Team events: beating the bookmakers?!

by Peter Zhdanov
3/15/2013 – "Many of you must have heard about sports betting and odds offered by bookmakers," writes Peter Zhdanov. While he is in no way interested in making money by placing bets, the analytical aspect of the problem seemed to him to be worth researching. His article is a lesson in how to precisely work out the odds in a team tournaments.

Team events: beating the bookmakers?!

By Peter Zhdanov

Let’s say you have two teams composed of four chess players each. This is typical for the Chess Olympiad, World Team Chess Championship and other important events. How high is the probability that team A will win? How probable is a draw? Team B’s victory? Here is a relatively easy step-by-step guide. As an example we will use the match Romania-Russia from round one of the recent Women’s World Team Chess Championship.

Step 1

Calculate the rating differences on each board and find out the expected score of the player.

Example: Foisor (2401) vs Gunina (2505), a rating difference of 104 points. If we consult the FIDE Handbook, we will see that it Foisor is expected to score 0.36 points per game against Gunina.

Step 2

Find out the expected probability of a win, draw and loss in each game.

Example: Foisor has White. The FIDE website tells us that she won 50% of her White games and drew 34% of them. Alternatively, you can use a ChessBase database. It offers even more accurate statistics. Since a win is worth 1 point and a draw – 0.5, we obtain a simple equation:

0.5x+ 0.5*0.34x=0.36

x is about 0.537. The probability of a win is approximately 0.5*x=0.2685, i.e. about 26.9%. The probability of a draw is, correspondingly, (36%-26.9%)*2=18.2%. The probability of a loss is (100%-probability of win – probability of draw) = 100-26.9%-18.2%=54.9%

Note: apply this formula to the weaker of the two players. Otherwise you might end up in a situation when there is no solution. For example, if the expected result is 0.9 points per game and the player draws 30% of the games and wins 40%, then it is impossible to achieve a 0.9 result while maintaining the proportion, so we should compose the equation for the second player (expected result is 0.1).

Step 3

Repeat steps 2 and 3 for all the four boards in the team.

Title ROMANIA Rating
Title RUSSIA Rating
IM Foisor Cristina Adela 2401
IM Gunina Valentina 2505
WGM Bulmaga Irina 2354
GM Kosteniuk Alexandra 2495
WGM Lami Alina 2353
IM Galliamova Alisa 2459
WGM Voicu-Jagodzinsky Carmen 2281
WGM Girya Olga 2440

These are the input variables:

Win1 Draw1 Lose1 Win2 Draw2 Lose2 Win3 Draw3 Lose3 Win4 Draw4 Lose4
0.269 0.182 0.549 0.234 0.13 0.636 0.293 0.113 0.594 0.202 0.175 0.623

Step 4

Each game can have three theoretically possible results: White wins, draw, Black wins. Hence, if we have 4 boards, there are 3^4=81 possible outcomes of the match. It is easy to calculate each probability.

Example 1: board 1 wins, board 2 loses, boards three and four make draws. The probability of this outcome (using data from Step 3) is: 0.269*0.612*0.034*0.204*100%= appr. 0.338%. As you can see, this is a very small probability. Example 2: and how high is the chance that Russia will win on all the four boards? 0.549*0.636*0.594*0.623*100%= appr. 12.92%.

Step 5

To calculate the probability of the match ending in a draw/victory for a certain side, we have to add up the probabilities of all the corresponding outcomes. All the 81 possible outcomes:

1111, 1110, 111=, 1101, 1100, 110=, 11=1, 11=0, 11==, 1011, 1010, 101=, 1001, 1000, 100=, 10=1, 10=0, 10==, 1=11, 1=10, 1=1=, 1=01, 1=00, 1=0=, 1==1, 1==0, 1===, 0111, 0110, 011=, 0101, 0100, 010=, 01=1, 01=0, 01==, 0011, 0010, 001=, 0001, 0000, 000=, 00=1, 00=0, 00==, 0=11, 0=10, 0=1=, 0=01, 0=00, 0=0=, 0==1, 0==0, 0===, =111, =110, =11=, =101, =100, =10=, =1=1, =1=0, =1==, =011, =010, =01=, =001, =000, =00=, =0=1, =0=0, =0==, ==11, ==10, ==1=, ==01, ==00, ==0=, ===1, ===0, ====

Where 1 stands for a win of a player on the corresponding board, = for a draw, 0 for a loss. E.g., 1111 means that all the players in the first team won their matches. 1110 means that three first players won their matches and player #4 lost.

Here are the 31 possible outcomes that result in Team 1’s victory:

1111, 1110, 111=, 1101, 110=, 11=1, 11=0, 11==, 1011, 101=, 10=1, 1=11, 1=10, 1=1=, 1=01, 1==1, 1===, 0111, 011=, 01=1, 0=11, =111, =110, =11=, =101, =1=1, =1==, =011, ==11, ==1=, ===1

Outcomes that result in draws (19):

1100, 1010, 1001, 10==, 1=0=, 1==0, 0110, 0101, 01==, 0011, 0=1=, 0==1, =10=, =1=0, =01=, =0=1, ==10, ==01, ====

The remaining 31 outcomes represent Team 2’s victories. You don’t really need to calculate them, but here is a list anyway:

1000, 100=,10=0, 1=00, 0100, 010=,01=0, 0010, 001=, 0001, 0000, 000=, 00=1, 00=0, 00==,0=10, 0=01, 0=00, 0=0=,0==0, 0===,=100, =010, =001, =000, =00=,=0=0, =0==, ==00, ==0=,===0

Step 6

Calculate the probabilities of all the outcomes of Team 1’s victories (see Step 4) and add them up. Similarly, calculate the probabilities of outcomes that result in a draw and sum them up.

Note: I am using an Excel sheet for this so that I don’t have to perform this calculation manually. Just input the variables from Step 3 into the sheet. The software will do the rest.

Example: in the example above (Romania-Russia) the chance of Romania’s triumph is about 12.91%; the probability of a tie – 17.55%. The remaining 69.54% stand for Russia’s victory.

Step 7

Translate from Math language into bookmaker’s jargon. If Romania’s chance to win is 12.91%, it means that the bookmaker is supposed to offer odds of about 100/12.91=appr. 7.75 for Romania’s victory. In the reality the coefficient will probably be lower, because the bookmakers charge a certain commission.

Similarly, the odds for a draw should be about 5.7 (100/17.55) and for Russia’s win – 1.44 (100/69.64). I have compared these coefficients to a line offered by one of the bookmakers:

Romania – 11, Draw – 4.5, Russia – 1.31

We can see that, according to our model, it didn’t make much sense to bet on Russia and/or on a draw, because the offered odds were below the expected values. On the opposite, Romania was somewhat underestimated by the bookmakers.

I have considered a few other lines, and in most cases the coefficients obtained using our model were relatively close to the ones used by bookmakers. However, there were some notable exceptions too.

Remark 1

Unlike the attention-getting title of the article suggests, this model was not designed for beating the bookmakers. It is intended for those inquisitive minds who have always wanted to know how high the chances are for “their” team to succeed. Naturally, the method described above works for any number of boards, so it is not restricted to 4 vs. 4 competitions. Initially, I have been experimenting with 2 vs. 2 models for the sake of simplicity.

Remark 2

No model is perfect. This one has an underlying assumption that players perform according to their FIDE ratings and similarly to their previous results, e.g., a “drawmaster” makes more draws than an aggressive player. Obviously, other parameters can be considered. For example, the personal score between two people; tournament standings; current shape of the players, etc.

Or, another interesting idea, use not FIDE Elo, but estimates of FIDE Elo with White and with Black. Obviously, most people perform stronger with White than with Black, so it does make a difference.

Remark 3

Even if you discover that the model suggests the odds to be 20, while the bookmaker offers 40, don’t be in a hurry to bet. While this strategy should be beneficial in the long run, your chances to succeed in a particular case are very slim. For example, Romania succumbed to Russia 0.5-3.5:

Title ROMANIA Rating
Title RUSSIA Rating
IM Foisor Cristina Adela 2401
IM Gunina Valentina 2505
WGM Bulmaga Irina 2354
GM Kosteniuk Alexandra 2495
WGM Lami Alina 2353
IM Galliamova Alisa 2459
WGM Voicu-Jagodzinsky Carmen 2281
WGM Girya Olga 2440

So if you had bet on Romania (11 is a higher coefficient than 7.55, see Step 7), you would have lost your money.


This article would not have been written without the support of my best friend and avid math & chess fan Nikolai Smirnov, with whom we discussed the idea in general and the potential application of the model in real life during the Chess Olympiad 2012.

Peter Zhdanov is an IT project manager, expert and author of two books on parliamentary debate, BSc in Applied Mathematics & Computer Science and a PhD student in Sociology. In chess he is a Russian candidate master, author, manager of grandmaster Natalia Pogonina and editor of the Pogonina web site.

Previous articles by Peter Zhdanov

Who are the Chess Cash Kings 2012?
02.02.2013 – The idea of creating a live rating list of the prize money winnings of top GMs was suggested a year ago on our pages by Peter Zhdanov. The key message of his article was that making the financial details publicly available is a crucial step towards transforming chess into a mainstream sport and making the game more popular. Peter has now progressed from theory to practice.

Geoffrey Borg replies to Zhdanov on the FIDE Women Grand Prix
28.09.2012 – The call by Peter Zhdanov for a "fair player selection process" in the Grand Prix did not meet with universal aclaim. In fact most readers disagreed with the notion that the cycle could or needed to be run on purely strength-based criteria. "While we thank Mr Zhdanov for his article," writes FIDE CEO Geoffrey Borg, "some deeper research and objectivity would have been appreciated." Resounding reply
FIDE Grand Prix: A call for a fair player selection process
27.09.2012 – How are the participants of the FIDE Grand Prix chosen? Why are some top players not invited, while some of their less distinguished colleagues are taking part? Is there anything we can do about it? Peter Zhdanov reflects on the topic and pays special attention to women’s chess, which is relatively neglected compared to that of their male counterparts. What do you think?
Theory of success in life applied to chess
27.08.2012 – What are the factors that define success? How does one become successful in life in general and in chess in particular? Peter Zhdanov explains KPIs (key performance indicators) used to measure success and seeks to apply them to the game we all love. By objectively evaluating all the components described in his article, you can create your own plan of becoming a successful person.
Is chess not for everybody? – Feedback from our readers
05.07.2012 – Boris Gelfand said he thought that chess was not for everyone, Peter Zhdanov wrote a piece saying it was. Chess must be presented to the general public for what it is: a sport, an art and science. Many readers agree: "Let us make a Smörgåsbord and have everyone decide what is tasty for them," writes one, and another says we should emulate the mentalist Derren Brown.

Is chess not for everybody?
04.07.2012 – Recently Boris Gelfand said he thought that chess was not for everyone. "Chess is for people who want to make an intellectual effort, who have respect for the game, and we shouldn't make the game more simple so that more people would enjoy it,” said the world championship challenger. Do you think this is true? Peter Zhdanov, IT project manager and debate expert, begs to differ.

Do Women Have a Chance against Men in Chess?
08.03.2012 – As we know all too well: most of the strongest players in the world are male. In the past we have speculated on the reasons for this gender discrepancy, with vigorous reader participation. On International Women's Day Peter Zhdanov, who is married to a very strong female player, provides us with some valuable statistics, comparing men and women on a country-by-country basis. Eye-opening.
Do men and women have different brains?
30.06.2009 – In a recent thought-provoking article WGM Natalia Pogonina and Peter Zhdanov presented their views on the topic of why women are worse at chess than men. A number of our readers were unconviced: they think that efforts at "explaining" differences between the sexes only from environmental factors are doomed at the outset. Recent studies seem to support this. Feedback and articles.
Women and men in chess – smashing the stereotypes
20.06.2009 On June 5, 2009 WGM Natalia Pogonina and Peter Zhdanov got married – she a Women's Grandmaster, he a successful IT-specialist and debate expert. Peter is also Natalia’s manager, together they are writing a book called "Chess Kamasutra". Today they share with us their views on the perennial topic why women are worse at chess than men, and take a look at the future of women’s chess.

Topics Statistics , Betting

Peter Zhdanov is an IT project manager, expert and author of two books on parliamentary debate
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