Monday, April 9, 2018

Vulelek and Gandie (my costliest mistakes)

Last year as we walked on Brighton pier I told David Lappin a story from my childhood. He liked it so much he virtually insisted I base my next blog on it. Others didn't seem to like it as much, so maybe I should quit while I'm behind, but I did tell him another story and he did recommend I use it in this blog. So one last chance.

I started betting on horses when I was 7 or 8. This was possible because back then it wasn't unusual in small town Ireland for fathers to bring their young son to the bookies, or even send them in on their own with instructions which horses to back. Pocket money was not a thing in our house, but my father was a kind man and would give me a few pennies for myself and tell me to put them on whatever horse I fancied. So every Saturday afternoon found me in the local bookies filling out two dockets: a long one for my Dad, and a shorter one for myself. I ran well at the start by sticking to a strategy of never putting a horse that was on Dad's long docket on my shorter one. I had no idea why, but it was clear to me pretty quickly Dad was a really bad gambler. He couldn't seem to find a winner in a winnier's enclosure. Before long I had a decent bankroll, and my docket was no longer the short one.

I think I had a natural gift for pattern recognition. Initially I would only bet on horses that had won recently, but over time I noticed a different pattern that seemed to recur often (particularly at small courses in the UK and Ireland): the once in a blue moon winner. There were nags of low pedigree with a lot of 0's on their record who routinely went off at 66/1, but then once in a blue moon won at a much shorter price of 12/1 or whatever. Invariably under the guidance of some obscure trainer, they were often ridden to victory by a better class of jockey than they normally had on board. I don't remember where I heard or read it, but apparently these were referred to at the time by professional gamblers as "springers". The idea was that the advance odds predicted for them were something like 66/1, but the first sign that something unusual was afoot was a lot of money going onto them at the course driving down the price to 12 or 14/1, so they "spring" from the ranks of no hopers into those of contenders. Sometimes the flood of money and shortening of odds was accompanied by a highly rated jockey being hired for the day, but often it couldn't be put down to any known factor. But these horses won far more often than they should, particularly if you got on them before the price shortened.

The conspiracy theory used to explain this was that the fix was in. That a struggling training yard unable to make ends meet through legal methods would focus all their efforts on one horse in one race, lumping on it to win enough to get through the winter. When I started going to actual racecourses with my Dad, my main strategy was to try to identify springers.

I think my brother was 6 or 7 when he first accompanied us to the races, which makes me 11 or 12 at the time. He was my confidante and understudy: the only one I talked betting strat with. He was understandably excited. The meeting was Gowran Park, exactly the kind of backwoods place you'd expect a springer or two.

The first race went off without any irregular betting patterns, so no bet was placed. My brother was disappointed that we had no one to root for. The second race was the same. By now I was dealing with the distraction of fraternal disappointment, so once I realised there would also be no springer in the third, I caved and placed a small bet on the ten to one shot. My thinking was that since I had no inside knowledge or edge, all bets had roughly the same amount of negative EV, so pick a price that was long enough to be impressive if it came in, but not so long that it would almost never come in.

The horse trailed in a distant last. By now, I was in serious danger of losing the admiration of my younger brother, so redemption became the new priority. Springer or not, a bet had to be placed in the fourth. This time the strategy was to bet on a shorter price (presumably with a better chance of success), but long enough to move me healthily into profit. The five to one shot came fifth.

Desperate times. By now I'm no longer concerned whether there's a springer in the fifth or not, all I'm thinking about is getting ahead and back to being a hero to my brother. So I shortened the price but increased the stakes, lumping on the second favourite at 2/1. He came in second.

In the sixth, ten per cent of my net worth was staked on the evens favourite, and after a long look at the photo finish, the judges decided he had been pipped by a nose. Devastated, I gloomily checked out the field in the final race. Only four runners. Only one name I recognised. Clearly a class above the others, and a very strong favourite to win. Four to one on, to be precise. I realised that I could still get out of this debacle ahead if I lumped my entire roll on this dead cert.

The race was not a race. From the get go he seemed to be a horse racing donkeys. He eased into the lead, then away, then further away until there was no way he could be caught. As he was about to round the final bend and take the final hurdle, I prepared my brother to cheer him home, when a sickening groan from the crowd diverted my attention back to the track. The crackly loudspeaker announcer's pitch communicated that something terrible had just happened, but his actual words were lost in the noise.

I watched as my horse sailed by with no jockey.

"Is that our horse? Did we win?"

I spent the next few minutes trying to explain to my brother that it was not first horse home, it was first jockey essentially, as my brain tried to come to terms with having lost all the money I possessed.

The fact that forty years later I still remember the name of that horse that fell at the final hurdle that day in Gowran Park tells you what a memorable moment it was for me. I hereby immortalise him in the title of this blog, as he taught me three valuable lessons that day. There's nothing like a long silent drive home as a bust loser to make you reflect on your actions.

The first lesson Vulelek taught me (don't gamble without an edge) kept me out of trouble for the next thirty years.

The second (don't chase losses) served me in good stead these last ten years as a poker pro.

The third came into its own the night of July 4th 2007.

As I've said before on this blog, I learned poker in May 2007, a few weeks before my 42nd birthday. By now the dynamic with my brother had shifted: he was living with us essentially as a lodger, but he already knew poker. He was a winning player. So I turned to him for instruction.

Not wanting me to lose enough money to make me want to increase his rent, he told me to stick to freerolls to start with. On my second night online, the imaginatively named DublinDara came 2nd in a freeroll on Ladbrokes for £150 and change.

My brother advised withdrawal. When I made it clear I wouldn't be doing that he suggested low stakes limit cash, presumably on the basis that I'd lose the money more slowly. It didn't work out like that.

I was a winning player from day one, or at least ran well, so that by the start of July my online roll was up to almost a grand. I had moved up the stakes and started to realise the importance of game selection. My strategy was pretty simple: sit in any game with a player called Gandie. Gandie liked to gamble. He didn't like to fold. He played every hand and potted every street. This ensured he won the most pots and lost the most money of anyone at the table almost every time.

So that night, I sat down and jumped in a game with Gandie. My strategy was pretty simple: I only played pairs above sevens and ace king. I only continued past the flop with top pair or better. Gandie kept betting, I kept calling, and usually I won.

This night the script got rewritten. Gandie won not just all the uncontested pots, but the contested ones too. He could best top pair every time. For the first in my poker life, I went on monkey tilt. I started playing every pot. I started raising and reraising. I had no clear strategy other than trying to out aggress Gandie. A sickening feeling in my stomach grew as the number under my name shrunk from 1000 to 900 to 600, but I couldn't stop myself. I had to get even. But I kept losing pot after pot.

At around 4 am I glanced at the number under my name. The number 200 triggered something in my memory. 200 was the amount I had bet on Vulelek thirty years earlier in my previous attempt to get out. I 
instantly flashed back to the feeling of despair as I'd watched the horse sail by with no jockey. I remembered the long drive home thinking what a loser I was. I was now that horse with no jockey losing to donkeys, and would become that loser in the car if I kept playing.

I moved my hand from my forehead to the computer, and turned it off.

The following day, I started rebuilding. From that 200 came every cent I have ever won and pulled offline. I now knew what tilt was, what it felt like, and from that day forward I responded to the feeling the same way whenever I felt it. 

I turned the computer off.



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