That’s Gambling

It has been three days since “Fourgate” (full credit to Justin Dew, who I believe was the first to coin that term), but people are still buzzing about it. As we await word on how the NTRA will settle the issue, it is somewhat interesting to take a step back and gauge people’s reaction to last Saturday’s free NHC qualifier at HorsePlayers. Or…if nothing else…it’s a way to pass the time.

Many have chalked the fluky result up to dumb luck, offered up a collective shrug of the shoulders and seem ready to move on to the next tourney. It’s not like this was the only opportunity one has to qualify for the NHC.

Others aren’t ready to let this go so quickly. They feel the seven who tied for first by simply picking the 4 horse in every race are not deserving of an NHC berth given that so many others in the field of 1,898 took the time to handicap the races diligently. Others have taken their dismay one step further by using this as just the latest bit of proof that contests in general are just a bunch of bunk. (See also: “Live-Format Tournaments are Unfair,” “Pick & Prays are Unfair,” ib id, op cit.)

Another occasionally-heard complaint is that tournaments favor “insiders.” Though the beef with last Saturday is basically the converse of that.

One thing is certain. The seven who tied for first were not the only ones to pick their horses at random or to have spent very little time on their selections—they were just the easiest such players to spot.

This, alone, sort of removes from feasibility the imposition of any minimum-diligence requirement. How would you enforce that? Might people dare to fib a little if they were required to sign a seriousness-of-purpose oath. I fear they might.

More to the point, though, your idea of diligence might differ from those of other reasonable persons. What sounds right to you? Half an hour per race? Ten minutes per race? What about someone who spends an hour apiece on 10 of the races but has no clue on the other two and takes a wild guess after just a brief minute of looking over those two? Legit? Or automatic DQ?

It’s all slightly reminiscent of the day in high school when the kid who sat in the back of the room in social studies class (on days he hadn’t already been sent to the principal’s office) got lucky on a multiple choice test and somehow got a 95…remarkably…miraculously…dammit, unjustly!….beating your score by five or 10 points.

At least in social studies class, we could secretly suspect that the class ne’er-do-well had cheated. No such suspicions are in play with “Fourgate”. What is in play is the omnipresent aspect of luck in everything we do.

Plenty of people win every day at the track thanks to selections based on names, lucky numbers, colors of silks, et al. No one really objects to that, I don’t think. What we do object to is when we LOSE due to dumb luck.

Just ask any poker player who loses a nice pot to someone who kept calling with just an inside straight possibility and then sucked out on the river. Or ask any New Orleans Saints fan.

Saints fans were livid at the pass-interference-call-that-wasn’t…and, really, who could blame them? At the same time, all sports fans come to learn early on that crazy stuff happens. Calls are missed…Zion Williamson gets hurt…Earnest Byner fumbles on his way into the end zone. Ain’t gambling (and fandom) fun?

Play contests long enough, and you will find new and ever-more-excruciating ways to get beat. The same could be said for most other games of chance, I suppose. As long as you know the game is inherently fair, though, the interludes of chaos that occasionally…and, yes, annoyingly…infiltrate our personal sense of gambling order are easier to shake off. It’s pretty much that or go nuts.

In fact, most players would be pretty excited about playing in a tourney if they could somehow know ahead of time that their opponents would all be making selections at random. And, yet, assuming a field of more than a handful, even the most confident among us would know we are still more likely to lose such a contest than to finish first.

No one has to like that a given contest, let alone an NHC qualifier, was determined by pure luck. If it happened frequently, contests would be a lot less popular…but it doesn’t. And those who did get lucky on Saturday were exercising the right they paid $50 in NHC dues for—the right to enter picks in free qualifiers during the year.

Sometimes the inside straight fills up. Sometimes the obvious foul goes uncalled. Sometimes the kid who didn’t study gets lucky. That’s gambling.