Successfully betting on horseraces with any consistency is one of the more challenging endeavors for any gambler to undertake. With so many potential outside variables threatening at any moment to become a factor and a myriad of different possible outcomes for every individual race, it’s considered extremely difficult to achieve long-term sustainability at the tracks.
The story of one horse racing enthusiast, however, is sending shockwaves around the betting world. A Bloomberg profile on American professional gambler Bill Benter unveiled that story this week, and the repercussions could rock racetracks to the core.
The lengthy article begins with a brief account of the night of November 6, 2001 when Benter and his associate Paul Coladonato landed the unthinkable Triple Trio Jackpot just outside Hong Kong’s Happy Valley Racecourse.
Thanks to their potentially game-changing algorithm, the duo watched one of their 51,381 wagers hit the mark. By picking the top three finishers in three separate races, Benter’s method picked a winning ticket valued at $16 million which the pair politely declined to claim and instead locked in a vault, as the unclaimed money was divulged to a charitable trust.
Upon finally being granted an exclusive series of interviews with Benter, the profile’s author, Kit Chellel, paints a vivid picture of the man behind the amazing discovery. Meeting at his swanky Pittsburgh office, Chellel describes the 61-year-old Benter as appearing similar to a “university professor” with a “soft, slightly Kermit-y voice.”
“Benter wanted to conquer horse betting not because it was hard,” Chellel writes, “but because it was said to be impossible. When he cracked it, he actively avoided acclaim, outside the secretive band of geeks and outcasts who occupy his chosen field.”
Benter is described from a young age as someone with a lust for seeing the world. His love of gambling prompted him to leave college at the age of 22 to play blackjack in Las Vegas for a living. The method to this madness was derived from a 1962 book by Edward Thorp, the inventor of the counting cards technique, and eventually Benter would join a global card-counting team that would catapult his career to new heights.
After eventually getting caught and blacklisted in Vegas, Benter and the group’s focus shifted to horse racing, primarily in China where the market is unlike anywhere else on Earth. In the 1990’s Hong Kong horse betting industry pulled in an average annual revenue of $10 billion.
Benter searched for a surefire strategy for horse betting and was sorely disappointed, finding nothing based strongly in mathematics, his expertise. Finally he found the basis for his own methodology in an academic paper from the University of Nevada at Las Vegas’ library.
The paper claimed that weighting a number of variables involving horses such as “straight-line speed, size, winning record, and the skill of the jockey” would allow for mathematical research and algorithm development.
After teaching himself advanced statistics, learning to write software and pouring over research and race statistics he brought his algorithm to Hong Kong where he honed his golden goose. From a tiny, rundown apartment stuffed with three huge IBM computers, Benter took what was essentially a personally developed wire for odds more accurate than the public odds and turned it into a fortune.
The fascinating, well-written profile delves deep into a tale packed with more drama than a modern Hollywood script, and is worth a read for gambling fans and non-gambling fans alike.
While counting cards and developing algorithms may not explicitly be cheating, depending on who you talk to, there's a reason Benter was blacklisted in Vegas early in his story. Generally casinos frown heavily upon gamblers building systems of their own that give them even slight advantages in the ongoing battle against the house.
One distinct advantage Benter enjoyed in China was the endorsement rather than scorn of the Hong Kong Jockey Club, which values peak gambling activity levels above all else. That's certainly not a uniform attitude globally, however, as other gamblers have run into their fair share of trouble in the past.
The recent saga of poker phenomenon Phil Ivey serves as a cautionary tale to those would-be challengers to seemingly unbreakable systems. Back in August of 2012, Ivey found himself in court after teaming up with a partner to win £7.7 million in one night at Crockford's Club in London.
That partner was a master of a process known as edge sorting, a difficult but obviously highly profitable technique that involves reading the backs of cards searching for the tiniest of imperfections to predict their values. The house eventually had the last laugh in this case, as the court ruled Ivey had to return his major payday.
Only time can tell if Benter's algorithm will do to horse racing what his idol, Thorp, did to blackjack with card counting. His fascinating story, however, goes to show that a determined mind with the right faculties available, relentless work ethic and maybe a little luck can accomplish some pretty incredible things. Even something as seemingly impossible as picking the winning horse every single time.