Gambling and Jai Alai: An Interview with Steven Skiena
Following our recent book review of Steven Skiena’s excellent Calculated Bets: Computers, Gambling and Mathematical Modeling to Win, we spoke to the “mild mannered professor” about his passion for jai alai, mathematics and how academia effects casinos and gambling. If you haven’t heard of the game, don’t worry, as unless you live near one of the few remaining jai alai frontons (jai alai courts), chances are you’ll never have encountered the game before. During a typical jai alai game, eight players, or eight teams of two players will go against each other in an effort to score 7 or 9 points and win the game. Of course, there’s a lot more to it than this and we aren’t experts, fortunately though, Steven Skiena is.
Skiena’s passion for jai alai began as a child, when his family packed up their bags and headed out to Florida for a holiday. Skiena’s parents took their sons to a jai alai fronton and after picking a bet on Pepe’s Green Card, the two brothers treated their parents to a meal after winning $124.60. One of Skiena’s key influences behind the style and form of the book is Bill James, whom the author describes in the Preface of Calculated Bets as a “popular writer” who uses “advanced statistical analysis and historical research to unearth hidden trend and overturn conventional wisdom”. The same can be said about Skiena and, when asked how the thrill of jai alai contributed to his academic choices, he noted that “gambling is the application of probability theory and combinatorial mathematics best appreciated by the general public”, and went on to suggest that “thinking about the statistics on the back of baseball cards and playing with gambling systems probably had more to do with turning me into a mathematician than anything else.”
Calculated Bets focuses on Skiena’s various creations which were used to accurately predict the outcome of sports games. From early teenage invention Clyde, to the jai alai betting machine that is Maven, Skiena book charts an arduous journey of applying mathematics to gambling. This isn’t a particularly new idea, as Ed Thorp’s Beat the Dealer trod along the same lines and Skiena notes that all gambling books should incorporate mathematics, “because mathematical ideas underlie every gambling venue I can think of” and advises that “if you don't understand the mathematics, you shouldn't gamble”. Such comments may seem controversial, but consider this: Only the very best card counters and academics such as the Eudaemons can really beat the casino and, as Skiena proposes, this is because “mathematicians will always be out there looking for an edge”. While card counters might be shooed out of casinos by Kris Zutis’ blackjack system and other forms of detection software, Skiena observes that one of the most interesting venues for mathematicians and computer experts interested in beating the system would be online poker, particularly “developing poker-playing bots to play online.”
The success of Calculated Bets shows how professors such as Steven Skiena can only maintain an edge for a relatively short period of time. When asked whether Maven was still running, Skiena told us that the jai alai system had to retire, because “since jai-alai is a parimutuel sport, there is no way it could continue to be profitable once the book was published, because other bettors would follow a similar strategy and reduce the resulting payoffs.” Maven was created as a team effort and students such as Roger and Dario, who worked on the system whilst completing their degrees, have gone on to become academics themselves at the University of Tulsa and Harvard respectively. Unfortunately, jai alai hasn’t prospered over the past few years and the Milton fronton, which Skiena and his students visited when tweaking Maven has since closed down. However, after Maven had proved itself, Skiena donated the winnings to his university, in order to “purge” his soul and “cover his butt”. A plaque commemorating Maven now stands on Stony Brooks Hilley, meaning that a little piece of jai alai and Maven will forever be commemorated and remembered. If you’re travelling to the United States and would like to check out a jai alai match, then Steve recommends you visit Dania or Miami’s respective frontons “while you have the chance”.
Steven Skiena is a Professor of Computer Science at the State University of New York. To find out more about Skiena and his creation, Maven, please visit Jai-Tech.com. .