Can maths give you the upper hand?

25th February 2011 at 00:00
The house might always win, but at a Royal Institution masterclass S2s learnt how a grasp of probability and odds can be the ace up their sleeves, writes Jean McLeish

As maths classes go, this has to be one of the more entertaining - calculating the bookie's mark-up on bets on this afternoon's Scottish Premier League football matches. After the break, the pupils will look at poker.

Simon Fogiel, principal teacher of maths at Oldmachar Academy in Aberdeen, is leading this session, investigating the maths behind probability in gambling.

It is one in a series of nine Royal Institution Mathematics Masterclasses for S2 pupils, organised by TechFest-SetPoint, which promotes science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The series is part of a national programme the Royal Institution launched 30 years ago.

Forty pupils from secondary schools across Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire are finding out more about maths in everyday life and the kind of career opportunities it can open up.

Last week students explored the "golden ratio" and used maths to calculate beauty and measure physical perfection with the help of photographs of Brad Pitt and Claudia Schiffer. Another session had the enticing title "How to win a million dollars". And a few weeks ago, the second-years learnt how maths is used at road accidents to find out whether cars have been speeding.

Grampian Police officer Marco Venturini provided the practical demonstration. "He came along with his police car and did the skids and the students measured how far the skids went and how that relates to the speed," says Yashka Manning, a STEM co-ordinator at TechFest-SetPoint. Dr Manning is organising these sessions, which are sponsored by Chevron and delivered by teachers, lecturers and industry professionals.

This week, Mr Fogiel is showing them how to convert the odds for this afternoon's football matches into decimal format. Pupils also work out which game offers the highest-priced bet and which is the most likely result in each game.

Mr Fogiel enjoys a flutter himself, but today at Aberdeen University the session will focus on the maths. "There are boundaries. I am quite happy to tell them what odds mean in a bookmaker's, how they might be able to interpret these odds and how they might be able to establish when bookmakers are on the make.

"But I am not going to give much advice in terms of how to actually win money - I don't think that's very ethical," he says as he waits for the students to arrive.

Once they are all seated with their calculators at the ready, there are some practical experiments, tossing coins and throwing dice to look at probability. Then it's heads down for the sums, as the pupils answer the question "Does the house always win?"

Schools have nominated some of their brightest young mathematicians to come along to these free Saturday morning sessions. Thirteen-year-old Rachel Crawford from S2 at Aboyne Academy thought it sounded like fun. "We were told how good it was by people who came last year," she says.

Another Aboyne Academy pupil, 12-year-old Cameron Nicoll, is sitting next to her. He says: "It is more fun than maths at school because it's based on real-life situations."

After the break, Mr Fogiel moves on to a session on poker. "Rather than actually teaching them how to play poker, it's more about how can you assess the value of a poker hand and stand it up against what you might be facing with your opponent," he explains.

It's not surprising that teachers such as Brenda Harden from Northfield Academy enjoy helping at these sessions.

She says: "It's excellent for the pupils because it shows them different aspects of real-life maths. It also takes them to different venues. They get the opportunity to visit the university and colleges and to meet different industry professionals - from the oil industry to teachers and lecturers."

In the final session of the series, the second years get an insight into the world of espionage when they learn how to crack codes with the help of Roger McDermott from Robert Gordon University.

`Everyone has a maths ceiling, but good teachers can raise it'

When you have failed miserably at maths in school you sometimes wonder in later years if things could have turned out differently with a better attitude or a more dynamic teacher.

Defiantly equipped with a calculator and highly motivated by competition from neighbouring 12 and 13-year-olds, I join the Masterclass and begin filling in the calculations.

Some answers are correct, but a thoughtful 13-year-old beside me is sympathetic and giving pointers. The information about football and odds is riveting, but my calculations are slow and lack confidence.

Today's tutor, STEM ambassador Simon Fogiel, thinks there are some people who just don't get maths. "There's still a perception out there that you can either do maths or you can't. To a certain extent it is true," he says.

He believes the logical implication of saying everyone can be taught maths at any level implies that even the struggling pupils could do Higher maths if they kept on trying for ten years and that's just not true.

"Every person has a maths ceiling," he says, "and a good teacher may slightly raise the ceiling, but will never destroy it. A pupil will get only so far with their own ability".

These teenagers are sailing through this session - no looks of anguished frustration or fidgeting here. Teacher Brenda Harden looks over my shoulder with an understanding smile.

"I think you are beginning to get there," she says encouragingly.

Quick quiz

Change these bookmaker's odds into decimal odds:

a) 31 b) 74 c) 10030

Change these bookmaker's odds into percentage chance:

a) 31 b) 13 c) 132

If you place 4 cards - an Ace, King, Queen and Jack - face down and try to guess which is which, what are the odds of correctly guessing 3 of them?

a) 31 b) 13 c) 41 d)14 e) No chance!


1. a) 4.00 b) 2.75 c) 4.33

2. a) 25% b) 75% c) 13.3%

3. e) If you guess 3 correctly, the last one must also be correct.

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