Five things gamblers can teach rugby players about beating the odds

Risk and reward: gambling skills applied to rugby. www.shutterstock.com

It was enough to make any England rugby union fan, including me, weep. Last Saturday, the home nation lost their World Cup match against Wales 28-25 after a hard-fought contest that many fans thought England at least should have drawn.

In the dying minutes and only three points behind, England won a penalty. They could have gone for the posts and secured a likely draw. Instead captain Chris Robshaw made the call for England to go for the line-out – and possibly the win – a decision that was both brave and positive. In hindsight, however, it was also the wrong one. As those who watched the game witnessed, England’s players secured the throw but were driven swiftly into touch by the rampant Welsh. Game over. England’s gambit turned out to be a busted flush.

Robshaw’s decision, while bold, was highly risky. He took a gamble and it didn’t pay off. Unless England can salvage something against Australia this weekend (or Fiji can beat Wales), that one decision looks to have cost England dearly. It could even send them crashing out of their own World Cup.

In those few seconds after England were awarded the penalty, Robshaw no doubt weighed up the odds. Like any regular gambler, he assessed the risks and the potential rewards and came to the decision to back himself and his team to get the try they needed to beat (rather than draw with) Wales. In retrospect, it may end up being the worst decision Robshaw has ever made during a rugby match, but it so easily could have been otherwise.

Games such as rugby are full of such throws of the dice, so what can Robshaw and the rest of the England team learn from professional gamblers about making risky decisions?

Never gamble without a predetermined plan

Deciding on your overall goal, including any unacceptable possible outcomes, is the key to success in professional gambling and it should apply to anyone taking risky decisions. Under the circumstances, England’s overriding objective should have been “not to lose”, as a draw still would have left England as favourites over Wales to progress to the quarter-finals. If Robshaw had made his call like a professional gambler, on what could have been lost (a place at the World Cup) rather than on what could have been won (that one game), his decision-making may have been different.

Don’t chase losses

In the final 20 minutes or so, England – having been well ahead earlier in the match – ended up doing what many problem gamblers do. As Wales closed the points gap, England began chasing their losses, changing their team and their game and taking greater gambles. Rather than securing their position, this allowed Wales to capitalise still further. In fact, injuries had begun to worsen Wales’s odds – England should have just stuck to their earlier winning formula.

Risk analysis: England rugby can learn from pro-gamblers. Reuters/Reuters Staff

Stick to your strengths

Professional gamblers only ever engage in activities that have at least some element of skill, such as poker, blackjack or horse racing. It’s vital to know what your strengths are and to play to them. Rugby is a game of skill, but chance elements – as in all forms of gambling – inevitably come into play. Nevertheless, rugby players need to keep their heads, engage their specific talents and and not let emotion or stress get to them. England will find this tough against Australia at the weekend, but they can improve their odds by sticking to what they’re good at.

Don’t get overexcited

Never let the excitement of gambling go to your head. Psychological research has consistently shown that when gamblers are in the thick of the “action”, they tend to be more irrational, causing them to make poor decisions and abandon their all-important plans. In a high-stakes environment, such as the one faced by England when they play Australia, decisions should never be made in the heat of the moment. The players must try to take a step back from the fray and keep the bigger picture in mind.

Do your research

Any professional gambler will also do their homework and try to think of every variation and contingency possible so that they face the best possible odds. When they play Australia, England’s game plan and decision-making should be influenced by what they know about their opposition. Understand your enemy and leave as little as possible to chance.

…and here’s how you can win every time

Finally, here’s some advice to make you feel better when England play Australia at the weekend – gamble with your head and not with your heart. When it comes to betting on the teams I support, I try to employ strategies that leave me feeling good… whatever the outcome. That is why, as an England supporter, I tend to bet against England.

It’s a simple system. Ask yourself how much money you’d be prepared to pay for England to progress in the tournament? I’d be more than happy to pay £100 to see England reach the quarter-finals, so I’ll be betting that much on Australia to win. The logic is that I’ll win either way. If England beat Australia, I’ll be on an ecstatic high and won’t care about losing £100. While if Australia win, at least I’ll have my winnings to soften the blow!

Who says gambling doesn’t pay?

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