Dog-Race Betting Obsession in Nairobi

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On Mfangano Street in Nairobi’s Central Business District, stands a nondescript building next to the Ismail Rahimtullah Walji Trust library which hosts a betting depot for Betin Kenya company. Yesternight, throngs of men filled the 50 square foot room clustered around betting stations, eyes fixed on TV screens. On the floor, used tickets litter the room. The overwhelming data on the floor drew my attention, I couldn’t resist it, so I ushered myself in and grabbed a seat at the observer’s bay.

Soon, I was collecting tickets from the floor, little did I know I would stumble upon a new craze in the city – dog race betting. Fifty-eight percent of the tickets I collected were on dog-races followed by 30 percent on horse racing and 12 percent on football. Quite an odd ratio given the English premier league season is at it’s peak and the African cup of nations just got started. I needed to confirm it for myself, so I moved close to the display section to watch the races underway. Dog races were on display every two minutes.

I finally understood why dog races are popular. Instead of waiting 90 minutes to know whether one is lucky in a football match, you have to only wait for 1 minute, which is the duration for each dog-race. A perfect quick indulgence after work to “boost the day’s wages”. Man’s best friend has once again come to his master’s aid by providing a means to make quick. However, in this competition only Greyhounds are invited – they are baited with a dummy moving rabbit and they chase it to the finish line once the gates are open. Gamblers keep watch on the number and color on the dog clothing hoping their betting combination matches the outcome.

A man holding 5 tickets came stood next to me. I inquired if I could have a look at his tickets, he could only agree to let me have them once the race was over. Turns out anyone holding the winning ticket can present it to the cashier for the cash reward.  After a minute, he had a frown on his face and I knew he had lost the bets. I approached and asked for the tickets once again and he had to qualms passing the tickets to me.

It was as I had anticipated, all of 5 tickets were on a dog race. The stake (buying price) for each was Kshs 50 each with the highest odd at 87.72 that would have had a max reward of Kshs 4385 – a multiple of 86 times of the stake (Kshs 50). However, this required the odds of the same dog number two to win the race, and from the odd calculation, the dog had never won a race. The other tickets had odds around 4.69 which required a particular dog to finish in certain positions.

My new acquaintance was back to the betting station, so I followed him to see his new bets – it was still on dog racing, this time 7 tickets with each at Kshs 50. Once again he lost and the anguish was palpable from the squashing of the tickets. I decided to strike a conversation with him.I asked David (not his real name) why he bets. He had not specific reason but he retaliated it is some form of addiction. To that I further inquired why dog racing? Again not a specific response but it seemed to him that the less factors know about dogs racing the higher the likelihood of winning.

The subliminal conviction that make people bet on things that they know less ABOUT is baffling – it seems the opposite of investment in which investors seek as much information as possible for a venture. While I was there, he had already lost Kshs 600, and might have lost more earlier. This reminded me of the statistical concept known as Gambler’s Ruin.

The Gambler’s Ruin states that a persistent gambler with finite wealth, playing a fair game will eventually and inevitably go broke against an opponent with infinite wealth (the betting company). This is caused by a gambler who raises his stake when he wins but does not reduce it when he loses. Since the probability of winning each bet is constant, the probability of winning a series of bets until one’s entire stake is lost is quite low. They key is to always preserving the stake by lowering the bets after a loss, but it seemed my new acquaintance (David) was doing the opposite – soon his entire stake would probably be wiped out. I proceeded to ask him if he had a strategy.

His strategy was to buy more tickets to increase the chances of winning. I wish he knew about the Gambler’s ruin. We were soon joined by one of his friends who argued him to make the next bet on horse racing. He excused himself to go to an MPESA shop to replenish his stake. Perhaps there is a pattern here; initial bets are made on dog races, if no success is achieved, proceed to horse racing, hence the higher ratio of dog and horse race bets.

It hit 10:00 pm and it was time to close the betting shop and set for home!

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