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Football, Poker, and the Challenge of Trying to Keep a Big Lead

Football, Poker, and the Challenge of Trying to Keep a Big Lead


  • Teams with leads in NFL games change their style and games get close. Does this happen in poker, too?

  • How do you change your style after getting the chip lead? Is the change for better or worse?

Poker players who are familiar with basic strategy well realize the value of having a big stack. If you’re a tournament player in particular, for instance, you certainly understand the advantage of having more chips than your opponents do when a hand begins.

For one, if you’re the big stack at the table, you cannot be eliminated from the tournament, at least not in that particular hand. Secondly, you also often have more options available to you within a given hand than your shorter-stacked opponents have, including being free to open more hands preflop and to bluff more often postflop. You also can decide to play fewer hands, if you wish, with the loss of blinds and antes not being as significant to your stack percentage-wise as it would be to those with fewer chips.

It would seem having the big stack is always more preferable. But it can be a challenge, sometimes, to play “from the front.”

Blowing a Big Lead

As a diehard Carolina Panthers fan, I found myself thinking about this luxury of having a big stack during last Sunday’s game versus the Seattle Seahawks. The stakes are high as it’s the playoffs — the National Football League’s season-ending, single-elimination tournament that will be culminating with the “heads-up” match of the Super Bowl on Sunday, February 7.

The Panthers raced out to a 31-0 lead in the first half on Sunday, not at all what many expected in a game for which Carolina was at most a three-point favorite over Seattle at many sportsbooks.

If you watched the game, you know that the second half went a little differently. Seattle scored two quick touchdowns in the third quarter, then made it all of the way back to 31-24 before a failed onside kick attempt by the Seahawks with a minute-and-a-half left finally sealed the game, allowing Panthers fans to breathe again.

Learning to Be Comfortable When “Big Stacked”

Carolina managed to win their first 14 games this year before finishing 15-1 in the regular season, so the team has been playing “from the front” pretty much all year. In many of those games Carolina grabbed the lead early and kept it, meaning that the team’s fans have gotten somewhat used to having the “big stack” in games and not having to come from behind in order to win.

But this “big stacked” feeling is kind of a new thing for those of us who root for the Panthers. By contrast, New England Patriots fans are well used to their team playing with big leads, whether in the race to a division title or the best record in the conference, or in individual games.

This year both New England and Carolina won their respective divisions easily, and both outscored their opponents by a wide margin over the course of the season (NE by 9.4 points per game, CAR by 12.0 PPG). Looking back over the previous 10 years, these figures represent the norm for NE, who from 2005-2014 averaged winning just over 13 of 16 regular season games per year and outscoring opponents by nearly 11 points per game in 160 regular season games. Over that same stretch, Carolina’s average record was exactly 8-8 and their points per game margin has been in the negative with opponents outscoring them by almost 3 PPG.

So in a game like the one on Sunday, being ahead by 31 points is what felt unusual for Carolina fans, while watching the game get close at the end did not.

For the Panthers to lose a big lead didn’t seem all that out of the ordinary, either. Just a few weeks back, Carolina was up 35-7 on the New York Giants near the end of the third quarter, then the Giants scored four straight touchdowns to tie the game before Carolina won 38-35 on a last second field goal. Earlier in the year the Panthers nearly let a 37-14 fourth quarter lead versus the Green Bay Packers slip away, with Green Bay coming up short on a potentially game-tying drive at the end to lose 37-29.

Tightening Up Further When Ahead

To build a poker analogy here — and to try to derive a strategy lesson from it — I would liken the Panthers’ situation to that of a tournament player who normally plays a tight, cautious style managing to win a number of big pots early to accumulate a big stack, then being in what for that player is an atypical situation of being at the top of the chip counts as the tournament moves from the middle to late stage, say, just before or after the money bubble bursts.

I was discussing a similar situation last month in an article titled “Leaving to Lock up a Win? Don’t Get Up from a Good Poker Game” where I referred to being up in a cash game and having the urge to cut a session short out of fear of losing what you have won. A poll from that article revealed a lot of readers had that same inclination to leave in such a spot, almost as many who were instead encouraged to stay and try to win more.

Meanwhile in a tournament, you have to stay and play your big stack, as there’s no cashing out until you’re eliminated or have managed to gather every last chip. You can be more aggressive at that point, pressuring shorter-stacked players and taking advantage of the additional options and flexibility your chips give you. Or you can become more tight and play a less risky style that may get you further in the tournament, but could hurt your chances of winning in the end.

The tighter approach is of course what Carolina chose in the second half, although in truth most NFL teams choose similarly when “big stacked.” Going conservative on offense with more run plays not only keeps the clock moving, but decreases the chance of a turnover that could help the team that is behind catch up more quickly. On defense, also, teams often “tighten up” by allowing short pass plays in order to prevent big-yardage plays from succeeding.

While you don’t often see teams erasing 20- or 30-point deficits in the NFL, most games do tend to tighten up at the end in thanks to the change in playing styles of both the team that is ahead (tightening up) and the one that is behind (loosening up). This season the NFL set a record with 131 regular season games (more than half) decided by seven points or fewer. All four of last weekend’s playoff games were decided by exactly one touchdown.

Those who lead poker tournaments at the time the money bubble bursts — even those with big leads — often will lose those leads at some point before the tournament ends. Again, a number of factors cause this to happen, including the styles chosen by players sporting the big stacks and by those who become short. But there isn’t anything necessarily unusual about chip leads getting smaller as final tables approach and then play out, and in fact it is more unusual to have a situation like occurred at last year’s World Series of Poker Main Event final table where Joe McKeehen held a big chip lead from start to finish.

You May Lose Your Stack, But Don’t Lose Your Cool

For several years the Panthers have adopted a team motto to “Keep Pounding,” a phrase that dates back to 2004 when former player and then assistant coach Sam Mills used it as part of a pregame speech. His advice was particularly memorable as he delivered it while he was himself battling cancer and would pass away the next year.

It’s easier said than done, however, to “keep pounding” when up by more than four touchdowns. From a strategic standpoint it is debatable whether such an approach is even the right one to take in such a situation, since choosing to play a lower-risk game when way ahead can in many cases increase your chances of ultimately winning.

I think the lesson has to be not to become overly affected after losing a big lead, setting yourself up for failure in the end by making poor choices once the game becomes close. In poker, being adept at “shifting gears” is helpful here, choosing smartly when to be aggressive and when to tighten up in order to improve your chances of success at all stages of the tournament.

It is also helpful to keep in mind that leads are always going to be challenged (and lost now and then). Players trying to double up will sometimes succeed in doing so, and an advantage that at one point seemed insurmountable can and sometimes will diminish and/or disappear completely.

We’ll see how things play out this weekend. Not making any predictions, other than one safe one — more likely than not, the games will be close.

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