Think Long, Think Wrong


Have you ever heard the phrase “if you think long, you think wrong”? Sure you have. As a young kid learning to handicap the races from an older guy I heard it all the time. Sometimes he said it just as an offhand remark, maybe repeating what the person who taught him how to handicap would say. Or maybe he knew something profound. After all, my teacher was a successful medical doctor who saw hundreds of patients a month. His experience in diagnosing patients probably helped him diagnose a few winners too.

In Blink, author Malcolm Gladwell devotes the entire book to the concept of “think long, think wrong” and making quick decisions in literally the blink of an eye.

It is a psychological process called the adaptive unconscious, and scientists who study this process are keenly interested in what part of the brain these lightning-quick calculations occur. For our purposes, contest handicappers don’t care why they happen or how they happen or where they happen, but only that these quick, snap decisions happen and … this is the important part for the purposes of handicapping … these decisions are “better” than thinking about a problem/race for a long time.

Every handicapper has opened up a racing form or looked at Brisnet PPs and turned to a race, taken a glance at the entries and within 30 seconds has come to the conclusion that one horse is going to win over the others. Kind of like it just hit you in the face. That’s the power of the adaptive unconscious.

How many times have you lamented to your handicapping friends, “Man, I had that horse picked this morning but changed at the last minute?” We all have and some suffer from this malady more than others. (I raise my hand high.)

A quick story: In talking more about my history of handicapping with family members after my win in the 2012 NHC I was stunned to learn that my brother and mother – both regular track companions – had a great system for winning at the track. They would ask me who I liked either in the ride to the track or with 20+ minutes to post and bet that/those horse(s). I, on the other hand, would pore over the past performances and keep thinking about the race until the very last minute and make a bet right before post time. They would win more often and I would lose — the old “think long and think wrong.” Once I recognized this behavior and pattern of decision-making, it took me years to change it,  and I still struggle constantly with over-analyzing and changing picks late instead of trusting my early dry read.

Now, a newbie handicapper can’t adopt this type of selection methodology because his/her brain or computer doesn’t have a big enough database yet to make a quick decision but it doesn’t take long to acquire the information to do this. In fact, I would suggest that handicappers that are new to the game are using precisely this method of handicapping because they can’t think long because they don’t know what to think about. New handicappers come into the game with a modicum of knowledge and stick with it – and have success because they don’t overload their brains with information.

In times of stress quick decisions and snap judgments are often better than long, thoughtful researched opinions. Gladwell’s example of crossing the street and seeing a truck bearing down on you is a great example. You don’t need to calculate the speed of the truck or your speed to know instantly whether you are in danger. It just happens and you make the right decision.

In the 2012 NHC and in instances before and after in contests I’ve found myself in situations where I needed to come up with a pick very quickly – in a few minutes when a race in a contest sequence has snuck up on me. And I’ve done it. So, for this reason alone, you should take a few minutes and do the following exercise because I guarantee you that as you play more contests, you will need to make a quick decision on a race you can only look at for a few minutes, and the results will matter a lot.

  • Take a full card at a track you are familiar with and handicap on a regular basis. Set a timer for each race giving yourself no more than 2 minutes to come up with a selection.
  • Write your selections down and see how your quick-decision picks perform that day. You may have no winners or you may have plenty but the point of the exercise is to demonstrate how decisions made quickly – such as who is going to win the race – can be every bit as good, often better, than decisions made after long study periods.

My partners in The Tournament Edge Barbara Bowley and Anthony Trezza may not even realize the decision processes they are using draws heavily on the concept of the adaptive unconscious. I would venture to guess that when Barbara looks at a horse in the post parade or paddock she instantly makes a decision on that horse as to whether the horse is ready to win or not. And Anthony can look at a slate of races for a contest and make a quick determination on what type of score this sequence of races will likely produce so he knows what range of odds he needs to concentrate on in his selections. We all have these skills. The challenge for contest players is to harness this power and trust your first snap decision because in the long run – over the course of thousands of decisions – this quick instinctual decision will be better for your bottom line.

Share your playing strategy with us in the comments section below. 

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Michael Beychok
2012 NHC Champion and Eclipse Award Winner Michael Beychok aka "whodatchok" was the 2012 National Handicapping Champion winning $1 million and the Eclipse Award for best handicapper of the year. A horse owner, Michael has been handicapping horses for 40 years and playing contests for over 15 years. He is the all-time leading money winner in handicapping contests.