Of odds and octogenarians

Date:18 September 2012 Author: Alan Duggan Tags:, , , ,

My octogenarian mother is an occasional gambler and firm believer in luck. In years gone by, when slot machines still accepted coins, she would chill her stash in the freezer before setting off to er… break the bank, maintaining that ice-cold money would somehow alter the functioning of the machine and change the odds in her favour.  Naturally, I told her that the theory was completely nuts.

Not content with her revolutionary take on cryogenics and gambling, she revealed that “touching a Chinaman” would similarly enhance her chances of a big score (informed that this was a decidedly un-PC term, she reluctantly accepted “a person of Asian extraction”), as would the religious proclivities of fellow gamblers (“I’ve heard that nuns are also very lucky”). When I pointed out that nuns were rarely found in casinos, she replied that this was what made them especially lucky.

I still drop her off at a casino once a month, being careful not to wish her good luck – you know, because that’s a very unlucky thing to say – but never failing to remind her that all casino tables and slot machines work according to carefully calculated odds that are slightly skewed in the house’s favour.  She smiles a knowing smile and generally emerges a few hours later with a couple of hundred rand in her purse, having managed to secure a place at her “lucky” machine.

My own gambling experience is less happy. Many years ago, when Elvis was still alive, I visited Las Vegas (I was too young to know better) and bought a ticket to see the pudgy crooner perform at the Las Vegas Hilton. With hours to kill before the show, I tried my luck at a roulette table. Within 20 minutes I had lost everything but my shirt, leaving me so skint that I was forced to ask for a refund on my ticket. Handing over my $25, the woman at the box office shook her head sadly and said something on the lines of “you young people are very silly”.

Having established my family’s solid gambling credentials, we move on to the real meat of this blog – the discovery by a group of researchers from the Technical University of Lodz, Poland, that there’s something predictable in the seemingly random throw of dice. As reported by the American Institute of Physics (AIP), the researchers determined – by applying a mixture of chaos theory and high school-level mechanics – that by knowing the initial conditions such as the viscosity of the air, the acceleration of gravity and the friction of the table, it should be possible to predict the outcome when rolling dice.

Said the AIP: “The researchers created a three-dimensional model of the die throw and compared the theoretical results to experimental observations. By using a high-speed camera to track the die’s movement as it is thrown and bounces, they found the probability of the die landing on the face that is the lowest one at the beginning is larger than the probability of landing on any other face. This suggests that the toss of a symmetrical die is not a perfectly random action.”

I read this fascinating passage to my mother over the phone. “Yes,” she said, “that’s exactly what I thought.”