Not too many years ago, life was simpler. I just read an interesting essay by a reporter for The Boston Globe decrying the lack of something as simple as boredom for many people - especially young and wired people. She points out that we're rapidly evolving into a culture which has a need to endlessly be connected with others - with our cell phones and GPS systems and Blackberry's and bluetooth receivers sticking out of our ears.
And she concludes this is not a good thing for mankind. I could not agree more.
Is it really necessary to shop in a supermarket and have a procession of people loudly - and often rudely - barking into their phones? Or sit in a doctor's waiting room and hear an 8-year-old chirp on and on with "I'm, like this..." and "I'm, like that..?" With their no-doubt equally-offensive mother sitting there beaming at them? What did these people do before cheap cellphone technology liberated their true personalities? Were they just repressed-boors?
Most assuredly, handicapping sports was simpler in the recent-past. Today, we have sophisticated computer-technology available to anyone with a few hundred bucks to spend.
Information about players and teams that was never public several decades ago is readily available to those who know where to look for it.
What used to cost thousands of dollars to get now costs pennies in electricity.
And all of this has made the handicapping process not easier but much more complex.
Let me tell you a story. I often have a chuckle about this with one of my long- time clients when we talk on the phone. You have to realize that I actually have clients who have been with me longer than the age of other clients I have!
Some years ago, I participated in the very-first contest they ever had for sports services with the nation's very-first monitoring operation, the American Association of Documented Sports Services (AADSS) which was located in Las Vegas. Marty Mendelsohn, its founder, called me one day and said, "Bob, let's have a baseball handicapping contest. We'll post the results daily at the Stardust so it should be good for business...if you do well."
Ah, there was the rub..."if you do well." See, that's the principal reason the vast majority of so-called "sports services" are not and never will be monitored by some impartial third-party: because they just "don't do well."
But I said, what the hey, I'm still new to this business (I had started 2 years earlier) and I can always use the publicity...if I do well.
So, how well did I do? I started off that baseball season at 44-11 - and never looked back. It made my name in this business - and I've been looking forward to handicapping every new season of every sport with great glee since then.
But why am I telling you this and what does it have to do with "How Bob Akmens Picks Winners?" Plenty. Before I tell you what always gives me the giggles, let's just say that the compexity-level of my handicapping has increased exponentially over the intervening years. And that has always been caused by external events.
You see, back then, I used a "system" that I had used successfully for several years as an amateur bettor before then to pick baseball winners.
And this system was so non-complex, it still makes me laugh to think that it not only worked but worked so well to have me win 44 of that season's first 55 plays - and put me on the road to fame and fortune to boot.
How did it work? I just tracked the last 5 starts a starter made wherever he was, home or away, and assigned a point value based on how well his team did in those starts: if they were 5-0, that was +5; 4-1, was +3; 2-3 was -1, and so on. I'd then do the same for the other team's pitcher. And then I'd add the two figures together - and if I had a plus figure on one side and a minus figure on the other side, with one or the other at least a +/-3, meaning at least a net +4 figure, it was a play.
Incredible stuff. Even with record-keeping in large looseleaf-binders, the actual process of looking up the records of each pitcher and writing these net numbers on a schedule page took just a few minutes for the whole card - even when done all by hand.
And it worked - and worked brilliantly as I've noted. But then somewhere in back then started to falter as a system and became more and more erratic in its results. Until, it became utterly worthless as a predictive system.
There's a moral to this story and it's this: you have to change your methods to reflect changes in the underlying data you're looking at.
See, the evolutionary change that was taking place almost so slowly that it was hard to pinpoint from month-to-month was this: starters were pitching fewer and fewer complete games - and therefore relying solely on their stats became less and less meaningful.
As I've told all of my long-term clients years ago - and new clients who like to listen - when I bet Tom Seaver and I had a 1 or 2 run lead late in the game, say the 7th or 8th, I felt really, really good about my chances.
Why? Because back then, Seaver and every other starter made it an absolute point of honor to try for a compete game each and every time they took to that mound. And with a guy like Tom Teriffic I knew his adrenals were furiously pumping away and he'd complete that sucker for me - and hold on to that lead.
Let's now fast-forward a few decades to the present - and wouldn't it be great if life had rewind buttons? I could do without the fast-forward one, though. How much has baseball changed in those intervening years? As far as the role of the starting pitcher, monumentally.
In 2007, 303 different guys stared a ballgame. Now quick, how many of those guys had at least two complete games? This is amazing - but true: two pitchers. And both of those guys were Cy Youngers - Brandon Webb of the DBacks and Roy Halladay of the Jays. Two pitchers out of 303 had as many as two complete games.
If I had gone into a coma after I won that first MLB contest and awoke today and heard that stat, I'd say I was in an alternate universe - that's how much things have changed in baseball alone.
So, to be a successful handicapper on a professional level as I've been for three decades, you have to adapt - and do so for both chronic, slow changes like this - and for acute, rapid changes such as happened after the NHL implemented their massive rule-changes a few years ago which, among other things, eliminated tie games. But more on that a bit later.
So how have I adapted my handicapping techniques over the years?
In recent years, I've developed sophisticated computer-models to come up with my plays - in all sports. To do this, I started by inputting literally hundreds and hundreds of possible game-variables and seeing how they affected a game's outcome. For baseball, things like how does a pitcher's team do in his road starts as opposed to his home starts. Then another level deeper you analyze how that pitcher's team does in his road starts when he comes off of a win - or a loss. Then yet another level deeper and you analyze how his team does in his road starts, after a loss, with his regular days of rest - and how they do with less, or more, rest. And so on - and so on. You should get the picture.
And after looking at so many variables - and their consequent results - I boil down the whole brew to the dozen-or-so most predictive variables: the ones that are most important in the winning - and losing - of baseball games. In the next step to creating a predictive model, I weigh each of those variables and assign it a relative-percentage importance to that model.
Continuing the model-building-process, I test that model - I test it and I test it and I test it - over and over and over - on thousands of previous games - using a different sample of games than the ones I used to construct that model - otherwise there would be an inherent bias built-in to the results.
This is called back-testing and every predictive model ever created for anything: predicting how a hurricane will track; how stock markets may move; and how baseball games win and lose - needs back-testing.
But I'm not done yet: I still have two more very important steps, one finite and one virtually infinite. The finite one is that even if the back-testing works to my satisfaction, it's still based on something that's not real-time - it's based on completed games, ex post facto - all after-the-fact.
So, I start to apply my model to real-time games - and bet them myself - but I don't yet release those plays until I'm pretty sure this model works in real-time handicapping. Then - and only then - I start to release plays based on that model.
And that final "infinite" step? I call it infinite because it never stops. The model becomes an organic thing and grows - and changes - if necessary, as time goes on. This is important. The changes that take place in college and pro sports move at different speeds. Some changes happen right away, as for instance occurred when the NHL put new rules into play a few years back. This was designed to do one thing: create more offense in a game which had stagnated to many low-scoring affairs.
And low-scoring affairs are not something the average American sports fan likes. I believe that's why soccer has never caught on like it has in the rest of the world: we're apparently just too impatient to wait for teams to score. When the NHL put those rules into play, instead of having a total-line of 4.5 goals a given game, you suddenly had a line of 5 or even 5.5 goals on that very same matchup.
This hockey example shows how massive changes can take place and how you must move very rapidly in adapting to those systemic changes in order to not get buried when you bet.
Do all of my ideas work all of the time? No. But they do work well enough for me to have finished #1 in more contest-categories over the years than anyone else. And to hold the absolutely unique distinction of being the defending national handicapping champ in all 4 major American sports - simultaneously - #1 in baseball, #1 in the NFL, #1 in hockey, and #1 in the NBA Playoffs is something. If you find someone else who can claim that, tell me about it - because you've found the portal to an alternate universe.
I hope this has given you a better understanding of how I pick winners - and I hope that you'll give me the privilege of picking those winners for you when you come on board my service!