The internet has sparked a boom in betting and inevitably there are sites that promise to help you to beat the bookies and win endless riches. Ian Plenderleith - just for fun - gave a couple of systems the once-over

I’m not a gambler, but I can bet you one thing for sure. If betting were profitable for pun­ters, bookies wouldn’t exist. Bearing this in mind, I locked up my credit card and examined two websites that promise to help players beat the odds.

Given the uncountable hours of our life we spend reading about and watching football, we should theoretically know enough about the game to be able to make a sound forecast or two. Years of participating in small-scale fan­­tasy leagues and informal pre-match score prediction challenges have proven that, in my case, this is not necessarily true. At all.

So novice bettors require the kind of help to be found at Football Symphony, a website offering football prediction software that  ana­lyses current and past stats “with the help of powerful mathematical algorithms” and a “unique self-learning technology based on neural networks” to give you “incredibly soph­isticated forecasts” on upcoming games.  Coo, sounds snazzy. So I can just press a button, watch my computer tell me Lincoln 7  Ox­ford 0, then place my bet and book my Carib­bean holiday at the same time?

Not so fast with the sun oil, chum. Even though the company has been working for five years with its partners from an unnamed “top mathematical institute”, they say “betting strat­­egies advised by Football Symphony some­­­­­times require using multiple bookmaker accounts for profitable spread betting”. Many of these bookmakers require a deposit ranging from ten to 60 quid, while the software itself costs £33.95.

Well, to make money you have to spend money. But with my credit card under lock and key I was sadly unable to try it out, so I cannot judge either how successful it might have made me or how incredibly sophisticated the forecasts are. (I imagine something like: “In the 34th minute Lincoln’s Peter Gain will take a throw-in five yards from the defending side’s corner flag, but not before wiping the ball on his shirt and briefly adjusting his genital support.”) All satisfied customers are invited to write in from their tax havens.

BetDevil claims it exists to level the playing field between the punter and the bookmaker. It advises you to be “disciplined and shrewd” when placing your bets. (Is an ill-disciplined bet when you forecast Martin Keown to go all pop-veined and bug-eyed at an opposition striker?) It offers “a suite of analysis tools” that takes the sweat out of forecasting and uses “a rating calculation based on the Rate­form Calculation described by Professor Elo in his book The Rating of Chessplayers.”

Professor, did you say? Chess? That sounds brainy. This betting lark’s not dodgy at all. It’s filled with academics and mathematical institutes. By this point you start to think you’re not only going to get rich, you’ll turn out much cleverer, too. All you have to do is scan the graphs, charts and tables on your way to a  mas­sive fortune.

The good thing about BetDevil is that registration is free. Before registering I wrote down my result predictions for the nine Division Three games taking place on the weekend of January 24-25, based on the knowledge in my head of recent form and how the division stood, and a little bit of gut instinct. Having registered (a very simple process) I then made forecasts after looking at BetDevil’s form analysis. Comparing the two lists, I had forecast the same result in eight out of the nine matches.

And how right were we? My “blind” fore­casts scored three correct results, while my BetDevil-assisted forecasts scored four. Either way, I’d have been hard pushed to make much money if I’d been brave enough to lay out any cash on all nine games. And if that was an un­scientific way of testing, it’s worth remembering that football’s an unscientific sport. No amount of dressing up its stats in pseudo-scientific language can hide the fact that the most probable outcome is not always the most likely (if that makes sense), unless you want to bet exclusively on short-odds, near-certainties such as Arsenal home victories or the number of penalty awards to away teams at Old Traf­ford.

There’s no doubt that if you are, for some reason, inclined to bet on football, then it’s worth taking a look at the league table and recent form. Whether you need software and end­less graphs to do this is questionable. Even then, how are past stats going to help you forecast, say, a Wolves victory over Manchester United, the type of result that must leave the professors and mathematicians tearing off their bobble hats and hitting them­selves over the head with a particularly heavy spectrophotometer? Footballers are no more prone to form than horses. Especially when you have a one-trick pony such as Cristiano Ron­aldo in the side.

From WSC 206 April 2004. What was happening this month

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