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Situational Analysis - Precision Data-Mining and Modern Football Handicapping (Part I)...By Nelson Lardner

It was recently observed by a regular poster on a gaming website that the two most recent winners of the late, lamented Stardust Invitational (Football) Handicapping Contest were and are two of the more successful public situational handicappers/data-miners in the business. That would be Big Al McMordie (who won the penultimate edition of the revered contest) in 2004, and Marc Lawrence (who snared the last roundup) in '05.

I don't believe this is a coincidence. In my mind, the path to consistently successful football evaluations vis-a-vis the pointspread has long been via sophisticated technical/situational analysis. Most opening college and pro football numbers are fundamental reads, shaded by situational knowledge to which most linemakers are privy. Given that fact, pure fundamental handicapping, relying solely on visual evidence, game statistics and resulting raw power ratings, is a tough row to hoe, and in our mind, a long-term losing proposition under modern market conditions.

To put it bluntly, practitioners of the situational/data-base brand of analysis have stolen the show, and don't figure to give it back anytime soon. McMordie, Lawrence, Dr. Bob (Stoll), and Steve Kellen of Sixth Sense Sports have all generated worthwhile material for public consumption for many seasons. Proof in the pudding is that market effects of these worthies have been considerable. Dr. Bob's impressive success rate in a couple of recent seasons provoked marked market fluctuations moments after his college football and college basketball service releases were made public during this year's time frames. Nobody sizzles each and every week, and results were not sustained at the dizzying rates established earlier, but give credit where credit is due - those who struck while the iron was hot and were able to act immediately on selections upon release made out handsomely. And believe it - Dr. Bob isn't the only widely-followed public 'capper of this school who's capable of making marketmakers jump. And knowledge of this is infinitely valuable, for obvious reasons.

Anyone who's been around the block more than a time or two is familiar with the prototypical public presentation of such commercial offerings to a captivated public. The variations on the basic themes are endless, but a selection will be supported by verbiage along these lines: "Play any .378 (or higher) home underdog who lost their last outing as home chalk, provided today's opponent won SU last time out." Frequently, you'll then read some statistical qualifier that sends the basic premise into the statistical 85-100% stratosphere, based on the long-term history of the described parameters.

Taken to ridiculous extremes, this vein of analysis lends itself to satire, and many public handicapping media pundits love to poke fun at these presentations, to wit: "Play any NFL team with a "bird" nickname as a home dog of between 2 1/2 - 7 1/2 points if they're off a three-turnover (or more) performance executed under a full moon, and they're facing any team nicknamed after a mammal whose uniforms feature no pastel shades."

When I broke in the business, a number of moons ago, things were much less sophisticated, but I've always embraced the technical handicapping school. Any meaningful, relevant analysis that the broad public tended to overlook was raw meat, and the late Mike Lee and Lawrence were the first to reach the public consumer with technical readings, way back in the '70s. Before that time, those with knowledge of these black arts enjoyed edges to a degree the first guys who understood card-counting in blackjack exploited . . . at least, until Ed Thorp authored "Beat The Dealer" and sent it out to a delighted market and thrilled readers. Ditto what Andy Beyer did to throughbred handicapping, when he popularized speed-figure advances (first marketed by the likes of the great Len Ragozin), in what was the most earth-shaking horseplaying guidebook of them all . . ."Picking Winners".

Lee's fresh approach was lapped up by thousands, Lawrence ran with the ball, Big Al and Dr. Bob gained prominence in the next generation, and Sixth Sense/Kellen now presents copious amounts of useful material mined from the same broad veins. Handled properly by sophisticated consumers, much of this stuff is dynamite. But you could provide much of this material gratis, and many people without the proper background in the sports analyzed might find themselves getting carried away on too many flights of statistical fancy.

Some situational handicapping yields are more likely to lead to the bank vault than others. We'll discuss some ways to consistently separate the wheat from the shaft, next time out.

Nelson Lardner

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