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Those two words instantly conjure an image in the minds of every reader.
Some may think of the 'face' at the track, picking his moment before plunging into the betting ring, and striking his trade with a wad of fifties.
Others imagine the sharply dressed poker player in the dark glasses, outwitting his opponents and taking down a massive pot.
Still more will think that professional gamblers don't exist, and that they're merely fictional characters from the pages of books, or cinema screens.
So... do pro punters exist? Who are they? How do they operate? And what does it take to be one?
I've been reading the autobiography of Patrick Veitch, the feared professional gambler. Now I have to be honest and say that before I first heard about the book, I didn't even know who Patrick Veitch was. Far from being a shrinking violet, it turns out that Veitch did / does have a media profile, though in a less 'flamboyant' way than, say, Harry Findlay or Michael Tabor (with whom he had former associations).
Veitch seems to run his business more on the lines of 'organised crime' (except of course winning money from bookmakers is not a crime, despite what bookies like to think!). He has a team of operators, or 'agents' as he calls them, to whom he farms out the striking of wagers. The timing is crucial.
Bets struck too early will alert the bookies to 'hot money'. The revered double smash, when a big punter 'smashes' into the morning prices, and then piles in again when the on-course market opens, is a Veitch trademark, and he's used it to cash in numerous six figure plunders.
But Veitch is exceptional. His financial fearlessness is matched only by his work ethic, which is formidable. You quickly learn in Enemy Number One, his book, that this was a full-time 100+ hours a week 'job' for him.
Thus, the myth of the professional gambler picking off his prey, and then retiring to his suite to sip champagne is somewhat wide of the mark. In the case of Veitch, it is business necessity that transactions are conducted under a cloak of anonymity.Â If the wagers are rumbled as emanating from him, then the price collapses and further accommodation is somewhere on the unlikely-impossible continuum.
Like I say, Veitch is exceptional. Aside from him, and the large owner punters such as JP McManus, Derrick Smith, John Magnier, and the aforementioned Tabor, there are very few who make horse racing pay to seven figure sums.
But there are a reasonable number who make it pay to sums that amount to somewhere between a decent corporate salary, and a very comfortable semi-retired existence.
How do they do it? And what are their core attributes?
I know two people who can say they are (or, in one case, were) professional gamblers.
The first, GM, is my (occasional) gym buddy. He doesn't know much about horse racing, but made a Â£75k a year living from it for about five years. How? With a system, and a trusted business partner.
There are a fair number of people doing what GM and his former partner - still practicing - did.
[Essentially, they were taking advantage of the time differential between the live action at the track and the 'as live' TV coverage on SiS, ATR or RUK, the three racing channels.
Let me put it like this... Would you lay a horse if you knew it had fallen? Or bet in a photo finish when the result had been called? Or back a horse who'd gone two lengths clear in the blink of an eye at the furlong pole? Do NOT bet in-running if you're unaware of the above, unless you're trading out of a position!]
The changes at Betfair, whereby winning punters are taxed anywhere between 20% and 60%, are nothing short of scandalous, and led to GM's withdrawal on 'principle' grounds. In other words, he wasn't prepared to put the hours in only for Betfair's draconian taxation rules (sorry, I'm sure they call it something like 'commission', though at a rate higher than the highest rate of income tax, I think my terminology is more apt) to strip him of the better part of the profit.
Now many of you will have your own views on the above. On GM's approach, and on Betfair's approach. I'm simply highlighting how it is possible to make a living from betting, for a while at least.
The other professional gambler I know bets solely on football. He cites the range of markets, availability of data on teams, and depth of liquidity as reasons why he's able to continue broadly unabated. More of him another day.
For now though, what are the common threads that tie all of these pro punters together? What is it about them that separates 'them' from 'us'? And how can we make the jump from where 'we' are to where 'they' are?
Well, I'm afraid the answers might be a trifle mundane for some. You see, the reality is generally far less romantic than the perception, and this is a case in point.
Unifying theme #1: all of these guys are dedicated to their 'business', and are prepared to put in long hours in the pursuit of profit opportunities. It's simply delusional to believe that you can make a good living from backing someone else's tips. Sure, you can make a few quid extra pocket money from a tipping service. But the reality is that any tipster worth their salt (i.e. the ones who actually back the horses they tip) have already snaffled all (or at least much of) the value from the market.
So by the time you receive a selection, it has probably already truncated in price as a consequence of the source - and his agents - placing their instructions. That can easily be the difference between an 'advised price' profit and an 'available price' loss, over time.
Professional gamblers do have sources. They do have 'stable moles' (sounds like a skin complaint that's going nowhere!). And they do trust the judgment of a select few.
But ultimate accountability for the supported animal, and the robustness of the support, lies with the pro punter. They spend hours and hours (and hours) poring through the form of ALL the horses in a race... not just the one about which they have the strongest pre-conceived notion, based on recalling its last run.
They watch videos, read trainer comments, consider riding arrangements, going, draw, fitness, class, trip and track constitution. Everything.
To be a professional gambler requires work rate and dedication. No if's or but's. If you are prepared to be dedicated and work hard, though, the good news is you can win at betting.
Unifying theme #2: the second point that applies to all professional punters is discipline. I think more wannabe winners are let down by this core tenet than any other.
As humans, we are obliged to exercise restraint in much of our day-to-day doing's.Â As we typically see betting as recreational, we engage in it with considerably less discipline than we would our 'day job'. In order for gambling to become one's 'day job', a hard-nosed approach is crucial.
Does that mean it is no longer fun / recreation? Hmm, that's a toughie, and a question to which only you will know the answer, in part at least. Certainly, betting will no longer be recreational. It has too much import for that to be the case. But it could still be fun - for the most part at least.
After all, winning is fun. It is vindication of one's judgment. And in betting that vindication is represented not just by the satisfaction of being right, but also by the commensurate financial rewards dictated by the size of your investment and the size of the available odds.
That will always be fun.
Losing will always be no fun. So a mindset of understanding strengths and weaknesses, of stringent record-keeping, of self-honesty, candour and rigour are fundamental.
If you have a method or an approach, if you have the option to take profit or 'let it ride', ALWAYS stick to your original game plan. Sure, there will be occasions when you could win more by gambling more (i.e. by staying in a bet when the odds have moved strongly in your favour), but - and apologies for the cliche - 'nobody ever went skint taking a profit'. Or at least covering their investment.
You need a route into betting: an angle, an edge. And you need to ruthlessly and stoically exploit it.
Unifying theme #3: the final unifying theme is what I'll call bankroll, but also the management of it. Not all betting opportunities are equal, and the professional gambler must first hone, and then trust, his judgment as to the strength of a view.
Financial involvement should follow in direct proportion to that.
Good runs and bad runs come and go. They need to be managed. Veitch talks of losing Â£400,000 in one losing run. GM has spoken of numerous reverses, as has my other pro punting pal. That's the game.
The test is money management and, of course, mindset management.
These guys trust their judgment. And they support it in commensurate financial terms. They grow their stakes as they grow their bankroll. They manage the downside as far as possible, but look to create a bigger upside.
And they make very few 'bad bets'. That's not to say they don't back losers. That is something completely different. If the true odds on a 4/1 shot are 2/1, the animal in question will still only win once in every three times. But if you consistently back horses whose true odds are 2/1 at double the price, you can be confident you're making good bets, and will come out in front overall.
No, bad bets are when the underlying logic was flawed, or skewed; or some late breaking news - a going change, or an injury to a key player, for instance, is not accounted for. If you studied six hours for a bet, and then something fundamental changed, would you still have the self-control to refuse the bet?
Three core principles: industry, discipline, money management.
If you understand those, and can work them into your betting practices, you have a far better chance than most - even than better judges than you - of coming out in front, and considering the notion of becoming a professional gambler.
Of course, it goes without saying that you may possess those attributes in spades, but without some sort of knowledge of material data - the angle or edge to which I alluded earlier - your personal traits and fiscal starting point will not support you beyond the bet that wipes out your bank.
The realities of being a professional punter are a world away from some of the romantic notions we may have in our mind's eye...
In this taster, I wanted to set the scene - in real terms - around what it takes to be a professional gambler. In an upcoming post, I'll introduce you to the other professional I know, and tell you his story. In the meantime, feel free to leave a comment below.
What do you think of this post? Do you think it's possible to be a pro punter? Are you a pro punter (or do you know someone who is)? What advice would you offer to people considering it? Would you like to be one?!
Thanks for reading,