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Sunday, 23 October 2011

THE ART OF WINNER-FINDING: A Day in the Life of a Professional Gambler

I found this article about the day in the life of a professional gambler so thought it might be quite an insightful read, which uses a jockey as an unusual role model. I have long thought jockeys are a breed apart. Consider the qualities required. Apart from the weight constrictions, necessitating considerable discipline for all except the fortunate few over both codes, they have a mental make-up that surpasses most mortals.
Even if most of us were technically proficient enough to be jockeys, I suggest our characters would let us down. Jockeys have to be risk-takers. They also have to be implacable, undeterred, brave under pressure and impervious to criticism. For Sam Thomas at present that must be tough, but he seems to be coping one hell of a lot better than most of us would under the wretched set of circumstances fate has chucked his way.

Making a decision on a racehorse is not as crucial as those surgeons regularly face, nor is it akin to trying to decide what jumper to buy Auntie Vie for Christmas. And let’s face it, that is the closest most of us get to decision-making. That and what joint to roast on Sunday, whether to take the country route or the motorway; let’s face it, compared with jockeys who are making career-based decisions on a regular basis each and every day, most of us have the dash and daring of Noddy.

If you ever watch a jockey being interviewed before or after a race, you will see a person focused but totally laid back. The latter quality is extremely important. When handling animals, the last thing you want to be is excitable. Frankie Dettori may be a bottle of gas after a big race, but observe him beforehand and he is an iceman. They all are. Watch them nonchalantly enter the stalls on some stirred up beast and they give the impression of being half-asleep. They are not of course, but they can transfer such quiet determination to their mounts, giving the partnership its best possible chance, even though horses may be plunging and rearing all around them. I cannot think of any other sport that requires its participants to be so cool beforehand. Footballers are tense and volatile, much the same as tennis players. I guess golfers are pretty laid back, but then they don’t exactly make life or death decisions on a regular basis. They need the constitution of a poker player.

For all their steely nerve – and it does take nerve, real nerve to race ride – jockeys are the sportsmen that get the most stick from the public. That is presumably because they carry other people’s cash, meaning they run the gauntlet of punters’ frustration or dissatisfaction.

As a punter, the ability to take a similar stance to that of the man on top will serve you well. Most of us do find that hard to do. Unlike jockeys, we do not own half of Newmarket or Lambourn or have shares in pubs and restaurants – results therefore assume drastic proportions as we are merely working for a living on a no win no fee basis. For obvious reasons it is not one I recommend, but serious punters have little choice. However, cultivating a jockey mentality will help you enormously. Any business based on a success rate, with no retainer involved, places plenty of pressure on its operator. And pressure leads to nerves and nerves mean that you will make poor decisions. The decision-making process of a professional gambler is a delicate one. He needs to have his wits about him at all times and be totally calm and focused, just like the jockey. Picking winners is not enough, it is knowing what to do when you have unearthed them that counts. It is not what you say in this business, it is what you do! For that reason, remove the pressure and give a card to Aunt Dolly, and she will probably come up with a winner or two. Ask her to do it to order and her strike rate will rapidly dwindle. For that is the trick – being able to perform on cue. That is what jockeys, actors, footballers and musicians do. As a professional punter, you have to do it too.

Using jockeys as a role model is not a bad idea. For if you are to make it in this business, a great deal of self-discipline is required and emotions need to be kept in check.

I have said before that there are basically two types of backers in this business: those that formulate their own opinions and those that accept others are better at winner-finding than they are and who leave it to them. But it is the final decision that counts. That is the one that decides who wins and who loses. So, whichever route you choose, allow me to take you through a typical day of a professional punter, or at least this particular professional.

It should start at about 6.00am. That is to stay you are shifting the brain into gear at about that time. Personally, I get up around then in the summer – later in the winter as there is less to do and it is colder. I work out and have breakfast, aiming to be looking at the Racing Post around 7.15am. Working out is not obligatory, but if you lead a sedentary life working from home, it is not a bad idea to keep in shape. Most successful businessmen keep themselves sharp physically as well as mentally. I am not saying you will not become successful as a punter by drinking six pints of lager a night or swigging a bottle of wine, it is just I would not recommend it. Nor would I advocate that just because you can, you slop around all day in a dressing gown or a tracksuit, not bothering to shave.

If you accept that a degree of discipline is required to be a success at anything – let alone something that requires a great deal of effort and concentration – then you need to act and feel the part. Shuffling around like vagrant, piling on pounds because you drink too much and exercise too little, will not help your self-esteem and therefore will not spur you on to perform to your best. You need not go to the lengths I go to: I often wear a suit, treating my office as if it is a place of work and as I would if I were logging-in at a company. Now, we are all different and I am sure some of you will chuckle at this concept. You can ignore my extremes but I insist, if you are serious about making a business out of betting, you should shave and shower every morning and at least be smart casual. Look the part; think the part and you might just act the part!

We have arrived at 7.15am. I hope that we can have breakfast – time is tight so make it light. Tea and toast whilst you read the paper; then by 7.30 it is office or shed, or corner of the dining room – whatever it is you are using as your work area. Spend the next ninety minutes brushing up on your knowledge of the day’s racing. You should have done plenty of work on the cards the day before and formulated opinions. This is crucial, as opinions formed without external influences are important. Once you take the Racing Post as our starting point, even subliminally, you are putting yourself in the hands of others, for you are bound to be swayed by what you read. Take on board the opinions of the Post team by all means, but it is better to form your own first.

Now you should be doing some last minute checks. Make sure there is nothing you have overlooked, that any potential selections have optimum conditions. It may sound obvious but it is so easy to make a mistake over the distance of a race. Because it is full of sprinters, you assume it is over five furlongs when in fact it is run over six. You assume it is a ten-furlong race (which suits your selection) but it is over twelve (a trip it is unproven over). It is worth reading the Spotlight section as a last minute fail-safe device. And a word of warning: sometimes we get just a little bit excited when we think we have uncovered something. That is when we can overlook a vital component. It could be the horse has not run for six months, which is always a worry. He may have never won this way round, over the trip, won on the going, or perhaps he is one of those idiosyncratic types to run all his best races on downhill tracks. These things may sound trivial and sometimes they are. Better to know them before you strike the bet than after though! That way you can at least address whatever niggles exist. Which brings me to another point: No bet is perfect. The clue is in the title. It is a bet – a wager – you are taking a chance. The object as far as you, the backer is concerned, is to strip that risk down to a minimum.

By now, we are approaching 9.00am and a good chunk of the day’s work is already over. Most people in office-land are just arriving at their desks, clearing their heads from the night before and having that first cup of coffee. Already you are ahead of the game. With luck, you have washed, shaved and changed. If not, you are about to. You are ready to face the challenges that lie ahead whilst some of the opposition – the bookmakers for example – are still rubbing sleep from their eyes.

It is around now either I make a phone call or receive one. I speak seriously to one other person. Like me, he is a professional and I respect his judgement. We agree most of the time but not always. But I always look at his ideas a second time before disregarding them as he does with mine. Very often, he will see things I have missed and vice versa. I need all the help I can get and this is no game to egomaniacs. He will often have information I do not have and, again, vice versa. He is a man I trust implicitly; therefore, there is no game playing.

None of this: I will get my bet on first and after the price is gone will tell you what I have backed nonsense. That works both ways but you cannot afford to have this sort of arrangement with more than one, or at most, two other people. An arrangement founded on duplicity will never last. The fact that my chief contact and I operate a totally open business relationship is one of the reasons it has endured the rough and tumble of this business for so long.

I might make one or two other calls, possibly receive one and that, as far as I am concerned, is that. I run a tight ship. My time is valuable. I am not here to tip to the bloke down the road and the butcher – time is money. It is my time and my money! I ration both sparingly, refusing to become entangled in long drawn out counter-productive conversations. Once you establish yourself as any kind of judge there will be no shortage of people wishing to phone you up. They will not have put in the work you have, nor will they have the contacts you have. They are spongers. Do not let them feed from your plate as they will take more food from it than you. Only deal with people than can reciprocate and people you absolutely trust.

This is a funny business and you never fully know with whom you are consorting. For all you know the matey matey guy that you gave your number to at Newmarket marks Corals’ card.

By now it is mid-morning and should know your plans for the day. If you can squeeze it in, find time to look at tomorrow’s cards. With racing starting so early now it is difficult I know, but at least familiarise yourself with likely opportunities for the next day. You can return to the cards in the evening if you have the heart and the energy after a day’s punting, but this is a personal matter.

Some people (including myself) like to have a laid down ritual of working. I try to work to a set number of hours; otherwise, I run the risk of burnout. To do this job properly we would all start at dawn and finish at midnight. That is not feasible and you will soon get sick of the business if you do it to death, opting to work at B&Q for an easier life. Use your time wisely but do not push yourself beyond a reasonable limit, particularly when you first start, as it will take a while to slip into a routine. You will probably work more hours in the first few months than you will once you are on top of the job – rather than it being on top of you.

Give yourself a break for lunch. A sandwich is all that is on offer I am afraid. No stodgy stews or anything heavy and definitely, never, never, under any circumstances, any alcohol. Betting and alcohol do not mix.

I have never forgotten this story related by Jimmy Tarbuck. Whilst hosting the London Palladium, he drank half a glass of offered champagne in the wings. On his return to the stage to announce the top of the bill, he completely forgot whom it was he was supposed to be introducing. That is the power of even a small amount of wine. Alcohol is fine but it does not mix with any business transaction of any kind. Drink or bet. Don’t attempt both.

By now, racing is about to start. I tend to listen to music in the morning, which some might say is a bad habit, but it gets me away from the tirade of all day racing. Once I have switched on the racing channels it is time to concentrate on the day’s trading. It is time to put all my work into practice. On busy days, I don’t try to watch every race but I always detach the cards from the Racing Post and staple each meeting together. That way I can make two piles: one covered by Racing UK, one covered by ATR. I accord priority to the main meeting of the day or the one I am most interested in and ring any other race or races of significance. Sometimes, just getting to see the races is a full-time job!

I try to finish at 5pm this time of year; writing up any notes on the day’s racing, but of course, there is still evening racing to contend with. Luckily, not too much of it needs close attention. Now is the time to have a meal, enjoy a glass or two of wine or beer if you wish; but only if you have rung down the curtain on the betting booth.

If all this sounds like fun then you too could be a professional gambler. That is basically how I do it, although I am sure there are others that will use a different approach. If you find you can pick out winners from the back of a dustcart swigging cider as you go, good luck to you. Just don’t take out any long term loans!

And remember I have outlined just one day. There are 360 or so racing days a year. That is an awful lot. You need to pace yourself; even jockeys and Coldplay get more than four days holiday a year!

Personally, I make sure I take at least two, normally three breaks a year. I find that way I return refreshed and ready for business. I never worry about the winners I may have missed whilst on a beach somewhere, but make sure I fit such breaks into a suitable period of racing. Normally I go for winter holidays, short breaks in the spring and a week in the autumn.

You will be surprised how much you have missed whilst you have been away and how much catching up there is to do but, if you are chained to this business for the rest of your life then I contend it is not much of a life, irrespective of how much you may be winning.