The Play-off Probability Problem

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  • Teaches mathematics at Augustana University College, in Camrose, Alberta, Canada

few years ago, just as I was about to introduce binomial probabilities in my precalculus class, the Edmonton Oilers were in a first-round play-off series with the Dallas Stars. Each team had won a game. The series suggested a problem: given that the Oilers had a probability p of winning any game, what was the probability that they would win the series? I focus on the Oilers because the small university where I teach is located a one-hour drive from their home in Edmonton. Our initial figure of p = .3 was based loosely on the Oilers' record against the Stars. We began with what I will call the brute-force method, treating the rest of the series as a five-game series. After completing the brute-force solution, we searched for a shorter, more elegant, solution. Although the solutions that we unearthed along our path of discovery are not new, they illustrate beautifully the process by which many mathematical problems are solved, extended, and generalized.


Murray Lauber believes that mathematics is a potent tool for expanding the intellectual capacities of all students.

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The Mathematics Teacher


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