"I was an early teenager when Thorp's The Mathematics of Gamblingcame out," Letscher reminisces, speaking of the author's 1984 follow-up tome that in addition to blackjack applied math to roulette, baccarat and horse racing. "As a mathematician the challenge is always: Can we beat the system?"
Father Michael May, chair of mathematics and computer science at SLU, says Clair and Letscher's paper has garnered rave reviews in academic circles, but he's more impressed with the less-lofty interest evidenced by the response to the Times piece.
The Sweet Sixteen to beat the big ESPN or Yahoo pools, as divined by Bryan Clair and David Letscher. The SLU brainiacs' brackets can be downloaded here, here and here.
Field research: Bryan Clair (right) and David Letscher (left) take in the games last week.
"Most people think of math as abstract and weird and applying to things no one cares about," says May. "But this catches people's interest. This time of year everyone is talking about their tournament pools."
May contends that the professors' research isn't rooted only in gambling. In fact, one of the academic journals interested in publishing the work is a managerial periodical. "There are economic lessons to be learned here as well," says May. "It's about making choices predicated on group mentality."
Though they seem downright rueful that SLU's math department is too geek-filled to drum up sufficient interest for its own NCAA pool, Clair and Letscher stress that their work isn't intended to encourage people to bet on basketball.
"We thought about putting the same disclaimer on our academic paper that the casino industry uses in their commercials: If you have a gambling problem, call 1-800-whatever," Letscher jokes.
Besides, he points out, the big online pools don't charge entry fees.