The Poet Player

Letter From London

Were the contemporary Paris audience of The Gambler to hear, as the curtain went down on Jean-François Regnard’s minor comic masterpiece of 1696, that the apparently chance sequences of dice values in a game of hazard like backgammon can be shown to obey certain mathematical laws, which are knowable, they would have laughed more heartily than they ever laughed at a rogue’s downfall.  And yet the play was being performed nearly 50 years after Pascal, in reply to a backgammon player’s query, had formulated the fundamentals of the theory of probability with an elegance still admired by Laplace in the 18th century, when the practical usefulness of this branch of mathematics was first appreciated.

Appreciated by some, yes; generally understood, no; part of the human psyche, not at all.  In the 19th century, in The Queen of Spades, Pushkin describes the game of pharaoh, in terms that are mystical and diabolical, embellishing his narrative with signs, omens, dreams, visions, and ghosts.  And I would guess that a U.S. Army officer in 1945, wishing for 21 in some subterranean hotspot of the gay Europe he thought he had liberated, would still regard his good fortune and probable misfortune with the same mumbo-jumbo apprehension.  Then, in 1962, came Ed Thorp.

I am not writing a history of gambling.  Suffice it to say that, with the publication of Thorp’s book,...

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