Thursday, November 19, 2009

Maybe Belichick's a poker player

On Monday Night Football this week, Coach Bill Belichick's Patriots went for it on 4th and 2 to go with a 6 point lead from their own 28 yard line with just over 2 minutes to play and the Colts left with only one timeout.

For those that don't know football, the situation basically boils down to this. If the Patriots gain 2 or more yards they win the game because the Colts will not be able to stop the clock. If the Patriots don't gain the 2 yards, the Colts get the ball back and only have to go 28 yards to try and get a touchdown to win the game in those last 2 minutes.

The other option for Belichick to have chosen is to punt the ball in which case he guarantees that the Colts will get the ball but they most likely will have to go closer to 60 yards in those last 2 minutes to score a touchdown rather than 30.

For Belichick the decision to go for it blew up in his face. The Patriots failed to convert, the Colts got the ball back and proceeded to score the winning touchdown in dramatic fashion. And the football commentators immediately gave him hell saying it was a retarded decision to go for it and they should have punted.

But according to this nytimes blog Belichick's decision mathematically was correct. The calculation used by this blogger is very similar to EV (expected value) calculations that poker players make all the time. According to the blogger, the EV of going for it was .79 and the EV for punting was .70. So going for it increased the Patriots' chances of winning by around 9%. If this were a poker decision, going for it would expect to gain you more chips and it would be an easy conclusion that going for it was the best play.

A common mantra in the poker world is to "stop being results oriented." A player's natural instinct after losing a big pot or getting busted from a tournament is to go back over the hand and figure out a way that he could have played the hand differently so that the bad outcome would not have happened. E.g. "If I had folded that AQ preflop instead of shoving my last 15 BBs I would not have run into AK and would still have chips left to play." But after playing thousands and thousands of hands, poker players finally begin to understand that as long as you keep making decisions which gain you chips in the long run, then you can shake off the times where those plays lose you chips in the short term on that specific hand.

I think the football world is being results oriented in criticizing Belichick's decision. If his team had converted the 4th down I don't think this controversy is even created. If anything, Belichick would be lauded for being ballsy. Is it common for coaches to go for it on 4th down in that spot? No. Does that mean it was the wrong decision? No.


Anonymous said...

A very good poker player likened going for it to cold 4 betting 72o on the button with a UTG raise in front of you and a UTG+1 3 bet bet following.

He of Great Ambition said...

My only comment is that while we strive to do the most +EV things, I think gameflow is a really important concept that has been ignored in this spot. They called a timeout before going for it (They did something similar in the Saints game yesterday with the same result) which gives the defense ample time to prepare and play to their tendencies, which obviously worked.

Also, the Colts had all of their timeouts remaining which didn't in any way guarantee the Patriots the game if they got it.