WHO IS THE PROGRAMMER?
Big Bill says he’d been warned to expect a call from some journo who’d been told he would make for an interesting yarn. Bill had come up with an automated Betfair betting program that for around a decade or so that had been placing rapid-fire bets on any animal that moved – well, dogs and horses – and had been consistently, and very, successful.
Bill’s methodology was somewhat vague when his name popped up as a story subject and not much clearer after a still-fascinating chat over a bottle of Shiraz – not Pinot, because Bill reckons Pinot tastes like soap – three schooners and a steak at a Bayside pub.
Bill was a bit concerned about the chat because he didn’t regard himself as story-worthy, just a former software guy who wasn’t even computer or stats-savvy enough to be regarded as a half-interesting “geek punter.’’
He’d just thrown a heap of random stuff into a program that (to Bill’s endless surprise) kept pinging a profit.
“It’s really not that sophisticated. It came after a lot of trial and error. It relies a lot on volume. But I can’t really say much more than that. It’s pretty random,’’ he said, revealing next to zero; not to be cute but because his program really does seem “random.’’ he attempted to explain more and slowly gave was as the shiraz emptied, and more on that later.
Bill instantly reminded me of someone, then someone else.We arrange to meet at 2.30pm; Bill’s 10 minutes early, I’m 10 minutes late. He’s not wearing a carnation for easy identification but says he’s wearing a blue polo shirt and sitting just behind an indoor palm tree. I wander past a gloriously dishevelled fellow with wild uncombed hair in a quite clearly green polo shirt behind the only palm in the alfresco dining area and double back once I realise there’s no-one else about.
He looks down. “It’s sort of blue isn’t it?’’
I think immediately of leviathan punter Andrew Harcourt, who grew up around Caulfield, then became the greatest maths and systems guru on the planet; Hong Kong-based where he’s mastered the triple trio and resides in the hotel he owns in Kowloon, travels the world like a hobo with just a swag over his shoulder and drives a battered up old Datsun 380B whenever he’s in Melbourne.
A bit later, I’m reminded of trainer Jim Conan who, like Big Bill, is both charming and vague and spends much of his time wandering streets, possibly doing a Dustin Hoffman and avoiding cracks.
When Conlan received an 18-month disqualification some years ago, he decided to get fit and started walking, like a maniac. It would be nothing for the increasingly lean Conlan to stroll from his home in Malvern all the way along the Gardiner’s Creek trail to the city and back again. Bill arrived early because the google app on his phone told him it would take an hour and a half to get there from his home in Black Rock. On foot.
“It’s usually pretty accurate. I must have walked quickly,’’ he said, revealing he’d been “a walker’’ for as long as he could remember. He and his girlfriend once walked from one side of Portugal to the other. He’s now eyeing off somewhere bigger, maybe Germany, or the religious Camino Trail through Spain.
“I just like it. I’ve been doing it for years. It gives me a chance to think about things”
Before Bill reveals hints about his great automated Betfair system, he reveals the threads of an early life that maybe, just maybe, explain some of that system’s mystery ingredients. He grew up on a farm near Gippsland and studied physics, chemistry and genetics at a Melbourne University before working for a communications company, then in an ad agency, in software.
Genetics and evolution fascinated him; how “certain animals evolved into certain environments, like why certain birds had especially long beaks’’, how breeds of cattle and sheep had been purpose-bred to produce better wool or a better steak, how one thoroughbred was bred to another to produce a certain “type’’.
It intrigued him that stayers hadn’t seemed to evolve; that winning times in The Derby at Epsom Downs hadn’t quickened in 50 years but sprinters were getting quicker and quicker. He was interested in trends and sequences, in nature and gambling.
He’d been born into a family of punters and somewhere along the way Bill’s fascination for genetics parlayed into the punt, then a concoction of a betting system that included absolutely erratic factors, such pet riders (like Brad Rawiller and Jamie Kah) and the probability of horses winning with names that included the letter “t’’.
The various ingredients came to him one night at the Sunshine Coast. He was there on business and was up late punting on English jumps races, which he says produced factors that interested him, like alarming betting drifts than always proved accurate and warm favourites that almost never lost.
WHAT DOES BILL DO?
Half-way home from our lunch, wandering somewhere up near Beach Road, Bill apologises for being vague and unforthcoming and attempts to explain.
“What I basically do is … first,”
“Betfair markets at jump are almost perfect. You can get the biggest bets on in the final 10 minutes so it’s a ‘cat and mouse’ game I suppose of finding when the market is right or wrong.”
“Markets are close to 100 per cent but individual prices fluctuate, so …
- I have an idea/notice a trend. E.g., decide on wet tracks that we track form is initially over factored in.
- X minutes before race, lay wet trackers. Or, I might put in a Betfair starting price bet back with a limit of $5 for something currently $4.50. I might get better than $5 but I’ll get on, provided it drifts, which is what I want/expect to happen.
- Watch profits! Or, tweak how long before race to do this.
- Or, if losing more than commission. Reverse bets (i.e., back wet trackers early instead. Admit I had the trend wrong, but profit now.)’’
Bill concludes with “Hope this helps explain. It’s not sophisticated. Basically, come up with ideas, maybe ridiculous, and try them … more bets, lower commission, less risk (of a sort). Half the time I’m betting against myself with different ideas. A bit absurd.’’
Big Bill’s “absurd’’ system seems perfect for him. He doesn’t particularly look like a genius, with that dishevelled appearance and apologetic manner, but then again maybe he does. Andrew Harcourt looks similar, with his swag and battered up Datsun, and so did scruffy old Albert Einstein.
As our steaks arrive, Bill shows me his phone. The screen features a constant stream of settled bets, hundreds per hour. In one month he once matched 250,000 of them. He says he glances occasionally at the plus and minus column but for the most part ignores it and allows the program to purr along.
“The hardest thing is ignoring massive losing streaks. Last January I lost a quarter of the previous year’s winnings in the space of a week.”
It was a similar story last January. Maybe it’s just a January thing,’’ he jokes.
“But I worked out the results were so bad, they were inexplicable, and I ignored them.’’
He says he can sometimes separate himself from his betting system and back one on gut or feel, but always with a squiz at the balance sheet on the phone at the end of the day.
“I tend to get a bit curious if I’ve had a particularly big win off a particular horse; check out the replay, usually see it won by the bob of a head; or lose by a bob. I’ve had a stack of them go against me lately.
“Sometimes you’ll check out one that lost and discover, like one day a year ago, that a 100-1 shot you backed lost because a riderless horse crossed its path and knocked it over as it galloped back to its stables. Or another time, when a 60-1 shot was way in front and the jockey fell off; a $6,000 turnaround.’’
As Bill tightens his shoe laces and prepares to wander back home, perhaps a bit wobbly after the shiraz and schooners, he admits being a tad vague but insists he’s not a “rain man’’, just a bloke who had a “freaky idea’’ and automated it.