Mark Bollman's Math Seminars Are a Real Gamble

A visit with the man behind The Numbers Behind the Neon, and all those calculators

November 16, 2015 | By Chuck Carlson

Mark Bollman, professor of mathematics, Albion College
Professor of mathematics Mark Bollman stands next to the calculator collection in his office. He received his B.A. in 1986 from Northwestern University, his M.A. in 1988 from the University of Michigan and his Ph.D. in 2001 from Central Michigan University.

What you notice first entering Mark Bollman's office in Palenske Hall are the calculators.

There are a lot of calculators.

All sizes and shapes, they sit on shelves that run from the floor to the ceiling, spanning the ages of man's reliance on the electronic devices and seemingly a perfect centerpiece for someone who has spent 25 years teaching college-level mathematics.

Bollman, who has taught 17 of those years at Albion, is justifiably proud of his calculator collection, which numbers 960 and will continue to grow as long as eBay exists for him to order more and rummage sales flourish to offer the chance for more treasure.

But it's not all about the calculators in this office which looks as much like a museum as a place of work.

To the left there sits a full-sized slot machine, begging for someone to pull its arm and await the results. There are packs of playing cards and hundreds of poker chips and books, a lot of books that, like the calculators, run from floor to ceiling.

"You spend 25 years accumulating stuff and finding room for it," Bollman said simply.

For Bollman, the chair of Albion College's Mathematics and Computer Science Department, what might appear barely controlled chaos to the outsider is far from it. Everything has a place and everything is in its place and for someone who teaches the ordered and often confusing world of numbers, this is as it should be.

A Primary Interest in Probability

Over the years, he has taught just about everything that involves numbers. But he enjoys doing even more than that.

He has researched new card games, tested theories of probability, worked out the rules for a version of craps played with eight-sided dice replacing the standard 6-sided dice (in conjunction with Jacob Engel, '13) and even written a textbook about his new favorite subject, gambling, called Basic Gambling Mathematics: The Numbers Behind the Neon.

"Gambling has been my primary interest for five years," said Bollman, who is also teaching a First-Year Seminar called Chance as well as an Honors seminar, also on gambling. "I've always had an interest in elementary probability."

And in each class, the highlight is taking his students on a trip to Soaring Eagle Casino and Resort in Mount Pleasant so their theories can be put to the test. He chose that casino, among other reasons, because the age requirement is only 18.

To be clear, Bollman is no high-stakes gambler, mostly because he knows just how stacked the odds are against beating the house. And while he and his wife, Laura, have made a number of trips to Las Vegas, he spends most of his time taking photos while she relaxes in the hotel spas.

"I do keep track of how much I'm losing and that's a terrible thing to do," he said with a laugh. "It's called chasing losses."

But the numbers involved with gambling have always intrigued him.

"I've played card games all my life," he said. "But I decided I needed to explore this."

And when he realized there was really no book he could use in class that looked at the math of gambling, he decided there should be.

"I wanted something engaging to the reader and faithful to the math," he said. "So I thought if I want it done the way I want it, I should do it myself."

A More Accepted Subject

So in the summer of 2012, he sat down and wrote 1,000 words a day on the topic. By summer's end he had a 60,000-word book and, before long, a publisher (CRC Press out of Florida).

Today, he uses the book in his classes and it is available for other school systems to use. To date, he said, a high school in Italy is the only one to have ordered copies.

Office of Mark Bollman, professor of mathematics, Albion College
Off to the left in the office sits a full-sized slot machine, begging for someone to pull its arm and await the results. "You spend 25 years accumulating stuff and finding room for it," Bollman said simply.

But Bollman said the book itself, which examines not only the nuts and bolts of gambling but looks at individual games such as roulette, dice games and card games, has sold a few hundred copies.

"So somebody is buying it," he said.

His book also caught the attention of a National Public Radio station in Connecticut earlier this month, whose host Colin McEnroe, talked with Bollman about probability and gambling.

"I have no idea how they found me," Bollman said, adding that the publicity is always welcome. "That doesn't happen often to mathematicians."

For Bollman, the subject of gambling has become more accepted in the country thanks to the proliferation of casinos and lotteries. And while most people realize they will never get rich at the roulette wheel or blackjack, it's the belief that it could happen which drives people.

"People like to think they're exceptional," he said. "They think, 'Why not me?'"