Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Sports Talk: Reality and Romance

Sports Talk: Reality and RomanceYesterday in my “Poker in American Film and Culture” class we had once again reached the point in the semester where it was time to discuss Al Alvarez’ The Biggest Game in Town.

Last year around this time I wrote a series of posts here about one chapter of Alvarez’ book (chapter 3), focusing on different themes that come up. One of those themes is the tension or conflict between a “realistic” and a “romantic” view of poker, the kind of thing anyone who has played the game and thought about it at all seriously has probably been inspired to contemplate.

In the chapter one finds Mickey Appleman talking about how “there can be no self-deception for a poker player” and how “you have to be a realist to be successful.” Interestingly, before the same long quote is over Appelman describes himself as a “romantic” and how for him “gambling is a romance.” He goes on to talk about how when he is at the table he doesn’t think about how he plays for “real money.”

It’s a curious passage, and fun to talk about with students as I ask them to try to reconcile what appears to be a kind of contradiction. I wrote at length about this in one of those posts from last year, and so won’t repeat the discussion other than to say I believed it was possible for poker pros to be “realistic” about what they were doing while also enjoying the “romantic” freedom from the “straight world” or “system” the life can provide (for some).

Anyhow, I bring up this “reality vs. romance” idea again because when I was driving into school yesterday I dialed up the local sports talk radio station to hear the discussion of the NCAA games from the weekend. Most of the talk was about UNC failing to overcome the injury to their point guard, Kendall Marshall, and thus losing to Kansas in the regional final.

It was a close game until the final few minutes when Kansas went on a run and UNC went cold, kind of a classic example of a team collectively falling apart just when things became most stressful. During the game’s most crucial moments when the team most needed to focus and execute, the Heels had failed to do so, the Jayhawks had made plays, and thus Kansas had prevailed.

I realized listening to the sports talk guys that almost everything they were saying concerned intangibles like “heart” and “desire” and “believing” and so forth. No UNC player had stepped up to “put the team on his shoulders” at the end, they explained, and thus they lost. I realized it was an entirely vague discussion of what had happened, full of clichés and faux analysis, the kind of stuff any non-expert could come up with if forced to discuss a given game.

Let’s say you knew nothing at all about poker but were forced to write a report on the final table of a tournament in which one of your assigned tasks was to analyze the strategy employed by each player. How would you do it?

Well, you could talk about “heart” and “desire” and how one player just really, really wanted it more than the others and “believed” in himself and as a result ended up winning. Right? Of course, such a report would immediately be dismissed as useless by most who read it, a group I’m assuming would consist of people with at least a marginal understanding of poker.

Always Give 110%Those readers would know that a more informed analysis would look at what actually happened in the hands the players played, noting the approaches they’d taken with various holdings, how they’d sized their bets and raises, used position, interpreted the betting patterns and other information gleaned from opponents, and so forth as having led to the actions they took. The luck element would be addressed, too -- e.g., a suckout on the river coming to snatch reward away from a well considered play. In other words, a real analysis of how players performed would necessarily deal with concrete evidence, smartly weighed.

But when it comes to basketball and a lot of sports reporting, this sort of non-specific applesauce about “desire” and such seems not only to be tolerated, but makes up most of what passes for commentators “breaking down” a game.

As I listened further to the sports talk guys repeating each other with their fuzzy back-and-forthing, I realized they were adding precious little to the understanding of anyone who’d actually watched the game. Nor would what they were saying be that meaningful to someone who hadn’t watched it, either, other than to indicate in a very general way that the winning team had somehow tried harder than the one that lost.

At one point one of them actually started going on about “it” and how a certain player just didn’t have “it.” You know, that purposefully ambiguous pronoun that is supposed to represent some quality that cannot be named, yet is necessary to succeed. “I mean you look at him on the court and you can see right away he just doesn’t have it,” went the commentary.

Some insight, there. I finally said “sh” to the talk of “it” and put on some tunes.

Since I was already thinking about the whole “reality vs. romance” idea from Alvarez’ book, I found myself characterizing this way of talking about a sporting event as essentially romantic, not giving much attention at all to the reality of how plays were run, shots were made or missed, defenses were effective or failed, and the like.

I don't mean to suggest these “romantic” ways of looking at sports aren't meaningful, nor that there isn't a place for talking about a player's “heart” or “will to win” or whatever. But one has to understand how limited that sort of discussion necessarily is, depending largely on evidence one cannot really support with observable facts.

The truth is, real analysis is hard. It takes effort and understanding to break down how a game was won or lost -- I mean really break it down. Just like it takes effort and understanding to play a game well. And without such hard work, a lot of these so-called analysts are doomed to fill the air with a lot redundant-sounding noise.

No matter how much heart and desire they pour into it.

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