A chance you should take: Stanford launches IntroSem on probability and gambling

Jan. 13, 2022, 6:25 p.m.

When mathematics lecturer Gene Kim turned a $15 daily fantasy sports (DFS) lineup into a $50,000 win in April, it would not be his last victory of the year — Kim launched a new introductory seminar (IntroSem), MATH 77Q: “Probability and Gambling” during the fall quarter.

Kim said he had “tremendous fun” teaching the course, which he called a “huge success.”

Kim was not the only one enthusiastic about the IntroSem. By the sign-up deadline, Kim had received 60 student applications, “among the highest ever for an IntroSem,” he said. The high interest allowed him to convince the University to raise the enrollment cap from 16 to 18 students.

Each week, Kim introduced a new casino game that required probability calculations more complex than the last. For the first hour and a half of the IntroSem, he typically explained the theory and calculations involved, saving the last 30 to 40 minutes for rounds of simulated games with fake money. 

Vivian Shay ’24, who previously had Kim as her instructor for MATH 51: “Linear Algebra, Multivariable Calculus, and Modern Applications,” made some of her favorite memories during the latter half of the IntroSem, recounting a time when Kim dealt her pocket aces —  the strongest hand in poker.

“It has less than a half percent probability of happening, and I ended up going all in and winning with a full house, and I tripled my money,” she said.

The course started off with roulette, followed by craps, baccarat, blackjack and poker. The IntroSem also had a specific focus on DFS, a type of fantasy sports betting that is legal in California. Despite it being the first introduction to DFS for most of the students, many said they enjoyed listening to the guest speakers Kim had invited, including sports betting analyst Rayen “rynpak” Patnaik. 

Through IntroSems Plus, a program meant to create research and mentorship opportunities for students who have completed an IntroSem, Kim gave three students the opportunity to continue their work. Riley Carlson ’24, a symbolic systems major, said she plans to apply her probabilistic knowledge of DFS to an independent study through IntroSems Plus in the winter quarter.

After noticing a lack of women’s sports representation in DFS projection sites, Carlson said, she aims to create her own projection site for women’s basketball by running a large-scale simulation on the sport.

The students said they felt that the course concepts, such as playing styles and payout for different hands, were applicable to the games they played outside of class. But games of chance remain unpredictable even after applying statistical knowledge — only adding more thrill to the game.

Students at the final table in the class-wide blackjack tournament
Students at the final table in the class-wide blackjack tournament. They hope to win the ultimate prize: a personalized, engraved trophy from Gene Kim. (Photo courtesy of Vivian Shay)

“I think getting better at it is hard because so much of it is left to chance, but you do understand it better and get more of an intuition — a gambler’s intuition if you will,” Shay said. 

For Kim, who has been playing DFS since 2014, probabilistic models have always been a tool to help him gain the upper hand.

“My thing is all about using probability and statistics to identify undervalued players,” he said. “My edge in this type of sports gambling comes from identifying and mathematically quantifying how big and how exploitable my edge is.”

Though gambling generally has a negative connotation, Kim shared that ultimately decisions in life, including gambling, are probability computations at their very core.

“It is all about [doing] the probability calculations and doing all the possible outcomes and choosing your most desirable/most desirable within the risk that you’re willing to tolerate,” he said.

The next opportunity to enroll in the IntroSem will be in the fall quarter of the next academic year.

“Everybody kind of knows that [Kim’s] got this sense of humor, and he’s very laid-back,” said Ori Spector ’24. “But, he’s really good at molding the concepts, so I think it’s a great class. I would tell any of my friends to take the class in a heartbeat, or at least apply for it.”

Jasmine Kwan is a high school reporter in The Stanford Daily Winter Journalism Workshop.

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