Thursday, February 20, 2014

Degrees of Defeat

Had both of those women’s hockey medal games on today as I worked. My attention was divided, but I was looking up frequently whenever play-by-play man Mike “Doc” Emrick’s voice rose in response to a developing situation on the ice.

If you watched as well you know that both matches followed similar plotlines with a team roaring out to a lead while shutting out the opponent, carrying that lead into the final period before the team that was behind staged a stirring comeback to snatch victory away.

In the early tilt for the bronze Sweden was in control with a 2-0 lead through two, then Switzerland scored early in the third, then again, then again to grab the advantage with less than seven minutes to go. An empty-netter was added, then a too-little-too-late response near the close to make the final 4-3 in favor of the Swiss.

Then in the gold medal match the U.S. led Canada 2-0 in the third before the latter scored twice, the second goal coming in the final minute of regulation, then scoring again in overtime to win.

In both cases the heartbreak of the losers was plain to see, their anguish heightened by having come so close to winning and falling short.

The pattern reminded me of some of the conversation following Super Bowl XLVIII in which Seattle smoked Denver 43-8, the outcome essentially decided even before halftime. I’m remembering the sports talk shows afterward debating whether it were preferable to lose a close game -- say, like the previous Super Bowl won by the Ravens over the 49ers by a score of 34-31 -- than to get routed as Denver had been.

The run out of cards after a preflop all-in in hold’em uniquely mimics both scenarios all the time.

The player all in with QsQc against an opponent with AsKs watches a flop bring three spades and is like the Broncos. Or a flop comes Qd4h2c to put the queens way ahead, then a trey and a five bring a backdoor wheel and the all-in player is like Sweden and the U.S. today.

In poker the obvious psychological manipulation of the latter scenario probably makes the analogy less apt. It’s a simulated similarity, you could say, with the order of the community cards suggesting a winning-then-losing sequence when in fact the outcome is the same regardless of the order of the flop, turn, and river. Indeed, any five cards adding up to a loss is more or less equivalent when all of the poker decisions have already been made.

Still, the pain experienced by the loser is often greater after having been teased by the prospect of victory. I think in sports I’d rather my team fight hard and lose a tight one than get crushed. (The pessimist in me is presently imagining both possibilities for my UNC Tar Heels tonight versus Duke, not allowing me to indulge in envisioning a Carolina win.)

In poker, though, I’d rather not go through such runner-runner anguish. Nor would I prefer to play well for much of a hand or session or tourney only to lose focus at the end to lose over being card dead or busting early, if the amount of my loss were the same in both cases that is.

I guess poker teaches us how a loss is a loss, however it comes. The Swedish and U.S. teams would probably disagree tonight, though.

(Photo above tweeted by AP correspondent Oskar Garcia capturing the reaction of U.S. goalie Jessica Vetter as shown on the big scoreboard following Canada's winning overtime goal.)

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