Dec 10, 2020
Dec 10, 2020

2020 US Election: Behind-the-scenes at Pinnacle

Where does this story begin?

Trading the 2020 US Election: The timeline

What did our traders learn from it all?

2020 US Election: Behind-the-scenes at Pinnacle

A few weeks have passed since we witnessed an historic event. A crucial vote for America that was full of controversy, but also the biggest betting event in the history of mankind. What did the 2020 US Election look like for Pinnacle? What was it like to trade live markets for over 24 hours with 19 hours spent on Zoom? Read on to find out.

Politics betting has become increasingly popular over the years and the expectation was that the 2020 US Election would be the most bet on political event in history. That certainly turned out to be true. The 2020 US Election was the most bet on event in history. Pinnacle took more action on its US Election winner market than any Super Bowl, any World Cup final, more than any single sporting event there has ever been.

When you’re are dealing with an event of such magnitude and with enormous amounts of money on the line, it requires a lot of organisation, skill, determination, and confidence to get things right. These kinds of events can make bookmakers large sums of money if they are managed well. If things go wrong though, it could be very, very costly.

So, how did a bookmaker like Pinnacle manage to live trade the US Election markets for 28 hours non-stop, while votes were being counted and results were being announced? This article will tell you what the 2020 US Election looked like from behind-the-scenes at the world’s sharpest bookmaker.

Where does this story begin?

Many stories have a hero and a villain. While people will be quick to try and fit the two protagonists of Joe Biden and Donald Trump into one of those two roles, this story put two other characters into the spotlight: the betting market and the national polls.

Polls have historically been used as a forecast for how elections will be decided, but in recent years they have famously been wide of the mark – think back to Donald Trump’s victory and the UK’s decision to vote for Brexit in 2016 for examples.

In the lead up to the 2020 US Election, there was plenty of debate around why there was so much disparity in the win probability for each candidate when you compared forecasts based on polling data and Pinnacle’s odds. The polls would suggest Joe Biden had an 80%+ chance of winning the election, yet Pinnacle priced him up at odds of 1.50, which equates to just 65%.

Is this because a large proportion of people wouldn’t publicly support Donald Trump? Were polls naturally more weighted to Democratic voters and thus overestimated Biden’s chances? Could it be that because political betting markets offer the potential for financial gain that that’s where the most accurate information is contained? The reason the election night was so fascinating was that no one knew who was going to win, and no one knew who was going to be right about the likelihood of the outcome.

Meet the team of traders

After months of build-up, controversy, drama, and debate, the election was set for November 3, 2020. In preparation for the event, Pinnacle assembled a core team of traders to manage the markets. We can’t give away their real names but they included “The Locksmith”, “The Puppet Master”, and “Dr. Manhattan”.

“The Locksmith” is Pinnacle’s resident politics expert. He had been overseeing the 2020 US Election market since it was first listed and curated it ever since. “Dr. Manhattan” has been a top trader in the company for years and first got involved in this year’s election markets around a month before the election took place. Finally, “The Puppet Master”, who tends to take a back seat in terms of trading and only gets involved in big betting events.

Trading the 2020 US Election: The timeline

After speaking to the traders responsible for managing the election markets at Pinnacle, I was able to put together a timeline of events for when the markets were live (times provided are in CET across November 3-5, 2020).

05:30: The Puppet Master is the first to set up for what is to come. A quick review of the overnight action is followed by getting prepared for the day (and night) to come.

09:00: The Locksmith signs in and after preparing his various feeds of information, has a quick catch up with The Puppet Master before getting settled in for the ride. 

10:45: Dr. Manhattan is the last of the three to join and with the markets looking very stable, he spends his time doing research and planning for any and all eventualities. 

14:30: The three traders spend some time planning for how to get consistent coverage across the markets and ensure they are efficiently managed. Everyone has their responsibilities sorted and everyone is set up and ready to go (Dr Manhattan is tasked with providing additional updates for the team, something that he’s well prepared for with his monitors on the go).

17:24: Pinnacle raises its limits on the 2020 US Election market winner to $100,000.

23:00: The first polls close and live betting begins. 

01:25: A big move on Trump to win Florida indicates the Republican Party will take the first key state (later confirmed at 02:14).

02:59: After a moving close to 50/50, Biden moves back out to a 60% favourite to win the election.

03:30: Donald Trump becomes favourite to win the 2020 US Election for the first time since a brief stint in early September.

03:38: Continuous action on Trump to win pushes him out to a 67% favourite (his best chance to win according to the odds over the whole time the market has been live at Pinnacle).

04:04: Trump takes the lead in Texas.

04:57: There’s a surge in Biden bettors and The Locksmith and Dr. Manhattan debate whether its people hedging their Trump bets or believing in Biden.

06:00: As more results come in, the chance of a late Biden push becomes clear and the market begins to turn again. At this point, Biden has a 45% chance according to the odds.

11:57: Biden moves back to being the betting favourite.

13:13: Biden drops back to the original price he was posted at when the Pinnacle markets opened (1.526), with a 65% chance of winning the election according to the odds.

16:38: Pinnacle reposts its line for the winner of Pennsylvania with Biden a 67% favourite.

19:00: Biden’s wins in Michigan and Wisconsin are confirmed and he requires just one of the remaining swing states to reach 270 electoral votes and win the election.

04:57: Pinnacle closes the 2020 US Election betting market. While the money continues to come in, at this point a Biden victory looks increasingly likely with Donald Trump unable to do much to win the vote. 

An unforgettable experience

When things calmed down after election night, I asked Dr. Manhattan how it felt when he was waiting for the first polls to close. “I’d like to say I was zoned in, focused and prepared for anything. But the truth is, I don’t even remember. It’s such a blur. I had to ask people what day it was for a good couple of days after. Thankfully it only took a bit of rest to recover from it all.” 

While it’s interesting to get a sense of the emotion from the traders, I’m sure many people reading this are also intrigued by the actual logistics of it all as well. The live markets were up for around 28 hours in total. That’s more than a whole day of non-stop live trading on the biggest event in betting history. How do you make sure you don’t make a mistake? How do you keep on top of all the new information coming in, with by far and away the biggest betting limits online, yet still not worry about getting it wrong?

The Puppet Master gave some interesting insight into how it was all done. “I’m not sure if there’s an official record for the longest active Zoom call yet but we might have been pretty close. We had a small group of us on a call for 19 hours straight. 19 hours! There was the odd hour-long nap in there for some of us but there was enough adrenaline to keep you going. We live for this kind of stuff. It’s why we do what we do.

As for the election itself. One of the biggest talking points was when it looked like Trump had proven his doubters wrong and had emerged as the likely winner. His move to favourite - as much as 80% chance of a win at Pinnacle - was a massive swing in terms of the odds and seemed ominous for Biden backers. I asked The Locksmith what he thought of it: “The swings were interesting but my focus was just keeping things under control. The job of trading is always the same, no matter what the media makes of what’s going on. I was there to trade and I wanted to make sure I did the best job of it.

As it turned out, the late counting of votes in certain swing states meant that those celebrating an unlikely Trump win were doing so prematurely. As the United States hit the early hours of Wednesday morning and most of Europe was waking up, Biden began a surge that looked to be enough to take him to victory. 

Biden moved from having a 30% chance, through 50%, to a 75% chance and the new favourite in the betting market within a few hours. When Pinnacle closed its 2020 US Election market at around 5am (CET) on November 5, Biden had over an 80% chance of victory with the incoming results making his position stronger by the minute.

What did our traders learn from it all?

As I sat down with the three men who managed the 2020 US Election markets at Pinnacle and learned more about how they managed to pull it off, I also wanted to find out what they thought when looking back at what unfolded.

The Puppet Master, who normally has no issues articulating the complexities of trading when we’ve spoken in the past, jumped in first: “It’s still hard to process. It was madness. Utter madness. The one thing that has jumped out to me since though is that the bettors going after individual states were so sharp. We had some people who really knew what they were doing like taking Trump to win Florida and you’d think that would see him hit on the main line but the action was still pushed on Biden”.

The Locksmith quickly follows up: “We definitely drew those guys to us. Putting up $20,000 on individual states for live betting is unheard of. I know we can manage it but there have been points after when I laugh at how crazy that was.” 

The whole thing was crazy”, Dr. Manhattan butts in. “Ask me in a couple of weeks and I might have had enough time to take it all in. I loved every minute of it but I’m glad it’s all over and we can relax for a bit. I hope we don’t have to wait another four years for something like that though!

Author’s comments

Watching things unfold during the US Election was an experience I don’t think I’ll ever forget. I wouldn’t know where to begin in terms of trading markets, but I was fortunate to be included in the small group of people at Pinnacle that could see exactly what was going on – how much money was coming in, who people were betting on, why odds were being moved and what the traders thought of it all.

Working for a company like Pinnacle through events like the 2018 World Cup and the last four Super Bowls (plus many other big events), I’ve become accustomed to seeing large sums of money being exchanged over something where nobody knows what will happen. Even every weekend on the Premier League, I see more money put down on a single bet than I could hope to make as an annual salary. However, watching the constant stream of bets and the huge amounts of money fly in on both Trump and Biden, it really was a sight to behold. It was also quite shocking to see how the traders would barely bat an eyelid or pause for a second’s thought before making their decisions off the back off the types of bets that were being placed, I don’t know if you can learn that, train for it or if you’re just born with it. It was incredible.


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