The Speculator: So far so good, but should I quit while I’m ahead?

    4 March 2017

    In Spectator Money last November, I wrote about Equotion, an algorithm gambling service or ‘Sports Betting Disrupter’ which promises customers better returns than a tracker fund. I was intrigued, I concluded, though I made a sniffy remark or two about the idea that ‘big data’ can be employed to beat the bookie. The people at Equotion must have taken that as a challenge because their PR man got in touch. Would I like to try out the Equotion’s ‘pro investor’ service for horse racing? For free? Would I ever, I replied, or words to that effect, and before I knew it I had an account set up.

    Every day, Equotion emailed me long lists of horses to bet on. These appeared as satisfyingly serious-looking Excel documents in my inbox. I went for their ‘Full House’ option, because the simpler ‘Quick Picks’ looked a bit haphazard and the ‘Turf Accountant’ much too complicated. On every competitive horse race in Britain and Ireland, every day, Full House tells you the going, the horse which its very complicated algorithm suggests is most likely to win, the best available odds on that horse, and a recommended bet. In practice, the best odds proved quite difficult to find, so I used three online bookies — Sky Bet, Betfair and Paddy Power — and got the best prices I could.

    On day one, I put down about £800 in 50 or so bets; far more than I could afford to lose as an impecunious hack with a young family. Happily, by the end of the day, I was about £100 up. So I did it again and won £700. The day after that I won another few hundred. It was exhilarating: every 20 minutes or so, I would check my phone, and boom: the account amount on the top right-hand side of the screen would have shot up. Gambling, at which I have always been hopeless, suddenly seemed an obvious way to get rich.

    I told my wife about it, which was a mistake, since she is a puritan at heart who disapproves of all betting. She suspected Equotion must be an elaborate con. ‘You must stop,’ she said. ‘But I keep winning,’ I pleaded, realising that is exactly what an addict would say. She rolled her eyes.

    The initial win rush had to wane, of course, and over the following days I lost almost as much as I had won. In the days before Christmas, I was several hundred pounds down. It was also proving quite stressful: putting on between 20 to 50 bets each day can be time-consuming, especially if you’re doing it on your phone while your wife thinks you’re giving the children breakfast. On 27 December, I decided to give it one more day and then stop. Almost inevitably, the day turned out to be a barnstorming success: I won £800 and was hooked again. Throughout January, Full House seemed to have more good days than bad. It’s now February and I’m more than £1,500 up — though my wife doesn’t believe me.

    I did get lucky. For a few days while I was on a trip to America, where you can’t bet online, the Equotion algorithm seemed to have a dip in form. Why an algorithm that looks at so many variables should have a bad streak is beyond my understanding; perhaps it doesn’t, and some form of confirmation bias makes me believe otherwise. You need a deep grasp of the nature of probability and what the Equotion team call ‘non-linear cluster analytics’ before you can even hope to know.

    Nevertheless, after a more than a month trying Full House, all I can say is that Equotion’s algorithm has worked for me. Should I quit while I’m ahead, darling?

    The late Nicholas Berry, described in his obituaries as ‘an independent-minded investor and entrepreneur’, built up what the Telegraph called ‘a huge holding in discounted Cuban government debt’. What an admirable contrarian position to have held.

    It made this amateur speculator wonder what would be a similarly gutsy call today. What about Italian banks? We are often told the Italian economy, and particularly its financial sector, is on the brink of collapse. It has a severe ‘non-performing loan’ problem. Yet Italian bank bonds currently cost about half of what Chinese bank bonds do, and China appears to have a far bigger bad-debt crisis.

    Italian banks have far more branches than their counterparts in the UK, although we have a similar population, so there’s clearly room for greater efficiency. They are also said to be ‘deposit-rich’. While southern Italy is in perpetual crisis, it’s worth remembering that the north of Italy is still richer than any region in the eurozone apart from Bavaria.

    Worth a punt, I’d say, non ci piove!