10/20/2017 12:40PM

Fornatale: Late moves can be tricky in live-bankroll contests

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So often in live-bankroll play it all comes down to the endgame. The same can be true in mythical contest play, but where the strategy there often comes down to pure math, in live-bank play things get a lot more complicated. It’s really like the difference between limit hold ’em – a purely mathematical game – and no limit hold ’em – a strategist’s delight.

There’s no way to tell you what the “right” strategy is in live-bank play. It depends largely on two questions: What is the player’s goal? What is the player’s opinion?

Let’s further examine the question through the lens of respected contest player Nick Tammaro, whose good opinion and deft use of vertical exotics makes him a threat to money in any live-bank event he enters.

Saturday at Keeneland, Tammaro thought he would be in the lead after a strong play ($50 exacta) centering around La Coronel in the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup came in. But Vaughn Bair also had played La Coronel, collecting a $500 win bet on Mark Casse’s loose-on-the-lead winner. Bair was about $600 ahead as it came time to make a decision for the last race.

“There was a lot of strategy at that point,” Tammaro said, “I wasn’t sure if he’d bet but I knew he knew I had to bet. I had some live doubles that I knew would put me close to his total.”

Tammaro had a strong opinion in the race, thinking that the 1, 5, or 6 (the horses he had in doubles) had to win or at the least run second to the 8 or the 12. He made a small hedge bet – 8-12 over 1-5-6. Bee Jersey, the 6, won, and Tammaro had just enough money to get past Bair for the win. Bair bet $300 win-place on the 8, who was second, to improve his score but not enough to hold off Tammaro.

On Sunday, Tammaro was on the move again. He’d handicapped the races with his friend Travis Stone, and one of their strongest opinions came in the fifth with Star Dog, who Tammaro noted was second off the layoff with an improved Beyer Speed Figure last time. Star Dog came from last under a 10-pound apprentice and got up to pay $25.80.

“I was screaming the loudest, but Travis had the race better than me,” Tammaro admitted.

Tammaro bet to win and played a $2 trifecta No. 12 with contenders with all, and a $1 No. 12 with all with contenders. The 24-1 shot who ran second, New York Boy, was not among his contenders, so he only caught a $1 trifecta for more than $4,000 as opposed to Stone’s $2 tri.

The two friends battled back and forth, and approaching the last race, Tammaro held an advantage. However, unlike the previous day when he had a strong opinion in the last, on Sunday he really didn’t. Compared to many tournaments, the Keeneland prize pool payout is fairly flat: The difference between first and fifth is $18,000. That’s not nothing obviously, but since sixth still gets two major tournament seats and $3,000, it’s not a terrible result by any means.

Keeneland rules specify that a player must bet half of his or her bankroll in one of the last two races. Tammaro recognizes this is where he probably made an error. He had a stronger opinion in the eighth race than he did the ninth, and while he bet the eighth and made money, he didn’t play aggressively. This put him in the position of having to bet half his $12,000 on the nightcap.

“A few years ago, I was in a similar spot with $6,000 heading to the last in a race where I really liked a horse,” he said. “I keyed the horse with $3,000, he ended up nowhere, and I only got my money back despite having a good day overall. That experience was in my mind as I was thinking about strategy for Sunday.”

Tammaro ended up doing a modified dutch of the field, betting every horse to some degree or another in an effort to lose the takeout and preserve his hefty bankroll, rather than taking a chance in a race without an opinion.

“As I was putting in the play, I felt like I was punting on first down,” said the normally aggressive player, “but I just couldn’t see how I was going to make money on the race, given my opinion.”

The odds on the eventual winner, the 6, ended up dropping after Tammaro’s bet, meaning he lost about $1,200 on the race. That was still enough to hold fifth and get him to his goal.

“I was still a little annoyed that I didn’t narrow down the dutch more and maybe find a way to increase my bankroll a little rather than going backwards in the last,” he said, “but my bigger regret was not betting half my bankroll in the eighth race, where I actually had an opinion.”

For some players, when they think long, they think wrong. But Tammaro, a self-admitted “tinkerer,” usually does better when he grinds on races and strategies. In this case, he stuck to his initial thought on which race to make the bigger bet in and it cost him.

“The last race was a smaller field with fewer win candidates,” he explained.

The endgame can giveth, and the endgame can taketh away.