Love Island

A while back Harry.Hill@smartodds.co.uk gave a talk to the (then) quant team about trading strategies. The general issue is well-known: traders have to decide when to place a bet. Generally speaking they can place a bet early, when the price – the amount you get if you win the bet – is likely to be reasonably attractive. But in that case the liquidity of the market – the amount of money you can bet against – is likely to be low. Or they can wait until there is greater liquidity, but then the price is likely to be less attractive. So, given the option of a certain bet size at a stated price, should they bet now or wait in the hope of being able to make a bigger bet, albeit at a probably poorer price?

In general this is a difficult problem to tackle, and to make any sort of progress some assumptions have to be made about the way both prices and liquidity are likely to change as kick-off approaches. And Harry was presenting some tentative ideas, and pointing out some relevant research, that might enable us to get a handle on some of these issues.

Anyway, one of the pieces of work Harry referred to is a paper by F. Thomas Bruss, which includes the following type of example. You play a game where you can throw a dice (say) 10 times. Your objective is to throw a 6, at which point you can nominate that as your score, or continue.  But, here’s the catch: you only win if you throw a 6 and it’s the  final 6 in the sequence of 10 throws.

So, suppose you throw a 6 on the 3rd roll; should you stop? How about the 7th roll? Or the 9th? You can maybe see the connection with the trading issue: both problems require us to choose whether to stop or continue, based on an evaluation of the risk of what will subsequently occur.

Fast-forward a few days after Harry’s talk and I was reading Alex Bellos’s column in the Guardian. Alex is a journalist who writes about both football and mathematics (and sometimes both at the same time). His bi-weekly contributions to the Guardian take the form of mathematically-based puzzles. These puzzles are quite varied, covering everything from logic to geometry to arithmetic and so on. And sometimes even Statistics. Anyway, the puzzle I was reading after Harry’s talk is here. If you have time, take a read. Otherwise, here’s a brief summary.

It’s a basic version of Love Island. You have to choose from 3 potential love partners, but you only see them individually and sequentially. You are shown the first potential partner, and can decide to keep them or not. If you keep them, everything stops there. Otherwise you are shown the second potential partner. Again, you have to stick or twist: you can keep them, or you reject and are shown the third possibility. And in that case you are obliged to stick with that option.

In summary: once you stick with someone, that’s the end of the game. But if you reject someone, you can’t go back to them later. The question is: what strategy should you adopt in order to maximise the chances of choosing the person that you would have picked if you had seen all 3 at the same time?

Maybe have a think about this before reading on.

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As well as giving a clearer description of the problem, Alex’s article also contains a link to his discussion of the solution. But what’s interesting is that it’s another example of an optimal stopping problem: once we’ve seen a new potential partner, and also previous potential partners, we have to make a decision on whether to stop with what we currently have, or risk trying to get an improvement in the future, knowing that we could also end up with something/someone worse. And if we can solve the problem for love partners, we are one step towards solving the problem for traders as well.


The Love Island problem discussed by Alex is actually a special case of The Secretary Problem.  A company needs to hire a secretary and does so by individual interviews. Once they’ve conducted an interview they have to hire or reject that candidate, without the possibility of returning to him/her once rejected. What strategy should they adopt in order to try to get the best candidate? In the Love Island version, there are just 3 candidates; in the more general problem, there can be any number. With 3 choices, and a little bit of patience, you can probably find the solution yourself (or follow the links towards Alex’s discussion of the solution). But how about if you had 1000 possible love partners? (Disclaimer: you don’t).

Actually, there is a remarkably simple solution to this problem whatever the number of options to choose from: whether it’s 3, 1000, 10,000,000 or whatever. Let this number of candidates be N. Then reject all candidates up to the M’th for some value of M, but keep note of the best candidate, C say, from those M options. Then accept the first subsequent candidate who is better than C in subsequent interviews (or the last candidate if none happens to be better).

But how to choose M? Well, even more remarkably, it turns out that if N is reasonably large, the best choice for M is around N/e, where e \approx 2.718 is a number that crops up a lot in mathematics. For N=1000 candidates, this means rejecting the first 368 and then choosing the first that is better than the best of those. And one more remarkable thing about this result: the probability that the candidate selected this way is actually the best out of all the available candidates is 1/e, or approximately 37%, regardless of the value of N. 

With N=3, the value of N is too small for this approximate calculation of M to be accurate, but if you calculated the solution to the problem – or looked at Alex’s – you’ll see that the solution is precisely of this form, with M=2 and a probability of 50% of picking the best candidate overall.

Anyway, what I really like about all this is the way things that are apparently unconnected – Love Island, choosing secretaries, trading strategies – are fundamentally linked once you formulate things in statistical terms. And even if the solution in one of the areas is too simple to be immediately transferable to another, it might at least provide useful direction. 

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