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Evaluating Those Bearing Gifts - Sizing Up Proffered Sporting Opinions...By Nelson Lardner

Nothing seems to drive traffic at any sporting internet website more than sharp, crackling viewpoints posted by individuals harboring hard-won insights into the likely outcomes of pending events. You can't knock any opportunity to absorb straightforward conflicting ideas regarding a contentious big game. Even if you disagree with somebody, so long as they're informed and can put forward a logical point of view, you'll likely learn something - which is what it's all about on the long journey.

Unfortunately, not everyone posting is going to be well-informed, or well-intentioned. Many folks have ulterior motives in posting . . . whether they're trying to sell something, have a bone to pick with one or more fellow posters, or are simply trying to mislead, for their own devious ends. The web is laden with monstrous egos looking to prove a point (legitimate, or otherwise) or provoke a keyboard battle royale. One of the biggest differences between the sports pages of the nation's leading city dailies and the typical wagering-oriented website, is that the writers at most major papers are relatively restrained, and are not looking to actively provoke hostility -- or to mislead. There are exceptions, but they are blessedly rare.

So how does a curious soul, thirsting for knowledge, best navigate these nasty jungle waters? Experienced survivors have proven themselves to be more than able character-readers. They can pick out a bull artist, poseur and/or sales hustler, in short order. As in most fields, little is more crucial in making real-life decisions than being able to make accurate character judgments on the fly.

Over time, it's been demonstrated on a multiplicity of forums that one of the marks of a sound, steady mind is the ability of a talented handicapper to ignore unwarranted, needlessly-provocative criticism - or, even better, to deflect it with stylistic élan. One sustained, telling indicator of guys who may not be all they're cracked up to be is their assumption of a purely defensive posture when put under the microscope (however unfairly).

Agreed, consistently providing sharp selections on a message board - for free - would seem a thankless task. And too frequently, critics will crawl out of the woodwork whenever a modest losing streak emerges. But the good people who like the interaction sports sites provide can, and do, weather the storm.

One telling indicator about regular handicapping posters at specific sites is their willingness to keep abreast of their work by maintaining reasonably- accurate performance records. This is especially true in baseball, which by its money-line nature, demands a measure of true accounting in maintaining a proper plus/minus unit count. Among the world's biggest sporting frauds - either on line, or in print - are those who keep only a won/lost count in baseball, while maintaining a fatal addiction to favorites in the -200 range. Yes, indeedy, such characters exist in real life. It's pathetic, and the only people they're fooling are themselves. Just throw out those hefty chalkies day after day, rack up a meaningless won/lost percentage in the 60% neighborhood (which translates into minus big buckaroos in the real world) . . . you can't make this stuff up.

Those who provide reasoning to back up selections make for better reading, of course. If you're well-versed in a sport, and a poster you read regularly makes cogent, pithy supporting comments which hit you between the eyes, you may be onto something. The best in the tout biz know this, make a specialty of it, and more power to them. When following, it's frustrating to many that some legit posters provide picks without explanation. It's easily understandable; certain supporting information is potent only when it hasn't gained wide dissemination. Data which affects favorable odds adversely is not something any sharp, savvy player is eager to blurt out. In these days of tight markets, and books all too eager to adjust against any demonstrably-legitimate edge, an operator's reticence to needlessly give away the store is understandable. Most true sharps are able to provide multiple surface reasons to support a play, without giving away its pivotal technical or situational supports. It's called "hiding the art", and even the best ones do it.

You can't read too much in this business. It's part of the deal . . . though to get the most out of it, you need to have some idea who's hip, and who ain't. You can pick up things from the biggest dummies, as even they are allowed to have isolated sharp insights. Nobody's wrong all the time, and everybody's collectively smarter than any individual . . . but you want to pay special attention to those who have shown they have more than a clue. You can never have too much good information from seasoned sources. There are reasons survivors are survivors. Dig 'em out.

Nelson Lardner

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