12/16/2013 2:01PM

Luck and skill go hand-in-hand in tournament world

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Baseball Hall of Famer Lefty Gomez said it best: “I’d rather be lucky than good.” In handicapping contests, contrary to what you might occasionally read in the comments on the Daily Racing Form website, you have to be both good and lucky.

The other appropriate old chestnut, also derived from baseball, is Major League Baseball executive Branch Rickey’s line, “Luck is the residue of design.” In contests, that means that you must first put yourself in a position to succeed. Then, over time, you’ll be able to reap the benefits when events play out in your favor. Sound familiar? It should. Because that’s what happens every day at the track anyway. Anyone who tells you that luck plays no role and they win all the time is not to be believed.

NHC Tour leader and pro player Brent Sumja has a great quote about this topic in the book “The Winning Contest Player”: “I go to work and even when things are going well, three out of five days I lose money. If someone playing horses for a living tells you they can do better than that, they are probably not being honest with themselves. The key to longevity as a player is keeping those losing days to a minimum and exploiting the two winning days to their fullest potential.”

In everyday play, it is very difficult for new players or novice players to get the best of the pros. I asked Sumja about this, and he replied: “I’ve gone to the track with new players picking by the color of the jockey silks or something like that. Perhaps they have a winning day and I have a losing day. And they ask me, ‘If you’re a professional, how come I don’t know anything and I can win and you still lost?’ I explain it this way: they have a 50-50 chance of beating me for a day. They have a decent chance of beating me over three days. But over a period of months, they have no chance. Anybody can get lucky for a little while. In the end, you have to have some kind of education behind what you’re doing or you’re in serious trouble.”

Contests change the luck-to-skill ratio from everyday play, allowing the average horseplayer to compete at the highest levels against players like Sumja. For example, I’ve finished ahead of him in plenty of tournaments. Does that mean I’m a better player? Uh, no. But that’s one of the reasons I like contests so much: they offer all players a chance to test their mettle – and even succeed – against the best.

I asked horseplayer Maury Wolff about the role of luck in contests, and he replied by citing a passage from a book written by an executive with the financial services company Credit Suisse: “I recently read a book by Michael Maboussin, ‘The Success Equation’, that has something to offer to this conversation. He mentions a guy who never loses in Chinese checkers. So in that game, skill is everything because the best player never loses. On the other hand, he discusses a major stock-picking competition in which some Hooters girls won against a bunch of Wall Street types. What does that tell you about the role of luck in stock-picking contests? There is a tremendous amount of luck involved.

“In horse racing tournaments, the ratio of luck to skill is enormous. This isn’t you playing tennis against Roger Federer. You’d have no chance. But you could sit down in a head-to-head tournament with the best horseplayer in the world, and you’d have a fair chance.”
So does that mean the cynics in the comments section are right? Is it really all luck?

Wolff said: “It’s not that skill doesn’t matter; it’s the ratio. I’m not saying it’s all luck. The good players have better longshots than the bad players, absolutely. But anybody employing correct strategy can win. This is the attraction to the novice. This isn’t you against the biggest bettors in the country every day at the windows. You lose, they win. The difference between the best guy and you is much less in tournaments.”

I’d just like to offer an aside about some of the negative Nellies in the comments section I’ve referenced throughout this piece: Taking the time to comment about how you don’t like contests on a contest blog is like calling someone on the phone to tell him you don’t want to talk to him.

The big takeaway for me is that if anyone can get lucky when the big money is on the line, why can’t we, especially if we’ve done the work and handicapped the cards? Obviously, the best players in the world are going to be making their livings at the windows, but that’s not what contests are supposed to be. Contests are a fun way to improve your chances of winning over the long term. And the key word in that last sentence is “fun.”

Brett Wiener More than 1 year ago
New to the blog..... so just a comment with my 2 cents. As for contests, the "type" and "style" as well as the size of the field of the contest will dictate the level of "skill" needed in ratio to the "luck" factor. Example - A $2 WP contest with 500+ entries takes much luck and the picking of horses that many would probably never bet on (although I always do)...especially if you get behind. These contests seem to be won by "one time wonders." A $2 WP contest with a small field takes handicapping and contest playing skills.....which are two totally different animals. These seem to be won by the "tried and true" players. On the contrary, a "live money" contest with high stakes (ex-Delmar + BCBC), combines high handicapping skills along with wagering skills and since you will be wagering with "your" money, players are not inclined to just pick "flyers." You will see that these contests usually are won by very skilled players and there will be very few "lucky" winners. Since "live money" contests can actually be won by smartly betting on favorites, in my opinion, they are the true handicapping contests since they will not be won by someone picking numbers, names or colors of the silks...... like the large $2WP sometimes are.
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
That makes perfect sense to me.
Josh Kamis More than 1 year ago
Ok Peter you got me to finally log in and comment. I'm a $2 player who loves the contests! Been playing off and on for 8 years or so The difference is that I look for contest where the big bettors can't beat me. A la the NHC, they can't out bet me. Level field, also nhcqualify, horsetourneys etc. The live contests are hard for me because with a no max bet, I don't feel comfortable betting outside my $20 box when for others it's no big deal to lay $100 to my $20 on any winner we both have, hence I can't win the contest. I have played in live contests with a cap on the max bet and have a few Top 5 finishes. So my skill in picking winners is better rewarded. I'm not sure I could bet your $100 either, again not my comfort level. I do pretty good I think on finding the overlays and winning at the windows. I do seriously hope that any 'new' rules for next year are sure to include these types of contests because new players may stay away, hence same names, and this player will walk away too. AND I QUALIFIED THIS YEAR! See you in Vegas. So what if I lose I was rewarded a 4 day vacation! So that is a WIN.
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
Congrats, Josh. I think many players would be well-served by looking at the NHC that way.
Thomas Clark More than 1 year ago
8 paragraphs that tell the reader nothing.
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
One sentence that tells me you're a jackleg.
Matthew Ellis More than 1 year ago
Cant wait for the book Peter ( Winning Contest Player ) Hopefully early January will be delivered. The market needed a good book on Handicapping Contest play. I have avoided entering somewhat out of ignorance as to strategy, rules, format, successful approach, Etc. Looking forward to taking in as much information as possible and having some fun with some contests and possibly a big score.
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
thanks for your support. . .we're on sale now via this very site. . .
Héctor Lebrón More than 1 year ago
I have more fun when I win!
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
I don't think there is a horseplayer alive who would disagree with that!
Lenny Mamola More than 1 year ago
There are so many variables one needs to know and if your a good handicapper you know what I mean...Most of my selections finish 1-2--3- I would say 85 % of the time...Racing luck or soreness taking away most of the other %....I do look for my note horses and watch them closely in trfiectas...where i will.ALL..... ALL Them
jim lefferts More than 1 year ago
As a person who has made a living playing horses for decades it is nothing like the "pro" tournament player suggests. If I lost 3 out of 5 days I'd quit. It isn't the big days that keep you going, quite the opposite, it's consistency. Yet tournament players all think that's the way because they hit a few lucky longshots and that's how they randomly won a few tournaments. I am highly skeptical that any "tournament pro" makes a living betting horses. Nearly every tournament I see the great majority of players lose. Sure some guys are on top of the leaderboard today - that is highly likely just random. Let's see if the same names are there in a few years. Regarding your "Negative Nellies" comment. It isn't contests that many of us can't stand, it's the lucky winners declaring themselves horse players or handicappers. That is like a lottery winner suggesting they handicapped the numbers that came in.
Mark Mcguire More than 1 year ago
jim ..I;m surprised at you.!!for someone that has made a living at the track for decades. you should know there is more then one way to skin a cat....I also have make my living at the track..I do so playing mostly longshots, a horse that goes off at 15-1 or better ,that I believe should be 5 to 7-1...will net me a nice tidy profit...the best part of this stratigy is I can fail 14 out of 15 times & still turn a profit.......this style of play ,is one you will find most {not all} succesfull tournament handicappes using. I also would ask you to do some research ..I believe you will find ,that yes indeed you do see the same names over & over again .with some new names sprinkled in. good luck to you .I wish all horseplayers the best at the track, no matter what style the play .
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
I am squarely with Mr. McGuire on this one. The idea of a pro horseplayer winning consistently (as in, everyday, day in, day out) is a new one for me, and I've probably interviewed more pro horseplayers than anyone alive. But I don't want to call BS, anything is possible I supppose. Most contest players are not pros but there is a certain percentage who are, I know this beyond any doubt.
Paul More than 1 year ago
This guy is obviously some sort of chalk player. IF he wins anything substantial it would be a rare exception. Guys like him would have no shot in a tournament setting. Grinders like him can talk about winning over half the time, but what do they really win once you add up all the hours spent? To not understand that tournament players adapt their play to the circumstances (which change race by race) shows that this guy is unable to handicap people. Tournament players skills are far better then any that grinders have. Cashing in on a parade of 4/5 shots on the Aqueduct inner track is "strong" handicapping to these kind of "winners".
jim lefferts More than 1 year ago
By what wild stretch of your narrow mind would you conclude I'm a chalk player? You just affirmed my point about too many tournament players. You somehow think a fantasy tournament player is more skilled than an authentic handicapper. That's like a fantasy football player thinking they have the skills to play in the NFL. If you have the skills you just do it. They pay you if you're right at the track.
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
Hey Jim, your tone is starting to grate. Just giving you fair warning: if you want to take part in the conversation here, you're gonna have to take a few deep breaths before your next comment. Otherwise it's a one way ticket to blocksville.
jim lefferts More than 1 year ago
Point taken. Thank you Peter for your active moderation in the discussion.
Mark Mcguire More than 1 year ago
jim your comparison ,is a poor one .!!!...a fantasy football player does not think he is a better athlete than a pro player..he believes he can determine the outcome of a game .. or the performance of a player .your reference would suggest ,you can outrun wise dan at a mile on the turf.!!...........no reason to hate ..the tournament player....they to ,if good enough get paid,when there right at the track.. jim ..you should give it a try !!!..follow in brent sumja.footsteps..ex trainer .professional gambler/handicapper..he crossed over this year ,to playing tournaments..& has had tremendous success ..!! he has had 5 wins this year & leads the n.h.c tour.!!..either way good luck & good fortune to you.. hope to see your name on the leaderboard ..
Brian Herrity More than 1 year ago
Peter--I get the luck part in the $2 WP contests; most of the races; the betting amount and the number of races are all selected for you; however; luck certainly starts diminishing in two formats: 1. Multi-day contests --the 3 day contests are grinds and I certainly feel burned out by the end of Day 3. 2. Live money contests -- the ratio of skill to luck is much greater. You select which races, which type of bet and the amount. In multi-day live money contests; the cream does rise to the top much greater than a standard 1-day WP format. Agree???
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
Valid points for sure. Three days are a true marathon and not for everyone. The one time I played in one by the final contest race the Racing Form looked like it was in Swahili. Live Bankroll contests (not to be confused with live money/fixed bankroll) do much more resemble days at the track. However, they still are games with numbers with various strategies that can supersede the skills you need everyday at the track. They are not for everybody but are a great option for some. A little bird tells me there may be a few more of them on offer soon. . .
Brian Herrity More than 1 year ago
In reference to 2nd to last paragraph...put me down for liking...keep'em coming!
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
thanks, man. The response has been overwhelmingly positive. I probably shouldn't address the haters, you know what they say: don't feed the trolls. But since this is my own personal moderated forum, sometimes I can't help myself :)
Ken Wiener More than 1 year ago
Peter: your columns are great but please don't shill for your book in every column as it's unseemly. Regards.
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
LOL, if you don't promote yourself, who will? ;)
Ken Wiener More than 1 year ago
Fair enough Peter but not every column please!
M. Trenice Dubow More than 1 year ago
If the criterion is to be the best horseplayer, net winnings applies. But, if the criterion is to be the best handicapper %winners picked should apply. Let's get it straight: these are horseplayer contests, not handicapping contests. Sadly, though I am a very good handicapper -- beating most public handicappers in %winners picked (29.6% on an all-race basis) -- I'm not a profitable horseplayer (-4% ROI on an all race basis). Actually, I can make a small, hardly worth it profit -- by only playing either live longshots (at the risk of having blong dry spells), or my best bets that do not go off as favorites (a too rare phenomenon).
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
You seem like the rare player who pays attention to this stuff, which is a great starting point.
peter k More than 1 year ago
Speaking of fun , I posted yesterday that got a good laugh out of the second last paragraph but it was not allowed even though the comment clearly and humorously agrees with his premise . good day pk
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
I was just lazy in approving your comment, been uber-busy with various things (not a bad thing). I will say this: some comments seem to get rejected without my ever seeing them, not quite sure why. But sorry if this has happened to any of you. . .
Joan Whiteside More than 1 year ago
Peter, Wayne Gunter loves your articles. Just like Baseball the contest can be a game of inches.
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
Indeed, tx for the kind words!
KeenelandJim More than 1 year ago
Peter: I am the perfect example of an everyday horseplayer getting lucky and qualifying for the NHC. I run the tournaments at Keeneland and have become friends with many of the regular players on the Tour. This year I decided to try to qualify online and was fortunate enough to qualify twice on Horsetourneys.com. I promise you that I cannot compete every day with Brent Sumja, Kevin Cox, Micheal Beychok, etc. However, in January I have two chances of 480 to win $750K. Anything can happen in a 3-day tournament, and the NHC is a great opportunity for all horseplayers. I know that I am going to have a blast! Jim Goodman
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
I love your attitude, Jim. Go get 'em!!
Wayne Gunter More than 1 year ago
Jim great contest at KEENELAND, even though I didnt cash I had a great time. Looking forward to live racing in the spring.
KeenelandJim More than 1 year ago
Thanks Wayne. Appreciate the kind words; we do our best to make our tournament players feel welcome.
Brett Wiener More than 1 year ago
I echo Wayne's comment. You run a top notch contest at KEE and good luck in the NHC!
Chuck Berger More than 1 year ago
Good article, and right on the nose. I played tournaments for twenty years and had my fair share of success. Over that period I finished in the top ten percent. ......winning once, twice second and third and numerous top ten finishes.There were times I had horses d'qd and 35-1 shots break down in the lead by two lengths at the 16th pole that cost me tournament wins. Then of course, I have no way of knowing how many other players had bad beats that enabled me to move up in the standings. Betting five days a week as Brent Sumja suggested doesn't mean the pro wins everyday. The very best player has more losing bets than winning ones. The key is to have bigger winning days than losing ones.
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
Thanks for reading and commenting!
WMaier More than 1 year ago
Excellent article Peter. At my workplace I'm known as the "horse racing guy"--as they chuckle under their breath--so inevitably whenever a big race is in the national spotlight(usu. Triple Crown races) everyone one wants to know who is going to win. More often than not I don't bother to respond because John/Jane Doe has basically zero ideas of all the complexities/intricacies of handicapping. I hate to tout horses, because as soon as you give one of these folks a loser-'you don't know what the hell your talking about.' And as a tournament player, you may like a horse at one price--or love a different one at another. They don't really grasp this concept.
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
That really is one of the hardest concepts to grasp -- even for fans of the game. When I'm dealing with outsiders, I tend to be more selection oriented if only for simplicity's sake.
peter k More than 1 year ago
Got a good laugh out of the next to last paragraph .
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
Tx PK! I think I stole that joke conceit from something Chris Rock said abt Twitter, but I wasn't sure enough to credit him. . .