How I Would Fix the NHC

How I Would Fix the NHC

By: Eric Bialek

I started writing this post in early February 2022 after my experience at the 2022 NHC. For various reasons, I have not gotten around to posting the piece yet, but figured it is still worth posting after some changes have been made to the NHC.

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Recently, the NTRA announced that the 2023 NHC would be moving dates from February 10-12, 2023 to March 10-12, 2023. February 12, 2023 is significant since this is the date of the 2023 Super Bowl. I can see three reasons for the date change. The first is that Bally’s / Horseshoe Las Vegas saw Super Bowl weekend as too profitable to give away rooms and space / staffing needs that may be hard to fulfill due to the Super Bowl. The second reason is that the Bally’s to Horseshoe transition may not be done by that date. I see that as a longshot as the remodel will not affect guest rooms and should not affect the conference center too much. The third reason is the NTRA deciding that the early racing start / end times on Super Bowl Sunday make it less ideal for the final day of a tournament.

For what it is worth, the date of the 2024 NHC was previously posted as February 9-11, 2024, the weekend where Las Vegas is hosting the Super Bowl. The 2024 date is no longer posted on the NTRA website.

I believe the date change was caused by Caesar’s requesting a date change due to the Super Bowl so they can profit more from the weekend. If that is the case, I know Caesar’s likely compensated the NTRA in some form. If the form was monetary, hopefully that money will be returned to players via an increased prize pool.

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Background

Personally, I really enjoy the National Horseplayers’ Championship. I look forward to trying to qualify for the event. I have made great friends and have created many memories throughout my time in Las Vegas for the NHC. I have qualified seven times with my best placing being a seventh back in 2020.

I am aware that the NHC has a Players’ Committee, part of whose job is to help steer the contest and be the voice of the players. I am not a likely candidate for the committee as I’ve been a very vocal critic of the NTRA at times and am not in step with what too often seems to be the MO of the committee, which is to be a last line of defense for the NTRA as opposed to a true voice representing players. That said, I am willing to put my time where my mouth is and help the NTRA or the Players’ Committee implement my ideas if any are of interest.

I am not going to get too into pricing in this post – that’s a much larger and thornier topic. It’s my deeply held belief that the takeout for the event is higher than the 12.12% that the NTRA claims it is, and I would encourage a lot more transparency from them in this area. You don’t need an advanced degree in accounting to see that the math in the current documentation (https://www.ntra.com/nhc-funding-and-takeout/) does not add up. My educated guess is that true event takeout is closer to 30% than 12.12%. For comparison, the World Series of Poker Main event has takeout posted at 6.75%.

Outline

  • Fixes
    • Beards / Proxies / Runners / Collusion
    • Final Table
    • Tournament Rules
    • Tournament Seat Pricing
    • Growth
    • New Proposed Structure and Positively Impacting the Wagering Ecosystem

Fixes

Beards / Proxies / Runners / Collusion

Beards, proxies and runners, and collusion have been an issue ever since I first started playing contests in 2012. It is well known that certain players are controlling the entries of other participants in the contest, thus increasing their own chances to cash. This is patently unfair and in violation of the tournament’s rules.

So how do you fix the beard, proxy / runner, and collusion issues? My solution is 3 parts.

        • Add more metadata to the “master plays by person” file that is released at the end of the tournament. Adding the plays by person was a great innovation to help root out collusive play, but it could be even better.

This metadata should include timestamps of each wager, as well as the machine number where the bet was placed. By including this metadata, you can see when and where people make wagers. If two different people wager at the same machine in succession for much of the tournament, they are likely colluding and should be disqualified.

People who are beards for others and / or colluding with other players are much more likely to be caught by looking at wagering patterns. If additional metadata was available from past NHCs, I believe this would be enough information to turn some suspected participants in for breaking the rules in past contests.

        • To force each participant to submit their wagers and not allow for a proxy / runner or another player to make their wager, additional security should be placed around the betting machines. Each participant’s credential for the tournament shall now include the contestant’s picture and a barcode associated with their account.

Betting terminals could be roped off with two access points per betting terminal group. At the entrance, a person will verify the person trying to enter the betting area matches the picture on the credential. Once the person verifies this person is the person on the credential, they scan the barcode on the credential. This will create a time stamp that can be used for later verification.

During the tournament audit process, if someone placed a bet without having a credential scan within a fixed amount of time of placing the bet, rules can be put in place to address these wagers. Too many missed scans with resulting bets means a DQ.

        • Have each participant write a declaration of who they are sitting with at the tournament. The idea here is to discourage collusive play by letting players know that the metadata will be used to help catch unusual wagering patterns. This is not a perfect solution, but it will help let players know that the action is being monitored and efforts are being made to stop collusive play.

I no issue of someone using a proxy / runner if it is needed and I think it will work best if the runners are not themselves competing in the tournament. To be transparent, the NTRA should provide a list of people using proxies / runners before the start of the event. The proxies / runners should also be given a credential listing they are a proxy / runner.

Final Table

The concept of the final table does not work as well as it should. One issue is the room configuration. The setup table at TI worked much better than Bally’s. Below is a picture of the final table during a mandatory final table race in 2022. Most of the people watching the race are watching it on one of the big screens on the outside of the ballroom, not towards the center of the room where the final table is.

NHC Final Table

My idea to make the final table better would be to add a large screen TV within the final table area to make all the final table participants watch it on that one TV and turn off all of the outside TVs and only show the mandatory race on the inner TVs above the final table. This will create more excitement for people at the final table and other people in the room will be looking in their direction.

When I made the final table in 2020, I felt extremely awkward on the stage. My brother works in the lighting industry (concerts, fights, trade shows, etc.) so I may think more of this than others, but the lack of lighting on the people at the final stage is odd. Do you want to highlight the final table or keep them in the dark?

My understanding was that the final table was created for putting the NHC on TV. If the NHC isn’t being televised or even live-streamed, do we really need to awkwardly corral people on a stage?

I have to believe there is a better format for the final table that will lend itself to more drama and tension, a la a reality TV show. Maybe I’m biased because the creators are friends, but something more like the format of the World Horseplayers’ Tour TV show would make for much more compelling viewing, both at the tournament and via streaming.

Tournament Rules

In the 2021 and 2022 NHC, 60+ entries were able to transfer / defer their entries to the next NHC. The first time I have ever heard of people being allowed to transfer entries was for the 2021 NHC. I am under the understanding that this was allowed due to COVID-19.

I understand that many people qualified before the date of the 2021 NHC was postponed by 6 months. I also understand that this was the first event after the pandemic started. Many people also knowingly qualified during a pandemic and many people even qualified after the date change was announced.

Nowhere in the rules does it state that people are allowed to transfer / defer their entry. The rules do state that “Rules are Subject to Change”. I have never been notified, made aware, or saw a rule change that allows for deferrals.

In the 2021 and 2022 NHC rules and regulations that each player needed to agree to and sign, line 25 states “Entries are non-transferable.” Nowhere in the rules does it state players can transfer their entries to another year or another person. Line 42 of the rules from 2021 and 2022 go into detail about a procedure in the event someone cannot make it to the event and an alternate competitor will be assigned to take the spot of the person who could not make it.

I do not understand how the NTRA allowed anyone who wanted a deferral to defer. People were on record saying why they could not make the event and the reasons were not COVID related. I do not like about this is that the NTRA never made the public aware that deferrals would be allowed until the week of the 2021 event and money would be taken out of the prize pool and moved to the next year as a result.

In my opinion, the worst part of this entire situation was that the NTRA never changed the rules to mention that deferrals are allowed after the 2021 event and then they quietly allowed deferrals for the 2022 event. They did not include any new clauses in the rules that state players can transfer their entries. The NTRA was once again quiet about allowing deferrals again and many participants found out when a known contest player and track announcer tweeted that his entries have been deferred. I have had multiple people reach out to me explaining their deferral stories and some were not immediately granted.

Why is this an issue going forward? The blatant disregard for the rules by the NTRA creates a lack of transparency. Who is deciding on allowing these loopholes? What other rules are being disregarded? You can go down quite the rabbit hole here, but this does not sit well with me as a competitor. The NTRA should change the rules to state what is and is not allowed. If the NTRA put out a statement or changed the rules announcing they were allowing deferrals, I would have no issue with people deferring. But the key issue, as with the pricing stuff: the NTRA needs to be more transparent.

Update after initial drafting of this post: when the date was changed for the 2023 NHC, the NTRA updated the rules to include this wording that allows entry transfers as they see fit:

NHC seats have no cash value and may not be sold or transferred. NHC seats may not be transferred to the following year for any reason, unless authorized by the NTRA.

This wording leaves a lot of room for ambiguity. I am glad the rules are now at least addressing the possibility of deferrals but for me there’s still too much wiggle room for the NTRA to pick and choose deferrals and for contestants to lie in regards to reasons they cannot attend an event.

Tournament Seat Pricing

To keep it short and sweet, many people qualify for the NHC with a seat value greater than $10,000. When you arrive at the NHC, you learn each entry only adds ~$3,500 to the main prize pool.

To put it in perspective, my friend Duke Matties finished 12th out of 643 entries in the 2022 NHC and he cashed for $24,000. I would feel robbed if I finished in the top 2% of the tournament and only making $14,000 more than the implied cost of my tournament seat if I qualified online. I effectively won something with an implied value of $10,000 and having a great day only wins you 2.4x in value.

To put that in perspective, if you finished in the top 2% of the 2021 World Series of Poker Main Event, you would earn $50,900 from your $10,000 entry fee.

Going forward, more money per entry needs to be added to the prize pool per entry. This simply means the NTRA needs to hold less money per entry, notably the entries won via an online contest where the takeout does not come close to the posted 12.12%.

Growth

When the NHC moved from TI to Bally’s in 2020, the NTRA mentioned that the additional room would allow for the NHC to grow. I understand that the COVID has increased uncertainty for people wanting to qualify for the event, but at the same time horse racing contests should have had increased participation on online events like how handle per day increased at most tracks during 2020. Below are the main event prize pools and field sizes for the past 6 years.

The data shows that the NHC is having trouble growing. To make the NHC a better event, drop the online seat cost to more players can participate and more players = more overall revenue for the NTRA. Profit = Revenue – Expenses. If expenses for most event costs and staff stay about the same, profit will increase with revenue.

New Proposed Structure and Positively Impacting the Wagering Ecosystem

My current main issue with the NHC and the qualifying process is that it does not benefit the industry as much as live money tournaments do. Money that is spent on NHC entries is not returned to players until up to 1 year later. On most Fridays, the $75 online NHC qualifier on Horseplayers.com will handle more than the 12% Laurel Park Late Pick 5.

I would define a horseplayer as someone who handicaps and bets on races. It is hard to call the event the National Horseplayers Championship when there is no betting involved.

I am not a full-time horseplayer so my time playing the horses is limited by work, family, and friends. I will admit when I play in contests, my daily wagering handle increases. I am guessing this is similar for others at the event.

If the NHC went to a new format, the structure below would drastically increase wagering handle, test who is the best horse players as the contest is partially handicapping and partially betting based, and it would award all players who qualify.

          1. Instead of being mythical $2 Win Place wagers, each player would place $25 live money Win Place wagers.
          2. Each player would get 20 wagers per day, some mandatory and the rest optional.
          3. Each player would start with a bankroll of $2,000.
            1. The 643 entries in 2022 would have created an additional $1,286,000 in handle.
          4. If a player makes the semi-final, they will receive another $500 (for 10 $25 WP wagers).
          5. At the end of the tournament, all players keep their bankrolls.
          6. Payouts would still be capped in a similar nature as today.
          7. The final table would be mythical win and place wagers with a minimum wager required per race at amounts determined by each player.
            1. For example, if the minimum bet amount in the race is $300 WP, a player could wager any amount above $300 WP up to the entire value of their bankroll.
          8. The reason for the final table going mythical is that the pools likely cannot support large wagers due to the parimutuel nature of horse racing and it does not make players who are not comfortable betting large amounts wager large amounts.

This format will increase handle at all contest tracks, allow all players to leave with some cash, discourage people from playing non-sensical longshots as the longshots price would change with a lot of people playing $25 WP on the horse, and award the best horseplayer.

The overall prize pool would likely take a hit, but the money for the prize pool could be redistributed to only pay the top 20 in the tournament as people are already making good money by qualifying for the semifinal round. If online contests contributed more to the prize pool than they currently do, the prize pool would greatly appreciate it.

I understand the contest likely cannot go to live money unless there are rule changes in the state of Nevada, but if the entire racing industry knew this tournament would help increase the handle nationwide, more of the racing industry would support the event.

What’s Next?

Maybe what I’m describing is a multi-year process that’s going to take a lot of lobbying and politics to achieve – but isn’t that what an organization like the NTRA is set up to do? The potential benefits to the industry are worth it, and if the NTRA wants the NHC to continue to thrive and even survive into the late 2020s and beyond, some real changes need to be made.

About the author: Eric is 30 years old and has qualified for the NHC (National Handicapping Championship / National Horseplayers Championship) 7 times. His best placing is 7th place in 2020. Eric currently works full time as a mechanical engineer. Eric can be followed on Twitter @eric_bialek.

 

Leave a Reply

2 comments
  • Eric, that’s a whole lot of stuff you’ve fired out there. Some of your ideas have merit, others have been discussed before ad nauseum. You’re not inventing the wheel. Some are misguided and some suck. I would love to go over everything with you sometime if you’re game.

    But I will tell you one thing: as an original and current member of the NTRA Players Committee, I take massive exception to your categorization of us. Massive!! We donate our time for free. We love the game and we do the very best we can representing the players. Ultimately, we have no real power. We have meetings on issues and we come to a consensus, which can be very difficult when you’re talking about 10-12 different people from different walks of life. But we ALWAYS do come to a consensus, and every single one of us has made concessions in what we wanted. Once that is done we tell the NTRA what we came up with, and THEY decide what they’re going to do. Sometimes they take our advice, sometimes partial portions and sometimes they do what they want. We do the best we can, and I’d go the walk for the integrity of all of my fellow members.

    Anyway, if you want to talk sometime, reach out and we can set a time.

    Thanks. Ross Gallo.

    • Ross,

      Thank you for replying. I think talking verbally is much more efficient and it is my preferred way to communicate, but I would also would like to keep as many discussions around the NHC open for people to see.

      Besides seat pricing/value, what did I write about that has been discussed ad nauseum? As I stated, I discussed it briefly. I would also like to know which of my ideas are misguided and suck. The feedback I have gotten from others is positive. I am not trying to reinvent the wheel, I like you, am trying to help grow a contest we enjoy.

      After quietly allowing deferrals two years in a row and not changing the rules to allow it until after the 2022 NHC, not seeing large contest growth or adaptation to COVID, having someone who was clearly a beard when I made the final table, and then having the first ever DQ I thought it was time to speak up. Things I wrote about like changing the format to be real money win/place wagers are very much a pipe dream, but I thought it was appropriate given my thoughts after weekly seeing thousands in breakage being returned on online qualifiers.

      In regards to your points on the Players Committee, the only person from the Players Committee that is active on social media is Chris Larmey. I do not know who is on the Players Committee besides the 6 people I see listed on the NHC Mentor webpage. I do not know if there are more people on the Committee. I know two people who were previously on the Committee and stepped down. My interactions with Chris mostly have him always defending the NTRA/NHC and not agreeing with the Players. If my interaction with the Committee is dismissive and two people I am friendly with stepped down from the Committee, it is hard to truly understand if the Committee is for all players.

      I do not know what the Players Committee does and does not have a say on in regards to the NHC. From the JK DQ press release it states “NHC Players’ Committee, a group of NHC players who act as a sounding board on NHC policy and rule matters”. When I read something like this, it makes me think the Players Committee knew things like players being allowed to defer in 2021 and 2022, but no one from the Players Committee or the NTRA communicated on the topic. I do thank you for your time on the committee with the understanding the NTRA will do what they like with the NHC at the end of the day.

      The gambling dollar is much harder to capture compared to 10 years ago. Racing needs to do more to help sustain themselves and grow in a difficult landscape. If my post could help growth at all, I am happy I wasted my time writing 3000+ words. I am open to talk more in the future.

      Eric Bialek

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