Friday, November 19, 2010

On Luck, Skill, and Reward

Luck adds up to rewardWas reading the sports page this morning and came across a bit of news that got me thinking once again about the whole “skill-vs.-luck” debate in poker, though in a different way, perhaps, than I have thought about it in the past.

Now that the baseball season is over and done, all of those annual awards are being voted upon and handed out (MVPs, Rookies of the Year, Gold Gloves, etc.). Found it kind of interesting to see that over in the American League, Seattle pitcher Felix Hernandez was awarded the Cy Young Award recognizing him as the league’s best pitcher.

What made the news interesting was the fact that Hernandez had a very modest-looking 13-12 record this year. In fact, his total of 13 wins was the fewest ever by a Cy Young award winner (in a non-strike-shortened year). Yet he earned 21 of the 28 first-place votes for the award -- pretty much a landslide.

Hernandez got the Cy Young not because of his win-loss record, but because he had a stellar earned run average (2.27), a whole bunch of strikeouts (232 in 249.2 innings), and limited his opponents to a low batting average (just .212).

Why didn’t he win more games? Well, his teammates didn’t do very much on the offensive side when he pitched, averaging just 3.06 runs a game for him when he started. According to the New York Times article from which I’ve gotten all of these other statistics, Hernandez had 12 starts in which he gave up two runs or less yet did not win.

The author of the article, Tyler Kepner, concludes that when it came to casting their ballots for the AL Cy Young, those charged with that task apparently took into account the fact that Hernandez didn’t get a lot of run support this year. “The voters did not penalize Hernandez for that bit of bad luck,” writes Kepner, and thus three-fourths of them decided to list him their top choice for the honor.

It does seem a little odd to have a Cy Young award winner with a barely .500 win-loss record and only 13 wins. But I understand the reasoning and am not really invested enough in the issue to object to the voters’ decision.

Even so, that line about not holding Hernandez’ “bad luck” against him got me thinking.

Baseball -- like poker -- is a game in which luck obviously does play a role, not just in terms of individual statistics (like with Hernandez and his win-loss record), but with regard to teams’ success, too. A ball hits a pebble and bounces over the shortstop’s head, a “lucky” break that allows the winning run to score. Or an umpire blows a call (which happens... a lot), which proves fortunate for one team, and bad “luck” for the other. And so forth.

Thinking back to this year’s Poker Hall of Fame vote in which I had the privilege to participate, it goes without saying that Dan Harrington, Erik Seidel, and all of the other members of the PHOF most certainly experienced some good luck along the way. They had to, right?

Don’t get me wrong -- most of those in the Poker Hall of Fame are unquestioningly skillful poker players. (I’m leaving out Edmund Hoyle, who never played poker, and perhaps a couple of others.) But those skillful players also necessarily had to withstand the game’s element of chance, enjoying good luck and avoiding bad luck frequently enough to be winners and become recognized as belonging among poker’s greats.

Thinking again about Hernandez winning the award, how absurd would it seem to single out a particularly unlucky poker player as deserving of recognition (e.g., entry into the Poker Hall of Fame), backing one’s argument with the assertion that he or she should not be “penalized” for “a bit of bad luck”?

Luck matters, right? Winning certainly matters. And winning -- in baseball, poker, and just about every other game -- requires luck. Didn’t all of those other Cy Young award winners, just like most all of those Poker Hall of Famers, enjoy some good luck? If we don’t want to penalize a player for experiencing bad luck, is it right to reward another for experiencing good luck?

Play well this weekend, all. And good luck!

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Blogger Alex said...

Luck certainly plays a part in a person's success but it balances out over the course of a career, or at least I would think it does.

Hernandez won the Cy Young as the voters recognized he was on a crappy team. Will he get into the Hall of Fame using the same logic? I doubt it. Either he has HOF numbers or he doesn't.

I think this would be an interesting proposition if the POY was based on voting rather than points and whoever would do the voting elected someone whose results were pedestrian because they got rivered a bunch.

11/19/2010 12:26 PM  
Blogger Easycure said...

Your post makes me think of Jamie Gold. He won a Main Event bracelet. So what! He was a complete lucksack and a jerk to boot. Do we penalize him for being lucky? No. He owns his bracelet. Do we notice that he has done nothing since has little chance of making the HOF, let alone being recognized as one of the games great players? Yes. Yes we do.

11/19/2010 12:58 PM  
Blogger pokeroso said...

"Thinking again about Hernandez winning the award, how absurd would it seem to single out a particularly unlucky poker player as deserving of recognition."

Give the current technology is doesn't necessarily seem absurd but out of reach...currently. Remember baseball didn't have nearly the amount of statatitions is does today and for the most part the person filling that role was the score keeper circa 60 years ago. Now there are a thousand 20 year olds at ESPN keeping track of how many left handed relievers come from single parent homes.

So, imagine if the cards had sensors/micro-chips in them and could quietly calculate expected value ubiquitously. It wouldn’t matter if it was live or online, if it was in Europe of South East Asia. This of course would have to be used within a structured set of events, say the WPT. Using the WPT as an example, every event could be played with micro-chip cards and EV could be calculated and used as criteria for P.O.Y. Someone who was “unlucky” consistently could actually be honored.


11/19/2010 4:15 PM  

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