Football lessons from a world champion gambler
by Jay Stolfi
Your best offensive coordinator is a girl. More correctly, your best play‐calling analyzer is a girl. She is Annie Duke, author of the book Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts
If you’ve ever been the play-caller in a football game, you know that making smart decisions without all the facts is the essence of the job. Duke is a Columbia University graduate and pursued a Ph.D. in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Despite the Ivy League education, she is most known for her poker playing abilities. Duke accumulated over $4 million of tournament poker winnings including several World Series of Poker championships. Life, she explains, is a lot like poker. As I see it, so is football In Thinking in Bets, Duke makes the case that the thought process that leads to success in poker is the same thought process that leads to success in business, relationships and other important life situations. In poker, she says, you have to make critical decisions with very limited information…and you have to make them in real‐time. She goes on to give about 250 pages of detailed explanations, scientific data and tells plenty of amusing anecdotes regarding how the mind works and how to correctly analyze the outcomes of your decisions.
All of the chapters have relevance to a football coach, particularly regarding offensive play calling, but I will focus on just a few key topics here.
John Von Neumann, the noted mathematician, physicist (and poker player) is considered the father of “game theory”. His game theory revolutionized the fields of mathematics and economics. It is the study of how mathematical models can be used to understand seemingly unrelated things such as the likely interactions between opponents, how to account for hidden information, and how to account for the role of chance in the process of decision making. When asked by a colleague if he meant “the theories of games…like chess?”, Von Neumann said “No, no…Chess is not a ‘game’. Chess is a well‐defined form of computation. You may not be able to work out all the answers, but in theory there must be a solution, a right procedure in any position.”
Real games, he explained, “are not like that. Real life consists of bluffing, of little tactics of deception, of asking yourself what is the other man going to think I mean to do. And that is what games are about in my theory.” Dukes recognizes that “The decisions we make in our lives‐ in business, saving and spending, health and lifestyle choices, raising our children, and relationships‐ easily fit Von Neumann’s definition of ‘real games’’’. The seeming randomness we face in our daily lives requires a specific kind of analysis according to Duke. Life unfolds unpredictably and therefore cannot be computed and studied like chess. “Trouble follows when we treat life decisions as if they were chess decisions”. Exactly. Why? Let’s consider football. I would argue that it is much more like poker (and life) than chess because it contains uncertainty, risk, deception, and requires quick decisions made in the fog of battle. Football and poker are games of incomplete information, and involve what Duke describes as “decision‐making under conditions of uncertainty over time.” Further, “there is also an element of luck” in poker, much like how the bounce of a ball, or bad officiating, or foul weather can unexpectedly influence the outcome of a football game. Chess, although computationally complex, is not a good model for analyzing football decision‐making. In chess, there are no bad bounces and luck does not play a role in the outcome. So the question is: How do we improve and maximize our offensive play‐calling success when the outcome is determined in some part by unknown factors outside of our control? The answer: Pete Carroll Every football fan knows the story. Down by 4 points, 2nd down with 00:26 seconds remaining in the game, and on the New England Patriots 1 yard line, Seattle Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll called a play. It was considered the worst play call in Super Bowl history. Quarterback Russell Wilson dropped back to pass and was…intercepted, giving the New England Patriots a Super Bowl XLIX victory. Was it a bad call? No says Duke. She explains that throughout the regular season, statistics show there was only about a 1% interception rate from that position on the field. Further, when you take clock management, timeouts, down‐and‐distance and other factors into consideration, the odds were in Carroll’s favor. If you’re like me and are very “results oriented”, you would find it hard to embrace a decision that led to such as bad outcome. After all, aren’t results the only thing that matter? And therefore, aren’t results the best way to judge your decision‐making? Not necessarily. Duke offers a great example of how merely looking at results is not the best way to analyze the quality of the decision‐making process. Suppose you are out on the town and have a few too many adult beverages. Despite this fact, you decide to drive yourself home and somehow arrive safely. Was this a good decision? Was the fact that the result was good automatically mean that the decision‐making process was also good? Of course not. Yet some offensive coordinators rely too much on simply looking at results when play‐calling in a game. That may seem like a crazy statement, but after reading Thinking in Bets, you’ll realize it’s possible. I was recently preparing for a lecture on my Double Gun Offense and wanted to find some good video clips showing “successful” plays. I went to my Hudl account and ran a report that sorted for the big yardage plays. Upon viewing the first few plays (some of which I hadn’t seen in years), I noticed that few of the plays were actually broken plays. For example, we scored an 80 yard touchdown on a WR bubble screen, which looked great on the Hudl report, but in reality should have been intercepted by the CB who read the play and jumped the route. The ball went through his hands into the hands of the receiver. After reading Thinking in Bets, it was obvious that calling that play, at that time, was like arriving home safely after drinking too much‐ a good result that followed a bad decision. In fact, modern technology can further exacerbate the false chess‐instead‐of‐poker mentality. I was an early adopter of Hudl and other football‐related technologies. They are great, and provide incredible time‐saving and data collecting tools. But more data doesn’t always mean better data. Unless you create a “broken‐play‐that‐should‐have‐been‐intercepted” category in a Hudl report, plays like that 80 yard touchdown will incorrectly skew the data to reinforce that play call. As you probably know, luck goes both ways. We have all had that “Pete Carroll moment”, when despite making all the correct decisions, the ball just didn’t bounce our way. And that’s Dukes point: being successful over the long‐term in a world where all the facts aren’t known takes a certain type of analysis. Football, like poker, is a game made up of many separate “hands” over time. Play calling decisions are essentially “bets on the future”, or as Duke explains, good decision makers “explicitly recognize that they are deciding on alternate futures.” Success comes from making good decisions over the long‐term, riding the ups and downs of each play and making adjustments based on your understanding of each situation. Thinking in Bets gives you the mental tools to distinguish between random luck and deserved success, and to how to account for our inherent biases and tendencies to blame “luck” on our misfortunes. So next time you hear the television broadcaster talk about the “chess match” between the offense and defense, think “poker game” instead. Think decisions made in real time, with unknowable information, our own biases and variable outcomes. My advice is to read Duke’s book because it is a study in improving outcomes in imperfect situations. “There are many reasons why wrapping our arms around uncertainty and giving it a big hug will help us become better decision‐makes.” And play callers. About the Author: Jay Stolfi is a football author, coach and lecturer. The 55 year old Connecticut resident has 13 years of experience coaching youth and high school football. He is the creator of the Double Gun Offense, is a Glazier and Nike Coach of the Year lecturer and a contributor to USA Footba