How Bookies Pick the Literature Nobel, Without Actually Reading

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For the most accurate oddsmakers of who will win the Nobel Prize in Literature, reading any of the favored authors' books is irrelevant — and the prognosticating bookies openly made their predictions without any explicit intentions to open a page.

nobel prize literature haruki murakami

Given the Swedish Nobel Committee's intense secrecy, discussion of the future winner is active and open for debate among prognosticators. But they should just look to Ladbrokes, which has correctly predicted the Nobel Prize winner with 50 percent accuracy over the past eight years, according to the Boston Globe, making it far more accurate than most pundits or literary critics.

The secret to their success? Psychology. Most reporters writing on the coming Nobel decision are what one popular betting site's spokesman calls "lazy journalists," and they like to cite the bookies' odds — such as 3/1 favorite Haruki Murakami (right) — in their early stories on potential winners (guilty as charged). But by setting the early terms of the debate, Ladbrokes and other oddsmakers create a bandwagon-type effect where the bettors' favorite becomes the actual favorite. And this effect then builds its way up to the pundits and, potentially, to the Committee itself.

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"The thinking behind Murakami’s preferred status has an almost circular simplicity," Chris Wright of the Boston Globe explains. "His name keeps on cropping up in pre-award speculation; there seems a fair chance that he’ll win it over the next few years; ergo, odds are set at 3-1." These odds explicitly have nothing to do with the work's actual merits; at Ladbrokes, they are set mostly by a single oddsmaker, who "is well suited to literature,” a Ladbrokes spokesman said in what seems like faint praise. "He’s got a feel for these things.” A feel for the award, certainly, but not necessarily a feel for the books themselves.

The odds are set based on a crowdsourced thought, and then it becomes an "echo chamber," the Globe writes, as pundits see the odds and reinforce its ideas by promoting that favorite. Hey, everyone wants to be on the side of the winner. And the public in turn influences the oddsmakers, too. When LadBrokes initially released its Literature prize odds last month, Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o was getting 50/1 odds to win. But a flurry of betting from a source in Sweden caused LadBrokes to temporarily suspend betting on him. Due to that excitement, the oddsmakers bumped him up to 20/1 to win the Nobel in their most current prognostications.

Peter Englund, the permanent secretary of the Nobel Committee, claims that the Committee doesn't listen to the talk. But it's hard to imagine it doesn't have some sort of psychological impact on the framing of the debate. We'll find out if Ladbrokes' 3/1 favorite Murakami, 6/1 Joyce Carol Oates, or 7/1 Peter Nadas wins the award in the coming weeks.

(Photos of Murakami, Oates, Nadas: AP; Photo of Nobel Prize: Neurolysis via WikiMedia Commons.)

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.