# Who wants to win £194,375?

In an earlier post I included a link to Oscar predictions by film critic Mark Kermode over the years, which included 100% success rate across all of the main categories in a couple of years. I also recounted his story of how he failed to make a fortune in 1992 by not knowing about accumulator bets.

Well, it’s almost Oscar season, and fabien.mauroy@smartodds.co.uk pointed me to this article, which includes Mark’s personal shortlist for the coming awards. Now, these aren’t the same as predictions: in some year’s, Mark has listed his own personal favourites as well as what he believes to be the likely winners, and there’s often very little in common. On the other hand, these lists have been produced prior to the nominations, so you’re likely to get better prices on bets now, rather than later. You’ll have to be quick though, as the nominations are announced in a couple of hours.

Anyway, maybe you’d like to sift through Mark’s recommendations, look for hints as to who he thinks the winner is likely to be, and make a bet accordingly. But if you do make a bet based on these lists, here are a few things to take into account:

1. Please remember the difference between an accumulator bet and single bets;
3. Please don’t blame me if you lose.

If Mark subsequently publishes actual predictions for the Oscars, I’ll include a link to those as well.

Update: the nominations have now been announced and are listed here. Comparing the nominations with Mark Kermode’s own list, the number of nominations which appear in Mark’s personal list for each category are as follows:

Best Picture: 1

Best Director: 2

Best Actor: 1

Best Actress: 2

Best supporting Actor: 3

Best supporting Actress: 1

Best Score: 2

In each case except Best Picture, there are 5 nominations and Mark’s list also comprised 5 contenders. For Best Picture, there are 8 nominations, though Mark only provided 5 suggestions.

So, not much overlap. But again, these weren’t intended to be Mark’s predictions. They were his own choices. I’ll aim to update with Mark’s actual predictions if he publishes them.

# Pulp Fiction (Our Esteemed Leader’s cut)

The previous post had a cinematic theme. That got me remembering an offsite a while back where Matthew.Benham@smartbapps.co.uk gave a talk that I think he called ‘Do the Right Thing’, which is the title of a 1989 Spike Lee film. Midway through his talk Matthew gave a premiere screening of his own version of a scene from Pulp Fiction. Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to get hold of a copy of Matthew’s cut, so we’ll just have to make do with the inferior original….

The theme of Matthew’s talk was the importance of always acting in relation to best knowledge, even if it contradicts previous actions taken when different information was available. So, given the knowledge and information you had at the start of a game, you might have bet on team A. But if the game evolves in such a way that a bet on team B becomes positive value, you should do that. Always do the right thing. And the point of the scene from Pulp Fiction? Don’t let pride get in the way of that principle.

These issues will make a great topic for this blog sometime. But this post is about something else…

Dependence is a big issue in Statistics, and we’re likely to return to it in different ways in future posts. Loosely speaking, two events are said to be independent if knowing the outcome of one, doesn’t affect the probabilities of the outcomes of the other. For example, it’s usually reasonable to treat the outcomes of two different football matches taking place on the same day as independent. If we know one match finished 3-0, that information is unlikely to affect any judgements we might have about the possible outcomes of a later match. Events that are not independent are said to be dependent: in this case, knowing the outcome of one will affect the outcome of the other.  In tennis matches, for example, the outcome of one set tends to affect the chances of who will win a subsequent set, so set winners are dependent events.

With this in mind, let’s follow-up the discussion in the previous 2 posts (here and here) about accumulator bets. By multiplying prices from separate bets together, bookmakers are assuming that the events are independent. But if there were dependence between the events, it’s possible that an accumulator offers a value bet, even if the individual bets are of negative value. This might be part of the reason why Mark Kermode has been successful in several accumulator bets over the years (or would have been if he’d taken his predictions to the bookmaker and actually placed an accumulator bet).

Let me illustrate this with some entirely made-up numbers. Let’s suppose ‘Pulp Fiction (Our Esteemed Leader’s cut)’, is up for a best movie award, and its upstart director, Matthew Benham, has also been nominated for best director. The numbers for single bets on PF and MB are given in the following table. We’ll suppose the bookmakers are accurate in their evaluation of the probabilities, and that they guarantee themselves an expected profit by offering prices that are below the fair prices (see the earlier post).

True Probability Fair Price Bookmaker Price
Best Movie: PF 0.4 2.5 2
Best Director: MB 0.25 4 3.5

Because the available prices are lower than the fair prices and the probabilities are correct, both individual bets have negative value (-0.2 and -0.125 respectively for a unit stake). The overall price for a PF/MB accumulator bet is 7, which assuming independence is an even poorer value bet, since the expected winnings from a unit stake are

$0.4 \times 0.25 \times 7 -1 = -0.3$

However, suppose voters for the awards tend to have similar preferences across categories, so that if they like a particular movie, there’s an increased chance they’ll also like the director of that movie. In that case, although the table above might be correct, the probability of MB winning the director award if PF (MB cut) is the movie winner is likely to be greater than 0.25. For argument’s sake, let’s suppose it’s 0.5. Then, the expected winnings from a unit stake accumulator bet become

$0.4 \times 0.5 \times 7 -1 = 0.4$

That’s to say, although the individual bets are still both negative value, the accumulator bet is extremely good value. This situation arises because of the implicit assumption of independence in the calculation of accumulator prices. When the assumption is wrong, the true expected winnings will be different from those implied by the bookmaker prices, potentially generating a positive value bet.

Obviously with most accumulator bets – like multiple football results – independence is more realistic, and this discussion is unhelpful. But for speciality bets like the Oscars, or perhaps some political bets where late swings in votes are likely to affect more that one region, there may be considerable value in accumulator bets if available.

If anyone has a copy of Our Esteemed Leader’s cut of the Pulp Fiction scene on a pen-drive somewhere, and would kindly pass it to me, I will happily update this post to include it.

# How to not win ￡194,375

In the previous post we looked at why bookmakers like punters to make accumulator bets: so long as a gambler is not smart enough to be able to make positive value bets, the bookmaker will make bigger expected profits from accumulator bets than from single bets. Moreover, even for smart bettors, if any of their individual bets are not smart, accumulator bets may also favour the bookmaker.

With all this in mind, here’s a true story…

Mark Kermode is a well-known film critic, who often appears on BBC TV and radio. In the early 90’s he had a regular slot on Danny Baker’s Radio 5 show, discussing recent movie releases etc. On one particular show early in 1992, chatting to Danny, he said he had a pretty good idea of how most of the important Oscars would be awarded that year. This was actually before the nominations had been made, so bookmaker prices on award winners would have been pretty good and since Radio 5 was a predominantly sports radio station, Danny suggested Mark make a bet on the basis of his predictions.

Fast-forward a few months to the day after the Oscar awards and Danny asked Mark how his predictions had worked out. Mark explained that he’d bet on five of the major Oscar awards and they’d all won. Danny asked Mark how much he’d won and he replied that he’d won around ￡120 for a ￡25 stake.  Considering the difficulty in predicting five correct winners, especially before nominations had been made, this didn’t seem like much of a return, and Danny Baker was incredulous. He’d naturally assumed that Mark would have placed an accumulator bet with the total stake of ￡25, whereas what Mark had actually done was place individual bets of ￡5 on each of the awards.

Now, I’ve no idea what the actual prices were, but since the bets were placed before the nominations were announced, it’s reasonable to assume that the prices were quite generous. For argument’s sake, let’s suppose the bets on each of the individual awards  had a price of 6. Mark then placed a ￡5 bet on each, so he’d have made a profit of ￡25 per bet, for an overall profit of ￡125. Now suppose, instead, he’d made a single accumulator bet on all 5 awards. In this case he’d have made a profit of

$\pounds 25 \times 6 \times 6 \times 6 \times 6 \times 6 -\pounds 25 = \pounds 194,375$

Again, I’ve no idea if these numbers are accurate or not, but you get the picture. Had Mark made the accumulator bet that Danny intended, he’d have made a pretty big profit. As it was, he won enough for a night out with a couple of mates at the cinema, albeit with popcorn included.

Of course, the risk you take with an accumulator is that it just takes one bet to fail and you lose everything. By placing 5 single bets Mark would still have won ￡95 if one of his predictions had been wrong, and would even make a fiver if he got just one prediction correct. But by not accumulating his bets, he also avoided the possibility of winning ￡194,375 if all 5 bets came in. Which they did!

So, what’s the story here? Though an accumulator is a poor value bet for mug gamblers, it may be an extremely valuable bet for sharp gamblers, and the evidence suggests (see below) that Mark Kermode is sharper than the bookmakers for Oscar predictions.

Is Mark Kermode really sharper than the bookmakers for Oscar predictions? Well, here’s a list  of his predictions for the main 6 (not 5) categories for the years 2006-2017. Mark predicted all 6 categories with 100% accuracy twice in twelve years. I guess that these predictions weren’t always made before the nominations, so the prices are unlikely to be as good as in the example described above. But still, the price on a 6-fold accumulator will have been pretty good regardless. And he’d have won twice, in addition to the 1992 episode (and possibly more often in the intervening years for which I don’t have data). Remarkably, he would have won again in 2017 if the award for best movie had gone to La La Land, as was originally declared winner, rather than Moonlight, which was the eventual winner.

Moral: try to find out Mark’s predictions for the 2019 Oscars and don’t make the mistake of betting singles!

And finally, here’s Mark telling the story of not winning something like￡194,375 in his own words:

# Bookmakers love accumulators

You probably know about accumulator, or so-called ‘acca’, bets. Rather than betting individually on several different matches, in an accumulator any winnings from a first bet are used as the stake in a second bet.  If either bet loses, you lose, but if both bets win, there’s the potential to make more money than is available from single bets due to the accumulation of the prices. This process can be applied multiple times, with the winnings from several bets carried over as the stake to a subsequent bet, and the total winnings if all bets come in can be substantial. On the downside, it just takes one bet to lose and you win nothing.

Bookmakers love accumulators, and often apply special offers – as you can see in the profile picture above – to encourage gamblers to make such bets. Let’s see why that’s the case.

Consider a tennis match between two equally-matched players. Since the players are equally-matched, it’s reasonable to assume that each has a probability 0.5 of winning. So if a bookmaker was offering fair odds on the winner of this match, he should offer a price of 2 on either player, meaning that if I place a bet of 1 unit I will receive 2 units (including the return of my stake) if I win. This makes the bet fair, in the sense that my expected winnings – the amount I would win on average if the game were repeated  many times – is zero. This is because

$(1/2 \times 2) + (1/2 \times 0) -1 = 0$

That’s the sum of the probabilities multiplied by the prices, take away the stake.

The bet is fair in the sense that, if the match were repeated many times, both the gambler and the bookmaker would expect neither to win nor lose. But bookmakers aren’t in the business of being fair; they’re out to make money and will set lower prices to ensure that they have long-run winnings. So instead of offering a price of 2 on either player, they might offer a price of 1.9. In this case, assuming gamblers split their stakes evenly across two players, bookmakers will expect to win the following proportion of the total stake

$1-1/2\times(1/2 \times 1.9) - 1/2\times (1/2 \times 1.9)=0.05$

In other words, bookmakers have a locked-in 5% expected profit. Of course, they might not get 5%. Suppose most of the money is placed on player A, who happens to win. Then, the bookmaker is likely to lose money. But this is unlikely: if the players are evenly matched, the money placed by different gamblers will probably be evenly spread between the two players. And if it’s not, then the bookmakers can adjust their prices to try to encourage more bets on the less-favoured side.

Now, in an accumulator bet, the prices are multiplied. It’s equivalent to taking all of your winnings from a first bet and placing them on a second bet. Then those winnings are placed on the outcome of a third bet, and so on. So if there are two tennis matches, A versus B and C versus D, each of which is evenly-matched, the fair and actual prices on the accumulator outcomes are as follows:

Accumulator Bet A-C A-D B-C B-D
Fair Price 4 4 4 4
Actual Price 3.61 3.61  3.61 3.61

The value 3.61 comes from taking the prices of the individual bets, 1.9 in each case, and multiplying them together. It follows that the expected profit for the bookmaker is

$1-4\times 1/4\times(1/4 \times 3.61) = 0.0975$.

So, the bookmaker profit is now expected to be almost 10%. In other words, with a single accumulator, bookmakers almost double their expected profits. With further accumulators, the profits increase further and further. With 3 bets it’s over 14%; with 4 bets it’s around 18.5%. Because of this considerable increase in expected profits with accumulator bets, bookmakers can be ‘generous’ in their offers, as the headline graphic to this post suggests. In actual fact, the offers they are making are peanuts compared to the additional profits they make through gamblers making accumulator bets.

However… all of this assumes that the bookmaker sets prices accurately. What happens if the gambler is more accurate in identifying the fair price for a bet than the bookmaker? Suppose, for example, a gambler reckons correctly that the probabilities for players A and C to win are 0.55 rather than 0.5. A single stake bet spread across the 2 matches would then generate an expected profit of

$0.55\times(1/2 \times 1.9) + 0.55\times (1/2 \times 1.9) -1 = 0.045$

On the other hand, the expected profit from an accumulator bet on A-C is

$(0.55\times1.9) \times (0.55\times1.9) -1 = 0.092$

In other words, just as the bookmaker increases his expected profit through accumulator bets when he has an advantage per single bet, so does the gambler. So, bookmakers do indeed love accumulators, but not against smart gamblers.

In the next post we’ll find out how not knowing the difference between accumulator and standard bets cost one famous gambler a small fortune.

Actually, the situation is not quite as favourable for smart gamblers as the above calculation suggests. Suppose that the true probabilities for a win for A and C are 0.7 and 0.4, which still averages at 0.55. This situation would arise, for example, if the gambler was using a model which performed better than he realised for some matches, but worse than he realised for others.

The expected winnings from single bets remain at 0.045. But now, the expected winnings from an accumulator bet are just:

$(0.7\times1.9) \times (0.4\times1.9) -1 = 0.011,$

which is considerably lower. Moreover, with different numbers, the expected winnings from the accumulator bet could be negative, even though the expected winnings from separate bets is positive. (This would happen, for example, if the win probabilities for A and C were 0.8 and 0.3 respectively.)

So unless the smart gambler is genuinely smart on every bet, an accumulator bet may no longer be in his favour.

# Borel

Struggling for ideas for Christmas presents? Stuck with an Amazon voucher from your employer and don’t know what to do with it? No idea how you’re going to get through Christmas with the in-laws? Trying to ‘Gamble Responsibly‘ but can’t quite kick the habit?

You can thank me later, but I have the perfect solution for you:

Borel

This is a new Trivial-Pursuit-style board game, but with a twist. Players are given a question involving dice, coloured balls or some other experimental apparatus, and have to bet on the outcome. There’s not enough time to actually do the probability calculations, so you just have to go with intuition. You can make bets of different sizes and, just like in real life, should make bigger bets when you think the odds are more in your favour.

This is part of the description at Amazon:

The game combines the human mind’s difficulty to deal with probabilistic dilemmas with the strategic thinking of competitive gambling.

And:

It is designed to reward probabilistic reasoning, intuition, strategic thinking and risk-taking!

In other words, it’s just like Smartodds-world, but without models to help you.

Disclaimer: The description and reviews look great, and I’ve ordered a set for myself, but I haven’t played it yet. I’ll try it on my family over Christmas and let you know how we get on. If you want a set for yourself or your loved ones, it’s available on Amazon here.