11/28/2013 12:53PM

Not all contests are equally worthwhile

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Picture this: It is the middle of the poker boom. A freelance writer experiences success playing online. He goes to Atlantic City, N.J., and racks up a few hundred bucks each time playing low stakes, hardly even putting in any effort, just not playing like a total idiot. He plays in a home game where there are a couple of sharpies he avoids tangling with and a few bad players he exploits. He begins to think he is good at poker.

Fast forward three years. The online game in the United States is on its last legs. The poker space in Atlantic City has contracted. Now when he goes there, the other people at the tables seem to know what they’re doing. He still makes a couple of bucks, but it is work.

Around that time, he plays in that home game again. The same sharpies are there, plus a few new ones he doesn’t know. The dead money is gone. I quickly realized I was nothing special at poker and ran to the nearest newsstand to buy a Daily Racing Form.

In the example above, it quickly became obvious that game selection was the key to my success — I had no special aptitude for poker. Horse racing contests are like that as well. These days, you aren’t likely to find a field full of dopes to play against in a handicapping contest. You certainly can try to find a weaker field by searching for the right type of online contest or perhaps traveling far afield, but I wouldn’t count on that strategy working.

When I used to play in the Santa Anita low-roller contest, I still was butting heads with the likes of de facto two-time National Handicapping Championship runner-up Dennis Decauwer and Turfvivor winner Tom Quigley every week — pretty much the furthest thing from easy pickings.

These days in racing, the real utility of game selection is just to put yourself in the best possible position to win. This can be a very simple equation. If you’re looking for an NHC seat, how many seats are being given away, divided by how many people are playing in the contest?

To oversimplify for the purposes of this example, you’re obviously a lot better off playing for one seat in a field of 10 than three seats in a field of 500. The same logic holds true with tournaments with cash prizes. With a little math and a knowledge of the structure of the tournament, you can choose to play the ones that offer the best chance of cashing with the lowest takeout.

You want to know what the takeout is in each tournament because that might make the difference for you in deciding whether it’s worth playing, especially if there’s travel involved. Maybe it makes sense to fly to Saratoga Springs, N.Y., to get the VIP treatment for two days but not to fly to Reno, Nev., to play at some random biker casino with a 20-cent rake.

It’s easy to figure out what a tournament’s takeout is: You just need to ascertain how much money is going in and how much money is coming back out. For example, if it’s a 200-player contest with a buy-in of $100, then there is $20,000 (200 x $100) going into the pool. If the prize money exceeds $20,000, well, then you’re in great shape because the contest has positive expected value.

If the prize money is less than $20,000, say, $17,500, you simply divide the $17,500 (the money going out) by the $20,000 (the money coming in), and you get 0.0875. Multiply that by 100, and you get 87.5, meaning that 87.5 percent of the money gets paid out. Subtract 87.5 from 100 to determine the takeout – 12.5 percent.

Many of the best tournaments around the country will offer both cash prizes and qualifying seats to other tournaments like the NHC, the Horse Player World Series, or the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge. These are the most likely places where you might actually find a contest with positive expected value. For example, between the prize money being paid out and the value of the seats being given away, the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge is actually paying out more money than what goes into the contest from entry fees.

“Why do they do it, then?” you might ask. It’s still a huge win for the Breeders’ Cup because the contest brings in so many high rollers that the ontrack handle gets a significant boost. This is why I like contests so much – everybody wins.

The other part of game selection has to do with knowing your own strengths and weaknesses and choosing the contest format that best suits you. And that will be the topic of the next piece.

Alan Grant More than 1 year ago
I've played in contests for about 15 years and recently noticed your informative column. My best shot to win is in a cash format contest. I only play in contest where 100% of entry fees are returned to players - the host venue garners sufficient return from increased handle and promoting good will. Looking forward to your next column.
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
Thanks, Alan. I hope it does not disappoint!
Bob More than 1 year ago
Like the legendary Texas oilman Syd Richardson once said, "I've been lucky and I've been good, and I would whole lot rather be lucky than good." And that's the problem with handicapping tournaments...luck is much more important that skill. I have played in tournaments around the country and I have never seen one in which at least one of the top three finishers' success wasn't due as much or more to luck as it was to skill.
Lenny Mamola More than 1 year ago
Maybe a new rule...Winners get paid at a maximum odds??? Like maybe 6-1...then 40-1 shots don't blow the contest out of the water............??? Something like that.........Its pure handicapping that way...Or just a point schedule for 1st 2nd and 3rd's..which tales into consideration consistency
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
The new rule you propose is actually an old rule -- "caps" as they are called are very column in all mythical money formats and they do help level the playing field. A contest should never be won by just one horse in my opinion.
Patrick More than 1 year ago
What was wrong with my first comment?
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
Nothing wrong, just was away from the computer for a few days. . .tx for taking the time to comment!
Bob More than 1 year ago
They used to stage a tournament in August during Travers week. Did they quit holding that one?
Patrick More than 1 year ago
Peter, Can you identify a tournament that : limits entries to 200(entries not players--3 max per); adds $50 to your $450 entry fee; returns 100% of the $; & adds $5,000 per day in daily money? There is one...twice a year. Pick-the-Ponies @LVH.
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
Yes that's supposed to be a great one, usually the week of the Derby and of the BC I believe. So many good opportunities out there if you pick and choose carefully.
Wayne Gunter More than 1 year ago
Cairo Prince should won by 3 lenghts HE GOT A VERY BAD RIDE. Anyhow I really needed Verranzo to win, I would have won Horse Tourneys contest. I think I am snakebitten, I WILL GIVE A BIG TRY @ Keeneland but need to be LUCKY Thats all folks
John Murphy More than 1 year ago
There's no doubt that you have to be both lucky and good to win a contest. But there's something else; you have to be aggressive. I was a seven-time finalist at the Penn National WSofH. The invited "pros" all played the same way with their $1000 of contest money; small win bets on Friday and Saturday, $50-$100. Some took that strategy all the way through Sunday as their pot eroded. A few would put their last $300-$400 on a horse as the contest ran out, but they were already way behind a few of the amateurs who shoved in their entire pot at least once, sometimes twice. I always felt that the "pros," surrounded by their professional brethren were having a contest with each other that was inside the larger contest, and they were playing it not to lose, at least not on the first two days. I enjoyed your column.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It's kinda tiring reading the sour grapes even of the good handicappers that complain because an amateur beats them in a contest with a 25-1 shot that ran up the track last time out---does it happen?--of course. But more times than not, it's the card that day that is also important with regard to the handicapping that day. If the card looks chalky, then pass the contest if it's not your cup of tea. Or if you lean towards lower priced handicapping, then that card maybe to your liking---it's value of course, but you can't force the issue if it's not there--
Wayne Gunter More than 1 year ago
That is a very good article Peter. I have been playing contests aproximately 15 yrs. and know that there is no easy or week contests to choose from. When Noel Michaels wrote his first book, some of the players @ Arlington Parks contest didnt like it because it was too informative. I loved his book because of information and it made things bettor for all players. He is my favorite player and We had a goog time in Vegas 2 yrs.ago, I didnt cash in Tournament but did close Gilleys the last two nites.
David G. More than 1 year ago
"VIP treatment at the Sara toga Contest" Are you kidding me? Does having rain fall on you though the tent and being served the same mediocre buffet food two days in a row sound like the royal treatment?
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
Suffice it to say we have had very different experiences. . .
Ray Sousa More than 1 year ago
In my humble opinion the other players in a handicapping contest are totally irrelevant. The difference between a great handicapper and a so so handicapper having a decent day is negligible..i once entered one where i was 188th after the first day in a field of about 300 with at least 15 pro handicappers present. On the 2nd day i went on a tear hitting 6 winners including a 25/1 and a 16/1 and a few 5/1"s i fiished 2nd after taking the lead only to be caught by another amateur who bet a 25/1 and beat my horse by a head.he got 20 k i got 10k we both got to go to vegas ..the pros finished out of the money.once there was a daily saratoga contest i won the thing on 8 different days and qualified with 8 entries to the final day only to have a terrible last day and finish nowhere beaten by you guessed it a guy who could not pick a horse from a mule but picked a 48/1 mule that won.
MultiraceWagers More than 1 year ago
True takeout of the NHC. Not pretty.
Wayne Gunter More than 1 year ago
Very good article Peter. I dont care how good you are you still have to be LUCKY, because majority of players are good.
Ed More than 1 year ago
Is that really a revelation? Any short run contest is going to have a strong random (luck) element. .
Wayne Gunter More than 1 year ago
Any short run contest, you need pleanty of skill to be able to pick the best horse and hope the JOCKEY knows when to send him. I am talking about the ride on Cario Prince. Also dont miss the break on the best horse and let a 32 to 1shot dictate the pace. Verazano had no Luck