02/10/2014 3:04PM

An end-game strategy for tournament players

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Every contest player hopes to be in this spot: It’s the last race and you’re in the top 10. What horse should you play? The answer is going to depend on a number of factors.

I’m going to start with the supposition that you’re best off trying to win the contest outright rather than just to shoot for the high money. The reason is that in contest play the money is most often disproportionately tilted to the first spot. Yes, there are instances where it might make sense to shoot for second, as Tony Brice did at this year’s NHC. I also detail another example of this in The Winning Contest Player (page 191). But those are the exceptions. The money is at the top so that’s where you should be shooting.

The first question you need to ask yourself is: What price will it take to overtake the leader? This is where “the rule of three” comes into play.

Determine the difference between your score and the leader’s score and simply divide that by three. This will give you a very broad idea of what price, based on a $2 win/place bet, you will realistically need. For example, the leader has $110. You have $92. That’s an $18 difference, and 18 divided by three equals six, so therefore you will likely need odds of 6-1 or longer to have the best chance of winning. In reality, a 5-1 could possibly get you there, but with the possibility of a late odds drop (see this year’s NHC) it’s good to build a little fat into your number.

Some players have taken these calculations to much greater lengths, building spreadsheets that include the variable of field size to come up with a far more accurate guesstimate. However, it’s still a guesstimate, and for me, the rule of three has worked out pretty well.

:: Click here to purchase a copy of “The Winning Contest Player” by Peter Thomas Fornatale

You can zero in on where the final odds will go by looking at the horizontal exotic will-pays for the race. Sometimes you can see that a certain horse is favored in the double and know he is not going to be the 5-1 he is on the board now. If the rule of three says you need 6-1, skip him. On the other hand, if that filly is only 9-2 now but she’s the fifth choice in the double, maybe she will be the 6-1 that you need in the end. If you like her, you can play her.

The other major factor in deciding who to play in the last race has to do with the fear of being blocked. Sometimes the contest is over for a chaser when the gates open and the picks are made public because the leader has the same pick. It’s extremely frustrating for the chaser – and extremely gratifying for the leader – when this situation occurs.

Avoiding being blocked isn’t easy. Obviously the farther down the ladder you are, the more players are in front of you and the greater the possibility you might be blocked. My suggestion is to use simple game theory. Look at the players in front of you. Try to figure out who you would play if you were in their shoes, keeping in mind that not everyone will be going for the win. Avoid the horses who are likely to be played by others.

This will lead you, generally speaking, to reach up a bit higher in odds range than the rule of three suggests. And, of course, it doesn’t guarantee you anything. I saw a contest online yesterday where the leader picked the fourth choice in the last race, even though he was vulnerable to the first three favorites in the race. You could have used all the game theory that John Nash knew and still ended up drawing stone-cold dead. Clearly the leader just liked his pick best.

This brings me to a really important point. At the end of the contest, there are no absolutes. If you happen to really like a horse in the last race, that’s who you should play, assuming there is some realistic chance the beast can get you to your goal, whether that goal is an outright win or a high money finish. It’s a terrible feeling to outsmart yourself off your top pick, see that pick win, and know you would have won if you had just stuck to your guns.

Sometimes I’ll deliberately try to not become wedded to a particular horse in the last race. I’d rather stay flexible. My thought is that over the long run I’m better off prioritizing my chance of drawing live over my affinity for my theoretical top selection, which could maybe or maybe not get me to the top of the leaderboard.

Lenny Mamola More than 1 year ago
I say handicap the race and play it no matter what ........ if you grab straws and lose .... you lose your position for cash out...if you win .... you win a little more payout...it's the last race generally a tough one...just try to improve your position the best you can ..
SR Vegas More than 1 year ago
Peter Thanks for this new and informative Blog site. I'm learning so much as to what it takes to get into and through the tournament process. (newbie 1st time NHC tour) and have yet to try or enter anything. It is overwhelming to read and see what so many say, have experienced, and their thoughts about strategy. I may have trouble getting my toe into the water :) What ever happens this year , I sure hope to see you back in LV next year at the NHC. Even if I am just rooting on my friends . SR Vegas
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
Tx, Sharon! Godspeed to you -- and the horses you bet -- this weekend!
Philip More than 1 year ago
Do you think it is unethical to send a spotter in a live tournament to see what your competition is playing in a situation like this?
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
Good question, it's not often I get to play Chuck Klosterman. The answer is absolutely that would be 100% unethical. However, I have heard stories about "spies" in tourneys. Kevin Cox tells a couple in my book. I definitely think it's a good idea to be careful who you're talking to and not to leave any paper around that your opponents might see and come up with an idea of who you're playing. In the old days of contests, pre-leaderboards, there were various stories about people on the inside sharing information about the scores -- fortunately those days are behind us (I hope!)
rishooti . More than 1 year ago
Philip - To me this matter is deeper than ethics. The real question is: "Does anybody ever really want to think they won a tournament in anything less than legitimate fashion?" My mother had a saying when she knew (but couldn't prove) I was up to no good. "It's YOUR head that has to lay on that pillow tonight" Makes you think...right?
John Herzberg More than 1 year ago
Where are the pick and pray qualifiers?
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
Do you mean for the NHC? If so, I'm not sure any have been announced yet. That might be a good suggestion to send along to some of the online sites. The places I've seen with Pick and Pray contests generally are horsetourneys (I believe they invented the concept), Derby Wars and HPQualify. Poke around on those and see what you can find. Pick and Prays are definitely the purest form of handicapping contests -- they just lack excitement for me in a certain sense. Still, I'm really glad they exist and lots of the problems people moan about are solved by that format.
rishooti . More than 1 year ago
https://horsetourneys.com/ Lime Green Bar...6th link from the left
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
Yes, I just got a promo email from the NHC today (I'm pretty sure you can sign up for the via the ntra site). Pick and Pray qualifiers are coming up on horsetourneys on Saturday, March 1 and Saturday, April 19. Go over to their site for the deets. I like the variety of stuff there doing -- should give me a few interesting articles to write.
Chuck Berger More than 1 year ago
BTW.....................I think this is one of the VERY BEST columns that the Form has added to its format. As a long time tournament player (not recently) I find it informative and well researched. It certainly brings back fond memories. "The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat." The camaraderie among tournament players is second to none. To this day I am still in contact with quite a few fellows. Keep up the good work Peter. I'm sure a new generation of players will benefit greatly. "May the racing G-ds be with you."
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
Thanks so much Chuck. Your check is in the mail ;)
rishooti . More than 1 year ago
If I agree with Chuck about this column could you cut me a much smaller check? LOL...gotta get those entry fees from somewhere. All kidding aside thank you for the insights and forum for discussion. -Ron Ricciuti
rishooti . More than 1 year ago
When I wrote my reply yesterday I didn't realize at first who I was replying to. We should have accomplishment titles in this sport so that you could apply "GM" to your name. As a Grand Master could you share some of your stress management techniques for big tourneys? I find that when I get to Vegas the environment can just overwhelm me at times. Scott Carson (PH) was responsible for developing my interest in contest play and I've sat with Ken Seeman at HPWS. These guys seem naturally cool as cucumbers. Are there any tips that you can provide for those of us with more fiery genetic dispositions? Thanks Chuck. - Ron Ricciuti
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
Ken and Scott are both excellent, excellent players indeed. The best guys I've ever spoken with about the mental side of the game are Paul Shurman -- who believes you can prepare your way to a mental state -- and Michael Beychok, who is effusive on the subject. Hopefully someday those guys will write their own books but for now, you can read what they have to say in mine. One of these days I'll get around to interviewing Christian Hellmers. I'll bet he'll have something interesting on the topic as well.
rishooti . More than 1 year ago
The folks in Levittown, PA have my order. Thanks Peter. p/s - Already got a bum crystal from Hellmers...jk...have never met him but seems like a real interesting guy.
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
LOL the bum crystal. Pretty sure there was a whole episode of BREAKING BAD about that ;)
rishooti . More than 1 year ago
Oh man...me and my jokes. I did mean energy crystals. No way anyone is successful pursuing this activity while on the BB stuff. Unless they have an affinity for Rock Hard Ten sired horses on the right day. Bah doomp doomp...
Chuck Berger More than 1 year ago
Ron, I can't say I'm the Grand Master, but after many years I found a routine that worked for me. Started back in '84 in tournament........I was 45 yrs old. I could still go round the clock.....ie.........betting, handicapping, going to dinner, going to a show. Then handicap the next day in the tournament, then repeating the same thing all over again. Like an athlete, age caught up with me. What I started to do was refrain from betting about two weeks before the tournament. I still kept updates on race results and did watch replays for future plays. I worked out at the gym and added meditation to my daily routine. I made sure I got into Vegas early the day before the tournament. I went as prepared as I could. I filled out my betting cards ( if that was the format) I checked my stable alerts for possible runners going during the tournament. I handicapped early.................went to dinner.............came back and handicapped for another two hours..then hit the sack about 10:30p.m. Am an early riser (about 5 a.m.)............Then went over my possible plays..listing tracks and post times. Had breakfast....................back to the room and meditated. Then down to the tournament room and checked scratches and track conditions. Now, for me, it was important to isolate myself and focus on the business at hand. Too many people get involved in idle conversation and being social. There's plenty of time towards the latter part of the day. Usually would have dinner with a couple of friends. During the tournament you need to focus on everything. I've been shut out in the past because I got distracted. Ron, tournaments are like golf, tennis or other games. The more you play, the more comfortable you become. Keep in mind, once you have paid your entry fee, it's gone. No reason to get nervous, or "choke" ( I hate that term). As good as anyone is, they still need to be lucky on tournament day. I know many top notch players who have won numerous major tournaments ( Dave Gutfreund, Mike Labriola and Murray Kram, to name a few). They will tell you that in the final analysis that being lucky is something you can't predict. If you trust in yourself and keep learning, you will get lucky on the right day. All the very best to you.
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
Great analysis, Chuck. thanks so much for sharing. That's exactly what I want this comments section to be about -- people who love the game sharing ideas. You made my day!
rishooti . More than 1 year ago
Chuck, Wow! Thank you. Really great to hear about your pre-tournament betting hiatus as that is a strategy that I myself follow. Always keep abreast because one can never have too much information in this game. I have gotten successively better in terms of keeping the nightlife in check while in LV. I'll be 46 next month so that becomes easier as the years tick by. Was referring more to the chess ranking system when I said Grand Master. I think we all know that there is no "best handicapper", but you are certainly one who would deserve the highest designation given your competitive record. Like I tell those who are less passionate about the game all the time. You can know a whole lot about every horse in a given race, but you will NEVER know what is going on inside any of the horses minds that day, nor will you be able to accurately predict the trip every horse is going to get. Those two factors make up about 90% of the luck aspect. I have no expanation for the remaining 10%. Wouldn't even know where to begin. I've tried isolation a few times, but I'll tell you, the real appeal of the "big shows" is being in a room with 400-1000+ other people that want to be right every time they commit to a selection. My issue is more about being immersed in an environment that I love with people who "get it". It's way more adrenaline based than nerves. There is just so much more to all of this than the money aspect (which I won't discount due to fear of the 10%), and I think we all need to find a way to convey that better to people to help the industry grow. It really is one of the greatest intellectual challenges available when you are as diligent about it like those in the contest player community.
Chuck Berger More than 1 year ago
Am with you Pal!!!!
Benjamin Beychok More than 1 year ago
Peter, Very much enjoyed meeting you at NHC. Read your book in one sitting and learned some new info that I hope will help in future contests. Ordered 4 more copies for friends who are just starting to get interested in tourny play. See you soon. Ben Beychok
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
Great meeting you too! I loved your story about making the Top 50 in the same spot where your bro won the whole thing two years previous. Super cool, and thanks for buying the books.
Dennis More than 1 year ago
If you are on the lead by $12, there is no need to take a 3-1 shot. The 3-1 shot is already on your side, even if you think he cant lose. I was in line for a BCBC spot yesterday and had an $8 cushion going into the final race. I thought no one would take the favorite or even the 2nd choice. So I chose elsewhere and went with the 3rd choice. 4 horses hit the wire together and I needed anyone of those 3 to win and I would be in. Unfortunately the 4th horse won and I lost. And ended up 5th. All was not lost, as I qualified for the Wynn tournament in a different contest.
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
Sounds like a tough beat in the BCQ but great about the Wynn contest. I see your point about how to play it when in front by $12 but be careful! Some of these sharp players might surprise you with their decisions in that spot!
Chuck Berger More than 1 year ago
Having played in numerous tournaments I have come away with my own idea of what or how to play. On the assumption that the final race of the day is not a mandatory race, I make my plays wherever they come. Too many times I have seen players waiting until the end to have a few bullets left for good old California races. What has happen more often than not is a worthwhile play is not there.Too many times they have not played a horse on the east coast in the third or fourth race that won at 15-1 because they wanted to save a couple of bullets for later. I played in Vegas tournaments for over twenty five years and have won and placed second and third a number of times. I averaged finishing in the top ten percent in all the tournaments I played. We always hear about the player who won on the last bet, but seldom hear about the guys sitting with bullets in the last California races who did nothing. Pull the trigger when you think you have a shot to tab a nice priced winner....even if it's the first race of the day. No one is so smart as to know exactly when a bomb will come in. Remember, if you score early and are the leader, everyone has to catch you. Anyone who says they would rather not be in front early ought to have their head examined. Unless you have a good priced horse you really like going in the final race, don't procrastinate about playing the 15-1 early in the day.
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
Good points, all. You have to know what races are coming up and plan your strategy accordingly. I discuss this at length in my new book, The Winning Contest Player.
rishooti . More than 1 year ago
Couldn't agree more Chuck. Go for value where you think you can get it. Stay the course no matter the situation you're in. The win and top 5/10s in qualifiers for me have always come this way. Get cute at the end and you just end up beating yourself up for making "the prudent decision". Learned that lesson the hard way again this weekend when going off FALLING SKY (14-1) freaked and REVERON (22-1) didn't bring his A+ game. Would have needed A+++ to challenge FS for that 1:20 sizzle though. Same as golf. No control over what your opponents are doing or breaks you may or may not get. Figure it out...Get Up...Hit The Shot.