Magazine article The Spectator

Man vs Machine

Magazine article The Spectator

Man vs Machine

Article excerpt

What does it mean these days to beat the bookie? Many of us like to imagine that winning a bet still involves trumping some wizened geezer and his chalkboard. In most cases, however, today's successful punter has had to get the better of a mega computer.

Gambling markets, like financial ones, now run on Automated Trading Systems.

These are outrageously sophisticated algorithms which mine billions of pieces of information in order to calculate, with depressing accuracy, the probability of various outcomes. Sports 'books' are markets made by software programmers and managed by traders. And the traders just sit and watch the screens, like airtraffic controllers, only intervening if the system malfunctions.

It's easy to see why gambling firms prefer machines to men in sheepskin coats. Algorithms are not susceptible to confirmation bias, loss aversion, or any of those problems which behavioural economists are always talking about.

Such inhumanity is a great advantage in gambling, which, even more than the stock market, thrives on emotional exuberance and despair. As computers become ever more powerful, the algorithms will only become cleverer, faster and better.

Bit sinister, isn't it? A bit Terminator .

What chance does the punter have against these mighty machines? In the past, a few sharp minds might have been able to spot a proud or greedy bookie's mistakes. That's much harder now.

Hope is not lost, however. The Speculator's golden rule - 'When they zig, you zag' - still holds. When datacrunching is all the rage and everybody worships technology, it is time to invest in human intuition. 'There are holes in a computer algorithm's armour, ' says Mark Teltscher, a successful poker professional who now bets on sports. 'Because it cannot anticipate unforeseen events, it cannot react quickly when they occur.

Whereas I can.' As an example, he cites a recent football match he bet on. …

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