How to beat the Minnesota Fats

In the 1959 novel, The Hustler, we read the story of Fast Eddie, and his attempts to beat the doyen of pool-sharks, Minnesota Fats.  Significantly different from the Paul Newman 1961 film of the same title, the novel is as much a philosophical treatise on the psychology of winning and losing as it is about a self-destructive pool player.

In the novel, Fast Eddie is guided by Bert Gordon, who identifies a character flaw in his pool hustling protégé: he thinks he wants to win but is, in fact, driven by a desire to lose.  Bert teaches Eddie that winning is an emotionally heavy load rejected by most, who instead prefer to feel sorry for themselves, revelling in the excuses they create as to why they couldn’t win in the first place.

Walter Tevis, the author, was ahead of his time.  In subsequent years, the world of psychology began to examine these types of self-handicapping and self-defeating behaviours.  The academics involved likely saw themselves as ground-breaking: little did they know that a pot-boiler about playing pool from the 1950s had already done the work for them.

As punters, understanding these kinds of behaviours is crucial to success.  Like Fast Eddie, all of us would say that we want to win, but how many of us self-sabotage, subconsciously wanting to lose?

Successful punting is often associated with superior knowledge.  Winning punters “know” something that losing punters don’t.

The reality, though, is that whilst knowledge is of course crucial in informing betting decisions, it is more likely that your decision-making psyche, rather than your knowledge, will determine your success.

As a fan, you might know everything there is to know about the Sydney Swans, but that doesn’t necessarily make you well-placed to assess whether they are a value bet or not: the emotions of fandom rarely lead to sound punting decision-making.

Punters who are profitable in the long-run tend to share certain traits and characteristics.  (In a previous article, we looked at how Philip Tetlock might describe them as foxes).  They tend to be sceptical, analysing information carefully, and being cautious in the conclusions they reach, thinking and expressing them probabilistically, rather than binarily.  They are sceptical about themselves, too, constantly self-checking their thinking for signs of irrational bias or emotion.  And they take a long-term view of their work, ignoring the sentiments that inevitable wins and losses bring on route.

Losing punters oppose these characteristics.  If we think about a stereotypical problem gambler, they are motivated by the short-term, they lurch from one betting strategy to the next, they think in terms of certainties, as if the future is already written and, if only they knew what that future looked like, they could be a winner.  And because, on some level, they know that their actions will see them lose, they self-handicap, exaggerating the behaviours described above so that they have an excuse for themselves, and others, for when they lose.

This way their fragile self-esteem is protected.  How many times has someone told you they’ve had a bet “just for an interest”, or “just for fun”?  How many times have you heard someone say that they’ve “thrown a few dollars” at a bet “just in case”?  How many times have you seen someone bet when they’re blind drunk?  Of course, the next day, your self-esteem recovers from your losses quicker if you can tell yourself (and others) that it was the drunk-you who placed those bets.

Behaviour like this was Fast Eddie’s problem, too.  That’s why he was ultimately a loser.  That’s why he needed Bert Gordon.

In the world of psychology, the phenomenon of self-handicapping was first theorised by Edward Jones and Steven Berglas in 1978, and has subsequently grown into an extensive branch of study, with self-sabotaging behaviour observed in numerous settings, from academia to sport.  It has even been linked to a proposed (but not currently widely accepted) syndrome – masochistic personality disorder – where sufferers will habitually choose courses of action that lead to self-damage.  If you know a problem gambler, you’ll recognise the characteristics.

The paradox and tragedy of the losing punter, especially those who go on to develop crippling gambling addictions, is that the path to profitability is not a closely-guarded secret.  This website alone provides a step-by-step play-book on how to develop a data-led approach to betting, how to manage your betting bank, and how to control the cognitive biases that may impede your success.  The difficulty comes in choosing to change the habits of a punting lifetime, and making that choice stick.  Maybe start by reading The Hustler.


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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