Is it me, or has it been a while since we trotted out that blindfolded chimp? You know, the little guy who outperforms the suits on Wall Street by throwing darts at a newspaper stock table. Cute story, but is it true?

And if it is true, how? And where does that leave a bunch of Joe and Josephine Odd Lots like us? After all, if the billionaire boys' club can't hack it with their big math and inside information, what chance do we have of beating that pesky chimp?

It's pretty much true
The chimp's unbiased approach (hence, I suppose, the blindfold) keeps him on the market average -- no better, no worse -- which is something most money managers can't manage. At least not once you deduct their fees.

That's the bad news. The good news is that it doesn't matter. Not if you manage your own portfolio. Not if you use independent sources. Certainly not if you ignore Wall Street research. It sounds kooky, but I confirmed this myself while working daily with Wall Street's institutional "buy side."

Now for the really good news ... you can beat the market.

Here's why I say that
I met Fool co-founder Tom Gardner back when he and his brother David were launching their first newsletter. I was skeptical that this guy would be charging money for his research. I mean, could a Shakespeare nut in a Fool cap really pick stocks?

Fat chance. I'd spent years peddling broker data to Wall Street. And my run-ins with the sell-side analysts and buy-side money managers had convinced me that -- lacking real inside information -- you simply cannot beat the market picking individual stocks.

After all, here were seemingly intelligent folks rotating into and out of the same old plays. Back then, there were two camps: The hotshots swapped Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) for Advanced MicroDevices (NYSE:AMD) in the semis daily, pausing for the occasional dabble in Tellabs (NASDAQ:TLAB) among the "speculative" telecom stocks.

Then, you had the smokestack crowd -- seemingly out-of-touch geezers smoking Cubans and haggling over Halliburton (NYSE:HAL) and Schlumberger (NYSE:SLB) in the oil patch. Or waxing nostalgic about 3M (NYSE:MMM) and Alcoa (NYSE:AA). I think we all know who should have won that battle.

But by constantly rounding up and turning loose the usual suspects, they all sealed their fates. Most made money in the boom years and got creamed in the bad. But they almost never beat the market long term -- few ever really outperformed. Certainly, not enough to justify the fees and bonuses investors (we) paid them.

So, you see why I was a skeptic
But a few years later, when Tom Gardner launched his new small-cap newsletter, Motley Fool Hidden Gems, I was slowly coming around. You see, true to his word, Tom had consistently pointed me to great stocks like Moody's, which has more than doubled since I added it to my IRA a few years back.

And to my surprise, he was doing it using good old-fashioned legwork and bottom-up fundamental analysis. Granted, the criteria Tom applies are no secret to Wall Street. They've been passed down to us from Benjamin Graham through Bill Miller and Peter Lynch. Smart investors look for:

  1. Solid management with significant stakes.
  2. Great, sustainable businesses.
  3. Dominant positions in niche markets.
  4. Sturdy (if not sterling) balance sheets.
  5. Strong free cash flow.

But, surely, something else set Tom's performance apart from the market pros I'd known. Turns out it was two somethings: (1) Tom wasn't jumping into and out of stocks, sectors, or markets, and (2) I hadn't heard of most of the stocks he was recommending. Eureka!

Anatomy of a winner
Little Middleby makes ovens -- commercial ovens, of all things. When Tom floated the idea and then recommended it in Hidden Gems in November 2003, the business and financials looked great. But the markets are efficient, I thought; surely anybody could see what Tom and I saw.

But here's the catch. I ran the name on Multex and Bloomberg, even First Call. Nothing. The sell-side analysts didn't care, so the buy-side money managers -- the guys who really move the markets and who buy the sell-side research -- didn't, either. Now that the stock's up more than 300%, guess who's been sniffing around? Wall Street.

Of course, you know better than to draw conclusions from a few examples. And not all of Tom's Hidden Gems picks have tripled -- or even doubled. Still, as of this morning, the 60-plus stocks recommended in Hidden Gems are up 39.1% on average, many times better than the 18.3% turned in by the S&P 500.

What this means for you
Even Mark Hulbert, the investment newsletter-industry watchdog, admits that some guys can pick stocks. But this Hidden Gems deal I'm seeing with my own eyes. Whether it's up or down from here, I'll be watching. I'll keep you posted.

I opened with Peter Lynch -- and the chimp -- for a reason. Unlike your typical Wall Streeter, both throw their darts at any stock on the board. Market cap too small? No such thing. No Wall Street coverage? Bring it on. No convoluted relationship with big investment banks? All the better. Never heard of it? Bingo!

That's how he made a killing on stocks like Home Depot long before they were followed on Wall Street. Some of his biggest winners weren't all that common even on Main Street.

Lynch knew that companies that can reasonably rise five, 10, or even 20 times or more in value (1) are small but growing, (2) are well-run, and (3) operate in great industries. To which I'd add, they (4) are often run by founders with large personal stakes in the business.

Can I guarantee you'll become a great stock picker?
No, but I can be darn sure you don't want to be relying on Wall Street research. And you don't want to be shuffling around yesterday's most actives. Most importantly -- as much as I knock the market pros -- you don't want to be taking the other side of their trades.

In a choppy market like this, there's only one way I know to consistently make money with stocks, and that is to steer clear of the beaten path and buy where Wall Street isn't looking. It's not always easy, but you can do it. And you don't even have to go it alone.

You can put Tom Gardner's secret to finding undercovered stocks with strong fundamentals and real earnings to work for you. In fact, you can sample Tom's complete Hidden Gems service for 30 days without spending a dime (of course, there's never any pressure to subscribe). To learn more, click here.

This article was originally published on Nov. 10, 2004. It has been updated.

Fool writer Paul Elliott owns shares of Moody's and promises to keep you posted on Tom Gardner's progress at Motley Fool Hidden Gems. All picks and results are posted on the Hidden Gems websiteand can be viewed the instant you sign up. Moody's is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation. Home Depot, Intel, and 3M are Inside Value picks. The Motley Fool isinvestors writing for investors.