Fair games and the martingale strategy I

I went back to my school a couple of weeks ago and gave a talk. I felt I’d given various incarnations of a talk on card-shuffling too many times, so it was time for a new topic. The following post (and time allowing, one or two more) is pretty much what I said.

The Martingale Strategy

Suppose we bet repeatedly on the outcome of tossing a fair coin. Since it’s November, my heart is set on buying an ice cream that costs £1, so my aim is to win this amount from our game. My strategy is this:

First, I bet £1. If I win, then that’s great, because I now have made exactly enough profit to buy the ice cream. If I lose, then I play again, and this time I bet £2. Again, if I win, then my total profit is £2-£1 = £1, so I stop playing and buy the ice cream. If I lose, then I play a third time, again doubling my stake. So if I win for the first time on the seventh go, my overall profit will be

£64 – (£1+£2+£4+£8+£16+£32) = £1,

and it’s clear that this can be continued and I will eventually win a round, and at this point my total profit will be £1. So I will always eventually be able to buy my ice cream.

But, there’s nothing special about the value £1, so I could replace the words ‘ice cream’ with ‘private tropical island’, so why am I still here in the UK on a wet Monday when I could be on my beach lounger?

There are some fairly obvious reasons why the strategy I’ve described is not actually a fail-safe way to make a profit. For a start, although with probability one a head will come up eventually, there is a small positive chance that the first 200 rolls will all be tails. At this point, I would have accrued a debt of roughly 2^{200} pounds, and this is slightly more than the number of atoms in the universe. All this for an ice cream?

So there are major problems carrying out this strategy in a finite world. And of course, it’s no good if we stop after a very large but finite number of turns, because then there’s always this very small chance that we’ve made a very large loss, which is bad, partly because we can’t have the ice cream, but also because it exactly cancels out the chance of making our £1 profit, and so our overall average profit is exactly zero.

Though I’ve set this up in an intentionally glib fashion, as so often is the case, we might have stumbled across an interesting mathematical idea. That is, if we play a fair game a finite number of times, we have a fair game overall, meaning our overall average profit is zero. But if we are allowed to play a potentially infinite number of times, then it’s not clear how to define our overall ‘average’ profit, since we feel it ought to be zero, as an extension of the finite case, but also might be positive, because it ends up being £1 with probability one.

It’s tempting at this stage to start writing statements like

1 \times 1 + (-\infty) \times 0=0 ,

to justify why this might have come about, where we consider the infinitely unlikely event that is infinitely costly. But this is only convincing at the most superficial level, and so it makes more sense to think a bit more carefully about under exactly what circumstances we can extend our observation about the overall fairness of a finite sequence of individual fair games.

A second example

The previous example was based upon a series of coin tosses, and we can use exactly the same source of randomness to produce a simple random walk. This is a process that goes up or down by 1 in each time step, where each option happens with probability ½, independently of the history.

We could avoid the requirement to deal with very large bets by always staking £1, and then cashing in the first time we have a profit of £1. Then, if we start the random walk at zero, it models our profit, and we stop the first time it gets to 1. It’s not obvious whether we hit 1 with probability one. Let’s show this.

In order to hit some positive value k, the random walk must pass through 1, 2, and so on, up to (k-1) and then finally k. So \mathbb{P}(\text{hit k}) = [\mathbb{P}(\text{hit 1})]^k. And similarly for negative values. Also, the probability that we return to zero is the same as the probability that we ever hit 1, since after one time-step they are literally the same problem (after symmetry). So, if the probability of hitting 1 is p<1, then the number of visits to zero is geometric (supported on 1,2,3,…) with parameter p, and so

\mathbb{E}[\text{visits to k}] = \mathbb{E}[\text{visits to zero}] \times \mathbb{P}(\text{hit k})=(1+1/p) \times p^{|k|} = (p+1)p^{|k|-1}.

Thus, when we sum over all values of k, we are summing a pair of geometric series with exponent <1, and so we get a finite answer. But if the expected number of visits to anywhere (ie the sum across all places) is finite, this is clearly ridiculous, since we are running the process for an infinite time, and at each time-step we must be somewhere! So we must in fact have p=1, and thus another potential counter-example to the claim that a sequence of fair games can sometimes be unfair.

We might have exactly the same set of practical objections, such as this method requiring arbitrarily large liquidity (even though it doesn’t grow exponentially fast so doesn’t seem so bad).

What will actually turn out to be useful is that although the bets are now small, the average time until we hit 1 is actually infinite. Remember that, even though most things we see in real life don’t have this property, it is completely possible for a random variable to take finite values yet have infinite expectation.

Notes on the Martingale Strategy

There’s no reason why the originally proposed strategy had to be based upon fair coin tosses. This strategy might work in a more general setting, where the chance of winning on a given turn is not ½, or is not even constant. So long as at each stage you bet exactly enough that, if you win, you recoup all your losses so far, and one extra pound, this has the same overall effect.

Of course, we need to check that we do eventually win a round, which is not guaranteed if the probability of winning (conditional on not having yet won) decays sufficiently fast. If we let p_k be the probability of winning on turn k, given that we haven’t previously won, then we require that the probability of never winning \prod_{k\ge 1}(1-p_k)=0. By taking logs and taking care of the approximations, it can be seen that the divergence or otherwise of \sum p_k determines which way this falls.

In the next post, we’ll talk about how the two problems encountered here, namely allowing large increments, and considering a stopping time with infinite expectation are exactly the two cases where something can go wrong. We’ll also talk about a slightly different setting, where the choice of when to stop playing becomes a bit more dynamic and complicated.

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