Becoming A Super-Handicapper | Book Review of Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction

Written by Alex Vella

Handicapping sports markets is a skill only few can do professionally in betting. It seems daunting to come up with your number on a game or match, have trust in that number and bet anything above that number. But like most things in life, it is a skill that can be learned if you’re willing to put in the effort.

Recently, I read the book Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction. Although it had little to do with betting on sports, it had everything to do with becoming an expert at forecasting events, which is very relatable to handicapping betting markets. In short, the authors conducted a massive tournament called the Good Judgement Project (GJP), involving thousands of ordinary people who forecasted global events. The book explained which kinds of forecasters were successful or unsuccessful, and what techniques and personality traits the best forecasters possessed.

Personally, this has been a game changer for the way I handicap sports as a professional sports bettor. So I have put together an article of the four biggest lessons and takeaways from this book and how it can be applied to becoming a “super-handicapper”.

1) Sports pundits are not sports bettors

Put yourself in the shoes of a TV producer for an English Premier League show. Are you going to hire an elite football analyst who knows the game inside-out but is very dull and looks uncomfortable in front of the camera? Or, are you going to hire someone who is entertaining, controversial or funny, but not exactly accurate with their predictions? Accuracy doesn’t sell on television; entertainment does. Yes, it’s imperative to have great knowledge about the sport you are covering, but it’s not as important to have accurate predictions. Pundits are not hired because they possess any proven skill at forecasting the remainder of the season, nor are they held accountable for their previous predictions. Their main skill is telling a compelling story and engaging an audience. So keep this in mind when you’re gathering information from a sports pundit. You will never hear a pundit say; “I think Manchester United are a 72% chance of finishing in the Top 4 this season.” But that is exactly what handicappers do, they assign precise percentages to events.

Another interesting finding from the GJP was the correlation between how famous the forecasters were and their results. The study found that the more famous an “expert” was, the less accurate he or she was in their predictions. This echoes what was mentioned above. People gain fame for being entertaining, not accurate.

2) Try to prove yourself wrong

One of the scariest things a handicapper can do is to grow too attached to their beliefs about a certain team, player or game. In these situations it’s important to operate like a scientist and work to prove your hypothesis wrong. Scientists must be able to answer: What would convince me I’m wrong? If they can’t provide some kind of answer to that question it means they have grown too attached to their belief. There is always a way for a team or player to win a sporting event. If there wasn’t, the odds for one side would be 1.00, in other words, a 100% chance of winning.

The most successful forecasters from the study constantly searched for outside views they could synthesise into their own. If you think Arsenal should be 1.80 favourites to beat Manchester United, but their odds are currently 2.20, you are either missing something in your analysis or over-weighting a characteristic of the match. In these scenarios, the best thing a handicapper can do is work tooth and nail to prove themselves wrong and find out why they are so far away from the current consensus price. Also, it is more useful to pay attention to the opinions of those who disagree with you rather than those who agree. Yes, it can sometimes be hard to have a productive conversation with someone who takes the opposite view on a game, but listening to their view and synthesising it into your own view and price is a must-have tool for handicappers. Don't rush to judgement; be analytical, reflective and wide-eyed.

3) Inbedding open-mindedness

Many handicappers will write notes on a particular game which could help reason a potential future bet. Personally, I take this as an opportunity to vomit all of my thoughts onto the page and work from there to form an opinion. Improving your note taking or ‘reasoning-writing’ is another way to improve your handicapping.

The average performing forecaster in the book's study was roughly as accurate as a dart-throwing chimpanzee. In other words, the average forecaster might as well have just guessed each question instead of putting in hours of work. Interestingly, there was a correlation between the wording used in the forecasters' predictions and their performance. Forecasters who used terms like “furthermore” or “moreover” in their reasoning performed worse than random guessers. Why? Because those terms are only used by people who are trying to prove why they are right and why others are wrong. In addition, the forecasters who used these terms also performed worse in the topics they specialise in, once again showing they were too wedded in their beliefs and failed to keep an open mind.

On the other hand, the group of forecasters who performed best used wording such as “although” and “however” throughout their reasoning for predictions. This wording allowed them to counter-point statements, keep their views in probabilistic terms and eliminate any type of weddedness to an idea. As a handicapper, whenever you are presented with a new game or match-up to analyse and handicap, try to be as open-minded and pragmatic as possible. Try to insert language into your reasoning that forces you to see the other side.

4) Team work

In betting, you’ll often hear about the wisdom of the crowd and the importance of beating the closing line in order to have long term success. But the wisdom of the crowd is almost pointless if the crowd is not full of wisdom. The great thing about beating the closing line of a sharp bookmaker is that it incorporates all the information from the smartest sports bettors around the world, so you know you’re doing something right. Some handicappers can do this by themselves, but imagine the power of multiple legitimate handicappers coming together to form a consensus price. Aggregating the views of multiple professional handicappers would surely improve your betting performance right? Yes it did, and the authors explained by how much in their study.

After one year, results showed that teams of forecasters outperformed individuals by 23% on average. And these teams were selected randomly, with no idea about the skill level of each individual forecaster. For the second year, the authors decided to change things and group together teams of “superforecasters”. In other words, grouping the most successful individual forecasters together to see if they could better their own personal results. And they did, proving exactly 50% more accurate than their individual scores over the next two years. This shows the importance of networking in betting. Try and work together with someone who successfully handicaps the same sport or league as you. Bounce ideas and opinions off one another; it will most likely improve your handicapping and most importantly your profitability. You may already achieve a 5% ROI on your sport. But, imagine taking that to 7.5% by simply communicating with other successful handicappers!

Although it is important to note, communicating effectively in a team environment is key. Work to understand the arguments of the other side, ask precise questions so you don’t misunderstand anyone and practice constructive confrontation - disagree without being disagreeable.

Practice and repetition

Becoming a super-handicapper is a skill that always needs upgrading. Hopefully the points listed above help you start your handicapping journey or help refine your game. From personal experience, you will only get better through constant repetition and having skin in the game. By reading this article or book you will not become a super-handicapper. These skills need to be deliberately practised, repeated and repeated some more to become a part of your handicapping process.

Link to book.

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