Thursday, April 22, 2010

Chance masquerading as skill: A personal take on T20 Cricket

For those who don’t follow cricket, the second part might not be of interest.

1. Not quite chess

As an only child, I had many ways of keeping myself occupied. I couldn’t play a game of chess by myself, so I had to create artificial teams that competed against each other. But the game could not be played the regular way – how can you outwit the opponent when you yourself are the opponent? So I created “dice chess”; I worked the specific rules out slowly, but the idea was simple. You moved a piece only as many squares as the outcome of a die roll. You could choose which piece to move, but there were restrictions. A pawn couldn’t be moved unless you rolled a one; a horse couldn't be moved unless you rolled a three or a six. More radically, you might have checkmated your opponent, but the game wasn’t over until you rolled the number that actually finished the job – the king could therefore escape even from a hopeless situation. This resulted in some very thrilling comebacks and unexpected results.

The dice meant that I could play by creating two artificial teams; I could now think for both teams, since the outcome of the die roll decided my moves. Given a roll, I did the best for each team. In all other respects, I was just a passive observer and commentator (yes, I did actually speak out loud when the games were going on). In my commentary, I put up the pretence that dice chess was a serious game and that there was serious skill involved in winning. My teams were typically based on the books and comics I read. Walt Disney had a team; Indrajal Comics had one; the Hardy Boys were in what I called the Franklin W Dixon (FWD) team; as I started reading more novels (around the eighth grade), Agatha Christie had hers. I would design elaborate tournaments, with the usual league round robins, semi finals and the finals. There was also an imaginary audience that cheered the teams (yes, I mimicked the roar of the audience too, when a something momentous happened on the board).

To be sure, there was some skill involved. For instance, a bishop might be two squares away from the opponent’s king: rolling a two would finish the game; the chance of winning was one in six. But if you had a bishop within two squares of the king and a horse within striking distance (the horse in fact turned out be an unusually powerful player in dice chess), it would mean rolling a 2, 3 or 6 could finish the game – you now had fifty percent chance of winning. It was all about maximizing your chances.

I conceived the game in fifth grade, and for fifteen years I kept it to myself-- until graduate school, when I introduced it to my lab mates. They were excited about it, and for a while, we were playing mini-tournaments in the afternoons and avoiding research.

A few key aspects I had not thought carefully about became evident as I played with others. First, the game was so dependent on the die roll that it was no longer chess. Yes, it was based on the rules of chess, but you had to think less. You reacted to the die roll rather anticipating what the opponent would do. Those who did not like chess because it is a mentally daunting game – I include myself in this group – found dice chess a much more relaxing option. Second, there was much less skill involved than I had thought; the victories were victories of chance and very little of skill.

Viewed less charitably, dice chess was a colossal insult to and a diminution of the original game. Chess champions like V Anand would laugh at it, and yet if they were paid millions of dollars – because large numbers of people liked it – it would be no laughing matter; they might feel compelled to play the significantly diminished game. And if separate schedule of a few months were to be carved out for dice chess, they might have less energy for the intense concentration and powers of extrapolation that the original game demands.

2. Not quite cricket

The analogy is obvious, even if not precise. T20 Cricket is not all chance, but most of it is – and this is precisely the reason it is “unpredictable” and “exciting”. It opens up the possibility that any team can win. There is no question that there some skilled players and they do their best within the limitations of the format; and some new strategies are now being used. But to claim that it is cricketing skill that decides T20 outcomes more than chance is to delude oneself. Most viewers, in fact, are aware of this, but just as dice chess thrilled me into excited commentary as I conducted my “solo” tournaments, so too are viewers, myself included, knowingly lured by the temporal pleasures of T20 cricket.

That randomness plays a greater role in T20 than in cricket’s longer forms can be inferred from the simplest statistical ideas. Every game of sport, whether cricket or soccer or tennis, is a random experiment, even if one team or player is stronger and more likely to win. In statistics, you conduct the same random experiment many times to make sure that the data you are collecting has validity. It matters how many times you do the experiment. But equally important is the length of each experiment. If the length is short (think, equivalently, of a one set tennis game or a twenty minute soccer game, or a one day golf tournament), then you cannot be confident of the outcome you are measuring, no matter how many times you measure it. So although a lot of T20 games are played – as in the IPL – there is little meaning in the outcome of each individual game.

In contrast, test matches are played over five days; the game is too long in the view of many but the length is precisely why we are able to infer something concrete (and some of the most exciting test games have been played over the last few years). The length is also why the format is the hardest; if you are skilled, it will eventually show. If you are not skilled, you will not survive test cricket. It is almost impossible for a really weak team (say Zimbabwe) to beat a strong team (say Australia). There are good reasons why New Zealand, a 2009 T20 World Cup finalist, has performed poorly, home and away, in the longest form of the game.

In T20s, the skilled will be successful over time – as Tendulkar and Kallis have demonstrated in this year's IPL – but the short format allows those without skill (read a few lusty blows, or a few freak wickets) to have an unusually high influence in determining a positive outcome for their team. Chance, in other words, masquerades as skill in T20 cricket. It is not a simplification to say that the IPL is a nationwide lottery, a kind of frenzy that urban Indians and the diaspora revel in. It is an exhibit for the worst excesses of capitalism and celebrity worship. It leaves little room for nuance.

At the moment, the murky financial side of IPL is unraveling. One hopes also that a more objective assessment of the format will be made. Even with twenty overs, there are more intelligent ways to design the game. Have 11 players in your team, but the batting team can lose only five wickets (a total of six batsmen), rather than ten; the remaining five will not bat, but are specialist bowlers. It won’t necessarily solve all problems, but at least, the contest between the bat and ball will be more even. Risks will have a high cost. Sixes and fours, which have been devalued in the current format, will gain some meaning.

Just as dice chess is not really chess, so T20 as it is now is not really cricket. Think, in contrast, the epic innings that the serene Hashim Amla played in vain in the second test at the Eden Gardens. That innings, played just before the T20 frenzy began this year, is the perfect antidote to the IPL’s numbing onslaught.


Kartikeya said...

I think skill is successful in the same way that if you pit a reasonably good 12th grader with a reasonably good 8th grader in a mathematics exam, the 12th grader is more likely to do well.

The question is whether T20 can generate skills so that there might actually someday by a Tendulkar produced in T20 cricket. I don't think it can, precisely because it is chance masquerading as skill. Tendulkar is Tendulkar because of Test Cricket.

But there's a deeper more pernicious aspect to T20 - and that is this generation of fake excitement because everybody is taking chances. The point is that these are not really "chances" as such because the stakes are low and the downside to failing is minimal. So players are not really taking a big risk - they're just being more reckless. It devalues the slog as I have argued before.

Whats happening now I think is that T20 is mature and certain predictable patterns are emerging, as they inevitably must in what is essentially a race against the clock. You can't have a rich episodic contest under such constraints.

Hari said...

Great points, Kartikeya. Especially this bit: “The question is whether T20 can generate skills so that there might actually someday be a Tendulkar produced in T20 cricket." I don't think so either. Do you, however, see other ways of designing a 20 over game that might be more meaningful? Or does the length make it impossible?

Kartikeya said...

I've been thinking about it. Basically, you need an even contest between bat and ball, without giving artificial crutches to either bowler or batsman. The latter is the hard part.

Of the 20 overs, have a 5 over "powerplay" in which no runs may be scored, but in which wickets have to be defended. You could also have 5 overs of batting powerplay which is like the ODI batting powerplay in place today. The other 10 could be normal overs.

zaph said...

broadcast sport is about entertainment and not skill, and T20 is easily the most entertaining form of cricket. appeals to the lowest common denominator and that's why it can be construed as low-brow. heck it makes non-enthusiasts like me sit up and watch. it may not generate tendulkar, but it will create a slew of pollards.

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Anonymous said...

Dice Chess sounds like fun! It is sort of reserch and perhaps you can market the game! I always had imaginary friends and I would even have arguments with them and not want to be friends anymore! Once playing with weeble people in weeble town I totally was so inside my head that I was not looking at the weebles in my hands but totally imagining them as characters in my much it felt like some sort of out of body experience. I think kids can be very imagination driven with time to themselves to develop that will power to self entertain! My brothers got bored before me, so often playing alone was more fun. Plus they just wanted to throw things at me, baseballs, basketballs....what is it with guys and ball toys! I may have to try out dice Chess...regular chess and waiting on others to take a turn gets is to slow sometimes for me. Dice Chess....two thumbs up!