Friday, March 18, 2016

63 Winners, 63 Losers

Taking another short break again today from my survey of poker “precursors” -- that is, card games (mostly European) that preceded poker’s initial appearance in the early 19th century. Have so far discussed mus (Spain), poch (Germany), primiera (Italy), and brag (England), and have at least a couple of more I’d like to add to the list next week.

Today I’m distracted, though -- like most of my readers, I imagine -- by the start of the NCAA tournament and another entry into a pool. Writing here at the start of the second half of the round of 64, I survived yesterday in decent shape and so am still enthused about the prospects of maybe winning the sucker (as I once luckboxed my way into doing a few years ago). In other words, I haven’t burned my bracket just yet.

Incidentally, inspired by picking all of the games and the sort of faux “favorite/upset” dichotomy created by NCAA seeds, I wrote a strategy article yesterday for PokerNews titled “Pumping Up the Variance Against Better-Skilled Opponents,” if you’re curious. The idea I explored there had to do with the way lesser-skilled players in poker can sometimes reduce an opponent’s edge by making larger bets and raises and generally trying to play “big pot” poker and increase the luck factor. You know -- bigger preflop raises, more all-ins, and so on to reduce the decisions after the flop. I also mentioned how faster-structured tournaments function similarly, reducing the number of hands per level and making the stacks more shallow more quickly.

The fact that the NCAA changed the shot clock from 35 to 30 seconds this year has encouraged many to observe that the underdogs (theoretically) should have less of a chance of topping the favorites because there are now more possessions per game (about five more per team). I suggest that is analogous to playing more hands and thus giving better-skilled performers more chances to benefit from their edge.

Like I say, you can check out the article to see how I explain all of that and decide whether or not there’s something to the observation. Meanwhile, let me share a couple of other thoughts that occurred to me as I filled out this year’s bracket.

I found myself looking very closely this year at how the teams who made the tournament have performed in the NCAA recently, looking specifically over the last five years. Just felt like I’d been burned a few times picking some team to make the Elite Eight and then realizing as they were getting smoked in the first round they’d never gotten out of the first weekend before.

Interestingly, out of all 68 teams there are only nine who have played in the NCAA each of the last five years -- Michigan State, Gonzaga, UNC, Wisconsin, Duke, Cincinnati, VCU, Kansas, and Villanova. The average for all the teams was only a bit more than two NCAA appearances out of the last five years.

Ultimately I just used that as one factor that in a few cases swayed me one way or the other when making a selection. That said, I did pick a team to make the final four who has lost in the first round the last three years’ running, and didn’t even make the tournament the two years before that (Oklahoma).

To be honest, even after putting in the effort to figure out every team’s recent history, I couldn’t make myself actually adhere to those findings in any sort of systematic way. As I think pretty much all poker players know, it’s hard to let go of “feel” and give yourself completely over to what math and logic are telling you is the right play to make. That’s not to say recent NCAA history is going to be an infallible predictor of success, but even if it were close to being so, I think it would be hard for me to subtract my own “gut” entirely from the equation.

One other kind of weird thing about my bracket. Partly motivated by the impression that there are a number of teams this year that can win it all -- perhaps more than most years -- I ended up going against the grain in another big way by not having any No. 1 seeds in my final four, and four No. 2 seeds. I didn’t plan for that, but when that’s how it ended up I decided it was weird enough to try, if only as an experiment. Haven’t looked, but I’d be surprised if there were any other final fours in the pool comprised of Villanova, Oklahoma, Xavier, and Michigan State.

All four of those teams play today, so if one or two fall I will be doing some burning.

(EDIT [added 5 p.m. ET]: Oh well, it was a fun few hours, anyway -- my chosen winner, Michigan State, dropped their first-round game this afternoon, the first time in a quarter-century of filling out these pools my winner was out so soon.)

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