Beating the Bookies: Is Artificial Intelligence the Answer?

Tiger Rolls Bread on the dried straw

On Saturday, I went to the Grand National for the first time in my life. It was, to put it mildly, an interesting experience.

Bizarrely, it was the first live sporting event I’ve been to where watching it live detracted from the atmosphere. The horses start, they disappear out into the country, they re-appear, flash past, and then disappear again. You watch 95% of the race on a desperately inadequate big screen.

But then the horses were back, and here was Tiger Roll coming to challenge Pleasant Company between the last two fences. “He’ll win by ten lengths,” I said to my wife as they jumped the last.

He didn’t. Tiger Roll, awarded the dreaded Timeform squiggle that signifies a horse with a mind of its own, did his best to lose the race on the run-in. He just lasted home, but not before significantly raising the blood pressure of his backers.

Was I one of those backers? Sadly not. But had I paid any attention to artificial intelligence (AI), I could and should have been.

Artificial intelligence picked winner

The night before the big race, ITV4 screened its second “virtual Grand National.” Using the latest 3D CGI technology and very sophisticated software, a virtual race was created, using very nearly the same runners and riders as actually took part. The result? Tiger Roll won over Chase the Spud and Total Recall. Even more impressive for the AI, Tiger Roll came with a late run and won by a head, the same distance as in the real race.

Well, you might argue, Tiger Roll was a 10-1 chance; predicting that it was going to win wasn’t that difficult. No, but the 2017 virtual National was won by Cause of Causes, on race day finished second to One for Arthur, as the computer predicted three of the first six to finish.

The Grand National is regarded as the most unpredictable of races, with 40 runners, 30 fences, and more than 4 miles. It’s no surprise that the first winner of the race was called Lottery. But if AI can have such an impressive record in the National, albeit over a relatively small sample of two races, could it be the key to unlocking future sporting events?

What is artificial intelligence?

It may be worth pausing at this point and asking exactly what artificial intelligence is. A slightly tongue-in-cheek answer is “whatever hasn’t been done yet” and much of what was once AI is now part of everyday life: Siri on your phone or Alexa in your kitchen, for example.

Essentially, AI is what allows a machine to demonstrate intelligence as we would understand it from a human or an animal: responding to a command or a question. We are now seeing AI understanding human speech, playing very complex games, driving cars, and simulating warfare…

Will AI help punters?

…And predicting the winner of the Grand National. So, does this mean that gamblers will be able to take more informed decisions in the future?

Traditionally, sport, and betting on sport, has always functioned on clichés, all too often repeated by the expert summarizers. “The team’s full of foreigners, Geoff. They won’t be able to do it on a cold Tuesday night in Bolton.”

The problem, as any professional gambler will tell you, is that discarding the clichés and sifting through a horse race or analyzing 40-odd football league matches is hard work, demanding a significant investment of time. But if AI can do that for you, does that mean that the age-old battle between bookmaker and punter will inexorably tip in the latter’s favor?

Probably not; the tools are increasingly available to allow people to make a success of their betting. Artificial intelligence will help, but it will never replace the other essential of success: self-discipline.

The bookmakers are promoting betting as something that adds to the excitement of sport. Increasingly, they are targeting the younger demographic that was much in evidence at Aintree on Saturday and they are targeting them through a succession of ever more complex bets. Yes, you can combine a bet on the first goal-scorer with the correct score with the correct number of corners, but you pay a small margin to the bookmaker on every element of the bet. Those bets may be fun, they’re certainly worth Tweeting about when they come off, but they will never be profitable in the long run.

Artificial intelligence is one thing: human psychology is quite another – and the sports betting companies know it.

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