Chancing It: The Laws Of Chance And How They Can Work For You by Robert Matthews (book review).

March 8, 2016 | By | 2 Replies More

I’ll lay better than even odds that very few of you reading here truly understand the statistics involved when it comes to gambling. Robert Matthews book, ‘Chancing It: The Laws Of Chance And How They Can Work For You’ will at least explain why although I doubt if that will change the number of you who bet on the lottery in whichever country you live in. After all, I suspect most of you will think that ‘it could be you’ has to happen eventually…to you. I like Matthews’ comparison of have 10kg bags of sugar poured onto the floor with one grain stained black and then told to find it in one go wearing a blindfold. When you have millions of people playing such games someone will win but most of the time it can’t be you. In fact, I’d go further and say it’s a lot more than ‘most’ but what lotteries tend to sell is the dream not the reality. Me? I’m not a dreamer with such things. Mind you, when I was at work, in two successive years I randomly picked out of a blind draw the winners of the Grand National with absolutely no interest in it. My fellow workers never let me play again. Statistically, I suspect the odds were that someone would do that one or two years and that was me.


In his opening chapter, Matthews points out that something somewhere is always likely to happen eventually. No, I haven’t played the lottery and not even interested in it. I got a card for my Mum a couple times and even once or twice chose for one of my reviewing team, despite picking numbers higher than the 50 available at the time simply because I never paid attention to it, but I suspect even my kind of luck isn’t that lucky. I can see some of you saying why not try it for a couple weeks and see. Think how you would feel if I did win it at such long odds on a couple attempts? Statistically, it has to happen and I’d hate to win with my kind of luck. If memory serves, I think it’s happened at least once by now to newcomers.

Back to the book. Betting and statistics are intricately linked. This is how the house makes its money. In fact, it works in their favour to have winners because it encourages more people to try their hand, even if they don’t see it that way although casinos like people who have a system, providing they don’t win for too long.

As Matthews points out that the so-called Law Of Averages isn’t quite what it seems when tossing a coin for heads or trails with the odds moving from tails to heads over several thousand throws indicating there isn’t anything random about it, just statistics. If you’re going to call odds, then you need to apply the Weak Law Of Large Numbers and look at different patterns instead. I’m not going to be too elaborate here as you need to read this book and you certainly wouldn’t apply it to the lottery because of its random nature. In fact from what Matthews’ says, there’s too much randomness to guarantee a win on a particular occasion. If anything, you need to pick up on a lot of different factors to evaluate your odds of winning anything. However, when it is applied to many casino games, the luck changes from the player back to the house.

He also looks at the Bermuda Triangle. This was something I did in the late 1970s but although he raises some interesting points, he doesn’t spot something that I did back then. A lot of the major shipping routes are through that area so the number of ship losses are likely to be proportionately much higher. The same also applies to the number of close birthdays in a small group of people. Considering the number of spring-summer babies, there’s going to be more in that area than autumn-winter which changes the statistics accordingly.

His comments on Randomised Control Trails (RCTs) does raise an interesting question. What these do is split, say, a thousand people down the middle and one half gives up meat for the rest of their lives and the other half doesn’t to see what happens to them. Objectively, I would have thought that at the audition stage, a simple question asking for those who are considering going vegetarian would find that number. However, it also changes the random element because these very same people are also likely to stay vegetarian. As Matthews points out on several occasions, there are a lot of variables to be aware of and something that looks apparently simple might not be the best way to go and as you see my odd reactions, I’m spotting things he missed as well.

I suspect by this time in the book you will want to know about what all of this has to do with gambling and Matthews hits this with a bang by showing how casinos adjust the odds slightly in their favour. From what he says, it is the continuous gambler who will always lose to the house eventually and the irregular but lucky gambler who walks away after a win who is likely to stay ahead. As gambling is also addictive, you have to wonder who benefits by encouraging people to bet? In many respects, as pointed out earlier, considering how few regular winners there are, to promote when they have an honest winner must surely do any casino some good. I mean, you only have to look at the places where people who have won the lottery suddenly get an upsurge of people who believe such luck would rub off on them. For those of you who don’t know how to work out gambling odds as percentages, Matthews shows not only how but also how they are manipulated as well. After all, that’s what betting shops rely on so why not use the same tools?

Something that you might not consider as gambling in the insurance you pay on your life or house or even a bit of technology like a camera and from what Matthews says, I wouldn’t touch an extended warranty. I tend to look at such things as becoming obsolete if the technology advances too quickly, how do they get replacement parts and if it breaks down just after its expected life, they aren’t likely to pay out neither. In many respects, it’s cheaper to keep your money and use it to but the replacement but make a good choice on its longevity.

On page 139, Matthews applies Bayes’ Theorum to prove the chances of picking up a red card and it’s a diamond. However, I then got a little worried when he contradicts himself saying that half of deck of cards are diamonds instead of a quarter. Has he no hearts?

The latter third of the book focuses on how the more technical aspects of odds and although there is less formula, there is a lot more to read. Matthews examination of the statistical bell curve, which you’ve seen me apply from time to time, shows one area where it shouldn’t be applied, that of in the office, where some big companies did, firing apparent slackers. Looking at what Matthews shows, it reminded me of the Mandelbrot pattern. Remove one layer and the next will look the same but with different cache of people. Ergo, even if you have a staff of over-achievers, there will always be some who aren’t at the top end of the scale.

As you can tell by the length of this review, I learnt a lot and raised questions on other things. Although I’m not entirely convinced that Matthews went far enough in how to make the laws of chance work for you. He warns want to be careful of although I don’t think the committed gambler, let alone the compulsive gambler, is likely to heed, mostly because people are a matter of habit. If you play the lottery, see how difficult it is to give up. However, you should come away with enough background knowledge to spot when something isn’t a good thing to bet on and not necessarily in gambling. If you understand statistics, then you’ll be well at home here. If you aren’t then hopefully you should be able to grasp some of its implications. After all, you’re often a victim of people or companies who do. Bets aren’t off but you’re better knowing the odds.

GF Willmetts

March 2016

(pub: Profile Books. 290 page indexed hardback. Price: £14.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-78125-030-3)

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Category: Books, Culture

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About UncleGeoff

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’
If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

Comments (2)

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  1. As the author of Chancing It, I’m delighted you enjoyed the book and got some benefit from it.

    On the Bermuda Triangle, you say that “… although he raises some interesting points, he doesn’t spot something that I did back then. A lot of the major shipping routes are through that area so the number of ship losses are likely to be proportionately much higher”. I quite agree, and indeed make explicit mention of this fact (p26): “…it’s entirely possible that all the unexplained disappearances really did take place. That’s because tens of thousands of ships and aircraft pass through this vast, 1 million square kilometres of sea and airspace each year”.

    On the use of Bayes’s Theorem, you say you became “…a little worried when he contradicts himself saying that half of deck of cards are diamonds instead of a quarter. Has he no hearts?”. If you take another look at p139, you’ll find I state that “…everyone knows half the RED [emphasis added] cards in a deck are diamonds”. I hope this makes you less worried.

    With thanks again
    Robert Matthews

    • UncleGeoff says:

      Hello Robert
      Re: The Bermuda Triangle. The only odd contradiction with ship losses is with so many passing through the area, why weren’t there more rescues from other ships because there are defined chart routes even in that much space. I haven’t checked on recent ship losses in the area but it does seem odd also that no one has complained of compass anomies neither.
      As to the cards. Ah! I was going by half the deck which would be red and only a quarter would be diamonds.

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