on your side. The book essentially seeks to identify just what luck is, and reconcile it with the dry mechanics of probability and the law of large numbers. Involving history, psychology, and several examples from popular culture,the book uses its mathematical backbone to ask and answer some key questions about gambling and luck.

The book is divided into three parts. The first is an outstanding brief history of gambling from the dawn of time to about 2008. No matter what you’ve read about the topic, you’ll probably still learn something new here. Then Mazur looks into the math of gambling and luck, and relates the underlying theoretical truths that make gambling work the way it does. Along the way Mazur works in several personal anecdotes that keep the reading lively. After laying down the mathematical foundation, Mazur explains “the analysis,” or why people continue to gamble against the odds. He incorporates research about problem gambling, but also addresses non-problem gamblers, who make up the great bulk of the gambling public.

Because Mazur’s not judgmental about luck and gambling, but is analytical, the book is a winner. It’s not just a mathematician telling us that we’ll never hit a million-dollar jackpot–it’s a mathematician looking at why we continue to hope to hit that jackpot. This book should be required reading for anyone in the casino business, and anyone who spends more than a fraction of their disposable income on gambling should find it informative, if nothing else. It’s a reasoned, but also passionate, search for the meaning of luck that may change the way you look at a pair of dice–or your mortgage.