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Gladwell Shows Dumbing Things Down Has Its Merits

In the second chapter of David and Goliath, the new book by Malcolm Gladwell, he presents an interesting view on university choices young people make each year.

Most of us who have chosen a school at a young age tend to lean to going to the best school we can, because well, that's just what's done. Gladwell hypothesizes that this might not, for many, be the right approach and his thinking is pretty sound. He believes that a star in high school who attends Harvard, for example, might cheat him or herself out of a chance to be the best at what they want to be. For example, if you are good at math and want to become a physicist, you could find yourself at the bottom of the curve at a competitive place like Harvard, and fall to the bottom of the class. This can discourage you (I'm not smart enough to compete with these people) and you switch majors, moving to a less competitive and challenging arts degree. Conversely, at a lesser school where you are a "big fish in a small pond" you can graduate near the top of your class, and choose your path through graduate school or whatever else floats your boat.

He shows, with hard-data from SAT scores, that the big fish scenario works rather well.

In racing handicapping, we often feel similar. If you go out to dinner with a group of seasoned players along with say, their non-horseplaying spouses, those non-players can certainly be intimated. It's like we're speaking another language. Adding to that, we all know how hard horseplaying is to succeed at, even for short periods. You are a tiny fish in a big pond.

"You won't understand it, you'll feel left out, and even if you do try, you won't win."

That's a great advertisement to newbies eh?

Conversely, look at poker. I barely know if a straight beats a flush, but I can play at a 10 cent 20 cent table and have some fun. If I want to bet the Saints this weekend I can go bet them without understanding swahili. Sports betting and poker have gateways that say "come give it a shot you might like it". You may not be a big fish, but you can feel like one.

In horse racing, some jurisdictions do better than others with this phenomenon.

Betfair is a good example. Buy a horse at 5-2 and sell him at 2-1 and you have an edge. See a horse at 8-5 on the tote, but he is 4-1 on the exchange, so take a small punt. If you are doing either of those things you are understanding the game, and cashing often.

Other avenues try to make the game easier for some, like Timeform, who graphically depicts their PP's. Whatwins.com, Dave Vicary's baby, is another that makes betting to win easy.

What the UK has over us is a reliance on win betting, and that win betting is done at a much lower rake than in North America. There is no doubt in my mind this is why the UK, with much more competition for the betting dollar than here, has continued to glean decent revenues over the last fifty years for horse racing. Over here we rely on exotics of all types. These are hard to hit and they're bankroll killers. Even if you use Whatwins or Timeform to pick a winner, the tracks are blaring "screw that sissy win pool stuff, play our Pick Six where you will lose your shirt today and maybe not come back tomorrow" through their virtual betting loudspeakers.

Dumbing things down is very important - a new player has to feel like a fish in a pond with a chance, not feel like they're fish food. However, with our current system in North America, it's very tough to make it a gateway like other gambling games. I think it's a huge reason why racing fails to increase newbie participation.


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