Squares & Sharps, Suckers & Sharks: The Science, Psychology & Philosophy of Gambling

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Ginsberg’s Theorem

In 1959, the British scientist and novelist Charles Percy Snow gave the Rede Lecture (at Cambridge University) entitled The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, in which developed a gaming metaphor as an excellent way to remember the laws of thermodynamics.

  1. You cannot win.
  2. You cannot break even.
  3. You cannot get out of the game.

More popularly, this parody of the laws of thermodynamics in terms of someone playing a game is attributed to the American poet Irwin Allen Ginsberg, from whom the theorem gets its name. Put simply, in gambling, there is no such thing as a free lunch. Ginsberg’s theorem is a light-hearted take on gambling, betting and investing, but it has a serious and relevant significance. The fact is that for the vast majority of players these activities do represent zero-sum games where the dynamics of the system make it highly unfeasible, if not quite outright impossible, to beat it. Two questions then arise: why is it so hard to have a free lunch and what makes so many people believe it is possible?

Next: Winner Takes All