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The Unfinished Game: Pascal, Fermat, and the Seventeenth-Century Letter that Made the World Modern

3.62  ·  Rating Details  ·  251 Ratings  ·  36 Reviews
Before the mid-seventeenth century, scholars generally agreed that it was impossible to predict something by calculating mathematical outcomes. One simply could not put a numerical value on the likelihood that a particular event would occur. Even the outcome of something as simple as a dice roll or the likelihood of showers instead of sunshine was thought to lie in the rea ...more
Hardcover, 208 pages
Published September 23rd 2008 by Basic Books (first published 2008)
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Jan 02, 2009 Ben rated it it was ok
I've been reading some books recently with a new sort of question in mind: would I ever give this book to a kid I was teaching?

In the case of _The Unfinished Game_, Keith Devlin's little riff on the 17th century exchange between Blaise Pascal and Pierre de Fermat and its role in the history of risk management, the answer is absolutely not.

I did not fail to find anything of value in this book. I read it because I've become increasingly interested as an educator in the history of math, especially
Apr 23, 2016 Claudia rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
It will never cease to amaze me how few hundred years ago, when relying almost exclusively on their minds, people where able to develop and discover such things. This book details how the theory of probabilities emerged from the question on how the pot should be divided between two players, when one of them leads with 2 to 1 and they stop playing.

Keith Devlin, professor of mathematics at Stanford University, dissects the correspondence between Blaise Pascal and Pierre de Fermat and explains, in
Jul 05, 2010 Valerie rated it it was amazing
Shelves: math, education
Letter writing is most certainly a lost art. "I beg you to inform me how you would proceed in your research on this problem. I shall receive your reply with respect and joy, even if your opinion should be contrary to mine." contrasted with today's modern flame wars. Having just taken a class in decision quality at Stanford, I found the discussions of Baye's formula and assessing risk by using probability very interesting. It is difficult to imagine a time before probability mathematics.
Razvan Zamfirescu
Spicuiri din recenzia finala care se gaseste pe blogul meu


După Împotriva Zeilor, Partida neterminată a lui Devlin a apărut foarte oportun pentru mine. Cu ceva semne de întrebare și dorință de a afla mai multe despre relația dintre Fermat și Pascal, nu am ezitat absolut deloc când am văzut volumul la raftul de reeditări.

Nu mi-a părut rău absolut deloc. Foarte multe informații le aveam deja din cartea lui Bernstein, dar Devlin se ocupă mult mai detaliat
Marius Bancila
Jun 07, 2016 Marius Bancila rated it liked it
The title is a little bit misleading as the book is not entirely about the letters Pascal and Fermat have exchanged in 1654, but rather a history of the science of probabilities that started with the problem of the unfinished game. Devlin does focus on the letters of the two great French mathematicians but also shows how others have drawn inspiration from the methods Pascal and Fermat have established and how they developed and applied math to real world problems (not only gaming). The book is n ...more
Kelly V
Jul 23, 2015 Kelly V rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book tells the story of the origins of probability, which emerged more recently than you would expect for such a fundamental field. It's somewhat famous among certain types of nerds that probability theory came from a handful of mathematicians pondering certain types of gambling. Specifically, the real origins are documented in a series of letters between Blaise Pascal and Pierre de Fermat. So this book includes selections from the (extant) letters and explains and discusses them, giving th ...more
Jan 12, 2016 Elizabeth rated it liked it
Not as entertaining or efficiently informative as The Man of Numbers. Felt a bit disjointed and speculative at times, as though Devlin thought, "Oh, yes, one other thing while I'm at it" many times throughout.
Kelly Jackson
Jan 19, 2014 Kelly Jackson rated it really liked it
I do have a math background for disclosure purposes. I found the subject matter and historical context interesting. The writing style was a little grating. There was a lot of condescension in the prose. It's OK if you don't understand it...
Jan 15, 2014 Doug rated it it was amazing
I loved this book. Pascal and Fermat never met in person but their exchange of letters started a revolution in terms of how mankind sees the world - in terms of risk management. Devlin documents the exchange and highlights significant topics in the discussion. I think his characterization of the problem of points, Pascal's probabilistic argument for believing in God, and his numerous examples of how Baye's theorem is used (especially in health care) are some of the best I've seen. And, he does a ...more
Aug 04, 2009 Eric rated it it was amazing
I’ve got a dirty secret - I’m mathematically challenged, and it has always been so. I’ve had to work extra hard to be extra average at math. Secretly, I’d like to be good at math, and understand some of the advanced compression, encryption, and other algorithms that kick around the interwebs. Every now and then, I’ll pick up a math-oriented book, and I usually put it down in despair. Not so The Unfinished Game, which is as much about history as it is about probability.

In a nutshell, the book des
Lars Guthrie
Nov 15, 2008 Lars Guthrie rated it liked it
The low rating (for me, I know I rate high but I like to think I read what I'm interested in and know about so that my discrimintion is shown as much by my selection as my evaluation) is more due to my weaknesses in math than Devlin's style or story. I would have liked more context (and I mean non-mathematical context)--like the mise en scène of late Seventeeth Century France and the other eras and locales included here. I once had a European history prof who made the development of annuities re ...more
Gary Fixler
Nov 29, 2015 Gary Fixler rated it it was amazing
Shelves: own, from-ben
Can one ever really finish "The Unfinished Game?" I admit, I did not read the full correspondence between Fermat and Pascal at the end of the book; I got much of it in pieces throughout. I'll save the 10 or so pages for a rainy day. I am impressed—and admittedly puzzled—by the praise each heaps upon the other in his letters. Modern teenagers in love fail to reach such heights of extended, floral flattery. Perhaps, owing to the slowness of communication-by-post, such admiration was delivered in b ...more
Fraser Sherman
Jun 01, 2015 Fraser Sherman rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
An interesting story about how the great mathematical thinkers Pascal and Fermat tackled an old problem (the Unfinished Game problem of the title) and developed the concept of probability to solve it. Devlin traces the growth of probability and statistics from that breakthrough (though a lot of independent ideas contributed too) through to the present age. Fascinating.
May 01, 2016 Kathy rated it really liked it
Shelves: mathematics
Probability is such a part of modern life that it is hard to believe it wasn't until the 17th century that it started to be studied. The book is written in a way that can be understood by someone who has forgotten high school math. There are mathematical formulas in the book but the author lets you know you can skip them without losing the flow of the book. For someone with more mathematical background it lets you see how the familiar statistical formulas came about.
David Robertus
Feb 01, 2011 David Robertus rated it liked it
A generally well done look at the origins of probability theory, the implications for the insurance industry and so on. The author takes a very interesting look at the mindset (or lack thereof) of people prior to the wide spread use of statistics and probability theory in modern every day life. This is intriguing to me in two ways- first,what life is like without it, and two, how frequently misused it is today (which is also addressed albeit briefly).
Jan 06, 2009 mandy rated it liked it
While this is book is meant to appeal to "regular" people, and not mathematicians, I found that the math that is included was at times hard to grasp. Luckily, Devlin has a knack for explaining the principles behind the formulas with real world examples, which helped a great deal. We also find out a lot of history about various 17th century mathematicians, so history buffs might enjoy this as well. Overall an interesting read.
Lauren Hutchinson
Oct 24, 2012 Lauren Hutchinson rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
I really like statistics so I may be a bit biased. At times the book did get into some complex but the examples helped to convey the complex math that was being discussed. It was nice getting to learn a bit more about Pascal and Fermat, plus a whole lot of other characters. I'm not sure this book would be that enjoyable for anyone without an appreciation for vague mathematics.
Michael Artin
Jul 26, 2016 Michael Artin rated it liked it
So far...the book is compelling simply because of the subject matter. But Devlin's style is so smug and sensationalistic that it gets in the way of digging into the interesting history. He spends so much time telling you "this was really important" and assuring you, "Don't worry if you don't get this...they didn't either!" Speaks down to the reader.
Stoica Raul
Nov 17, 2015 Stoica Raul rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An interesting approach. It chronologically presents events that marked the theory of probabilities.
Jul 06, 2010 Thom rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
I appreciate the import of this idea, and the math behind it. I mostly liked the presentation - bits of the letters and the history behind them. Something about the writing - the style perhaps - didn't sit right with me. Will read some of Devlin's online column to see if I can narrow it down sometime.
Jun 16, 2009 Linda rated it liked it
This is a book about the letter correspondence between Fermat and Pascal that began in 1654 and led to the development of the foundations of probability theory and implications for risk management today. This book combines 17th C math history and 21st C economics.
Jan 01, 2012 Felicia rated it liked it
I wouldn't have minded a little more info on why Pascal was wrong about when you stop the game, although now it has been explained to me. In general, it was a good book and fast reading. I preferred the discussion of the letter to the discussion of the consequences.
Jun 14, 2010 Elliot rated it really liked it
A brief history of Pascal, Fermat, their relationship, and many other contributing mathematicians in the area of study of statistics and the theory of probability. A bit too technical and far too dry for my tastes, very informative though.
Jun 03, 2012 Ray rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
The history and various applications of the mathematics, probability and statistics was interesting, but overall, it was quite a bland book. I know a bit more now, but that's all it really is, informative.
May 23, 2013 Rendier rated it it was ok
Kept feeling it's much ado about nothing. I understand the stats and the significance, but I think the author is a bit overexcited. However, the descriptions of the historical characters are quite interesting.
Nov 27, 2013 Jill rated it it was amazing
A light read for the mathematically trained, but very enjoyable. I would recommend this to a general reader who wonders how people like me can possibly get excited about math.
John Landis
Jul 15, 2009 John Landis rated it did not like it
Shelves: trash, nonfiction
A complete waste of my time. I would rather they chose either the math or the people involved to concentrate on instead of focusing on both and failing twice.
Scott Franklin
Apr 21, 2010 Scott Franklin rated it it was amazing
This was fantastic!!! I greatly enjoyed the historical perspective to the mathematics. I'll be recommending this book to ALL my students.
Snail in Danger (Sid) Nicolaides
I thought this would be great ... but it turned out to not be that exciting. At least, the first couple chapters weren't.
weeshop Shopinski
Jul 06, 2011 weeshop Shopinski rated it really liked it
fascinating - enjoyed the history and really liked the math part although didn't completely understand
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Dr. Keith Devlin is a co-founder and Executive Director of the university's H-STAR institute, a Consulting Professor in the Department of Mathematics, a co-founder of the Stanford Media X research network, and a Senior Researcher at CSLI. He is a World Economic Forum Fellow and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His current research is focused on the use of differ ...more
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