August 25, 2015

The Monty Hall Problem

by Gary Fearon, Creative Director, Southern Writers Magazine

To clarify things right off the bat, Monty Hall himself is not a problem.  As of this writing, the original host of Let's Make a Deal is alive and well. In fact, today is his birthday.  Happy 94th, Monty.

"The Monty Hall Problem," on the other hand, is a thing, and one that's been debated for decades. It is a brain teaser having to do with probability, one which has puzzled great mathematical minds and caused university professors to write papers on it.

As you may know, Monty's game show would include three doors, behind one of which would be an awesome prize like a brand new car or a European vacation.  Behind the other two were far lesser prizes, at least one of which would be a "zonk" like a goat or a burro.  To play the game, the contestant would choose a door, and Monty revealed what was behind one of the doors not chosen.  Then Monty would give the contestant a chance to change their mind about which of the two remaining doors they want. 

This is where the debate comes in.  With three doors, it's clear that the contestant has a 1-in-3 chance of winning the big prize.  After one door is revealed, has the contestant's odds of winning improved?  Is it still a 1-in-3 chance or has anything changed that?  I have my theory, but I'll let you mull it over first, or even go Google "The Monty Hall Problem" if you really want to melt your brain.

Writers today have a similar gamble to make.  When we invest ourselves in writing a book, we don't know what the outcome will be.  Will it get picked up?  Will it sell?  Will it end up in a yard sale?  We could further complicate the equation with additional options like, should we self-publish or go traditional?  We could create any number of mystery doors for this analogy.

What it really comes down to is this question: what would it take to make us feel like a winner?  For some, it will be the simple pleasure of having finished writing the book we always intended to write, whether it makes it to print or not. Others dream of opening that box filled with copies of their shiny new book. Take the scenario step by step all the way to being on the NY Times bestseller list and you have innumerable definitions of "winning" that would make Charlie Sheen's head spin.

At the end of Let's Make a Deal, Monty would go around the crazily-dressed audience and ask if anyone had such random objects as a wooden nickel or a bobby pin. Those who did would win some small cash amount on the spot. Not everyone who came to play ended up winning a trip to Paris, but they all had fun, and that was the name of the game.

My personal take on The Monty Hall Problem is that you do indeed start with a 1-in-3 chance of winning.  But once it's down to two doors, I contend that the probability becomes 50/50, regardless of whether you change your mind or not.  Genius columnist Marilyn vos Savant, however, disagrees vehemently, and has gone into exhaustive detail to explain why.  Since my IQ is not in the Guinness Book of World Records and hers is, I'll graciously concede.

As for the odds of achieving commercial success as a writer, no one can predict that with any accuracy.  But one thing we can all agree on is that the probability of getting zonked and winning nothing goes to 100% if we don't try. Going the full Monty means writing, even when we think the odds are against us.  If we love to write, and play the game for the sheer fun of doing what we love, we are guaranteed to be a winner.

I'm just glad I don't have to dress up in a clown costume to play.  Marilyn vos Savant already thinks I'm an idiot.

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