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The Punting Confessional – Wednesday, May 15th – The Power of the Negative
Probably the best book I’ve read in the past year had nothing to do with gambling. In ‘The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking’, The Guardian’s psychology correspondent Oliver Burkeman dissects what he calls the ‘cult of optimism’ and puts forward the idea that many popular ideas about happiness, success and goals are flawed and indeed aiming for such things can lead to anything but.
For Burkeman, positive thinking is wildly overvalued by modern society, much as things like reputation and jockeys are overrated in betting markets. In place of all this optimism, Burkeman argues in favour of the negative with many fascinating ideas such as awareness of mortality, acceptance of failure, the dangers of goal-setting, non-attachment, imagining worst-case scenarios, stoicism, living in the now and allowing for uncertainty and fear. Some, if not all, of these ideas apply to gambling and this week and next I’ll look at them as well as some of my own thoughts on the power of the negative.
Let’s begin with what my idea of negativity isn’t. It is most certainly not the acceptance by the mug punter (or society at large for that matter) that the bookies always win and there is no such thing as a winning gambler. These are the sentiments of the betting shop loser, the punters who fall into all the stereotypical traps available: they punt only with one bookmaker, having brand loyalty despite a bigger price being available across the road or on another website; they follow stupid systems in the hope of getting rich quick; they believe the hype when a jockey or trainer or some other insider says ‘it’s the best horse I’ve ever ridden or trained’; they love the thrill of inside information and eschew the formbook over the head of it.
Instead, my idea of negative is more like healthy scepticism, perhaps even edging towards cynicism, the cliché about believing little of what you hear and judging with your own eyes has truth in it. I suspect the good punter is the negative punter, the one who sees the glass as half-empty rather than half-full. An outsider might think that racing would be filled with pessimism; most horses never make it to the racetrack, never mind win a race; injuries and setbacks are a feature of the game; at a most basic level, there can only be one winner in a race so most connections leave the track disappointed.
Yet, like the rest of the modern world, the cult of optimism reigns in racing; punters always think the big payday is just around the corner and it’s the same with owners, trainers and jockeys. Perhaps it is living on this dream that sustains them but as a gambler it might be best to think otherwise.
I acknowledge that is it not easy to be a pessimist in racing as optimism is everywhere. One need only open the trade paper or the racing pages of any of the dailies to see that the coverage of the sport is particularly toothless though there are some exceptions. The Monday Jury, where the Racing Post poses questions to jockeys, trainers and analysts in light of what unfolded on track over the previous seven days is a good example; the questions are invariably met with positive responses, with nary a semblance of doubt never mind criticism.
A negative (or perhaps realistic would be a better word) opinion is rarely ventured in racing journalism, and it is easy to see why; the racing correspondent relies on the co-operation of jockeys and trainers for their copy and to criticise would be seen as spitting in the soup. It is similar with jockeys criticising trainers or horses as it is the former upon whom he relies on for employment. All this is understandable – the dole queue is an unpleasant place – but as punters who want to turn a profit or at least grasp what is going on properly, we need to work against it.
Perhaps the best example where optimism overcomes pessimism in a disadvantageous way for punters is the ungenuine horse or, put it succinctly, the dog. Charitable types will say that such an animal doesn’t exist or at worst they are suffering from some sort of physical issue – I hope these forgiving kinds are the same with the people in their lives – but for me there are simply some horses that don’t win as frequently as their form entitles them to.
This is not to say that they don’t win as even a broken clock is right twice a day and sometimes circumstances conspire that a dodge cannot but win; the opposition is useless, they find themselves in front before they know it, the pace collapses. But keeping an eye out for those that show temperament, be it awkward head carriage, tail swishing, hanging, finishing weakly or even a poor win/run ratio is one of the best applications of the value of negativity in racing; such horses invariably run well without winning and take up too much of the market on their starts.
One of the central cogs in Burkeman’s wheel of negativity is certainty, or more accurately, our excessive desire for certainty and security. So much do we long for both these things that we are willing to accept even the illusion of such; his example of airport security as a glorified piece of theatre that is unlikely to protect us from a determined terrorist attack is a master-class in logic. I suspect a similar mind-set is at play when punters love backing horses at short prices; even the language is the same, such runners often described as a ‘certainty.’ This applies across the gambling board from the myth of the Cheltenham banker to putting short-priced runners together in accumulators despite much of the evidence about successful punting suggesting that playing away from the head of the market is the way to go.
Two most successful tipping services around are Pricewise and Hugh Taylor and both excel at the back-end of the market and there is nothing surer that if you back every favourite over time, you will lose in the long-term. No more than in life, there is no security or certainty in gambling and instead of looking for it, we should turn away from it and be willing to take a risk. Fear of failure is something that troubles us all but by acknowledging it and taking the chance anyway we may make a success of it, whatever success may be.