I used to play a lot of poker. When I was in the university, I spent more time at the poker table than I did at the library. When I was playing in those poker games, I preferred the table to be as full as possible. When I moved online, I preferred full-handed cash games, as well as tournaments that would not force me to play short-handed unless I made it to the final table.
My reasoning was simple: I wanted to have enough chances to pick my spots. Head-to-head, I would have to repeatedly bluff or push marginal hands, or else I would be bullied out of my chip stack. Full-handed, I had a lot more room to get a feel for my opponents as well as wait for cards.
This same ethic of picking my spots pervades my play at the windows. I will go to the races or load up my ADW window and play just a tiny handful of races all day. I’ll always have another chance.
But, in handicapping contests? I love going head-to-head.
Contests set aside the question of having to pick your spots. After all, you’ve entered the contest, and you know the list of races. It’s your spot. You know what races you can play, and it’s your job to maximize what you get out of them.
In the first few rounds of a head-to-head tournament, just as Anthony Trezza suggested in his newsletter tip earlier this fall, stick to your game plan. Stay with the picks that you think are going to provide the most value.
And, amplifying another tip Anthony gave in one of the newsletters, do not be afraid to play the chalk if you think the chalk is going to be the goods. Particularly in these head-to-head contests, small-ball can be the way to go. Two or three legitimate shorter-priced horses coming through at the beginning of the card can build you a nice lead if the other player goes fishing and only ends up nibbling at place or show money.
Of course, this is not a suggestion to just play chalk in head-to-heads – only a suggestion not to be afraid to play chalk if you honestly think they are as good as the public thinks they are. Always playing the favorite is a long-run losing strategy at the windows, and it’s a long-run losing strategy in head-to-head contests as well. If you think the chalk is vulnerable, play the strength of that conviction. If you love a mid-priced horse or longshot, don’t get shy. Take that overlay. In the long run, if your handicapping fundamentals are solid, you’re doing the right thing by taking that price horse instead of the dicey chalk.
Once you get halfway or two-thirds of the way through a head-to-head contest, you have more to go on.
Just as in any contest, you have the score. Are you ahead? Are you a few dollars behind? Are you so far behind that you need a bomb or two to compensate for that cap horse your opponent hit earlier? These questions of a raw score are similar to what you would ask in a multi-player contest.
But, you also have an idea of how your opponent plays. Since you are only playing against one opponent, you have more time to analyze and respond to their style. Are they playing a lot of chalk? Are they taking bomber after bomber? Are they mixing it up?
And, in that regard, head-to-head horse racing contest strategy circles right back to principles from those days at the poker table. Once you have a read on your opponent, you can try to anticipate what they will do.
If they play nothing but shorter-priced horses, perhaps you can play longer shots with confidence that you’ll be the only one who has them – or, if it is a close game, you can play shorter-to-middle priced horses you like a lot without as much worry that they will start reaching at bombs. If they keep taking huge swings with long shots and grabbing the occasional show payout, you can confidently play small ball with shorter to middle priced horses you like.
If they’re mixing it up, they’re probably doing the same thing you are: playing with the courage of their own convictions. You’re best suited keeping right on with the solid play you’ve shown from the start, and sticking to the horses you really like unless you’re so far behind in the last couple races that you have to side with the bombs which have the best outside chance.