My Favourite Gambling Format

Despite my curmudgeonry about PokerStars, it’s fair to say I spent some of my best years working there. It was during the halcyon days of 2006-11 that I was introduced to my favourite gambling format – the Calcutta. Today, I’ll tell you what it is, why it’s great (or sometimes bad), and tell you about one I’ll be running.

(A quick side note, it only took five words to mention that I used to work for PokerStars. That’s a new, and probably unbreakable, personal best).

A Calcutta is a form of sports betting auction where the lots are made up of players/teams for a given event, and the prize pool is shared out based on the results. In a basic example you would sell all the Champions League teams, then pay out the prize money to anyone that makes the quarter-finals.

I’ve run a few of these though, and I’ve learned that the best Calcuttas are not that basic. They need wrinkles. The keys to a good Calcutta are:

  • A shortish timeframe because attention spans are limited and it’s not that fun to wait ages for a pay-off.
  • Plenty of competitive/interesting lots to bid on, so that not everyone is interested in just a select few.  
  • Enough complexity to make life difficult for the boring mathsy players who are guided only by the output of a spreadsheet.

So, without further tedious ado, I give you…

The Euro 2020 Calcutta (with Olympic Sprinkles)

Yes, an unholy combination of the upcoming Euros with just a dash of the might-be-upcoming-but-could-still-be-cancelled Olympics. The prize pool will be split as follows:

  • 30% to the Euro 2020 winner
  • 20% to the Euro 2020 runner-up
  • 10% to each of the Euro 2020 semi-finalists
  • 5% to each of the Euro 2020 quarter-finalists
  • 2.5% to the first team with a player sent off
  • 2.5% to the team with the first missed penalty
  • 2.5% to the team with the Golden Boot winner
  • 2.5% to the team with the worst match losing margin
  • Remainder: Awarded to the lot that wins the most Olympic gold medals

There is one small twist to these payouts –  you only win a percentage of the prize pool with your winning bid removed. E.g. if you paid £30 for your winning lot and the total prize pool was £250, you only win the percentage of £250 – £30 = £220.

This is a measure I’m introducing to limit overbidding. It’s possible to “juice” the prize pool when you know there’s a good chance you’ll be winning back most of your own money. With this rule in place, you’re only juicing the pot for the other bidders.

The final Remainder prize category is necessary to pay out the small residual pool (~10%) that is left-over using this mechanism. As the Olympics follows closely behind the Euros, it seemed like a nice way to clear out the prize pool and make archery interesting at the same time.

The Lots

I’ve diced the lots up as follows, to make sure there’s something of value in each:

  1. Team GB (England, Wales, Scotland)
  2. The Eastern Block (Russia, Ukraine, Turkey)
  3. The Wunderbastards (German, Austria, Switzerland)
  4. The Scandies (Sweden, Finland, Denmark)
  5. France + 1 randomly drawn
  6. Belgium  + 1 randomly drawn
  7. Spain + 1 randomly drawn
  8. Portugal + 1 randomly drawn
  9. Italy + 1 randomly drawn
  10. Netherlands + 1 randomly drawn

Random pot for Euros: Poland, North Macedonia, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Croatia & Hungary

What’s so good about Calcuttas?

Well first of all, you don’t have to pay any rake. You might overpay for a lot, or perhaps you get a bargain, but overall, it’s far superior to a regular bookmaker because there’s no commission on the market (usually around 10%). Or at least there isn’t when I’m running them. 

Secondly, there’s loads to cheer for. As the Calcutta is user-defined, you can have as many prize categories as you like and shape the lots however you see fit. That in itself is quite a fun challenge – I put a couple of hours into designing this one. It can be a committee effort too, and that discussion is always enjoyable.

Having so much to cheer for means you get a lot of in-play entertainment. You could also call it “sweat value” (poker terminology) or “experience utility” (academic terminology), but it basically amounts to the fact you get to enjoy your bet for longer. That’s often not the case with traditional sports betting where a bet can lose early on in an event, killing the fun before it’s even started.

Thirdly, there’s a social aspect to it. Usually when I’ve run these before, you set aside an auction night where you all get to meet up, drink and bid. It’s a bit like a fantasy football draft night. This time I’ll probably have to do it by Zoom, but it’s still a chance to catch up with old degenerate friends.

Finally, auctions are fun. It’s a game before the game, in which you compete to get a bargain, or just mischievously bid to push up a price. You can be as cold and strategic as you like, but it’s hard not to get caught up in the silliness of it. Putting in a late bid when the hammer is about to fall is intoxicating and infuriating.

Alright, but what’s bad about them?

Well, it’s still gambling, so that’s not really ideal. Just make sure you’re playing for the fun and social element, and not just for the money, as I discussed in my previous blog. That way you can come out a winner regardless of the result.

Sometimes these events get too expensive to be considered responsible. That’s why I’ve put in a new rule to try and curb excessive bidding. You have to set yourself a budget and stick to it. It’s okay to walk away without any lots as long as you enjoyed the auction experience. The organiser can do their part to avoid this pitfall by inviting people that are interested in similar stakes.

But that’s it. Those are the downsides. So go find some gambley friends and organise an auction night. Feel free to use my stupid format, and get in touch if you need help. If I know you personally and you want to play mine, please get in touch.

The tournament kicks off on June 11. Go on England!

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