Book review: The Perfect Bet by Adam Kucharski

March 24, 2016
Profile, £12.99

Many of us enjoy a flutter every now and then. It was estimated that more than £200m was staked on last year’s Grand National, and football lovers regularly place bets to add to the excitement of watching the sport. The lure, of course, is the possibility of winning big—but is there a way to guarantee success? And what is the impact of mathematical and scientific principles on betting?

These are some of the questions that Adam Kucharski tries to answer in his new book, The Perfect Bet. It would be easy to get bogged down in the complexity of the subject matter, but Kucharski, a lecturer in mathematical modelling at the School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine in London, navigates the subject in a manner that makes it accessible to everyone, as he explains that gamblers have tried to use the principles of game theory and probability to give them an edge when they visit casinos—with varying levels of success.

Almost as a side-effect of using these models, gamblers have helped advance them and, in turn, our understanding of their applicability to the wider world—this is Kucharski’s second theme.

He outlines how probability theory, which has been used to analyse horse races and is now crucial to DNA sequencing and particle physics, did not “emerge in libraries or lecture theatres but among the cards and dice of bars and game rooms.” In much the same way, games like roulette and poker have played an important role in the development of chaos theory and game theory.

Kucharski’s book is an interesting account of the interactions between gambling, science and mathematics, but what makes it so readable is the way the stories are told—always with a human angle that makes the narrative easier to follow and principles behind it easier to understand.