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How quickly can you learn a skill?

Published: 13.01.2018 02:26


Randomness and luck play a crucial part in betting, but there is still an element of skill involved. It might be possible to win in the short-term thanks to luck, but you won’t win in the long-term without skill. So, how quickly can you learn a skill and why is it important in betting? Read on to find out.

Why skill is important in betting 

Consistently profitable bettors don’t get luckier than others; they are simply more skilled in calculating the probability of future outcomes. That is to say when good and bad luck “evens out” over time, a successful bettor’s assessment of something happening (or not happening) will be more accurate than the bookmaker’s - with an unsuccessful bettor’s less so.

You can’t learn how to get lucky or predict randomness. However, you can refine your skill in terms of calculating outcome probabilities. Whether this is through the use of a betting model, focusing on niche betting markets or using statistical analysis to find an edge, there are a multitude of different skills that bettors can learn in order to increase their chances of making a profit.

The 10,000-hour rule

When posed the question; “how long does it take to learn a skill?” some people might cite Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. In his work, Gladwell claims you can achieve world-class expertise in any given field with 10,000 hours worth of “deliberate practice”.

Although this “rule” is most commonly associated with Gladwell, his interpretation is actually a much-simplified version of research conducted by a group of psychologists (Anders Ericsson, Ralf Krampe and Clemens Tesch-Romer) that was published in The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance in 1993. 

Bettors should also be aware that the as your level of skill increases, the greater the influence of luck becomes.

Gladwell fails to recognise two crucial flaws with the 10,000-hour rule concept in his book. Firstly, as highlighted by Ericsson and co-author Robert Pool in Peak: Secrets From the New Science Expertise, 10,000 hours is merely an arbitrary figure (most likely chosen because it’s a significant round number) and it was only the average taken from the original study - some people may require significantly less practice and others significantly more.

Another point that bettors should pay particular attention to is that practice isn’t enough by itself, the approach taken is also important when learning a skill. Even if you dedicate 100,000 hours worth of practice, you may never reach an expert level. Becoming a skilled bettor isn’t about practice, it’s about learning, adapting, understanding what can affect your betting decisions and only betting when you have positive expected value.

Testing the ability to learn a skill

Max Deutsch took the notion of speed learning to the extreme in his recent Month to Master project. The self-proclaimed “obsessive learner” set himself the challenge of mastering 12 different skills (each within a month) over a one-year period. These skills ranged from memorising a deck of cards in less than two minutes to attempting to defeat world-champion Magnus Carlsen at a game of chess.

Although none of these skills are directly related to betting (Pinnacle did offer odds on Deutsch’s chess match against Carlsen), there are lessons to be learnt for bettors. Whether it’s logical thinking, determination or being patient enough to get the desired result, the Month to Master project highlights the importance of using the right approach and having the right mindset to achieve your goal.

As impressive as Deutch’s ability to hold a 30-minute conversation in Hebrew or identify 20 random musical notes in a row after just one month of learning and practising is, it was his chess match against three-time world champion Magnus Carlsen that was the most interesting.

Another point that bettors should pay particular attention to is that practice isn’t enough by itself, the approach taken is also important when learning a skill.

Instead of trying to defeat the best chess player in the world by simply practicing, the 24-year-old entrepreneur effectively turned himself into a chess computer (or at least, attempted to). He built an algorithm that would assess the goodness and badness of potential moves for any in-game situation and tried to learn the response.

Despite having an extra few weeks beyond his normal one-month deadline, Deutsch found that building and developing a successful chess algorithm (let alone memorising its responses) was not achievable within the given timeframe - he still played Carlsen (and lost). He may have failed in his attempt to beat Magnus Carlsen, but Max Deutsch’s methodology and unique story does show bettors that the process can be just as important as the results. 

The paradox of skill

While the statement that you won’t make money from betting in the long-term without skill is true, bettors should also be aware that the as your level of skill increases, the greater the influence of luck becomes. This is known as the paradox of skill.

Michael Mauboussin introduces this notion in his book The Success Equation: Untangling Skill and Luck in Business, Sports, and Investing by using baseball batting averages as an example. Mauboussin’s answer to Stephen Jay Gould’s question of why no MLB player had maintained a batting average of over 0.400 since 1941 is because a batting average is not an assessment of absolute skill, but relative skill (while batter’s have improved in MLB, so too have pitchers).

Although Mauboussin’s study introduces his concept by using sporting performance as an example, his assertion that “perhaps nowhere is the paradox of skill more evident than in the world of investing” shows how it can be analysed from a betting perspective.

Becoming a skilled bettor isn’t about practice, it’s about learning, adapting and understanding what can affect your betting decisions.

Much like Wall Street, the odds market is full of people trying to achieve the same aim and more often than not, via the same means (using information, building models etc.). This then means, as Mauboussin suggests, the more skilful a marketplace is as a whole, the harder it is to find value and the greater the influence of luck becomes.

As more information becomes available (along with the impact of the Wisdom of the Crowd), the available odds (depending on the bookmaker) provide the most accurate reflection of the outcome probability of an event. This is why many believe consistently beating the closing line (the last odds given before the start of an event) is a sign of a skilled bettor.

Why successful bettors need more than luck and skill

There are also things beyond luck and skill that will determine whether or not you are a successful bettor in the long run - these range from the technical aspects (such as using a staking method) to a willingness to learn and work hard.

Information is a crucial part of betting. If you get hold of the right kind of information before anyone else and react quickly enough, it could be the key to success. If, however, you react too slowly or bet with incorrect information, it could cost you dearly.

The psychology of betting is also something that shouldn’t be overlooked by bettors. Whether it is understanding the impact cognitive biases can have on the decision-making process or working on the necessary attributes to help overcome the pitfalls of betting, the journey to beating the bookmaker is an on-going learning process.

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