BY KELLMAN OUT OF PESSOA
The study of literature isn’t generally thought of as a course to make you rich, so when a wagering system sprang from the pages of “A Wide Runner” by James Kelman in Not Not While the Giro (London: Polygon 1983), I was skeptical. Readers familiar with Kelman’s workhorse characters might question whether sensible investment advice could ever come from men who live in pubs and die in vats of acid. A work of art, moreover, does not exist in order to provide tips for how to beat the races; and, particularly in Kelman’s work, the delusions the archetypical loser exploits so as to pursue his shabby dreams must, in all artistic and intellectual honesty, result in failure. Be that as it may, the stop-at-a-winner money management system and the speed handicapping selection method used by John and Jock in “A Wide Runner” not only illustrate sound principles of racetrack strategy, but also offer a blatant opportunity for exponentially charged financial gain, in light of the heteronymic possibilities touted by the work of Fernando Pessoa.
Unlike some of the stories from that maiden collection, “A Wide Runner” has not been reprinted in other anthologies. Its use of slang that may seem vaguely obscure or frankly obscene to readers outside of the Scottish punter community, and its focus on a subculture that international publishing concerns evidently deem unmarketable may well have rendered the story that has the potential to revolutionize the betting markets of the world obsolete, but what do acquisitions editors and publishing house accountants know of high finance? Whatever choices these publishers and Kelman made with respect to this 5000-word story, we are more interested in the choices the player may make, in light of what Kelman and, by extension, Pessoa here reveal.
“A Wide Runner” begins as the young narrator, Jock, is discovered sleeping in a London college garden shed by a man who subsequently offers him a job as a porter at the college. Jock meets John, a porter near retirement age who is prone to bet and mostly lose huge sums on the horses. Whatever social standing the elder John might have had has been eroded by his need to borrow money from nearly everyone he knows, and so John may take Jock for a new, untapped friend (not to mention, a surrogate son) and a fellow seasoned punter who can appreciate the finer points of the game. Work, trips to the betting shop, and hours at the pub keep Jock and John occupied until John wins a hefty multiple bet payoff. This enables him to embark on a well-capitalized foray into a system that someone he knew used successfully before going broke for other reasons.
“The system is quite well known, nothing startling; it’s called stop-at-a-winner and in principle consists of a minimum 1 bet and a maximum of 4,” the narrator conveys John’s explanation, unveiling a progression that increases according to the proportions 10-20-30-40. Win or lose, the betting stops after the fourth bet, but once you win, you go home. “In theory, to choose one winner from four is not too difficult,” and yet, “When somebody’s on a losing streak, everything can go crazy.”
Once they decide to place bets according to the stop-at-a-winner progression, they determine a method to pick the winners. To assist his characters in their quest to chart previously uncharted territory (or to demonstrate how thoroughly dedicated they are), Kelman poses an equine virus that puts a halt to all horse racing, so in order to ply their scheme, the punters go to the dogs. That is, they study the results of greyhound races in the stacks of newspapers John just happens to have at hand to see which methods have proven to be most successful. The records they study aren’t nearly as sophisticated as the Daily Racing Form past performances available to handicappers in the U.S., but this approach is more sophisticated than what most punters do at the track just because it is a plan. This approach also demands fidelity to the method chosen, so that once they see that the “time dog” (the dog posting the fastest time in its recent races) is most often the winner, Jock and John become speed handicappers. Committed to this method of picking winners and to the stop-at-a-winner betting system, our men “don’t need no fucking luck,” John says, because they, “eliminate the fucking middle man,” i.e., the bettor himself.
Fair enough. Most people assume that racetrack success is purely a matter of luck and many know that you often beat yourself by second-guessing bad decisions made worse as you identify yourself as a loser not just for a day at the races but for a lifetime of missed opportunities simply because you just don’t have what it takes to be able to look into the mirror and say, “You are a winner.” What’s harder for readers who don’t habitually play the races to grasp is the need John has to share his bankroll with a partner whose bets are to be identical to his own. And yet, this sort of symbiotic co-dependence is not uncommon at the track. Punters will share information and match each other’s bets. Even a by-the-numbers method such as speed handicapping can spawn debate over which figure best represents what the runner will do next. More than strategy, though, and more to the point of the alliance between Kelman’s characters, punters who join forces get moral support. Could it be, then, that this is a lame ploy to thwart your weaknesses by creating another entity that can stand in for you, an entity that can function as a third person or even as, some might say, the “fucking middleman” the process is designed to eliminate?
Yes and no. Driven by a notion that stop-at-a-winner is so powerful that no off-site bookie will take their bets, they spend hours commuting to and from the track, although it seems extravagant to go to such lengths to attend just one or a few races. But they keep to their system and their bankroll grows, even surviving the occasional three-day losing streak. John and Jock are comfortable playing the favorites their method often picks, and so their system seem like a key to the mint rather than a variation on the classic sucker gambit of chasing your losses. But another losing streak eventually sets up a decisive finish: Jock follows the method and system, backing a “time dog” longshot while John backs the favorite because circumstances make the “time dog” look like a bad play. The “time dog” wins, the younger man hauls in a bundle, the friendship sours, Jock leaves; John stays and resumes losing.
Now, a general reader might think the narrator was right to quit a winner, that the system, however successful it may have been in the short run, was ruinous, and that the brunt of the story is not meant to focus on the young and feckless Jock but on the old and pathetic John. A reader versed in the arts of handicapping and wagering might think that, as crude as the selection method and betting scheme were, such a system might well generate profits, particularly if it applied more advanced selection techniques and multiplied wagers according to a more aggressive progression.
Readers of Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, meanwhile, have another idea: rather than pair up into a single betting entity, Kelman’s characters should have split up into heteronyms. What better way to “eliminate the fucking middle man” than to create separate bettors, each following a peculiar scheme? Like the heteronyms Pessoa created to write poetry, comment on each other’s work, and intrude into his own life, the heteronym horseplayers would each follow his or her own approach to picking winners.
These beings may seem similar to characters in fiction or drama, but to apply the principles of Pessoan heteronymy to the track, you must appreciate how they differ from literary characters: one difference is, these characters act in the real world. Whether they act strictly in character or in a way which embodies the quirks of their creator, they publish work in their own names. By setting them loose in the world as autonomous individuals, Pessoa (or, you, the boss of your own private gambling mob) could only claim to have a kind of remote control over them. Another difference is, as Pessoa explains, “The origin of my heteronyms is basically an aspect of hysteria that exists within me.” As a measure to control the potential for hysteria, then, each of the heteronym punters would use the stop-at-a-winner wagering system outlined by Kelman.
Unlike James Kelman (1946- ), Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) is not someone whose books could be expected to contain practical references to the track. Nevertheless, any entrepreneur who would breed racing heteronyms inspired by Kelman out of Pessoa should consider the poetic bloodlines. Pessoa wrote poetry under three principal heteronyms as well as under what he called an “orthonym” of his own name, in addition to employing some sub-heteronyms, as he created separate bodies of work that variously echo pastoral and classical traditions and the verse of Walt Whitman. Pessoa’s line on his entries was: “[Alberto] Caiero has one discipline: Things must be felt as they are. Ricardo Reis has another kind of discipline: Things must be felt, not only as they are, but also so as to fall in with a certain ideal of classic measure and rule. In Álvaro de Campos, things must simply be felt.”
Because none of these heteronyms, not even Campos, displayed much aptitude for the sporting life, I do not recommend reviving them for the purpose of teaching the basics of pari-mutuel wagering and then sending each off with a bankroll in order to win your fortune(s). Besides, Caiero and company were Pessoa’s problems; or, the solutions inspired by his own hysteria. You have problems of your own, serious personal problems that may only be resolved by a work-out at the track. To attempt to deal with these problems without first familiarizing yourself with the most efficient selection methodologies and ways of integrating these into a coherent heteronymic deployment strategy would be a terrible mistake. But not as much as a mistake as ignoring them.
No matter what you do, these heteronyms of yours are there, festering inside of the fucking middleman that is you, infecting you with the hysteria of insurmountable desire. Without them, you are nothing. With them, you can be a winner. But only with my help.
From Divide and Conquer: Lose Yourself and Beat the Races by Doug Nufer (Reno, Nevada: Off-track Books)