What’s Luck Got To Do With It? by Joseph Mazur

What's Luck Got to Do With it cover
Appealing to historians, gamblers and mathematicians alike, ‘What’s Luck Got To Do With It?’ has been recommended to anyone working the casino industry. With its broad range of chapters, Mazur’s book is appealing to virtually anyone with an interest in the human psyche.

What do cavemen, 18th-century English dandies, and hotshot Wall Street bankers have in common? Somewhere, deep in their DNA, is embedded a desire to gamble.

What’s Luck Got To Do With It?

Author: Joseph Mazur

Publisher: Princeton University Press

ISBN-13: 978-0691138909

But not only to gamble, but to think that with every toss of the pebble, spin of the primitive roulette wheel, and punt on the futures market that they can WIN – and keep on winning.

And if they don’t win, then there’s always another bet around the corner. And who cares if the losses mount up? After all, the best thing after betting and winning is betting and losing.

A Complete View of Gambling

Joseph MazurAuthor Joseph Mazur

Part history of gambling and gambling law, part psychology paper and part Mensa-bothering maths exam, Joseph Mazur’s ‘What’s Luck Got To Do With It?’ examines the Gambler’s Fallacy and the psychology of gambling through the ages.

From the discovery of Neolithic ‘dice’ to first games of chance and on to the gambles that led to the 2008 world financial crisis, Mazur shows that there’s an inherent link in people to take risks – calculated or not.

That the book feels like an academic paper at times is perhaps understandable; after all, Mazur is professor emeritus of mathematics at Marlboro College in the US. Let’s just say when it comes to calculating pot odds, you wouldn’t want to face Mazur at the poker table.

Similarities Between Wall Street and Vegas

But it’s in Mazur’s revelations while speaking to figures in the financial world that you get a real sense of just how entrenched taking risks is in everyday life.

He writes about talking to a US hedge fund trader in 2008 just after the sub-prime mortgage collapse plunged America into a deep recession. It was then, Mazur says, with a very large light bulb pinging on in his head, that he realised just how close Wall Street was to Las Vegas:

“Every day, I put money – millions of dollars – on futures and credit-default swaps,” explained the trader. “It’s a legal crap shoot, but you gotta know what you’re doing….all you need is a hunch.”

The Maths Behind Gambling

Poker chips and calculator
‘What’s Luck…’ then moves into the maths behind gambling itself, exploring well-worn theories on coin-tosses and skill vs. luck (real gamblers, Mazur argues, know that “their ratio of luck to skill is usually quite small” before analysing why people become gamblers.)

That chapter in itself could have been plucked from any recent court case in the US which has sought to class poker as a game of skill rather than chance. Poker, like many gambling games, has elements of skill AND chance, but it’s up to the player to decide how much risk they take on any given situation.

Nicely wrapping up the book (before we get to some brain-bending appendices on mathematical definitions) is a chapter on the psychology of gambling, what defines a gambler, and why feeling lucky is such a misconception.

But at no point does Mazur judge about pathological gamblers or those who take ridiculous risks against the odds; rather, he’s a fascinated observer trying to get some sense of why some of us are inclined to bet – and keep on betting.

Mazur’s Broad appeal

Appealing to historians, gamblers and mathematicians alike, ‘What’s Luck Got To Do With It?’ has been recommended to anyone working the casino industry. With its broad range of chapters, Mazur’s book is appealing to virtually anyone with an interest in the human psyche. It should certainly be given out to anyone arriving for work on their first day on Wall Street. Perhaps it would help to avoid a few more disasters.