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Applying poker’s optimal game theory to sports

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If you consider yourself something of an aficionado of poker games, optimal game theory will no doubt already be part of your lexicon. Where poker was once just a favorite in casinos, in recent years it has evolved stratospheric-ally as a result of online poker and players paying far more attention to the strategy behind their game. Today we’re looking at what optimal game theory is and how it applies to sports other than poker.

Then vs Now

Back in the day, old-school poker players mostly achieved success via good old exploitative play. This strategy involves identifying weaknesses and imbalances in the strategies of your opponents. While a legitimate way of playing, exploitative play has plenty of weaknesses. For example, it invites your opponents to exploit you right back, and as you’re basing every call you make on assumptions you’ve made up about your opposition…there’s a high chance that often you’ll get things wrong.

Nowadays, most poker players apply some level of Game Theory – a branch of mathematics pioneered back in the 1950’s by John Nash, the chap Russell Crowe depicted in A Beautiful Mind. Over the last 15 years, poker players have (sensibly) been applying Game Theory to poker…resulting in the game developing at a rapid rate, and becoming far more complex.

Put simply, Game Theory dictates that every tiny decision you make over the course of the game influences the likelihood of winning. Understanding strategy allows you to adapt the game as you play based on the results of each hand. If players have a good GTO strategy, they will always win money in the long run regardless of how skillful their opponents are. Also, adjusting counter the actions of your opponents is far easier if you have a baseline strategy to operate from.

Put very simply – the best players in poker need to be masters of both exploitative play and optimal game theory. With so many players now applying both, and even using GTO software to help them, it would be remiss for anyone hoping to make it big not to attempt to master both too.

And in the sporting world?

Of course, game theory is already widely applied in the sporting world. Professional athletes may spend a lot of their time training for game day, but being the best involves more than putting in the hours at the gym and on the pitch. Understanding strategy and the best plays should be part of every athletes day-to-day training. Teams will spend hours studying game footage of their upcoming opponents in order to anticipate what they might try to pull off come game day. A great example of this is soccer goal keepers who will spend hours studying footage of opposition players taking penalties, so that if and when it comes down to nail-biting penalty finish, they have the best idea of what corner of the net that player will aim for – rather than just looking at their body language and hoping for the best.

To be the best in any sport, the winning combination is a combination of the two. While it’s all very well putting everything you have into match day – your efforts will go unrewarded if you have no strategy in place and just plan to bulldoze your way through.

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