Sunday, November 23, 2008

Gambling, Punting, and Unnecessary Risk

I enjoy listening to sports radio, but I have not done so often lately. I have preferred the quiet to the talk.

When I do listen, I notice that they spend quite a bit of time talking about betting on sports. That's wasted on me. I'm not a gambler. Moreover, the entire idea of gambling is foreign to me.

We live in West Texas, and I drive to New Mexico a couple of times per year. Usually around Roswell we see a billboard for Powerball lottery. Texas is not a Powerball state, so the jackpot amount usually is a surprise. When it's large, we usually drop a dollar.

People call the lottery a tax on people who are bad at math, but I would argue that these are exactly my kind of odds. I won't miss the dollar, and I'd be a lot better off with an extra $200 million. So spending an extra $3 a year is no trouble.

Conversely, doubling my money holds almost no interest. Whatever spare money I have has a purpose. And losing it for no good reason seems, well, stupid. And doubling it won't buy me a new house, a new car, or anything I really want. Thus the risk-reward ratio is quite poor.

This guiding principle extends to sports. I love Big Ten football. Woody Hayes. Three yards and a cloud of dust. And although I enjoy watching Texas Tech football, it is against my entire nature. I would have made a boring football coach.

I believe Jim Tressel when he says that the punt is the most important play in football. I believe that defense does win championships. I grew up watching Marty Schottenheimer's Kansas City Chiefs win 16-13 slugfests.

There's nothing like a tenacious defense and an ability to run the ball. You can close out games.

Last night, watching the Red Raiders get pummeled by Mobilehoma, coach Mike Leach's propensity to go for it on fourth down failed. Giving such a skilled opponent a short field was extremely costly.

This itself is an interesting study in risk. If you've ever played video game football, you occasionally find yourself ahead late in the game trying to protect a lead. Faced with certain defeat, your opponent is forced to repeatedly go for it on fourth down.

In my experience, this is almost impossible to defend. It seems that so much of football is designed to keep most runs short. So for the entirety of the game, holding your opponent to three straight 3-yard runs spells victory. They punt on 4th and 1.

However, nursing a 3 point lead with 2:30 to go, your opponent is going to try for that yard every time. And it's incredibly effective.

Yet so few take this gamble when it's not absolutely necessary. Imagine how difficult it would be to stop a team with a solid running attack and play action passing that always went for it on fourth and short. I'm not saying it would be effective in the long run, but I would hate to defend it.

In the end, it's a function of probabilities, and a well executed punt has better odds.

And these coaches are gambling with millions of dollars: their lucrative contracts.

Which brings us back to the entire issue of gambling.

Although I don't have the patience to fact check this, ESPN radio's Colin Cowherd said this week that sports gambling increases when the economy is bad. When you and your family need the money the most, you're most likely to flush it away.

In our lab, we spend a lot of time studying appetitive and aversive processes. Good things feel good, and bad things feel bad. This is universal. But for some people, good things feel so good that risks are ignored. And for others, bad things feel so bad that no risk is tolerable.

To me, gambling is simply a function of appetite and aversion. I don't have a high tolerance for risk, so it logically follows that I am not much of a gambler. But it also explains why people might be more likely to gamble during times of economic strife.

Imagine that you're a little bit hungry, but you'd have to run across a busy highway to get food. You probably would sit out the human Frogger. Now imagine that you're starving. No amount of traffic would prevent you from risking the highway. Eat or die. So the traffic does not increase your risk.

Perhaps you need that extra $100 so bad that you cannot see the folly of losing the $100 you do have.

So Las Vegas remains a mystery to me. It's a monument built to a god that I just don't understand.

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Blogger Tim Laubacher said...

You touched on the following topics all in one post:

- Frogger
- lab
- punting
- football
- radio
- gambling
- a god
- Las Vegas


11:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am so proud of you. I hope you got some of that from me! II

7:21 AM  

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