Google not-so-safe search

Here’s the thing – I’ve been using Google for 15 years and until the other day I had never heard of Google Safe Search. I’ve either missed out on a lot of good stuff over the years or I’ve never searched for anything remotely iffy.

Then, the other day I googled “Bullshit bingo” in the hope of finding a couple of goofy examples of corporate jargon to cheer me up, and boom, there it was in all its glory – Google Safe Search.

“The word ‘bullshit’ has been filtered from search because Google Safe Search is active” was the proud and initially mildly irritating proclamation. However, my irritation soon turned to amusement.

Thanks to Safe Search, instead of finding examples of harmless and jocular corporate puffery I was served up a page jam packed with wicked pernicious bingo sites, all trying to tempt me to part with my hard earned moolah.  Provided of course I’m 18 or over…

Oh the irony of it.

Pub quiz on poker

Let’s start off with a little poll.  Please play along.

I’m going to stick my neck on the line here and suggest the pub quiz box is likely to be the clear winner.

Needless to say, always the contrarian, poker gets my vote. If you read my last post on this you’d already know that I consider poker to be a game of skill and therefore not really gambling. 

The biggest common denominator in all but one of the above options is that your investment (or stake) relies wholly on the performance of other people.  Except of course, poker.  Does this fact alone not distinguish poker from other forms gambling?  The way I see it, for poker to qualify as gambling you’d need to be betting on the outcome of a poker tournament – not actually taking part in one.

When you play poker for money you invest in your own ability.  It is your experience, knowledge and ability that will determine how well you do.  As I pointed out in my earlier piece on this, 75% of all poker hands win without any cards being shown.  By definition this means that 75% of the time what makes you a winner is not what cards you have been dealt, but how you play them.

I went to a quiz night at my daughter’s school a few weeks ago.  I remember one question in the music round was to identify the nationality of the mighty rock band Midnight Oil.  I knew the answer because I saw them perform live in a pub in Sydney during my gap year in 1979.  No one else on the team had a clue, so I guess we were lucky right?

Does that mean a pub quiz is a game of chance or a game of skill?  It’s a game of skill of course.  The winning team will usually be the most knowledgeable.  Just watch an episode of Eggheads if you doubt my wisdom on this.  Sure, occasionally skill, experience, and knowledge will be overcome by a bit of good fortune.  But generally speaking, in a pub quiz the strongest team will prevail.

Likewise with poker, the stronger players will generally progress further in tournaments than the weaker ones.  That’s why the same faces appear so regularly on main event final tables.

So what is the fundamental difference between a pub quiz and a game of poker?  And why is one classed as gambling and the other not?

Buggered if I know…

Bad luck?

Is poker gambling or not? It’s a debate that has been raging ever since the Americans passed the UIGEA (Unlawful Internet Gaming Enforcement Act) in 2006, forcing some of the biggest operators in the online Poker industry to stop accepting players from the US, including PartyGamingSportingBet, 888 and bwin.

As public companies their appetite for risk was clearly tempered by their long-term fiduciary duty to their shareholders and I guess they had no choice but to withdraw from the American market despite the catastrophic short-term effect on their share prices.

Here’s what I think. Lumping poker into the scope of the UIGEA is harsh because I don’t consider poker to be a form of gambling. Bingo is proper gambling. Scratch cards and lottery tickets are proper gambling. Slot machines, roulette and other casino games – proper gambling. It doesn’t matter how experienced you are, chance is the only determinant.

The Oxford English Dictionary simply defines ‘gambling’ as “playing games of chance for money”.

To the uninitiated it’s easy to see why you may think poker is a game of chance. The best cards will always win and you cannot control which cards you are dealt right?

Wrong. OK, it’s true that the best cards at the end of any given round will always win. However, in online poker over 75% of hands don’t end in a showdown, so the cards you are dealt are largely irrelevant, because over 75% of the time no-one gets to see them.

What counts in poker is not what cards the dealer gives you, but what you do with them. The quality of the decisions you make based on your table position, the size of your chip stack, the betting behaviour of those around you, your ability to read ‘tells’ accurately, your understanding and application of pot odds – all will play a much more important role in your success than the cards you are dealt.

There is a massive market for poker books, periodicals and instructional websites. None focus on luck as being an important component in your poker game play. And come to think of it, I don’t recall seeing a huge selection of bingo or lottery winning strategy books in my local library.

As a keen amateur player myself, I find luck does creep in, but more bad luck than good luck. If you play the game well every time you go into a showdown you should hold the strongest hand. If you then get beaten, that is bad luck. However, mathematically you have played correctly and in the long term you will win more than you lose in that situation. If you go into a showdown with the weakest hand and you win, you have played badly and got lucky – and mathematically in the long term you will lose more than you win in that situation.

Respected journalist, author and poker ninja Victoria Coren knows her stuff. In her excellent For Richer For Poorer: A love affair with Poker she dismisses Roulette as a mug’s game: “Thank God, my old roulette habit has been channelled into poker, which offers the same adrenaline but can, slowly and gradually if I study the game, be controlled by skill and judgement”.

Charles Nesson, a Harvard law professor and founder of The Global Poker Strategic Thinking Society, takes a similar albeit less instinctive view. Nesson sees in poker “a language for thinking about and an environment for experiencing the dynamics of strategy in dispute resolution”.

Garry Kasparov, a chess grandmaster, argues that poker offers lessons on chance and risk management that even his own beloved game can’t. Many chess professionals are moving into poker, not least because the money is better.

I don’t think many right minded person would consider chess to be a game of chance.

Earlier this year a Dutch Court ruled that poker is a game of skill not chance and there is an interesting case currently being deliberated on by the South Carolina Supreme Court, the outcome of which will be interesting.

Above all, there is one very simple, glaringly obvious fact that proves beyond all reasonable doubt in my simple mind that poker has to be a game of skill.

Just take a look at the World Series of Poker (WSOP) Hall of Fame. The top three players, who have all won more than 10 WSOP bracelets over careers spanning 20 years, have accumulated poker winnings in excess of $13m having cashed on over 150 occasions.

Nobody can possibly get lucky that many times! It’s as ridiculous as claiming that golf is a game of chance and Tiger Woods just got lucky.

What I cannot quite get my head around is why anyone, most of all the law makers of the world’s greatest superpower would consider poker to be a game of chance?

Have they never played the game?

Fixing match fixing

You have no idea how disappointed I am in the latest scandal to hit International cricket. Not because I’m a huge cricket fan. Actually, it is one of the few sports I can take or leave. No, I’m disappointed because the inevitable naysayers start pointing fingers in the direction of the legal and legitimate betting operations that are actually doing more to clean up sport than most people imagine.

My old boss likes to use a tidy analogy on the subject; that blaming the gambling industry for corruption in sport is a bit like holding Boots (the chemist) responsible for the illegal trade in cocaine. I think he makes a very good point.

I was told last year by someone who knows these things that every time India play a test match around $1bn is gambled illegally in India. I read another estimate today written a few years ago, putting the figure closer to $25bn a year even back then.

No wonder with numbers like that that criminal syndicates control these illegal gambling operations, and that they can afford to make it worth their while to ensure they always have an edge when it comes to predicting the outcome of a match, or indeed the outcome of small, tactical ‘spot’ bets during a match.

Such opportunities are dramatically reduced where gambling is properly controlled, licensed and regulated. Where gambling companies only accept bets from customers who they know. Where gambling companies enter into agreements with sporting authorities to voluntarily share information and intelligence about suspicious betting patterns and who is behind them.

Only online betting creates this transparency and provides a level playing field for every customer. Like stock exchanges across the globe know full well, integrity of the markets is everything. Without it, customer confidence is eroded and liquidity will eventually dry up. In fact I’m surprised that traditional bookmakers are allowed to accept over the counter bets from people who walk in off the street without knowing who these people are, but that’s another story.

Match fixing allegations go back to time immemorial, and it is inevitable that pressure will be brought to bear on individuals to prostitute themselves and their sport either through fear or greed, until such time as governments step up to the mark and properly regulate the activity and thereby cut out the criminals currently profiteering from their inertia.

Celebrate good times

I love celebrations. Last week we celebrated the company’s 10th birthday with cake, champagne and jelly beans at all of our offices in the UK and abroad. It was a real joy to see happy smiling faces everywhere as we celebrated a decade of incredible achievement. On 9 June 2000, Betfair ran its first market on the Oaks at Epsom, where £3,462 was traded between 36 customers, watched over by just a handful of staff. Ten years later the company employs over 2,000 people spread across 30 locations around the world, and deals with more daily transactions than every European stock exchange put together.

And for the next month we are celebrating the most amazing festival in the sporting calendar. We are at our core a sports betting company, so the World Cup is a big thing for us, and we have been preparing for it for years. It’s only fitting therefore that we have a bit of fun and pay homage to the 32 teams battling it out in South Africa.

While the media are banging on about the cost to employers of World Cup distraction as staff absenteeism and lack of attention rises incrementally in line with England’s success on the pitch, and companies ban access to footy websites and make the flying of the Cross of St George a disciplinary offence, we have been encouraged to fly the flag – and more.

Our offices have become a sea of colour, creativity and noise to reflect the energy, excitement and diversity of the World Cup. Our staff in London have self organised themselves into 34 teams and given their bits of the office a bit of a makeover. There are 34 teams because two non-qualifiers that narrowly missed out on a trip to South Africa, Ireland and Egypt wanted to get involved.

My team is representing the Cameroon. Which is great, because the Cameroon have a rich heritage when it comes to World Cup celebrations!

Don’t be fooled into thinking we are all just on one great big World Cup jolly. Au contraire, this is going to be a very busy month for everyone as we mobilise to meet the demands of dramatically increased customer activity.

However, I work for a company that recognises the importance of celebration as well as the value of having a bit of fun while your nosed is pressed firmly against the grindstone.

Don’t just sit there feeling hard done by – check out our current vacancies and get involved!

Ashes to cashes

I’m not often moved to say anything good about Paddy Power.  Let’s face it, their market on which Premier League player will be burgled next last September was an absolute frickin disgrace.

But they struck PR gold yesterday with the launch of and I must confess to feeling a tad jealous for not thinking about this before they did. Their so called Cash for Ash initiative is genius. Insurance companies balking at providing cover to travellers against disruption to their holiday due to airport closures caused by Iceland’s erupting Eyjafjallajökull volcano please take note.

Paddy Power is now taking bets on the closure of specific UK airports for at least 1 hour on dates between June 1 and August 31. Travellers can bet at odds of up to 20-1 to hedge against flight delays or cancellations.

At those odds, a £100 bet (or shall we call it insurance premium) will return a not-too-shabby £2,000 if the bet comes in.

I have no idea how popular or busy this market will be – according to them there has been a lot of interest from their customers. I don’t suppose it really matters. If it meets a genuine demand, good for them. If not, their creativity and innovation (in this instance!) has already generated plenty of very positive TV, radio and newspaper coverage.

Good for them!

Emotional hedging

I have been a loyal Fulham supporter, man and boy, for the last 35 years. Nothing hits my emotional sweet spot more than being there when Fulham win. Watching them beat the blue filth 1-0 at Craven Cottage in March 2006, for the first time in 26 years was without doubt the most emotional experience of my life.

Quick clarification needed just in case her-indoors reads this one day: by emotional I mean the rip-roaring, adrenalin filled, mind blowing, excitement kind of emotion, not the beautiful, warm, dewy-eyed kind of emotion that has punctuated our marriage, especially when the girls were born. Love ya sweetie!

So when I tell people that I quite often bet against my beloved Fulham, they don’t get it. Many footy die-hards can’t get their heads around it and think I’m being totally disloyal. I don’t get this. Emotional hedging rocks, and here’s why.

If Fulham lose I am generally inconsolable for hours, maybe days. However, I have a nice chunk of cash in my Betfair account to soften the blow. If Fulham win, I treat the loss as my contribution to their victory. I kid you not! The amount I stake is always based on how much am I prepared to pay to see Fulham win the match. It is never based on how much I need to win to make me feel better – I could never afford to take that kind of risk!

The key to emotional hedging is to always bet with the head and not with the heart. Backing your team through blind faith and devotion is a mugs game. Look at the evidence and leave emotion out of the decision. This allows me to back Fulham to win – and it allows me to back them to lose (called a lay bet). If I’m at the match and I can feel the momentum going our way, I sometimes trade out of my original bet (thank God for Betfair Mobile!). Other times, if my head says Fulham will win before the match I’ll happily back them and let the bet ride if I’m not at the game.

Example – earlier this evening, Fulham played Wolfsburg away in the quarter finals of the Europa League. Betfair punters had Wolfsburg as clear favourites to win the match despite Fulham going into the game with a 2-1 advantage from the home leg. I use betfair punters as my benchmark as we all know that Betfair odds are better value and much more accurate than the bookies, right? I took a view that they were probably correct and my head was saying betting against Fulham to win the match was the correct bet. I decided my contribution to a Fulham victory would be £70.

At no stage during the match did I ever even consider anything other than a Fulham victory. We won, I’m off to Hamburg, I lost £70 and I am happy as Larry. If we’d lost, I’d have been miserable as sin, I wouldn’t be off to Hamburg and I’d have £90 sitting in my Betfair account. If I’m going to be miserable I’d rather be miserable with some extra wedge in my pocket.

£70 may seem a bit extreme to some people, but the truth is my emotional hedging strategy more than pays for my season ticket every year. Happy days!

One-legged man on course to win arse-kicking contest

I love Boris. Don’t assume from that I’m a Tory. I love Boris because I warm to politicians with personality and who don’t take themselves too seriously.

Three days ago Boris wrote a piece in the Telegraph in which he took a swipe at an article in the Sunday Times titled “Gordon Brown on course to win election”. This possibly bold assertion was based on the results of a YouGov survey which placed the Blues on 37%, as against 35% for the Reds – the closest gap between the parties in more than two years.

Boris playfully suggested an alternative equally implausible headline could have been “One-legged man on course to win arse-kicking contest” before suggesting that we’d be better off forgetting the polls and keep an eye on the bookies instead. “The reason I trust the punters of Betfair more than I trust a poll in a Sunday paper is that the punters have thought it through with the care of those investing their own money” barked Boris.

This got me thinking about the reason why prediction markets appear to outperform polls. Is an opinion any more valuable when it is expressed through a financial interest in the outcome? I’m not convinced because as all Betfair punters know the margin between a good bet and a bad bet is very slender indeed.

I and many fellow Betfairians often put money on the drop dead favourite not winning the race (or game) as the odds can be very attractive. This is commonly known as laying the leader. It does not mean I believe the favourite won’t win by the end of the race, it simply means fluctuating fortunes (and therefore odds) are likely to present me with opportunities to trade my position profitably before the race finishes.

By the same token, it can therefore often pay to back the one-legged man to win the arse-kicking contest at very long odds because we have seen time after time that the implausible has an alarming albeit occasional propensity to take us by surprise.

Poker is an interesting game. Anyone who plays Texas Hold ‘Em seriously will know that fun money or friendly games just don’t work. In order for poker to work properly the element of risk is required. Without risk it is simply a game of luck and the person with the best cards will win any given hand. I guess this in a way supports the notion that predictions based on a financial stake are more accurate than simply asking someone for an opinion or voting intention.

Anyway, regardless of the merits of prediction markets versus polls, I doubt one can argue against a combination of data from both providing the ‘belt and braces’ solution to predicting the outcome of the forthcoming UK General Election.

And that is exactly what Betfair has done in partnership with leading research agency ComRes when it’s excellent new Election Predict 2010 website launched yesterday.