Gambling on Math: Education Portal Speaks with Professor Robert Hannum

Mar 01, 2011

Dr. Robert Hannum is a professor at the University of Denver who teaches statistics with a twist - several of Dr. Hannum's classes use gambling to bring the discipline to life. Education Portal caught up with Dr. Hannum to find out how he got into the stats game and what a little fun and games can do for the classroom.

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By Megan Driscoll

poker statistics

Education-Portal: Can you tell us about your educational background, and how you came to teach statistics at the University of Denver?

Dr. Robert Hannum: I got my undergraduate degree in math from the University of Dayton and M.S. and Ph.D. in Statistics from Florida State University. Nothing special about how I ended up at the University of Denver - when I finished up school and was interviewing, D.U. seemed like an excellent opportunity in a fantastic location.

E-P: You're famous for making statistics fun by applying them to gambling. What got you interested in the field? Do you enjoy gambling yourself?

RH: I always liked playing games and so it was pretty natural for me to want to understand the mathematics underlying games. Statistics can be a pretty dry subject sometimes but it can be fun if it's applied to things that you and the students find interesting - gambling is one of those things. I find the application of probability and statistics to different aspects of gambling and commercial gaming to be quite fascinating and most students seem to agree. Except for the occasional poker game, I don't gamble all that much myself - just enough to keep current on the subject matter and . . . well, do a little background research shall we say?

E-P: What types of games do you analyze in your research?

RH: It really runs the gamut. Much of the 'new' math that is needed for the games is for either a variation or esoteric aspect of one of the traditional casino games (where most of the math is already well established), side bets, proposed casino promotions or entirely new games. I've worked on various aspects of roulette, blackjack, baccarat and poker, as well as a plethora of new games. There are also interesting applications of probability and statistics in casino surveillance operations (where the math is used to help catch cheats) and gaming law and regulation.

E-P: Can you describe the classes in which you apply the mathematics of gambling, and how you integrate that into the curriculum?

RH: I show gambling applications in the introductory statistics classes when we are covering probability. I also teach a course each year called 'Probability: The Mathematics of Gambling' in which the mathematics underlying casino games is emphasized. I've also done special topics courses on the science of poker and casino operations.

E-P: What skills do students acquire by studying statistics in the context of games and gambling?

RH: In a general sense students sharpen their mathematics and statistics skills. Obviously they learn how the mathematics underlying the games generates revenues for the house. They also learn to use probability and statistics to evaluate risk, assess advantage or disadvantage and understand fluctuations and volatility.

E-P: Many students are intimidated by math, but tying the discipline to popular activities like gambling can make it more accessible. Do you have any other tips for students who are struggling with math or statistics?

RH: Probability and statistics are used and applied in virtually all walks of life. If you find applications that really interest you, it will be easier (and you'll be more predisposed) to study and understand the math, and it will not seem as intimidating.

E-P: You've published a book called Practical Casino Math. Can you share any tips or tidbits from the book with our readers?

RH: If you're going to play casino games be smart about it - learn which games have small house advantages and stick to playing those. If the game involves skill, learn the appropriate optimal strategy.

E-P: Finally, I'd like to give you the opportunity to share anything you'd like about your research and pedagogy in statistics and the mathematics of gambling.

RH: With research, let what really interests you be the guide. With teaching, my approach is to bring the passion of my research into my course. Excitement over the topics is rather contagious - some students can't help themselves from wanting to know more!

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