The mug punter
A childhood friend of mine is bright, excellent company and successful. Yet his most striking feature is that he's a terrible gambler. He's perhaps the worst I've ever seen. If he were new to betting, or perhaps suffering from some type of emotional disorder, his woeful punting would be understandable. But he is, by clinical definitions at least, sane.
My friend will always back his first hunch, which is usually devoid of rational thought. It's based on what he thinks or, more frequently, feels is going to happen, and sometimes it pays huge dividends. Overall though, like every punter who bets on hunches, he loses money. Boring concepts such as mathematics are conspiring against him, which is why I adopt a different approach.
'You're such a smart-arse,' he moans at me. 'You're basically just a boring maths geek. But you win. It's so annoying.'
For once my friend is right. Successful gambling is about crunching numbers. It's about playing the odds. It's about putting in hours of work and winning. My friend probably has more fun, but he pays for it. I bet on outcomes when I've calculated that the odds are in my favour. For example, if I work out that the probability of a 1-0 home win is 12 per cent - the real odds should be around 7/1 ((1_0.12) - 1 = 7.3) - I'll have a punt if I can get at least 8/1. In betting terms, that means that if I bet £1 on that game 100 times, I'll win on 12 of them and lose 88. At 8/1, I make a profit of £8 (£12 x 8 - £88 = £8). At 7/1 I lose £4 (12 x £7 - £88 = -£4), yet on both occasions I've backed 12 winners.
That's the first lesson anyone who wants to make money out of correct score betting has to learn. Betting when the odds are in your favour will yield profits in the long run. It's simply the reverse of what the bookmakers usually do. The skill is playing only when you know you have the advantage. If you keep backing when the prices are in your favour, you'll get the odd break and should profit in the long run. That's just mathematics, which is why the approach works, but it needs patience.
The point is that you're not trying to guess the result. Sometimes you'll back a team you think is going to lose (just as I did with Besiktas), which seems counter-intuitive. You'll also back a hell of a lot of losers, but you probably already do anyway. My friend thinks my method is insane. In fact, it's incredibly sane, but boring.
So how do you know when the odds are in your favour? The first thing to remember is that they usually won't be. You may think that the 9/1 on Bolton to beat Aston Villa 1-0 at Villa Park advertised in Ladbrokes' window looks attractive, but once you've crunched your numbers it probably won't be.
At least punters have an advantage here, inasmuch as they don't need to have a bet unless they want to. Bookies have to take bets, so you can ignore that advert and take a better price elsewhere. But how can you be sure that the best price is a good bet? To work this out, some pretty heavy number crunching is required. Most gamblers, even serious ones, won't want the hassle of applying this theory each week. I've provided some reference (see Charts 1 and 2), which you can use as cheat sheets to give you a guide about when to bet. But to understand the theory, I recommend you read on.
The maths lesson
Cast your mind back to your schooldays and you might recall learning about the Poisson distribution during maths classes. If your memory is really good, you might even remember that the Poisson distribution is a good way of modelling situations with a number of independent random events occurring in a given time or place. Certain conditions are needed for the Poisson to be applicable. The variable can't be a negative or a fraction; the events should be separate and independent of each other; they should be equally likely to occur in each period; and the random events should also be rare. If you haven't dropped off yet, you'll have noticed that this description applies to goals during a football match. Goals (events) occur randomly and rarely within a 90-minute period. So, for example, if you're interested in betting on the number of goals in a game and you know that the mean number of goals per game is two, then the Poisson distribution will provide a very close fit and allow you to calculate the probabilities of different scores. If, on the other hand, you were betting on a basketball game, where scoring is more frequent, the Poisson distribution wouldn't be applicable.
In the simplest terms, if you know that, on average, a team scores 1.2 goals per game, the Poisson says that the same team has a 30 per cent chance of not scoring in a given game (see Chart 1). There are tables of similar Poisson probabilities in the appendices of your old maths textbooks (if you can be bothered to dig them out), but I wouldn't recommend using them. Using an Excel spreadsheet is much easier to do these calculations. It has a Poisson function built in and is very easy to set up. Just read the manual, feed in the mean goals for each team and let the computer do the work.