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Fortune's Formula: The Untold Story of the Scientific Betting System That Beat the Casinos and Wall Street Paperback – September 19, 2006

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Editorial Reviews Review

Fortune's Formula is a fascinating study of the connections between such seemingly unrelated topics as gambling, information theory, stock investing, and applied mathematics. The story involves the stunning brainpower of men such as MIT professor Claude Shannon, who single-handedly invented information theory, the science behind the Internet and all digital media; Ed Thorpe; and John Kelly of Bell Laboratories, who developed the "Kelly criterion," a now-legendary investment strategy for maximizing growth while controlling risk. Initially, Shannon and Thorpe took Kelly's theory to Las Vegas and applied it to roulette and blackjack. Later, they took it to Wall Street and cleaned up--Shannon made a personal fortune while Thorpe created the highly successful hedge firm Princeton-Newport Partners. They both discovered that Kelly's system was particularly effective when applied to arbitrage (minute price differences that result from market inefficiencies). As Poundstone ably demonstrates, the merits of Kelly's criterion are still hotly debated today.

Poundstone has a tendency to meander in his writing, but his asides are so revealing and interesting that they add, rather than detract, from the narrative. The book also includes a cast of fascinating and colorful characters as varied as Ivan Boesky, Warren Buffet, Rudolph Giuliani, and notorious mobsters such as Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky. In explaining the lasting impact of the work done by Shannon, Thorpe, and Kelly, Poundstone even explains Kelly's system for those wishing to follow his formula, offering readers both theoretical and practical lessons. Whether viewed as a how-to guide or straight scientific and financial history, Fortune's Formula proves an entertaining and illuminating analysis of "the most successful gambling system of all time." --Shawn Carkonen --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

In 1961, MIT mathematics professor Ed Thorp made a small Vegas fortune by "counting cards"; his 1962 bestseller, Beat the Dealer, made the phrase a household word. With Claude Shannon, the father of information theory, Thorp next conquered the roulette tables. In this prosaic but fascinating cultural history, Poundstone (How Would You Move Mt. Fuji?) tells not only what they did but how they did it. For roulette, Poundstone shows, Thorp and Shannon used a betting scheme invented by Shannon's Bell Labs colleague John Kelly, eventually applying Kelly's technique to investing, resulting in long-term records of extraordinary return with low risk. (Thorp revealed the secret in 1966's Beat the Market, but investors proved harder to persuade than blackjack players.) Many other characters figure into Poundstone's entertaining saga: a forgotten French mathematician, two Nobel Prize–winning economists who declared war on the Kelly criterion, Rudy Giuliani, assorted mobsters, and winners and losers in all types of investing and gambling games. The subtitle is not a tease: the book explains and analyzes Kelly's system for turning small advantages into great wealth. The system works, but requires unusual amounts of patience, discipline and courage. The book is good fun for the rest of us.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 386 pages
  • Publisher: Hill and Wang; 1st edition (September 19, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0809045990
  • ISBN-13: 978-0809045990
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.1 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (123 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #60,939 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

William Poundstone is the author of two previous Hill and Wang books: Fortune's Formula and Gaming the Vote.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

346 of 361 people found the following review helpful By Gaetan Lion on September 8, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This is an excellent book about the discovery of the Kelly formula that is unknown outside gambling. This story has three protagonists. Two of them were scientists working at Bell Labs: Claude Shannon, a genius polymath who developed information theory; and John Kelly, a maverick genius, who is directly responsible for the development of Kelly's formula. The third one is a brilliant MIT mathematician, Ed Thorp.

Ed Thorp tested the Kelly formula in both gambling and investing. Also, he came up with an options formula before Fischer Black and Myron Scholes. His formula missed a risk-free rate component due to the structure of the market at the time. As a result, Ed Thorp remained in obscurity while Black and Scholes became famous.

Ed Thorp succeeded in deriving superior returns in both gambling and investing. But, it was not so much because of Kelly's formula. He developed other tools to achieve superior returns. In gambling, Ed Thorp succeeded at Black Jack by developing the card counting method. He just used intuitively Kelly's formula to increase his bets whenever the odds were in his favor. Later, he ran a hedge fund for 20 years until the late 80s and earned a rate of return of 14% handily beating the market's 8% during the period. Also, his hedge fund hardly lost any value on black Monday in October 1987, when the market crashed by 22%. The volatility of his returns was far lower than the market. He did this by exploiting market inefficiencies using warrants, options, and convertible bonds. The Kelly formula was for him a risk management discipline and not a direct source of excess return.

Ed Thorp's career as a hedge fund manager was temporarily cut short.
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Format: Hardcover
"Fortune's Formula" tells the story of the Kelly Criterion -through the experiments, ideas, wins, and losses of those who have espoused it and who have derided it, at race tracks, black jack tables, sports books, and, finally, on Wall Street. The Kelly Criterion is a risk management formula published in 1956 by Bell Labs information theorist John Kelly, Jr. that dictates how much of your bankroll you should bet based on your edge divided by the odds so that you will have zero risk of ruin no matter how bad your luck is, while increasing wealth faster than any other betting system. It does not address what bets you should make, which is another matter entirely. Instead of writing a simple analysis of the Kelly Criterion, author William Poundstone brings this story alive by relating the histories of key figures who have used, promoted, or criticized the Kelly Criterion: information theorists, economists, traders, gamblers, and gangsters. Some readers may find this approach unfocused and unnecessary. But I think the personalities lend "Fortune's Formula" an epic quality and place the Kelly Criterion firmly in the context of real life, with real consequences, as opposed to the realm of abstruse theories that never leave the halls of academe.

The men whom "Fortune's Formula" casts as protagonists are Claude Shannon, the MIT scholar who invented information science and who amassed a small fortune as a buy-and-hold investor, typically making 28% per year on a small portfolio, and Ed Thorpe, author of 1962's gambling classic "Beat the Dealer", 1967's "Beat the Market", co-founder of Princeton-Newport Partners fund (1969-1988) and founder of Ridgeline Partners (1994-2002) quant fund.
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37 of 39 people found the following review helpful By Grouchy Smurf on October 25, 2005
Format: Hardcover
I found this to be a very exciting and informative book. Once I started, I was hooked: I couldn't put it down because I wanted to learn more -- not just about the formula but all the intellectual controversy surrounding it and the cast of characters involved. This book tells the story of the 'Kelly criterion' and how certain people used it to beat the casinos and earn consistently above-average returns in the stock market. The cast of characters extend from famous organized crime figures (Bugsy, Longy Zwillman, etc.) to Claude Shannon, father of information theory, to Milken, the junk bond king, and many more.

You can view this book as a study on the history of an idea, as a study of the financial markets, or as a social study of gambling and investing. There are many faces to it. I wouldn't say it is a book on finance, or a book on history, but a bit of everyhting really. It definitely is not a book on 'how to beat the market', don't look for that here. The book does give a good explanation of the Kelly formula, in my opinion, but the whole controversy surrounding it, as well as the story of Ed Thorpe, was much more interesting for me.

If you are interested in finance or financial history, math, or gambling, or how ideas evolve and why certain ideas are better known than others, you should read this book. I think that mathematically sophisticated readers can be a bit disappointed because there is no rigorous treatment of Kelly criterion. But the basic ideas of CAPM, efficient markets hypothesis, the essence of Kelly formula, and random walk, are explained quite succintly and clearly, in my opinion.

The only problem I had with the book was that the author went off in tangents quite a bit, which sometimes distracted from the main story.
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