Friday, January 18, 2008

The Basics

Let's start at the beginning, shall we?

In general, gambling is a bad thing. It is expensive, destructive, depressing, time consuming and unhealthy. Other than that, it can be an enjoyable hobby. The emphasis is on the word "can".

For competitive people like my handlers, Frank & Bomber, it can assuage those competitive desires and become quite exciting. But it's a tough balancing act. Most people find out the hard REALLY IS a tough balancing act. It's so very easy to crash and burn. I know...I've seen it happen with my handlers, more than once.

The purpose of this blog is to highlight my handlers' favorite gambling pastime of greyhound racing (the positives as well as the negatives!) and provide some insight derived from 40 years of greyhound racing experience.

Good Luck! Actually, what I really mean is good overlay...and good money management...and good discipline. In other words, I wish you good skill at the games you choose! Otherwise, bad things will most likely happen to you.

So here's the deal, version #101:

There are many forms of gambling that date back to our ancestors. Understanding that there will be details to come in subsequent blogs, I will begin by describing three basic forms of gambling:

1. Games of chance
2. Games of skill
3. Games of combined luck & skill

Games of chance

In these games, the "house" has the edge. In the long run you will lose. Period. There are no professional roulette players, professional lottery players, professional Keno players, or professional slot machine players. There maybe be addicts who invest countless hours and bankroll in these activities. But, to be professional, one has to make a living at it. It cannot be done...unless YOU are the house. Substantially all public casino games favor the house. That's why they have such nice buildings. There are a few exceptions (blackjack and poker) where the house edge can be overcome with skill. See Games of Combined luck & skill below for further discussion.

Games of skill

These are activities where you are simply more or less skilled than your adversaries. Included are such games as chess, golf, bowling, pool, darts and even Scrabble. People bet on these frequently.

But to level the playing field, a system of handicaps is often introduced into the gambling mix. Many of these have rating systems(!) and tournaments. Otherwise, why would anyone bet against someone more skilled than they are? I have always asserted that paying an entry fee and competing for cash prizes is not gambling. But, I admit it. Unless there is money from sponsors added to the prize fund, it is indeed gambling. Just because there is entertainment value, it doesn't change the basic fact that putting up money to win possible prizes which, in total, are less than the accumulated entry fees, is gambling. That's not to say it's a bad thing. But it's definitely a gambling thing.

Games of combined luck & skill

This is the tough one. Some activities that include wagering have both a luck factor and a skill factor. For those people who are less skilled, it is gambling.

I can think of several examples: backgammon, poker, sports betting, blackjack, and pari-mutuel wagering are clear examples. In a game like backgammon, where the odds are difficult but calculable, the skilled players will get the money in the long run. Still, the use of dice leaves a certain amount to pure chance. In poker (see my handlers' other blogs for more discussion about poker), there is, some people argue, about a 70% skill factor and 30% luck factor. Obviously, the proportion of luck and skill varies, even among the most skilled players. In any case, all that is necessary to be profitable is to overcome the house "rake" (plus or minus 10% depending on the venue and the game). In other words, you need to be above average in skill by as much as the rake in order to break even. That's one of the reasons that game selection is so important in poker. And, you need to have a bankroll sufficient to accommodate the swings due to variation caused by the luck factor.

I'm not an expert on sports betting. I'll simply say that there are a few bettors who make a living on sports betting, but they are very few. That's because the vigorish, or house cut, inherent in the reverse betting odds, requires much higher than average skill to overcome. Additionally, the luck factor creates tremendous swings that could jeopardize even the huge bankrolls (think Pete Rose, for example). Although I love sports, I won't live long enough to become skilled enough to make any long term gains betting on professional or college sports. So I avoid them, and so do my handlers.

Many books have been written on methods to overcome the house advantage (though only slightly) in the game of blackjack. Trust me, it's not a simple matter. Before his 1997 stroke impeded his card counting skills, Frank Niro played hundreds of hours at the blackjack tables. So did Richard Ramaskwich (a/k/a Bomber). Together they have seen all that can happen there. Perfect basic strategy alone, I must say, cannot overcome the house odds in the long run. That's all there is to post here on the subject. There are lots of good authors and successful blackjack players out there who can tell you more.

That takes us closer to home...pari-mutuel wagering. The federal government recently declared that horse handicapping is skill, not chance. Say what? I'll just say two things and leave it at that for now: (1) It IS gambling for all those folks who are below average handicappers, or who just play numbers, or who have too small a bankroll, or who steam out (or go on tilt, as they say at the poker table), and as a result don't win enough to overcome the take (which varies by state and track, but is usually around 20%); and, (2) every horse better I ever heard of died broke.

Nevertheless, a good handicapper CAN make money. Because of the nature of thoroughbred racing, horses are more consistent than greyhounds. Therefore, a system of handicapping by saddle and rider weights has been established. Pari-mutuel wagering also applies to standard bred (the trotters and pacers) and quarter horses.

I will elaborate on the skill factors in greyhound racing in future blogs. These have to do with the dogs (class, form, style, speed and box) as well as the human handicapper (race selection, bet size, patience, discipline and money management). There are many other angles that can be discussed further.

The bottom line is that there is a huge luck factor involved in greyhound racing. That's because of the jostling, relatively short distances, track biases which give certain boxes a demonstrable advantage, and other tangible and intangible factors. Almost every race is over in 30 to 40 seconds. If a dog is slow coming out of the box or gets bumped by another at the first turn, there is precious little time to recover.

Nevertheless, it's not the dogs you are betting against. It's the other gamblers. Think about it and we'll talk more another day...


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