Thursday night. Another in a long history of horrible football decisions made by coaches. It’s time for me to speak about it, because it has much to do with poker.
Warning: Sometimes my moods fluctuate, causing me to project different personalities. If you’re expecting the Mike Caro who is patient, kind to everyone, diplomatic, and semi-modest, you probably shouldn’t read this one. It could destroy our relationship.
So, I don’t get it. I’m talking about North Carolina State last night kicking for one point after a touchdown, rather than trying for two. But I’ll get to that later. I think most head football coaches in the NFL or NCAA should stop making intuitive decisions in many key situations and just ask me. I won’t make mistakes.
In a moment, I’ll tell you specifically what motivated this column. But first, I’ll share some powerful truth.
In poker, the best intuitive players will not and cannot beat opponents who are playing solid, logical strategy. That simply can’t happen in the long run, at least if the game is honest.
For instance, few of the poker greats who play and often dominate major tournaments would fare well against me in a game that went on for 10 years. Almost all would lose decisively, while a small percentage who play analytically might come close.
Before you blurt that my statement is motivated by ego, let me assure you, it is presented only as an important fact. It’s a speculative fact, true, but sometimes it’s okay to accept solid speculation as fact. Suppose that I say a Grade AA egg that you just tossed from the roof of skyscraper is going to fall and break when it hits the ground, just like any other grade of egg. Then that’s about to become a fact, even though it’s speculation. Same with me playing poker against a skillful, but intuitive, wordclass player for 10 years. Outcome inevitable. I win. It’s simple gravity.
So why do I think that’s true and where is this leading? I think that’s true because I’ve analyzed poker for decades, doing my own research and inventing my own programs. While some worldclass players acknowledge that they incorporate my research into their game, others use it without even knowing that they do.
Not bragging. Just fact. Another fact: I know the results of my research better than they do and can use it at the table first hand, while theirs is a powerful, but second-hand adaptation. I’m much less likely to forget a tactic or to make a mistake. Fact.
Maybe, you say, but what about psychology and tells. I rest my case. That’s the other aspect of poker where players can make up a great deal of ground. And I’ve probably devoted more time to it than any other poker researcher, since creating Caro’s Book of Tells — The Body Language of Poker in the early 1980s. And that’s why I write so often about poker psychology and manipulation. I try to make it logical for you, because it’s the other key part of poker science.
So, in both halves of poker’s winning equation — strategy and psychology — you should put your money on me. Intuitive decisions never have an advantage against logical ones. It doesn’t happen in poker.
And it doesn’t happen in any other life endeavor, either, including football. A couple days ago, North Carolina State was playing highly ranked Clemson as a 14-point underdog. Trailing 26-7, State scores a touchdown with 3:50 remaining in the game.
Then they kick the extra point, making the score 26-14 and follow with an onside kick in a desperate attempt to remain on offense. That failed and there was no further scoring.
Fine. The only problem here is that State should have opted for the twopoint try after their touchdown, trying to cut the lead to 11. That way, they could score a field goal for three points and a touchdown with another two-point conversion and then settle the game in overtime.
By kicking the extra point, they needed two touchdowns to win. But if they had tried for twopoints and failed, they still would have needed two touchdowns to win—not only one touchdown and a field goal to tie.
So, there was virtually no logic to what they did, unless you believed Clemson would also score in the less than four minutes remaining, making it almost impossible to win. Bottom line: horrible decision, but not an uncommon one made by football coaches acting intuitively.
You might argue that the coach was betting on his own team against the 14-point line and would insure his win by kicking, but risk tying the bet by going for two points. Maybe he was doing a favor for his home fans who were gambling. But I doubt it, because I see too many illogical football decisions.
These include punting when they should go for a first down, kicking a field goal when they shouldn’t, throwing a risky pass with first and goal on the oneyard line, and many more.
However, nothing illustrates how poor football logic relates to poker better than one common example. A team trailing by 15 points late in the game will kick an extra point, cutting the lead to eight and hoping to then score another TD and add a two-point conversion to tie and then win in overtime.
That makes no sense whatsoever, unless your players are so psychologically wimpy that they’ll be destroyed emotionally by a failed two-point try. Why doesn’t it make sense?
It’s because there’s always an advantage in knowing what you need to do. It’s why, in poker, there’s such a great advantage to acting last. In the football example, you should try for two points on the first touchdown, because if you make it, you only need a single touchdown and normal extra point to tie, but if you fail, you’ll know for certain that you have to play for two more scores, one being a touchdown. That early knowledge is worth something in planning strategy.
Suppose you just kick the extra point on the first touchdown and cut the lead to eight. You score a second touchdown and try for two points to tie. Now if you fail, it might be too late to play for a field goal, because you didn’t know in advance that you needed two scores and wasted too much time.
So, you can see, there’s an advantage to going for two points on the first touchdown, instead of the second. But most coaches do the opposite. Why?
It’s because too much value is placed on intuitive decisions. The best college football coaches know a lot about the game, but not enough to overcome cold logic used by equally knowledgeable coaches. And the next time you play poker, remember that concept.
If you enter a game with the answers, you always have the advantage against poker superstars using intuition.
Mike Caro is widely regarded as the world’s foremost authority on poker strategy, psychology, and statistics. A renowned player and founder of Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy, he is known as “the Mad Genius of Poker,” because of his lively delivery of concepts and latest research. You can visit him at www.poker1.com or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.