Horse racing betting
Even people who’ve never been inside a bookmakers will bet on big races like the Grand National. And many put their trust in chance, choosing their horse out of a hat, or because of its name. In the case of the Grand National, that’s not as silly as it sounds, as it’s basically a lottery: over the last 40 years, the favourite has won just four times, as so many outsiders have romped home in front.
There’s been one consistent winner, though: the bookies. That’s because the odds they quote aren’t left to chance, they’re based on what the punters are backing. The bookies adjust their odds to make a profit from all the punters who end up backing losers.
Successful gambling therefore means knowing things most punters don’t know – and so aren’t reflected in the odds. Many gamblers try to get insight by studying ‘form’, the performance of each horse over different races. It’s a hard job, requiring constant input of data and analysis, but some professional gamblers undoubtedly make a good living out of the proceeds.
A more sophisticated technique involves spotting differences in the odds offered by various bookmakers. By betting the appropriate amounts, it’s possible to guarantee a profit, as the winnings from one bookmaker more than cancel out the losses from the others. The problem is the difference in odds between bookies is usually small – and, as such, so are the profits.
If all this sounds too much like hard work, there’s a simple rule of thumb anyone can use: forget long shots. Analysis of the results of horse races shows that to be in with a chance of making a profit, you should focus on horses with better than evens odds. In contrast, punters consistently backing long-shots of 20-1 or above face making losses of 30 per cent or more.
Whether you’re doing the pools, betting on half-time scores or the first goal-scorer, gambling on footie is about predicting what will happen when 22 players kick a ball around a pitch. There are three basic strategies: using a ‘system’, relying on professional pundits, or guessing.
Having a system can help, as teams do have ‘form’ and scorelines follow certain rules. For example, home teams are more likely to win, and pitch conditions affect the total number of goals scored.
Last year, statistician Professor David Spiegelhalter of Cambridge University and his student Yin-Lam Ng used a computer analysis of thousands of European matches to predict the outcome of 10 Premiership games played on the same day. They got eight correct, but nailed the precise scoreline only twice.
By contrast, BBC pundit Mark Lawrenson got a creditable seven outcomes correct, plus just one scoreline – confirming the difficulty of predicting exact results.
Gambling carries financial risk and can be addictive. If you think you have a problem with gambling, contact www.gamcare.org.uk or call 0845 6000 133.