Handicapping, in sport and games, is the practice of assigning advantage through scoring compensation or other advantage given to different contestants to equalize the chances of winning. The word also applies to the various methods by which the advantage is calculated. In principle, a more experienced player is disadvantaged in order to make it possible for a less experienced player to participate in the game or sport whilst maintaining fairness. Handicapping also refers to the various methods by which spectators can predict and quantify the results of a sporting match.
The term handicap derives from hand-in-cap, a popular 17th-century lottery game, where players placed their bets in a cap. Handicapping is used in scoring many games and competitive sports, including go, chess, croquet, golf, bowling, polo, basketball, and track and field events. It also serves to foster wagering on horse racing events. Often races, contests or tournaments where this practice is competitively employed are known as Handicaps.
The term is also applied to the practice of predicting the result of a competition, such as for purposes of betting against the point spread. A favored team that wins by less than the point spread still wins the game, but bets on that team lose.
Handicapping in action
In a horse handicap race (sometimes called just "handicap"), each horse must carry a specified weight called the impost, assigned by the Racing secretary based on factors such as performances, distance so as to equalize the chances of the competitors. To supplement the combined weight of jockey and saddle, up to the assigned impost, lead weights are carried in saddle pads with pockets, called lead pads.
Predicting the outcome of races
Thoroughbred handicapping is the art of predicting horses who have the greatest chance of winning a race, and profiting from these predictions at the horse races. The Daily Racing Form (DRF), a newspaper-style publication, is an important tool of the handicapper or horseplayer. The DRF details statistical information about each horse entered in a race, including detailed past performance results, lifetime records, amount of money earned, odds for the particular horse in each past race, and a myriad of other information available for casual or serious study.
The handicapping process can be simple or complex but usually includes the following elements prior to the race:
1) Study of the Daily Racing Form
2) Observing the horses’ body language and behaviour in the paddock and/or post parade.
3) Watching the tote board for the changing odds of each horse and thus for clues about how the betting public views a horse’s chances of winning the upcoming race
“Trip Handicapping” takes place during the race and involves watching the horses (usually with binoculars) and noting relevant information about how a horse runs during that race.
Handicapping theory is possibly one of the most enigmatic theories in all of sports. Horseplayers consider the following elements when handicapping a horse race:
Speed Those horses who run the fastest win the most races. The DRF lists times at certain call points of each race, and the lengths back from the lead at each call point. Speed handicappers compare race times to help ascertain which horses will most likely win the race. The DRF now contains a numerical summation of the speed that each horse ran in every race, called a Beyer speed figure. This number is generated through a method developed by Andrew Beyer, and described in his 1975 book Picking Winners. The Beyer speed figures takes into account the individual class of a race as well as how the racetrack was playing on a particular day to create an aggregate number for each horse. The basic error behind this approach is that the sample size each day which is used to create the track variant for the speed figure is very small, and hence subject to massive errors in standard deviation. For example, there may be only one turf (grass) race on a given day, and the Beyer system has to extract a variant for that race from a sample of one.
Pace Pace is probably the single most important factor in determining the outcome of a race. Pace handicappers classify each horse’s running style (i.e. front runner, stalker, presser, closer) and then find contenders based on the predicted pace of today’s race. The difficulty is that the jockey has control over where a horse is placed in a race and how fast that race goes in the early stages. This takes the prediction of pace for a given race out of the realm of mathematics and into the realm of mere speculation.
Until the 1970s, for pace handicapping purposes, the time generally allotted by pace handicappers for a horse to run a length (approximately 11 feet) during the course of a race was long thought to be a fifth of a second. Andrew Beyer was the first to contest this in his 1975 book Picking Winners, stating that the time span of a beaten length (at the end of the race) varied by race distance, as horses would be traveling faster at the end of shorter distanced races than they would at longer ones. Others, particularly devotees of the Sartain Methodology in the 1980s, furthered this principle to include fractional (internal race) times. Today, the value of a beaten length is generally accepted to be closer to 0.16 seconds than to 0.20. The standard of one-fifth of a second is somewhat valid in Standardbred (harness) racing.
Form Those horses who looked “sharp” in their past race or past few races, win the most races. A sharp horse could have finished strongly, stayed among the leaders, finished “in the money” (1st, 2nd or 3rd) or recovered from a bad racing trip. Conversely, a horse showed dull form if it gave up, looked sluggish or chased the pack. Horses with sharp form have the lowest odds and hence return the least money per bet. Also, often horses will race off a "layoff." A layoff is a rest varying in length from usually two months to a year or more. In this case, workouts, horse appearance, and trainer patterns are the best guides to whether the horse is ready to run after a rest.
Class Horse races occur at different levels of competition. Generally, high caliber horses are entered in races with other high caliber horses and slower horses are entered in races with other slower horses. But a horse can move up or down in class, depending on where the trainer decided to enter the horse based on the results of its last race. Note that the strength of the same class of race, such as a Maiden Special Weight race, will vary greatly from track to track, as well as from race to race at the same track, making this too an inexact determinant of class.
Post Position The horse nearer the inside of a race track will have a shorter distance to run than a horse on the outside track, although it is also more vulnerable to being cut off by horses that start off faster and head to the inside rail.
Jockey Horses do not run the races by themselves. They are ridden by a jockey, [male or female, (or, in Qatar and UAE, by a Robot jockey)], and there are good human jockeys and bad human jockeys. All other things being equal, the better human jockey can make a difference between a winning horse and one that loses. In the case of the robot jockey, a person controls the robot by remote-control, and how well the person runs the remote control robot might be a factor as well.
Other Factors Other factors affecting the outcome of a race are track condition, weather, weight that the horses have to carry, daily bias of the racing surface, and many more factors that the handicapper cannot know. The track condition is closely linked to the weather as rain/snow and the amount of sun affect the firmness of the turf or the condition of the dirt. A wet track is usually denoted as "sloppy". There are cases however when a roller is run over a wet track (if the rain has stopped) and such a track is denoted "sealed".
In this day and age of computers it is important to have a comprehensive list of horse race handicapping factors. Here is the start of a list that includes 20 factors. It is envisaged that there will be over 100 factors to make a competitive model of a race.
|FINISH1||Recency-weighted mean of past normalized finishing position.|
|WEIGHT(REL)||Today's weight carried minus mean weight carried on all horses in this race.|
|WEIGHT(REL)DIST||WEIGHT(REL) times distance of this race.|
|FIRSTCALL||Recency-weighted mean of past first call position (an early speed factor).|
|FIRSTCALLDIST||FIRSTCALL times distance of this race (in combination with FIRSTCALL, this enhances the impact of early speed in short races).|
|WINHISTORY||Recency-weighted mean of past win history (binary coding with 1 for wins and 0 otherwise).|
|LENGTHSBEHIND||Recency-weighted mean of past lengths beaten, distance normalized.|
|DAYSSINCE||Days since last race minus median days between races.|
|CAREERSTARTS||Number of career starts.|
|FINISH2||Average past normalized finishing position.|
|COMPETITORS1||A complicated current-competitor factor which serves to boost horses who have actually raced with and beaten other horses in this race in a recent past race.|
|COMPETITORS2||Recency-weighted mean of average lengths beaten of all other horses in this horse's past races.|
|LASTRACE||Normalized finish of this horse in its last race times the recency weight of that race.|
|SPECIALDIFF||Recency-weighted mean of past officially reported "trip" difficulties this horse has experienced (e.g. "was bumped and lost two lengths in last race.")|
|DISTANCEPREF||Preference (positive or negative) for this race's distance.|
|TRACKPREF||Preference for this race's track.|
|JOCKEYHISTORY||Recency-weighted past skill of the jockey that rode this horse in past races.|
|JOCKEYCURRENT||This race's jockey advantage factor (based on an auxiliary regression model).|
|TRACKWORK||Trackwork factor (based on an auxiliary regression model).|
|STRENGTH||Recency-weighted estimated strength of other horses in this horse's past races.|
Middle and arbitrage bets
There are other strategies that involve differences in the lines on the same event at different books. One bet is a called a "middle", which is when a player finds two books that offer different point spreads for the same event. They will bet the more favorable spread at both books, and if the final score falls between the two, the bettor will win both bets. On the other hand, if the total falls outside the range of the "middle" the bettor only loses a small percentage of a bet (the "juice" or "vig" taken by the house).
For example, Book 1 has Team A as a 3 point favorite, and Book 2 has team B as a 3 point favorite. If a player bets Team B at Book 1, and Team A at Book 2, he will win both bets if either side wins by 2 or less points, and will win one bet and lose the other (known as a "side") if either team wins by 3 points.
Another strategy, known as arbitrage, or an "arb" or "scalp", involves finding different moneylines for the same event. In this case, the bettor will bet the more favorable line at both books, and have a guaranteed profit. For example, if Book 1 considers Team A to be worth +200 (2 to 1 underdog), and Book 2 considers Team B to be worth +200, a bettor can bet Team A at Book 1, and Team B at Book 2, and guarantee a 100% profit. This is a no-risk bet, as the player is guaranteed a profit no matter the result of the game.
Politics, and other exotics
Many bookmakers now offer what are known as "exotic" bets, which are lines offered on non-traditional events. These include events like political races, talent contests (like American Idol), when characters will die in TV series, how many hurricanes will strike the coast of the United States in a season, and other strange bets.
The first very well known sports handicapper in American culture was Jimmy Snyder, also known as Jimmy the Greek. During his career he worked for CBS on their Sunday morning show, The NFL Today. Because sports betting had a social taboo at the time, Jimmy was not allowed to mention betting on games specifically. Instead, he would predict the score. Over the years the attitude towards sports betting, and handicapping in general, has changed. Billy Walters was profiled by 60 Minutes because of his handicapping abilities. Billy Walters, and other unknown members of the Computer Group, developed a system for handicapping games and beating Las Vegas sportsbooks. ESPN wrote an article on Haralabos Voulgaris naming him as the one of the premier NBA handicappers in the world. He claims to have developed a system that uses advanced statistical analysis to predict the outcomes of games. In the past, very few people did any mathematical calculations when handicapping sporting events. Predictions were usually made from hunches or information not readily available to the public. However, with the advancement of technology computers powerful enough to run advanced simulation models now frequent homes and offices. Advanced statistics such as DVOA, Win Shares and Points per Possession are talked about in mainstream media. Brian Burke, author of The Fifth Down blog featured in the New York Times, wrote a formula using advanced statistical techniques that has shown consistency correctly predicting NFL winners. Handicapping, as a profession, is very similar to being a stock analyst. Like Wall Street did in the 1970s, the sports handicapping industry is undergoing a quantitative revolution. Many successful handicappers also use money management systems similar to financial investment professionals. The most popular, and mathematically superior, system is the Kelly criterion. It is a formula for maximizing profits and minimizing losses based on payout odds and win probability of the underlying asset.
- A golf handicap is a specific example of handicapping by manipulating a golfer's score.
- Polo handicap is not an estimation of how many goals a player would be expected to score in a match, but rather of the player's worth to his or her team. It is an overall rating of a player's horsemanship, team play, knowledge of the game, strategy and horses.
- Chess handicap applies to chess competitions.
- Go handicap applies to the game of Go.
- Glider handicap applies to the sport of gliding
- Handicap race
- Political handicapping
- Portsmouth handicap and PHRF apply to sailing.
- Match fixing
- Point shaving
- Sports betting
- Shogi (Japanese chess) and many of its variants also have handicaps.
- "handicap, n." The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 8 Oct. 2008 http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50102189[dead link].
- Wood, Greg (April 3, 2006). "End of an era as Jockey Club falls on own sword". The Guardian. Retrieved 2006-04-17.
- R. G. Chapman "Still Searching for Positive Returns at the Track:"
- Pace, Eric. "Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder; A Sports Oddsmaker". New York Times. Retrieved 22 April 1996.
- Logan, Lara. "Sports Betting: Billy Walters". CBSNewsOnline. Retrieved 16 Janueary 2011. Check date values in:
- Eden, Scott. "Meet The World's Top NBA Gambler". ESPN The Magazine. ESPN. Retrieved 21 Feb 2013.
- Burke, Brian. "Game Probabilities Are Back". New York Times. New York Times. Retrieved 27 September 2012.
- Beyer, Andrew (May 6, 1994). Picking Winners : A Horseplayer's Guide (Reissue ed.). Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0-395-70132-5.