12/30/2013 2:39PM

Sometimes two can play better than one


Whether you’re a new contest player or a veteran, playing with a partner can lead to profits. For newbies, it’s a great way to learn and leverage their handicapping opinions. And experienced players might be surprised at how much they can gain.

There are many ways to approach partner play. The easiest way to play with another person is to have two players play their own entries but to share the risks and rewards. In the poker world, this is known as “having a piece” of another player, and it is common. The idea is that since you need luck to land the biggest prize – and the award for the biggest prize is typically outsized versus the rest of the prize structure – why not increase your chances of grabbing your share of it?

Another partnership arrangement involves players playing their own tickets and sometimes having a small piece of each other but also sharing information and advising each other throughout the tournament. Paul Shurman and Mitch Schuman partner that way, as do Steve Wolfson Sr. and Jr.

Paul Shurman recently explained to me: “We just give each other advice and ask each other questions: Who looks best on the Sheets? Who’s got the best breeding? People aren’t going to play a horse just because somebody else tells them to, they’re just going to feel better about their own opinion if somebody else agrees with them.”

Having partners helped Steve Wolfson Jr. win the contest world’s most prestigious prize, the NHC.

Steve Wolfson Jr. said, “When I won the NHC, I was about to get shut out of a mandatory, and the people around me reminded me to get my bet in. You don’t want to try to do everything by yourself.”

The kings of partner play are Dennis Decauwer and Don Beardsworth. Between the two of them, they ran second in the NHC a remarkable two years in a row, in 2008 and 2009.

I asked Decauwer how they approach partnership, and he said: “We typically play one entry each, and we play it as a team. We do our handicapping somewhat together, somewhat apart. We go over our notes together.”

How do they decide what to do when they disagree?

“If we’re not sure why the other person likes that horse, neither person is shy to say, ‘What is it you like about that horse? What am I missing?’ ” Decauwer said. “We’ll talk about it. I would never talk him off playing a horse that was any kind of a price, nor would he with me. We might be more apt to talk each other off a horse that was a shorter price. We will always go with the stronger opinion of the two, and the good thing about it is that neither one of us will ever blame the other for something if it doesn’t go the right way.”

Sometimes a life partnership becomes a contest partnership, as is the case with a number of husband-and-wife handicapping teams, most notably Judy and Bryan Wagner. Former NHC champ Judy Wagner explained how they play together: “Some tournaments my husband and I start off playing separately, then if one ticket looks like it has a chance, we really start playing as partners. We each do our own handicapping, and then we talk about it in the end. If we each have a price horse, we’ll split them up, and, conversely, if we both like a 7-2, we might play it on both tickets. Other times, we’ll really be competing against each other, not in a mean-spirited way, because we are one another’s biggest cheerleaders.”

That type of arrangement makes sense for a husband and wife – who have 50 percent equity in each other, anyway – but it’s a good idea to be a bit formal if matrimony isn’t involved.

Successful tournament veteran Mark McGuire pointed out another benefit of working with someone whose opinion you respect – you can each focus on what you’re best at.

“One guy knows everything about Del Mar, so he does all those races,” McGuire said. “Another guy is a turf freak, so he does those. They sort it all out. That’s the smartest way to do it.”

I love this idea because it allows you to divide and conquer and improve your chances just by having more brain power concentrated over more contest races. After all, that gets down to the very essence of what successful handicapping and betting are all about, in and out of the contest world – look at the world a little differently and find a way to get an edge.