Thursday, 25 May 2017

You Won't Win

I know it's not horse racing but this article on blackjack, written by Arnold Snyder, is fascinating simply for his frankness in explaining his thoughts about the chances of winning in a game he has dedicated his life. If you are interested in blackjack, card counting or strategies, it makes sobering reading. Not sure if it has relevance to horse racing betting or trading but it makes a point or two that we may all relate.

[Written from the depths of a once-in-a-lifetime magnitude losing streak...]

I am now in the process of editing a new book which, by the time you read this article in Casino Player, will already be published. Blackjack Wisdom is a compilation of some seventy-five magazine articles I have written over the past fifteen years or so, many of which initially appeared in Casino Player.

As I wrap up this project, I must confess that an entire chapter has been excised from this book—and the single longest chapter at that. “Bucks in Flux” was, for many months, the working title of Chapter One. This chapter was composed of more than a dozen articles I had written over the years for various periodicals, all with a common theme—negative fluctuations.

Among these articles were such gems as:

“Is It all Just Luck?” from Card Player,

“Speaking of Streaking,” from Casino Player,

“Those *!%]#* Fluctuations,” from Poker World,

“Good Guys Lose and Bad Guys Win,” from Blackjack Forum, and many other fine essays which, I must admit, bore some of my favorite titles. Perhaps I will include this chapter, or portions of it, in Blackjack Wisdom II. Perhaps I will simply let these writings die, uncollected in any anthology. But I have trashed the entire chapter at this late hour, with a decision instead to end the book with this article you are reading right now. So, you—my Casino Player faithful—do not have to buy the book, since you already know how it ends!

Essentially, each and every one of the “Bucks in Flux” articles delivers the same depressing message, a message I have espoused in every one of my books, a message which can be edited down to three words:

You won’t win.

Do I really need fifteen articles to say those three words? I don’t think so. Though it occurs to me that all blackjack books should have at least one chapter titled: “You Won’t Win.”

The message delivered by most blackjack books and systems has always been the same baloney. Stanley Roberts’ Winning Blackjack was once advertised with the slogan: “Make every casino in the world your personal bank account!” Ken Uston’s Million Dollar Blackjack was promoted with: “Make $500 per day any time you want!” And these aren’t phony systems; these books contain legitimate card counting strategies.

You can’t always tell the real systems from the phonies by looking at the advertising. Promotion is a promotion. Authors of blackjack books, like authors of all “self-help” books—from weight-loss systems to multi-level marketing programs—are reluctant to deliver the message:

You won’t win.

Nobody wants to hear it.

When I self-published my first book, The Blackjack Formula, in 1980, and advertised it in Gambling Times magazine with the catchy, upbeat slogan: “Card Counters Beware,” stating in the ad that most of the blackjack games available in the casinos of the world were unbeatable with any card counting system, the publisher of Gambling Times, Stan Sludikoff, told me bluntly that I would never make any great amount of money trying to sell books with that type of pessimistic advertising.

Stan was write. Seventeen years later, I’m still just scraping by, still delivering that vastly unpopular message:

You won’t win.

Of course, there are a few players who do win. Professional card counters exist; they’re not entirely mythical. It’s just that I know that these professional players are so exceptional, so obsessed, so dedicated, such gluttons for punishment, so terror-stricken by the concept of working a nine-to-five job, so few and far between in every sense of few and far between, that, honestly, you are highly unlikely to be one of these human anomalies. And the most honest thing I can say to you, if you tell me that you really want to become a professional blackjack player, is:

You won’t win.

And the reason is fluctuations.

If you are anything like the masses of humanity, if you like to be rewarded for your efforts within some reasonable time frame, you won’t be able to take the fluctuations. Those negative downswings will be bigger, and harder, and longer lasting, and more upsetting, and more unbelievable, than your level of toleration. Your losses will tear at your heart, and fill you with emptiness, and leave you in a state of quiet desperation. I hear this from players over and over again. I hear this from players who claim to have studied diligently and practiced for hours on end, for weeks and months with a singular dream—to beat the casinos.

And they don’t win.

And they ask me why.

And I say, “Oh, it’s just a normal standard deviation. A negative fluctuation. It could happen to anyone.”

But it happened to you.

Your money.

Your hours.

Your months of dreaming.

And you didn’t win.

So, over and over again, in my books, and my columns, and my magazine articles, I feel compelled to deliver the message I have been delivering since my very first book in 1980:

You won’t win.

Some card counters will win, but not you. Some card counters will actually experience inordinate positive fluctuations! Wow!

But not you.

You won’t win.

Other card counters will be having champagne parties in their hotel rooms, celebrating that marvelous life of freedom and money and adventure that just seems to come naturally with the lifestyle of a professional gambler. But not for you. You will be among the unfortunate few who, statistically speaking, will be located in the far left tail of the Gaussian curve. Someone has to be there. It will be you.

I have been in that tail; it is a cold and lonely place. I suspect many of those who write about this game have been there, and they know what a cold and lonely place it is. Every professional card counter I know has been there. And if they have played blackjack professionally for many years, they have been there many times. These players have hearts stronger than mine, and I suspect, stronger than yours.

This much I know: it is easier to make a living writing about this game than it is playing it.

In any case, instead of filling an entire chapter of this book with some fifteen articles, written over a period of seventeen years, every one of which simply says, you won’t win, I’ve tossed the whole chapter out in favor of leaving you with just those three words of blackjack wisdom:


By Arnold Snyder
(From Casino Player, November 1997)
© Arnold Snyder 1997

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Getting Bets On

Another fascinating article from the Horse Racing Pro.

Okay, the title is already somewhat misleading! We have covered many of the aspects of actually identifying the sort of horse that is liable to make you money. This time I am addressing a persistent problem for the successful or semi-successful punter: that of actually placing bets.

Before launching in to the rights and wrongs of the uneasy game of financial chess played between bookmakers and punters, a thorough grounding in debate, or arguing if I am truthful, dictates I ought to present both sides of the argument.

Perhaps we can look at the punter’s case first. He contends that bookmakers invite bets by pricing up horses and if they are incorrect, it is his prerogative to revise his betting accordingly. Therefore, when the bookmaker offers 8/1 about a horse he priced the night before and the going has altered, or there is a noticeable change in draw bias, the punter bemoans the fact he cannot avail himself of the price. After all, his argument will meander, the price did not stipulate, ‘only available if nothing has occurred that is likely to alter the chance of said runner since this price was framed.’ Refusing bets on this animal is tantamount to saying 8/1 is only available providing the horse is not three lengths clear with a hundred yards to cover. The bookmaker that assessed its chance as being 8/1 realises he may have got it wrong and is restricting how much is available. Surely, such behaviour is scandalous!

Okay, let us look at this from the bookmaker’s perspective. He has priced up the race in good faith, assuming that the prices reflect a rough betting pattern on the event in question. So in the case of the 8/1 chance, he would expect approximately eleven percent of all punters betting on the event to back that particular runner. When it is quite plain that, for whatever reason, instead of eleven percent of punters wishing to back it, something like twenty-five percent of punters wish to be on [making it a 3/1 chance in real terms], one of two things has occurred. Either the bookmakers have made a massive collective mistake, or something beyond their control has manifested itself making demand for the 8/1 chance radically increase. Possibly the horse is a Pricewise selection or, as earlier illustrated, circumstances have altered.

Understandably, the bookmaker needs and wants to take evasive action. That means from his point of view two things must happen: he has to restrict the bets he takes on the horse and, at the earliest opportunity, the price must be altered to a more realistic one.
At the risk of stating the obvious, I will state it anyway as it seems to be overlooked by many a disgruntled punter. Bookmakers are not there to provide a service. They are in business to make money. They are not obliged to accommodate punters at all costs. In their defence, they do try to cater for regular smaller-stake clients, those they perceive as comprising their core business. But the first sort of customer to receive a knock-back is the one they do not really want – the one that plays for high stakes.

Allow me to deviate for just a paragraph here and cite the current situation facing banks. On the face of it, their reluctance to pass on the interest rate decrease appears shameful. But is it? Despite what would be protestations to the contrary, Government has engineered this change in interest rates. By reacting in a prescribed manner by the Bank of England, banks and building societies are running the risk of exacerbating present financial problems. Government is attempting to refloat the economy by stimulating borrowing. In part, that is how we find ourselves in our current situation. As commercial businesses, banks are unprepared to be Government-managed, making them reluctant to lend money at disadvantageous rates and to people or companies that are likely to be poor risks. I am afraid under the present crisis that means all of us have to be including in this category. (However, the passing of the borrowing rate to existing mortgage holders would be a reasonable compromise.) So a present stand-off exists between commercial companies of great strength and influence, and a Government whose policies are crumbling but that holds enormous power. The fact banks are resisting, demonstrates the strength of the free market. Money does not lie; not in world economy or on the racecourse. Unless we live in a police State, enterprise and a free market will always face up to the might of Government when it suspects it is in its interest to do so.

Know thy enemy! As punters, it is important for us to understand the way bookmakers operate, just as they know how we tick. In the example given, I can sympathise to an extent with the bookmaker’s plight.

Another popular complaint from punters is that they cannot get on. Half-hearted punters will tell you they are constantly knocked back. The inference is that they are too warm for the bookmakers to handle. The truth is that often they are taking the piss. Ask to back the second favourite each-way for serious money when the favourite is odds-on and the bookmaker will not want to know. Would you? It is a snide bet. No wonder this request is refused; such a punter is nothing short of a nuisance and is prejudicing his future chances. Try asking your local greengrocer if he will sell you 3 kilos of apples (or apples’s as greengrocers spell them), at cost, and he will soon tell you where to go. The principle is the same! Give a decent bookmaker a chance of winning from you and he will reciprocate by giving you a chance of winning from him. Ask the punter that tells you he is holding his own, breaking even, or beating his bookmaker one question: ‘Did your bookmaker send you a diary this year?’ If the answer is yes, the punter is a loser! Bookmakers do not send free diaries to customers that cost them money!

In some cases, heavy-hitters or very shrewd or well-informed punters cannot get on pure and simple. To put the bookmaker’s case, their bets can be so large they tip the scales of what is supposed to be a balanced book wildly out of kilter. No bookmaker wants a field book that contains ten £20 bets and one of £3,000. The clue is in the title. He is attempting to make a book and clearly cannot do that if it is top-heavy. What the £3,000 bettor is forcing the bookmaker to do is to gamble, and bookmakers are not in that business; after all that is supposed to be our province. To restore some equilibrium to the argument, bookmakers should know by now that no book is balanced. Most races only provide three or four runners that attract significant support. But there are occasions when all those for money get beaten, meaning the layer has the luxury of a clear book. It comes and goes. I do sympathise with punters known to be warm that open accounts with bookmakers. They phone to place a bet in the region of £800 (only part of their overall bet but a reasonable request for an individual firm) only to be told they can have £25. That is a disgrace! Bookmakers should refuse to either conduct business with select punters lock stock and barrel, or accept their wagers without too much question. The problem with the present system as far as hot punters are concerned is that, rather like the betting in-running players on the exchanges, they only get accommodated on potential losers. This means the bookmaker is dictating the extent of their business, which is bad news. The money belongs to the punter and if denied the chance to back horses identified as potential winners by the bookmaker, his chance of winning overall is greatly reduced. I have known many a big-hitter that has subsequently backed only short-priced horses, safe in the knowledge he will be accommodated. Now, they are in potential trouble. The reason they get on is that they are backing horses whose chances are there for all to see. They are firing into the Master Mindeds or Kauto Stars of this world. Bookmakers will soak up that sort of business all day. After all, the chance of such horses is common knowledge. Some win, some lose. Some whip round at the start, some unseat, some break legs. But not enough of them win to give the punter an advantage; and as I reiterate, without an edge, you will not win in the long run.

Being able to back what you wish to back is imperative for the professional punter. Depending on the individual concerned and the type of his business, to place his bets successfully, he has to be prepared to adjust his approach. Some very big players have a network of people who place bets for them. Bookmakers categorise punters’ business. Good customers, (that is to say habitual losers) are A Grade and their system slides down according to the win-to-lose ratio of the client. Placers of bets on behalf of others normally hold losing accounts, so bookmakers are reluctant to refuse their bets even if they know they are backing a warm horse. At first they will surmise such a bet could be a coincidence and will accept it on the assumption that even if it wins, they will get the money back. But the intelligence of bookmakers is sharp. Please note, by intelligence I am not necessarily talking about their IQ factor. No, I am referring to their ability to isolate what is happening, their MI5-type capacity if you like. Once they know you are placing bets for one of the big ten or twelve players in the business, you are tagged and reoccurrence of such business means refusal. As a result, the really big players are always on the lookout for new agents to handle part of their business, which, if mixed in with everyday stuff, has a chance of slipping under the wire.

Some of the bigger players open deposit accounts on behalf of ordinary people and run the business as if they were the individuals concerned. The bank details are all correct, cash is withdrawn and deposited at the behest of the punter and the real person, who is impersonated when the punter makes his phone calls, paid a commission. Some of the most successful and biggest players have to go to such lengths in order to place bets.

You may wonder what sort of punter is forced into taking such action. Firstly, there is the big hitter – the man betting in unquantifiable sums. His instructions can often be to ‘Get on as much as you can.’ No limit; no strings attached: £100,000, half-a-million, a million. He will accept whatever is returned. As you can imagine very few such punters exist. Even with the guarantee that such business guarantees the procurement of inside information, possibly of the highest calibre, I would dissuade involvement. Anyone dealing with this type of player is liable to sleepless nights. Being owed half a million by the King of Zongo Zongo is all very well, but should he be mauled to death by a rampant lion in his sleep, obtaining it is a different matter. Apart from the obvious drawback of getting paid (everyone dies – ever thought of how difficult it might be to persuade Mrs Zongo Zongo that you are owed the money – particularly if she ushered the lion into his bedroom?), your personal betting, if you are counting on King Zongo Zongo’s connections, will always involve you taking under the odds. By definition, your function is to ensure the king receives the best odds available. You are merely receiving the crumbs left on the table, or in this case, possibly the bones. No one, other than a close ally, blood relative, or someone you owe money to, should be granted credit. Some rules in life are incontrovertible. This I suggest is one.  

So if you are successful in this business and bet in reasonable sums, just how do you get on? I shall use myself as an example because that way I shall not offend anyone and I am addressing a subject I know something about. As far as I am concerned, the fewer people privy to my business the better. But it is an unfortunate fact that the bigger the player you are, the more likely it is that you are compelled to recruit helpers. Personally, I am not big enough to resort to these tactics. And although I often use commission agents, I have a fair relationship with one firm that allows me to do business on advantageous terms because my stakes are not so big that I knock them over, and they respect my opinion. I realise some of you may accuse me of consorting with the enemy but mine is a one-off case, which, without going into detail, I can justify. Putting it bluntly, I used to work for the firm concerned. I play the game with them; in return, they play it with me. But I am under no illusion, they will do me no favours and the bigger my stake, the less likely they are to be obliging.

I have been in the business a while and built up useful contacts along the way. The same will happen to any aspiring punter who makes the grade but, as with all matters, it takes time.

I have two additional pieces of advice for those wishing to make a living backing horses. We have established it can be done but is very difficult. Unless you are Michael Tabor, in which case I suspect I lost you a long time ago; as expressed in my last piece, expenses make life hard. If an opportunity presents itself to make money from a sideline allied to your racing prowess, then take it. Most professionals do have regular incomes of some sort. It takes pressure away from those losing runs and means you have a specified amount coming in each month, even if sometimes more goes out. My situation is a perfect example. Bob Rothman (a man I have known for a long time) pays me to write up my racing notes and compile articles for this site. He underpays me of course, but because he is a  pleasure to work for, trustworthy and does not encroach on my lifestyle, I do it. As I write, it is an arrangement that suits us both admirably. In truth, I am paid to do something I enjoy and most of the input to the site is the result of work I would be doing in any case. The only downside is that I am allowing private thoughts and opinions to enter the public domain. However, such is the nature of the beast – the price those of us in search of a regular wage must pay. Many of the horses I nominate on Bush Telegraph shorten up in the market. Now, there are two reasons for this. Firstly, if I back them then I am in-part responsible. This is not because I smash horses up as my employer might do, but because those who handle my business respect my opinion and they are liable to follow me, often for higher stakes.

Secondly, most of the time what I say is correct. Therefore, because I have hit on the right horse, others are waiting in the wings to invest their cash, which will affect the betting market. If that sounds conceited, that is not my intention. I have already explained that I spend a great deal of time watching and analysing races. This work pays dividends and often means I know more than the opposition. It does not guarantee success but means most of the time I know what I am doing.

As I write, I have narrowly failed to receive a payday on Whistledownwind, a horse foolishly campaigned over an incorrect trip before going to Jeremy Noseda and inched out today over a more suitable distance. Unfortunately, the cat is out of the bag and Whistledownwind will not be available at all prices from 10/1 to 7’s next time. But it is an example of how, when you feel you know what is not obvious to all and sundry, you can mop up while those who were on their third pint as you worked are left scratching their heads.  

Thursday, 11 May 2017

The Gambler's Mindset: Luck

Successful pros like Joe Hachem may seem to have more to smile about, but it's a chicken-and-egg situation. You might not be able to magic up a lottery win, but you can certainly increase your chances of being one of life’s winners. Lucky people smile twice as often as the unlucky, and engage in more eye contact. In our everyday experience it can seem that some people ‘have all the luck’ and others appear to be jinxed.

We can all think of lucky people who seem to be in the right place at the right time, meet the right people, win all the money at the gaming tables and go from one success to another. I recently read a news story on the internet highlighting that luck is indeed about being in the right place at the right time. The story concerned a waitress at a Las Vegas casino who won $362,259 during her lunch break. After playing for 15 minutes, she won the largest slot jackpot payout ever. However, only three months later, her car was hit by a drunk driver who had 17 previous arrests for drunk driving. She was seriously injured and her older sister was killed. This time she was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

McGambling’s golden arches

When applied to the world of gambling, our belief in luck has huge political and financial ramifications. Until 1978, Nevada was the only US state where gambling was legal. By 2005, almost all states had a lottery (although ironically not Nevada), and today, casinos have even sprung up on Indian reservations. This ‘domino effect’ phenomenon has been described by media commentators as the ‘McGambling’ and ‘Las Vegasing’ of the US. In short, politicians view legalised gambling and people’s belief in luck as a magic bullet to cure ailing state economies that are motivated by the ‘pathology of hope’. The UK doesn’t appear to be that far behind. Canada also now has a large number of casinos and not just confined to Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver; with the business case often trumping the social or moral case when planning decisions arise. Unlike the U.S though there's a lax regulatory regime managing internet casinos with Canadians able to deposit and play quite easily at these types of offshore casino sites.

Given people’s widespread beliefs about luck, there’s been relatively little psychological research on the subject. Professor Richard Wiseman at the University of Hertfordshire has spent many years studying luck and believes he’s discovered four principles of luck and knows how to help people improve their good fortune. The results of this work reveal that people aren’t born lucky. Instead, lucky people are unconsciously using four basic principles to create good fortune in their lives. These could also be applied to gambling situations. Wiseman’s research has involved him being with those who define themselves as either lucky or unlucky, and examining the reasons why. Wiseman started by asking randomly chosen UK shoppers whether they had been lucky or unlucky in several different areas of their lives, including their careers, relationships, home life, health and financial matters. Of those adults he surveyed, 50% considered themselves lucky and 16% unlucky. Those lucky or unlucky in one area were more likely to report the same in other areas. Most experienced either consistent good or bad fortune. Professor Wiseman therefore concluded that luck could not simply be the outcome of chance events.

So what do lucky people do that is different from unlucky people? Lucky people are skilled at creating, noticing and acting upon chance opportunities by networking, adopting a relaxed attitude to life and by being open to new experiences. Also, lucky people listen to lucky hunches. They make effective decisions by listening to their intuition and gut feelings. For example, they take steps to actively boost their intuitive abilities by meditating and clearing their mind of other thoughts. Thirdly, lucky people expect good fortune. They are certain that the future is going to be full of good fortune. These expectations become self-fulfilling prophecies by helping lucky people persist in the face of failure, and shape their interactions with others in a positive way. Finally, lucky people turn bad luck into good. They employ various psychological techniques to cope with, and often even thrive upon the ill fortune that comes their way. For example, they spontaneously imagine how things could have been worse, do not dwell on the ill fortune, and take control of the situation.

So can ‘lucky’ people win at gambling without trying? Professor Wiseman tested this proposition by getting 700 people to gamble on the National Lottery. The ‘lucky’ participants were twice as confident of winning as the ‘unlucky’ ones. However, results showed that only 36 participants actually won any money, and these were split evenly between the two groups. The study showed that being lucky doesn’t change the laws of probability!

Luck is a mindset

Research has also shown lucky people use body language and facial expressions that other people find attractive, smiling twice as often as the unlucky and engaging in more eye contact. Also, they’re more likely to have a broad network of friends and take advantage of favourable opportunities. Lucky people view misfortune as shortlived and overcome it quickly. Those who expect to fail may not even try. Lucky people try to achieve their goals even when the odds are against them. Luck isn’t a magical ability or a gift from the gods. It is a mind-set, a way of perceiving and dealing with life. This is something gamblers should know and try to apply to their daily gambling activity.

Read more fascinating gambler psychology stories here: Bet You Buy The Red Car