Review: Beating the Odds, by Rob Eastaway and John Haigh

I believe the version of this book I borrowed from the library may not be the most recent edition; it has been published under at least three different titles.

As far as it goes, Beating the Odds: The Hidden Mathematics of Sport is great. It’s a terrific starting point for anyone wondering how to engage a sports-mad student with maths, and showing that a bit of mathematical knowledge can be the difference between winning and losing.

It shows you the best place to take a conversion from, how to break ties in a league table, why the dartboard is arranged the way it is, and how much of an advantage it is to go first.

It shows you how a slight advantage in tennis skill converts into a major advantage over a match, as well as why almost every pro follows a fast first serve with a slow, spinning second serve.

It tells you why umpires give some LBW decisions more easily than others, why rugby referees don’t always spot forward passes, and how the scoring systems in various sports are open to abuse.

There are very few popular sports the book leaves untouched – and as you’d expect from Eastaway and Haigh, the tone is informal and conversational – exactly the kind of thing to put a casual reader at ease.

That’s a trade-off, though: it’s the kind of thing that puts a critical reader on edge. I understand – Rob, John, if you’re reading this: I understand – there’s only so much detail you can go into, but even with the appendix, I was left wanting a bit more detail, a bit more justification. I suspect I’m not exactly the typical reader of the book, though.

Like every sports/probability crossover book I’ve ever read, the authors pull an innocent face and skip over the details of how you work out the probabilities for one-off events (unsurprisingly: it’s a difficult problem) with a bit of magical handwaving.

There’s enough here to make it a worthwhile read – especially if you’re not as interested in getting as deeply into the maths as I am – and I’d definitely recommend it to a sports fan who bugs his teacher with ‘when are we ever going to use this?’ every other lesson.

Meanwhile, I’m off on a pilgrimage to Wimborne St Giles to find the gravestone of Sir Anthony Ashley.


Colin is a Weymouth maths tutor, author of several Maths For Dummies books and A-level maths guides. He started Flying Colours Maths in 2008. He lives with an espresso pot and nothing to prove.


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