Monday, 2 March 2009

Skill vs Luck vs Instinct in the world of the horse racing gambler

The almost universally accepted standard mix Gin and Juice contains 2 oz. Gin, 2 oz. Grapefruit Juice, 3 oz. Orange Juice and 1 slice of Lime.

The gin and the grapefruit in equal measure, just a little more orange, the crescent of lime like a martian sunset, its a mix which has its undeniable symmetries and asymmetries. While its symmetries lend themselves to wilful, haphazard construction at the barbeque, the public house, the park or the club its asymmetries remind the mixer of the need for constant vigilance: to read and take note of the signs that the helpful night provides.

Whether the gambler can rely on such benevolence from the heady cocktail sloshing around somewhere southward of their own breast is another matter entirely. The measures are more arbitrary, the receptacle more unforgiving and most crucially there is only one single chance to get it right. Fortune itself is the hard liquor in this cocktail and its powerful intoxicating qualities are mixed with knowledge and instinct to taste. A corrosive concoction, it may lead to a gnawing feeling in the pit of of your stomach which, unlike in the case of more conventional beverages, cannot be relieved by vomiting into the nearest flowerpot. Instead you place your bet, take your odds and wait...


If its skill you want simply watch the finesse of touch and hair-trigger timing of Choc Thornton when bringing an out and out stayer through to beat a classier horse (as he did with Medermit against Dee Ee Williams not so long ago

Turn not to the punter, for there is little bewitching skill involved in horse selection, only an accumulation of knowledge and its application.

Much in the same way as a plumber or electrician is considered to be skilled by the layman, a knowledgeable punter maybe convey an aura of "skill" to the mug or the favourite backer when giving reasons for his selections. Upon closer examination one must agree that our tradesman friends and punters both use knowledge filtered through logic to find the solution to the question that presents itself and that this is something essential to how human beings survived in the world rather than a craft beyond most ordinary mortals.

Learn all that you can of form: jockeys, courses, trainers, trainers at courses, jockeys with trainers for it will stand you in good stead. Above all respect C&D (course and distance) stats as these are the holy grail in form terms (which is why after last year's capitualtion on the famous hill this punter will not be steaming into Binocular for this year's Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham) .

"What about the intricate systems of the professional gamblers and spread bettors" you say? "surely there must be skill involved there?" You've got this all wrong - for these people are businessmen not gamblers and as such should be seen only as the penny pinching cowards that they are.

Though it may seem that talking of studying the form as a practice devoid of skill denigrates the nobility of the gambler and the gamble this is far from the case, for there is skill aplenty required to gain mastery of the whirlwind of competing variables, nagging paranoia and crippling fear of financial ruin and still finally reach the transcendent level of emotional equilibrium required to deposit £20 on the nose.


An elusive beast in gambling as in everyday life, luck is most often seen covetously, knocking around with other, less deserving people. A beautiful girl inexplicably entangled with someone no less if not slightly more of a fool than yourself for instance, or the enduring popularity of Razorlight. Luck cannot be relied upon to make itself known when it is present, to ease you up when you’re poor or to cheer you up when you’re down. In your favour its manifestations will often provide only very relative comforts like being told you are "cute" by someone you want to have sex with or not being flattened by a tram when lost in Croydon.

'They say I shot a man named Gray and took
his wife to Italy/She inherited a million bucks
and when she died it came to me/I can't help it
if I'm lucky.'

From 'Idiot Wind' by Bob Dylan ('Blood on the Tracks' LP)

It may interest those who are not particularly well versed on the life and times of the great man that 'Blood on the Tracks' dealt with the heart-rending break-up from Dylan's then wife, Sara Lownds. Try to imagine the taste of bitter irony contorting his mouth into a wry smile as he sings 'I can't help it if I'm lucky' now have a good grasp of the gambler's relationship with the concept of luck. Every joyful explosion of good fortune is sharpened by the memory of past despairs, for every great win there will always be times that you are down, when the shoo-ins came nowhere or when the great horses pushed their/your luck one race to far.

As luck can only be seen to be evident in hindsight or from outside a situation the more scientifically minded of you might be tempted to say that it doesn't exist.

Having said this if my (seemingly now hopeless) pre-christmas, ante-post Cheltenham four timer with Kalahari King, Ballyfitz, Starluck and Simarian cops then the whim of a benevolent universe will be the only possible explanation.


Instincts, those primal forces that surge up from our loins, course through our veins and crackle across what may be left our screen sozzled, booze boggled brains. They can be held up as all that is natural, unmitigated and animal in man but in we, the modern humanity, they are massaged, subverted, perverted and exploited by the endless streams of words and pictures that swim like schools of fish on retainers past our ears and around our eyes.

While I would not advocate a return to the bad old days of cock or dog fighting, the violence, noise and oppressive atmosphere made it a gamble you could not consider without gut feelings aflame and as such a situation whereby your punting instincts were more plausibly and viscerally interwoven with reality.

In the modern gambling sphere the average punter is divorced from the action, watching it beamed through a screen via satellite from another part of the world. When viewed this way the relevance of instinct must be doubted. It is a bodily reaction, a stirring in the gut that is robbed (unless one is in attendance of the race or game) of any physical bond with the events about to unfold. You cannot sense the mood, taste the air or really definitively tell if the horse has a sweaty arse hole* unless you are right there! Any instincts which you feel across across the telewaves must surely be relatively spurious?

I can offer from recent punting memory an inditement of instinct as a gambling tool. It came when I settled down with a young lady friend of mine to watch the Henessey Gold Cup at Newbury earlier this season. I had long fancied two horses for the race. One was (what now seems completely inexplicably) Nicky Henderson's Oedipe on the nose and the other was an each way punt on David Pipe's Madison Du Berlais. Pipe's horse had come fourth the previous year in the race won by the subsequent Gold Cup winner Denman and in comparison this year's race was not a vintage renewal. I went down to Angel's cafe for my traditional gambling breakfast of liver, bacon and fried onions and disastrously failed to take the 50/1 about MDB in favour of some other no hoper who had entered suddenly into my thoughts as I polished off the yoke with what was left of a fried slice. Of course Madison romped it, leaving Oedipe abosolutely nowhere to be seen and me over three ton out of pocket. Being someone not prone to outwardly manifest outbursts of rage the anger which I turned in upon myself had nothing in common with the noble instincts of other members of the animal kingdom. Gambling can hit you like a drug and in this case the drug was most probably crack.

Untrammelled instincts hastened the fall of Rome and if they are allowed too free a rein in gambling life they will have no trouble in bringing down empires far less glorious. Nevertheless it is instinct that leads us to gamble in the first place and so gamble we shall.

In Conclusion

Some may say the gambler can take comfort from the fact that in his card for the next race, which contains a pre-agreed number of options (subject to non-runners) the world with its maddeningly infinite highways and byways is subdued, simplified and digestible. Yet we know gambling to be just as much about what Pete Doherty in a moment of clarity reminded us was the 'rapture of vertigo, and letting go'.

From this short examination of the relative merits of skill, luck and instinct we can conclude two things: firstly that the aid proffered by the three varies from non-existent to mildly helpful or extremely useful/useless with hindsight; and furthermore that regardless we shall continue to gamble lured back time and again by a profound feeling for our medium, for fate and for romance.

* This is a genuine tip for telling if a horse is not going to be up for it from my Aunt Teresa, an avid racegoer for many a year.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Best Vs Crystal - Part 1

Word reached us of the troubles on Holloway Road so we sent local resident Oliver Jakeman to find out the true story.

In N19 there is a war, a bubbling rivalry which threatens to divide all those who reside within the locus of the post code. Like a roundhead or cavalier, both factions fight to be the most prominent and dominant force in their land. Kebab land that is. The question is - is Best best? Or does Crystal shine brighter than its’ boastful neighbour?

I walked into Crystal around 6pm on a Wednesday and the first thing that strikes you is how busy it is. The men behind the counter move in sweaty unison, like hirsute synchronized swimmers, as meat sizzles and sears on the traditional charcoal grill. The heady aromas of hard graft and meat are overpoweringly delicious and send my stomach into a frenzy.

I took a seat in one of the corners of the restaurant. On a bright green wall hung a wonderful picture that I would pay to come and see alone, never mind eat anything. The image, depicting a loud Technicolor landscape with prancing house and moving waterfall, really blew my socks off and left me feeling hungry, don't ask why.

The menu is considerably less colorful than the decor of this little north London gem, and reads something like this: meat, meat,meat, stew, baklava, humous, and more meat. While choosing my meat I am presented a basket of flatbread, chilli and yoghurt sauce by a glum but pretty waitress. While I nibbled at the bread that same waitress (with what I think was a smile, but it might have been indigestion) came to take my order of a crystal special with rice and a can of coke - all of which came to a grand total of £9. Don't be put off the price, there is so much meat that I began to sweat just at the sight of it. From left to right of the plate sat two adana kebabs (a sort of spicy sausage of minced lamb resembling two of King Kong's fingers), next to that a plentiful portion of doner meat, sheesh kabab, pork chops salad and rice. The food does exactly what it says on the tin: it's filling and full of flavor but that's what you come to expect in any kebab shop, well the filling part at least. But it's the atmosphere here that makes me want to come back; there's a hum of happiness which emanates from the pores of every customer filling the air with a content smell. As I pay the bill I'm given a piece of baklava on a tooth pick - a nice touch which only emphasizes the sweet taste which i already had in my mouth.

Crystals has a new fan and its left me thinking that Best kebab is going to have to live up to it's name if it's compete with this power house of the kebab world.

Part 2 coming soon.

Young love and Mexican riots - A conversation with Blaine from the Mystery Jets

We spoke to Blaine from the Mystery Jets about music, future plans and more importantly the winner for the Cheltenham Gold cup.

You have had your fair share of ups and downs last year but what was your highlight?

I guess what I enjoyed most over the past year or so has been the band going to places we have never been before. It sounds kind of obvious, but seeing the wider world through the eyes of a touring band is a pretty surreal and addictive. We recently turned up in mexico to a mini riot because we had cancelled a show due to the promoter underestimating the demand for tickets. We rescheduled a last minute radio show with an audience and it saved the day. The whole thing kind of blew our minds. There are places like that (and japan and singapore) where there are is a sort of cult like obsession with all that is english.

What have you got planned for this year? Are you planning to release a new single/album?

Well we keep on saying 'right, this is it, one more show then we are gonna focus on the new album', but it seemingly never stops. We're going back to mexico in a week, then we plan to fit in some demo time. We signed to rough trade in February too, so i think they are keen that we knuckle down to it sooner rather than later, which to be fair is want we all really want to do to. we’ve already got half the record id say, but just haven’t had the time to work it out as a band.

What new bands have you came across that we should checkout?

We had a band support us called the dig in New york who were awesome. kind of like dirgy swampy groove music. One of the coolest things i’ve heard in a while was a preview of switch and Diplo's new record. Its a project called Major Lazer and came about from the time they spent in jamaica working with local kids and local celebrities. Its like a fidget take on dancehall, which in turn is being inspired by western dance music itself. I think it will blow some minds.

What are you listening to at the moment?

A lot of springsteen, late police, the cars, i guess in a way what you’d call driving music, which is kind of a hint to the the direction i'd say some of our new stuff is going down. I want to make a record which you will put in your car and never take out. If all goes to plan it will still be in there when your car gets re-traded or sold off for parts in some ten years time. We'll get there.

Alas Agnes is in my top 10 favorite songs of all time, is there any plans to use the ramshackle percussion more prominently again?

Thats kind of you to say, but to me doing something which is unfamiliar to us is going to produce much more inspired and interesting results than resorting back to sounds and things we have used in the past. We still play Agneslive and I still respect the singles off making Dens, but we're kind of in a different headspace right now. I don’t really wake up and think about how to write songs about transexuals anymore. Weirdly.

I’ve known you for a few years now Blaine, are you ever going to play in Peterborough?

You know i dont even know what or where exactly peterborough is. My guess is it’s a mid to large-sized/market town somewhere between leicester and york, but im probably way off. To be honest, in my experience the more effort you put into visiting places which are out of the way, the more of a response you get back. But saying that, I don’t know if I want to be doing any more pub tours again. I’m kind of over playing on stages where your feet stick to the carpet and your twatting your bass player in the face every 5 minutes with your guitar because your pedal boxes are on fucking top of each other. But in principle, yes. Bring it on.

Can you pick a winner for the Cheltenham Gold cup and we'll put a bluey each way on for you?

Imperial commander, you cant lose with a name like that.