What is the point of a tipster? Profit on paper or in the punter’s pocket?
Prices, timing, account restrictions and the realities of betting on tips.
I’m Josh, an SBC member and full-time punter. In addition to my own racing betting, I use tipsters to diversify my income alongside doing some work for Pete at the SBC.
Here, I am trying to write about tipsters from a follower’s perspective. Hopefully, I can provide some insight by referencing my own betting experiences and discussing the tipping industry as I see it. To begin with, I write about things as they are at first glance, with the mechanics of tipping and following being the main point of discussion. The ‘Elephant In The Room’ may make a lot of these observations moot, but it is only fair to take all involved at face value.
Naivete starting out: taking early prices
My interest in horse racing betting became more serious when ‘working from home’ was becoming the way of things in 2020. Like many, I had so much more spare time; no travel to and from work, less socialising and a general challenge to fill the day with something stimulating and meaningful.
With bookmaker shutters down, I armed myself with every sign up offer and tranche of free bets available on the Oddschecker grid and set about honing a model to become consistently profitable. Blogs, books, interviews, podcasts, ‘market watching’, tipster records and even academic papers were some of the resources I used.
I settled on speed figures and sectional timing to gain my primary edge (numbers in a spreadsheet were just too hard to resist!). I used them alongside some traditional yardsticks such as the ground, track form, stall/track biases and video analysis whilst relying less on others such as raw form figures, weight, stable form and comments from trainers.
It quickly became evident that specialisation was key. Modelling and small stakes betting suggested my system worked best with flat races under a mile (with all weather tracks providing superior results). So, this is what I focused on – off I went.
I would study and place my bets during the evening before the day’s racing and then follow the results as they came in. Most accounts were profitable, some were hovering around the breakeven mark and a few were losing as variance played out from week to week. But then, something strange happened.
My dream of buying a stately home in the country, leaving a huddle of bookmakers destitute and sharing a bottle of super-strength cider under a bridge, was… over.
The confusing element at the time was that there seemed to be no correlation between my ‘profit & loss performance’ and being restricted. Even the losing accounts started to offer maximum bets of obscure amounts under a pound.
After finding a new topic to research, It became apparent that two other factors were influencing the bookmaker’s actions – the timing of the bets and consistently taking prices that beat the SP.
Knowing what I know now, I was incredibly naïve. Beating early prices by taking advantage of ‘ricks’ or studying races in detail before the rest of the market might have been good for my ego, but was irrelevant if taking an early price wasn’t an option. There was no point in ‘being right’ if it didn’t pay.
How does this relate to tipsters?
I use my personal experience as an introduction due to being reminded of that time when reading others’ observations of tipsters, their price recording and what their general role in the betting ecosystem is.
The SBC produced a Twitter thread discussing an element of it here, Quentin Franks wrote an article that referenced it here, Luke Paton has provided his thoughts throughout his ‘Pro Punting’ series (including here) and there have been some heated debates on social media about tipsters taking stand out prices in early markets with low levels of liquidity.
The truth is that every case is different.
Most reputable tipsters with large follower bases (such as Hugh Taylor and Andy Holding in horse racing or Ben Coley and Steve Palmer in golf) have them for a reason. They are excellent judges with long-term records of profitability, demonstrating a tangible edge. They provide free tips that are available to all – there is an inevitability that the weight of money that results from their selections will move markets.
In addition to the well known names, there are countless others putting up fantastic numbers year after year on lesser known platforms, with many charging their customers. This group has expertise that is often just as impressive, but they provide selections for more obscure markets, don’t ‘sell’ themselves well, limit their member numbers or are less popular due to charging a subscription fee.
Some less scrupulous ‘tipsters’ have no such expertise, quoting mythical prices that are long gone before the follower gets there, solely relying on the ‘sea of blue’ on Oddschecker or claiming to have inside information that on closer inspection, amounts to guessing.
Finally, there are the relative newcomers to the tipping world who are benefitting (or suffering, depending on how you look at it) from what Joseph Buchdahl has referred to as tipster ‘survivorship bias’. They have hit some positive variance and, believing that their luck is skill, are convinced that the good times will continue. Once their number of bets increases to become more statistically significant, they won’t.
Despite the importance of making these distinctions, the honesty and integrity of the tipster (or the service they provide) is almost immaterial. As followers, before we even consider that, we have to ask ‘What is the point of a tipster?’
There can be more than one answer, but for the purpose of this discussion, I will simply assume that they are there to provide profitable tips for their followers. This sounds straightforward, but after looking twice, it is anything but.
‘On paper’ vs practical betting
Tipsters are often asked this question and a common answer is that their job is to find selections with a positive expected value (or EV), quote prices and communicate this, often with some reasoning or insight, to their followers. The implication here is that anything that happens after that has nothing to do with them. They have no control over the market or over what other people or organisations do. Their job is done.
On the face of it this sounds reasonable, but it has little utility in the real world.
The first reason for this is price sensitivity. With even modest volumes of money being placed on the same selections (and more often than not, into illiquid markets), followers will be lucky to get close to the quoted price before it collapses. A tipster can have an edge of 20% to their recorded prices but if said prices contract by 20% or more minutes after release, are they providing any kind of service for people looking to follow them in?
The second, and more serious problem arises if followers do get the prices. Bookmakers are sensitive to these bets and will restrict or close accounts that place too many of them. If following a tipster results in not being able to place a bet on their selections (or any others) moving forward, are they providing something of value?
If these are the realities of following any given tipster, I would argue not.
A better way
In fairness, this is a conundrum for those involved. Tipsters with the largest followings. who provide their work for ‘free’, are victims of their own success. Impressive historical records and prominent platforms mean that their advice will always result in large volumes of bets being placed on the same selections. Prices will contract. To compound this, there is also evidence that bookmakers will watch out for their bets being released and cut prices before taking too much money on them and risking excess exposure.
Despite this, there are things they could and should do to provide a more sustainable service for their followers.
Firstly, they could wait longer for markets to mature before releasing their selections. Examples of this could be waiting until 10 or 11am before releasing daily horse racing tips or until Wednesdays before releasing golf tips for a Thursday start.
The reason for this being a net positive for their followers predominantly relates to exchanges. Liquidity on these platforms increase as events draw nearer and waiting longer would have two substantial benefits. Firstly, followers would have an alternative outlet to place their bets if they didn’t want to (or couldn’t) use bookmakers.
Secondly, the bookmakers, who increasingly use Betfair et al to inform so much of their own pricing, would be less sensitive about taking bets. The extra liquidity and market activity up to that point would provide them with a level of reassurance, especially if their prices were not ‘stand out’ or a vehicle to provide an arbing opportunity for players who like to operate that way.
The nature of markets becoming more efficient as any given event draws nearer means that the EV (Expected Value) of selections would most likely fall if they did this. The ‘ricks’ or ‘low-hanging fruit’ would already be taken. Despite this, these tipsters’ track records and demonstrable edges suggest that they have a superior understanding of the market and could still be profitable, albeit to a lesser degree. The example of a 20% edge referenced above may well drop to 10 or 12%, but if the contraction fell to less than that then these tipsters would be providing more overall value to the majority of their followers.
Another option for this group could be to revise their advice, with an emphasis on avoiding stand out prices. A policy of ‘odds availability at three major bookmakers on Oddschecker’ or a ‘no lower’ guide for pricing and recording would again decrease EV, but would provide a more realistic opportunity for followers to get bets down. With stakes being placed across different operators, liabilities would be spread more evenly, making large price contractions or account issues for taking prices less likely.
Some of the most successful tipsters have tried some of these ideas to no avail. Bookmakers react and even pay for subscriptions to tipster services and use the analysis to alter their own pricing.
The question that the tipster and we, as followers, have to ask here is what do we want from the interaction? Quick price grabbing, beating the SP and (most likely) profiting are all great in the short term but, as discussed above, have consequences for future betting.
Would you rather take a lower return in exchange for a more sustainable service? Would you rather have a ROI of 20% that lasts 3 months or a ROI of 10% that lasts 3 years?
An example of good practice: Punting Pointers
As I stated above, every case is different, but there are ‘headline’ tipsters in major publications who are doing things a little differently to provide extra value for their followers.
Punting Pointers, a daily horse racing tipping column in Sporting Life written by the duo of David Massey and Rory Delargy, is one such service.
Tips are released later than most (typically after 10am each day and at 11am for their ‘Members Extra’ selections on Saturdays and Sundays), with slight nuances to help their readers.
Selections are often provided with price alternatives e.g. ‘General’ if the price is available across the board or with precise options e.g. 11/1 4plc (SkyBet), 12/1 3plc (Bet365, Paddy Power). If a drift is expected, horses will even be advised at SP (or BSP).
To help further, minimum prices are provided to indicate a level where the selection stops being a value proposition.
The column also highlights horses that the duo considered but haven’t selected (with reasoning). This provides an extra level of insight and betting opportunity for those who want them e.g. ‘We liked X but he has been backed in overnight. We would only get involved at 8/1’.
All of this is accompanied by not only sound explanations for their selections, but a commentary on how they think races will play out, contextualising the value that they feel they have found.
The differences between the Punting Pointers column and some other widely read free tipster write-ups may well be small, but the follower is clearly at the centre of what they do – they employ simple practices that would be beneficial to followers of all services if they were common.
What are other expert tipsters doing?
For clarity, all of the tipster services referenced in the last section are ‘free’ (we will come to why the word ‘free’ is not always what it seems later on).
Tipsters who charge their customers have an altogether different relationship with the people who follow them in. This is a two-way transaction – expectations are understandably higher. In their professional lives, these tipsters have one, clearly defined role – make profits for their subscribers.
There is an inevitability that the financial transaction affects how these tipsters operate. If they quote unattainable prices, are disingenuous in their record keeping or make selections that limit (or end) their followers’ ability to get bets on, their model will not work – people will not pay for it. The service would become obsolete if it had no sustainability.
As a result, there are innovations from these services that help both potential and current followers, providing examples of good practice along the way. Some, like membership caps, pure exchange betting or requests to avoid Betfair for a set period after bet release are all useful, but are not realistic for wider use in the tipping industry.
But some are.
What you see is what you get
Transparency is the most obvious common feature that the best paid services share. There is a clarity about what to expect, helping prospective followers to decide if the service is suitable for them. Don’t have bookmaker accounts? Not for you. Can’t get bets on relatively quickly? Won’t work. Want low volatility? Sorry, our average price is 20/1 and we have long losing runs.
The SBC have detailed analysis to aid potential followers before purchasing a subscription. This table helps readers to narrow down their search by presenting the realities of following any Premium Racing tipster.
This is a massive help. There are literally thousands of potential sources of tips to choose from – knowing what to expect before investment (in time or money) streamlines choosing the right one.
Another feature is the analysis provided alongside past records. Users can assess performance by different metrics. Return On Investment (ROI), Return On Capital (ROC), points profit and returns at BSP are some of the simpler ones; drawdowns, P-Values, odds availability after certain intervals, Monte Carlo simulations and volatility are some more complex measurements.
If you observe most widely read tipsters, you will normally see points profit and, if you’re lucky, ROI. Without extra context, this provides next to nothing. Points profit might well stand at 150pts – impressive, right? Well it’s not if the profit is reliant on a 500/1 winner with the rest of the record being terrible. ROI could be 50% – have you found the best tipster in the history of the world? Maybe, but not if returns are reliant on one bet winning or a very small sample.
In another example of ‘good practice’ from the free tipping world, Daryl Carter of www.gg.co.uk produced an extremely detailed report on his 2022 performance & how this will shape his plans moving forward. It is well worth a read and can be viewed here. Daryl has also provided similar updates after each calendar month in 2023.
By incorporating even the most basic of wider metrics, followers can quite quickly ascertain the quality of a service and its suitability for their betting, helping them to sort through the seemingly infinite pool of sources to choose the right punting advice for them.
Two common themes I would like to return to here are timing and price. As referenced when discussing the relative outlier, Punting Pointers, there are practices in the ‘paid’ tipping industry that could quite easily be employed by tipsters across the board. Minimum prices, an avoidance of stand out prices, a consideration for how mature the market is, recording without Best Odds Guaranteed and an acknowledgement of exchanges are some and they are all positives that could enhance services with relatively little adjustment.
Seeing some of these basic, easy to employ practices become ‘norms’ within the tipping world could happen overnight. They take little or no time, are easy to understand and can be presented alongside tips as they are without issue. Why they are not common is what we as followers have to try to work out.
The Elephant In The Room: Motivations
Above, I roughly categorised tipsters into four groups:
- The most popular ‘free tipsters’
- The ‘other’ experts (most of whom charge)
- The ‘less scrupulous’
- The ‘survivors’
After observing all four, I would only accuse the third group of doing anything untoward.
Despite this, we have to consider more than just the motivations of those who write the content.
This section has little to do with the tipster, but more to do with the organisations they work for, how they are funded and what their motivations are.
Oddschecker, At The Races, The Racing Post, Betfair and Sporting Life are a handful of the larger ‘hosts’ for tipsters. Away from a few laudable exceptions, they don’t employ many of the most basic best practices for tipping discussed above. Why?
The answer may well be that they can’t. Their income doesn’t come directly from you, the end user. It predominantly comes from advertising, affiliate deals and tie-ups with bookmakers. Some of them are even owned by bookmakers (either entirely or in part).
Your eyes, clicks and data are what is for sale here, not tips.
Could an Oddshcecker tipster recommend a minimum price considering that the main feature of their website is comparing odds and clicking through to bet on the best one available?
Are Racing Post tipsters likely to recommend the Betfair Starting Price (or BSP) for horses that they think will be undervalued in the market at the off without an incentive for their publication?
Would any of these publications consider a later release time for tips to provide better value for followers if that meant a smaller pool of visitors to their websites?
The obvious answer to each of these questions is ‘no’.
This is not a criticism of any of these organisations as they, like all of us, are acting in their own self-interests, trying to maximise their income. The key thing to consider here is that factoring motivations into our search for sources of tips is key.
What is the point of a tipster?
Above, I settled on a simple answer to the question ‘What is the point of a tipster?’, stating that they should provide profitable tips for their followers.
If we revisit my early betting and imagine that I was a tipster would I, a relative novice. have been providing profitable tips? On paper yes – if you were quick, for a short amount of time and at the cost of removing your ability to use your bookmaker accounts.
On paper does not mean reality.
When we consider tipsters, we should look for more.
After reading through hundreds (if not thousands!) of tipster records and write-ups, I would suggest that two features – a sensible timing of tip release and an avoidance of stand-out prices should be the bare minimum.
Others, such as drawdown analysis, price changes after certain intervals, value on exchanges and volatility should all be considered based on our individual motivations as followers.
In conclusion, I would like to add the words realistic and sustainable to the answer I have given to the question ‘What is the point of a tipster?’. It is still a simple answer, but it helps us to avoid those that won’t make us profit in the long-term.
Is the SBC walking the walk?
This is by no means an advert for the Smart Betting Club as I found (and still use) many sources of information that are independent of the SBC before I had joined as a member and started doing work here.
Despite this, recent projects and SBC reports make it quite clear about how these practices are viewed by the SBC when assessing tipsters for members:
- Some tipsters have been removed from the ‘SBC Hall Of Fame’ due to their tip release time
- Other tipsters have had proofing terminated after taking ridiculous stand-out prices or refusing to acknowledge results that needed to be altered on their records
- Newer tipping services are adopting many recommended policies such as ‘3 bookmakers on Oddschecker’ odds availability, ‘fair odds recording’ for tips that quickly contract in price and membership caps to provide the best value for members
These are just some of the things that are needed to sort ‘the wheat from the chaff’ in this unregulated and often illusory industry. Hopefully, they, like the basics argued for above, will become the norm over time.