Category: Sports

King’s Gambit

Former British champion Bill Hartston once observed, "Chess doesn’t drive people mad.  It keeps mad people sane."  Morphy and Fischer’s behavior became truly bizarre only after they retired from the game.

That is from Paul Hoffman’s King’s Gambit: A Son, A Father, and the World’s Most Dangerous Game.  I loved this one, it’s one of the few great chess books.  It’s also a tale of how Manhattan has changed, how sons become independent, the nature of psychological warfare, and why obsession never really dies.  Note that author Hoffman is also editor of Discover magazine, which I enjoy as well. 

Justin Wolfers speaks

Legalizing wagering on which team wins or loses a particular game,
while banning all bets on immaterial outcomes like point spreads, would
destroy the market for illegal bookmakers and make sporting events less
corruptible by gamblers.


Point shaving may be widespread enough to have occurred in around 1 percent of N.C.A.A. basketball games.

Here is the full argument, and thanks to Chris F. Masse for the pointer; Chris also points me to this new and possibly very important study (a senior thesis by Jonathan Gibbs, at times the link isn’t working) of point shaving in the NBA.

Female tennis players and wages — politically incorrect paper of the day

Female tennis players play more conservatively and commit more
unforced errors when playing critical points.  Does this explain the
upper-echelons wage gap?

Here is the fact in more detail:

Women are significantly more likely to hit unforced errors at the most
crucial stages of the match, while men exhibit no significant variation
in performance.  Specifically, about 30% of men’s points end in unforced
errors, regardless of their placement in the distribution of the
importance variable.  For women, about 36% of points in the bottom
quartile of the importance distribution end in unforced errors, but
unforced errors rise to nearly 40% for points in the top quartile of
the importance distribution.  What is remarkable is not the difference
in the levels (men are more powerful and therefore more likely to hit
winners at any stage).  The interest lies in the differences in the way
men and women respond to increases in competitive pressure.

Here is the full article.

When you forget someone’s name

Sadly this problem plagues me more than it used to, though I never forget the location of a restaurant.  Gretchen, at The Happiness Project, has a few suggestions:

1. The “I know your name, but I’m blocked” dodge:
“I keep wanting to call you "David," but I know that’s not right.”

2. The “Of course I know you — in fact, I want all your information” dodge:
“Hey, I’d love to get your card.”

3. The “The tip of my tongue” dodge:
“I know I know your name, but I’m blanking right now.”

4. The “You’re brilliant!” dodge:
“Wow, you have a terrific memory. I can’t believe you remember my name
from that meeting six months ago. I can’t remember the names of people
I met yesterday! So of course I have to ask you your name.”

5. The “Sure, I remember you” dodge:
“Remind me – what’s your last name?” If you ask a person for his last name, he’s likely to repeat both names. “Doe, John Doe.”

6. The “One-sided introduction” dodge:
“Hey,” you say to the person whose name you can’t remember, “let me
introduce you to Pat Smith.” You introduce the two and say the name of
the person whose name you remember. Almost always, the nameless person
will volunteer his or her name.

I have tried asking the person how his or her name should be spelled (if the name is too simple that one can backfire), or "when you publish articles, how much of your full name do you give?" 

Do you all have better ideas? 

Steve Levitt at the World Series of Poker

Here is one account, here is Levitt’s account of another round.  In the latest he did very well indeed.  Out of 900 or so contestants, I am hearing reports that he finished about #25, some sources are saying as high as #10.  The pointer is from Scott Cunningham, tell us more if you know more.

So how many dimensions does intelligence have?  Some top chess players, such as Etienne Bacrot, are switching into poker for the higher pay, though I suspect Levitt’s move is temporary rather than permanent.

Addendum: Here is Levitt’s account.

LeBron vs. San Antonio: the numbers

The series isn’t over yet:

First of all, the Cavaliers won both games [against San Antonio].  It was 88-81 back in November, and 82-78 in January.

that’s only the beginning of the story.  The main point is that when
LeBron James got the ball against San Antonio’s defense, the Cavaliers
managed to get a good shot an alarming percentage of the time.  There
were a smattering of offensive fouls, certainly. And a couple of times
James forced a pass that was picked off.

I watched 50
possessions, between the two games.  Eight times (nine if you count a
pretty amazing Tim Duncan block of Anderson Varejao) the Spurs forced
the Cavaliers into a turnover, an offensive foul, or a truly difficult
shot.  Trusting my observations, that means the Cavaliers had
good looks 84% of the time.  Seems like a high number against any team,
but especially San Antonio.   

Of course the Lucas critique is relevant; the numbers don’t mean that Cleveland can replicate those shots at will.  The betting markets are giving Cleveland about twenty percent.  Matt Yglesias offers numbers on offensive and defensive efficiency, and writes of the coming blowout.  I’m picking San Antonio in six.

Magnus Carlsen


In the prestigious Linares chess tournament Carlsen met the following top-rated players: Veselin Topalov, Viswanathan Anand, Peter Svidler, Alexander Morozevich, Levon Aronian, Peter Leko, and Vassily Ivanchuk (replacing Teimour Radjabov). With the significantly lowest ELO rating, he achieved a 2nd place (on tiebreaks) with 7.5 points after 4 wins, 7 draws and 3 losses, and an ELO performance of 2778.

Magnus, born in Norway November 30, 1990, may be the greatest chess prodigy of all time.  He is arguably ahead of the pace of either Fischer or Kasparov.

How to save the NBA

Back when I was Tyler’s colleague (and Alex’s professor), Tyler and I shared a pair of season tickets to the then Washington Bullets. We’d sit in the stands and discuss how we would run things if we were the general manager. Now older and wiser, I’d like to offer suggestions for how to improve the league.

1. Re-seed after each round of the playoffs. I’m pretty sure the majority of other pro sports  do this and it makes sense. Keep the best teams in the longest, save the best match-ups for last. I know it might cause some extra days off and lengthen the already long playoffs but……

2. Shorten the regular season. Modern NBA basketball is a brutal sport. 82 games is a grind and a half. What shall we say? 60? 70 at the most. This leaves room for the extra time re-seeding might take, makes the games that are played more important, and reduces the potential for injury.

3. Make the draft lottery a true lottery. The tanking in the Greg Oden derby was hideous. Let every team that misses the playoffs (or better yet, every team in the league) have an equal shot in the lottery. Eliminate the lottery-created incentives to lose. And regarding the possibility that the rich would just get richer, that would actually be a plus.

4. Make the finals 2-2-1-1-1 not 2-3-2. Again, the shorter season gives us more time for travel days and the current 2-3-2 is just unfair. Stat boy can check me but I am pretty sure no home team has ever won all three of those middle games.

Am I missing anything?

The NBA study of referee bias

As a response to Justin Wolfers and Joseph Price, the NBA financed a study supposedly showing there is no racial bias in refereeing.  Here is a WSJ analysis of that study.  Here is part of what they found:

Columbia University statistician Andrew Gelman, who has blogged
about the Wolfers-Price study and participated in a conference call
with Segal and me, said, “What the statistics tell you is that there’s
a pattern in the data that’s not explainable by chance.” University of
California-Irvine statistician Hal Stern told me the NBA’s study “can’t
be said to disprove the Price-Wolfers analysis.”

the NBA’s study didn’t include players who weren’t called for any
fouls, making Segal’s results “suspect,” according to Mr. Gelman. Mr.
Fluhr responded, “I’m not sure if you’re looking at non-calls, it would
affect the data.” He added that Segal had the data necessary to
incorporate such players, but didn’t consider the data relevant,
instead only focusing on foul calls. Messrs. Wolfers and Price included
all players who appeared in the games they examined.

The NBA does promise to examine non-calls and redo some of the results.  I do not think we have yet gotten to the bottom of this, but my "haven’t read anything but the initial study" intuition (and Steve Levitt’s comments; see also Voxbaby) is that the result of bias will hold up.

Thanks to Chris Masse for the pointer.

Addendum: Wolfers claims the NBA study supports his results.

Are NBA referees racist?

I wouldn’t have thought so, but Justin Wolfers, writing with Joseph Price, says maybe yes:

…during the 13 seasons from 1991 through 2004, white referees called fouls at a greater rate against black players than against white players…[the authors] found a corresponding bias in which black officials called fouls more frequently against white players, though that tendency was not as strong.

Here is the paper.  The effect is big enough that an all-white team would, all other things equal, win two extra games over the course of an 82-game season.  A panel of three independent experts has judged that the Wolfers-Price analysis is more convincing than a David Stern-sanctioned rebuttal that no bias is present.

The NYT web site is slow this morning, try back later if the first link is giving you trouble.

More fun than chess

Let’s consider a power supplier with market power and zero marginal cost.  Capacity suffices for ten units but five units are sold at p = 10; selling more would lower profits.  Now, using carbon offsets, bribe the fifth buyer to stay out of the market, say by walking to work rather than flying his jetpack.  Even better, just shoot him. 

The company has two options.  It can stick with selling four units and raise price.  Or it could drop price a bit and pick up a fifth buyer again.  Hard to say what will happen.  Alternatively, if buyers stand along a continuum, is there a general proof one way or the other? 

Rather than bribing the fifth buyer to walk, invest the "carbon offsets" money in building a nice comfy sidewalk.  In principle all buyers could walk on this new path.

It is then easy to see how the power company might lower price and expand to six units or more.  Otherwise they might lose all their customers.

A key question is the cost structure of the alternative clean technology.  Non-scalable technologies, with little potential for expansion, are the least likely to backfire and least likely to lead to more dirty power.  Scalable technologies, such as the sidewalk, are most likely to backfire and make the world dirtier.  They require a bigger competitive response on the part of the dirty power supplier.  (At least in the short run this is true, in the longer run the scalable technology might eliminate dirty power altogether.)

This counterintuitive conclusion is one reason why we have economic models.