Should we teach gambling in math classes?

By Murray Bourne, 15 Jul 2006

I have always enjoyed teaching probability. You can have fun getting the students to mess around with dice, cards and lottery results. Some students have no idea what a poker hand even looks like (either they come from a family that never played games with their kids, or the family does not approve of gambling).

So I found myself teaching them about the "mathematical sins" of gambling - that you will never win if you are a player, but a sure winner if you are the organiser of the gambling event.

In Singapore, where there are strong objections to gambling from the Malay and Christian communities, the Toto website has:

Please exit immediately if you are under 18.

But I still felt that my under 18-year-olds should know about gambling, about the odds of not winning and something about the psychology of gambling. I included a section "TOTO Example" about the Singapore game of TOTO.

It was with interest that I cam across this article in the Vancouver Sun, Poker lessons - an education that you could bet on, where the organiser was having some bother (from the authorities) when trying to teach poker.

According to the article, child psychology professor Jeffrey Derevensky of McGill University feels that

already too many kids are gambling and as soon as they're old enough to get credit cards they'll be on the Internet betting away money they don't have.

The following is likely, since governments around the world reap large windfalls from "voluntary taxes", a.k.a. gambling:

Once the kids learn the real odds of ever winning a government lottery, the chances are they'll never buy a ticket -- which might explain the B.C. government's vehemence.

I agree with the writer's conclusion:

Besides, poker's not just a game, it's a lesson in math, probability, risk and reading character. In other words, it's a lesson in life.

So do I gamble? Yep, occasionally and mostly only with peanuts.

See the 13 Comments below.

13 Comments on “Should we teach gambling in math classes?”

  1. alQpr » Blog Archive » squareCircleZ on teaching gambling in math says:

    [...] squareCircleZ: Should we teach gambling in math classes? [...]

  2. Rachelle Baker says:

    Learning about a sin does not mean you will commit it. If anything learning about gambling young and how often the odds are against you winning will deter kids from picking up the habit later. Perhaps since they have already experienced gambling in a classroom setting they won't feel that they need to ever try it in real life.

  3. Reynir says:

    We should absolutely teach kids about the real probabilities involved in gambling and the psychology of gambling too. Nobody becomes a gambling addict knowing those two things.

  4. Murray says:

    But Reynir, there may be a genetic reason why people become gamblers: Compulsive gambling a genetic disorder?

  5. Reynir says:

    Ah, yes. But these represent tendencies, not destinies. For example, if we look at history, we humans seem to have a tendency for constant warring and brutality. But we don't see nearly as much of that anymore.

    Source: http://www.ted.com/talks/steven_pinker_on_the_myth_of_violence
    (you've probably seen this already, being a TED fan yourself)

    So we do use more than one part of our brain at a given moment. A study of the mistakes of others and a knowledge of our own faults and tendencies can and does enable us to overcome biological determinism.

    So I honestly belive that if someone:

    A) Truly understands the workings (and the futility) of gambling,

    B) understands that there is no such thing as luck (in the "personal mojo" meaning of the word), and

    C) is aware of the psychology of gambling and the human fallibility regarding it...

    ... then that someone will not become addicted to gambling. Assuming a person of relatively sound mind with no major mental defects or insanity.

    So I think the prime reason for the widespread problem of gambling is ignorance and quasi-religious belief in "personal lucky mojo".

  6. Ymir says:

    Children should be taught about gambling. Games of chance give simple models that are useful for illuminating the concepts of probability theory. Indeed, probability theory arose from the analysis of games of chance.

    The truth is that we gamble every day of our lives. If we drive to work then we risk dying in a traffic accident, and so on. We need probability to make rational decisions in the face of uncertainty. But we don't hand out mortality tables to our students. Instead, we use games with cards and dice as metaphors.

  7. Murray says:

    Actually, Ymir, I've discussed mortality tables with students! They actually find them very interesting.

  8. Antonio says:

    In statistics mostly in topics of probability, we use poker and deck of cards to understand probability. And it is good way to understand probability. So I think if we use gambling in study as a positive sense then it is not horrible.

  9. Dave says:

    My personal belief is that teaching students about gambling in math class does not encourage them to gamble. But our students (and their parents) may have different beliefs, and they should be treated with respect. It is a small matter to talk about throwing darts instead of rolling dice.

  10. Murray says:

    Good to hear from you, Dave. One of the issues with throwing darts is that it is not random (unless we do it blindfolded, I guess).

  11. Albert says:

    When you teach someone and educate him on something so dangerous as gambling you will lower the risk of them become gamblers and be in debt entire life - as that happens to most gamblers for me the chance to win at slots or roulette is far worst that to win at lotto - although some sites kind of support gambling thoug.
    Anyway good write up mate, keep up the strong work.

  12. Brian Boyko says:

    I think that not only should gambling be taught in probability classes, but that teaching gambling is a moral requirement!

    I'm a poker player - and a profitable one. Poker is primarily a game of skill with elements of chance. But the first thing any *serious* poker player learns is the management of risk and the expected value of your actions.

    In a gambling game of pure chance, like roulette, there is always a negative expected value for playing. It is "-EV" as we poker players say. The rules of the game give an advantage to the house, and for every $1 you put into the game, you can expect to get $0.95 back.

    If you teach students that gambling is "wrong" or "a sin," then what you are doing is actually making gambling a "forbidden fruit" - something that's too fun because it's just a little taboo. On the other hand, if you teach your students *why* when you gamble with most gambling games, you *lose money*, they will then avoid the gambling games in which there is a house edge. Tell them not to play, and they learn nothing, tell them why the game is for "suckers" and they will be enlightened and recognize when else in their life they are being "suckered."

    Poker is an exception to the rule in that poker is not played with a house edge... if you play it in a home game, and not a casino where an "administrative fee" is charged. Additionally, poker is a fair game when played amongst friends. "Fair," of course, does not mean perfectly safe. The way to make poker "safe" is to play for stakes you know you can afford and to be able to accept that you will likely lose the money and are playing for entertainment value. And the way to understand "safe" is to understand concepts such as the Kelly Criterion, or as we poker players call it, "Bankroll Management" and "Risk of Ruin."

  13. Murray says:

    @Brian: Thanks for your considered response, Brian. Yes, everyone should understand the concept of "negative expected value"!

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