08/29/2016 12:50PM

Get the lead in head-to-head contests


DRF Tournaments debuted a new contest format last week: match-ups. The format, which is called head-to-head on other platforms, pits one player directly against another. The winner receives site credit, which he or she can use to fund future contest play. This week there are $100 match-ups scheduled for Wednesday through Sunday that cost $55 to enter.

There are a few nuances to be aware in match-up play. Let’s start with two fairly obvious points. It will typically take a lower score to win a match-up. Very often you can win with a score that’s just a little over your starting bankroll and sometimes way less than that. It’s also important to note that the average strike rate will go way up in a match-up. A lot of horseplayers relish the opportunity to feel the joy of winning as much as the actual money. By strict math, in a match-up contest, you are 50-50 to experience that euphoria and that’s not nothing.

These days Garett Skiba is known for his prowess as a live-bankroll player. But a few years back, when I was researching The Winning Contest Player, he was making a name for himself as a head-to-head player.

I find head-to-head matches one of the most enjoyable types of tournaments out there,” Skiba told me. “Everyone knows that betting every race on a card is a sure path to consistent losing. Playing a head-to-head match is a great way to have a vested interest in each race on an entire card without having to put your bankroll at risk in positions where you know you lack historical success.”

Skiba recognized one element in particular as the reason for his success. “The key to the head-to-head match is grabbing a lead,” he said. “The power of a lead is extremely important in the later races when game theory especially enters into the equation.”

Skiba is referencing the advantage you gain in a match-up by having an extra way to win – you can succeed by picking the winner, or you can win by blocking your opponent.

As Skiba told me, “There is nothing better than to see that you both have the same horse once that last race closes and realize that, no matter what, you have won.”

In this way, match-up play increases the importance of knowing your opponent and his or her tendencies. Most players are creatures of habit, and if you can block them — or avoid being blocked — you can get an edge. No one in the contest world is more focused on his competition than former NHC Tour champion Eric Moomey. “I’m not focused on the horses, I’m focused on the players in the competition,” Moomey told me in TWCP. “If you talk to poker players, they don’t care about the cards; they care about their opponents. It’s the idea of playing the player, not the cards.  If I know what the player is going to do, then I can beat him.”

Mark Maguire has an amusing story along those lines. He was playing against a racing pundit in a head-to-head who had just written an article praising a certain trainer. Maguire held a slight lead heading to the last in what looked like a wide-open race where normally it would be difficult to block his opponent. But Maguire had read this article and didn’t even have to handicap. He picked horse sent out by the pundit’s pet trainer and that was that. Welcome to Blocksville. Population: you, Mr. Pundit.

But it is contest innovator Mark Midland has my favorite anecdote about match-ups:

“It reminds me of one of my favorite competitive stories, which goes like this: Two men are walking through an African game reserve when they come across a lion. One of the men calmly puts down his backpack and slips on the running shoes he has been carrying. The other man chuckles and says, ‘You’ll never outrun a lion.’ To which the other man calmly responds, ‘I don’t need to outrun the lion; I just need to outrun you.’ ”