Wednesday, 8 June 2011

The disappointment hedge

Here follows an attempt at explaining the logic behind a type of football betting that few of us admit publicly to doing - betting against your own team. I'm taking the plunge and admitting that I've been experimenting with it during the football season just past. So is it cowardly or just common sense?

I feel slightly mucky. I was in the bookie’s earlier and now I’ve won £50. Fifty lovely pounds that I didn’t have before. Yet I am wallowing in a state I might melodramatically describe as self-loathing. I feel dissatisfied, glum. 

“But you’ve won £50 – presumably on the outcome of a football match that you correctly predicted the outcome of?” I hear you cry. Well, not quite. I didn’t call anything correctly. I didn't see anything coming. I didn't spot a value bet. I just bet on one team winning – the team that I actually wanted to lose. Welcome to the concept of The Disappointment Hedge.

Sometimes when I tell people about The Disappointment Hedge they look at me with a mixture of bewilderment and something close to malice. I wonder if they might be about to knock me to the ground and present me with their interpretation of how my ribs ought to be assembled. My crime? Betting against my own team – or any team I have an emotional attachment to. Profiting from your own team’s misfortune is, in some people’s eyes, not really on. It’s seen as weasely, sneaky, a grotty thing to do. 

Still, fifty quid, though. Fifty quid in my pocket. A free night out. What a git.

Other people – more rational people, such as women for example – ask me to explain why I do this. When I’ve told them about The Disappointment Hedge they nod, shrug and say something like “Well, I can see why you do this, but it doesn’t seem like a lot of fun. It's not really in the spirit of things.”

I began to experiment with The Disappointment Hedge last season and found it definitely did take the edge off a defeat to some extent - enough for it to be worth doing. But that’s exactly why it feels dirty. It’s not good for the soul. My fellow fans (be it club, country or some continental side that I’ve inexplicably developed a penchant for) are hurting. Our team needed to win today really. It wasn’t desperate, but three points wouldn’t half have been useful. The rest of your team's fans have had their evening ruined, possibly their weekend or even their whole month. Meanwhile, I’m just as peeved but I’ve got £50 as well. Which position would I rather be in?

You have to be careful with this kind of hedging. You don’t want to mess with your head. I like £50 as much as the next man (unless the next man is Bill Drummond), but give me a belting victory for my team over the cash every single time. Getting your hedge just right is a balancing act, and one that is dependent on your own personal circumstances. Bet too much and it’ll sting a bit when your beloved team win - and you don't want it to interfere with the joy of victory. But if you don't wager enough then your trifling profits will almost seem to mock you as you try to sulk off another defeat.

Some people have said to me that they wish they cared enough about their own side that they needed to have this kind of financial crash mat to ease the pain. But they tend to be people who don’t go to games regularly. If you’re spending money on your match ticket, your travel, beer, a burger, a programme - that's a fair bit of money. Given your initial outlay, then, I present you with three pre-match possibilities:

Possibility 1: All that money you're spending - I'm going to double it I'm afraid. But don't be gloomy; I'm guaranteeing that your team will win.
Possibility 2: You're going to have a wasted day watching your team capitulate, but you will make a fat profit in the process. 
Possibility 3: Your team huffs and puffs its way to a mildly frustrating draw - but today hasn't cost you a penny. Your winnings cover your costs. 

Therein lies the secret to perfectly balanced disappointment hedging. If I was a much wealthier man than I am, I think that's how I'd weight my bets every time. We win - it costs me double. We lose - I make a large profit. We draw - I'm breaking even. 

Here's an example using a fixture listed on Betfair from (in the interests of search engine optimisation) the Ãšrvalsdeild, that's the Icelandic top flight to you and me. It's the big one: Breidablik v Fram. Give it a click so that you can actually read it.

An example of The Disappointment Hedge in action.
Let's imagine a mad-keen Breidablik fan. His team are at home today to lowly Fram. Let's suppose his match ticket, travel, beer, food and all other matchday expenses have cost him £40. In the example you can see the punter is about to bet £8.50 on Fram to win. Fram are pretty rubbish so he's getting a fairly long price of 6.2 on Betfair (which is roughly 5/1 in fractional odds). This bet would net him £44.20 profit if it came off. At the same time, he risks £31.78 that Breidablik will NOT win, ie. he "lays" them. [When you place a "lay" bet on a betting exchange like Betfair, you say how much you want to win, not how much you want to bet. Betfair then does the maths and tells you how much you are liable to lose if you're wrong. This liability amount temporarily leaves your account while the bet is pending.] And so in this example either a draw or a Fram win will see him collect £48.90 on this individual bet. 

So the upshot of his two bets can be seen by looking at the numbers in red (potential loss) and green (potential profit) in the example. If Breidablik win, then he's lost £40. He's doubled the cost of his day from £40 to £80, but he doesn't care too much because his team won. If they draw then he's won his £40 back and had a free day out. And if those pesky Fram blighters go and ruin his day, he will at least have the cushion of £93.10 winnings (or £53.10 pure profit if you allow for the £40 cost of the day out).

However, that's a fictional example. Now back to reality. Due to not being wealthy enough to just throw money around like it doesn't matter, the prospect of a win costing me double isn't usually a viable option. It's then when the hedge gets awkward, the crash mat noticeably thinner. You have to hedge it so that the joy of your team winning is always much greater than any profit you stand to make. I'm not suggesting you try to reach some kind of equilibrium between your wealth and the emotions football generates in us - that would be psychologically a lot more messed up. Hedging is about breaking your fall to some extent. And yet it remains a taboo among football bettors - even when you know that betting against your team is the smart move, we certainly wouldn't go around on match day telling everyone that we'd done it.

Ultimately, it's just as well that I'm not a wealthy man, because I’m a bit out of pocket from this season’s hedges. And that’s because the two teams I care most about had good seasons. So do I care about the money? Not really, no. It’s been a joy to watch my teams this season, and they’ve brought me pleasure infinitely greater than the amount of money I’ve lost. 

How much money would it take to make defeat for your team hurt less?
Will I do the same next year, now one of my teams has been promoted and perhaps won’t win as many games? I haven’t decided yet. If I do decide to stop, it’ll have to be cold turkey. No point doing it some weeks and not others – it'll only add to the annoyance when my team gets a royal spanking from some bunch of relegation-threatened no-hopers. 

One thing is for sure though: if I do keep hedging then I'll get a separate betting account for it. I'm proud of the modest profits I've generated in recent years through non-hedging bets - the wagers for which I didn't have a vested interest in the outcome. It's a shame to fritter away your hard-earned betting profits just because the team you support is doing well. I'd keep the two things separate, and (obviously) only hedge with money I could afford to lose. 

As a relative newcomer to disappointment hedging, I haven't fully explored the range of its possibilities. I imagine the world of in-play betting can push your hedges to a level of sickness that I half hope I'll never get involved with. One-nil up on your biggest rivals with less than two minutes of stoppage time to play? Worried how you'll feel if they muck it up? Risk a tiny amount of money on the draw then. You don't care if you lose the money, you just want the ref to blow his whistle. But if that dreaded equaliser comes - your impressive financial haul will soften the blow. And that's all it's there to do - soften the blow. After all, it's only money, it's not as important as football. You all know what Bill Shankly famously said about football, but something Einstein once said about money and possessions fits quite nicely with my attitude to the disappointment hedge.  

“Many of the things you can count, don't count. 
Many of the things you can't count, really count.
- Albert Einstein

Maybe applying this to betting is not a responsible attitude during a recession, but I've no particular regrets from the reasonably modest sum of money I've lost dabbling with The Disappointment Hedge this season. Despite my simplified illustration earlier, I'm not trying to cover my costs when I hedge, I'm simply giving myself a crash-mat that is just thick enough to numb the pain. 

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So there we are - The Disappointment Hedge. You’re welcome to try it out yourself. But if your team wins 15 games on the spin and you bankrupt yourself, don’t come crying to me. And if they lose 15 on the bounce then you can drink yourself silly on the profits. Just don’t expect to like yourself much in the process as you stuff your pockets full of money. Like Einstein hints at, money doesn't matter anything like as much as the important things in life - like football. But if football's going to kick you square in the goolies, you might as well get a few beer tokens out of it.
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Ever dabbled with hedging? Do leave a comment below if you'd care to share how you felt afterwards. Ever surprised yourself by realising in the process of a hedged bet that the money meant more to you than you thought it did? Or the exact opposite - that it meant nothing to you in the face of success on the pitch. I'm closer to the latter than the former, but not to the extent I'd want to encounter any sort of financial difficulties as a result. What about you?