Snooker: Celebrating 40 years at the Crucible

This article is not really about research and/or scheduling but as I have an interest in snooker, I thought that I would publish it.

A stately, gentleman’s club past-time has become a big noise, with big pockets. Snooker’s world championships celebrates its 90th anniversary and its 40th appearance at Sheffield’s iconic Crucible Theatre this year, an event which offers a chance to chart the sport’s intriguing evolution.

The tournament’s permanent move to the Crucible in 1977 marked the start of what is now seen as the modern era of the game. It also ended a nomadic period in which it had made stops at Nottingham, Chesterfield, Kettering, Blackpool, and even Jersey and South Africa. Since then, we have witnessed the creation of dominant stars: Ray Reardon in the 1970s; Steve Davis in the 1980s; Stephen Hendry in the 1990s. New icons of the game have made their names at the Crucible too. Players like two-time world champion Alex Higgins, five times winner, Ronnie O’Sullivan and the eternal runner-up Jimmy White who appeared in six finals — five of them consecutively — but was never crowned champion.

Perhaps most memorably, at the height of snooker’s popularity in 1985, the extravagantly bespectacled Northern Irishman Dennis Taylor came back from 8-0 down to win on the final black ball. You might also have caught O’Sullivan’s 5m 20s maximum break 20 years ago.

Back in 1977, the winner got £6,000, out of a total prize fund of £17,000. In 2000 this had risen to £240,000, with a total prize fund of £1,460,000. This year the winner will walk away with £375,000, from an overall prize fund of £1,750,000.

The highest break prize is another indicator that shows the rise in the prize fund. It was £500 in 1977 and this year it will £20,000.






Qualification to the World Championships is automatic for the top 16 ranked players, the other sixteen are decided by a qualifying tournament, which takes places in the two weeks preceding the televised tournament wild at the Crucible. This may seem a little unfair, particularly if you are ranked 17 and have to go through the qualifying stages.

Prize Pool

It is also interesting to look at the prize money won by some players who are multiple world champions. It is another way of seeing how the prize money has risen:

Ray Reardon: 6 times (1970 [£1,225], 1973 [£1,500], 1974 [£2,000], 1975 [$AUD 7,500], 1976 [£6,000], 1978 [£7,500]): TOTAL: £22,725

Steve Davis: 6 times (1981 [£20,000], 1983 [£30,000], 1984 [£44,000], 1987 [£80,000], 1988 [£95,000], 1989 [£105,000]): TOTAL: £374,000

John Higgins: 4 times (1998 [£220,000], 2007 [£220,000], 2009 [£250,000], 2011 [£250,000]): TOTAL: £940,000

Stephen Hendry: 7 times (1990 [£120,000], 1992 [£150,000], 1993 [£175,000], 1994 [£180,000], 1995 [£190,000], 1996 [£200,000], 1999 [£230,000]): TOTAL: £1,245,000

Ronnie O’Sullivan: 5 times (2001 [£260,000], 2004 [£250,000], 2008 [£250,000], 2012 [£250,000], 2013 [£250,000]): TOTAL: £1,260,000

Ray Reardon and Ronnie O’Sullivan are at the start and end of the period under study. Reardon won a total of £22,725. At the time Ray Reardon won his last title, his total winnings would be worth about £120,000 . Ronnie O’Sullivan, despite having one less title, won about 10 times that amount in prize money, demonstrating how the prize money has risen in real terms.

The rise of the Far East

Given the prize money available, and the celebratory status that can come come with being a top snooker player, it is not surprising that the the game has become increasingly popular over the past 40 years. A lot of this is down to [Barry Hearn](, who revitalised the sport and has been instrumental in promoting the sport in other countries such as China and India. He recently [said]( “China will become the snooker superpower within the next decade.”

In 1977, the last 16 players were from the following countries:

– England: 8
– Wales: 2
– Northern Ireland: 2
– Republic of Ireland: 1
– Australia: 1
– Canada: 1
– South Africa: 1

Last year the last 32 were made up as follows:

– England: 18
– Scotland: 5
– Wales: 3
– Northern Ireland: 1
– China: 3
– Hong Kong: 1
– Australia: 1

Snooker is still dominated by the the UK, particularly those from England, but the it can only be a matter of time before a player from the Far East wins the World Championship. China, in particular, has seen a [dramatic increase]( the number of players, the number of tournaments that it hosts and the popularity amongst supporters.
The 16 automatic entry to the World Championship will have three Far East players; Ding Junhui — China (ranked 4), Marco Fu — Hong Kong (ranked 9) and Liang Wenbo — China (ranked 13). Perhaps, this year, will be the one where the Far East makes the big breakthrough that is surely only a matter of time and somebody from China or Hong Kong lifts the trophy on the 1st May.

The unintended conseuqences of sports rules: Olympic examples sought

Liam Lenten and I recently published an article in the European Journal of Operational Research entitled “When Sports Rules Go Awry“. The essence of the article is to look at examples when sports rules had unintended consequences. For example, there are cases when it is beneficial for a team to score an own goal in a football match.

We would argue that this is an unintended consequence of the rules, as the incentives have not been well defined..

In our paper, there are many examples drawn from the Olympics. For example, and to quote from the paper:

In the initial stages of the badminton competition in the 2012 Olympics, eight women players (both South Korea teams and one team each from China and Indonesia) were disqualified from the competition. The women were charged with “not using one’s best efforts to win a match” and “conducting oneself in a manner that is clearly abusive or detrimental to the sport.” They were found guilty of trying to throw matches in order to get (perceived) easier draws in the knockout stages of the competition.

As the 2016 Olympics are in full swing in Rio, we thought that it was worth asking if there had been any examples where the rules had been abused, or they had led to unintended consequences? If you have any examples, please share them with us through the comments.

We would like to maintain an up to date library of examples and your help would be much appreciated.

Just for completeness, the abstract of the paper is below.


Mike Wright (Wright, M. OR analysis of sporting rules – A survey. European Journal of Operational Research, 232(1):1–8, 2014) recently presented a survey of sporting rules from an Operational Research (OR) perspective. He surveyed 21 sports, which consider the rules of sports and tournaments and whether changes have led to unintended consequences. The paper concludes: “Overall, it would seem that this is just a taster and there may be plenty more such studies to come”. In this paper we present one such study.

This is an interdisciplinary paper, which cuts across economics, sport and operational research (OR). We recognize that the paper could have been published in any of these disciplines but for the sake of continuity with the paper that motivated this study, we wanted to publish this paper in an OR journal. We look at specific examples where the rules of sports have led to unforeseen and/or unwanted consequences. We hope that the paper will be especially useful to sports administrators, helping them to review what has not previously worked and also encouraging them to engage with the scientific community when considering making changes.

We believe that this is the first time that such a comprehensive review of sporting rules, which have led to unexpected consequences, has been published in the scientific literature.

This post was also published on LinkedIn.

When Sports Rules Go Awry: How TheConversation led to a collaborative paper

Whilst looking through Conversation articles I came across an article entitled “When scoring an own-goal is the only way to win” by Liam Lenten.

By coincidence, I had just read another article about an analysis of sporting rules from the perspecive of Operations Research, written by a good friend of mine – Mike Wright from Lancaster.

The two articles had some similaraties and, after reading Mike Wright’s article I was already planning to write a follow up. Reading Liam’s Conversation article I posted some comments and he was kind enough to respond.

One thing led to another and we agreed to write a paper together.

I am pleased to report that this article (“When Sports Rules Go Awry“) has just been accepted in the European Journal of Operational Research.

The abstract of the paper reads:

Mike Wright (Wright, M. OR analysis of sporting rules – A survey. European Journal of Operational Research, 232(1):1–8, 2014) recently presented a survey of sporting rules from an Operational Research (OR) perspective. He surveyed 21 sports, which consider the rules of sports and tournaments and whether changes have led to unintended consequences. The paper concludes: “Overall, it would seem that this is just a taster and there may be plenty more such studies to come”. In this paper we present one such study.

This is an interdisciplinary paper, which cuts across economics, sport and operational research (OR). We recognize that the paper could have been published in any of these disciplines but for the sake of continuity with the paper that motivated this study, we wanted to publish this paper in an OR journal. We look at specific examples where the rules of sports have led to unforeseen and/or unwanted consequences. We hope that the paper will be especially useful to sports administrators, helping them to review what has not previously worked and also encouraging them to engage with the scientific community when considering making changes.

We believe that this is the first time that such a comprehensive review of sporting rules, which have led to unexpected consequences, has been published in the scientific literature.

When Sports Rules Go Awry is really a review of where sporting rules have been introduced by sports administrators, but which have led to unintended consequences. For example, when it is sensible to score an own goal. The paper has several tanking (the act of deliberately dropping points or losing a game in order to gain some other advantage) examples.

We hope that the paper will be of interest to anybody who likes sports, as well as sports administrators.

It is pleasing to note that TheConversation was instrumental in making this paper happen. If it were not for them, I would have been unaware of Liam’s work. The paper may have still be written (either by Liam or me) but it would not have been as good as the paper that has now been accepted.

If you are interested, you can see my Conversation articles here and Liams articles are here.

This post also appeared on the University of Nottngham blog pages.

Time to switch to Java for a football prediction project

Time to switch to Java for a football prediction project
Programming Books (Clive Darra, Creative Commons)

I have decided that it was time to switch to Java for a football prediction project that I have been planning for some time.

I want to do the project justice so I thought I would start from the most basic decision. What programming language should I use?

The Problem with C++

For the past 20 years, I have been using C++ (before that I was using all sorts of mainframe languages). I can do what I need to do with C++, but I have never been entirely happy with it.

As a language, I quite like it, but it is all the stuff that goes with it that has always been frustrating. And most of that stuff is around Visual Studio (VS), MFC (Microsoft Foundation Classes) and Templates. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a Microsoft bashing exercise. I know of many people who use VS and are very happy with it, develop great applications and know how to use the tools that are available.

But I have never really got my head around it. I run into all sorts of problems with namespaces, linking errors, deciding whether to use MFC (Micosoft Foundation Classes), or not – and then regretting it, whether to use the classes available in VS so that I could port my code to another compiler should I wish to do so; and the list goes on.

The end result is that I have never really developed as a C++ programmer. I can do all the usual stuff (classes, inheritance, operator overloading, polymorphism) but I have never been able to get to grips with Windows (Graphical User Interface – GUI) programming and so have always stuck with a Command Line Interface (CLI).

To be honest, using a CLI has served me well and I have managed to churn out some nice programs. But for my football prediction project, I really want to develop some sort of GUI. The question I asked is, should I have another go at getting to grips with MFC, Windows programming and all that is need to get an application developed in VS to display a Window on the screen, or do I change to something else, in the hope that I will find it a little easier to understand?

So why Java?

After a lot of soul searching, and Googling, I decided that it was time to switch to Java. I have written a couple of programs in Java before, but nothing too much beyond “Hello World”.

But is like C (syntax wise), and like C++ (class wise), it is well supported, many of my academic colleagues use it, it is platform independent and, I hope, that GUI programming is a little easier than VS.

More questions that answers

Of course, making the decision to use Java just raises a whole load more questions. What IDE should I use (I have chosen Eclipse), how big is the learning curve, can I easily access Excel files, can I (should I) use MySQL, what Java tools are available to support developing a a GUI etc.

All these questions will have to wait. For now, I have to learn the basics of Java and get my head around the Eclipse IDE (Intergrated Development Environment).

Wish me luck.


Using ELO ratings for match result prediction in association football

I occasionally comment on a scientific paper that is of interest to me. This time, it was:

Lars Magnus Hvattuma and Halvard Arntzenb (20010) Using ELO ratings for match result prediction in association football, International Journal of Forecasting, 26(3), 460-470 (doi).

This paper falls into the broader categories of Football, Forecasting and Sport, which I have blogged about in various ways.

ELO ratings were originally designed for Chess. In brief, if you play an opponent who is lot weaker than you and you lose, your rating would reduce a lot more than if you were beaten by a player who is only slightly weaker than you. Similarly, if you beat a player who is a lot stronger than you, your rating will increase a lot more than if you beat a player who is only slightly stronger than you. It is usually (if not always) a zero sum game so that what ever points you gain (or lose) the same number of points is lost (or won) by your opponent. There are a number of variations as to how ratings are updated but once you have a rating you can compare yourself to another player (or team) to decide who is the better player.

The idea behind ELO ratings have now been used for a number of sports. Relevant to this blog post, it has been applied to football. In fact, there is a web site that maintains a list of ELO ratings for world football. At the time of writing, the latest match played (on the 15th Aug 2012) was a friendly between Albania and Moldova. The score was 0-0 and the teams gained 5 points (Moldova) and lost 5 points (Albania) respectively. Their points are now 1461 (Albania) and 1376 (Moldova). The fact that Albania were higher ranked meant they lost points against a lower ranked team when they could only manage a draw. They also had home advantage, though I am not sure that this is a factor in this model. Looking at the web page, I don’t think so.

In the paper, which is the subject of this post, the authors define two ELO models to try and rate teams. The first uses a basic ELO to work out ratings and then uses the difference between the two ratings as a covariate (a variable that could be a predictor of the study under investigation) in a regression model. This seems reasonable, as the the ELO rating is a measure of the current strength of the team. A second ELO model is also used which also takes into account the margin of victory. That is, a 3-0 win is better than a 2-1 win.

To compare the two ELO models the authors define another six prediction methods. The first (which they call UNI) simply chooses an outcome at random. The second (FRQ) uses the frequency of home wins, draws and away wins to make its prediction. For example, over a range of matches if two thirds result in a home win, then FRQ would predict that two thirds of the matches it predicts are also predicted as home wins. It is noted that UNI and FRQ are quite naive prediction methods. Two other benchmarks are derived from a paper by John Goddard (Goddard J. (2005) Regression models for forecasting goals and match results in association football, International Journal of Forecasting, 21(2), 331-340 (doi)). The fifth comparative model is based on bookmakers odds, by taking the average of a set of odds from various bookmakers. The final model is almost the same as the fifth, but instead of using the average odds, the maximum odds are used.

The paper also uses various staking strategies. A fixed bet of one unit, a stake in proportion to the odds, to return one unit and stakes based on the Kelly system which is an optimal staking system if you know the exact probabilities.

The various prediction models and staking plans were tested on eight seasons of data (2000-2001 to 2007-2008). Previous seasons data was used, to train the various models.

So, what were the results? The two ELO models were found to be significantly worse than two of the other six models (those based on bookmaker odds), but the ELO models were better than the other four models. The conclusion is that this is a promising result but perhaps more covariates are required to predict even more accurately.


Odds-setters as forecasters: The case of English Football

I sometimes comment on a scientific paper that has caught my eye. This time, it was (comments on other papers are also available):

David Forrest, John Goddard and Robert Simmons (2005) Odds-setters as forecasters: The case of English football, International Journal of Forecasting, 21(3), 551-564 (doi).

This paper falls into the broader categories of Football, Forecasting and Sport, which I have blogged about in various ways.

The premise of this paper is that the odds set by bookmakers are in fact predictions by experts. Not a bad assumption to make given that the odds that are set equates to real money coming in, or going out. It was also motivated by the fact that a previous study had concluded that a statistical model performed better than newspaper forecasters.

But is it true that bookmakers odds are good predictors?

To answer this question, the authors took almost 10,000 games, between 1998 and 2003, and compared the bookmaker’s predictions with forecasts made by a statistical model. The model they use is fairly complex (in my opinion) although understandable (and, importantly, reproducible) to the interested, and mathematically competent,  reader The model also looks back over fifteen seasons so if you wanted to implement it, there is quite a lot of data that needs to be collected.

The comparisons are quite interesting between the different forecasting methods. Over the five seasons considered, 1998-1999 (1944 matches), 1999-2000 (1946 matches), 2000-2001 (1946 matches), 2001-2002 (1946 matches) and 2002-2003 (1945 matches) it showed that the statistical model performed better in the earlier seasons, but by the end of the period under investigation the odds-setters were performing better. Looking at just the odds-setters they did worse in the two seasons at the ends of the period under investigation (that is, 1998-1999 and 2002-2003). This is presumed to be there being more noise in the match results.

If you look at the data another way, there is little to choose from the home, draw and away predictions between the two prediction methods.

A follow up comparison attempts to estimate if the odds-setters are capturing all the information contained in the model (if you look at the paper, the model contains many elements such as whether a team is still in the FA Cup, if the match is important to a particular team, attendance information etc.) All the odds-setters have is one figure (the odds) and that has to incorporate everything in order to provide a prediction. The figures presented suggest that, over time, the odds-setters get better at incorporating information into their odds. It is shown that incorporating the bookmakers odds into the statistical model gives superior performance, suggesting that the bookmakers are privy to information that is not included in the benchmark model. This was not the case in the earlier paper, where this test failed when considering tipsters.

Next the paper investigates if indiscriminate betting (placing bets,  using identical stakes, on any outcome) on matches produces better or worse returns than if you follow the benchmark model. Indiscriminate betting, maybe not surprisingly, produced a loss at a rate that a bookmaker might expect in the long term (termed the over-round), around 12%. By comparison if you place a bet on the outcome with the highest expected return, as indicated by the benchmark model, then you would do much better. Over the five seasons you would have only lost -0.2%.

A possible downside is next considered. The benchmark model is the same for every season, whereas the odds-setters are (probably) learning each season or, perhaps, using different people/methods to set the odds. Actually, the model did not give superior predictions by refining it as the simulation progressed from season to season, or even as the season progressed.

One of the conclusions of the paper is that experts (in this case odds-setters) are actually quite good at predicting the outcome of matches. This is attributed to a variety of factors including the fact that their livelihood depends on it and also the sector is much more competitive (due to technology and tax reforms) that have required them to become better to remain competitive.

My conclusion? Use the model, and incorporate bookmakers odds – that gives you the best predictions. But it is quite a lot of data to collect. Alternatively, develop your own predictions methodology and see how it performs.

A compound framework for sports results prediction: A football case study

The latest paper that caught my attention, that I thought I would comment on is (other publications I have commented are can be seen here).

Byungho Min, Jinhyuck Kim, Chongyoun Choe, Hyeonsang Eom and R.I. (Bob) McKay (2008) A compound framework for sports results prediction: A football case study, Knowledge Based Systems, 21(7), 551-562 (doi).

You might be able to download a copy of the paper from here. Note that this link may not be permanent and it may not be an exact copy of the paper that was published (although it does look like it).

The paper presents a framework which is designed to predict the outcome of football matches. They call their system FRES (Football Result Expert System).

The authors note that most previous research focuses on a single factor when predicting the outcome of a football match, and the main factor that is used usually the score data. Even when other factors are taken into account, the score tends to still dominate the prediction process.

Within FRES, two machine learning methodologies are utilised, a rule-based system and Bayesian networks. The paper describes how they are used within FRES in enough detail to allow readers to produce (as all good scientific papers should do) the system.

FRES is tested on the 2002 World Cup tournament. Most football prediction systems are tested on league competitions, where teams (typically) play a double round robin tournament. Testing their approach on a the 2002 World Cup means that the system cannot easily be compared to other systems. Where previous approaches have been tested on other tournaments (for example, previous World Cups) not all the data was available to enable FRES to make those predictions. In the words of the authors, “In the case of the few works which predict a tournament such as the World Cup, the available evaluation was conducted with old data, such as the World Cup 1994, 1998, which would unfairly hobble FRES, since some of the data it relies on are not available for these earlier tournaments.

Although not a scientific term (at least not one I am familiar with!), I do like the term unfairly hobble.

In order to provide some sort of comparison with FRES, the paper implements two other systems, a historic predictor and a discounted historic predictor.

FRES was able to predict six countries out of the top eight in the tournament, The other predictors were able to predict five. Moreover, various statistical tests are conducted which confirms that FRES is statistically better than the other two methods.

One thing I like about the FRES system is that is has a lookahead mechanism. Based on this, England does not rate very highly as, due to the draw, there is a high probability that they will meet Brazil in the quarter finals. Turkey, on the other hand are rated more highly due to the perceived easier draw.

It would be useful to have FRES tested on league competitions, so that better comparisons could be made with more prediction systems that have been reported in the scientific literature. Perhaps the authors are working on that now? It would, for example, be interesting to see if it beats a random method, or a method which always predicts a home win (as the authors did in the paper I discussed a few days ago).


Sports Forecasting: A Comparison of the Forecast Accuracy of Prediction Markets, Betting Odds and Tipsters

In some of my posts I comment on a scientific paper that has caught my eye. There is no particular reason for the papers that I choose, they are just of interest to me. In this post, the paper that caught my eye was (comments on other papers can be seen here).

Martin Spann and Bernd Skiera (2009) Sports forecasting: a comparison of the forecast accuracy of prediction markets, betting odds and tipsters, Journal of Forecasting, 28(1), 55-72 (doi).

This paper looks at three different prediction methods, and assesses their effectiveness in predicting the outcome of premier league matches from the German football league. The three methods that are investigated are prediction markets, tipsters and betting odds.

Prediction Markets are based on various people taking a stance on the same event and willing to back their hunch by paying (or collecting) money should their hunch be wrong (or right). Given that a number of people are taking a stance on the same event, it can be seen as a predictive model of the event.

Tipsters are (or should be) the views of experts who publish their predictions in newspapers, on web sites etc. The advice from tipsters is often based on their expertise, rather than applying some system or formal model. The paper (citing Forrest and Simmons, 2000 as its source) says that tipsters can often beat a random selection method, but does worse than simply choosing a home win every time. It also cites Andersson et al., saying that soccer experts often do worse that people who are less well informed about the game.

Betting Odds, in previous work, have found to be a good forecasting method (not surprising I suppose seeing as the bookmakers rely on setting the correct prices to make their living). Of course, the bookmakers can change their odds but when they publish fixed odds (on say a special betting coupon), this can be seen a prediction of the match outcome.

The games that are forecast in this paper are those from the German premier league from three seasons (1999-2000, 2000-2001 and 2001-2002).  The number of games predicted by each method varied (Prediction Markets and Betting Odds = 837, Tipsters = 721 and Prediction Markets, Betting Odds and Tipsters = 678). The number of predictions for each method varied simply due to the data that was available and where the number of games is between two, or three, methods, this is the intersection of the games that that method was able to predict.

To evaluate each method, the authors calculate the percentage of correct predictions. They also calculate the root mean squared error, as well as the amount of money that each method would have won (three figures are given, a 25% fee, a 12% fee and no fee). Comparisons are also made with a random selection policy as well as a naive selection policy, which simply assume a home win.

So, what did the authors find? Over the 837 games, the prediction market and betting odds were able to predict 52.69% and 52.93% of games respectively. If there was no fee this would have returned a profit of 12.30% and 11.92% respectively. The naive model (pick home wins) predicted 50.42% correctly and returned a profit of 11.79% The random method only managed to predict 37.98% of games correctly.

If we look at the 678 games that all three methods could predict, then the percentages of correct predictions were 54.28% (prediction market), 53.69% (betting odds), 42.63% (tipsters), 50.88% (naive model) and 37.98% (random). The returns (assuming no fee) were 16.20% (prediction market), 13.49% (betting odds), -0.19% (tipsters) and 12.44% (naive model).

I’m not sure why, but profit information is not given for the random model but it would almost certainly result in a loss.

A further test is also carried out. Only games where methods agree on the selection are bet upon. For example, of the 678 games, there are 380 games where the three methods agree on the result. If we only bet on those games, we get a correct prediction percentage of 57.11%, higher than any of the methods used in isolation, and betting on every game. The profit return would be 13.86% (no fee), 1.66% (12% fee) and -8.72% (25% fee).

The authors conclude that the prediction market and the betting odds provide the best indication of the outcome. They agree with previous work that tipsters are generally quite poor at prediction.



Can Forecasters Forecast Successfully?: Evidence from UK Betting Markets

Journal of Forecasting, 19(6): 505-513I am occasionally blog on a paper that is of interest. Well, of interest to me. The latest paper to catch my eye is (other papers I have commented on can be seen here).

Leighton Vaughan Williams (2000) Can Forecasters Forecast Successfully?: Evidence from UK Betting Markets, Journal of Forecasting, 19(6), 505-513 (doi).

The reason that this paper was of interest is because I was reading Leighton’s book (Betting to Win : A Professional Guide to Profitable Betting, High Stakes Publishing, 2002, ISBN: 1-84344-015-6) and this paper was mentioned. Many (many, many) years ago, long before I was an academic, I went through a phase where I collected all sort of horse racing systems. My idea was to test them all out to see if any of them worked. I never actually placed a bet and I never really tested any systems as they generally involved too much time to collect all the data, process the data etc. etc.

Since then I have still thought that it would be interesting to look at various horse racing systems to see if they worked.

This is what this paper does. Unlike my idea though, it takes tips from services that you subscribe to, either by paying money or by contacting them using a premium rate phone service. This seems a lot more sensible, rather than having to enter all the data yourself.

This paper looks at the performance of tipping services, with the analysis being carried out in 1995. Five services were compared. Four of these were subscription based. That is a fee is paid, and you gets tips at various times. In 1995, these services cost at least 99 GBP per month, which seems a lot to me now, let alone in 1995. The other service was a premium rate phone number, where you phone up to receive the tip and the costs of the phone call effectively covers the cost of the service. These five services were chosen as they were amongst the top tipping services as assessed by the Racing Information Database (I have tried to google this and am not sure that it is in existence anymore, but would be willing to be corrected, and update this post to provide a link).

The paper goes through each of the tipping services and evaluates how many tips were provided (and over what period – some, for example, were analysed over three months, others over six months – I think the period was probably chosen to ensure that a sufficient number of tips were analysed as not all services provide tips at the same interval), any conditions associated with the service (for example, only bet if a certain price is available), the profit (or loss) from investing in that service etc.

The good news is that all the tipping services produced a pre-tax profit when used with the relevant staking/price plans. Leighton also makes the point that none of these profits could be said to be significant. It was also interesting to note that increased profits could have been achieved if some of the lesser supported tips were ignored. Of course, this would be a hindsight examination and the obvious question would be, when in play, what tips do you ignore, and what ones do you actively bet upon? There is also evidence that you should use a variable staking plan, rather than a flat stakes method.

If you use a tipping service, there are also other factors to take into account. There is an upfront investment (which you may never recover). Unlike an academic study, you will probably only choose one and which one do you choose? There is also (as pointed out by Leighton, in chapter 20 of his book) the fact that you have to take what the tipping services advertise with a pinch of salt. As an example, a service might only say bet if you can get a price of 4-1 or better. What happens if that price is almost impossible (or even actually impossible) to get, will the service still include that in their results if the horse should win? And what if there was a price available (even for a few seconds) at 6-1, would the service return that as the price you could have got even though, unless you were very quick, or very lucky, you would have struggled to get on at 6-1.

It is twelve years since the paper was published, and seventeen years since the analysis was carried out and things have moved on. Tipping services (I suspect) come and go, technology has moved on, the tax regime has changed and there are now many other ways to bet which were not so predominant at the time. I am thinking specifically of spread betting and betting exchanges. These have, undoubtedly, made a big difference to the industry.

I am not up to date with the scientific literature in the area of sports forecasting and I suspect that there are many papers out there that provide various comparisons and analysis. If you know of any, or know of a good review paper in this area, I would be very interested if you could post a comment giving the reference.

I would also be interested in hearing from any professional tipping services (no matter what sport, but UK based as I don’t claim to understand American sports or markets) who wish to subject their service to scientific analysis. Note, this is not an open invite to advertise your service on this blog. I get enough spam as it is (and moderate it out) and I don’t want the comments box filled up with lightly disguised adverts to various web sites that claim to make millionaires from people who subscribe. But serious enquiries are welcomed.


Prediction of sporting events: A Scientific Approach

My final year undergraduate dissertation project (many years ago) attempted to predict the outcome of horse races using Neural Networks. I briefly blogged about it in June 2009 (

The result of the project was (in my view) encouraging but was lacking in a couple of areas. The data was incomplete (the starting prices were not available so I had to make some assumptions and it would have been more useful to have studied a greater number of races). I would also have liked to have tried some other prediction methods, beyond just neural networks.

Since doing that project I have maintained an interest in predicting sporting events, although sports scheduling (e.g. 10.1016/j.cor.2009.05.013 and 10.1057/palgrave.jors.2602382) has seemed to have taken up more of my time. But I have always wanted to return to prediction, utilising Operations Research methodologies.  As such, I maintain a database of any literature that I see on the topic. This incudes the scientific literature, as well any newspaper cuttings, useful web sites etc.


One of the problems that serious sports forecasters face is being taken seriously. A quick google for sports prediction (or many other similar terms) will bring up many sites offering services that (supposedly) enable you to make money. The services typically involve investing in some system, or subscribing to a service where you are sent the predictions for you back in whatever way you see fit.

Of course, if we were sceptical, we might assume that many of these services are really there to make money for the people selling the service, rather then those who are buying. I am sure that there are some services out there that make money for both the seller and the buyer, but the challenge is to find out which services offer value for money before you go bankrupt in the pocess!


Unfortunately, there are not that many scientific papers that consider how to predict the outcome of sporting events, at least as a way to return a monetary profit. There are some, of course. For example an article that appeared last year in the International Journal of Forecasting


S. Lessmann, M-C. Sung, and J.E.V. Johnson (2010) Alternative methods of predicting competitive events: An application in horserace betting markets, 26:518-536, DOI: 10.1016/j.ijforecast.2009.12.013


considered how to predict horse races. The motivation of the article was actually to try and predict competive events such as political elections and (of course) sporting events, although the paper was really a large scale (1000 races,  12,092 runners) study. The paper concluded that their proposed model was able to provide an increase in wealth of just over 528% if using a Kelly (Kelly, J. L. (1956). A new interpretation of information rate. The Bell System Technical Journal, 35, 917–926) strategy, with reinvestment.


Considering other sports, such as football (the UK version), a couple of examples of predicting matches can be found in Economics, Management and Optimization in Sports, Springer, 2004, ISBN: 3-540-20712-0

In Using Statistics to Predict Scores in English Premier League Soccer (John S. Croucher, pp 43-57), various models are presented that attempt to fit the number of goals scored by each team. The best model found had a Poisson distribution.

Another paper from the same book (Modelling and Forecasting Match Results in the English Premier League and Football League (Stephen Dobson and John Goddard, pp 59-77)) considers about 30 seasons of data. This paper also uses a statistical method, but assigns probabilities to win, lose or draw, rather than trying to predict the number of goals scored. This paper also provides a good overview of previous work in this area.


I suppose, the stock market is one area that has been widely studied with respect to prediction, with an eye on turning a profit. There have been hundreds (if not thousands) of papers that look at ways to predict stock prices, interest rates, inflation etc.


Maybe, not surprisingly, there has been limited reporting in the scientific literature as to whether anybody has made (or makes) money from the methodologies that they have developed. After all, if you have a successful system, why tell everybody about it (which is one of the major arguments as to why would you buy a system/tips from a service on the internet).


What I would actually like to see is a lot more scientific papers not only reporting their predictive systems but also how much money was made, over what period of time and if the system is in daily/weekly use at the time of writing.

Of course, the system needs to reproducible (as should all good scientific writing).

However, if the system is successful, the author(s) might be unwilling to reveal its secrets but might still want to let the world know about its effectiveness. Under these circumstances I have a few ideas as to how this could be done.

  1. In the run up to publishing the paper, the authors make a series of predictions and lodges them with a reputable source. This could be another scientist, a lawyer, or even published on a web site that can be verified from a date/time point of view. The important thing is to ensure that the predictions can be verified as being made in advance of the event. If these predictions were made over a period of (say) six months, then this could form part of the results presented in a paper.
  2. It is, of course, uderstandable that authors do not want to publish the full details of their winning methodology in a scientific paper but, as scientists, we like to publish our work. The scientific community should be understandable of this, in the same that they are accepting that sometimes certain factors must be kept confidential due to commercial sensitivities. Therefore, the general methodology could be described but omitting key points (and being upfront about that) but, if combined with 1), above, then this could still make a contribution to the scientific literature.


An attractive alternative would be to run a prediction competition (see Kaggle, who are doing excellent work in this area), where competitors are given a set of data and asked to provide predictions on the outcome of sporting events; ideally those that have not taken place yet.


In summary, I would really like to see more reporting (on a sicientific basis) of sports predictions which are unasheamedly about trying to return a profit, as this is an under represented area at the moment. Why not have a go?


Note: I entered this blog entry into the INFORMS blog competition. The March 2011 competition was O.R. and Sports.