Have you ever felt that the favourite had no sort of chance, but you based your bet around it anyway?
Have you ever had the experience in a race where you just couldn’t make up your mind?
Or that you just couldn’t figure out why you voided a wager before the off, which turned out to be a winning one?
You start to wonder:
- What’s wrong with me?
- Why do I keep going over the same things again and again?
- Why can’t I stop voiding my bets that would have generated large profits in the long term?
If any of this sounds familiar to you, neurological scientific research involving the lateralization of the human brain is beginning to help us understand why this cycle of stressful decisions may be going on in our minds.
Professor Roger Sperry (Nobel prize winner 1981) discovered in the 60s that each hemisphere of the human brain contains “a control system in its own right perceiving, thinking, remembering, reasoning, willing and emoting”.
More recently, Harvard Professor Fredric Schiffer has subsequently scientifically shown how each hemisphere stores past memories differently, which explains our own internal conflicts. It elucidates why one part of us may be thinking one thing and the other part, equally sure of itself, may be communicating something totally different another.
This has been well illustrated in the inspiring book written by Jill Bolte Taylor “My Stroke of Insight” in which she brilliantly describes the relationship between her two cerebral hemispheres.
Each hemisphere has a mind of its own and they often disagree.
“I encourage you to pay attention to what is going on in your brain”. Jill Bolte Taylor said: “Own your power and show up for your life”.
Professional racing results forecasting or odds compiling are among the few professions that enable you to quantify exactly how good you actually are, since all it takes is a quick look at your long-term profit and loss account (P/L).
How does a banker, an accountant, an economist or a personal financial advisor know how good they are at what they do? And how do they know if they have a good or a bad day?
For a professional bettor the measuring stick is simple: the balance sheet. The more money you make, the better you are at your job. If you have better results than someone else that means you are better at your job than he or she is and if you have lost money on a particular day it means that you had a bad day. The betting exchange platform is pure meritocracy and natural selection, as the profitable survive while the unprofitable bust their account and disappear.
If you are an average lawyer, an average teacher, an average radiologist or an average cook you can still make a living. However, if you are an average forecaster you lose money and go out of business. You need elite performances on a daily basis.
The P/L balance sheet is the greatest teacher of all and never misses an opportunity to punish the average odds compiler.
The number one thing a forecaster or bettor can do to improve is to become better. Obvious but true!
It is much easier to place the blame on the jockey, draw, track bias, etc …than on ourselves. In fact, disappointing results are always coming from one of 3 things:
– Lack of experience.
– Poor preparation.
– Bad brain management.
All the profitable and successful handicappers have paid their “tuition” to the sport, myself included and I will in this article share my journey with you.
The main reason I was attracted to handicapping and odds compiling was because contrary to my previous profession as a racehorse trainer, with odds compiling you are totally dependent on your own talent and abilities.
Forecasting the results of a horse race is like playing a hundred chess games at once. We have to learn to deal with the unknown, the random, the complex without fully understanding any of these factors. In odds compiling we do a better job at feeling than thinking and decision-making has to be lightning fast. These gut feelings are generated quickly and spontaneously, often faster than rational thinking can keep up with. They are then transmitted to the right hemisphere (RH) of our brain of which we have only a dim and diffuse awareness.
As we have seen in depth in our previous article, the RH predominates in the perception and identification of environmental visual imagery (geometry, visual space, depth, perception, position, distance, movement and stereopsis) and in attending to intuition. However, it is difficult if not impossible to put what the RH experiences in words because it is the left hemisphere (LH) that controls speech, the right hand and keeps track of the P/L balance sheet. Consequently the LH thinks of itself as the dominant half of the brain.
In order to be profitable at the track you need, at all times to manage your hemispheres appropriately, using the correct brain system.
What is very upsetting and frustrating for the aspiring professional bettor is that the rules and the neurological system that help you succeed in life, are very different from the ones that make you successful in forecasting.
Forecasting requires a totally different mental framework that is used in day-to-day life. For example, I cannot remember my spouse’s phone number or where I parked my car… 10 minutes later! But I can remember clearly (without knowing it) how a horse looked in a particular race which I saw 3 years ago if you randomly asked me about him.
The memory and knowledge I have gained are very specific and drawn from decades of experience. With a load of practice you become better at extracting information from what is in front of you. You see things in a completely new way, patterns and structures that are invisible to novice handicappers.
There is now a load of scientific evidence confirming that everything we do changes our brain in some way. When we practice a skill the brain region we use actually grows bigger and if we don’t use it, it shrinks. It is what we call NEUROPLASTICITY.
When I first had a go at betting for a living in 2012, it didn’t take long to notice that I had inappropriate brain wiring to get long term profits.
Having been subjected to an educational and academic system that promotes reason, logic and analysis my RH was “muzzled” with no creativity, originality or ingenuity whatsoever. (I was selected to represent my school in the Physics National Championship, what a blow!). I was in essence a robot and an absurd thinking machine!!
Like a tennis player with one strong and coordinated arm and one weak and uncoordinated arm, the dominant hemisphere (LH) gets so much action that I had over-strengthened one side of my brain while neglecting the other.
I was practising a LH sectarianism and was treating the RH like some inadequate nobody. I was so vain and egocentric that I wasn’t even aware that there was another part of myself waiting to be experienced.
I was trained to solve any problem with rationality, logic, pose the question…, qualify it…look at the alternatives…
I learned that what I don’t see is not there. What I didn’t understand didn’t exist. I had no tolerance for ambiguity and because I was so highly academically educated I believed that the reason behind everything could be logically accessible to me.
I was blind to the mysterious, intuitive, irrational, imprecise, etc…
I was treating racehorses as washing machines with predictable and mechanical programs.
Fortunately, the systematic and methodical recording of my forecasting activity revealed from the word go that something was wrong with my way of operating.
The review of this historical data allowed us a systematic study of the best and worst practices and drew us to the indisputable conclusion that I was using the wrong brain system. I was definitely playing too much with the thinking stuff and it was impairing our results.
I got so discouraged that I went back to training for a while.
Then, attracted by the desire to learn more and the curiosity to discover something there, that I did not understand, I returned to odds compiling for good in 2015.
FROM THE THINKING MACHINE TO THE IGNORAMUS:
Because a horse race is full of uncertainty, unseen elements ruled by the complex and random, it provokes a string of confusion and contradiction that needs to be treated with a different perspective and a specific mindset.
The more complex the decision, the more intuitive one needs to be but it was difficult to accept as I assumed long ago that such choices require the analytic rigour of rational thinking. The LH doesn’t believe in intuition and is quick to disavow the “gut feeling” or “warning sign”. When forecasting a race, the LH is uncomfortable and screams when it doesn’t understand the logic behind the forecast. The LH always returns to what it already knows and was the great saboteur of my odds compiling performances and I had to find a way to silence it. I did lots of research, read many books and articles to understand how I can be so insightful perceiving clues but so bad at using them in the forecasting job.
At that point, I discovered Iain McGilchrist’s book “The Master and his Emissary” that was fitting extraordinarily well with what I was experiencing. After reading the book several times, I wrote to Iain asking him: “Iain, everything I experience is well documented in your book but you do not suggest any solution to resolve a “Neuro Cold War “ peacefully?
His answer was: “Franck, try to have a look at how Buddhism can help you.” I was shocked and profoundly disappointed by such an irrational answer, especially coming from a world-renowned psychiatrist!!
Also, at this time of my life, everything that was evoking religion was interpreted as a fraud by my ignorant and underdeveloped brain.
Naturally, I didn’t follow the advice, but after 18 months of more crisis and frustration, I decided one Saturday, out of desperation but with scepticism to enter the front door of the Buddhist Society in London.
In fact, immediately after the half day visit my performance soared, I was more at peace, relaxed and consequently the results reached a higher level of consistency. I benefited a lot from the practice and I realised that after all, Buddhist Monks have been studying the idiosyncrasy and mastery of the human brain for more than 2500 years.
Actually, the improvement of my results was so spectacular that all the members of the odds compiling team joined in. Initially I was thinking that meditation was a silly practice performed primarily by warmed-over hippies. In fact, it has become a serious area of research in neuroscience and it indicates that practising meditation has measurable beneficial effects on cerebral function.
The taming of the mind
The earliest scientific studies of meditation investigated the patterns of activity in the RH vs. the LH. These studies found a greater degree of activation in the RH for meditators vs. non meditators (Pagano & Franklin 1977, Earle 1981).
More recently, Harvard neuroscience Professor Richard Davidson and other eminent neuroscientists have shown that meditation generates an extraordinary level of brain activity that shapes all cognitive processes.
-Meditation aids me to achieve relaxation and mental clarity, and helps me to become an observer of my emotional patterns rather than being a victim of those.
-Meditation is an intuition facilitator which allows me to listen to my gut feeling.
-Meditation helps me to make better uses of my brain, appease the conflict between my hemispheres and somehow transforms the thinking machine into an IGNORAMUS.
Instead of hiding, suppressing my emotions, I have learnt to listen to them. I notice my feelings, go with the flow and in some way I surrender to it. I am no more fearful of losing control, and becoming a complete IGNORAMUS, letting the simple and natural run its course.
You don’t need certainty to be competent at estimating the chances of the runners and to reach a tolerable level of comfort in the uncertain and random.
My bookkeeping team that records and analyses my results knows how much better I do when I have this detached kind of attention compared to a more engaged kind of attention.
In the early phase of our operation I would get very upset when my predictions were incorrect in a race.
No matter how much I wanted to believe that I could forecast every race’s results accurately, I can’t and I have to accept that.
There is always room for improvement and I cannot think of any profession that blends risk and uncertainty as much as odds compiling and I came to fall deeply in love with it.
My excitement usually starts in the evening when I begin to prepare for the next day’s card. I look forward to evaluating all the runners, researching their performances, observing and studying their past races. I like to go racing every day because I relish following as many horses and races as I possibly can.
I also prefer to forecast each day in continuity and feel lost every time I have to take a break, not knowing if I would be up to the job after the “layoff”, as today while I am writing this article in lockdown since mid-March!!
Because odds compiling is cognitive as well as emotional, I developed a set of routines that keep me in an ideal mindset for forecasting by optimising my life outside the track. It didn’t take us long to realise that I cannot handle too many responsibilities when doing my job as any concern or bother will dramatically affect our P/L results. I need to detach myself from “the normal world”, remove as many as possible distractions and social interactions and stay away from complicated people or setups.
After studying the next day’s races in the evening, I will try to get as much quality sleep as I possibly can. For most of my adult life, I got away with very little sleep.
Now the study of my sleep pattern has revealed that my cognitive performance is greatly improved if I can be in bed for 8 hours at least with a minimum of 7 hours of sleep, 90 minutes of REM and 90 mins of deep sleep. It has been such a reliable indicator of my performance that my team won’t let me go to work if I do not have these 90/90 night recordings.
Sleep enriches a diversity of functions including decision-making; it re-calibrates the emotional brain circuits and it fuels creativity.
Matthew Walker in “Why We Sleep” declares, “based on rich new scientific understanding of sleep, we no longer have to ask what sleep is good for. Instead, we are now forced to wonder whether or not there are any biological functions that do not benefit from a good night’s sleep. So far, the results of thousands of studies insist that no, there aren’t!”
In the morning, my routine is a repetitive and formalistic sequence of events (card prep, meditation, mantra, etc.) in which I basically have no decision to make (same clothes, same meals, same equipment, same procedures) so that I am fresh for the day’s challenges.
At the track, I ramble around as a flâneur, just a disengaged and dispassionate observer. I am invisible and do not talk to anyone, I am alone with just the horses before me.
It resembles a meditative state in which you separate yourself from your surroundings. I would say that I am losing touch with reality, however with the proper mental preparation, that reality will feel more “real”. Forecasting should be effortless, similar to the practice of the Zen masters revealed by Eugen Herrigel in his book “Zen in the Art of Archery” . You let the arrow shoot itself. In handicapping, just as in archery wherever there is effort, force, straining, struggling or trying you are going nowhere.
When you trust your instinct, you allow your emotions to overwhelm you and are likely to experience a sense of exhilaration in which everything is easy.
You will become completely engaged in handicapping and absorbed in all the steps necessary to produce the forecast without thinking about the outcome, the uncertainties, the alternatives or your ego-driven doubt and self-criticism.
You are separate from your results, as the only way to be profitable is by removing the money element from your mind.
Focus on your percentages and not the outcome of the race, as once you start expecting each race to be a winner you become emotionally attached to it and you will make mistakes.
Because the connection between winning/loosing vs self-esteem has been programmed into us by teachers, parents and media it creates pressure and the conflict between the 2 hemispheres will destroy your profits.
This connection has to be reprogrammed so you can take losses without responding emotionally.
As Dr Kat Domingo said: “Enlightenment is not a process of learning, it is a process of unlearning”.
The more pressure I feel, the worse decisions I make, to the point at which today, when my team wants to prepare me for a big day, they say: “Franck, make sure you act like a fool today, don’t be smart, please be an untamed IGNORAMUS!”
The ideas and concepts exposed in this article have been proven very successful at the track. Of course, I do not suggest that they will continue to be or that they are always going to be. However, I will carry on investigating how, with the input of future neurological findings, we can make better decisions forecasting horse racing results.
“He calmly rode on, leaving it to his horse’s discretion to go which way it pleased, firmly believing that in this, consisted the very essence of adventures”.
-Miguel de Cervantes