Game, Set and Fixed - Match Fixing in Tennis

I enjoy watching tennis and also playing it. Since I am no longer able to ride a bike at the level I used to in my racing days, I play tennis as an enjoyable way of staying fit. Tennis is all action, points are scored all of the time and there is a guaranteed winner at the end of every match.

I would rather watch tennis than torture myself watching a game of soccer (association football, one of the many varieties of football games). Maybe soccer is some sort of S&M activity with 89 minutes of tedium followed by a combined total of 60 seconds of ecstatic release. Mind you I can still get tied in knots watching Andy Murray playing tennis. I have only watched half the coverage of Andy's major title victories because he appears to like labouring the task. The only field game I can watch from start to finish is hurling but then coming from a Kilkenny family makes the process rather easy as we rarely lose.

For most viewers of a tennis match their only interest is seeing a good game, although they might cheer on a favoured player. Most watchers of a tennis match have no interest in wagering on the contest. They would naturally want to see a fair game so that they'd know their time was well spent watching the match. 

Currently, the men's game has two titans (one more titan than the other), another two players waning in their abilities and then we have Mr Wawrinka filling the gap between the aforementioned and the rest. There are well over a thousand professional players in the men's game who have no hope of being a tennis star. These journeymen scratch around for a living in Challenger and Futures tournaments, rarely getting the chance to play the top players in the ATP events. Equipment, training and coaching staff, travel, accommodation and nutrition have all to be paid for and so it must be very tempting to guarantee an income through fixing a game for a betting syndicate.

However, most betting is done on the higher ranked ATP tournaments because these are the only events that get televised. And yet, it is in these tournaments that some players in the higher rankings will agree to fix a match. An interesting (albeit very long) article has appeared on Green All Over (original article, The Tennis Racket, acknowledged) with regards to match fixing in tennis. The article is so long that I will summarise it with a series of bullet points that I wish to discuss.

  • 16 players in the top 50 are accused of match fixing.
  • These players are in the pay of match fixing syndicates who bet on the outcomes of fixed games.
  • Investigators devised an algorithm and applied it to 26,000 matches to identify fixing.
  • The algorithm identified lopsided betting patterns e.g. a player is far ahead in the match, the syndicate bet against him at favourable odds and that player then throws the game.
  • Presented with the information, tennis authorities appear not to have done enough (if anything) to stamp out match fixing.

There are two perspectives from which you can view these allegations; one based on the integrity of the game and another from the gambling aspect.

Firstly, the non-betting public expect to see a fair match. We can probably be sure that the players who contest the later stages of the Grand Slams are not involved in match fixing. Such players are not going to throw a match for tens of thousands of dollars when they have a chance of winning hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money plus all the advertising and merchandising contracts that come with being a top player. 

Players in the Challenger and Futures events, which have no attached betting markets, are not going to fix games either. It's the players caught between the élite and the Challenger/Futures also-rans that seem amenable to a little extra in their pay packets. What can be done about this? I am not sure. Other than a sting operation that videos a player accepting money before a match it is hard to prove match fixing.

Does the fixing really affect the rankings at the top of tennis? I don't think so. The players you would expect to see winning Grand Slams and the ATP events do so. Can you really stop a player from playing within himself to move the odds in a tennis game, to be a set down and then comfortably win the match?

Of course, when gangsters get involved in betting they do so from a fixing perspective. Why bother creating a trading algorithm when you can bribe someone. Of course, if gangsters don't make money from their activities then their first recourse is to violence. As mentioned in the article on Green All Over, even Betfair employees have been threatened by these syndicates.

Now let's look at tennis from another perspective, the betting one. In particular we will look at it as a fundamental trader and as an algorithmic trader. The fundamental trader on hearing the news of match fixing will be angry. After all, they have put a lot of work into creating rankings and algorithms to determine their own odds line with which to perform a statistical arbitrage. For the old-school bettor this must be disheartening. 

For myself, as an algo-trader, I am thinking of what is this algorithm that can spot a fixed match? Can I replicate that code? How can I determine who these 16 match fixing players are and bet against them? Will a Weight of Flow analysis help me to determine when one of these 16 players is going to create an opportunity for me to short the market?

Yes, it all sounds very devious but this is what the markets have presented to me and I should do all I can to take advantage of it. If the tennis authorities are not interested in stopping match fixing then I have a simple decision to make. Do I wish to continue profiting from tennis or not? It's the same in financial trading, the authorities make up rules and regulations and the traders have to find ways of profiting within that construct, no matter how devious those methods might be.

I get a lot of people saying to me, "I want to make money on Betfair. How do I pick the winner of a horse race?" I answer with, "Why do you only want to make money on the winner? What about the losers or opposing the winner or trading market trends?" Yes, they are all inter-related trades but they all offer opportunities at different times during the life-cycle of a market.

For a fundamental trader in tennis the question is easy. Does match fixing remove my edge? If so then you immediately stop trading tennis or you stop being a fundamental trader. Such traders use past form to model future events. If you cannot trust past or future events then don't trade them.

It's the old-school approach to betting that I try to push people away from on this website. That is why I prefer to say trading rather than betting. In the past you only had the option of betting on a sports event. Now, there are so many other ways of making a profit. When you say "bet" you are saying one thing and one thing only. When you trade you have so many more options.

By adding a technical aspect to fundamental trading you may spot betting anomalies. The old-school approach would be to predict who is going to win a tennis match, betting on that match and then waiting for the match to be completed. By adding a technical aspect to the trade you would have additional rules for monitoring the market and looking for suspicious activity. You could then trade out of the market for a smaller loss rather than losing the whole bet.

I have joked about Casinni's age on Green All Over but only in jest as I am over 50 too. Old-school betting is not practised just by old men who formerly habituated betting shops and now begrudgingly use Betfair. Even young newcomers to sports exchanges find themselves presented with the latest books discussing how to determine the winners of all manner of sporting events when they would be far better off not reading those books and looking at sports from new and different angles. 

When I am building a trading algorithm I look at what is presented to me and go from there. If match fixing is not taken seriously by the tennis authorities and it is going to skew my ratings then what do I do? Do I trade only the bigger ATP tournaments and Grand Slams? Do I not trade in matches with a list of players that I do not trust? If court-siders are beating me to the trade in some markets are there others I can trade? Do I become a court-sider too? Can I make money from spotting suspicious betting patterns or suspicious players?

Most certainly, I do not say, "Oh well. I need to find another sport to trade." At least, not until all possibilities have been looked at. After all, I am not a connection (insider) in horse racing but I still trade. There are still angles for me to approach the horse race trading problem. I don't bet on the winner of a horse race, I trade any horse that will yield me an edge.