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Thursday, 17 March 2011

The Football Odds Compiler

SUN-TZU, the ancient chinese warrior, said in his epic work The Art Of War: "If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles."

For punters, the enemy are the odds-compilers, so to avoid fearing your next hundred wagers, it is useful to know who you are up against.

Do these men know more than we do? Do they eat, breathe and sleep football? Are they armed with ultra-sophisticated computer programmes that help them to generate faultless prices that give punters no edge? Or do they just pick up a fixture list, spend a minute or two on each game and hope they have got their prices accurate enough to avoid a complete disaster for the firms that employ them?

Sorry to disappoint anyone who might hope the odds are hastily thrown together and that anyone out there with a few hours to spare can spot scores of mistakes on a single coupon, but, yes, sports odds-compilers are indeed a diligent and conscientious breed who leave no stone unturned in their efforts to make life as hard as possible for those who punt on their prices.

Ask people whose opinion on British football counts for most and the majority will probably reply Alan Hansen or Andy Gray. But with all due respect to those shrewd and erudite Scotsmen, their views are less important than those of the average odds-compiler.

A TV pundit can get something hopelessly wrong - didn't Hansen once say that you win nothing with kids just as the Manchester United team of the youthful Giggs, Scholes, Butt, Beckham and Nevilles embarked on a successful Championship campaign? - and the only consequence is that he might lose a bit of face.

If a compiler gets something hopelessly wrong, ruthless punters pounce and the guilty man's employers are liable to get irate.

When it comes to putting your money where your mouth is, nobody does it with a greater degree of risk than a compiler, especially a football compiler.

Given the enormous volume of matches that the leading bookmakers price up every week, the scope for errors is obvious. Punters can choose whether or not to bet on a match. Oddsmakers, 99 per cent of the time, do not have that luxury.

One of the foremost practitioners of the art is Steve Andrews, who is senior sports odds-compiler for Coral.

He has been with the firm at their Barking, Essex, headquarters since 1985 and has witnessed at first hand the spectacular growth of the sports betting sector of the business.

Some oddsmakers prefer to operate in complete anonymity, but Andrews, while in no way a publicity-seeker, is always available to give the bookmakers' side of things. And now, with the following account of a week in his life, he offers a fascinating insight into how football prices are compiled and traded, where he feels his company is most vulnerable and what makes a successful oddsmaker.

THURSDAY The week effectively begins today, when I start the preparatory work for the following week's matches. To begin with I will collate a definitive fixture list for the period covering next Tuesday to the following Monday. That involves checking various websites to ensure I have all the fixtures right as well as the kick-off times and I also try to find out if there have been any changes of venue. It has happened in the past that I have priced up a particular Uefa Cup game unaware that it has been switched to a neutral venue.

Obviously, this is a major problem for a company like us, which produces coupons for our betting shops. We are extremely reluctant to change prices once they have been printed and distributed so it is crucial to try to get them right before they go to press.

At busy times I can be pricing up in excess of 200 matches and to an extent you live and die by your worst price, so the importance of checking absolutely every detail is obvious.

Once I have finalised the fixtures and worked out how many coupons we need to produce, I then get my suspensions list up to date. This is a vital task.

There are certain teams whose price can alter significantly depending on whether a player is suspended or not, and the easiest thing to miss is if a lower-league player has had an automatic red card reduced on appeal to a yellow, thus meaning his ban is shortened or rescinded. I might be 5-4 a team on the understanding that a player is banned, but if he plays they are a 10-11 chance. And then it is just a case of checking on team news after the midweek games just played. I would say 85 per cent of my research is done via the net with the rest being daily newspapers and magazines like World Soccer. We are lucky that one of our compiling team is fluent in Spanish and Italian so he can trawl websites like Marca for up-to-the-minute news. Finally I am ready to start pricing up the matches, a process that takes me right through until Friday.

FRIDAY The whole point with odds-compiling is that when you price up a football match you are taking three main factors into account: what prices you think the three outcomes should be based on form, what prices you think they should be based on how the market will react, and what prices you think the other bookmakers will be.

In other words, it is not as simple as just going up with prices derived entirely on how the teams are playing, what their head-to-head records are, etc. I might rate a particular home team a 4-6 chance but I know that if I go 4-6 everyone will stick them in their coupon bet and we might end up with liabilities we don't want. Often I can go 8-13, knowing we will still see money for them.

And then there is the issue of what the other compilers will do. I might fancy Manchester United to beat Liverpool for my life and be desperate to make sure I am top price about Liverpool. The skill is to work out how big I need to go to make sure that when the prices of all the bookmakers are published in the Racing Post the following Friday my Liverpool price appears in black type [to indicate it is the biggest or joint-biggest price on offer]. There are times when I will put up a price about a team I want to lay fully expecting to be best-offer and find that other compilers have gone even bigger.

Some games can be priced up in next to no time. If Tottenham are at home to Arsenal I know what I am going to be within 30 seconds. I might do some research to query the prices, but more often than not I will stick with my original feel price. After a while an experienced compiler should be able to price up matches virtually on instinct without making too many ricks.

Other matches are far harder to deal with, and that is when having a team of compilers like we do is so important. Four of us price up every match, but the final call is with me. There are times when I am, say, 8-11 a team and the other three guys are 10-11. The final call is with me but I will discuss the price with the rest of the guys and sometimes it will turn out I have missed something and will go 10-11 whereas on other occasions I will stick to my guns.

There is a particular type of team that I am always happy to lay. I am talking about those mid-table Premiership sides who look so impressive when playing on the counter-attack away from home but who cannot assert any superiority when at home to the division's weaker teams and do not have the game to break them down. In 2003-04 it was a very successful policy of ours to be top-price about the likes of Blackburn and Southampton when they were odds-on at home to the strugglers.

By the end of Friday I aim to have all the next week's prices as complete as possible with just the Saturday results to factor in.

SATURDAY The midweek prices must go to the printers by 6.30pm so Saturday is all about trying to make sure every little late detail is factored into the prices before they are signed off. In other words, Coral's prices on the midweek coupon do not reflect events that happen beyond Saturday evening. If the Monday papers reveal that a player has gone for a scan the day before and is out for a month, that team's midweek price will effectively be wrong.

This is where the punters have an advantage over us, but we do all we can to avoid changing coupon prices because it does not go down well with our regulars, who like the price on the coupon to be the price they get.

I get into the office in time to watch the lunchtime match on Sky, during which I will always be on the lookout for any information that might mean I should consider a price change.

My PC has a facility that automatically flicks up any mention of Coral on the Betfair chatroom, where punters might be discussing what they consider to be a rick price or whatever, and I have constantly updating me with latest information.

And while the main task is to get next week's prices spot on, I am also keeping an eye on how we might do on the games taking place today. The traders will keep me updated with which teams have been best backed so by the time I leave the office to make the short tube journey to West Ham if they are playing at home I will know who we want to win and who we want to lose.

During the match, I will receive a constant stream of text messages from the office keeping me updated with how our bogey teams are getting on.

I am out of my seat the moment the final whistle goes and back at my desk by 5.15 to make the final alterations to the tissue. Prices can change quite a bit depending on the Saturday results. Take a midweek match between Leicester and Tottenham for instance. I might originally be 5-4 Leicester, 7-4 Tottenham and 11-5 the draw. But if that afternoon Leicester have gone and won 2-0 at Arsenal and Spurs have lost 3-0 at Bolton, I will go something like 10-11 Leicester, 5-2 Tottenham, 11-5 the draw.

It is important not to get too carried away by one result, though. With most teams, punters will place a lot more importance in their latest performance than perhaps they should. It's another thing to bear in mind when making the last-minute changes.

The final prices go off to the printers at 6.30pm and between then and the final proofs coming back a couple of hours later I concentrate on updating the ante-post prices. This is an increasingly important task as the ante-post markets become ever more popular. The key points to take into account when deciding how to revise a team's long-term price are how they played that afternoon, how well backed they have been during the week and what their next few fixtures are like. I often like to avoid reducing a team's price too much on the strength of one win. They might have beaten an inferior team 2-0 at home, but where is the surprise in that? Plus, if they have three tough fixtures up next you can keep them unchanged, knowing you will lay them to people who are unaware that their prospects of adding significantly to their points total in the coming weeks are not especially bright.

Likewise, a team that has nicked a draw against a decent outfit and have easy games ahead of them are often worth having on your side so their price will invariably be cut.

Depending on how busy the midweek programme is, I can be away by anything from eight o'clock to midnight.

SUNDAY Each of the compilers does one Sunday in four and the day's main task is to update the long-term markets after the day's action. Even if I am off, I might ring up and have some input into the Premiership betting if there have been some key fixtures. Otherwise, I will go through all the Sunday papers, starting with Football First, which I read from cover to cover because it has reports and stats from all matches.

MONDAY In by 7.30am because there is a lot to do in a short space of time. I have until 1pm to finalise the prices for next weekend. I read The Game, the football supplement in The Times, plus as many other papers as I have time to get through and am back on the net, searching for meaningful news updates.

Apart from the main coupon, we have the handicaps, corners, half-time prices and first scorers to deal with. We price up 13 players from every team in the four divisions to score the first goal, which is quite an undertaking.

Once all the prices are finalised, it is all about checking, checking and checking again. A mistake on the coupon can be very costly. It happens about once a season that we have to do a reprint but that is expensive and can delay distribution into the shops so it is to be avoided unless absolutely necessary.

I often think how much easier the job would be if, like many online and telebet firms, we did not have coupons and could just our change prices as and when we felt it necessary.

I remember being in Australia to watch England in the cricket World Cup in 1992 and walking into a betting shop. I asked for some rugby league prices and the manager just pressed a button and printed me out the latest show.

In a sense it would be great to be able to do the same, but you can't just go changing things like that because the shop regulars would not like it. These guys are our bread and butter and if they are able to back a team at 7-4 on the coupon when I would love us to have cut them to 11-8 because their centre-forward and goalkeeper have been crocked we just have to live with it.

TUESDAY This is a less intensive day and, as far as I am concerned, the last day of the working week. It is a big European day as we sign off all the weekend Euro coupons on a Tuesday. We bet on eight divisions across Europe and will have all the tissues prepared in advance so we can just revise them according to the latest news and get them away.

European football is difficult to price up because we are up against people who know as much about, say, Dutch football as the average Englishman knows about the Premiership. But our European specialist is extremely good and we do well out of it. In fact, we do well out of football as a whole over the course of a season.

On a good weekend we can win 60 per cent of the total amount bet on football with us. On a bad weekend we can lose up to ten times our turnover, although hopefully that will remain a once-a-season occurrence.

WEDNESDAY A day off, although there is almost always at least one evening match to be watched. Then it's back into the office on Thursday morning to start the process all over again.