03/01/2017 1:20PM

Players take sides in favorite format debate


What’s the best format for contest play?

This is the question most likely to provoke an argument among tournament players. There really isn’t any one right answer, but try telling that to devotees of one format over another and you’ll be in for a fight.

Perhaps the snobbiest players – and I’ll admit I’ve cast in with this lot at times – are the folks who feel that live-bankroll play is fundamentally superior to mythical-money play. The argument usually goes that live-bank play is more of a test because you’re required to choose your spots and manage your money as you do in everyday horseplaying. Most mythical play takes these variables out of the question by telling you the races and amounts to bet. Also, of course, in live-bank play, the money you’re betting is real: You can’t ever just freeroll crazy longshots the way you can in mythical play.

On the other hand, there are those who feel that in live-bankroll play, the last race takes on far too much importance. Despite the claims of live-bank proponents that their preferred format mirrors a real day at the track, think about what would happen in real life if more than half the time the right move was to go all-in in the last race. I’ll admit that sure doesn’t sound like a good real-life plan to me.

The other concern is that it seems unfair to some players that the whole picture can change late in live-bank play. After all, there is no equivalent of the odds-cap to protect the leaders, who’ve played best to that point, and have a target on their backs at that point.

Garett Skiba – wildly successful in live-bank play last year -- makes a compelling case that it’s not really an issue and the rules shouldn’t be tweaked to prevent players from making moves from the back of the back in the last race. “You could say the same thing about every other sport,” he explained on a recent episode of the DRF Players’ Podcast. “By the same logic, you should outlaw the Hail Mary pass in football and the half-court shot in basketball. People should be allowed to do everything they can to win, and with real money, at least it’s going to have an economic consequence.”

One could fashion a similar debate about the relative merits of live contest play, where picks can be changed, and all-in play, where all picks must be made before the first race. There is no denying there’s a certain purity to the all-in affairs. No one can win by playing a horse just because of his price on the board. But I’ve never liked the format personally. To me, when you divorce the pick from the final price you’ve taken handicapping out of the equation. To me, handicapping isn’t defined as “the process of picking a winner.” Handicapping requires a weighing the price versus the chance of each runner as reflected in the blinking lights of the tote board. Under my definition, there’s no handicapping at all in an all-in contest – it’s a pure picking contest. But that doesn’t mean I don’t see the appeal for some players.

Even among the formats you see in Las Vegas, certain types of players will be favored in one or the other. The upcoming Horse Player World Series  is a longshot player’s paradise. It’s three days long, there are no cut lines, and while there is an odds-cap, players do get extra credit on the leaderboard for playing over the cap. This requires a very different strategy than the National Handicapping Championship, where players must first make the top 10 percent, and then the top 10, and a hard odds cap remains in place throughout.

My favorite quote about all of this comes from David Gutfreund in my book "The Winning Contest Player."

“A tournament isn’t real life,” Gutfreund said. “It’s a game with numbers and you have to be aware of that at all times.”

In the end, the best format for contest play is the format that works best for you.