By RJ Walters / For the Jackson Citizen Patriot
Some freshman-level college classes require a bit of beginner’s luck, but none quite like the “Chance” probability course at Albion College.
On Nov. 19, Albion College freshman Andy Livernois cashed in a semester’s worth of in-class training for more than a grade. He utilized it to earn $110 in cold, hard cash.
Seven years ago, professor Mark Bollman wanted to create a math course that taught students “the niche of probability and statistics for the educated citizen” and thought the best way to put lessons into practice would be to put his class on the Soaring Eagle Casino floor.
The Mount Pleasant casino and resort has a gambling age requirement of just 18. So after several months of learning about the “house edge” that allows casinos to turn a profit and utilizing computer programs and in-class “labs,” Bollman turned the kids loose to test that theory.
It was Livernois’ first time inside a casino, and he said he was wide-eyed at first.
“It was like an assault on the senses, I guess,” he said. “All kinds of lights and sounds and people walking around — it was quite the experience.”
It was also an assault on his pocketbook for a few hours. He took $60 to play and was down $30 after two-and-a-half hours — but he rallied at the blackjack table to come out $110 ahead, one of the biggest winners on the field trip.
“I felt like I went in knowing the house advantage of what you could expect to take away playing games,” he said. “Like slot machines have a pretty high house advantage. But blackjack, if you play it right, the house advantage can be really low.”
Bollman, who has a fully operational slot machine in his office at the college, says he occasionally finds it amusing to watch students at Soaring Eagle, but it’s also intriguing.
“You really can’t simulate in the classroom the experience of losing money, or winning money for that matter,” he said. “When we play in the classroom, all the chips come back to me at the end of the hour and there’s no real risk.”
Bollman said his students are not required to gamble, but he has yet to have a student decline the opportunity. He also does not require the students to risk a certain amount of money.
“My recommended amount is to bring what you can handle losing,” Bollman said. “It’s not my place to specify an amount because different people have different comfort levels with losing money. I’ve had kids lose as much as $130, I’ve had kids win as much as $400. It’s a very full range of experiences.”
The course focuses a lot on arithmetic and counting formulas, and students are required to keep a journal to write about when probability and statistics are relevant to their daily lives.
“I see kids on sports teams talk about things going on when they’re watching film of an opponent and looking for statistical trends like, ‘Four times out of five they’re not covering this guy on the coverage team so maybe there’s a fake punt possibility we can use here,’ ” Bollman said.
Freshman Jennifer Polinski said Bollman is the perfect professor to teach such a class.
“He’s just the kind of guy that you look at him and you can tell he’s really smart, but you can still understand him when he talks,” she said. “I just learned a lot about things that seem like you would win are not always that easy.”
Polinski came out $3 ahead of the $40 she took to Soaring Eagle, agreeing that most of her success came from the blackjack table.
The casino trip might be the most exciting part of the course, but Bollman said students are also educated on topics such as forecasting weather probabilities and advanced sports statistics.