Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Matching Up Poker and Tennis

Caroline WozniackiWas up late again last night watching Event #13 of PokerStars’ World Championship of Online Poker, the $300+$20 Seven-Card Stud event. Early in the evening, I had the U.S. Open on as well, watching the hard-fought, three-set battle between the 19-year-old Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark (pictured) and the Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova.

I tend to enjoy watching the women’s matches more than the men, if only because the points tend to go longer, and so there’s more of a chance for some drama and suspense to be built up in a given point. The Wozniacki-Kuznetsova match was just terrific in this regard, with a lot of wild, lengthy rallies and spectacular winners that made you go “wow.”

The 19-year-old Wozniacki eventually took it down, outlasting Kuznetsova in three sets 2-6, 7-6, 7-6. She’ll now play the American Melanie Oudin in the quarterfinals, another teen sensation who also came back to beat a higher-seeded Russian yesterday, defeating Nadia Petrova 1-6, 7-6, 6-3.

While I was watching the Wozniacki-Kuznetsova match conclude, I had one of the stud tables open on the laptop, kind of idly noting hands go by when the players were between points. Perhaps unsurprisingly I started to become aware of the many similarities between tennis and poker. Probably goes for any poker variant, but somehow stud seemed especially poker-like last night.

Most stud hands tend to become heads up by fourth street, and thus more readily resemble the back-and-forth of tennis from that point forward. As hands developed, the betting reminded me of two players volleying, with a raise or three-bet looking like an attempt at a passing shot or hitting a line, trying to end the “point” right then and there. Some would prove winners; others “unforced errors.”

The fixed limit betting format also seemed to reinforce the comparison, insofar as the players’ relative status changed only incrementally, bet by bet, hand by hand. No one could win it all on a single play, but only by the lengthy accumulation of actions and results.

Matching Up Poker and TennisFinally, I found myself contemplating the whole “luck-vs.-skill” debate in light of the analogy I was almost involuntarily tracing. Certainly I was witnessing awesome displays of skill by Wozniacki and Kuznetsova, both in terms of athletic prowess and strategic, on-the-fly decision making.

But the players’ relative skill levels also helped create what seemed to be “lucky” moments here and there. I don’t have the stats before me, but it was clear Kuznetsova played a higher-risk (or “looser”) style, thereby hitting more winners (and aces) while committing more unforced errors (and double-faults). Some points would develop in such a manner that one player appeared to have a decided advantage -- like having positional advantage or the better starting hand in poker -- yet the other would somehow find a way to steal the point, to “get lucky” (so to speak) thanks to a fortunate bounce or a slight mistake from her opponent.

Yes, there’s definitely some degree of “luck” in tennis -- or at least elements of the game that, as is the case in poker, are constantly out of the player’s control. But like in poker, the skillful players tend to win out over time, and a match (or tournament) generally goes on long enough to ensure that will usually be the case.

There are many other parallels one could pursue -- momentum, confidence, focus, reading opponents’ strengths and weakness, and so forth. One of the winners of a WCOOP event, Joel Adam Gordon (a.k.a. “2FLY2TILT”) who won Event #4, the No-Limit 2-7 Single Draw event, and who also did well in last night’s stud event, made a similar comparison in his post-tourney interview with Otis. Said Gordon, he was “aiming to be one of the most versatile and well-rounded players around,” likening himself to “a tennis player who can play well on all surfaces.”

Yea, there are lots of ways to go with this analogy. I’ll stop there, though, and let you think about them. Ball’s in your court.

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Anonymous Erik said...

It's a limited analogy. Really, poker is a very simple game. It doesn't take long to become a competent player. One of the most important aspects of being a successful professional card player is to overcome one's boredom and remain calm and analytical. Comparing this skill (personality?) to the skills required to master tennis or soccer or chess... I don't know. It seems an empty comparison to me. Those professional athletes and chess players are competing at a level so much higher than pro poker players- who are just marginally better than than rest of us.

Sorry, I don't mean to direct this criticism of poker at you. I really enjoy your blog mainly because you make it about MORE than just poker. My criticism is directed at the young poker players who tie so much of their manhood to the game. But that's just me- 34 years old and amused by 20 year olds beating their chest over their skill in a game that doesn't really allow much distinction between great and good.

9/08/2009 7:23 PM  
Anonymous Shane said...

Fascinating post. I guess you're right but isn't that anything in life. Infact isn't life just one big poker game where you have to make the best of the hand you're dealt.
Luck plays a part in who your parents are and the natural gifts god bestows upon you.

9/09/2009 7:09 AM  

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