In this article, PPM editor Brian Blackwell reviews a new book by the colourful English professional punter Dave Nevison, called A Bloody Good Winner and examines what Nevison has to say about being a professional gambler and how Aussie punters might benefit from his experiences.

Hands up those of you who have, from time to time, dreamt of making your living from punting? If you haven’t you’re in the minority.

Studies show that 99 per cent of punters at some time or other, will express a wish to have what it takes to bet full time and not have to work in the “rat race” from 9 to 5, or whatever ungodly hours are forced on them.

Dave Nevison answered the call and is now perhaps Britain’s best known professional punter but if you’re expecting him to say that it’s “easy street”, you’ll be mistaken. For Nevison, the job is exhilarating, exhausting, tough and relentless, and to make any significant money in the course of a year you need to be brave and very much a risk taker.

Before I get into reviewing his book, let’s take a quick overview of professional punting and just what’s involved in making it happen and how it might pay its way.

An interesting website addresses the whole issue of such punting (, with a list of “key points to remember” as far as the selection process is concerned.

They are as follows:

  • What do you know about the race?
  • What seems obvious and clear to you?
  • What is the big “don’t know” in this field?
  • Think like a trainer; does the horse’s presence in this race make sense?
  • Can the horse compete successfully at today’s level against the balance of the field?
  • Are the horses’ recent performances good, bad or indifferent? Does one horse out class the field? Does one horse, more than the others, figure to be aided by existing track conditions?
  • Is there a track bias and which horses does it favour?
  • How does the horse match up against today’s pace? Handicapping is full of opposite logics; ask both “Why?” and “Why Not?”
  • Make wagering decisions with confidence, not wishful thinking.
  • “To pass or play?” . . . that should be the question. If confident, then play. If confused, then pass.
  • Never bet against legitimate favourites. Almost never bet on a legitimate favourite.
  • Do not bet in races you do not understand!
  • The successful punter never allows items of news, “whispers” or thoughts of others override his train of thought when assessing a race’s runners for betting purposes.
  • The vast majority of players who make money betting have at least one very important trait in common. They are very disciplined and do not try to bet in every race.
  • Value is all important – not winners. The secret is not getting more heads than tails, it’s winning more when a coin comes up heads than you lose when it’s tails.
  • Take 30 to 60 seconds to learn something from every race and use what you learn to refine and improve your handicapping process.

And then there’s the actual process in a series of key steps: determine what type of horse is needed to win the race, determine the race type.(Is it contentious, chaos or orderly?) Shortlist your contenders, evaluate these contenders based on handicapping factors, identify the likely pace and draw scenario, note alternative handicapping factors, identify dangerous non-contenders, get your final shortlist, classify the race favourite as legitimate, vulnerable or false, make a value assessment of the contenders and turn the results of your handicapping into well-designed bets.

What’s the #1 aim of the professional punter? Well, according to this website, it’s the following:

Identify, in advance, the two out of three races that are not won by the favourite and to identify the two non-favourite horses most likely to beat the favourite in these races.

So that’s a warm-up to what Dave Nevison has to say in his autobiography. The first thing that strikes home about Dave is that he’s a livewire character with a big streak of bravado and recklessness. Perhaps these are what are needed, then, to make 50,000 quid a year minimum as a pro? Dave seems to believe so.

He’s a man who relishes the challenge of the punt and makes the most of it when he wins (which is often). This is what he says about winning:

When I’ve won 10,000 pounds, which I did yesterday, I like to celebrate. I don’t want to drive home and write it in a ledger, then sit and gloat, like some miser in a long dark coat in a Charles Dickens’ novel. If I’ve had a big win I drink, I dance, sometimes I even sing. I’ve been known to stand on a table. I’ve been known to fall off . . . I’m not a bad loser but I’m a bloody good winner and if a big ship comes in I like people to know about it.

Here’s a lesson from Dave Nevison straightaway: Learn to enjoy your betting, especially when you win. Laugh and be happy and enjoy the moment. Those winning moments may be few and far between; best to use them as enjoyably as you can!

Dave’s fearlessness probably comes from his days as a foreign exchange trader in London. He spent five years with Continental Illinois, the seventh biggest bank in the USA.

My five years with CI were the best five years I have ever had in a normal job. Well, fairly normal. We were supposed to be trading currencies in order to balance the bank’s books, but much of the work was pure speculation, and there wasn’t any proper training.

In this job, Dave was trading millions of dollars in currencies every day. It was only when he switched to betting full time on racetracks that he suddenly realised the money that went on the horses was chickenfeed compared to what he’d been used to gambling on the foreign exchange markets.

He eventually moved to Credit Lyonnais and when it closed its London operations he was given a lot of redundancy money. He started his professional racing betting with a bank of 50,000 pounds, which, he says, was almost certainly a lot more than most professional punters on the racecourse start off with, but it still wasn’t enough.

Dave Nevison’s views on what it really means to be a professional punter are definitely worth taking into account, even if you are, like most punters, simply a keen amateur.

To be a professional punter, you have to pay the admission fees. You make mistakes, sometimes expensive ones, and have to learn from them. You have to establish a new lifestyle, in my case very different from the old one. I was stepping on to the racecourse with huge determination, but I didn’t know what I was doing.

Yes, Dave faced a tough learning curve. When he left the city foreign exchange trading, he had made up his mind that as a pro punter on the horses, he wasn’t going to be content to drink tap water instead of champagne, or to live off a toilet cleaner’s wage.

But it wasn’t long before the harsh reality of the racing professionals hit home. The professionals were nothing like he’d imagined them to be.

One of the first things I discovered was that the people who made their living on the racecourse, bookmakers and professional punters, weren’t as I had imagined them to be. I had come from an industry which dealt in millions of pounds every day and I thought the racecourse market was the same. I thought bookmakers were rich and were used to dealing in big sums and that professional punters were betting on a huge scale and making fortunes. I was mistaken. I was hopelessly wrong about the reality of the racecourse market.

What came as a shock to Dave Nevison was that when he tried to place a bet for 400 quid the bookie would only accept 200. He discovered there were a lot of pro punters who would never have a bet as big as 400 pounds.

We all have to bet in the way that suits us best, but in my view, if you make only 10,000 pounds a year from betting (about $22,500), then you are not really a professional punter because you would be considerably better off doing almost anything else for a living. You have not beaten the system and must be living a pretty quiet life, probably in a bus shelter.

Even the punters he met at the racetrack were mostly insular and serious, unlike the tearaways who had worked alongside him in london’s trading rooms. These were noisy people with big egos and they liked to drink and party.

In contrast, racecourse pros went straight home after racing to start studying the form for the next day.

If I’ve got sunken eyes, it’s more likely to be because I’ve been out until 4am celebrating a win than because I’ve been studying the form all night. Having said that, the problem for me, as for them, was and is that the job is so time-consuming. The travelling means that you have to get up early every day to start studying the day’s card. There is no other life.

Dave Nevison, like any other pro punter around the world, faced not only hard work but also the financial reality of trying to make a good living. Any study of the facts and figures relating to betting will show that to make anything like a reasonable annual sum, you need to be betting in a brilliant fashion and enjoy mountains of luck and oceans of confidence.

If I was betting 12,000 pounds a week, even if I made five per cent profit that would bring in only 600 pounds a week, which wasn’t bad until you knocked off the expenses, which were 200 to 250 a week. The sums just didn’t add up. Either I had to be much more successful than other people in terms of my percentage profit, or I had to turn over a hell of a lot more. But I didn’t have the bottle for 5,000 pound bets and I didn’t have enough 5,000s to do it anyway, even if I found the bottle.

The breakthrough for Dave came when he began delving into betting his own prices when they were overlays. A friend named Eddie The Shoe convinced him it was the only one to go for to achieve long term success. Those of you who think that it’s just not worth the time and effort needed to draw up your own price lines, would do well to take heed of the success Nevison has had with this approach.

It was so obvious I couldn’t believe that I’d never considered doing it myself, especially since it was a system that suited me. I like a statistical approach and I’m very good and quick, at mental arithmetic, at assimilating figures and working out odds and percentages. I’m good at spotting prices that are out of line. So Eddie The Show got me going. Within nine months of starting at the racecourse I was using his approach. It’s how I’ve operated ever since and I think it’s the way to do it.

Dave came to the conclusion that if you just try to pick winners then you can’t win. But if you play the percentages, you can.

If you just back the horses you fancy, which is what most punters do, you will eventually go skint because most of the time your selection’s chance of winning will be pretty accurately reflected in its price and the prices include a profit margin for the bookmaker. You can only win if you are a consistently better judge of what a horse’s true chance is and what its odds should be, than the market, and you bet accordingly. Otherwise, the margins will get you in the end.

Once he changed his approach Nevison was a new man. He started to feel confident that he was odds-on to win on any racing day. He concentrated on six or seven races and looked for the best value at small meetings. He wanted meetings where there were handicaps for older horses rather than Maidens and novice hurdles, races in which the form was unexposed. Once he had seen the light, he looked for horses whose odds were at least 15 per cent better than the price he thought they should be.

This is not rocket science, of course, and there are pro punters in Australia who follow, and who have followed, a similar path. What Dave Nevison managed to do was to make it work in a major fashion.

The trick is to press up on the longer-priced horses that you think represent good value. You may fancy an 8/1 shot as much as an even-money shot, but most punters will still have a bigger stake on the even-money shot.

Ideally, the thing to do is not to back the even’s horse at all, just the 8/1 shot, or at least have the same stake on both. With experience I gained the confidence to have bigger bets on longer-priced horses, even on horses that were drifting in the market.

In his book (definitely among the best I’ve read in the last 10 years on racing), Dave Nevison stresses that a punter has to gamble in a way that suits him personally. Betting the overlays suited him. That doesn’t mean it is ideal for everyone. I know any number of punters who would have no chance of following such an approach. In the first place they’d never have the time or inclination to actually sit down and think about setting prices for every runner. But there are others who I know that follow such an approach and do well, though success depends, of course, on how smart you are at drawing up your prices.

It satisfied my need for action, effectively giving me a fix every half hour, which is what I need. I’ll have more bets in a day than some professional punters will have in a season.

Then there’s the entire question of risk. As a punter, how far are you prepared to go in risking your money? How safe do you need to feel? Nevison is one of those “lucky” types who has the strong mental makeup to run maximum risk operations.

I have always been much more risk-oriented and financially ambitious than most of my contemporaries and most professional punters. Within about four years of becoming a professional punter, I was making 50,000 pounds a year, a grand a week, in cash, tax free. That’s good money but it still wasn’t as much as I’d been making in the city and I kept thinking about how much more I’d be making if I’d stayed there.

Nevison devotes an entire section in the book entitled “How Do I Do It?” It contains a lot of useful advice to those who aspire to be professionals and for any rank and file bettor.

A lot of people like the idea of being a professional punter but I don’t think most of them realise how much work goes into it, or how much emotional energy. It’s a full time job and not an easy one. It is certainly not simply a matter of looking at the card in the morning, studying the form, making a few selections, backing them, watching them run, then working out how much richer you are.

It is hard work and it has become harder and harder over the years, particularly because we have to use a number of different accounts to get our bets on. It’s a constant frustration that I can’t just bowl up to a bookmaker, present myself as Dave Nevison and back a horse at the best price, but it’s a fact of life that I can’t.

Dave has paid the price of success. A lot of UK bookmakers just won’t take a bet from him. They tell it to him face to face. No way you are betting with me!

Then there’s the toll that such a lifestyle takes on the body and the mind. It’s a stressful way to make a dollar, no matter how successful you might be. Nevison warns of this in the book.

I realise that, at 45, I can’t work or play as hard as I once could and it would kill me to work every day of the week. Now I take time off, which used to be anathema to me, unthinkable. It’s become essential. I’ll concentrate on the big days, then take a break when the racing is poor, which it often is.

Nevison’s betting these days can be across bookmakers, tote, spread betting and the betting exchanges. It’s a demanding operation which he does in partnership with a long time pal, Mark Smith.

Mark and I will carry on doing what we are doing, while being alert to changes and the possible need to adapt. People who watch us at the racecourse and in the press room don’t get a true picture of our operation, because they only see part of it. Someone may see us lose 5,000 pounds in cash, but the bet that really mattered may have been a multiple bet or Jackpot bet placed off-course. If you tell people how much you’ve won, the conversation drags on and you make enemies, because some people don’t really like the fact that you make money betting when they probably don’t.

A Bloody Good Winner then, is a top book of its kind. For punters, it’s a thrill a minute read via Dave’s stories of his betting plunges, his wins and his losses. We will all recognise aspects of ourselves in the way he lives his life.
He’s a risk taker and he can make mistakes, just like the rest of us, but he IS making betting work and he’s one shining example that despite all the negative prognostications, the punt can be beaten.

A Bloody Good Winner. Life as a Professional Gambler,  by Dave Nevison (with David Ashforth), published by Highdown, an imprint of Raceform Ltd. Available from Internet booksellers (try High Stakes in London).

By Brian Blackwell