Let me introduce a game – I keep flipping a coin and you have to guess whether it will come up heads or tails. The prize pot starts at \$2, and each time you guess correctly the prize pot doubles, we keep playing until you eventually guess incorrectly at which point you get whatever has accumulated in the prize pot.
So if you guess wrong on the first flip, you just get the \$2. If you guess wrong on the second flip you get \$4, and if you get it wrong on the 10th flip you get \$1024.
Knowing this, how much would you pay to enter this game?
You're guaranteed to win at least \$2, so you'd obviously pay at least $\2. There is a 50% chance you'll win \$4, a 25% chance you'll win \$8, a 12.5% chance you'll win \$16, and so on. Knowing this maybe you'd pay \$5 to play - you'll probably lose money but there's a decent chance you'll make quite a bit more than \$5.
Perhaps you take a more mathematical approach than this. You might reason as follows – ‘I’m a rational person therefore as any good rational person should, I will calculate the expected value of playing the game, this is the maximum I should be willing to play the game’. This however is the crux of the problem and the source of the paradox, most people do not really value the game that highly – when asked they’d pay somewhere between \$2-\$10 to play it, and yet the expected value of the game is infinite....
The above is a lovely photo I found of St Petersburg. The reason the paradox is named after St Petersburg actually has nothing to do with the game itself, but is due to an early article published by Daniel Bernoulli in a St Petersburg journal. As an aside, having just finished the book A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (which I loved and would thoroughly recommend) I'm curious to visit Moscow and St Petersburg one day.
I work as a pricing actuary at a reinsurer in London.