01/13/2015 1:34PM

Fornatale: An interview with David Gutfreund


David Gutfreund is a contest player par excellence. In November, he won $156,000 by winning the main event of the Heartland Poker Tour. Gutfreund is a natural when it comes to handicapping contests as well. He’s an annual attendee at the National Handicapping Championship, and in 2012, he won $65,000 at the Players’ Challenge in Sioux Falls, S.D.

He knows the contest game from both sides – he also is a partner in Derby Wars – and on Sunday, he earned his second NHC qualification for 2015 via DRFBets.com.

Fornatale: The DRFBets contest has an unusual format – eight $10 bets spread over three tracks. What are your thoughts on it?

Gutfreund: I love it. I think I know exactly the right strategy to win that particular contest, and it was on display [Sunday]. The whole point of that format, with eight bets and no cap, is to have the highest-price winner and then support it with a little something. Once the 12 of us had that 29-1 shot at Gulfstream, it essentially became a 12-person satellite with two people getting NHC seats.

Fornatale: How did you come up with that 29-1 shot, Locker Room Guy?

Gutfreund: We have to talk about the favorite first. You know that new DRF column, Bet This, Not That? This was a “Not That” horse. There was a wretched favorite in the race. A Pletcher give-up dropdown in a claimer, a turf horse on dirt, a come-from-behind running style on a track that was favoring speed. As for the winner, he was also making his first start on dirt, but he was bred for it. Last time out, the horse broke from the 14 post and pressed the pace, and he figured to be on or near the lead on a wet track that I thought was favoring front-runners. I thought he had as much chance as anybody.

Fornatale: You also were playing in the BCQualify.com contest, but you went with two other horses on your two entries in that contest.

Gutfreund: What happened was I made a bad decision, thinking I don’t need a 29-1 shot in the first race of a tournament on BCQualify, where all I have to do is finish in the top 10 percent of the field to advance to Round 2. And I hated the favorite so much that I wanted to make sure I got some points, so I played the second and third favorites for my two plays there. Had I played Locker Room Guy there, I’d be playing in Round 2 on BCQualify next Sunday.

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Fornatale: Let’s talk about your ability to handicap handicappers. You once pointed out two guys, both relatively unknown in the contest world at the time. One of them won the NHC Tour in 2013, and the other won it in 2014. What did you see in Brent Sumja and Eric Moomey?

Gutfreund: I was a big fan of Brent’s when he was a trainer, and I thought the whole story of him coming into horse-racing tournaments was just cool. Whatever it was that made him successful training, I knew it would translate into playing handicapping contests. As for Eric Moomey, in my time at Derby Wars, I’ve basically gone out of my way to contact one person to talk strategy. That was in the early days, when this unknown kid who called himself “Moomeyer” just exploded onto our site and started winning everything. If I’m not his biggest fan, I’m one of them. He’s taken the poker approach. He’s done the lab work. He has unorthodox ideas. And in any sort of strategic game, when you’re doing what most people aren’t doing, you’re doing it the right way.

Fornatale: What do you mean by the poker approach?

Gutfreund: The game of poker has changed dramatically over the last 10 years. In 2005, when a pot was opened, it was maybe three or four times the big blind. These days, if you raise under three times the big blind, you get laughed at. Back then, if there was a third bet before the flop, it meant aces or kings. Now, it can mean anything. With the amount of games that young people were able to play on the Internet, people got smarter, and advanced thinking is common. But until Eric came along, nobody had really done that for horse racing. When it comes to racing tournaments, the focus has always been on picking winners, and any strategic thinking has been geared toward that goal, and not toward playing the game and how you look at the tournaments themselves. It’s exactly what the kids did in poker.

Fornatale: Moomey also has talked about the importance of playing the other players, precisely the way one would in poker. Do you buy that that’s a relevant idea for horse-racing contests?

Gutfreund: Yes. It was completely in play [Sunday] during the DRFBets tournament. This is a perfect example. The person who was in second place going into the last race, Alan Hasher, is a sweetheart of a man from the San Diego area. I love that man, but he is a stabber, nothing but a longshot player. He’s not a game theorist. He’s old school – longshot, longshot, longshot. Meanwhile, the player who was in third place going into the last was Lynn McGuire, the sister of Mark McGuire, a brilliant tournament player. The McGuire ticket actually jumped me with three races left to go by playing a 4-5 shot. In the second-to-last race, I had the $8.60 winner and got back on top. Before the last race, I was sitting in the Eddie Logan suite with Tom Quigley, and I told him: McGuire is going to take the favorite. Hasher will not. If the favorite wins, McGuire will get the spot. Most players in McGuire’s position would have to worry about being blocked. But if McGuire knew anything about Alan Hasher, there was no danger of being blocked.

Fornatale: How big of a deal is it to you to have two entries at the NHC this year?

Gutfreund: It’s huge. Winning a tournament a week and a half before the NHC is great psychologically. I feel like my chance of winning the NHC has doubled, and in reality, it might have more than doubled. I don’t feel like I’m going to a gunfight with a knife anymore.

Fornatale: From the research I’ve seen, a second entry doubles one’s chance at best – the logic being that the likelihood of splitting tickets makes the chance a bit less than double.

Gutfreund: I think if I use the two-ticket strategy in what I think is the best way, I get more leverage.

Fornatale: Sounds like you’re talking about poker strategy again – and that you don’t want to give anything away! I once interviewed poker pro Max Pescatori, who had a lot of success in handicapping contests by using the right tournament strategy.

Gutfreund: Without question, my experience with poker has made me a better tournament player. It comes down to decision-making and the reasons behind those decisions. Part of it is the ability to set a goal and figure out the best way to get there. When you get to the bubble of a poker tournament, pros aren’t worried about making it into the money, they’re worried about getting into the money with the best chance of winning because that’s where all the money is. There are going to be two bubbles in this upcoming NHC: one after Day 2, when the field narrows to 50, and one later on Day 3 for the final table. And I think players are going to play more conservatively as they near the cut lines, especially those on the border of making it. I think they’re going to be giving up significant equity in doing that.

Fornatale: Years ago, you predicted that you’d win the NHC. Is this the year it all comes together for David Gutfreund?

Gutfreund: Well, first of all, I have to say I’m a very different person now than I was then. And I cringe when I think of how arrogant I was and about other things I did back then – referring to myself in the third person as “The Maven.”

Fornatale: But I think one could argue that as a tournament player, that arrogance can be helpful.

Gutfreund: There’s a difference between confidence and cockiness. When I get to Treasure Island in 10 days, I think I have as much chance as an individual with two entries can have. I feel as good as I ever have in my life going into this tournament. But it’s ridiculous to say that I’m going to win. I do have the inner confidence, and self-belief is a must in any type of contest. To your other point, as far as contests go, having an ego is not a bad thing, but as far as the rest of your life goes, it can be a real problem.