Sunday, March 13, 2016

Q&A with Adam Kucharski

Adam Kucharski is the author of the new book The Perfect Bet: How Science and Math Are Taking the Luck Out of Gambling. He is a lecturer in mathematical modeling at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. He lives in London.

Q: You write, “Perhaps it shouldn’t be so surprising that science and gambling are so intertwined.” What are some of the major ways in which they are linked?

A: Throughout history, people have used bets to explore ideas about chance and decision making. The fundamental concepts of probability started with gamblers trying to understand what consisted a "fair" dice wager.

Roulette inspired many of the ideas behind chaos theory - which examines the limits of predictability - and statistical testing, which enables us to measure whether an event is likely to be a coincidence or not.

And that's not all. Poker motivated mathematicians to develop game theory, which analyses how we make decisions, while the so-called St Petersburg Lottery led to the economic theory of utility, enabling companies to measure how much things are worth to us.

Q: In the book, you write, “During the past decade or so, approaches to betting have changed dramatically.” How have they changed?

A: One of the biggest changes is the size and consistency of betting syndicates. The story is no longer just about solo bettors using science to make a bit of money on the side. Now there are established companies employing teams of PhDs to predict sports results, and implement betting strategies week in week out.

Q: What impact have robots had on gambling?

A: Robots have had two major impacts. The first is in online betting markets, where they can react much faster than humans to incorrect odds. By the time a human spots an opportunity, there's a good chance a high-speed bot will already have pounced on it.

The second impact of bots is in games like poker, where artificial intelligence researchers have developed computer players that can teach themselves how to play successfully. In many games, these bots are rapidly overtaking even the best human players.

Q: What do you see looking ahead when it comes to the relationship between science and gambling?

A: The role of analytics in sport is likely to increase, both in terms of gambling and team management. Sports like baseball have a long history of statistics, but scientific thinking in sports like soccer is less developed, in part because team behaviour is much harder to analyse than batter-vs-pitcher match ups. There's a lot of scope for more scientific approaches in team sports, especially if gambling opens up in new areas.

On that note, the rise of fantasy sports in the U.S. has been interesting, as it lets people legally put money on their predictions. There's evidence that analytically-minded people are already proving successful at these games, which is adding to the debate about legalised gambling, and where to draw the line between games of luck and games of skill.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I currently work on analysis of infectious disease outbreaks, developing ways to understand disease transmission and evaluate potential control measures.

At first glance, it might seem like a very different field to the book, but many of the underlying concepts are remarkably similar: my work involves identifying patterns, measuring risk, and evaluating decisions in the face of uncertainty.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: One of the things that surprised me while researching the book was just how many scientific ideas started with games and gambling. Even if we never walk into a casino or visit a bookmaker, the concepts involved in betting - from assessing risk to dealing with hidden information - still play a big part in our lives.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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