Intuition in Sports Betting

A lot of casual sports bettors place their bets purely on ‘instinct’. Doing this pre-match is probably a sure way to the ‘poor house’ but if you are trading live games, should you rule out gut feel completely?

Have you ever made a snap decision and got the decision absolutely right? In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink, the author refers to ‘thin slicing’ – the ability to use a tiny piece of information from very ‘narrow’ experience to come to a decision or conclusion. Gladwell suggests that, in certain situations, these spontaneous decisions can be as good or better than a more considered decision.

One of the major topics discussed in the book is ‘thin slicing’, which is a method the sub-conscious mind uses to make quick decisions. Gladwell refers to a study where the test group could gain cash wins or losses from two decks of cards, one red and one blue. The red pack contained cards offering bigger winnings but much bigger losses, which in fact made it a ‘losing bet’ overall. The blue deck had smaller wins and losses, but would make you a winner over the long term.

After only a few rounds, the test group became nervous at the prospect of drawing the red cards. Their subconscious had already ‘thin-sliced’ the decks and come to the conclusion that the red deck was too risky. They were right. The group could not explain this until much later in the experiment when their conscious minds had caught up with what their subconscious had already deduced.

John Gottman is a researcher of marital relationships. He maintains that after being a party to a conversation between a married couple for an hour, he can predict whether that couple will still be married in fifteen years time, with a 95% accuracy. If he cuts the analysis time down to a quarter of an hour, his accuracy is still around 90%. When he analyses them for just three minutes, he can still predict, with a high percentage accuracy, who will get divorced and who will stay together. This is ‘thin slicing’ in action.

Then there is the classic story of Vic Braden. He used to be one of the world’s best tennis coaches. Braden discovered that he could predict when a player would make a double-fault during a tennis game. He became so good at it that he once predicted sixteen out of seventeen double faults during a match. Most importantly of all, however, was the fact that Braden couldn’t tell you ‘how’ he did it. He ‘just knew’.

Gladwell argues that people make snap judgments all the time without being able to explain them.These snap decisions take place behind a ‘locked door’ – in the subconscious mind.  People are never very good at explaining these snap decisions when questioned why they made them. Gladwell states that it’s a mistake to ignore intuition altogether, “We need to respect the fact that it is possible to know without knowing why we know.”

It’s interesting to note that Gottman and Braden were experts in their field. Gottman would have analysed countless married couples, Braden would have watched or been involved with thousands of hours of tennis. When you have that level of experience you have in effect processed a huge amount of data.

Is it too far fetched then, to assume that you can get a ‘hunch’ or a ‘feeling’ when you watch similar events unfold – your subconscious acting like a super computer, spewing out an ‘answer’, with you not quite understanding how you arrived at that answer?

So in Braden’s case, he had seen hundreds of thousands of tennis serves, and therefore intuitively could ‘see’ the signs of a double fault before it occurred. He was in essence calculating, like a computer, the chances of a double fault occurring by analysing a player’s racket position, feet, body language and comparing that analysis to the countless serves he had seen before.

Braden had massive experience in the sport of tennis, which allowed him to make snap judgements and decisions from a very narrow / small subsequent ‘window of experience’ (a tennis game / point) in that sport, so big was the volume of ‘data’ that his brain had already accumulated.

Intuition and betting

Look at the odds below for a standard Champions League game between Bayern Munich and Manchester Utd.


Bayern Munich odds Draw odds Manchester United odds
9.50 5.00 1.50


Anyone who knows anything about football will know that these odds are an error – for a ‘standard’ game between these two teams

If an experienced bettor’s brain can function like a computer because he has looked at thousands of match odds, then it is possible that the bettor could have a very accurate understanding of odds, value and probabilities.

The problem is that once the odds become more ‘realistic’ it gets very hard to know what the correct price should be.

Let say Bayern should actually be priced at 1.80 for the game against Man Utd. The odds leading up to the game stood at 1.78, 1.84, 1.82, and 1.76. Would you know where the price was low or high or where the value existed?

Whilst a betting strategy built around intuitive judgements is unlikely to reap profits, there is a strong argument for applying intuitive judgements to certain live betting scenarios.

I know a number of traders who in effect feel their ‘spider sense tingling’ and often take action on this basis if other factors are in their favour. If you watch enough sports and markets, in terms of what is going on on the field / track, as well as the price movements in those markets, then over thousands and thousands of events you should develop some ‘intuitive’ sense of what is likely to happen.

Good luck with your trading.



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