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.”