Thursday, March 30, 2006

Base Running

The Major League Baseball season starts up again next week with the two New York teams (Yankees and Mets) starting the season as favourites and 2nd favourites respectively. As a result, the city could well be looking forward to the first all-New York World Series finale since 2000. Amazingly the Mets will attract a full-house of 57,000 to Shea Stadium on Monday despite a lunchtime start.

Although baseball has never garnered much interest outside of the US, Central America and parts of Asia, I have always found it a beguiling sport and one which rewards those who have the time and inclination to learn about its many quirks and statistics. I knew I had properly 'arrived' in the US when I was able to drop comments into conversation about knuckleballs, setup pitchers and double plays. Although gridiron is the most popular sport in the US, baseball is a better example in my view of real 'Americana'.

There are 30 teams in total, divided between the American League and National League, each of which in turn has Central, East and West divisions comprising 4-6 teams. The six winners of each division plus the 2nd placed team with the best overall record from each League progress to a knock-out phase culminating in the World Series (a best-of-7 game clash between the overall American League winner and National League winner).

Each team plays a total of 162 games (essentially playing every day between now and early-October) with a bias towards playing the teams in its own division firstly, and secondly the teams in its own League. Unlike the Premier League in the UK for example, one can certainly argue that a team's chances of success depends in part upon its fixture list. For example for the Mets to progress as division winners, they have to overcome the strong Atlanta Braves who have won the division in each of the past 14 seasons. The counter-argument is of course that after fully 162 games, any good luck or ill-fortune should even itself out.

In recent years a concept known as 'inter-League play' has seen a handful of matches between American League and National League teams. For example the Mets (National League) play the Yankees (American League) in a series of very popular matches which previously could only have occurred in the World Series finale.

American League games differ from their National League counterparts because in the former, teams are permitted to nominate a 'designated hitter' who is not required to field as well as hit. Likewise, the American League pitchers are not required to hit. Hence American League teams place greater emphasis on the 'slugger', a term to describe a powerful batter whose job is to score home runs and/or bring home runners-on-base. For this reason many purists (including myself) prefer watching National League baseball which emphasises a more measured approach to scoring runs, with a keener focus on base running rather than mere slugging. Moreover, National League fans get the benefit of watching a pitcher try to hit which is the baseball equivalent of watching an outfield player go in goal, an increasingly rare occurrence these days.

Unlike football in England which is rightly heralded as offering the chance for the smallest minnows to progress to the top division (witness Wigan's rapid rise), Major League Baseball is essentially a closed shop with no relegation/promotion issues. The worst fate for a baseball 'franchise' is being closed down and replaced by an ambitious new set-up; the Montreal Expos for example were replaced by the Washington Nationals at the start of the 2005 season. Given the rapid shifts in population that occur in the US, there are several rapidly growing urban areas which are desperate to take over a franchise from cities in decline eg. Detroit, Kansas City, Minneapolis. It will probably not be too long before the likes of Salt Lake City, Sacramento and San Antonio demand a baseball franchise.

It is easy to be disparaging about the closed nature of American sport, but in an excellent book called National Pastime (by Stefan Szymanski and Andrew Zimbalist), the authors examine the evolution of baseball in the US and football elsewhere, and the pros and cons of each.

The most obvious disadvantage of England's football pyramid is the risk-averseness it engenders given the damaging and highly visible decline of those teams that 'broke the bank' but didn't get the results they hoped for. It encourages an emphasis upon short-term results instead of long-term planning, evidenced perhaps in the ridiculously high turnover of club managers. Whilst the ability of the likes of Wigan (and Charlton) to progress through the ranks adds to the romance of the sport, once they reach the top division their main concern is remaining there and not trying to win it. Indeed Americans will look at you with amazement when you tell them that 20,000 fans have paid out hard-earned cash for Charlton season tickets knowing full well that our chances of winning the title are essentially zero.

American sport has also done a reasonable job at 'levelling the playing field' to some degree to ensure that the same teams do not dominate year after year. This is usually achieved through a combination of income redistribution, college draft priority, and payroll caps. Again, although it is highly unlikely that any of these could be introduced in English football given the relative weakness of the FA compared to the big clubs, at least Peter Varney has been bold enough to at least ensure the topic remains on the agenda. If the G18 clubs had their way, they would probably be happy to pursue a US-style 'closed shop' via a European League, but fortunately for now fans still turn up in bigger numbers for domestic clashes than international ones. It is hard to sell the 'product' to broadcasters when there is an underlying fear of showing games in quarter-full stadia.

In baseball, although the New York Yankees dominate in terms of World Series wins (26 in total), most of these came when legends like Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio and Lou Gehrig were strutting their stuff in the Bronx. In the last five years alone, the World Series has been won variously by the Chicago White Sox (2005), Florida Marlins (2003) and Anaheim Angels (2002), none of whom would have been highly-fancied at the start of the season. In England, the domination by just a handful of clubs is rapidly leading to a severe lack of competitiveness which will surely begin to drive fans away.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Two-Faced Charlton

Supporting Charlton, or more pertinently, writing a blog about Charlton can certainly leave you vulnerable to accusations about being two-faced. One minute all is doom and gloom, the next we are two games away from a Cup final and European qualification.

All in all, our unusually erratic form over the course of this season has made us very hard to assess, and frankly if the cup is 'half full' one minute, and 'half empty' the next then it is hardly surprising.

1 defeat in 9 home League games (half full); no away wins since Oct 22 (half empty). The acquisition of Darren Bent (half full); the Murphy/Smertin departures (half empty). The prospect of beating 'Boro (half full); the prospect of losing to 'Boro (half empty).

I maintain that all other things being equal it has been a disappointing season, albeit one with enormous potential upside if we can conjure up two wins against mediocre opposition in the Cup. Our points total is in line with recent seasons (assuming no end-of-season collapse again) although some of the football has lacked sparkle. I think it is reasonable to offer some criticism when due (and praise) and there are aspects of this season that warrant an unbiased negative assessment. Admittedly if I occasionally drew a deep breath before writing, some of the more extreme 'Curbs Out' or 'Charlton are sh*t' views might rightly be omitted.

I think it was Inspector Sands who suggested that blogs had replaced fanzines thanks to the former's immediacy, and readers of this blog at least will know I bemoan a perceived lack of ambition at the club. This is particularly frustrating given that just three more wins this season would have seen us right in the mix for a Champions League place, such is the League's mediocrity.

My argument rests on the idea that behind the 'big four' there exists a potential vacuum ready to be filled by a well-run progressive small club, whilst some of the 'older established' clubs like Villa and Man City begin to stumble under the weight of their post-football bubble debts. In recent seasons Bolton have taken the lead in this respect (a club no larger than us), and if Charlton can grasp the opportunity then no-one will be more pleased than me.

Perhaps it's just a question of patience whilst the unpredictability of individual games throws your emotional balance into disarray. It's a bit like investing - most people would be better off deciding upon their views (ie. picking some stocks) then only looking at their portfolios twice a year. Then again if I only updated this blog twice a year, I wouldn't get many readers.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Vegas Nights

You know that nasty little voice in your head? The one which tells you it's ok to do bad things like have an extra drink at lunchtime, or flirt with your mate's wife? Well, I have to confess the voice reappeared again on Thursday night, with about ten minutes left to play. It said, "..go on 'Boro score a goal..." However, I trust you will forgive me when you hear about my situation.

You see, being based in New York (as opposed to New Cross or New Malden) is not easy when your team has a chance of reaching its first semi-final since 1947. I already knew that I had a big dilemma on my hands if we made the semis - some UK-based mates (Spurs fans sadly) had been planning a Las Vegas trip, and I promised I would make the relatively short hop over from NY where no doubt I would again hear that voice in my head throughout the trip.

After weeks of procrastination, the Spurs mates finally booked their flights and of course, they chose the FA Cup semi-final weekend. Naturally they hadn't bothered to check the fixture list having been unceremoniously knocked out of the Cup by Leicester in Round 3 (to jog your memory they were 2-0 up).

It's ok I thought, no problem, the semi-final takes place over a month after the quarter-final, so there will be plenty of time to mull over my options, and assess ways in which I can appease both my mates and my own Charlton passions. It would require spending several hours on a plane and ensure copious amounts of jet lag, but it could be done with sufficient notice. The key word here is of course notice, and what I hadn't factored in of course was that the quarter-final replay would take place just ten days before the semi-final.

It's ok I thought, no problem, if we are drawn to play Chelsea or Liverpool then I probably won't bother to fly home because a) we are likely to lose, and b) in the unlikely event that we win, I'll have a final to go to. I like to deal in probabilities, and this offered me a 66.6% chance of having my problems solved. Alas probabilities have a nasty way of biting you on the backside as any gambler will know.

It's ok I thought, no problem, even though we have drawn West Ham thus turning a potential semi-final into a 'UEFA Cup' qualification tie, Virgin Atlantic (with whom I have all my frequent flyer miles) have a daily flight from Vegas to London. Moreover, the fact that the semi will be played on a Sunday gives me an extra day to spend with my mates in Vegas, before heading back for the game. So I went onto the Virgin website with the intention of buying a fully refundable ticket back to London on the Saturday night. And then I saw the notice writ large across my screen, please note, there are no scheduled flights on a Saturday. Yes that's correct, Virgin have a flight from Monday to Friday, and on Sundays, but not on Saturdays.

It's ok I thought, no problem, even though there is no Virgin flight direct from Vegas, Birmingham City's sponsors FlyBe have a direct 1930 flight from New York to Birmingham so if I can just get back to New York in time for that connection then I'm on my way. Unfortunately however, Las Vegas is three hours behind New York and a five hour flight away, add in the 2-3 hour check-in requirement at New York, and it is near impossible to make a connection on a same-day flight.

So frankly I'm at a loss for what to do. The most sensible tactic would probably be to buy a fully refundable ticket back from Vegas on the Friday night, and then if we lose to 'Boro just cancel it and extend my stay. If we beat 'Boro then I have to hope my mates forgive the early end to my Vegas trip. However that presents a new and terrifying dilemma - by my estimations we have an approximately 35% chance of beating 'Boro. Hence if a non-refundable ticket costs less than 35% of a refundable ticket, then I'd be acting rationally by purchasing a non-refundable ticket and potentially letting it go to waste. As any business travel planner knows, fully refundable tickets are extortionate and the price of the non-refundable alternative is priced well below 35%. But this would be the greatest example of fate temptation since Steve Ovett waved at the crowd before being pipped at the finishing line, and I would expect to be blamed by every Charlton fan who reads this blog should we fail to get through.

So the next time you hear that nasty voice in your head, remember "it's ok to act this way."

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Slow on the Draw

If the build-up to tonight's tie was tense, then we now have a ridiculous three weeks to wait for what is now Charlton's new 'biggest game for years.' What happened to the good old days when ties were replayed just days later? They went the same way as Saturday Cup games I guess.

The game tonight simmered below the surface and threatened to explode fully into life, but in the end both defences ensured a fair result. Fans demanded at the very least an honest performance, and they certainly got one, but most of us are well-aware that we lack a little quality in the final third and it showed again.

The atmosphere was decent, albeit not electric, and towards the end it seemed to bounce from excitement to fear with every transfer of possession. It was good to see Curbs display some cavalier intent by substituting the ineffective Kish for Rommedahl, sensing perhaps that our best chance of winning the tie probably lay here at the Valley. Having said that, Boro's fixture congestion and a likely soporific Riverside atmosphere on Apr 12th could play into our hands.

Hreidarsson, Perry and Powell in particular were rock solid, though on the other flank my man-of-the-match Stewart Downing gave Young plenty to worry about all evening. Our best chance of course fell to the Herminator himself and the photo above shows he was denied only by a truly world-class instinctive save. We huffed and puffed throughout, with Thomas at the forefront of much of our best attacking forays, but the ball wouldn't quite fall 'right' in their box, and from my point of view at least, with Viduka displaying plenty of late tricks, I was not displeased to hear the referee's final whistle.

Anyhow we find ourselves in an FA Cup semi-final draw for the first time since 1947, with a very clear hierarchy of desired draws. Clearly the thought of a Chelsea semi will not exactly fill many fans with much excitement, whilst an East London/South-East London tie would offer both our best chance of a final berth, as well as without doubt the best atmosphere.

It remains to be seen if the club will provide some forms of subsidised travel to 'Boro but it is to be hoped we can provide at least a reasonable fraction of the support the vociferous Hammers fans provided for their side at Man City (and perhaps ensure a similar result).

Tuesday, March 21, 2006


Reg Varney has made a front page website plea to Charlton fans to attend Thursday's game because "...The Football Association could face an FA Cup semi-final dilemma if three London teams make it though to the last four of this season's competition." I guess I should point out the FA could face a semi-final dilemma if two London teams make it through, but will face a semi-final dilemma if three London teams make it through.

However semantics aside, he does have a habit of preaching to fans who I'm sure are mature and rational enough to make decisions about whether to attend without needing to be warned that, " just re-emphasises the importance of all regular fans attending Thursday's match."

Even if Reg's plea is successful, he hasn't pointed out how they would allocate just 15,000 tickets for a potential semi-final if more than 15,000 season-ticket holders show up on Thursday (and they all want to attend the semi). Maybe a smaller crowd on Thursday will paradoxically make their lives easier in the event that we win - the law of unintended consequences.

If a fan has decided to save a few quid, and watch the game on TV, who are the club to preach to them about the decision they have made? In all likelihood any fans that have made this choice are probably going to be less bothered about missing a semi-final, all other things being equal, than those that will attend on Thursday. Either way, people have made their decision and are unlikely to be swayed now, and that decision ought to be respected.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Great Expectations

On the All Quiet in the East Stand blog, I argued that Charlton's lousy away support might be linked to the team being 'sh*t' right now, and was rightly castigated for it. With hindsight I regret using that rather inelegant adjective, and clearly even if it were valid, it would only be in a relative not an absolute sense.

However, one of the arguments put forward against my overly critical assessment of the Arsenal defeat is what I term the 'nostalgia argument' and is on the lines of 'ten years ago, you'd have given your right arm to have the problems we have today.' This is true of course, but also irrelevant in my view.

Expectations are by necessity dynamic not static. It is absolutely correct that Curbs and the board should be wholeheartedly congratulated on exceeding the low expectations the fans had in the early-1990s, through a combination of good coaching, a sensible transfer policy, a progressive community-oriented outlook and the ongoing setting of realistic goals. However the 'issue' that I have right now is whether the club has inadvertently set its ongoing expectations 'too low' which in itself may have unintended consequences, some of which are already in evidence.

I have argued before that the club was fortunate to have been going through its rebuilding process in the mid-1990s at precisely the time when the creation of the Premier League was going to lead to a number of clubs over-leveraging and burning themselves out (Leeds are obviously the best example). This was a coincidence of course, but it meant that Charlton effectively leapfrogged a whole series of clubs in terms of ongoing prospects etc.. in a far shorter period of time than would previously have been possible. As it happens it is now in Leeds' hands whether they win automatic promotion back to the top flight, but even if they achieve it, they will look up to Charlton on their return, not the other way around. This is an incredible reversal in fortunes.

I have also pointed out on previous posts that Charlton are now the 10th longest-serving team in the current Premiership, again testament to the calm stewardship of Curbs and the board, but again it serves to remind us that far from running the risk of setting our expectations 'too high', we may be doing the precise opposite. Given the crucial importance of Sky money, statistics like these are far more important gauges of a club's standing in the game than how many fans we take to away games.

I understand the board's conservative standpoint, I just don't happen to agree with it. They are determined that should relegation occur, the club would not be wiped out financially, but instead be in a position to bounce straight back as they did in 1999/2000. However I fear that they could end up causing the very outcome that they are so keen to avoid. Clearly there is a fine balance here, but our form since September 2005 and even as far back as January 2005 has been relegation form or thereabouts. Indeed without the 'Darren Bent miracle', I believe we would be in the mire right now.

I fear that the Jeffers/Murphy signings in the summer of 2004 signalled the Board's intentions to 'step up to the next level', but that their unfortunate outcomes have grounded their expectations back down to earth. In my view, the lesson from the Jeffers/Murphy saga is not that the Board was wrong to try to sign players of their calibre, but that we should not throw out all the usual criteria for transfers that have previously worked so well (like checking out their character for a start).

If the right new manager could be found, I believe the club would benefit from a fresh influx of ideas. Given that the club has implied Curbs has a job for life, there surely has to be some risk (however small) that he could be sacked otherwise he will surely never truly be giving 100% to the role. Having said that, Curbs is working within the constraints that the Board has imposed upon him and I've come round to the view that the problem lies higher up for the timebeing.

The club can't just stand still, focus solely on balancing the books and hope that form will revert to trend. The traits that served the club so admirably after the dark years away from the Valley may no longer be serving us well now. To use an utterly inappropriate analogy, those traits that helped build the post-war Japanese economy from oblivion to world power, were the same that helped push them headlong into a decade of deflationary bust.

Things are not that bad of course, but those fans who are able to undertake a dispassionate assessment of the club sense a worrying downward trend, now being evidenced by lower crowds. Football is an unusual industry of course, fans can choose to consume more or less Charlton, but they are highly unlikely to move their consumption of football to another provider. Hence, when fans begin to vote with their feet, the club should sit up and take notice rather than send out desperate letters from the manager demanding our support.

I am not asking for too much from the club. I would like to see a more ambitious transfer policy, including a more enlightened approach to foreign players. I would like to see a total shake-up of the youth system (with heads rolling) that has failed the club for too long now. And I would like to see the team play with a little bit more panache, and a little bit less concern for what might go wrong if they do so. Football is ultimately an instinctive sport and all players need some freedom to express themselves (leaving a player or even two up for a corner might be a start).

I will be there on Thursday night all being well and am excited about the opportunity which the gods of the FA Cup draw have handed us. Should we be knocked out, it would easy for me to return home and write a vitriolic blog, but the result of one game is too random to be meaningful. Similarly should we win, it is important that those fans who are willing to be critical (and to be denounced for doing so) don't allow the prospect of a Cup semi-final to paper over the cracks in the club's current posturing.

My Dad always reminds me that the relationship one has with their football club is unique. You can have more than one wife, more than one child, more than one job, more than one house and more than one car, but you can never truly have more than one football club. It's for this reason that I occasionally get impetuous about it, but at the end of the day I really care and want to see the club fulfil its potential, instead of wallowing in nostalgia.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Different Planet

It wasn't so long ago that we went to Arsenal and won 4-2. Indeed, it wasn't that long ago that we scored three goals there (unfortunately on that day Arsenal scored five). However, those games occurred in the days when Charlton were fearless party-poopers, always eager to spring a surprise and to bring the high 'n mighty down a peg or two.

I gave Curbs credit for having the guts to play a progressive 4-5-1 with genuine wingers, and to be fair the game wasn't lost for tactical reasons but due to a combination of Arsenal brilliance and defensive ineptitude. After a number of 0-0 draws perhaps a shambolic display was due, and at least it came in a game we probably had little chance of garnering much from anyhow.

Bryan Hughes was withdrawn at half-time again and once more I challenge any reader to explain what he brings to the team because I am utterly at a loss. Meanwhile Curbs persisted with his strange Spector/Powell rotation - it's strange not only because Spector has never looked like a left-back to me, but also because Powell's form has been pretty good of late.

I maintain that 4-5-1 is the formation that gives us the best chance of winning games because it plays to our strengths, but we are absolutely desperate for two new central midfielders in the summer. If we can find them, whoever they are, then it will allow Ambrose to play in a more central role and hopefully provide the type of service that Darren Bent's finishing deserves.

Arsenal were breathtaking of course, but frankly for most of the game they were just playing with us, and that's probably what hurts the most. Thierry Henry is a veritable footballing 'freak' who has taken forward play to a different strata, but even he must have found today unusually easy going.

It seems a shame that the rapid growth in New York's fan club (I counted nine in the pub today) is coinciding with such dross. Those of us that had been supporting the Addicks for long enough agreed that something is 'missing' right now. One can look at the table I suppose and say, "Well 13th ain't bad," and they have a point (up to a point), but we are stale and predictable and there is no sign of any spark to snap us out of our tedium.

Thursday's game is clearly massive for the club, even if the ticket sales don't reflect it. In the event of a defeat, the anti-climax will be tangible and will depress season ticket renewals, and understandably so. The club has backed itself into a bit of a corner - it's conservativeness is somewhat justifiable, but it's a bit rich to then barrack the fans for staying away when they have proved unable to sign much-needed squad reinforcements, to retain key players or to bring a single talented youngster through the ranks.

Inspector Sands bemoaned the poor vocal support offered by the Addicks fans on their last trip to Highbury, but in defence of the flask-carriers, we haven't won an away game since Oct 22nd; some of the players have earned half a million quid since then. I dare say there are a hardy few disciples who have attended every one of those away games, and they have been treated to just six goals and three points. The blame rests firmly in the hands of the players and the coaching staff, not those travelling fans whose patience is wearing as thin as their wallets right now.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Curbs Plays Two Wingers - World Celebrates

Joyous scenes were witnessed across the entire world today when news filtered through that Charlton boss Alan Curbishley had selected two wingers AND Jason Euell for the trip to Highbury.

In Iraq, Sunni and Shia militia stopped their civil war, shook hands and agreed to go for a pint. In North Korea, Kim Jong-Il admitted the news persuaded him that even the most obstinate leaders can change their minds, and agreed to fly to Washington immediately for talks with President Bush. And in Palestine, Hamas leaders joined their Israeli counterparts in a peace dance and admitted, "...what's yours is mine and what's mine is yours."

Breaking News: In Iraq, a Sunni militia took a closer look at the teamsheet, realised Bryan Hughes was still playing, and immediately blew himself up.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Speculate to Accumulate

I have always been fascinated by probability and risk, and so it was hardly surprising that I developed an early interest in gambling. Naturally I shun the activity here in New York where its legality is a slightly grey area, but nonetheless I am permitted to view from afar.

Although I still struggle to believe it really happened, shortly after my eighteenth birthday I picked a 15-match accumulator at odds of 12,000-1. Sadly for me I only had 5p riding on it - still, £600 was a lot of money in those days. Although unconfirmed, based upon press reports since, I believe these may be the longest odds ever paid out on a matchday football coupon.

I rapidly learned that fifteen match accumulators were something of a rarity. Indeed, I have rapidly learned that doubles or even trebles are to be treasured and not scoffed at. As a veteran of sports betting (particularly as it relates to football), I thought that in the absence of anything interesting to say about Charlton, that I may offer some advice to any current or aspiring sports betters.

Avoid Accumulators: This may sound strange given that I achieved a 12,000-1 payout, but if there was a single piece of advice that I could offer any sports gambler, it would be this one. The typical High Street bookmaker obviously earns its profits by building a hefty profit margin into its odds. Although these margins have fallen materially thanks to online competition, they are still extremely disadvantageous.

Take our contest versus Arsenal on Saturday. William Hill is currently offering 2/7 on Arsenal, 7/1 on Charlton, and 7/2 the draw. If you translate the odds into percentages, they are implying an Arsenal win has a 78% probability, a Charlton win has a 12.5% probability and a draw has a 22% probability. Handily for William Hill, the probabilities sum to 112.5%. In other words, a 12.5% profit margin is built into the odds. In order to 'beat' these odds, a punter needs to have at least a 12.5% 'information edge', certainly possible in the short-run but near-impossible over time. To put it in perspective, the profit margin at a roulette table is only 2.7% (1/37th) yet most casino owners have reasonably high standards of living.

In other words, if a punter only gambled on single matches, he is already severely handicapped by the High Street bookmaker's odds. However once a punter tries to 'leverage' his bet by using accumulator, they are quite literally playing into the bookie's hands.

In short, if you place a treble you are obliged to 'beat' the 12.5% profit margin three times at once. Let's say you fancy a £10 bet on Arsenal, Man City and Blackburn on Saturday - a tasty home treble. The current odds at William Hill are 2/7, 10/11 and 7/10 respectively, implying a return of £41.72 (including the initial stake, ie. a profit of £31.72). However, assuming a constant 12.5% profit margin is imbedded in the odds of all three matches, the profit margin in this accumulator is not just 12.5% but a whopping 42.3% (the cube root of 12.5%).

To prove this, I will strip out the profit margin element (by dividing the odds expressed as a % by 12.5%). In the case of Arsenal, Man City and Blackburn, these are (in round numbers) 3/7, 23/20 and 10/11 implying a payout on that same £10 bet (without profit margin) of £58.63 versus £41.72 you would actually receive). And bear in mind, this is merely a treble.

For the benefit of those readers who are tempted by say a 7-match accumulator, your payout will be fully 56% (trust me on this) less than it 'should be' based upon the true probabilities. Is it it any wonder the bookies place the accumulator betting slips in such a prominent place?

Avoid Bets with Quirky Names: you know the ones, Canadians, Yankees, Patents, Heinz etc.. Basically this is a great way that the bookies steal your money through an understanding of the laws of compounding (as above) and the appeal of combination bets.

Take perhaps the appropriately named Goliath bet, made up of eight selections and 247 bets containing 28 doubles, and all accumulators upwards. On a lazy Saturday afternoon, it's tempting to put on a 10p Goliath for £24.70 and watch eight live races. Unfortunately it rapidly becomes much less enticing when your first selection falls at the last.....

When your first selection falls, you are now left with 'just' 120 bets - in short over half of your bets have been rendered worthless by the failure of a single selection. If your second nag trails in behind the winner, you are left with just 57 bets (ie. only 23% of your initial stake remains invested) and you probably haven't got up to boil the kettle yet.

Use the online betting exchanges: As any sports gambler will know, online betting exchanges have revolutionised the industry. By stripping out the middle man and charging just a small commission (typically less than 5%) for offering the software that faciliates the exchange, punters now only need to beat odds of <5%.>Betting exchanges also offer the facility to 'lay' an outcome ie. bet on an outcome not happening. This is perhaps most useful in events with large fields such as big horse races or golf tournaments. By laying a fancied (or even unfancied) entrant, you are left with a bet on every one of his opponents. Although this can be achieved with a traditional bookmaker (by betting on every entrant except the unfancied one), it is cumbersome and as stated above, the odds are not in your favour.

The only caveat to this recommendation is that it only holds for the most 'liquid' efficient markets. On markets with little betting interest, there will be an inherent profit margin built into the odds (similar to the traditional bookie) plus the 5% commission. In these instances, it makes sense to try to 'become the bookie' by offering less than generous odds on all outcomes in the hope of encouraging enough punters to take your odds, and ensuring a nice profit.

Avoid correct score bets, HT/FT bets etc..: These types of bets always jump out of a coupon because they invariably offer the longest odds available on a single match. However they typically not only have a larger profit margin built into them, the odds are also calculated based upon the experience of tens of thousands of matches, and thus near impossible to gain an 'edge' on. Whilst I believe one can assess recent form, injuries, motivation, home crowd advantage etc.. in the hope of spotting incorrect odds on a simple win/lose/draw outcome, anyone who believes they can do the same thing on say a correct score market is deluding themselves.

In order to prove this, I would draw attention to the fact that the main high street bookmakers set their correct score odds at the start of a season, and then keep them constant throughout. In other words, if you wanted to bet on a 2-2 scoreline in an obscure fixture, then so long as the bookie had odds available on the main win/lose/draw market, then it would happily quote you a price for the correct score. The bookie has a grid that tells him that if the draw is priced at say 9/4, then the 2-2 draw is automatically offered at say 14/1 (the grid is built around the experience of those tens of thousands of actual observations). If the bookie is happy quoting constant correct score odds on this basis, then in short the hopeful punter is deluding himself in believing he can spot 'wrong odds' and gain an edge.

Gamble on obscure 'special' markets: This may sound counter-intuitive based upon what has been discussed above, but in fact it is the opposite. By obscure, I don't mean 'time of the first corner' or 'number of throw ins' (all of which are priced again from the experience of tens of thousands of matches), but markets where the bookie has little or no past experience on which to set the odds.

Examples might include the Oscars, or Pop Idol or even weird markets occasionally offered like 'number of times David Beckham flicks his hair.' In these markets, the punter is no longer pitched against the extremely safe laws of statistics but is pitched in a simple head-to-head with the bookie. Here a smart punter can assess a range of 'reasonable' and 'unreasonable' odds and regularly find very good value. Anyone who realised that Brokeback Mountain was ridiculously short odds to win Best Picture based on nothing more than the accumulated opinions of film critics and actors, had a great chance to 'lay' that outcome and would have reaped the rewards.

Back the away team: Backing the away team inside the stadium used to be surefire way to gain an advantage over the bookie. The traditional bookie makes his living by firstly calculating odds correctly (then applying his margin), but also by ensuring he has a relatively 'balanced book' (this explains why bookies hate race days when all the well-backed favourites triumph).

Hence in a football stadium, knowing that 95% of the crowd will be supporting the home team (99% if Charlton are the visitors) and prone to partiality, the odds on the away team will be unusually generous in order to tempt enough punters to go against their natural inclinations, and to bet against their team.

Unfortunately these 'arbitrages' are less common than they used to be because many odds are now centrally-set by the large bookies, but it's always worth keeping an eye out for the smaller local bookie who is adjusting his odds in this way. I recall one such hapless bookie paying out 14/1 on Paul Williams to score first when he was our top scorer and in a rich vein of form.

Don't be afraid of tight odds: ...(or tight trousers). It is human nature to always seek a big payout on an unlikely outcome. However, the very best value may lie in the most probable outcomes. As an example, Chelsea are currently quoted at 3/100 on Betfair to win the title. Hence a brave punter who places £10,000 on this outcome would receive back £285 (£300 less the 5% commission). Given that the title must be won within the next seven weeks (if not sooner), this implies an annualised return of approx 23.2%, hugely outstripping the returns available in a building society cash account (and it's tax free!).

I know you've read the above and said, "What if..." but if you place enough of these types of bets, having correctly assessed the odds in each case, you will be better off in my view than keeping your capital in a cash account. I believe the 'true odds' on Chelsea slipping up are more like 1/100 (after all they only need 16 points from 9 games, and probably a lot less) yet I suspect most punters are wondering if Man Utd represent 'value' at 33/1 (they don't).

Let me make it clear, I do not recommend betting at odds of 3/100 on say a single football match or horse race where randomness can play a big role, but only in long-term markets like these where scenarios can be easily mapped out and there is time to reverse course if early indications suggest you have made a tragic mistake in your assumptions.

Bet each-way on 2nd favourites in horse races with 8 runners and a very short-priced favourite: This theme draws heavily on the work of New York Addick Sr. who found himself banned from many betting shops in the 1960s/70s once they cottoned on to this ruse. Although harder to achieve today than it was in those days, the concept remains valid.

Each-way bets contain two bets, one on the win and one on a place. The place odds are derived from the odds for a win, and in the case of 8-runner races, calculated by dividing the win odds by 5. Why 8 runner races? Because races with 5, 6 or 7 runners only pay out on the place if your selection finishes 2nd - add another horse to bring the field to 8, and the bookies will pay out on the 2nd and 3rd.

The key to understanding this concept is to realise that the way to calculate the 'real' odds on a horse finishing 2nd or 3rd are different from the way its win chances should be calculated. In short they are different markets, yet the bookie treats them as if they were the same.

To use an extreme example, if you imagine I entered a 1,500m race with Seb Coe and six of my mates, then my win odds would be essentially zero but let's call them 33/1 for the sake of simplification. However my chances of finishing 2nd or 3rd are very high (I'm a keen runner you see), perhaps more like 1/3. However a bookie would calculate my odds of being placed by dividing my extreme win odds by 5, offering generous odds of more than 6/1.

It's always worth keeping an eye out for eight-horse races with a very short-priced favourite and a clear 2nd (and even 3rd favourite). These situations are rare, but if you imagine a field with a 1/5 favourite and a 10/1 2nd favourite, then an each-way bet on the 2nd favourite would imply you have an Even money bet on the place (10/1 divided by 5, less the win bet probably foregone), along with the potential upside should the horse unexpectedly come home first.


I will stop there in the interests of not boring readers senseless. With a little bit of discipline and an understanding of those situations where the bookie's 'edge' is essentially unbeatable, and those where it's not, punters have a chance (albeit a slim one) of winning money in the long-run.

Always remember the 'default bet' is always 'no bet' - the very best sports gamblers make just a handful of bets a year, but when the odds are in their favour they push hard. These gamblers also know that even if a bet in this scenario is not a winning one, it was still a good bet. If you can get over this apparent contradiction, you stand a reasonable chance.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Bent Impresses England's New Manager

The Sunday Mirror 'exclusive' this morning was really nothing of the sort, a veritable 'non story' if ever there was one. I remain sceptical that Curbs is the front-runner for the England job, but rumours abound that the FA is contemplating a management 'team' with Curbs a key member, possibly whilst retaining his Charlton job. Given Middlesbrough's patchy record under Steve McLaren I suspect the club gains little from his England involvement, and Charlton should resist a dual role for Curbs if the FA go down this route.

However, if Curbs does take the England job, Darren Bent could at least surely relax safe in the knowledge that his International credentials would no longer be doubted. Worryingly however for fans of the national team, Bryan Hughes is also eligible for England.

It's been said before both here and elsewhere, but Darren Bent's contribution to our season really cannot be overestimated. Given that he is able to score 19 goals with patchy service, it is little wonder that the club has probably already slapped a £12million+ price tag around his neck. The most impressive aspects of his forward play are not only his wide range of 'types of goal' (evidenced nicely today), but also his phenomenal 'goals-to-chances' ratio. He is clearly our most natural finisher since Mendonca (admittedly there wasn't much competition), and in truth the Wearsider never really proved himself at the top level (partly due to injuries). More crucially during a disappointing season, he has been the difference between midtable mediocrity and a relegation fight.

'Boro obviously played a weakened side, rightly seeing the possibility of a UEFA Cup semi-final place as more important than a near-meaningless League game. It will be interesting to see where the FA Cup figures in their priorities if they overcome Roma on Wednesday, but assuming it figures higher than the League, then we will likely face a tougher challenge in the Cup game which does not bode well given we were fortunate to prevail today.

It was good to see Curbs willing to make two half-time changes, and I'm hoping we see more of Thomas and less of Hughes in the final games of the season. It paid off this time, other times it won't, but whilst winning is ultimately the key, fans also want to be entertained and the eleven that started the game today (Bent aside) hardly set the pulse racing. I've argued before that winning and entertaining needn't be mutually exclusive, and given the right balance between artistic freedom and team responsibilities, our flair players can achieve both goals.

Our final visit to Highbury on Saturday is being shown here in full, albeit delayed, so I will be turning my phone off, staying away from the Internet and will look forward to seeing us no doubt do our best to ensure Tottenham's European challenge continues to fade fast.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Chattanooga Choo Choo

I really feared for Chattanooga, my overnight stop on the way up from Atlanta to Nashville. It's probably really only famous for its status as an old railroad town (subsequently immortalised by Glenn Miller's song), and yet somewhat ironically, it no longer has a rail station. Imagine Crewe without a railway, and you get the picture.

However in such circumstances, the best thing to do from experience is don a pair of running shoes and check it out for yourself, and as is so often the case, my low expectations were well-and-truly exceeded. The town has undertaken a huge urban regeneration project, with the impressive Tennessee River as its centerpiece, and as my run proved, it now has a stunning trail running alongside it.

For some reason, it had a strangely British feel, reminding me very much of Newcastle/Gateshead which has undergone a similarly successful rejuvenation using its river location, impressive bridges and modern architecture in the hope of rediscovering old glories. Thankfully I was spared the sight of thousands of foul-mouthed Geordies in black and white shirts here in Chattanooga however (and I hear the council grits the roads here too).

If you really want to understand America, it's vital to explore the heartland particularly if you are used to wandering through Manhattan asking yourself, "None of these people voted Bush, so who the hell did?" It's a little simplistic, but in many ways the US is really two countries - the richer, left-leaning, progressive North-East and Pacific Coast (plus blue-collar parts of the MidWest eg. Illinois, Michigan) and the more religious, poorer, conservative remainder. This 2004 electoral map sums it up nicely.

Many New Yorkers would like the US to disown states like Tennessee, but whilst I can't agree with the politics here, it is in these areas that one finds the warmest and friendliest people in all of the country. They don't call the women Southern Belles for nothing, and their accent has the same affect on me as mine does on them (if only my wife would let me chat to them of course). I couldn't live here, but if you really want to feel the pulse of America, you have to visit Chattanooga and similar cities.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

To Russia With Love

The latest midfielder to be leaving the Valley for pastures new appears to be Alexei Smertin. Admittedly the thought of playing alongside Bryan Hughes for the remainder of the season probably makes a frozen Moscow feel like paradise, but seriously it's just another disappointing development in a disappointing season.

My first sight of Smertin in a Charlton shirt occurred at Loftus Road in a pre-season friendly, and at half-time I had the audacity to text my Dad to say, "Smertin - Player of the Year." I may have been a little premature with hindsight (though frankly, Darren Bent is unlikely to be overwhelmed by challengers), but in general I've been impressed with the Russian's contribution and we will clearly be worse off if he goes.

It seems the club has decided to use the loan rules to their fullest in the last few seasons. Given the board's conservative outlook, it makes a lot of sense: save on the cash outlay from a transfer fee, and utilise the services of a player with the possible option to sign them at the end of the season. Last summer, they recruited the services of Smertin and Jonathan Spector from high-quality Premiership opposition, and then cheekily stole away Gonzalo Sorondo from Inter Milan (via Palace). Unfortunately however, as we are rapidly finding out, the loan concept tends to favour the club who retains the player's registration, and perhaps also the player himself in Smertin's case.

Ironically, I believe the loans are likely to work best for Charlton when they involve experienced players like Smertin. Similarly, the loan deal for Jorge Costa was undeniably a success for both club and player. In these cases, there at least exists the possibility of the club buying the player at the end of the loan because the club they were loaned from can clearly happily exist without them, and moreover age is not on their side.

In the case of the more youthful Spector and Carlton Cole, the very best that Charlton could hope for was a single superb season from each - after all, if their youngsters fulfil their potential, Man Utd and Chelsea are hardly going to let them go to Charlton on the cheap. As it transpired, we acquired a lazy moody (but talented) forward in Cole, and an honest but naive defender in Spector, and hence likely no desire to sign either for the long-run. The case of Sorondo has been blighted by injury of course, but again at just 26 years old, Inter were unlikely to let him go on the cheap if he had been able to put up a solid full season with us.

It's hard to blame Smertin for this particular episode, assuming it plays out as rumoured. He clearly does not figure in Mourinho's plans and at 30 years old, it may be a chance to fulfil a dream of finishing his career in his home country. The loan system gives Charlton very little bargaining power and as Curbs admitted himself, "He's a Chelsea player."

The manipulation of the loan system, when set in the context of Richard Murray's comments about our lack of signings in the transfer window all adds to the overwhelming evidence that 'safety first' remains the mantra at the Valley. Time will tell whether those clubs that have splashed the cash (eg. West Ham) will prosper or not, but if the Board is wondering why ticket sales seem slow or the atmosphere at home seems sterile, then they needn't look much further than their own minutes.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Miami Vice

My travels have taken me once again to Florida, or the Miami/Fort Lauderdale area to be precise. The conference organiser proudly announced last night, "This will be all work and no play, but that's just the way we like it." No prizes for guessing which investment bank has organised it.

Given the large UK expat community here, perhaps increasingly priced out of Spain, I should probably try to escape from the work-fest to seek out some fellow Addicks for my 'USA Supporters Club Project.'

South Florida is one of the fastest growing parts of the country, evidenced by an incredible amount of condominium development that essentially stretches all the way to West Palm Beach, about 70 miles north.

I've been to this part of the US about twenty times since I arrived here, but I find it a difficult place to generate much fondness for. Until you get down to the Keys or into the Everglades, it seems just an interminable collection of ugly condo buildings criss-crossed by a highway system that has never quite developed as fast as the area it serves. Meanwhile the much-trumpeted South Beach area of Miami (that's SoBe to me and you) could well serve as the capital of 'bling.'

Moreover, whilst the climate at this time of year is undeniably perfect, within a couple of months the humdity will pick up as they await the inevitable hurricanes to roll in from the Caribbean. Should I end up retiring in the US, you'll find me in Arizona or Southern California.....San Diego Addick has more of a ring to it than Miami Addick anyway.

From here it's on to Atlanta, another underwhelming sprawling city. However eagle-eyed Addicks would have spotted not one but two references to Atlanta in the Aston Villa matchday programme. Firstly the club has launched another soccer school in the city, and secondly Graham Tutt our unfortunate former keeper is also based there.

On my travels I've concluded that my favourite cities by far are those that had their fastest development phase before the advent of the motor car. Examples would obviously include New York, but also Chicago, Boston, and perhaps my favourite of all, San Francisco. Unfortunately other cities of this ilk are in rapid decline, most tragically New Orleans of course, but also places like Detroit (ironically the spiritual home of the motor car). Residents of these newer cities like Phoenix, Atlanta, LA or Houston will tell you that there is an abundance of land and property is cheap(er) but their cities all seem to lack some soul, at least whilst one is young enough to care about these things.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Rock On Tommy

Well that was certainly backs-against-the-walls stuff but we hung on and acquired a valuable point, and the dubious distinction of our third consecutive nil-nil draw. It reminded me of the types of performances that typified our first season back in the Premiership in 2000/01 - tons of effort, but very little quality. I'd have hoped we'd have pushed on a little on the quality front, but the club seems to be in a transitory phase right now so we may have to put up with it for a while.

The back four were immense, limiting Liverpool in fairness to very few 'clear-cut' chances, and when they arrived, Thomas Myhre was in fine form. Up until now, Myhre had struck me as a really solid keeper who did all the simple things exceptionally well in that calm Nordic way, but who might have been a little lacking in the shot-stopping department. However that series of first-half saves has proved me well and truly wrong.

If one had to pinpoint the 'problem' area, it would again have to be the central midfield. My Dad texted me at half-time to ask, "what is the point of Bryan Hughes?" and I must confess I would struggle to answer him, even with the help of three lifelines. If any readers can provide any insights I would be grateful to receive them ("to make the other players look better" is true but not the answer I am looking for). To be fair to Hughes (and Holland), they were competing against perhaps the world's best central midfielder (not Hamann, the other one). However there is something quite patently lacking in our midfield, and in my view putting Kish back in the centre would at least be a start.

I watched the game in a quiet Upper East Side bar which amazingly perhaps contained up to seven Charlton fans (and only one Liverpool fan). In a city which is dominated by Liverpool and Man Utd followers, this was truly amazing. It has given me the confidence to go ahead and try to organise an official USA supporters club.

I had already arranged to meet a charming middle-aged couple in the bar, both genuine New Yorkers, who have developed a love for the Addicks thanks to having received some overwhelming hospitality from the club on a trip to London. Clad in Charlton hats and scarves, any fans sceptical about the point of the club's emphasis on community-spiritedness and friendliness should be obliged to meet with them. I can assure you that when Robbie Fowler appeared to have given Liverpool a late late win, whilst I watched it with an air of calm resignation, their exclamation of horror was both genuine and heartfelt.

Indeed, many fans on the message boards have expressed some concerns about the atmosphere at the Valley, and suggested that it may be due to the club's stated aim to acquire 'new' fans (via the Valley Express initiative for example). I think these critics miss the point - I don't believe the lack of atmosphere is related to this at all (I will explain another time).

We lost a generation of fans during the wilderness years of 1985-1992 - as someone else pointed out, we seem to have very few fans in their early 30s since their formative football supporting years would have occurred when we were playing halfway around the South Circular. These fans can never be won back because they are now supporting West Ham or Palace.

However the club knows the marginal cost of a Valley seat is essentially zero and even if just 10% of the fans offered incentives to attend develop a real passion (whether it be via a return bus ride or a free ticket), then the long-term future of the club will be far surer. Even if the other 90% contribute to a 'happy-clappy' atmosphere, then this will still be a better atmosphere than the 12-15,000 so-called 'real fans' could generate.

My opposition to the club's stadium expansion stems from the risk of them getting 'ahead of themselves.' Whilst the zero marginal cost issue still applies, the capital expenditure required to build the new seats runs into the millions and these funds might better be spent on a new midfielder right now.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

International Fuss-ball

I've never been quite convinced by the whole concept of International Football. England (pop: 50.1million) versus Uruguay (pop: 3.5million) does seem a little unfair doesn't it?

More seriously, whilst the occasional titanic struggle at the World Cup or European championships can represent the sport at its very best, they are hugely outnumbered by the types of pointless friendlies that I witnessed tonight.

It had been billed in the media as Darren Bent's 'last chance' to prove he is worthy of a World Cup place, as if scoring 17 goals for a mediocre side and an excellent scoring record at Under-21 level counted for nothing.

I suppose it makes for good copy, but getting selected for the World Cup squad on this basis is a little like sitting an entrance examination, but not giving every candidate the same questions.

So what might Sven have learnt about Darren Bent tonight that he didn't already know? He likes to play on the shoulder of the last defender and thus runs the risk of being caught offside (but we knew that anyway). He tends not to come deep for service like Rooney does (but we knew that anyway). He's never played senior international football before so might be a bit nervous and over-eager (which is somewhat understandable). And erm, that's about it.

Sure it wasn't a sparkling performance by Bent or by England overall, but 90 minutes of football is so statistically insignificant to be a pointless source of any conclusions. Listening to some morons on 6-0-6 tonight, you'd think otherwise of course - as Ian from Bexhill put it, "Bent looked keen but you felt even if he'd got a chance he wouldn't have scored it." Thanks for that Ian, perhaps Bent should really have scored 40 goals this season by now.

Sven really has a simple decision to make as far as I am concerned. Assuming his first choice strikers (rightly) will be Owen and Rooney, and assuming he will only take four strikers in total, then taking Defoe (another small striker) as opposed to Bent would be foolhardy in my view. Defoe is a fine striker also (much to my chagrin) but in a World Cup context where short-term tactical changes are key, and teams are limited to a 23-man squad, then maximising options is key (thus Sven's favouring of Crouch).