Numbers Game

Bob Heiny

Bob Heiny

For 46 years, Professor Bob Heiny has been bringing stats to life with real-world applications in his classes and developing models for predicting outcomes, especially in sports. The March Madness basketball tournament provides just one example.

The math professor has found in teaching statistics through the years that true-life examples connect with students and help them remember formulas or solve problems that they're likely to encounter later in life. Basic math also affects investment management, stocks and trying to find car insurance.

Here's a look at some of the examples he's worked into his lesson plans over the years:

  • In his Math 350 classes, one of the problems involves brackets and the probability of tennis players winning based on the number of players in a tournament. It then expands to an NCAA basketball bracket question. This year, Warren Buffet helped serve up another example when he offered $1 billion for the person who correctly picks all 63 games. Based on a 50-50 chance for each of those games, using the formula: (.563 = 1.084 x 10-19), the odds of that happening are one in 9.2 quintillion, according an article by the Associated Press.

    "The odds are a little better than in the quintillions," Heiny said, noting that not all games have a 50-50 chance since history, matchups and seeding all play a part in the outcome (for example, no team seeded 16th has ever beaten a No. 1 seed.)
  • In the 1970s, UNC had a science-math day when high school and junior high students from around the region would spend a day on campus and attend science and math demonstrations. Heiny always gave a demonstration on probability, gambling and casinos. He would provide a handout that listed the odds for most all the casino games such as roulette and craps.

    "We would always have a contest (Keno) where they pick eight numbers from the first 80 integers and see how many won the top prize of $2,500. No one ever won that prize," he said. In addition, Heiny gave them the inside information that dog tracks used to calculate odds and payouts. They learned that the track takes their 10 percent off the top and then calculates the payouts.

    "A lot of people try to beat the casino system. What they don't realize is the casino does not have to cheat since all games have odds set in the casino's favor," Heiny said. "For example, the game of roulette is set so the casino will take 5.26 percent or more of all money bet."

    Wall Street is a different type of gambling but uses the same concepts.

    "Even the stock market is based on chance and probability. There's no sure way to guarantee a person's investment will create profit. There have been many studies that show the Dow Jones Average is a random walk," he said.
  • Heiny combined his passion for sports with mathematical concepts to track the progress of college and professional sports teams. The college football power ratings developed with two other statisticians for all five divisions ranks all college football teams on a weekly basis each fall and are posted each week at In the 1970s, Heiny wrote a weekly article in the Greeley Tribune predicting the NFL winners of the next week's games and ranking the teams from top to bottom.

Heiny said the introductory level statistics course at UNC doesn't have only math majors in it.

"Students from other disciplines are very successful if they come to class and stay current with the material since that course does not require much algebra or other mathematical concepts," he said.

The main objective of the course, he said, is to learn how probability and statistical techniques can be used to test hypotheses, confirm or deny claims and create models.

Heiny also said that statistics are sometimes twisted to support a contention. Stats are a great way to share information, but the credibility must always be verified.

"‘There are liars, damned liars and statisticians' is a famous slogan," he said.

- Nick Evans, Senior Journalism Major



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