Thursday, March 23, 2006

Gambling Theory and Other Topics by Mason Malmuth

One of the books I thought I needed to read upon deciding to become a professional gambler was Gambling Theory and Other Topics by Mason Malmuth. After all, I wanted to become a serious gambler, and it says right on the cover that it is "Absolutely MUST Reading for All Serious Gamblers." With a title like "Gambling Theory," I was expecting the book to be a technical exposition aspects of game theory that are useful to gambling. As it turns out, the nebulous idea of "other topics" comprises about 90% of the text. To be fair, most of these "other topics" concern gambling and are reasonably insightful. Sometimes, even entertaining.

Several times in his 300+ page book, Malmuth mentions that the idea of "non-self-weighting strategies" is the over-arching theme that holds all topics in the book together. This is the idea that in order to overcome the negative expectation of a negative-sum game, one must be able weight his bets himself (that is, the game cannot be "self-weighting"). For instance, in order to overcome the rake in poker, you need to be able to choose which hands to put your money into. To this I say: no shit. You mean I can't expect to win by just calling down every hand, regardless of my cards? Malmuth is right to consider this idea central to a winning gambling strategy; that he considers this topic to be profound is somewhat ridiculous. Also troubling is that he applies this idea to situtations that can be seen as positive-sum games, such as investing in the stock market. He extends to many extreme lengths. For example, Malmuth says that in life, introverted people are living a self-weighting strategy by only speaking when they have something useful to say, and this is why most successful gamblers are introverts. Hmmmm.... if you say so. I would have guessed it's because we tend to be kind of nerdy, thinking a lot about numbers and probabilities.

There is a section on "tournament strategy" that suggests doing all you can to conserve your chips when you are short-stacked. He has a list of 18 concepts about tournament strategy that can help you follow this suggestion. Number 11 is "Don't go out with a bang..." He says that you should "try to make those few remaining chips last as long as possible." This goes along with concept number 15: "Steal less late in a tournament if low on chips." As far as I can tell, these two ideas fly in the face of the advice in Harrington on Holdem, Volume II, which suggests become more and more aggressive as your M gets low. (M is a measure of chip count compared to the blinds.) Both books are published by Malmuth's and Sklansky's 2+2 publishing. So which is it, 2+2? Aggressive or passive when short-stacked? I'll have to reread Harrington's and Malmuth's justification on this topic. As I recall, Harrington gives vague justification, saying "you don't have time to sit around and wait for a good hand," but Malmuth's justification is more mathemeatical.

I found the section on "Calculating your Standard Deviation" to be particularly useful and probably could be correctly billed as "must reading for all serious gamblers." Before reading this section, I wasn't sure how to calculate my standard deviation correctly, and I was thinking I would have to derive the formula myself. Anyway, if you gamble for a living, read this section at least. However, be aware that there is a typo in the formula: in the places where you see "N," replace it with "N-1" (thanks to my dad for pointing this out). If you play a lot, this fix does not make much difference.

That is a problem I have with the entire line of 2+2 publishing's publications. These books sell like hotcakes (even better, maybe), and new editions come out every year. Despite this, almost every page has either a typo or grammatical error of the sort I would be ashamed to have left in an 5-page essay that I wrote in two hours. I usually have a typo or two in my posts on this blog, but I go and change them when I realize it. How do the errors in 2+2 persist, edition after edition? This is an enigma that haunts me like the missing license plates in Las Vegas. Why are these glaringly obvious transgressions allowed to persist? Usually the typos and grammatical errors don't make a big difference, but come on, why not try to get it right? Even if they usually don't matter much, they do sometimes make a difference, like when numbers or formulas are involved.

Overall, I recommend skipping this book except for some of the sections in the first half of Part Two: Theory in Practice. The sections entitiled "How much do I need?" and "Calculating your standard deviation" are particularly useful. Some other sections convered topics I found painfully obvious, but maybe some professional gamblers could benefit. For instance, Part Three: Pseudo Theory Exposed. For more advanced analysis, you may want to check out The Theory of Gambling and Statistical Logic by Richard Epstein, although it is $50 on Amazon. I haven't read it yet, but it looks promising. Anybody have any other suggested reading?

1 comment:

Ben said...

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