Historical Remarks

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An interesting question in the history of science is: Why was probability not developed until the sixteenth century? We know that in the sixteenth century problems in gambling and games of chance made people start to think about probability. But gambling and games of chance are almost as old as civilization itself. In ancient Egypt (at the time of the First Dynasty, ca. 3500 B.C.) a game now called "Hounds and Jackals" was played. In this game the movement of the hounds and jackals was based on the outcome of the roll of four-sided dice made out of animal bones called astragali. Six-sided dice made of a variety of materials date back to the sixteenth century B.C. Gambling was widespread in ancient Greece and Rome. Indeed, in the Roman Empire it was sometimes found necessary to invoke laws against gambling. Why, then, were probabilities not calculated until the sixteenth century?

Several explanations have been advanced for this late development. One is that the relevant mathematics was not developed and was not easy to develop. The ancient mathematical notation made numerical calculation complicated, and our familiar algebraic notation was not developed until the sixteenth century. However, as we shall see, many of the combinatorial ideas needed to calculate probabilities were discussed long before the sixteenth century. Since many of the chance events of those times had to do with lotteries relating to religious affairs, it has been suggested that there may have been religious barriers to the study of chance and gambling. Another suggestion is that a stronger incentive, such as the development of commerce, was necessary. However, none of these explanations seems completely satisfactory, and people still wonder why it took so long for probability to be studied seriously. An interesting discussion of this problem can be found in Hacking.14

The first person to calculate probabilities systematically was Gerolamo Cardano (1501-1576) in his book Liber de Ludo Aleae. This was translated from the Latin by Gould and appears in the book Cardano: The Gambling Scholar by Ore.15 Ore provides a fascinating discussion of the life of this colorful scholar with accounts of his interests in many different fields, including medicine, astrology, and mathematics. You will also find there a detailed account of Cardano's famous battle with Tartaglia over the solution to the cubic equation.

In his book on probability Cardano dealt only with the special case that we have called the uniform distribution function. This restriction to equiprobable outcomes was to continue for a long time. In this case Cardano realized that the probability that an event occurs is the ratio of the number of favorable outcomes to the total number of outcomes.

Many of Cardano's examples dealt with rolling dice. Here he realized that the outcomes for two rolls should be taken to be the 36 ordered pairs (i,j) rather than the 21 unordered pairs. This is a subtle point that was still causing problems much later for other writers on probability. For example, in the eighteenth century the famous French mathematician d'Alembert, author of several works on probability, claimed that when a coin is tossed twice the number of heads that turn up would

  1. Hacking, The Emergence of Probability (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975).
  2. Ore, Cardano: The Gambling Scholar (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953).

be 0, 1, or 2, and hence we should assign equal probabilities for these three possible outcomes.16 Cardano chose the correct sample space for his dice problems and calculated the correct probabilities for a variety of events.

Cardano's mathematical work is interspersed with a lot of advice to the potential gambler in short paragraphs, entitled, for example: "Who Should Play and When," "Why Gambling Was Condemned by Aristotle," "Do Those Who Teach Also Play Well?" and so forth. In a paragraph entitled "The Fundamental Principle of Gambling," Cardano writes:

The most fundamental principle of all in gambling is simply equal conditions, e.g., of opponents, of bystanders, of money, of situation, of the dice box, and of the die itself. To the extent to which you depart from that equality, if it is in your opponent's favor, you are a fool, and if in your own, you are unjust.17

Cardano did make mistakes, and if he realized it later he did not go back and change his error. For example, for an event that is favorable in three out of four cases, Cardano assigned the correct odds 3 : 1 that the event will occur. But then he assigned odds by squaring these numbers (i.e., 9 : 1) for the event to happen twice in a row. Later, by considering the case where the odds are 1 : 1, he realized that this cannot be correct and was led to the correct result that when f out of n outcomes are favorable, the odds for a favorable outcome twice in a row are f2 : n2 — f2. Ore points out that this is equivalent to the realization that if the probability that an event happens in one experiment is p, the probability that it happens twice is p2. Cardano proceeded to establish that for three successes the formula should be p3 and for four successes p4, making it clear that he understood that the probability is pn for n successes in n independent repetitions of such an experiment. This will follow from the concept of independence that we introduce in Section 4.1.

Cardano's work was a remarkable first attempt at writing down the laws of probability, but it was not the spark that started a systematic study of the subject. This came from a famous series of letters between Pascal and Fermat. This correspondence was initiated by Pascal to consult Fermat about problems he had been given by Chevalier de Mere, a well-known writer, a prominent figure at the court of Louis XIV, and an ardent gambler.

The first problem de Mere posed was a dice problem. The story goes that he had been betting that at least one six would turn up in four rolls of a die and winning too often, so he then bet that a pair of sixes would turn up in 24 rolls of a pair of dice. The probability of a six with one die is 1/6 and, by the product law for independent experiments, the probability of two sixes when a pair of dice is thrown is (1/6)(1/6) = 1/36. Ore18 claims that a gambling rule of the time suggested that, since four repetitions was favorable for the occurrence of an event with probability 1/6, for an event six times as unlikely, 6 • 4 = 24 repetitions would be sufficient for

  1. d'Alembert, "Croix ou Pile," in L'Encyclopédie, ed. Diderot, vol. 4 (Paris, 1754).
  2. Ore, op. cit., p. 189.
  3. Ore, "Pascal and the Invention of Probability Theory," American Mathematics Monthly, vol. 67 (1960), pp. 409-419.

a favorable bet. Pascal showed, by exact calculation, that 25 rolls are required for a favorable bet for a pair of sixes.

The second problem was a much harder one: it was an old problem and concerned the determination of a fair division of the stakes in a tournament when the series, for some reason, is interrupted before it is completed. This problem is now referred to as the problem of points. The problem had been a standard problem in mathematical texts; it appeared in Fra Luca Paccioli's book summa de Arithmetica, Geometria, Proportioni et Proportionalita, printed in Venice in 1494,19 in the form:

A team plays ball such that a total of 60 points are required to win the game, and each inning counts 10 points. The stakes are 10 ducats. By some incident they cannot finish the game and one side has 50 points and the other 20. One wants to know what share of the prize money belongs to each side. In this case I have found that opinions differ from one to another but all seem to me insufficient in their arguments, but I shall state the truth and give the correct way.

Reasonable solutions, such as dividing the stakes according to the ratio of games won by each player, had been proposed, but no correct solution had been found at the time of the Pascal-Fermat correspondence. The letters deal mainly with the attempts of Pascal and Fermat to solve this problem. Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) was a child prodigy, having published his treatise on conic sections at age sixteen, and having invented a calculating machine at age eighteen. At the time of the letters, his demonstration of the weight of the atmosphere had already established his position at the forefront of contemporary physicists. Pierre de Fermat (16011665) was a learned jurist in Toulouse, who studied mathematics in his spare time. He has been called by some the prince of amateurs and one of the greatest pure mathematicians of all times.

The letters, translated by Maxine Merrington, appear in Florence David's fascinating historical account of probability, Games, Gods and Gambling .20 In a letter dated Wednesday, 29th July, 1654, Pascal writes to Fermat:


Like you, I am equally impatient, and although I am again ill in bed, I cannot help telling you that yesterday evening I received from M. de Carcavi your letter on the problem of points, which I admire more than I can possibly say. I have not the leisure to write at length, but, in a word, you have solved the two problems of points, one with dice and the other with sets of games with perfect justness; I am entirely satisfied with it for I do not doubt that I was in the wrong, seeing the admirable agreement in which I find myself with you now...

Your method is very sound and is the one which first came to my mind in this research; but because the labour of the combination is excessive, I have found a short cut and indeed another method which is much

  1. , p. 414.
  2. N. David, Gam.es, Gods and Gambling (London: G. Griffin, 1962), p. 230 ff.










Number of games

B has won










Number of games A has won

Number of games A has won

Figure 1.9: Pascal's table.

quicker and neater, which I would like to tell you here in a few words: for henceforth I would like to open my heart to you, if I may, as I am so overjoyed with our agreement. I see that truth is the same in Toulouse as in Paris.

Here, more or less, is what I do to show the fair value of each game, when two opponents play, for example, in three games and each person has staked 32 pistoles.

Let us say that the first man had won twice and the other once; now they play another game, in which the conditions are that, if the first wins, he takes all the stakes; that is 64 pistoles; if the other wins it, then they have each won two games, and therefore, if they wish to stop playing, they must each take back their own stake, that is, 32 pistoles each.

Then consider, Sir, if the first man wins, he gets 64 pistoles; if he loses he gets 32. Thus if they do not wish to risk this last game but wish to separate without playing it, the first man must say: 'I am certain to get 32 pistoles, even if I lost I still get them; but as for the other 32, perhaps I will get them, perhaps you will get them, the chances are equal. Let us then divide these 32 pistoles in half and give one half to me as well as my 32 which are mine for sure.' He will then have 48 pistoles and the other 16. . .

Pascal's argument produces the table illustrated in Figure 1.9 for the amount due player A at any quitting point.

Each entry in the table is the average of the numbers just above and to the right of the number. This fact, together with the known values when the tournament is completed, determines all the values in this table. If player A wins the first game, then he needs two games to win and B needs three games to win; and so, if the tounament is called off, A should receive 44 pistoles.

The letter in which Fermat presented his solution has been lost; but fortunately, Pascal describes Fermat's method in a letter dated Monday, 24th August, 1654. From Pascal's letter:21

This is your procedure when there are two players: If two players, playing several games, find themselves in that position when the first man needs two games and second needs three, then to find the fair division of stakes, you say that one must know in how many games the play will be absolutely decided.

It is easy to calculate that this will be in four games, from which you can conclude that it is necessary to see in how many ways four games can be arranged between two players, and one must see how many combinations would make the first man win and how many the second and to share out the stakes in this proportion. I would have found it difficult to understand this if I had not known it myself already; in fact you had explained it with this idea in mind.

Fermat realized that the number of ways that the game might be finished may not be equally likely. For example, if A needs two more games and B needs three to win, two possible ways that the tournament might go for A to win are WLW and LWLW. These two sequences do not have the same chance of occurring. To avoid this difficulty, Fermat extended the play, adding fictitious plays, so that all the ways that the games might go have the same length, namely four. He was shrewd enough to realize that this extension would not change the winner and that he now could simply count the number of sequences favorable to each player since he had made them all equally likely. If we list all possible ways that the extended game of four plays might go, we obtain the following 16 possible outcomes of the play:









Player A wins in the cases where there are at least two wins (the 11 underlined cases), and B wins in the cases where there are at least three losses (the other 5 cases). Since A wins in 11 of the 16 possible cases Fermat argued that the probability that A wins is 11/16. If the stakes are 64 pistoles, A should receive 44 pistoles in agreement with Pascal's result. Pascal and Fermat developed more systematic methods for counting the number of favorable outcomes for problems like this, and this will be one of our central problems. Such counting methods fall under the subject of combinatorics, which is the topic of Chapter 3.

We see that these two mathematicians arrived at two very different ways to solve the problem of points. Pascal's method was to develop an algorithm and use it to calculate the fair division. This method is easy to implement on a computer and easy to generalize. Fermat's method, on the other hand, was to change the problem into an equivalent problem for which he could use counting or combinatorial methods. We will see in Chapter 3 that, in fact, Fermat used what has become known as Pascal's triangle! In our study of probability today we shall find that both the algorithmic approach and the combinatorial approach share equal billing, just as they did 300 years ago when probability got its start.

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