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The Perfect Punter Week 26: Knowledge, respect and a little guesswork ... the Guttenplan method

Other RSS / / 03 February 2010 / 5 Comments

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Dave has been admiring Alexander Guttenplan's method on University Challenge

Dave has been admiring Alexander Guttenplan's method on University Challenge

"Trying to pick your way through a weekend's punting is like trying to get through a complicated maze, a series of sometimes impossible doors. And success is all about accepting the doors that you can't get through, and then making the most of the ones for which you can crack the code."

Watching contestant Alexander Guttenplan on University Challenge has given Dave Farrar a fresh insight into successful gambling

When you write a weekly column about the process of gambling, and what we all have to do to get better at it, there is a danger that you can suffer from a peculiar kind of mania: the need to relate every single aspect of your life to punting.

"Oh, look, that bloke nearly got run over, he took absolutely no account of his risk/reward ratio when he decided to cross there" - "he's got no chance of getting her phone number, look at the body language, he's 25s at best" - "I really enjoyed that Joy Division documentary, I wonder if there's a connection between Ian Curtis' tortured lyrics on Closer and the agony I feel when I've had a bad week."

Hopefully, I've reined myself in to the extent that none of the above (apart from possibly the middle one) will feature in forthcoming weeks, but I do sometimes think that it's worth analysing the behaviour of a successful person who has no relationship whatsoever with the punting world and seeing if it's worth applying their actions to the process that we undergo every week, particularly at weekends, when the task facing us seems all the more daunting.

I mentioned last week that trying to pick your way through a weekend's punting is like trying to get through a complicated maze, a series of sometimes impossible doors. And success is all about accepting the doors that you can't get through, and then making the most of the ones for which you can crack the code. You're not going to get every bet right, you're really not, and so it's imperative to have a plan, whether it's a staking plan or a trading plan, which means that the losses don't cripple you too soon, and that you have enough ammunition to profit heavily when you hit the bullseye. Now for the slightly weird bit.

I'm a huge fan of quiz shows, and I'm not ashamed to say that my favourite by a long way is University Challenge. I'm going to presume that you've all seen it at least once, so that I don't need to explain the rules, but that you may not be up to speed with what's been going on this year.

Every series there's one player who captures the imagination, and who you find yourself cheering on every time that they appear. I didn't much care for the whole Gail Trimble thing last year. She was simply astonishingly bright, and turned the whole thing into a cakewalk, before rather hilariously being disqualified after the final.

But this year, we have our flawed hero. He's the captain of the Emmanuel College Cambridge team and he goes by the way of Alexander Guttenplan. Guttenplan is a Natural Sciences student (no, me neither) and is clearly far more intelligent than any of us will ever be. He's a Louis Theroux lookalike who knows an awful lot about an awful lot, and has an endearing habit of looking absolutely frozen in discomfort when the camera is pointed at him. This makes me like him a lot, as nothing is more irritating on a quiz show when you can see the contestant thinking: "Hey, I look pretty good on TV, there could be a career in this if I play my cards right." No you don't, and no there won't be. Just stop mugging and answer the sodding question. So Guttenplan may be different from us, but he's still one of us, and amen to that.

Last Monday, I watched the quarter-finals, and actually found myself getting a bit nervous on Guttenplan's behalf. (By the way, a few friends have latched onto him as well, and it's reassuring to know that I wasn't alone.) And he played the whole thing beautifully. And we could all learn plenty from what he did. The man clearly has an area of expertise, loosely described as "the sciences", and so he confidently answered all of those questions quickly and correctly.

But more interestingly, there are subjects on which he is pretty hopeless, but you could see him recognise that and lean on the bookish types around him. Drama and the arts, for example, he left to the pleasant girl to his right, and movie themes to the oddball on his left. So he knows when to gamble and when to play, and keep knowledge on his side.

And then there were the third category questions, the ones where he knew that an educated guess might work. A question about a Hemingway novel led to him taking a chance with "The Old Man and the Sea" and he turned out to be right. So, a combination of absurd knowledge of the hardness of diamonds, the population growth of a bacterium in batch culture, and, strangely, World War Two love songs (must be his hobby, bless him), allied to his colleagues' ability to identify Hamlet, the theme tune of Gone With the Wind and the Metaphysical Poets put his team in pole position. And then educated guessing games did the rest. Guttenplan's negotiation of that quarter-final, pulling all of the strings in a disciplined way, and making the most of what he knows, was exemplary.

Now, I'd be prepared to bet that Alexander Guttenplan has never set foot inside a bookmakers, and probably not considered the whole concept of betting. But, at the start of a weekend, when that series of doors lie in front of us, we could all do with taking a leaf out of his book, however thick and impenetrable it might be. Firstly, know as much about the subjects that you're good at. That will give you the best chance of cracking the code. Then, lean on those that you respect: whether it's Jeremy Chapman or Steve Palmer, Paul Jacobs or Graham Cunningham, take their advice and stick with it. And finally, if you're not sure, and the circumstances are right, use all that's at your disposal to take an educated guess, to use your instinct, even if sometimes that instinct says don't have a bet, leave well alone, and even if it occasionally lets you down.

I suspect that the final of those three elements is the hardest one to get right, and, once to first two are firmly in place, the one that will come closest to opening all of the doors, finding the centre of the maze and starting to make gambling success somewhat less of a challenge.

You can follow the Perfect Punter on twitter, and find out all about his obsession with Alexander Guttenplan. Simply go the www.twitter.com/perfectpunter and sign up

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Comments (5)

  1. Molly | 05 February 2010

    How dare you call my boy an oddball?

  2. Dan | 06 February 2010

    "I'd be prepared to bet that Alexander Guttenplan has never set foot inside a bookmakers, and probably not considered the whole concept of betting."

    Wrong. When Havant & Waterlooville were on their FA Cup run a couple of years ago, Alex put 10p on them to win the Cup at 10,000-1. How does that work into your knowledge/leave it to the experts/educated guess schema?

  3. Florence | 06 February 2010

    That Guttenplan is a very bright kid. Seems like he could be an eccentric too, which makes me think he's not your run-of-the-mill smartie pants, but actually a bit of a genius.

  4. Dave F | 12 February 2010

    Thanks all for your comments. Apologies to you Molly for my throwaway comment, totally agree with you Florence, and as for you Dan, I'm glad to hear that in your view Alex's 10p completely disqualifies what was, as you so perceptively suggest, an educated guess. If you had actually bothered to read the column, rather than simply take from it what you want, you'd know that at no point would I ever suggest that things should be "left to the experts". That's not the point, not at all.

    How does that fit into your defensive/smart-alec/too much time on your hands schema?

  5. Boo Levard | 05 April 2010

    Is anyone giving odds on Emmanuel to win?

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