Wednesday, March 07, 2012

[Books] Book Look: Beyer on Speed, by Andrew Beyer

Book Look: Beyer on Speed, by Andrew Beyer: In my somewhat quixotic quest to better understand thoroughbred handicapping, this book popped to the top of everyone's suggested reading list. I can see why.

I'm going to get sidetracked right off the bat here, because Beyer is dedicated to objective analysis of gambling, something that only a minority of gamblers pursue, and certainly no casual gamblers. But it is something dear to my heart, partly because I spent a small amount of time trying to do just that for betting football games (with marginal continued success) and partly because my personal self-delusion is that I value the rational, objective understanding of reality to such and extent that it differentiates me from the vast majority of my fellow human beings who only dimly perceive the underlying probabilistic tendencies of life. In that vein, reading Beyer was like reading a kindred spirit, albeit one vastly more accomplished than myself.

Beyer is the man behind what are known as Speed Numbers. Speed Numbers came along a few decades ago as a result of what I presume to be one of the first efforts to objectify the outcome of thoroughbred races. What Speed numbers did was give handicappers a way to compare horses from race to race while controlling -- somewhat -- for track and race conditions. Previously, racing "knowledge" consisted of half understood nuggets of wisdom, vague impression, and overgeneralized anecdotes. In time, Speed Numbers were widely published and any easy value they provided the handicapper was lost. Remember, the gambler is always looking for circumstances where public opinion is at odds with reality. If just a handful of people use Speed Numbers they provide a tremendous advantage over those that don't. If everybody is using them, they provide little or no advantage over your fellow gamblers.

Beyer on Speed was written as a direct result of this. Beyer faced the question of whether there was any real value in his creation anymore. This in itself is admirable. Here is someone with a enormous amount of sweat and emotion invested in his creation. I suspect the majority of people in such circumstances would dig in and argue tooth and nail for the continuing validity of their ideas even to the point of turning rhetorical back flips and scaling peaks of self-delusion to do so. Not Beyer. He is nothing if not objective and that requires a willingness to accept reality however painful.

But Beyer doesn't come to the conclusion that Speed Numbers give him no edge. He comes to see the edge is in how they are used. Beyer calls this the "conceptual approach" which can be summed up as follows: First, run your numbers and do you quantitative homework. Next, with a good understanding of the shortcomings of your numbers (what they will and won't represent), evaluate each situation and adjust your wagering accordingly. The primary function of this book is to demonstrate what Speed Numbers do and don't represent and to survey to other sorts of info that come into play. Beyer surveys key concepts of pace and track bias in some detail, illustrating the sorts of adjustments he makes for them.

Rich with anecdote and experience, Beyer deserves yet more high scores for talking about his losses and failures as readily as his successes, including a particularly devastating loss in a pick-six. This is important and it's part of what makes the book seem so genuine. Losses will always be more frequent than wins and handling them psychologically (and financially) is the key to survival.

As I said, I drew comparisons to my gambling efforts with football, although it's clear horse racing is a very different animal. In football, instead of having access the entire race and interactions of ten or so horses, you have to worry about interactions of two sets of eleven men all with specific assignments that only indirectly relate to the goal. Not to mention you will never see everything because full field game films are only available to NFL insiders and TV coverage necessarily gives you only a portion of any action. But the quest is the same -- try to quantify the process as much as possible and use your objective results as an advantage over the rest of the public, who are mislead by their own (very human) observational weakness and bias.

It's a strange topic of interest, I know, and I might do well to navel-gaze long enough to understand why I am so attracted to it. But should you read Beyer on Speed? Well, if you have an interest in thoroughbred handicapping then absolutely, but you probably already have (it's something of a classic in the field). If you are strangely attracted to objective methods of gambling like I am, then absolutely. Otherwise, although exceedingly clearly written and pretty much devoid of jargon, I gotta guess it wouldn't be of little interest to the uninvolved reader.

As for me, I loved the hell out of it.