11/28/2013 1:53PM

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.