Literary events in the gambling world are infrequent to say the least, writes Tony Keenan. Unless twice-yearly horses to follow annuals are your thing there’s little to get excited about in books on the subject but the launch of Harry Findlay’s autobiography ‘Gambling for Life’ earlier this month was an exception. Few who like a bet will have failed to pick up a copy and I’ve been reading with a strange mix of fascination and fear at the tales of Findlay’s life.
Some of the events described might draw out the swash-buckling punter in us all but in truth most of it is far removed from the world of the typical gambler. It’s much more about Findlay’s extraordinary character than a how-to manual (thank god for that!) but as is the case when I read any such material it sets me reflecting about gambling in general. What are the things that make gamblers tick? Are there traits that are common across those who succeed in the punting world? Here is my best guess about the four aspects of character that might be most important though excuse me if the paragraph titles sound like they come from an ill thought-out self-help book.
‘Trust the process’ is a phrase beloved in American sport and has been most recently used by the Philadelphia 76ers executive as their basketball team was mired in bad results for seasons as they accumulated draft picks to rebuild the side. The process became such a tagline that one of their stars Joel Embiid took it on as a nickname but it is ultimately an approach that worked as the 76ers are now on an upward curve for the first time in years.
Punters would do well to nurture a similar attitude and concentrate on process rather than results. This is easier said than done, especially when on a losing run, but as someone who writes a weekly tipping column on a busy website it is one of the only ways to get back on an upward curve. If you have a method that works over time, you need to apply it consistently regardless of short-term outcomes. Ironically, betting profits tend not to come in dribs and drabs but in large globules and their spaced-out nature can be challenging to deal with.
But sticking to consistent methods of form study, staking, time taken studying a race meeting and such like is important with ‘rinse and repeat’ the phrase to remember. Real life can obviously impinge on this if there are bins to be put out or a crying baby to be soothed or simply real work to be done [God forbid! – Ed.] but the punter that can keep things pretty level tends to prove more effective than those that cannot.
Imagination would hardly be high on the list of things one might think as important for a punter but I defer to the great Andy Beyer in his book ‘Beyer on Speed’ about the topic of creativity: ‘handicapping is an art, a test of man’s creative intelligence, not merely a puzzle to be solved by applying the right formula.’ In recent years I have come to believe that betting is at least as much art as science and that feel and intuition are vital tools to getting an edge; the unfortunate thing for novice punters is that these things only come with time.
We live in the big data age where seemingly every aspect of life can be boiled down into a number or a chart and betting is no different. High-end punters are using figures to get ahead as we have seen in articles about Tony Bloom and his quants crunching data at Starlizard. One cannot but admire their rigour and many good bets will come from such a grind but against that a more subjective approach will always provide an edge for the very fact that it is personal to each punter.
Maybe you have seen something in a replay that has been missed by everyone else, a hood that was removed half a beat too late or a subtle bit of shuffling back that has not been commented on anywhere. Perhaps you’ve read an insightful trainer comment on a low-key website that has provided a new angle into a horse. Sometimes a horse or a bet has all the figures and the model may say it will win but there is something more intangible that plays against it winning; when you have the imagination to spot this, you are on to something.
Openness to Change
It is a truth universally acknowledged in betting that edges dissipate and eventually disappear whether it is through growing bookmaker awareness or sheer weight of market support. Punters need to be on the look out for the next edge and likely guard it closely to prolong its longevity. I cannot understand why some are dismissive about newer approaches to racing like sectional times when as a gambler this is exactly the type of angle you want to be developing; perhaps it will all turn out to be a nonsense (though I doubt it) and clearly no method of tackling a race is going to work in every case but doesn’t it at least make sense to explore the possibilities?
This brings us on to the question of what might be the next big edge in racing analysis and in truth it is likely being practiced quietly by a few sharp operators at this very time. I wonder if it might be something to do ground loss and gains around turns and the impact that it has on races. The use of Trakus for racing in Dubai has revealed the importance of how far a horse travelled in a race and the effect it had in the finish but we in Ireland and Britain find this type of thing harder to grasp as it is so difficult to quantify.
Another thing at play might be that the lost ground angle works against our natural thinking biases. I suspect the eye is drawn to the horse tanking along the rail that is struggling to get a run rather than the one that has been trapped out wide conceding ground all the way; at the very least we have been conditioned to view the former in a more positive light than the latter by the racing media. But that horse has not only drawn all the attention and thus will be a shorter price than it might merit next time but it has also had the benefit of going the shortest way and having the all-important cover that can be key to getting a horse to settle.
I’ll begin this final section with a disclaimer; I am probably nowhere near ruthless enough myself as a gambler though that is probably a good thing in life in general! But a ruthless streak can be important for gambling success as we have seen in a number of high-profile cases where punters have exploited bookmaker weakness through spotting loopholes in their risk management systems and hammering them for all they were worth.
This necessitates burning bridges with bookmakers – you might catch them out once but not a second time – but the truly ruthless punter doesn’t care about this; he has other ways of getting on. The whole getting on process is another area where we can see this ruthlessness at play. The ruthless punter may use the accounts of others for a period of time – these things always have a shelf-life – but these people are kicked to the curb when their usefulness is exhausted. Some would argue this is simply the gambling food chain, and there is probably merit in that view, but while cutting ties with bookmakers is one thing, doing the same to friends whose accounts you might have burned is quite another, especially if they are fond of a bet themselves.
Your stance on this issue might say something about your whole attitude to gambling and indeed your broader personality. Some see gambling as being all about going for the one big touch, ‘the face-spitter’ as Steve Palmer might call it, but the problem with reaching for that single epic punting moment is that it cannot be achieved without first putting in the grind to build up your skills. I’ve always been more about the grind, not least because I enjoy it; let’s face it, studying a good race meeting is more stimulating than sitting down to a night in front of ‘The X-Factor’!
Perhaps this brand of ruthlessness is born of the fact that gambling at its heart is a selfish endeavour; it is your money that you are wagering and ultimately the responsibility stops with you. My own experience tells me otherwise however. I find gambling is much more satisfying when done in concert with a few close betting partners where you can share successes; perhaps you don’t maximise profits completely but there are more important things in life. I might be alone in this but I would rather win less and enjoy the experience more.