South Korean Reality TV Show Mixes Horse Racing, Psychological Skill

Pop Culture
A scene from the Scamming Horse Race episode of ‘The Genius.’ (YouTube)

Scamming Horse Race may sound like something you’d hear muttered by a railbird as he rips up his ticket after a brutal photo finish. But it’s actually not something terrible. It’s something that’s lots of fun.

In 2013, the South Korean television network tvN aired the first season of a reality game show titled “The Genius” that was unlike anything to ever air on American television, which is saying an awful lot given that reality TV in America has tried virtually every twist and variation on virtually every type of show in the past decade. But “The Genius” (which can be viewed in its entirety now on YouTube, complete with subtitles) is unique, and it is very, very cool.

Contestants in “The Genius” compete in different games during each episode. Each game requires a combination of deduction, logic, strategy, cooperation, and deception to win. It is a clinic in game theory, with contestants constantly making decisions that require them to weigh short-term losses with long-term gains, to plot several moves ahead, and to protect themselves from liars while allowing themselves to trust others, all while figuring out optimal strategies for strange games they’ve never played before with complex rules they’ve only recently learned. Winners are rewarded with real money, and losers each episode often spend money they can’t get back. For someone who loves playing games, the show is a garden of delights.

In the fifth episode of the first season, contestants on “The Genius” were introduced to a game called Scamming Horse Race, and it proved to be one of the most popular games of the show, reappearing with new twists in a later episode.

Horse racing is popular in South Korea, and its two Thoroughbred tracks combine for the third-largest handle in Asia and the seventh largest in the world. Accomplished U.S. racehorses Any Given Saturday, Archarcharch, Menifee, and Hansen were purchased to stand as stallions in South Korea. So, it makes sense that “The Genius” would style one of its bedeviling games on horse racing.

In Scamming Horse Race, contestants are asked to bet on a horse race whose outcome has already been determined. The contestants are each given a single hint about the race, such as “the 1 horse finishes in the top three” or “the 4 horse finishes ahead of the 8 horse.” Players are allowed to spend money to recieve additional hints.

The “race” takes place on a large table, similar to a gaming table you might see in a casino. But this table has a racetrack on it and 8 wooden horses. There are spaces for players to bet on the horses. They have 20 chips each, and can split their bets between as many horses as they want, but they can only bet 3 chips in any single round.

A “round” consists of the horses moving a random number of spaces on the 20-space long racetrack. There are 12 rounds in a race. After each race, players can bet up to 3 more chips. At the end of the race, players who bet on the horses that finish first and second place are paid out based on a paramutuel system, just like at the real track.

In between rounds, players are given time to speak to each other and plot and plan their next moves. They go into private rooms, or huddle together in the main room, whispering or making pronouncements to whomever will listen. They lie to each other about their hints, they form alliances, but mostly they try to use logic and deduction to figure out what order the horses will eventually finish. This part of the show feels like reality television, with hidden cameras capturing private conversations. But the viewers at home don’t know what the hints that the players recieved are, so they are in the dark about who is lying and who is telling the truth.

During the betting and racing rounds, even though the “race” consists of nothing more than a croupier moving wooden horses along the table, the players whoop and holler as if they were on the rail at the real racetrack. They sweat when the horse they are hoping will win doesn’t advance very far (or at all). They are elated to find their horse pulling into the lead.

The only way it differs from an actual horse race is that those who believe they have cracked the puzzle and know the winner don’t want the others to know what they know. So when their horse is in the lead and attracting more bets, it means less money for them if the horse eventually wins. So they try to decieve each other by intentionally making bets on horses they think will lose. And they audibly root for horses they don’t think will win. The whole thing is a mind-pretzel and makes for incredibly captivating television.

In a later episode, when “The Genius” brought back Scamming Horse Race, they added a new twist – players had to bring a friend with them to the game. Then, the players were each confined to a separate room. Their guests were free to move between all the rooms as they wished, but the actual contestants could never leave their rooms, leaving their friends to act as proxies for them and to carry out their negotiations and make their bets for them.

This October, the popular board game YouTube channel Shut Up and Sit Down held a massive meetup in Vancouver, B.C. they called SHUX, and attendees organized their own live version of Scamming Horse Race, which ended up being one of the more popular games of the weekend. Fans of the show have also organized online, weeks-long playthroughs of Scamming Horse Race, with negotiations taking place over email and direct message.

While Scamming Horse Race appeals more to the gaming hobbyist than it does to the typical horse racing fan, it occupies a nice space in the Venn Diagram between those of us who love horse racing because we love to gamble and figure out value, probability, and odds and those of us who love to play strategy games that also involve a heavy element of psychology and social engineering. (Another game that occupies this space nicely is poker!)

Hopefully, an American televison network will realize the appeal of “The Genius” and reboot it for an English-speaking audience. If not, perhaps home-games of Scamming Horse Race played for real money will start to creep in on people’s weekly poker games. But it seems only fair that if American Thoroughbreds keep influencing racing in South Korea, we should at least get South Korean horse racing reality TV to air in America.

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