Jan 14, 2021
Jan 14, 2021

Book review: The Ten Equations that Rule the World

A fun idea to communicate an important message

Exactly what bettors are looking for?

A guide to making all sorts of decisions in life

Book review: The Ten Equations that Rule the World

David Sumpter, Professor of Applied Mathematics at the University of Uppsala in Sweden, has written books, advised some of the world’s biggest soccer teams on analytics, and worked as a betting consultant. His most recent book, The Ten Equations that Rule the World, makes some bold claims about helping you increase your chance of success and living more healthily, but can it back them up? Read on to find out.

I’ve followed David Sumpter’s work ever since reading his book Soccermatics in 2017. In that time David has not only contributed to a wide variety of research papers, covering everything from the rise of Radical Right-wing Populist parties to the dynamics of fish shoals, he has also published two new books, Outnumbered (April 2018) and The Ten Equations that Rule the World (October 2020). It is also worth noting that David has also recently worked on a series of lectures that provide insightful walkthroughs and practical advice for anyone looking to take their analysis of soccer a step further.

I can’t profess to have delved into his research in the field of socio-biology in any great detail, but what I have read of David’s work has never failed to disappoint. Soccermatics was a real eye-opener for me and really enhanced my understanding of soccer. Having set the bar very high with his previous work, I had extremely high expectations of The Ten Equations that Rule the World before reading. I’m happy to say that it managed to deliver against those expectations.

The level of knowledge required to develop the ideas and math involved is one thing, but the ability to simplify the subject matter and make it more digestible for the average reader is a skill that very few possess. Whether you’re an advanced mathematician, a soccer fan, or just someone looking improve their quality of life, The Ten Equations that Rule the World has a lot to offer. In this review, I’ll explain why.

A fun idea to communicate an important message

As someone who studied creative writing at university, I’m well aware of the importance placed on the first few pages of a book. Even in works of fiction, where the plot can take time to develop, it’s important to captivate the reader’s attention early on to ensure they’re engaged and ready for what is to come. This can be challenging in non-fiction writing, especially when the book is about math and equations - a topic some may consider to be dry and boring. The introduction to The Ten Equations that Rule the World not only prefaces what the book is about, it makes you want to get stuck in as soon as possible.

One of the great parts of this book is that it covers such a wide variety of questions we have to answer in life. Some are explored in more detail than others, but there is an interesting story and useful answer to go along with each and every one of the chapters.

The entire concept of the book becomes clear at the very outset, and if the promise of a secret formula to make you rich or make the difficult decisions in life wasn’t enough, the notion of an exclusive society (“TEN”) that has “cracked the code” provides an added layer of intrigue to make you want to learn more.

A claim as bold as the one made by Sumpter is always going to grab people’s attention and although there is plenty of added work to do for those of us that want to see the benefits of his suggestions, it is a great way to get us to consider a shift in the way we approach everyday problems. 

Whether you’re interested in betting or not, following the principles of “TEN” will help you make better decisions. It promotes a methodical way of considering all of the information available to you, and of understanding all the potential outcomes of your decisions, how likely they are to occur, and the impact they will have on both yourself and others.

Exactly what bettors are looking for?

If you bought this book because you’re interested in the aspects of betting covered, you don’t have to wait long to find what you’re looking for. The very first of the ten equations explained in the book is the betting equation. As you’d expect from the introduction and Sumpter’s style of writing, there is an interesting story to go along with how the betting equation came about, as well as useful real-life examples of it being put to good use.

Below is the betting equation used by Sumpter during his time betting on the 2018 World Cup:


Of course, this formula alone won’t be very useful to those without some degree of mathematical knowledge. That’s why Sumpter’s own story of working with two individuals named Jan and Marius is so useful. Through his experience, the reader can learn about developing a logistic regression model, backtesting the strategy to maximise an edge, and understand the work that goes in to placing bets to reach the profits that so many people are after.

The strategy used in The Ten Equations that Rule the World is conceptually the same as most other positive expected value betting strategies. It identifies a bias in the betting market and bets on the outcomes that are underestimated because of those biases. What is most interesting about the strategy used by Sumpter is that it contradicts what many bettors who have invested time into learning about betting will have read in the past.

That is, instead of the closing line for World Cup soccer matches being the most efficient and closest to the true probability of the outcomes, it is actually the opening odds. Sumpter suggests this is because of both the psychological makeup of localised bettors and the sheer volume of recreational money that forces the odds to move further from the true outcomes.

Given that his findings, a product of the work done in collaboration with Jan and Marius, were centred around the soccer World Cup, bettors will have to wait a while yet if they are looking to use something similar for themselves. However, the crux of Sumpter’s message about betting (and pretty much everything else covered in the book) is more about focusing on the decision-making process and utilising the wealth of information that is out there. Only a small proportion of people who bet will make a living from it, but plenty of them have shared their secrets and given real insight into how it’s done. All the information bettors need to achieve success is out there, you just need to look in the right place and put in the work to take advantage of it.

I’m wary of giving too much away and spoiling the enjoyment that comes from reading this specific chapter in The Ten Equations that Rule the World. I’m also not smart enough to do justice to the lessons that Sumpter can teach about betting, so I will conclude my thoughts on this section with what I believe to be the most useful quote.

“Betting isn’t about predicting the future with certainty, it is about identifying small differences in the way you see the world and how others see it. If your vision is slightly sharper, if your parameters better explain the data, then you have an edge.” 

A guide to making all sorts of decisions in life

It is only natural that the bulk of this book review centres around the betting equation that features in The Ten Equations that Rule the World. However, there are a multitude of other benefits on offer to anyone reading the book. One particular example, which is still very relevant to a betting audience, is the judgement equation. Sumpter uses Bayes’ Theorem (Bayes’ rule/Bayes’ law) to show how people can make better judgements, like deciding who we should be friends with, by properly assessing the importance of information and continuously refining your judgement as you acquire more knowledge.

The Ten Equations that Rule the World also has it’s uses for the decisions we make or actions we take that have less impact on our lives than our job, income, or lifelong relationships, but can still take up more time than they should. One great example of this is Sumpter’s use of the market equation to show how to find the right pair of headphones to buy with a budget of £200. One of the great parts of this book is that it covers such a wide variety of questions we have to answer in life. Some are explored in more detail than others, but there is an interesting story and useful answer to go along with each and every one of the chapters. 

It has to be said, David Sumpter clearly isn’t writing for mathematics purists. Instead, this is more about simplifying advanced level math and statistics and viewing it through the lens of everyday life. As Sean Carroll writes in his review of the book (which features on the back cover): “These aren’t the equations of Newton or Einstein – crisp relations describing the evolution of a clockwork universe. These are the equations of randomness, expectation, and imperfect information. The equations, in other words, of the real world.”

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