The Commentators Curse

Several days ago, I read a fascinating interview with Lewis Deyong (Sports bettor & Backgammon player), which is available here via Pinnacle Sports.

One particular area of the interview struck a chord with me, and made complete sense:-

"Lewis was famously quoted as saying “professional athletes are the worst ones to handicap their sport” a sentiment he still stands by.  He believes this extends to what he calls ‘quasi-experts’ who commentate on the sport, appealing to a largely uninformed mass market.  With that was a warning for bettors to steer clear of that kind of punditry. "

I wholeheartedly endorse this paragraph, having mentioned for a long time that listening to (or acting upon, either with regards to forming opinions or creating/avoiding entry/exit points) is significantly negative expected value, and that commentators in particular are too obsessed with in-play momentum, and over-value 'form' players.  In essence, commentators are desperate to look 'right' as much as possible, and this inflicts an inherent bias in their commentary.  

As a sports trader, it is less important to be 'right' as much as possible, but more important to be right more than others, or by definition right more than the markets expect you will be.  Would you be better off being a trader that is right 80% of the time when your trades need a break-even point of 90% correct, or a trader that is right 25% of the time when you only need to be correct 15% to break even?  There is only one answer.

These quasi-experts in commentary and the media are actually some of the worst people who bettors and traders - or the general public - can listen to, particularly when it comes to odds compiling.  

I remember a particular Canadian/British ex-player discussing Andy Murray vs Milos Raonic at the O2 Arena several years ago, asserting that 'Murray wins this 99 times out of 100' - I presume his Kelly criterion formula was close to a full-bank job as it gets on that particular occasion.  Other notable mentions include those in the media who call a player winning a match an 'upset', despite the fact that the winning player was the market pre-match favourite, merely on the basis that the losing player was ranked higher.

It is this fundamental lack of understanding and interest that the media apply to betting odds which makes them look very silly, at least to the informed non-mass market.  In short, any journalist that does not even take a quick look at betting odds when assessing a match is being lazy, and not doing their job to the best of their abilities.  It is that simple.  Journalists, particularly American ones, appear to think that looking at betting odds somehow renders them contemptible human beings, when actually it would just help them do their job better, which by definition is informing the public as best they can.

This week, one particular American ex-player journalist quote tweeted an article on court-siding, claiming 'Tennis needs to remain hyper vigilant on the gambling issue'. I tried to ask him to follow me, so I could DM him in an attempt to educate him as to why court-siders need a match to be as clean as possible so that their mathematical models work efficiently. He ignored my tweet to him...

Having written all this, it is obviously desirable for a bettor/trader to have a market as uninformed as possible - if the market was absolutely efficient, it would be impossible to generate any profit whatsoever.  My belief is that journalistic hysteria created a rare phenomenon in the latter stages in the Australian Open - value in semi-finals.  

Generally speaking, the latter the stage in bigger tournaments, particularly in matches with top players, pre-match value is hard to come by.  This is absolutely logical because the market knows these players' abilities better than say, two qualifiers in the first round of a 250.

However, the market over-reacted to this media hype on both Stan Wawrinka and Grigor Dimitrov, and in a tough tournament this year, it was nice to finish on a high note.  Wawrinka was described by some websites/reports as having blitzed/thrashed/easily beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and it is easy to get taken in by the straight set scoreline, despite the fact that closer evaluation of the point by point data for the match showed that Tsonga had break points in more return games than Wawrinka.  It is hard enough to lose when achieving more break point return games in the best of three set format, let alone best of five.

Contrary to reports, Stan Wawrinka did not 'blitz' Jo-Wilfried Tsonga...

As for Dimitrov, I've frequently spoken about his over performance on break points on serve and return this year, and my expectation that he will mean-revert in the short-mid term.  I'd be absolutely shocked if he broke the top five this season, at least.

This part-screenshot of the daily spreadsheet for the Australian Open semi-finals indicates this value:-

To summarise, similar to any area of life, bettors, traders and the public in general would be well advised to look deeper for reasoning, as opposed to accepting media hyperbole at face value.

The other area that 'quasi-experts' can get it wrong is court speed and venue conditions.  I cannot begin to start with how many times the players or commentators absolutely disagree with numbers regarding court speed.  The Australian Open was described as very fast/faster than previous years by pretty much every player and commentator, yet the service hold percentages and aces per game numbers were almost identical to previous years, and barely above the ATP hard court mean.  It could well be that one main court played faster than others, causing their subjective bias, but this court speed was not replicated at all by any relevant metric.

Next week's clay event in Quito is certainly a tournament which should be described as very fast, at least comparatively to the clay court average numbers.  The venue is 3,000m above sea level and the altitude gives servers a huge advantage, with servers in the last two years in Quito holding serve 4.9% more than the ATP clay mean in the last 12 months, and there being 0.16 aces per game more than the average figure too.  These numbers are despite the very poor entry lists, which feature many players who rarely play at ATP main draw level (e.g. they are worse servers).

Despite this evidence, one particular service, which will remain nameless, previewed the four tournaments of the 'Golden Swing' as 'certainly excellent to trade as the surface is slower'.  I think I'll wait for next week's event in Buenos Aires to go along with that...