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Losing to win

7:05pm, June 14, 2002

It's a gift to born losers. Researchers have demonstrated that two games of chance, each guaranteed to give a player a predominance of losses in the long term, can add up to a winning outcome if the player alternates randomly between the two games.

This striking new result in game theory is now called Parrondo's paradox, after its discoverer, Juan M.R. Parrondo, a physicist at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid in Spain.

Gregory P. Harmer and Derek Abbott of the University of Adelaide in Australia use a combination of two losing gambling games to illustrate this counterintuitive phenomenon in the Dec. 23/30, 1999 Nature.

The two games involve tossing biased coins. In the simpler game, the player gambles with a coin that's been loaded to make the probability of winning less than 50 percent. The second, more complicated game requires two biased coins. One of the coins wins slightly more often than it loses, and the other loses much more often than it wi

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