By Converse II graduate Martha Miller
Lottery ads practically permeate many of the country’s rural and urban landscapes. They’re plastered on gas station and convenience store windows, posted at most supermarket checkouts, emblazoned on billboards and the sides of public buses, to say nothing of television and radio advertising—all very positive and quite provocative. Winning the astronomical jackpot is a chance South Carolinians pay millions of dollars to take—in both the lottery and the casinos that can be found nearby. But how great a chance do they really have of winning?
Dr. James Hymas, Chair of Converse College’s Mathematics Department, addressed that issue in his January Term course The Mathematics of Gambling and Games of Chance. During the four-week class, students learned how mathematics is involved in games of chance and gambling by studying topics in probability, statistics and combinatorics. The class included extended laboratory sessions and even a “casino night” to put their knowledge to practical use.
The class had a three-fold purpose, according to Hymas:
1. introduce and develop the mathematics necessary for a rational analysis of various gambling applications
2. directly observe the applications of the mathematical principles used in various games
3. increase the interest of mathematics.
The interesting concept of studying mathematics through games of chance was, in fact, a drawing factor to many of the students who participated in the class.
“The title of the class caught my attention,” says Claiborne Fant of Columbia, South Carolina. “I was pleased with the variety of information that we learned. It was very instructive and lots of fun!”
Hymas’ method for teaching the class focused on keeping it fun and providing for lots of student involvement.
“Each student was given $500 of virtual money to gamble with during the term,” Hymas states. “They could bet on sports books, the lottery and on the games we were playing during laboratory sessions.”
Along with how mathematics principles are at play while gamblers are at play, the students also learned the history of gambling, the dangers of gambling addictions and valuable strategies to use at the tables.
“Dr. Hymas taught us about the role of probability in gambling, how to play different games, how to find out the mathematical expectation of those games (i.e. which games have better payouts for the player), and other concepts in math that can be applied to gambling,” Fant states.
The class, which counted for either major or elective credit, covered a wide range of topics including basics of probability, applications of mathematical expectation, permutation and combinations, probability distribution, and rules and strategies of Blackjack, Poker, Roulette, Craps, slot machines, sports books,
keno and para mutual betting.
“We learned the actual math behind gambling, which enabled us to make informed decisions during the games,” states Sadie Barlow of Chester,
Virginia. “In the class, we had a Roulette table and a casino card table. We actually learned how to play the games while we were in class.”
But the students didn’t just get classroom knowledge. Part of the curriculum include