Archive for the Sport Category

The First Bookie

Posted in Football, mathematics, Sport with tags , , , , , , on April 24, 2019 by telescoper

I read an interesting piece in Sunday’s Observer which is mainly about the challenges facing the modern sports betting industry but which also included some interesting historical snippets about the history of gambling.

One thing that I didn’t know before reading this article was that it is generally accepted that the first ever bookmaker was a chap called Harry Ogden who started business in the late 18th century on Newmarket Heath. Organized horse-racing had been going on for over a century by then, and gambling had co-existed with it, not always legally. Before Harry Ogden, however, the types of wager were very different from what we have nowadays. For one thing bets would generally be offered on one particular horse (the Favourite), against the field. There being only two outcomes these were generally even-money bets, and the wagers were made between individuals rather than being administered by a `turf accountant’.

Then up stepped Harry Ogden, who introduced the innovation of laying odds on every horse in a race. He set the odds based on his knowledge of the form of the different horses (i.e. on their results in previous races), using this data to estimate probabilities of success for each one. This kind of `book’, listing odds for all the runners in a race, rapidly became very popular and is still with us today. The way of specifying odds as fractions (e.g. 6/1 against, 7/1 on) derives from this period.

Ogden wasn’t interested in merely facilitating other people’s wagers: he wanted to make a profit out of this process and the system he put in place to achieve this survives to this day. In particular he introduced a version of the overround, which works as follows. I’ll use a simple example from football rather than horse-racing because I was thinking about it the other day while I was looking at the bookies odds on relegation from the Premiership.

Suppose there is a football match, which can result either in a HOME win, an AWAY win or a DRAW. Suppose the bookmaker’s expert analysts – modern bookmakers employ huge teams of these – judge the odds of these three outcomes to be: 1-1 (evens) on a HOME win, 2-1 against the DRAW and 5-1 against the AWAY win. The corresponding probabilities are: 1/2 for the HOME win, 1/3 for the DRAW and 1/6 for the AWAY win. Note that these add up to 100%, as they are meant to be probabilities and these are the only three possible outcomes. These are `true odds’.

Offering these probabilities as odds to punters would not guarantee a return for the bookie, who would instead change the odds so they add up to more than 100%. In the case above the bookie’s odds might be: 4-6 for the HOME win; 6-4 for the DRAW and 4-1 against the AWAY win. The implied probabilities here are 3/5, 2/5 and 1/5 respectively, which adds up to 120%, not 100%. The excess is the overround or `bookmaker’s margin’ – in this case 20%.

This is quite the opposite to the Dutch Book case I discussed here.

Harry Ogden applied his method to horse races with many more possible outcomes, but the principle is the same: work out your best estimate of the true odds then apply your margin to calculate the odds offered to the punter.

One thing this means is that you have to be careful f you want to estimate the probability of an event from a bookie’s odds. If they offer you even money then that does not mean they you have a 50-50 chance!


The Book of Relegations

Posted in Football with tags , , , , , , , on April 21, 2019 by telescoper

At this time of year it seems appropriate to do a post, as the thoughts of good folk around the world turn to the important issue of the season … ie who will get relegated from the Premiership.

Yesterday evening’s win by Newcastle United over Southampton left the lower reaches of the table looking like this:

Huddersfield and Fulham having already been doomed, the only question is who will join them.

The bookies clearly think Cardiff City are odds-on to take the third relegation spot: the best odds I could get are 1/6 on them going down, implying only a probability of 14% or so survival. Brighton and Hove Albion are 9/2. Southampton are 150/1, Burnley 250/1 and Newcastle 750/1.

I’m not so sure the odds on Cardiff City are fair: they do play Liverpool later today but after that seem to have two winnable games (against Fulham and Crystal Palace). Brighton are three points ahead of Cardiff, but that’s away against Spurs and they’ll do well to get anything out of that fixture, and after that they have games against Newcastle United, Arsenal and Manchester City. Despite yesterday’s 0-0 draw against Wolves they don’t look like a team strong on form and confidence.In short I think that 9/2 is worth a bet.

Let me say that I don’t want to see either Brighton or Cardiff go down. I’ve got ties to both places. I’m just talking about what seems probable not what I think is desirable.

Southampton seem to have extremely long odds too, but they do seem to have a much easier run in than Brighton.

We’ll see. I’d expect these odds to change quite a bit if Cardiff beat Liverpool this afternoon. If they lose, however, then Newcastle are mathematically safe from relegation…

UPDATE: Cardiff City lost 2-0 at home to Liverpool this afternoon. The odds on them get relegated have shortened a bit (around 1/8 is as good as you can get) but there’s no great change in the odds, presumably because bookies did not really expect Cardiff to get any points from that game. Brighton have now moved to 13/2 against.

Cardiff City are now on 31 points with three games left. That means the maximum total they can reach is 40, so Newcastle United are safe from relegation.

A Grand Slam Weekend

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Rugby with tags , , , on March 19, 2019 by telescoper

Well, here I am sitting in Cardiff Airport yet again waiting for a flight back to Dublin so I reckon it’s time to break my self-imposed blogging silence.

I had an enjoyable little break, the highlight of which was the rugby on Saturday between Wales and Ireland. I actually managed to get a ticket for the game, though I am not at liberty to divulge how I got it. I was a long way back from the pitch, practically in the rafters of the Principality Stadium, but the view wasn’t bad. Sadly, I forgot to charge my phone up overnight before the match and by the time I made it to my seat the battery had died, so I have no pictures of the event to share.

I had expected Wales to win, but hadn’t expected such a one-side match. After scoring after just over a minute, Wales controlled the game. Instead of the intense atmosphere I’d been anticipating, the mood in the crowd was more like that you might find at a cricket match while the home side is steadily accumulating runs against ineffective bowling. When the Ireland fightback hadn’t materialized by the fourth quarter of the game, the celebrations started and the singing grew louder in the steadily falling rain. At least Ireland got a consolation try at the end, but if truth be told they didn’t really turn up for the match.

I got absolutely drenched walking back to the Cardiff residence, but it was worth it for the privilege of seeing a Grand Slam unfold live. I only caught the second half of the final match of this year’s Six Nations, the Calcutta Cup match between Scotland and England, on the radio. This seems to have been the most exciting of the tournament, ending in a 38-38 draw after England had been 31-0 up! Greatest comeback since Lazarus!

But all credit again to Wales for their Grand Slam, a great achievement by any standards. It’s revenge what happened ten years ago, when I was in Cardiff (though not in the ground) for a Grand Slam decider between Wales and Ireland, a frantic and exciting match which Ireland won. Not so much excitement this time, but a far happier crowd of Welsh supporters!

So that’s the St Patrick’s Bank Holiday Weekend over with and I’m now heading back to Ireland. This week, or what’s left of it, is `Study Week’ which means there are no lectures. We have finished six weeks of teaching this term at Maynooth, and there are six more after Study Week but there is another week off looming for Easter. As it happens, I’m attending a small conference in London on Thursday and Friday (of which more soon) so I’m just back in the office tomorrow before flying off again for two days in the capital of Poundland.

The Morning After

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Rugby with tags , , on February 24, 2019 by telescoper

So it’s not even 8am and I’m already sitting in Cardiff Airport waiting for my flight back to Ireland.

On the way to the bus stop in the City Centre I had to pick my way through the mess created by yesterday’s rugby crowd: empty beer bottles, plastic glasses and fast food containers lay all around, the pavements were sticky with spilt booze and massed formations of seagulls wheeled and shrieked looking for leftovers to scavenge.

No doubt there will be an organised cleanup but it hadn’t started when I walked through town around 7am.

I didn’t see any of yesterday’s match, but when Wales pulled the score back from 10-3 to 10-9 I got restless listening to the radio and went outside for a walk.

The thing about having a huge stadium right in the city centre is that the sounds coming from it permeate all of Cardiff. Sometimes they are recognisably human: cheers, jeers, applause, singing and stadium public address announcements. Often though, they are indistinct primordial murmurings, as if Gandalf were giving battle to a Balrog in the bowels of the Earth somewhere under Westgate Street.

But there was no mistaking the din a couple of minutes before the end when Wales scored the try that killed off the game and sent the home supporters into ecstasy. No doubt there’ll be more than a few hangovers in Cardiff this morning!

Wales play Ireland at the Principality Stadium on 16th March, with a possible Grand Slam in the offing. If that comes about the celebrations will no doubt make last night seem like a vicarage tea party!

Anyway, hopefully I will be back in Maynooth in a few hours to get next week’s lectures ready.

In Cardiff on Match Day

Posted in Cardiff, Rugby with tags , , , , on February 23, 2019 by telescoper

I’m in Cardiff today and have just been for a walk into town and back. It’s a lovely sunny springlike day with a temperature of around 13 degrees. There’s an abundance of daffodils in Bute Park.

Today is of course the occasion for the Wales versus England match in this year’s Six Nations Rugby tournament. This excerpt from a piece by Tom Fordyce on the BBC website is spot on:

Although the match doesn’t start for several hours, all the main roads are already closed so you can stroll around the City without worrying about cars. There’s a lot of people crammed into town, but a very good atmosphere around the place. I haven’t got a ticket for the match and don’t feel like watching in a packed pub either so I’ll just follow it on the radio.

After two impressive performances so far this year, England are probably favourites but you never know! They have also won the last five Six Nations matches between these two teams. But with their home crowd behind them Wales might well bring England’s run to an end.

I’ll make only one prediction: it will be a very physical game.

P. S. On my way home I passed two clearly inebriated England fans trying to find a way into the empty cricket ground at Sophia Gardens. It took quite some time to explain to them that it was not the rugby ground, despite the fact that the Principality Stadium was in clear view about half a mile away…

UPDATE: I was certainly right about it being a physical game! But a strong second-half comeback against a tiring England gave Wales victory by 21 to 13. Diolch, Cymru!

R.I.P. Gordon Banks (1937-2019)

Posted in Football with tags , , , , on February 13, 2019 by telescoper

It’s been a hectic couple of days during which I somehow missed the very sad news of the passing of legendary goalkeeper Gordon Banks, who died yesterday (12th February 2019) at the age of 81.

Gordon Banks made 628 appearances during a 15-year career in the Football League, and won 73 caps for England, highlighted by starting every game of the 1966 World Cup campaign. He will however be best remembered for one amazing save in the 1970 World Cup, so by way of a short tribute here is a rehash of a post I wrote some years ago about that.


I’ve posted a few times about science and sport, but this bit of action seems to defy the laws of physics. I remember watching this match, a group game at Guadalajara (Mexico) between England and Brazil from the 1970 World Cup, live on TV when I was seven years old. The Brazil team of 1970 was arguably the finest collection of players ever to grace a football field and the names of Jairzinho, Carlos Alberto, Rivelino and, of course, Pelé, were famous even in our school playground. The England team of 1970 was also very good, but they were made to look very ordinary that day – with one notable exception.

The only thing I remember well about the game itself  was this save – the best of many excellent stops – by the great goalkeeper Gordon Banks. I’ve seen it hundreds of times since, and still can’t understand how he managed to block this header from Pelé. You can tell from Bobby Moore’s reaction (No. 6, on the line) that he also thought Brazil had scored…

Here’s the description of this action from wikipedia:

Playing at pace, Brazil were putting England under enormous pressure and an attack was begun by captain Carlos Alberto who sent a fizzing low ball down the right flank for the speedy Jairzinho to latch on to. The Brazilian winger sped past left back Terry Cooper and reached the byline. Stretching slightly, he managed to get his toes underneath the fast ball and deliver a high but dipping cross towards the far post. Banks, like all goalkeepers reliant on positional sensibility, had been at the near post and suddenly had to turn on his heels and follow the ball to its back post destination.

Waiting for the ball was Pelé, who had arrived at speed and with perfect timing. He leapt hard at the ball above England right back Tommy Wright and thundered a harsh, pacy downward header towards Banks’ near post corner. The striker shouted “Goal!” as he connected with the ball. Banks was still making his way across the line from Jairzinho’s cross and in the split-second of assessment the incident allowed, it seemed impossible for him to get to the ball. He also had to dive slightly backwards and down at the same time which is almost physically impossible. Yet he hurled himself downwards and backwards and got the base of his thumb to the ball, with the momentum sending him cascading to the ground. It was only when he heard the applause and praise of captain Bobby Moore and then looked up and saw the ball trundling towards the advertising hoardings at the far corner, that he realised he’d managed to divert the ball over the bar – he’d known he got a touch but still assumed the ball had gone in. England were not being well received by the locals after cutting comments made about Mexico prior to the tournament by Ramsey, but spontaneous applause rang around the Guadalajara, Jalisco stadium as Banks got back into position to defend the resulting corner. Pelé, who’d begun to celebrate a goal when he headed the ball, would later describe the save as the greatest he’d ever seen.

Here is Gordon Banks describing it in his own words.

Brazil deservedly went on to win the game, but only by a single goal. Without Gordon Banks, England would have been well and truly hammered.

Rest in peace, Gordon Banks (1937-2019).

Sosban Fach

Posted in Music, Rugby with tags , , , , on February 2, 2019 by telescoper

Well, this year’s Six Nations competition certainly got off to a great start for Wales last night with a memorable victory against France in Paris. That reminded me to post this, a song often heard at rugby matches in Wales. It’s particularly associated with Llanelli RFC and, more recently, the  Scarlets regional side.

The title Sosban Fach means (`Little Saucepan’) and I decided to post this version by Cerys Matthews in particular because of the beautiful clarity of her Welsh diction that makes it very easy to follow the lyrics (even for a foreigner like me).

Here are the words in Welsh:

Mae bys Meri-Ann wedi brifo,
A Dafydd y gwas ddim yn iach.
Mae’r baban yn y crud yn crio,
A’r gath wedi sgramo Joni bach.

Sosban fach yn berwi ar y tân
Sosban fawr yn berwi ar y llawr,
A’r gath wedi sgramo Joni bach.

Dai bach y sowldiwr,
Dai bach y sowldiwr,
Dai bach y sowldiwr,
A chwt ei grys e mas.

Mae bys Meri-Ann wedi gwella,
A Dafydd y gwas yn ei fedd;
Mae’r baban yn y crud wedi tyfu,
A’r gath wedi huno yn ei hedd.

Sosban fach yn berwi ar y tân
Sosban fawr yn berwi ar y llawr
A’r gath wedi sgramo Joni bach.

Shwd grys oedd ganddo?
Shwd grys oedd ganddo?
Shwd grys oedd ganddo?
Un wen â streipen las.

A’r gath wedi sgramo Joni bach.

O hwp e mewn, Dai,
O hwp e mewn, Dai,
O hwp e mewn, Dai,
Mae’n gas ei weld o mas.

Now feel free to sing along!