In this final section of a review of the unconscious factors that may adversely affect our judgement when gambling, we will look at only one factor - but a very important one. The myth of skill.

Given equal chance aspects about betting games, punters are more likely to choose a game that appears to involve the most skill. One of the marketing skills in promoting gambling games is to make the game seem more skilful than it actually is.

One good study that shows the influence of this factor was carried out by Strickland as far back as 1966. In a dice throwing and gambling situation Strickland divided the players into two groups. One group bet on the likely outcome and then threw the dice. The other group threw the dice into a box so they could not see the result, and then bet.

The first group bet much more than the second. The outcomes of this purely chance-controlled game would, on average, be the same. Yet the group that bet before throwing somehow believed their throw could make the result more likely to be the one they wanted - and accordingly, they bet more. This is the 'myth of skill' as their throwing clearly would not make the outcome any different, on average, to the results of the other group. But those gamblers strongly believed it did, and they bet, and lost, more.

This 'myth of skill' is tremendously important. Some people study football results in great detail before selecting their numbers in the pools, yet the results, because of the number of games and the impact of chance events - a deflected goal, a player sent off, etc, are really determined by chance. Additionally the pools return the lowest amount of the total bets back to the punter!

Horse racing is not exempt. Luck does play a big part in any one race, and professionals try to minimise the effect of luck over time by maximising skills. Today's bad luck may be balanced by tomorrow's good luck, as today your bet got trapped on the rails, while tomorrow the favourite does, as your bet sweeps down the outside to win.

Still, the average punter believes he is more skilful than he usually is, and this can influence him to bet more than is wise. If your ego really gets caught up with gambling it can be difficult to stop betting and admit you are not the genius you thought you were.

That is why we strongly advocate keeping records. Any myths are quickly dispelled in the face of reality. It is also why it is hard to keep records - the moment losses start to mount, the record is stopped to avoid destroying the 'myth of skill'. If you are strong enough to keep a record, and it shows losses then you can decide to go one of two ways.

  1. You can decide that you will never be skilful enough, so you will just bet to have fun, record the losses, and make sure they do not get out of hand. There is always the hope a fluke result, such as a large trifecta, will give you a good profit, but you are clearly reliant on luck, not skill, and your punting is for fun mainly, and profit - perhaps. Most punters, whether they admit it or not are in this category. Many would deny they are in this category, but an analysis of their records, if they kept any, would show both by their losses, and their selections, that they are not as skilful as they think they are - the 'myth of skill'. This group provides the profits for the second group.
  2. Here is the much, much smaller group - the genuinely skilful. Their records show a profit most years, they analyse the form, and their results, very closely. Much hard work goes into selecting the horses, and ensuring the price they get is fair. When losing runs set in, bets are curtailed for a time to work out why the run has occurred - is it just the inevitable occasional run of bad luck, or is their judgement (skill) astray? If so why? Altered track conditions, emotional problems away from the track and other variables can all contribute to a temporary aberration of judgement. A few who try this approach find it takes away their fun, and they leave this group and join the other. Those that are still in this group have no 'myths of skill'. They now possess it, in abundance - and make it work for them. These are the ones who are best able to profit from racing.

That concludes a brief review over the last three months of the conscious factors that can sabotage our gambling.

We need to be aware of negative recency, (e.g. the feeling that a favourite must win soon if a number of favourites have lost) utility (the desire to win a lot for a little outlaid, leading to us wrongly favouring longer priced horses), superstitions that can cloud our rational judgement, risky shifts that occur when our thoughts are influenced too much by others, and the myth of skill that deludes us into thinking our judgements are more skilful than they really are.

We need to decide if we are a fun gambler, or a serious gambler. Both groups must ensure they do not lose more than they can afford, but the fun gambler can worry less about the influence of the factors described above. The serious gambler, or would-be serious gambler must be crucially aware of these factors as he (or she) studies the form and prepares to bet.

Good punting, whichever group you choose to be in.

Click here to read Part 1.
Click here to read Part 2.

By Clive Allcock