Monday, January 02, 2012

Page 2 of 366; or, Following the Crowd

Page 2 of 366Saw this odd-looking item among the trending topics on Twitter this morning. Took me a while to figure out what it meant. And once I did I decided to go along with the crowd and name today’s post after it. Because, well, the post is sort of about just that -- following others.

It’s a new year. Spent the first day of 2012 intently concentrating on those NFL games yesterday, for a couple of reasons.

One was because I’m a football fan and there were a ton of meaningful games, all piled onto the same day as each of the 32 teams finished out their regular seasons. The NFL does a smart thing with their schedule, having all 16 of these final games being within the division, thereby increasing the likelihood that they’d have some impact on playoffs. And as often happens there were a lot of fantastic finishes all day that further amped up the excitement.

The other reason I was so focused on football was this pool I’ve mentioned off and on here, the Pauly’s Pub one in which we pick all the games all year. No spreads to worry about, but still a not insignificant challenge each week to guess winners.

I’d been hovering near the top of the leaderboard since mid-season and entered yesterday tied for first, meaning I had a shot at winning the whole shebang. So I fretted all week over the games, deciding that this final week of the season was probably the hardest to handicap given all the different factors in play regarding injuries, playoff seedings, and teams’ relative need to win.

I was conscious of one other factor, too, something I’d been thinking about pretty much every week since I’d found myself either leading or tied for the lead in the pool -- namely, what picks others were making.

Larry Fitzgerald of Arizona makes an incredible, diving, one-handed catch against Seattle in Week 17There had been a number of games over the last few weeks where I had picked a team not necessarily because I thought that team would win, but because I knew everyone else near the lead was going to pick that team as well. It might sound odd, consciously not picking a team I actually thought would win. Hell, it is odd. But by not going against the crowd and picking an underdog I could just about assure myself that the game wouldn’t affect the standings no matter how it turned out, which in several such cases was the option I took.

To give one example, a week ago the Houston Texans were at the Indianapolis Colts on Thursday night. Houston had already locked up its playoff spot and was coming off a bad outing at home in which they were beaten by the Carolina Panthers, while Indy had just avoided a winless season the week before by beating Tennessee. Was one of those games where even though Houston was a decent-sized favorite -- by 5 or 6 points, I think -- there were a few reasons why Indy actually seemed like the right pick.

I remember hearing some pundits say as much that day, including Michael Wilbon making a convincing case on “Pardon the Interruption” a couple of hours prior to kickoff for why Indy would win the game. But I took Houston anyway, and as expected the entire top half of the pool’s leaderboard did the same. We took the game out of play, essentially. And when the Colts won we all thought a moment about what might have been, then moved on to consider the weekend’s games.

In poker we sometimes talk about “game theory” entering into certain decisions, although most of the time a lot of us aren’t altogether clear on what exactly game theory is. I’m not going to pretend to understand all of the ins and outs of game theory, but I do get how it involves making decisions based on what we think our opponents have chosen to do.

I can see how game theory perhaps could be said to have come into play occasionally in the pool. Especially in a situation like this, where all of us at the top of the leaderboard faced having to pick that Houston-Indy game and thus found ourselves in a spot kind of like that represented by the prisoner’s dilemma, that classic example often used to illustrate game theory.

In that example, two prisoners are suspected of a crime. Each has an opportunity either to turn the other in or remain silent. If one turns the other in and the other remains silent, the one who did the turning in goes free while the other receives a maximum sentence, say a year. If both turn each other in, both get a lesser sentence, say three months. If both remain silent, both will serve even less time in jail, say one month.

The Prisoner's DilemmaTo translate the example into “Pigskin Pick’em” terms, picking Indy would have been like remaining silent here, but we were all worried about everyone else “betraying” us and picking Houston. In other words, the fact that we were sure everyone else was going to pick Houston made picking Indy seem more risky than it would have been otherwise.

So we all took Houston, thus guaranteeing the game wouldn’t matter in terms of our relative standing in the pool. We avoided the longer sentence (i.e., the risk represented by going it alone and possibly dropping a game to everyone else), but took the lesser one (i.e., picking as we assumed everyone else would and accepting that the game wouldn’t help us, but wouldn’t hurt us, either).

As one tied for the lead, I liked inching one game closer to season’s end like this without having to worry about the possibility of losing my lead. But I knew once we got to the final week it might not be such a simple thing to continue to play this way -- to try to pick games the same way I thought my closest challengers were picking -- unless I had somehow built a big enough lead and was reasonably sure I could predict my opponents’ picks with accuracy.

But neither was the case. As I mentioned above, I made it to the final week tied for first with another player, Johnnie Walker, with Dawn Summers just one game back in third. And it didn’t take me long when looking over yesterday’s schedule to realize we were probably going to go in a lot of different directions on these final games. There really were only a couple of “obvious” picks out of the 16 -- e.g., there was little doubt that Atlanta was gonna crush Tampa Bay, Philly was probably gonna whip the Redskins, etc. However, while there were some favorites here and there among the other games, most were genuine toss-ups where it wasn’t really possible to predict which way the others were going to go.

So, unlike the last several weeks, I picked all 16 this time without giving a single thought to what others were doing. And as it happened I did well with my picks, getting lucky in a few cases -- as I have all year -- and hitting 14 of them to take the sucker down. (The two I missed were picking Detroit to beat Green Bay and Oakland to beat San Diego.)

Like I say, I only have a general understanding of game theory, and realize I might be applying it a little too loosely or even incorrectly here. I also can’t help but think how worrying too much about what others are doing in a non-zero-sum game like this one is bad strategy, making me pick a team not because I think it will win but in order to avoid what appears to be a larger cost should I miss the pick.

Hard not to play it safe and follow the crowd sometimes, though. Speaking of, figured out that post title yet?

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