Archive for the ‘sport’ Category

On Losing It

November 9, 2011

Forgetting how to play.

Through work, I am afforded the privilege of playing more golf than my pay grade would normally warrant. As a result, over this (rapidly ending) season, my game improved from mostly terrible and occasionally ok, to mostly ok and occasionally good. My ball flight improved from a weak low shot to a boring draw, and I added a reliable check and roll chip to my short game arsenal.

Inevitably, my scores went down, but most importantly, my range of scores narrowed – with the occasional very good result happening with much greater frequency than the exceptionally bad. Best result was a +3 for nine holes (7 pars). I had more birdies this year than in the previous seven years combined.

One evening in mid August everything changed. I was playing with two delightfully interesting strangers (rare treat) and while my start to the round was terrific – two greens in regulation and two pars – my game started to fall terribly apart after that. I wasn’t so worried or annoyed that I wished never to play again, but the next day I invested in a trip to the range to see what was up.

It was worse. Much worse. I am struggling against the inevitable cliche of describing the experience as “never having played before,” but I am finding it inescapable. It simply was like that. I struggled through 80 balls, unable to make anything even approximating a shot. Violent and low slices with my Sand Wedge ran rudely down the range, and perpendicular to the flights of better balls.

I left wondering if it was all over. I was far from convinced of such a gloom, but I was well familiar with the almost paranormal stories about (shudder) yips. For the uninitiated, while yips in golf is most routinely a putting woe, it is more generally applied to all sporting actions involving motor skills that mysteriously cease functioning. How to fix them and why they happen is not fully understood, but they happen at all levels, with many examples of careers stalling, and sometimes, ending.

The shortstop who forgot how to throw to first base. That tennis guy who lost serve. All those free throw guys. Dartitis. Squirly and elusive patchwork might be necessary to cure my condition, and without guarantee. My mind drifted to thoughts of golf chemo. Imagine finding yourself, say, unable to turn a tap, or tie your shoes, and yet all the while able to perform myriad analgous tasks.

I was fine by the next day, and without any special effort. I blocked the notion from my mind and played. Still, every once in a while my upper body stops turning mid swing, the face of my club wide-open, I hit one of those low slicing freaks, and I suddenly find myself thinking of an otherwise charming August evening.

Robin Lindsay

rockrobinoff[at]gmail.com

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Bribing Conrose in Summer

March 24, 2011

You can’t play basketball with broken fingers…

Background

I caught a few minutes of  The Sopranos the other day. The rotund Bobby Bacala made casual mention of how the recently deceased New York boss Carmine Lupertazzi “invented point shaving.” I knew that point shaving was something related to match fixing, but other than that I was clueless, so I looked it up.

When two teams are matched in a sport’s book, the odds on favourite is assigned a number of points they must win by. That statistic is called the spread. So, if The Boston Celtics stand to beat The LA Lakers, and the spread is 10, the Celtics have to win by at least 11 points in order to ‘beat the spread.’ So, if you place a bet on Celtics, they must not only the win the game, they must beat the spread for you to collect.

Points shaving is the act of manipulating the outcome of a game by the participants (and often backed by the Mob). Normally, this translates to the odds on favourite intentionally committing errors resulting in either the loss of the game, or failing to cover the spread. Basketball is particularity prone to this sort of manipulation, for it only takes two or three dishonest starting players to control the fate of their team – and it is very hard to detect.

Henry Hill (yes, that Henry Hill, from Goodfellas) wrote a fascinating, if grammatically suspicious, piece for Sports Illustrated on the 1978-79 Boston College points shaving scandal he perpetrated with James Burke (yes, De Niro’s character from Goodfellas). As an aside, why those events were not portrayed in the film is at least somewhat surprising. An elaborate plot to fix games, big money won and lost, fresh faced but cynical athletes who know they are never going to make it to the NBA, and all happening within days of the Lufthansa Heist. I suppose one must pick and choose.

A problem to solve when fixing games is how to bet large amounts of money without raising suspicion. Bookies can’t normally accept very large bets or too many small bets on single games (if they do, they will normally “lay off” some part of the wager(s) with another bookie, hence limiting risk). If betting patterns indicate an abnormal spike in wagering (especially against a favourite) the mobsters will have tipped their hand – the fix is in. The way the mob solves this, is to make very many small wagers with very many bookies across a very large geographical area, thus making it very difficult to detect the hanky panky.

The Point

Apple pie Christian family values America is a fantasy, and yet that ideal still holds great sway in both the political arena and the cultural discussion. The attitude to sports gambling is a case in point. According to a 1999 Gambling Impact Study, $2.5 billion a year is wagered legally on sports in Las Vegas casinos. Compare that to the $380 billion wagered illegally on sports across The United States, and the economic reality becomes clear. The argument to legalize sports gambling and collect the considerable taxation revenue, for gambling that will and does happen with or without government sanction, is only countered by very tenuous slippery slope arguments – impossible to prove, and rarely persuasive regardless of the context.

Fascinating is the disconnect between the idealized American and the actual American. Not so much for the Americans’ failure to live up to an unattainable ideal, but for the importance placed on the ideal. Americans would prefer a $380 billion dollar a year industry go unchecked and mob run, then to publicly acknowledge that Americans, including the average Joe with a job and a mortgage, like to put a few dollars on a game now and then.

Blame Jesus. Whether you are a biblical literalist or a wet behind the ears Christian liberal, Jesus Christ plays a role model. Even within Christian scholarship, the way to cope with the Old Testament sewn into the same leaves as The Sermon on the Mount, is to read the bible “Always with Jesus in mind.” If Jesus would have approved, then it is okay. If he wouldn’t, then it isn’t. This also serves to combat accusations of cherry picking (unsuccessfully in my mind, but that’s another topic).

Religion informs American values like no other culprit, and Jesus Christ is their number one dude. Jesus would never bet on a Knicks game, therefore, for the government to condone such a thing would be a gross transgression of values (won’t someone please think of the children!). That might seem like an oversimplification, that I am ignoring the social impact of gambling, that serious and secular arguments against legalized gambling can be made. Secular arguments against gambling are beside the point, for no secular person argues that the very act of gambling is amoral. That argument can only be made by the religious.

In conclusion, if it is political suicide for a politician to get up and say: “Let’s legislate away a $380 billion a year industry from organized crime, regulate it, make it safe, and add to the public coffer,” then we need an explanation as to why. My guess: it is the notion of the idealized American cloaked in a blanket of religiously informed values. How pathetic.

Robin Lindsay

rockrobinoff[at]gmail.com

Yes or No or Neither

March 8, 2011

If someone says to me “I think the Yankees will defeat the Red Sox” or “I think Obama will be reelected” I don’t know what to think. Or, more precisely, I don’t know what they mean, and I don’t think they do either.

Yesterday, I watched a variety of golf pundits bandy about percentage chances of Tiger Woods surpassing Jack Nicklaus’ 18 Major Championship record (30% to 50%). Two years ago, if you asked just about any golf guy the same question,  they considered it a foregone conclusion that Tiger would beat it, and perhaps by many.

What does the above say about the golf pundits? One might defend them by saying “with the available information, the conviction they held two years ago was justified.” To which one might respond “without all the facts, they had no business prognosticating with such certainty.” But what of these 30 and 50 percent guesses?

Does a 30% guess meaningfully translate to: “I do not think he will?” One might make the argument that any estimate of anything that falls below 50% means I don’t think so and any guess above 50% means Yes, I think so. Then again, one might argue that outside the world of bookmaking, humans demonstrate a very vague relationship with probability.

10% – Not very likely but more than technically possible.

20% – I won’t be shocked, but would would feel hard done by if I was betting against it.

30% – A solid chance, but not very likely.

40% – Might as well be 50-50 for all I know. Worse than a coin flip, but only just.

50% – A coin flip.

60% – Might as well be 50-50 for all I know. Better than a coin flip, but only just.

70% – Its pretty likely, but don’t bet the farm.

80% – Still don’t bet the farm, but bet heavily and feel wounded if it goes against you.

90% – It’s practically a lock.

The above is my personal vague relationship with numbers. I do my best to struggle against those instincts, but am nonetheless subject to my guts and what they think about probability. The reason I fight against my intestinal conviction is the simple and obvious fact that things that happen ten percent of the time happen… ten percent of the time. ‘Ten percent’ doesn’t imply anything other than ‘not some other percentage.’ Yet, I, and by my experience just about everybody else, heap all kinds of implications upon the bare facts of probability.

Contextually, probabilities do take on all kinds of meaning. If someone offers you a one in ten chance at a million bucks for a buck, and you can afford to lose the buck, you take it. If they offer you a one in one million and one chance at a million bucks, you decline. Not because one in ten is “reasonably likely” and not because one in a million and one is “astronomically unlikely” but because a buck and million bucks, and 1 in 10 and 1 in 1000 001, have a mathematical relationship that proves  if you play the first game you stand to win in the long run, and in the second, you don’t. Put another way, it is possible to make a bet that wins 99% of the time, and have the bet be wrong. If you bet a thousand dollars to win a dollar on the spin of a 100 space wheel that contains only one losing space, you’re an idiot.

However, it might be completely impossible to manage life without some kind of instinctual, if vague and bizarre and perhaps very silly, relationship with probability. If there is a 70% chance I will die if I go on vacation to Cambodia, then I am not going to go. If there is a 1% chance, then I might. Most of us will have a similar reaction to similar circumstances, but there is no logic being applied to the vacation decision other than 1% is lower than 70%. Why is 1% low enough? Would 2% be too high? 5%? Why not 0.5% as the threshold?

The other day in Slate there appeared an article estimating Sarah Palin’s chance at running for president at 40%. What does that even mean?

Robin Lindsay

rockrobinoff[at]gmail.com

Bunkered Betty

February 16, 2011

Golf and skateboarding share a peculiar phenomenon; both sports attract an alpha’s share of arseholes and nitwits.

If you play golf you will inevitably if irregularly find yourself forcibly paired with strangers. The reasons are innocent enough, as courses are often busy, and groups of four play faster than two groups of two, and the occasional lonely single might require buddy. But eighteen holes of golf is a four and 1/2 hour affair, almost all of it spent not in the performance of a golf shot, but walking and waiting and watching. So, politeness demands you make friends, but woe are those who play golf.

The Uniformed Twit

Golf on television sports mostly conservative dress. Baseball cap, trousers, golf shoes, collared or muscle shirt, belt. I lack the sartorial grammar to fully illustrate what it is that makes the golf outfit so instantly recognizable despite its blandness, but exists it does. Many years ago one might have spotted plus fours, checkered knee socks, a vest, and a Scottish red plaid Tam O’ Shanter complete with pom pom. But those delightful times have past, and the rank and file hacker arrives at the golf course logoed in Nike swoosh.

The instant dislike felt by me when presented with such a corporate sheep is similar to my reaction to the baggy pants neanderthal with a skull on his shirt and bleached spikes for hair I encountered so frequently in high school. Skate culture breeds individuals whose primary interests are loathsome music and retarding intellectual development. The inane speech, ghastly artwork, and faux politics associated with skateboarding are difficult to get past. Be that as it may, I have met some very charming people who skateboard, and the same can be said for some I know who golf.

The Jock

My great admiration for golf stems partly from the fact that the game is a fantastic and elusive puzzle. Ted Williams said the most difficult thing in sports was hitting a major league pitch. Ted may be right, but surely the most counter intuitive motion in sports, is the golf swing. A visit to a driving range should prove sufficient warning to anyone who thinks the method for approximating a golf shot is readily apparent. What one will discover, is a host of semi correct and semi effective swings, and several entirely incorrect and ineffective swings.

New players tend to underestimate how difficult it is to get the ball airborne, let alone in the proper direction. I have had the pleasure of introducing the game to a few friends, none of them stupid or uncoordinated, and their golf  was, essentially, played along the ground. A largely unsatisfying experience.

On top of the singularly difficult task of hitting a ball from a perfectly level lie, and with the same club repeatedly, and without much care as to direction, which is the experience of a driving range, one is faced with a plethora of variables when playing golf on an actual course. Wind, the condition of turf, the ball above or below one’s feet, from an uphill or downhill lie, from a bunker, below branches, over a tree, putting against or with the grain, the reading of green break, adjusting for uphill and downhill yardages, and the effect of spin. Each problem potentially intertwined (a sidehill lie into a right to left crosswind into a poa annua green that slopes away from you with water in front?).

But in walks the jock. There is no denying it, the cro magnon in possession of truly superior dexterity and strength can compensate for a lack of technique. His drive will be inefficient, but nonetheless as effective as he who possesses good technique but only average coordination. How utterly and completely infuriating. Nonetheless, confront the same Pleistocene boar with an irregular lie and an inaccessible pin, and he will wither and fold. He does not understand.

How truly uplifting and validating the game of golf.

Robin Lindsay

rockrobinoff[at]gmail.com

The Greys

December 2, 2010

Throwing her arms in the air in bemused exasperation she exclaimed “I don’t get sports.”

The other night between bouts of Quizzard, the lone female in the room availed herself of the opportunity to inquire as to the male obsession with sports. I have to admit that I might not be the best person to ask, as my sporting obsessions tend toward individual contests; whiling away entire afternoons in front of the television watching golf, tennis, or snooker will no doubt maintain as habits for years to come.

That said, I have enjoyed the occasional baseball game, and even football can prove diverting. Hockey or basketball not so much, though World Cup soccer has the capacity to engage my full attention for a game or two (especially if the UK are taking on the Krauts). The Olympics are a big snooze. Running? Throw the thing? That manages to engage the attention of adults? I have to admit I have for some time wanted to be an Eastern European spy who also happens to be a Biathlon (that’s gun-skiing to you) medalist, but that’s a story for another day.

The appeal of sports is rooted in four major concepts: vicarious competition, tribalism, and appreciation for athletic aesthetics are the obvious first three. The fourth, less obvious but entirely indispensable, is the narrative. Each and every game of anything is also a story, and not only is the story about the events that transpire over  the next couple of hours, but it is also a tale in context. What and who do these teams represent? Are the big, bad, and rich New York Yankees bashing a small market minnow into submission? Will the minnow prove to be a David in the face of Goliath? Or are The Yankees taking on their arch nemesis, The Boston Red Sox – the darlings of perennial vigils held in hope of an eventual victory in the face of The Evil Empire (until recently anyway, they finally won).

Sports are dramatic. Yes, it is cheap drama, and the tension no more sophisticated than that built by a nauseating television program about hot doctors screwing each other… but no less either. Males like sports because they are allegories for murder and conflict – the stuff of many a good story.

So, I raise my arms and ask: How can anyone who claims to be a grown up willingly sit through an episode of Grey’s Anatomy?


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