Baseball and Poker: Tells Often the Difference Between Winning and Losing
One reason why poker is such an intriguing game is because of its ability to extend into so many other areas of life – economics and politics are classic examples, but poker creeps into many more unexpected places, to say the least.
While checking out my local sports section the other day, I read an article about Justin Verlander, a successful pitcher for the Detroit Tigers, worrying that he had begun tipping his pitches. Tipping pitches is nothing new in baseball – there have been numerous well-documented cases of successful pitchers going through a rough patch, only to discover that they had been giving away what type of pitch was coming through their body language on the mound. Tim Hudson, for example, famously found out from a new teammate after a trade that opposing players were studying the wiggling of his index finger outside of his glove to read what pitches he would throw. Hudson, a consistently successful pitcher who had been getting rocked in recent starts, made the adjustment and went on to have a successful season.
These types of physical tells are studied religiously by some players looking to gain an edge and can be easily dissected with the prevalence of video and advanced scouting reports in today's game. Common examples of tipping pitches are wiggling the index finger sticking out of a glove, the angle of a pitcher's wrist in his glove, coming set before a fastball or breaking ball at a high or low spot, or dropping an arm angle for a certain pitch, for example. Sound familiar?
The idea of giving off physical tells should not be a novel idea for any experienced poker player. Undressing your opponent for a few critical seconds before coming to a crucial decision about his or her mental state is the same principle, regardless of whether you're watching for shaking hands at the felt or studying a pitcher's set position from the batter's box.
Poker and baseball also share a similar mindset on the value and use of physical tells. While many players swear by the method, some would prefer not to use this potentially dangerous information at all. The penalty for being wrong is huge, although it is debatable whether it is more painful to lose a huge pot to a misread or fail to duck away from a high fastball when you were expecting a slider that you thought would break away.
Physical tells are also often used in both sports to explain away the recent failures of once-successful players. Many a pitcher has had years of consistency to go through a rough patch when he feels he is making quality pitches but is still getting hit hard. The creeping thought is always whether or not he has begun tipping his pitches. Similarly, a winning poker player who has begun running bad or suddenly has his once-successful plays fail often wonders whether his opponents have picked up a physical tell on him.
Baseball is a mental game, and as such it is bound to have many similarities to poker. The applications of poker and game theory in general are enormous, even within a small example like tipping pitches. Has any crafty pitcher ever tried to give off a reverse-tip, purposely showing a false tell to set up batters later for a more crucial at-bat? Do batters tip off when they are sitting back, waiting for a fastball? The questions are limitless, but poker and baseball also share that they are games of secrecy and incomplete information. That's what makes thinking about them so much fun.
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