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Football = Chess + Poker

Amit Varma
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Amit Varma
Amit Varma

The real contest in football is outside the penalty box, not inside. The goals are happenstance

Magnus Carlsen loves football. He kicked off a Real Madrid-Real Valladolid match on his 23rd birthday last November in a Real Madrid T-shirt, which he also wore to the Champions League final between Real and Atletico Madrid. Vishy Anand, who he beat for the World Championship last year, also supports Real Madrid, and their fanhood of this sport is befitting. Football is basically chess played on a field with 22 variables.

The main protagonists at the Champions League final were not any of their players, but the two coaches Carlo Ancelotti and Diego Simeone. As Jonathan Wilson wrote in Inverting the Pyramid, his magisterial book on the history of football tactics, “Football is not about players […]: it is about shape and about space, about the intelligent deployment of players, and their movement within that deployment.” Coaches are the masterminds who, with over a century of history to draw upon, marshal their resources the best they can. To anyone aware of this history, and following the dynamics with each individual contest, football is deeply complex and extremely fascinating, even when a match is a 0-0 draw.

This is why it irritates me no end when so-called fans — mostly folk who wake up during the World Cup every four years — celebrate games with open, attacking football and lots of goals, and deride matches that are scrappy and messy. Fans who want lots of goals in football are like the philistines who just want lots of fours and sixes in cricket, and don’t appreciate the nuances of the struggle between bat and ball. The real contest in football is outside the penalty box, not inside. The goals are happenstance.

The other game I love, besides chess, is poker. I’ve been a professional poker player for the last four years, and one of the things I’ve gained from it is a much deeper appreciation of the role of luck in sports, including in football.

Poker is a game where skill manifests itself in the long run, but luck plays a huge part in the short run. Here’s a simple example: let’s say that you and I are all in on a flop where you hold the top pair and I hold a small flush draw. I am 38 per cent to win the hand, you are 62 per cent. Now, the first time this happens, I may hit the flush, and you lose. That’s just luck. It may even happen the first three or four times, if you get really unlucky. But over time, as we play this hand thousands of times, it will even out, and your win rate will reflect your equity in the hand — that is, you’ll win 62 per cent of the time, and will make a profit. Poker is all about getting yourself repeatedly into profitable spots, on average, and playing enough hands to make sure that the long run manifests itself, and you end up a winner — even though the outcome of any one particular hand may be decided by luck. But what does this have to do with football?

I read a fascinating book on football analytics recently called The Numbers Game, by Chris Anderson and David Sally. The book starts off by making the controversial point that football is “basically a 50/50 game. Half of it is luck, and half of it is skill.” They cite a study by Eli Ben-Naim, Sidney Redner and Federico Vazquez that looked at more than 43,000 games of football played in the top flight of English football since 1888 and found that the likelihood of the underdog winning was 45.2 per cent. (A draw is considered half a win here, for statistical purposes.)

Many of the stats in that book call out to the poker player in me, given that I am now trained to think probabilistically. Over time, across leagues and continents, 20 per cent of corners lead to a shot on goal, and around 11 per cent of those go in. That means around one in 50 corners results in a goal. A masterful analysis of Lionel Messi by Benjamin Morris on fivethirtyeight.com reveals that Messi scores from outside the penalty area 12.1 per cent of the time (one in eight times) and from a direct free kick 8 per cent of the time (one in 12.5 times). Thus, every corner is worth 0.022 goals. Every Messi free-kick where he goes for goal is worth 0.08 goals. In the long run, that’s what we get. In the short run, in a particular match, it’s largely luck, whether those go in or not. That is why the truest indicator of a team’s quality comes in a league format, not a knockout format, and England’s best team is likelier to be the winner of the Premier League than the FA Cup.

That’s what makes the World Cup so cruel. One unlucky day is all it takes for a dream to end. Consider two matches between Spain and Netherlands. In the final of the 2010 World Cup, Arjen Robben missed a great opportunity in the 82nd minute, ahead of all the defenders with only Iker Casillas to beat. Four years later, with Spain leading 1-0, David Silva missed a great chance to get them 2-0 up, which might well have sealed the match. The first miss cost Netherlands the World Cup; the second one proved costly as Netherlands stormed back into the match. Even after Spain disintegrated, though, they had nine attempts at goal to Netherlands’s 13. Even in a match that one side won 5-1, luck played a big part. (For the record, I still think Spain is one of the best teams in the world and tiki-taka is far from finished — but that’s a topic for another day.)

The realisation of how big a part luck plays in any individual match hasn’t diminished my enjoyment of the game, but heightened it. The management of luck is at the heart of poker, and of football as well. The best coaches know this, always working hard to increase their probabilities of winning, optimising furiously, aiming for efficiency and, when they succeed, achieving a beauty that is more than just skin-deep. Football combines the qualities of chess and poker, and has much else besides. No wonder they call it the beautiful game.

Amit Varma is a novelist. He blogs at indiauncut.com

Follow him on twitter @amitvarma

(This article was published on July 11, 2014)
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