Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Play the Percentages

I won a lot of matches with my efficiency. I didn’t make many mistakes, got to a lot of balls, and never ever gave up. I punished you by forcing you to make more mistakes than me. My coaches stressed physical fitness and I definitely outworked so many people with superior preparation. What’s really interesting is that I feel like the way I approached tennis is very much my personality. I’m chill for the most part, flexible and ready to attack a problem in the most effective, efficient ways. Yet, I’m pretty defensive and stubborn, often afraid to make a bold new move and be looked upon as brash and offensive. I was afraid to make mistakes because I cared too deeply about my results rather than making the right play. This key mental flaw was something that hindered me in my tennis development and was something that I didn’t learn to master until playing poker.

Poker is about forcing your opponents to make a mistake. Everyone is dealt the same number of winners and losers in the long run, so it’s all about how you play those winners to maximize your value, and how you minimize your losses. Essentially, there are two ways to win a hand – to have the best hand, or to bluff. Because poker is so math based, each decision you make can be analyzed algebraically. Based on the hand range you perceive your opponent to have you can come up with what your expected value (EV) in a given hand is.  (I just wanted to note here that this is an imperfect art as poker is a game of imperfect information. The key is to become as accurate as you can with the EV calculations with the information that you have). With this value, you can find out how different ways you play a hand affect your EV and you can come up with the optimal strategy. This is where it all clicked for me. When I first started playing poker, I didn’t always make the optimal bluff or the marginal call because I was afraid to be wrong. When I started analyzing my game I realized I was leaking a lot of money because of these fundamental errors.

Essentially, I was too results oriented in poker as well. My downfall in tennis is also my biggest leak in poker. I started to realize how mad I would get when I didn’t bluff on the river and my opponent showed down a pathetic hand that beat mine and would have folded to a bluff. Bluffs do not work every time, but they also do not have to work every time. If you bet $50 into $100 on a bluff your play only has to work greater than 1/3 of the time for it to be profitable.

I can make a very relevant analogy to tennis. One of my biggest weaknesses was that I wasn’t aggressive enough on some of the short balls I would get in tennis. I should of thought of this in terms of percentages. If I hit a consistent shot back, I will make the shot nearly 100% of the time, but will only have a 55% chance to win the point. However, if I take an aggressive swing, I may win the point instantly 40% of the time, 40% of the time I will win 75% of the time since I am in a winning aggressive position, and I will out right miss and lose the point 20% of the time. In this example I would win the point 70% of the time with an aggressive swing and 55% of the time with a consistent swing. I definitely didn’t see it this way because I was too focused on the 20% of the time that I would miss. Not only did I cheat myself out of percentages in these matches, but I also wasn’t able to develop as complete a game as I would have liked which would have benefitted me more in the long run. I looked to correct this mental flaw and feel like I got a second chance through poker.

Humans are dependent on positive feedback and incentives. In poker, when you make the right play and lose, a correct mindset would to be content with your play. Conversely, when you make the wrong play and win, you should be upset for having been outplayed. This is unnatural. When I make the best play and lose, I remind myself that I made the right play and try to stay on an even keel. If you are off it, it’s time to take a break. Otherwise, move on and play the next hand. When I make the wrong play and win…god damnit I am ecstatic lol. Poker because of this, is a mind f*ck. You are constantly at a battle of managing your expectations and emotions. Tennis is not as mental as poker, but also shares a lot of the same fundamental strategies. A point does not define the match. Yes, there are important points, but just like hands of poker it is all about making the right play in the long run. You want to win the match, not just one point. By truly understanding this concept, it’s easier to have no regrets and feel like you’ve done what you can to give yourself the best opportunity to win a match. And that is all we can do… control what we do and give ourselves the best chance to win.