Armed with expertise in mathematics, programming, and algorithms, renowned American computer science professor Steven Skiena walks readers through his winning betting system. Despite his advanced education and the complexity of the topics at hand, Skiena's affable style makes this an easy yet engaging read for anyone interested in betting. Although the book's focus on jai alai isn't directly applicable to British bettors, anyone can benefit from the author's case study approach and knowledge of mathematical modelling.
Steven Skiena has a rare gift. As a Professor of Computer Science at the State University of New York, your first thoughts might be that a book which combines gambling and mathematics, such as Calculated Bets: Computers, Gambling, and Mathematical Modelling to Win, won’t make light reading. However, part of the appeal of this publication is that Skiena is full of surprises. Charmingly self-depreciative, Skiena suggests early on in Calculated Bets he’s just a “mild mannered professor”, noting that “part of the fun” of the title “is the spectacle of a second-rate mind wasting itself on jai alai.”
However, beneath such a temperate exterior lies a jai alai betting expert who gets a “perverse thrill” from “beating the system”. Indeed, Skiena, along with the help of a few students and an ingenious fellow professor manages to devise a jai alai betting system which can relatively accurately predict what to bet on during the game.
An old gambling axiom states that luck is good, but brains are better. Indeed, it took me
almost 25 years, but finally I have figured it out.
Jai alai isn’t a particularly popular game in the United Kingdom. In fact, there aren’t any frontons in England, Scotland, or Wales. The apparent UK lack of interest in the sport may suggest that jai alai and in turn Calculated Bets are slices of Americana sports eccentricity which needn’t concern Brits. However, such a view would be incorrect, as throughout Skiena’s title he illustrates the wonder of this Basque based sport. Recalling his yearly trips as a child to a jai alai match in Florida (there are more jai alai frontons, or courts in Florida than anywhere else in the United States), Skiena casts his consequent interest in the mathematics behind the game alongside the excitement of a 12-year-old witnessing what they felt was a “big-league, big time sport”.
Such passion for the game bubbled away for the next 25 years of Skiena’s life and caused him to create “Maven”, which successfully predicted several jai alai matches. While Skiena’s invention is of course, one of the main points of the book, the narratives and anecdotes the author weaves around Maven make Calculated Bets so very enjoyable. Skiena obviously has a gift for narrating and as he guides the reader through his early creations, such as Clyde; which a young Skiena suggested could predict the outcome of professional football matches, you’re instantly drawn into the world of a man who wishes to “beat back the system” through “understanding and intellectual effort”.
Unfortunately, the majority of the frontons which are referred to in Calculated Bets have since closed. Skiena recalls how Bob Heussler, Milford jai alai’s PR director, told the author and his students that people are more interested in putting their money in the slot machines at Foxwoods Casino, as opposed to wagering on jai alai matches. In 2001, the Milford fronton closed for good and you can’t help but feel the emergence of casino resorts such as Foxwoods had something to do with its decline and closing. As well as presenting an innovative jai alai betting system, Skiena’s book also raises questions about the future of mathematics and gambling.
With so many casinos and race tracks now favouring slots over other forms of betting, academics such as Skiena, as well as the Eudaemons and the MIT Blackjack team could be discouraged from looking for ways to exploit casinos and bookmakers. After all, if slots take up most of the casino floor, there’s very little the mathematically minded can do to reduce the house edge, except for attempting to tamper with the slots machinery, which is of course illegal. This move towards slots could be intentional on behalf of the casino. Players want to wager on them and casinos won’t get “burnt” by bright sparks looking to exploit them.
Concerns for the future of gambling aside, Calculated Bets is an eloquent exercise in prose and effortlessly teaches the less mathematically minded amongst us how computing can be innovative and interesting. It also offers a unique tale of how one man, along with the help of a few friends, can get to grips with betting and beat the bookmakers. It’s for these reasons and so many more that we strongly recommend Calculated Bets.
Check out our interview with Steven Skiena to find out more about the author.