It is a question that has raged through the ages. It is also arguably one on which the world has agreed to differ. But it is a question that is still worth asking for all that. Just what is the best value bet you can make? And before we jump to the obvious conclusion, ‘a winning one’, although correct in some important aspects, is not a sufficient answer on its own.
Like we all learned in college, the first thing we have to do here is to define our terms. What do we mean by a ‘bet’? And how precisely do we measure ‘value’? And that is where it starts to get messy.
To meet even the most basic definition of a bet we have to allow that uncertainty is part of the deal. Simply taking a margin on the basis of an established algorithm – which is effectively what bookmakers around the world do every day – is not betting. There is a huge difference between laying bets and making bets. We are only talking about the one side of the deal right now.
On this basis, betting on the Grand National, the world’s most famous steeplechase, this April would unquestionably fulfill our criteria. Even with a full analysis of the form and fitness of all those involved, the degree of uncertainty involved is considerable. In contrast the bookmakers taking wholesale bets on the outcome of the same event are not gambling at all. Their mathematical bookmaking is an exercise in delivering a guaranteed rake from the deal. The only uncertainty is how much.
So, to be clear, what constitutes a bet here necessarily involves a one-off transaction which, in turn, is founded on a degree of uncertainty. That is the first piece of the equation. The second part, the assessment of value is more difficult. But it is also more interesting.
Measuring bets purely in cash terms offers only one angle on what is a multi-faceted activity. People bet for a number of reasons, and cold, calculating rationality is by no means the only show in town.
So here is the thing. If we, fancifully for a moment, equate a bet to a fairground ride rather than a purely financial exchange, we begin to open up a whole different view. In other words, if we start to explore the emotional journey that a punter takes as their bet unfolds – for better or for worse – we can begin to capture the human and emotional value of a bet.
On that basis, the best value bet would be one that not only returned a profit – that by now is a given – but did so in a way that pulled at the emotions as well as the purse strings. If that bet on the Grand National saw you buying into an unfolding dramatic spectacle that set your pulse racing through its steady denouement, would that not give you more bang for your buck than simply counting your cash? And this is not to deny that simply winning can be quite staggering in itself.
Does that heady mixture of a roaring crowd and the last-gasp balance between success and second place not have some value as a spectacle? In the cold light of day, it is impossible to argue that there are not broadcasters, sponsors and advertisers who already monetize that value.
So, the best value bet? All of a sudden it becomes a question that is impossible to answer on anything but the most subjective and personal basis. Each of us will have our own favourite hand of cards, our own preferred sporting moment that constitutes the most value-laden run for our money. If that takes us back to the beginning, so be it. We will have to carry on agreeing to differ.