03/10/2015 10:37AM

Fornatale: Paul Shurman puts another notch on NHC belt


If Paul Shurman isn’t the single most respected player in the contest world, he’s definitely on the shortlist. He has finished in the top 10 at the National Handicapping Championship three separate times, with his best finish being a third in the 2009 edition. He has also won the NHC Tour – an arduous process that would top the resume of most players. But Shurman’s most impressive achievement of all might be his most recent – he just qualified for the National Handicapping Championship for an incredible 14th consecutive year.

Shurman attributes his success to his ability to change with the times. “I’m always trying to improve my game and work on my game,” he said. “I started out a long time ago just using the Daily Racing Form and through meeting other people and through my brother we’re constantly adding and changing, trying to improve.”

Shurman’s brother Bill, third on the NHC Tour last year, qualified for the NHC in one of the first NHC events of 2015 and briefly held the lead over his brother in terms of overall NHC qualifications. Paul calls his sibling rivalry with his brother “only minimally real,” but adds that now that he has won into the NHC again he can “remind [Bill] who the older brother is and of who has qualified the most.” The reality is that the Shurmans root for each other and push each other. “Hopefully, we’ll both get two entries in this year,” Paul added.

When Bill was making his push last year to try to equal Paul’s feat of winning the Tour, Paul was helping him along the way. “Nothing would have made me happier than if he had won the tour last year,” Shurman said. “We work with each other all the time. I couldn’t have been more supportive and I’m sorry it didn’t work out for him.”

Paul and Bill frequently play together in a group that includes Steve Wolfson Sr., Steve Wolfson Jr., and Mitch Schuman. They don’t use team tactics to collude, they simply try to help each other out. Shurman described the process. “We don’t always play together because we’re not always at the same tournaments,” he said, “but playing with them when we’re in the same place makes it more enjoyable. We usually beforehand work out some sort of equity agreement, 5 percent or 10 percent up to a certain dollar figure, and we’ll talk about who we like, but everybody makes their own picks. Very rarely would one of us change his pick based on what someone else said.”

Shurman recognizes that the game has changed over the last few years. With more and better players turning their attention to contests, it’s becoming harder and harder to have continued success. “It used to be that the best players would take turns winning or going on streaks,” he said, “but now there are certain players you’re seeing on leaderboards every week.”

Shurman was no doubt referring to guys like Brett Wiener, Eric Moomey, Jonathan Kinchen, and Roger Cettina – all of whom have made a mark on the NHC Tour the last two years. “I know my strengths and I know my weaknesses,” Shurman said, “and over the past 14 years I’ve reached the point where I was pretty satisfied with who I am and what I’m doing as a player. Now I feel like I have to work on those weaknesses, to improve other parts of my game to compete with these people.”

Part of pushing himself to improve means analyzing the games the other players are playing. When playing in online events, Shurman will go back and look at what horses the other top players are playing – a tactic beginning and intermediate contest players should probably adopt as well. “I look at their picks to try to get some idea of what they’re playing and how they’re playing – not necessarily why they’re playing a particular horse,” Shurman said.

Whatever adjustments he’s making, they seem to be working. Shurman has an ambitious schedule planned for 2016 and surely he’ll be in direct competition with the players listed above and many more. He welcomes the challenge. “People like Kinchen and Moomey are good for us because they keep us motivated, they keep us improving our own games,” he said. “I wish them all well. It’s an exciting time for the game and I like to see the younger people in our game because they keep our game alive.”