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The Independent Culture
A FRIEND in Las Vegas signs off messages with this postscript: "The smart money was on Goliath." Two recent sporting upsets underline the wisdom of this: the defeat of New Zealand by France in the rugby World Cup, and Scotland's victory over England at soccer at Wembley last week.

Was there a single commentator who seriously fancied the underdogs? The bookies set the odds on a New Zealand win at such a prohibitive level (in view of the betting tax) as to stop all bets.

These sorts of events are where spread betting comes into its own. IG Index in London set the spread at 26-29 points, so backers of New Zealand had to win by more than 29 points to show a profit. At half-time, with New Zealand comfortably in the lead, a French victory was too remote a prospect to merit a bet. The only question, it seemed, was by how much the All Blacks would win.

In the first Scotland-England game IG had their most lopsided book ever on a football match. There is an element of patriotism in punters' psychology, which makes them want to back England. The superiority index was set at 0.2 to 0.5 goals, so punters on England were starting at a 0.5 disadvantage. A one-goal margin would see them comfortably in profit; they got two.

Scotland winning at Wembley - where punters backed England to make light of a 1.4-goal disadvantage - was a huge upset and a good result for IG, though not enough to wipe out the losses on the first game. But the fact that England qualified for the European Championship is a big plus for British bookies, who can look forward to a lot of action next summer.

What are the conditions for betting on sporting upsets? First, everyone is against the underdogs and writes them off. Second, such a reversal of form has not happened for yonks. Most important is value. The price against David vanquishing Goliath would have been about 33-1. What could a mere boy with a sling do? Answer: take the money down!