Red Heads and Blue Heads

As would-be successful punters, many spend hours poring over the methods of professionals.  What techniques do they use, we ask, that separate them from the unprofitable majority?

Perhaps this is the wrong question.

After all, despite what some may think, the methods of successful punters are not closely-guarded secrets. The best use quantitative methods of data analysis which are explained elsewhere on this site and bet using staking strategies which are also well-known and which are similarly explored on these pages.

Aping the methods of profitable punters, then, is not about discovering what-they-know-that-you-don’t, of being allowed admittance in to an exclusive club; it is about making the decision to learn those methods and apply them, and delivering on that decision.

For many, though, it is the delivery that causes problems.

Take this scenario. A punter spends many months developing a system to bet on ATP tennis. After careful thought, and lots of work on a ratings system, he has decided to bet only on the lesser-tournaments, ATP500s and below, and to focus on match odds markets. Whilst paper-trading his system in the preceding months, he has recognised that his advantage disappears in the bigger tournaments, for whatever reason, and that his methods for converting individual ratings into outright tournament odds doesn’t work. He has also decided to use an adapted Kelly Criterion to determine his stakes, and has set aside a discrete pot of money as a betting bank, separate from his personal finances, and not needed.

The Plan In Action

Everything is in place for success: he is using reliable data; he is specialising; he has a money management strategy; and he is betting with money that is not needed elsewhere.

January begins well. The Brisbane International returns a profit, as does the Qatar Open. The system requires some tinkering – especially around when to place bets to ensure the best odds – but otherwise things are working.

It’s in Sydney that the first signs of derailment appear. The early rounds go by without any value bets being identified: the market seems in constant agreement with his ratings. The punter bends his betting criteria a little and has a couple of bets – after all, is a 10% margin of error necessary? A value bet is a value bet, isn’t it?

On Semi-Finals day, he is at the dog track on a buck’s night. He has a few bets. He uses some money from his betting bank, and then uses more when at home, drunk, punting on reality television.  The next day he has a reckoning. He hasn’t lost much – a couple of hundred – but he’s still in profit for January.

The Australian Open starts and he has a couple of bets in the outright market. Nick Kyrgios looks great value at $60.00 in front of a home crowd, and Federer, despite his age, is top-rated, and looks hard to beat at $3.00. Kyrgios loses in the third round to Dimitrov, and Federer withdraws in the early stages with a back injury. Meanwhile, the punter continues to bet on individual matches, which was his original plan, but is less concerned with value now – he is betting in most matches, on whoever the top-rated player is, according to his ratings, but he is also looking at second-serve percentages from previous matches, which he has read is a good indicator of future form.

Because it’s hard to convert this into a percentage winning chance, though, the Kelly Criterion is abandoned, in favour of a more random system. The Kelly Criterion was becoming less easy to apply anyway, as he has “borrowed” some money from the betting bank for a holiday. The original pot of money is haemorrhaging, with the occasional big win failing to mask the steady decline of funds. The punter feels good, though. After all, when he follows his system, he is profitable.

A Familiar Tale

The portrait above may sound familiar. It parodies the actions of many punters who have the knowledge and skills to become profitable, but who are unable to discipline themselves to deliver on their potential.

This picture is familiar in other areas of our lives, too. The world is full of people who make commitments to themselves but don’t follow them through. They keep drinking on week nights, they don’t stick to diet or exercise programmes, and they keep using their cell phones when driving.

The reasons why we are unable to fulfill what we commit to are varied and complicated, but are typically underpinned because our emotions triumph over our rationality. Running a profitable betting system is hard work, largely unexciting, and is usually only financially rewarding over the long-term.

That is not to say that it is unfulfilling, but it is satisfying in a way that keeping a vegetable plot is: it requires careful planning and decision-making, lots of groundwork, the yield is not always consistent, but, when done well, it pays over time. The problem is that most punters did not become attracted to betting because of its pastoral qualities, but because of the emotional extremes of it. Changing your betting behaviours, and so abandoning that risk and excitement, that emotion, is a difficult transition.

It’s a similar problem to that faced by professional sportspeople. They regularly find themselves in stressful situations, which trigger extreme emotional responses, like the Olympic cyclist in the velodrome who has invested four years of work to be able to perform for a minute or so. In the moment before and during competition, it is easy for that cyclist to become emotionally flooded, and not be able to execute their race as a result.

In the case of British Cycling, this challenge has been combatted by the work of Dr Steve Peters, a sports psychiatrist, who developed the model of the chimp paradox to work with cyclists to understand how their minds and bodies react in the heat of competition, and developing strategies for them to calm their frenetic inner-chimp and remain engaged with their rational brain.

Red Head vs Blue Head

An arguably more user-friendly approach has been utilised in recent years by the all-conquering All Blacks.  Their team psychologist, Gilbert Enoka, works with players to understand their emotional “red head” and rational “blue head”. As recounted in his All Blacks’ guide, Legacy, James Kerr describes the “red head” as, “tight, inhibited, results-oriented, anxious, aggressive, over-compensating and desperate.” The “blue head”, conversely, is, “calm, clear, accurate and on task.” All squad players work on ways to identify when their red head is taking over, and how to quickly re-engage their blue head.  They might scrunch their toes in their boots, look to all four corners of the grandstand, splash water on their face, or use another similar “anchor”.

One of the first professional punters I worked with had a picture of his children under his computer screen. “It stops me doing anything stupid,” he told me on our first meeting, “after all, if I get this wrong, they don’t go to university.” It was a successful anchor for him – not unlike the “rubber band technique” recommended by some psychologists to dismantle unproductive thought patterns – keeping him focused on the system that he worked for hours to develop, and which he knew would be profitable, provided he executed it as planned.


Controlling our emotions when punting is not easy. It involves risking money on uncertainties in potentially stressful environments. Few of us are immune to a red-head takeover.

So, spend some time writing out a list of desirable and undesirable punting behaviours. Stick the desirable ones on a backing of a blue head, with the undesirables on a red-head. Make them omnipresent, ensuring you must look at them when punting.

See if it improves your ability to deliver the betting strategy that you know to be profitable.


As a passionate sports’ fan and punter, Jack has written about sports and betting for over a decade, winning the Martin Wills Award for racing journalism in 2002 and writing Winning on Betfair for Dummies, first published in 2006 and now in its second edition, having sold over 35,000 copies in two languages.

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