Woo luck like you woo a woman

As Mumbai's racing season cranks into high gear with the Indian Oaks tomorrow and the Indian Derby only a few days away, here are a few tips...

At the racecourse in Pune, during the season there can be seen on most racing days an elderly punter in an off-white cricket cap. Rare is the day when he is not lucky with his bets --and richer by a few thousand rupees. How do people like him do it? Can lady luck be tamed? Napoleon certainly seems to have believed so.

Baazigar and stocks: Shah Rukh Khan poses outside the BSE.
Controlling your emotions is the secret behind stock market success

While the French emperor was being told about qualities like bravery and skill on the battlefield possessed by a particular military officer he was considering for promotion, he is said to have waved a hand impatiently and asked just one question: "Is he lucky?" Napoleon apparently believed luck was a personal attribute rather than a matter of chance.

Flushed with success: Indian flush winner Nirav Aadenwala is
congratulated by the man he beat on his way to the top spot at the WGF

Horse sense
Like Napoleon, our punter, too, does not believe luck is by chance. He does not mind sharing the secret of his
betting success, but try asking him his name and identity so that it could be put in print, and there you are pushing your luck. He says you have to woo luck, like you woo a woman. Never be pushy, take care of the small things, and don't ever get carried away. He also advises plenty of calm study of the subject in question.

Lady luck and horse power: At the Derby in Mumbai last year

"I try to study every horse, its track record, the handicaps," he says. "I do a risk assessment and then place my bets. I spread my bets, so that even if I lose somewhere, by the law of averages I also win elsewhere. Never put all your money on one bet. Don't go for the extremes; aim for small-to-decent winnings throughout the day and you will take home more money than you brought along."

As a race begins, the atmosphere becomes electric and people are on their feet, throatily urging their horse on, but not our man. He knows all the shouting from the stands does not make a horse gallop faster. The gist of his method is to do your homework, spread your bets and know how much you are ready to lose.

Then, there is this last bit of advice he repeats till he is sure you have understood him. It is to quit and go home if you have lost money on three bets in a row. There is always another day.

Bulls, bears and pigs
Ashutosh Raje, a stock market technical analyst who advises people on when to buy and sell on the basis of share price trends, sees investors making or losing money in day trading on a daily basis. From his years of
observing clients, he says controlling your emotions is the big secret behind "getting lucky" on the stock market.

"There is a saying, don't love the stock, because the stock does not love you back. I often see people holding on to a particular share even when they are losing money, all because of the human tendency to become even more stubbornly optimistic the more a share one has pinned one's hopes on is going the wrong way. No person really likes to accept he is losing or has made a wrong decision, and this is where the ego steps in and says I will show everyone I can make money even now," he says. "The right thing to do is to cut your losses and start afresh, whether you are playing long or short."

He says there are three types of people playing the market, namely the bulls, the bears and the pigs. The pigs are the ones who are always losing money and blaming their luck. Raje says it is because there are so many pigs eager to lose their money that a small number of market regulars are always making big money.

"The pigs are the kind of people who do not know when to stop. If a share they have is rising, they keep holding on to it because of greed, and are distraught when it suddenly falls," Raje says. "And when they are losing money, they won't get out of it, hoping against hope for a turnaround in fortunes. But markets don't run on your gut feeling."

Raje's experience with his clients shows speed in making decisions is the essence of success. The pigs get flustered easily and take a darned long time deciding what to do, and by the time they have made their decision the market conditions have changed again. When they lose money they spend a lot of time moping over their losses, instead of thinking of the next move.

"There is no post-mortem in the stock market," Raje says. "Profit booked is the only profit made." Raje says the men who make money know exactly how much risk they are willing to take, know they must pull out immediately when the game starts going wrong, and that they must not linger too long when it is going in their favour. The trick is to book you profits when the going is good, and then move on before greed takes over and begins colouring your judgement. Uncanny, but that is also what a man called Narinder Punj said on the sidelines of the inaugural World Gaming Festival held late last year in Goa.

Games people play
Punj is the managing director of a cruise and entertainment company, which organised the festival. The event was held on board the Casino Royale, an offshore gaming vessel in Panaji, Goa. A widely travelled man, Punj has been associated with the business of gambling for a long time. "The reason casinos make money is that players keep going for that one more game.

Even when they are losing, they keep thinking they will recoup their losses in the next game. That is the pull of gambling, the stubborn hope that the next game is going to be your big game," he says. "As for people who are winning, they keep playing because they get into a mind-zone where they feel fate will forever be on their side, and then they often lose all their winnings in that next game."

In effect, the art of winning, or at least not losing money, in gambling lies in knowing when to stop.
Punj says he never plays these games of chance. He has seen it all long enough to know the house always makes money. But the World Gaming Festival was a little different than what usually happens on board the Casino Royale. As it was a competition between players, there had to be a winner and runners-up, unlike the regular business days on the Casino Royale when the house could win and all the players lose.

The competing field was large, with over 300 serious players. As a result, the festival offered much scope to test the Napoleon theory. All the games played were games of chance that involved a bit of skill, and yet you could almost spot the winners from the beginning.

Spotting the winners
Take Ghanshyam Sharda, the American roulette winner. During the game, he was all business, an easy familiarity with the workings of the game showing in his graceful movements on the baize layout. Nothing disturbed him, not even the signs of nervousness displayed by his competitors. He was playing against two other roulette finalists, who pulled at drinks, puffed away at cigarettes, and kept fidgeting. Sharda was not troubled by something not going his way; everything was accepted with the same avuncular smile. He just sat there, focusing on his next move. Eventually, he cruised to a victory that he had made look easy.

Like Sharda, the top winners of the other competition games at the festival--Jaswinder Singh Suri (poker), Prasanna Yadav (blackjack) and Nirav Aadenwala (Indian flush)--all the time knew what they were doing, never appeared flustered, took decisions fast, and enjoyed playing to win.

If you spotted these attributes in a player, you were almost sure he was going to emerge the winner. On the surface the eventual winners' personalities differed vastly; Aadenwala was given to celebrating every little triumph boisterously, while Yadav, a quiet young man from Bangalore, was superstitious and wore the same set of dark clothes throughout the festival. Yet, besides the fact that they all took home big prize money ranging from Rs 37 lakh to Rs 51 lakh after emerging winners, there were common traits to be observed while they were still playing. All exuded a steely determination to win, they had all done their homework, and, most importantly, the risks they took were in proportion to the need to do so.

At one stage in the final round, blackjack winner Yadav was on the brink of going out of the game. That is when his preparation and coolheaded approach brought him back in. He calculated the risk involved, and made a decision within seconds. "I knew I was in a very bad position. I had nothing to lose and decided to risk a move that could have been the end of me if it had failed. It worked," Yadav said. "I also practised a lot before coming here. I practised and practised on the computer to know the game in and out."

As with winners, the losers among competitors playing a game can also be spotted by the serious student of behavioural signs. Take the case of the man you see hugging Indian flush winner Aadenwala in the picture. All throughout, he bore all the signs of being intimidated by Aadenwala's luck. He was so serious about losing that he was congratulating the eventual winner at every small and big lead he took on the way to victory.

It was almost like he had decided that since he was going to be the runner-up anyway, he could at least be a good loser.

Too good to be through
Years ago, a group of maths students at the world-famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology focused their brainpower on blackjack. The students realised that blackjack was the only beatable game in casino gambling, and beat it they did. By the 1990s, the team -- whose membership rotated over the years -- was making regular trips to Las Vegas and winning big.

"They took over $400,000 in one weekend out of the casinos in Las Vegas," says Gordon Adams, a casino security investigator. They used a skill called card counting and their maths expertise and advanced computer models -- to hone their skills to a devastatingly effective science. They wrote computer programs to devise the best strategy for specific situations, then updated their data with real-life experience.

Soon, the team began to be recognised by security guards at casinos all across town and was asked to leave.
Security guards would tell them, "We can't let you play blackjack here anymore. ... You're too good for us and if you try to play blackjack, we'll have to arrest you for trespassing."

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