A story defined the question: http://fence.fenceportal.org/v7n2/text/nufer.html. My tout narrator claimed anyone could beat the races by taking Fernando Pessoa-inspired heteronyms to the track, where each of these characters would bet on the horses, using a method explained by James Kelman. Aside from reading Pessoa and Kelman, I’d gathered information by observing horse races for over twenty years. This led me to hypothesize that the crackpot advice I gave made sense: not only could the method win money, but it could also formulate the basis for a novel. In 2003, I ran an experiment at Emerald Downs, Auburn, Washington, where heteronyms used my money to make bets. Data analysis was as immediate as race results, but open to interpretation, and so I wrote the novel By Kelman Out of Pessoa.
1. The Question
There are two primary questions. The first is posed by Kelman in his story “A Wide Runner.” Is it possible to win at the races, using a scheme that appears to be the classic sucker plunge of chasing your losses? The second primary question is an enquiry into a term that is commonly applied to art: experimental. How can an experiment construct an experimental work of art?
2. Information Gathering
After reading the Kelman story, I thought of the Pessoa angle, and read books by him and his heteronyms and about him and this methods. In the 1980s, I had studied horse race handicapping to prepare myself for what then seemed like a viable career. Briefly, a player needs to pick the right horses and make the right bets in order to succeed. The Kelman plan deals with money management, after the player decides what to pick. It is not a system (an oversimplified con that dictates how to make picks and place bets). Rather than schematically have my heteronyms use a particular discipline, such as one based on speed figures, trip analysis, et. al., I made each draw on knowledge from various strategies, according to his or her predilections.
My literary models are members of the Oulipo, predominantly George Perec, Harry Mathews, and Raymond Queneau, in building a work from a system of formal constraints, and Gilbert Sorrentino via Flann O’Brien, in what may be termed “character development,” although it more resembles a deconstruction of character development.
Playing the ponies, like making art, is an intellectual enterprise that requires concentration and dedication, but it is, above all, a game. Many players, like many artists, fail because their hopes, fears, and precious notions of self-esteem distract them from the job they have to do, the work of play.
Hypothesis 1: One can win at the track by throwing oneself into a game about the game (i.e., by not indulging in a romantic self-delusion of oneself as a hero).
Hypothesis 2: As demonstrated by the Oulipo and its members, a writer can create an unusual or even a unique work by submitting to a scheme of formal constraints. A writer who follows the scientific method to discover a pattern of data can use this data to serve as the framework for a narrative.
Hypothesis 3: By considering the goal of developing a novel, a player/ writer may more easily achieve the goal of making money, as winning or losing becomes beside the point of making art.
Hypothesis 4: The pattern of variability made by the record of wagers may or may not formulate a framework for a good book, but this pattern will be as valid as any pattern derived from intuition. As Queneau argued, a pattern derived from a system of constraints is bound to be more interesting than the low level of variability of a pattern dreamed up by someone in fit of creativity.
Every week I went to the track. I deployed two heteronyms, Cal Nipper and Kelly Lane, who bet according to the stop-at-a-winner method. Each played a race, betting $2; if the horse won, the bettor stopped. If the horse lost, the bettor played another race, betting $4. If that horse lost, the bettor then played another race, betting $6, and then $8, if a fourth (and final) race was needed to fill the series. Nipper chose horses with a maximum of positives, relying on pace and speed figures, trainer patterns, and class. These won frequently at lower odds, but he had to aim at odds of at least 2-1 to recoup prior losses. Lane focused on horses that flashed one or two positives, such as front speed or equipment changes. These won less frequently, but at higher odds. Both of these players also made exacta bets, taking one horse to win and two to four to finish second. I also deployed a contrarian, Henderson Will. He played as if to lose, such as by picking a horse to finish second in exacta bets, and began by betting the maximum $8, stopping when he lost.
I should add that none of these is me: all come from me. They are, to paraphrase Pessoa, aspects of the hysteria within me. I made no bets for myself. The pari-mutuel clerks who took my often contradictory wagers must have thought I was a bit off, if they noticed me loitering alone under the nearby TV screens to watch the odds and the races before it was time to put on my bicycle gloves and ride home.
One of my rules was not to study the program in advance, so as to make my heteronyms choose in the short time between races. After all, the idea was to win and get out, not to hold out for a future opportunity. Rather than look for ideal situations, I mostly had them bet on whatever came next.
Immediately I realized that, to be true to my own advice, I couldn’t just make each of them make bets. Each of them had to think he or she was in charge of the other two. Kelly Lane was responsible for Cal Nipper and Henderson Will just as she knew they were making her do what she did.
I truly did lose myself in the complexities of the game, and became less interested in winning than in seeing, say, if Kelly’s history of substance abuse problems would return with a vengeance if she lost one more photo finish. A 4-hour weekly round-trip bike commute made me think of the $50 I’d lose if nobody won as payment for a health club membership.
At the end of each session I transcribed notes of the wagers from my program to a notebook. I recorded the type of race, the winner, the reasons for each bet, and any other information that might be noteworthy, such as a thunderstorm flooding the track or a singer forgetting the words of the national anthem.
In the step-by-step spirit of this project, I didn’t fantasize about the novel I might make of this experiment, but the potential of making something of the results of all this made it ludicrously more fun for me than it otherwise would have been.
5. Data Analysis
Cal Nipper began the season well, so well that he was allowed to think that he was having a very good season for himself. Kelly Lane stumbled out of the gate and took months to break even. Henderson Will won his first race and then began a losing streak. Nipper’s stake gradually eroded while he continued to play to keep from losing rather than to win. Lane winged it, and her wagers got to be carrying all of them. Then Will hit a couple of exactas, ensuring that even Nipper’s timidity couldn’t drag them under. In the end, Nipper lost $30, Lane won $76, and Will won $11: not much to show for some 200 wagers made in the course of 21 dates of what was a fairly limited sample. Nevertheless, the experiment won more than it lost.
Each player played true to form. Despite having an apparent will to fail, even Will prevailed (although attributing success or failure to any one heteronym may be absurd in a case where each is a composite devised by others). One practice that distinguished the winners from the loser is the winners shot for riskier propositions, so when they did win, they won more than enough to offset losses.
As the experiment approached an end, I became partial to having it end in the black. The only other season I managed to win more than losing was the year I made just one substantial bet among many puny ones, on a horse coming off a bad trip in a key race to win at 7-1, a horse I’d followed for months because of his name, The Novelist.
6. Data Interpretation
Who do you think you are? Your own person? A composite of identities made of what you and others think, a hero, a minor character, a heteronym with the power to walk off the page and into a racetrack? And anyway, who cares? People form impressions of others using all sorts of feelings and ideas, just as novelists make up characters in various ways. So why not start with data compiled from an experiment on horse race betting?
Each heteronym came into being from impressions formed by other heteronyms formed by me. Over the course of a season, each developed a voice and a story peculiar to his or her ways at the track and away from it, and the course of these ways depended entirely on how well each did at the track.
As in real life, there was some consensus as to what kind of character each character was, but there were also shades of interpretation. Consider Henderson Will, the contrarian whose mind works backwards. To Nipper, this means he thinks in an inverted word order (his work minds how his mind works); to Lane, he thinks in Spoonerisms (backwards whack birds back words).
However necessary Will’s mental disorientation was to have a devil’s advocate test Kelman’s method, in an account of relationships among heteronyms, the eccentricity that sets him apart drives the others together. Even if Lane may be more attracted to a genial maniac whose thoughts are a scramble of syllables than to a cheapskate who lives to watch the Atlanta Braves on cable, in this implicit-gone-explicit love triangle, she must, thanks to the musings of Will and the longings of Nipper, date the inept Nipper. Not that he seems so inept at the beginning, when he’s winning and confident and she’s suffering through a series of tough losses. Besides, like the others, she lives alone and is prone to feel lonely. For some reason, she has a life at the track and, for all the outside interests the others dream up for her, not much to do between racing days. Everyone’s existence here depends on what happens at the races.
A pattern forms as each heteronym, in turn, presents a bit of his or her first-person narrative of dealing with one of the others, interspersed with an occasional soliloquy. If the order of narration seems to happen by chance, it is, of course, no accident. It follows a chart of wins by post position. In apparently random order, posts 1-6 each produced a similar share of winners, and posts 7, 8, and 9-12 produced considerably fewer. Afterwards, I assigned each narrative situation a different number (3=Nipper on Lane, 7=Lane on Lane), and arranged the novel by having each tell his or her tale in the order the race results used in the experiment dictated.
With this publication of findings, I might declare the experiment a success, but it’s up to others to test what I have found, by reading what I have done and perhaps repeating the experiment. To return to my original hypotheses in light of the data and the novel that resulted as a consequence, I now know that, absurd as it had seemed, one can indeed lose oneself and beat the races by making a game of the game, by splitting into heteronyms and having each of these play according to and even in opposition to the stop-at-a-winner money management scheme. The extent to which an experiment can generate a work of art, specifically fiction, remains a more open question. I only know that, were I to make claims for this artby giving it a category or genre, I would not be able to get away with touting it as Science Fiction.
This is a transcription of my cryptic notes for one day at the track. Not only do the heteronyms all lose, but this is the first time they are all in the red.
7/20/3 Emerald Downs warm, sun, free passes
woman in her 60s to man (husband? son?): Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you, you sonofabitch (overhead smash to his head, over a cousin in between). Fuck you, go back to the penitentiary.
Race 1 6f M40,000 f won by 3 Sowhatsyourpoint, wired, big favorite off trouble
Nipper 2 win Echoman (closer vs. speed duel, figures) late second
Lane 2 dd Ferdinand’s Quest to 2 (sizzling works, late tote but double overlays) nothing
Race 1 Hastings [simulcast] 1 1/16 won by 1 Jazzy Yacht, stolen on easy lead
Nipper 4 dd 2 Nineleventurbo to 6 Hunting for Action (pure chalk) flat third
Race 2 1m 5000 nw fm won by 3 Lookout for Ruth (off move in sprint) big fav.
Lane 4 w 5 Assuring Touch. Race 3 scratched.
Race 4 1m 5000 3nw won by 7 Pay Up TC big fav.
Will backwheeled 10-1 1 Bet the Rock to 4 favorites, just missed 2nd. Will -8/-20.20
Lane 6 win 5 Copia (connections, run. line) flat
Nipper pair of 2 ex, but shout out on third, nowhere
Race 5 6.5f won by 8 Marine Drive, dueled to wire (but 3rd best e)
Lane 8 w 2 Prized Match (figures, style, connec.) 2nd. Lane -20/ -33.80.
Nipper exactas w/ 1, 2 to others (speed keys) nope -18/-5.80.
* photos by Casey Kelbaugh, a photographer living in New York City, and the
mastermind behind the international phenomenon, Pot Luck Slideshow.