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My Friend Sancho

My first novel, My Friend Sancho, is now on the stands across India. It is a contemporary love story set in Mumbai, and was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2008. To learn more about the book, click here.

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I am currently on a book tour to promote the book. Please check out our schedule of city launches. India Uncut readers are invited to all of them, no pass required, so do drop in and say hello.

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And ah, my posts on India Uncut about My Friend Sancho can be found here.

Bastiat Prize 2007 Winner

Category Archives: Sport

A Top Edge (and a Brain Fade)

This is the 30th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.


Navjot Singh Sidhu was in a fix.
No party wanted him in the mix,
Till Congress took him on.
Good fortune came along.
His top edge went all the way for six.


One day, in my school, there was a raid.
A boy was caught cheating in tenth grade,
But he was remorseless.
He said, with great finesse,
“It was nothing more than a brain fade.”

Posted by Amit Varma on 19 March, 2017 in India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes | Sport

Embrace the Technology!

This is the 36th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

At the very moment you read this, there is a Test match going on and two batsmen consulting out in the middle about whether they should use the DRS.

“Was I really lbw? Should I refer? Do you think it was missing?”

“I don’t know. But whatever you do, don’t look at the pavilion. Control your neck. Control it. Hold it if you have to. Here, I’ll hold it for you. Control!”


The big cricket story of last week, somehow, was not India’s excellent comeback in the Test series against Australia, but the DRS controversy. Batsmen are not supposed to look at the pavilion for advice when deciding whether or not to go for a decision review. Those are the rules, Steve Smith broke the rule, and it was fair enough that he was asked to leave the field of play. But the rules themselves are ridiculous.

I’ve been ranting about this for years, and still these people don’t learn. You would think no one reads me. Gah. Anyway, because I care about you, here, once again, are my thoughts on technology in cricket. And in life, which, by the way, is futile. (I don’t shy away from the big questions.)

First up, a question: why do umpires exist in cricket? After all, cricket is about batsmen batting, bowlers bowling and fielders fielding. No one goes to a ground to watch an umpire umpire. Well, umpires exist purely as a means to an end. They have to take decisions about whether a batsman is out or not, and lubricate the action in the game by communicating to scorers exactly what is going on. A secondary function is to step in if there is physical conflict, and to maintain decorum. Their job is not to be the action, but to keep the action flowing smoothly.

In other words, umpires are a technology.

Think of anything that is a means to an end as a technology. Umpires are a conventional technology for arriving at the right decisions on a cricket field. Now, the last couple of decades have seen rapid upgradations to pretty much every other technology there is. And so it is in the case of cricket. The decision-making mechanisms in cricket have been enhanced with new technologies meant to supplement (and not replace) the umpires.

The most significant of these is Hawk-Eye. Umpires, being human (as of now), are prone to all kinds of optical illusions, such as the parallax error, which impede their decision-making ability. Hawk-Eye, in every respect, makes better decisions than an umpire can. (And it makes them in real time – the time-consuming replays you see you on TV are only for the benefit of viewers.) But for the longest time, luddites fought the use of Hawkeye in decision-making, which led to the ridiculous situation that everyone watching a game had accurate information about whether a batsman was out or not – except the bloody umpire. It was ridiculous.

Cricket authorities have since become more open to the use of technology, but not enough. They almost seem to use it grudgingly. Consider DRS, for example. If the idea of the technology called umpires is to make correct decisions, and there is more technology that will lead to even better decisions, then why don’t we use it as much as possible? Why should DRS appeals be limited for a batting side? Why should every dismissal not be reviewed as a matter of course? Reviewing a dismissal would not take more time than a batsman walking back to the pavilion, so this should be a no-brainer.

Steve Smith wouldn’t be so embarrassed then, eh?

But really, the larger issue here is that the world is changing rapidly, and our minds are not adjusting fast enough. It’s not just cricket. As a species, we don’t have enough clarity about means and ends. For example, just as umpires are a technology for making correct decisions on a cricket field, consider that animals are a technology for growing food. And now that scientists have figured out a way to grow meat in labs without sentient animals being involved, they may soon be an outdated technology, at least for this use case. That might lead to goats going extinct. (Not puppies, though, because puppies can be hugged.)

Equally, hugs are a technology for oxytocin generation. Romance is a technology for the way it makes us feel and the chemicals it releases. If we could pop a pill and feel the same way, would we bother to fall in love, or hug or cuddle or caress, or even woo? Are we so arrogant enough to believe that the love we feel for anyone is truly transcendent, and not mere technology? And also, is humanity any loftier than just a carrier for the trillions of bacteria that inhabit us? What suckers we are, that we behave as if we’re the rulers of the universe?

Okay, excuse the digression, your life has meaning. Happy now? Get back to watching the cricket, but do think about how it makes you feel, and the purpose of it all.

Posted by Amit Varma on 17 March, 2017 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Lighthouse | Science and Technology | Sport

The Road to Redemption


Never, ever tell me that chess is a boring sport. On the last day of March in 2015, two players in Sochi reached the position in the picture above. White to play and win. This is not a problem or a study, because you’d imagine it’s so simple, right? These are two grandmasters playing each other, and 1. Qg7+ wins as black runs out of checks to give for a draw. But before dismissing it as a simple problem, see the context.

It’s the semi-final of the women’s World Championship. White is India’s Harika Dronavalli; black is Ukraine’s Mariya Muzychuk. This is a tie-breaker game being played with each player having 10 minutes + 10 seconds increment, and both players are under time pressure. If Harika wins, she’s pretty much through to the final. She just has to find 1. Qg7+.

With the clock ticking, though, she decides to avoid perpetual check by exchanging queens, and plays 1. Qe3. Muzychuk exchanges, takes the h pawn, and it’s a textbook draw. So near… but there’s still a game to go.

Perhaps rattled by this, Harika fades and falls in the next game, and Mariya is through to the final. She wins, and you can see the emotions in the pictures below: Harika’s desolation; Mariya’s cathartic relief as she is hugged by her sister Anna Muzychuk. Mariya then goes on to win the final, though she loses the title later in a match to Hou Yifan, far and away the best female player in the world.


So why do I remember this now? Because today Harika Dronavalli is once again in the semi-final of the Women’s World Championship, and I couldn’t help but remember her heartbreak of 2015 as I watched her match live.

She’s playing Tan Zhongyi of China. Mariya opted to skip the event, which is in Tehran, because the organisers enforced a compulsary hijab rule for the players. Nazi Paikidze, the US champion, was the first player to boycott the event, and Mariya joined the boycott. (Hou Yifan refrains from playing most of these women’s events anyway because of a) bad structures and b) she’d rather compete with the men in the open section.) But Mariya’s elder sister, Anna, is here, because according to Mariya, she really does want this championship badly. And Anna is playing the other semi-final against Alexandra Kosteniuk.

There’s heartbreak ahead for three of these women. And much, much drama. Are you watching?

Note: Player pics by Nastja Karlovich, taken from

Posted by Amit Varma on 23 February, 2017 in Sport

Gladiators at the Ballet

This is the 26th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.


Rahul Dravid, when he played cricket,
Always put a price on his wicket.
Offered a PhD,
He said, “No, not for me.
I earn my way. Keep your free ticket.”


When you switch on your TV today,
You’ll feel time begin to slip away.
Everything just a blur.
Nadal and Federer.
Two gladiators at the ballet.

Posted by Amit Varma on 29 January, 2017 in Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes | Sport

Mahi and the Indian Man

This is the 25th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.


Mahendra Singh Dhoni made his name
With his skill for finishing a game.
The hardest thing to know
Is when to just let go.
His timing has been perfect again.


The Indian male is quite a beast.
One half devout, just like a priest,
But the half that prevails
Seems to treat all females
As mere dishes laid out at a feast.

Posted by Amit Varma on 08 January, 2017 in India | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes | Sport

Who Pays The Cricketers?

There is an excellent essay by Radhika Vaz on Scoop Whoop titled ‘Why The Campaign To Have Mothers’ Names On Cricketers’ Jerseys Is Vomit-Inducing For Feminists’, and I urge you to read it. I agree with almost all of it. There’s just one bit I have a small quibble with. This is when she writes:

I don’t want token gestures and tearjerkers. I want the real deal – I want women in cricket to be paid as much as the men, to be trained as well as them and to be treated like the champions they are.

This is a good time to ask the question: Where does the money in cricket come from? The BCCI is not a benevolent godlike entity having a supply of money that comes from heaven. Instead, their money comes from viewers like you or me, who spend our time watching the game. (That time carries an opportunity cost, needless to say.) That time is then turned into money by the BCCI, which has sold those telecast rights to a channel who then sell advertising space to brands that are paying for our attention. So there are conduits in the way, but how much money goes into the game is a direct function of how many people watch the game. The BCCI’s coffers are filled by us. Our time is their money.

Now, the brutal fact is that most of us choose to watch men’s cricket much more than women’s cricket. (We might make this choice for a variety of reasons, including sexist ones, but those are not germane here.) So most of the money that the BCCI has is because people watch men’s cricket, and it’s only fair that if I create value for the BCCI by watching the Indian men’s team, that money should go to the men’s team and not to the women’s team, who I chose not to watch. To take it from the men and give it to the women would, in fact, be condescending and patronising, and any feminist should be against such handouts. I’d imagine the appropriate feminist response to be, “We’ll earn our own way, thank you, we don’t want your bloody handouts.”

Interestingly, the BCCI does already subsidise other parts of the game somewhat for its longer-term health. While the international men’s team gets all the eyeballs (and thus draws all the money), the BCCI pumps a large part of that money into domestic cricket, in nurturing a feeder system for the game. It almost certainly spends more on women’s cricket than women’s cricket brings in, and I think that’s great for the ecosystem and no one should grudge them that. However, to say that it is the right of women cricketers to be paid as much as male cricketers is a step too far. They simply don’t create as much value in monetary terms, and any demand for equal monetary compensation is thus unfair.

The counterpoint to this would be tennis, which, if I am not mistaken, pays men and women equally despite men bringing in more eyeballs (and thus money). I don’t object to that, just as I don’t object to the BCCI’s policies. They can do what they want, and if we disagree, we can take our eyeballs elsewhere. Sadly, most people in India, including women, will continue to watch cricket; and when they do, men’s cricket far more frequently than women’s cricket. I’m assuming Vaz watches at least as much women’s cricket as men’s cricket, but most of us don’t, and its the choices we make that determine how they get paid.

This is a minor quibble, and it’s possible that I misinterpreted this part of Vaz’s fine piece, and she wan’t really blaming the BCCI for the disparity in pay. It is also a fact that women are usually discriminated against in the workplace, and that reflects in their pay, which is unequal everywhere. Still, I hear people make this complaint in the context of sport, where it really doesn’t hold water—thus this post.

PS. I started writing about cricket a decade-and-a-half ago, and this is probably the first post where I’ve mentioned the BCCI in a non-negative way. I’m buying myself a cookie for that.

Posted by Amit Varma on 31 October, 2016 in Economics | Sport

What a Fix!

This is the 19th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.


Anurag Thakur was in a fix.
Although a master of politics,
One day he told the press,
“I simply must confess,
That man Lodha has hit me for six.”


Mumbai’s havaldars were in a fix,
As movie lovers scrambled for tix.
One cop said, “What drama!
They would call me ‘Mama.’
Why is there a ‘MAMI’ in the mix?

Posted by Amit Varma on 23 October, 2016 in Arts and entertainment | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes | Sport

The Girl From Haryana

A slightly shorter version of this feature on Sakshi Malik was published in the October 2016 issue of Elle India.

‘One billion voices.’

It is August 17, 2016, and two women in wrestling costumes eye each other warily. In a few moments, they will grab each other and start grappling. Both women have waited for this all their lives. This is the Olympic games. Six minutes later, one of them will have a medal, and will be a hero to millions. The other will be disconsolate, the dreams of a lifetime crushed.

Wrestling seems simple, involving strength and power, body against body, but actually involves enormous finesse and intricacy. “It is a sport that requires brain, not brawn,” the woman who wins this fight later tells me. Sakshi Malik, 23 years old, from Rohtak, Haryana, needs more than brute force alone to win. She and her opponent, Aisuluu Tynybekova from Kyrgyzstan, are almost playing chess with their bodies, trying to induce small errors from their opponent: errors of balance, movement, emphasis. It is a game of small margins: if Sakshi steps a millimetre in the wrong direction, or shifts her weight a micro-second too early or late, she will lose.

I ask her later, “What is in your head at a time like this?” Elite sportspeople tell me how they try to make their mind as blank as possible, banishing all unrelated thoughts to achieve maximum focus. Is it like that for Sakshi?

Sakshi laughs. “That is impossible,” she says. “At least for me it is. See, I can sit here and talk to you, and my mind can be blank and I can focus. But not there. Not in the Olympics, fighting for a medal. My mind was the opposite of blank that day.

“I thought about how my life would change if I won. I thought about how I would cope with losing, what people would say, how they would criticize me. I thought about my parents, my coach, my friends. I thought, the Olympics comes once in four years, I can’t let this chance go by. I thought of all of India watching me on TV. I had one billion voices inside my head.

“And of course, I also thought strategy. I knew what I was planning against my opponent. I know her strengths. I know her weaknesses. I had a plan. And then I fought.”

As she had in previous matches, Sakshi fell behind. ‘I never give up.’ She kept going, and turned the match around in the last five seconds. Uptil that moment, I calculated, her life had consisted of approximately 75,59,13,600 seconds. All of it was backstory now. All of it led to these five seconds.

The oldest sport

The backstory to Sakshi Malik’s triumph at Rio is much older than Sakshi Malik herself. No one can say for sure what the oldest human sport is, but wrestling is a reasonable guess. It involves nothing more than the bodies of the contestants, and simply requires one wrestler to pin the other down. Even toddlers grapple, and it may not be farfetched to say that the sport of wrestling is an elaboration and formalisation of some of our most basic instincts.

In his magisterial book, Enter the Dangal, Rudraneil Sengupta traces the history of wrestling from ancient times until now. One of the oldest depictions of wrestling, he writes, comes from wall paintings in a group of tombs in Beni Hasan in Egypt, dated to 2100 BCE. “There are nearly 400 illustrations of wrestling pairs engaged in compeition, wearing only loincloths, each pair rendered in different colours. The moves depicted are still in use in modern wrestling. […] From an analysis of the figures, it seems the objective is to get the opponent on his back with his shoulders pinned.”

There are stray depictions which are even older, and it is mythology more than cave markings that bear testimony to the importance of wrestling in ancient culture. Herakles from Greek mythology was a formidable wrestler, as was our very own Krishna. The epic battle between Krishna and Kamsa “revolves around a wrestling match,” writes Sengupta. Krishna’s diet, with lots of butter and milk, is a “pahalwan’s diet.” Krishna is one in a line of many, of course: Bhima and Hanuman were also mighty wrestlers.

Wrestling flourished through pretty much all of Indian history. The Mughal courts encouraged it, and Hindu kings gave wrestlers important positions in their courts. It was a dominant sport, for it took no resources to learn, and was, rather remarkably, the one sure vehicle for social mobility. “From at least as far back as 1480,” Sengupta writes, “the many kings and emperors of Hindustan hired mercenary troops from a vast pool of rural agrarian communities stretching from the Punjab in the West to Bihar in the East.” This ‘military labour’ market was meritocratic, for the lives and kingdoms of kings often depended on their armies, and they could not afford to discriminate. Becoming a mercenary warrior required being extremely fit, and learning how to fight. Wrestling, or kushti, was a necessary start to this process. And a military life was an escape from the civilian burdens of caste.

Some rulers, such as Shahu Maharaj, a descendent of Shivaji, explicitly framed it in these terms. Even when the British took over India, ending the competition for military recruits, they continued this thinking. In his book Naukar, Rajput and Sepoy, Dirk Kolff quotes a British recruiting officer as saying, “It was an almost daily occurrence for – say – Ram Chand to enter our office and leave it as Ram Singh.”

But, it must be asked here, what if Sita Devi were to enter that office?

‘Who wants to be a wrestler?’

Wrestling may have done a lot for caste mobility, but not, until recently, for gender mobility. We know this has now changed: women wrestlers have done very well for themselves in the last few years, culminating in Sakshi’s performance in Rio. And here’s the bizarre thing: while wrestling has a serious tradition across India, in states like Maharashtra, Bihar, Bengal and all of Central and North India, it is the state of Haryana that dominates Indian women’s wrestling today. Now, Haryana is famously misogynistic, with a sex ratio of 879 women for every 1000 men (as per the 2011 census). So how did women’s wrestling take off here, of all places?

Students of history often argue over the Great Man Theory. In the 19th century, the Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle argued that history is shaped by remarkable individuals, and “the history of the world is but the biography of great men.” His theory had many opponents, including the philosopher Herbert Spencer, who wrote of these supposed Great Men:  “Before he can remake his society, his society must make him.” (This was the 19th century, so forgive these gents for talking of men and not persons.) There is much to be said for both views, which contain nuances beyond the scope of this piece, but when it comes to women’s wrestling in India, it seems that Carlyle was on to something. There is one man, and one man alone, who made this happen, and without him we wouldn’t be here. His name is Chandgi Ram.

Chandgi Ram came from a village called Sisai in Haryana, and is one of the great modern Indian wrestlers. He excelled in dangals, the traditional Indian wrestling competitions fought on mud, winning coveted titles such as Rustom-e-Hind and Hind Kesri. He also represented India on the mat, winning an Asian Games Gold medal in 1970, and taking part in the 1972 Munich Olympics. He won the Arjuna Award and the Padma Shri, retired as a legend, flirted with Bollywood, and eventually started his own coaching center, the Chandgi Ram Vyayamshala, as many retired wrestlers tend to do. For 22 years, he taught only boys.

In 1997, everything changed. The International Olympic Committee announced that from 2004, women’s wrestling would be an Olympic sport. In Enter the Dangal, Sengupta quotes Sonika Kaliraman, Chandgi Ram’s daughter and then 14 years old: “I remember I was playing with a tap in the courtyard, spraying water on the plants. And papa came back home looking all excited and the first thing he said was ‘They’ve put women’s wrestling in the Olympics! Who wants to be a wrestler?’ And he was looking straight at me.”

The gender may have been wrong, but the genes were right. Chandgi began training his daughters, Sonika and Deepika, but it was rough going. It took all of his goodwill to get the girls bouts in dangals, and the misogynists fought back. At one dangal, the girls had stones thrown at them, and men with sticks, abusing loudly, charged the playing area. On another occasion in 2000, some coaches and students at his own Vyayamshala attacked him, breaking one of his coaches’ legs and beating up Chandgi as the girls hid in a locked room.  But Chandgi Ram the wrestler had never backed away from a fight, and Chandgi Ram the father and teacher would not do so either.

Sonika and Deepika had moderately successful careers, but Chandgi Ram’s legacy went beyond his family. Some of his wards started coaching girls as well: one of them, Mahavir Singh Phogat, trained his daughters and nieces, and made the Phogats the most accomplished family in Indian wrestling. Women’s wrestling gradually gained acceptance in Haryana, especially as medals came in. One of the centers where girls was allowed to train alongside boys was the Chhotu Ram Stadium Wrestling Academy in Rohtak, Haryana.

‘My sport, my passion, the love of my life.’

Maybe great individuals make history. Or maybe it’s just luck. One day a young boy came to the Chhotu Ram Stadium Wrestling Academy in Rohtak and asked for the coach, Ishwar Singh Dahiya. He wanted Dahiya to coach him. Dahiya said ok; the kid looked enthusiastic. When the boy returned in the evening, though, Dahiya realised that this boy was actually a girl with short hair. Her name was Sunita. There were no girls at the center. What was Dahiya to do now?

“As I had already given permission,” Dahiya told the Indian Express, “there was no question of backtracking. That’s how the girl’s center started.”

Sunita brought with her another girl named Kavita, who won a medal in an Asian junior competition. And one day Kavita sat down to chat with a 12-year-old visiting the academy and told her about planes.

Mujhe plane ka bahut craze tha,” Sakshi Malik tells me. “Kavita didi told me about flying on a plane on her way to wrestling competitions, and I thought, ‘Even I want to sit on a plane.’ I would see them going overhead and wonder, when will I get to fly?”

Sakshi enjoyed playing sports, and had played basketball, table tennis and badminton in school. (I can imagine her telling her fellow Rio medalist, PV Sindhu, “I can play badminton. But can you wrestle? Eh?”) But wrestling attracted her more. She was partly inspired by her paternal grandfather, who had been a wrestler. “I was also attracted to the costumes,” she says. “And within a couple of days of wrestling, I just knew, this is it. This is what I want to do. This is my sport, my passion, the love of my life.”

‘My perfect day.’

Sport at its most beautiful feels like art but has the mechanics of science. Before Roger Federer hit his first beautiful forehand, he hit thousands of ugly forehands, embedding the movement, the timing, the mechanics into his brain till it was second nature to him. All great batsmen will tell you that they are great not because of what they do on the field, but because of what they do in the nets. The buzzword in sport these days is ‘deliberate practice’, but you don’t need a sports scientist to tell you that it takes years of repetitive hard work to get to the point where you make the sport looks easy. The excellent is always carved out of the mundane. And so it was for Sakshi.

“I would wake up at 4.30 in the morning,” she says, “and work hard for three hours. Then I would rest in the middle part of the day. Then three more hours in the evening, training, training, training.

“There are so many different aspects we have to focus on to be a wrestler. Stamina, power, endurance, flexibility, speed. There is so much work required for each of those. Our coaches plan our sessions so we can be all-round wrestlers. But there is so much to do that there is no time for anything else.

“And we can’t eat before training either. So we are fighting our hunger as well. We can’t do normal things that the other girls do. My brother would say, ‘Hey Sakshi, eat this’ and I would say ‘I can’t, I have to go for training now.’ My friends would go on weekends for outings, maybe to watch a movie, and I would be training. If I had a day off, I would just need to rest, so that I could be fresh for the training session the next day. Training, rest, training, so jao. Rinse and repeat. Every day.”

Sakshi doesn’t say this in a tone of complaint, though. And then she elaborates: “People used to tell me, what kind of girl are you, you don’t pray to God. And I would tell them, but I do puja every single day. Wrestling is puja for me. Three hours in the morning, three hours in the evening, I am praying to God.

“In fact, if you ask me what is the best day of my life, I will say that any day where I do do time ki training aur din mein rest. That will be my perfect day.”

I believe I can Fly

Sakshi sometimes jokes that she became a wrestler because she wanted to fly in an aeroplane. What might once have been a goal was actually the first significant milestone in her career.

“In 2008, I went to the Children’s Cup. That was the first time I flew in a plane. The whole plane was full of us Indian kids going to the event. And we were so well looked after. We got a full kit, coat, pant, trolley, it felt so amazing to represent India. And then I won the gold! I was on the podium receiving the medal, and I could see the Indian flag, and the national anthem was playing. I can’t describe that feeling. There is nothing like it.”

2008 was also an important year because Sushil Kumar got a bronze medal at the Beijing Olympics, and a whole generation of kids began to believe that they could do it too. Sakshi was inspired by ‘Sushil Pahalwan’, as she calls him, but she hungered for more than just achievement – she hungered for knowledge. Every local or international competition she went to, she would sit and watch, soak it up, learn.

“Especially the Japanese,” she says. “They were the best in the world, and I was very keen to watch them closely, to see what they did differently. I wanted to understand what made them special?”

“And did you?”

“See, when you see them sitting somewhere, they will be so calm and collected. We Indian girls, on the other hand, when we hang out together, we are boisterous, always laughing, HAHAHAHA! But the Japanese are always composed. Everything is systematic and in order: kit, khaana, diet, sab systematic.”

“And on the mat? Do they wrestle differently? Do they do something Indians can’t do?”


Sakshi also had homegrown heroes. One of them was Geeta Phogat, of the famous Phogat sisters, who had won Gold in the Commonwealth Games of 2010. “Geeta didi was an early inspiration,” says Sakshi. “Whenever we were practising together, I would always go up to her and ask if she already had a partner. [Wrestlers train in pairs.] I always wanted to be her partner. I would learn all that I could from her. She was so aggressive. She never gave up in a fight. She always fought to the end.”

She was close to all the Phogat sisters, having travelled a lot with them for tournaments. Her fondness for Geeta is evident. “She teases me a lot, though I never tease her back, I respect her a lot. We are like sisters – but only outside the mat. On the mat, we are competitors, trying to beat each other.”

There is both irony and tragedy here. Geeta fought in the same 58kg weight category in which Sakshi found herself. Geeta had gone to the London Olympics, but only one of them could go to Rio.

‘Sabse Achha Insaan.’

By the time the trials for Rio came around, Sakshi had established herself as a serious contender. She had won the silver medal in the 2014 Commonwealth Games, and the bronze in the 2015 Asian games. And in the trial for her weight category for Rio, she beat Geeta Phogat 8-1. But qualifying for Rio was another matter entirely.

There were three qualifying tournaments, and Sakshi lost in the first one. “I had a bad day. It happens. You can’t win every time.”

Then the Wrestling Federation of India decided to send Geeta for the second qualification event, in Mongolia. She was a senior wrestler, they felt, and deserved one shot at qualifying. As it happens, she failed—but had she qualified, Sakshi would have had to wait another four years. Now she had another chance, at the third qualifying event in Turkey. Her roommate for the trip was her close friend of many years, Vinesh Phogat, Geeta’s cousin.

“No matter what happens,” we told ourselves, “we must qualify. Otherwise four more years will go by.”

But there was the little matter of meeting their weight first. Wrestlers often have to lose a lot of weight before the weigh-in for the bout, in order to qualify for their chosen weight division. Sakshi and Vinesh were both struggling to do so.

“Maybe it was because of the temperature in Istanbul, but we just weren’t losing weight. We didn’t eat for two days, we didn’t even take a sip of water, and all this time we’re still training and sweating. It was pathetic, and I told Vinesh, ‘Kaise bhookhe hum pade hai. Isse achha tho apna normal life hai. Do time ka khaana jise mil jaaye, who sabse achha insaan hota hai.’

“Then the next day both of us qualified, and all the pain went away. We went out to celebrate.”

And how they celebrated tells you a little bit about the sacrifices they made, and the things we take for granted. They went to the mall and walked around.

‘One of us.’

August 17 was a bittersweet day. Both Sakshi and Vinesh had their bouts on that day, in the 58kg and 48kg category respectively. It was appropriate that the fate of the two friends should be so closely tied together. For years, since they were young girls with limber limbs and a hunger to learn, they had been close friends. They had fought, mostly on the mat, they had laughed and played and teased each other and carried each other, and they were together here as well. “We kept telling each other,” Sakshi says, “one of us will win a medal for India. “

Sakshi lost in her quarterfinal bout. Vinesh reached her quarterfinal, and was in ominous form, having won her pre-quarterfinal bout 4-0. She was confident, buoyant, the hard work of her whole life bringing her to this one inevitable conclusion, with her close friend nearby, willing her on. And then, in one heartbreaking moment, it was over.

Spectators mostly see the glory of the Olympics. The sportspeople on the podium receiving their medals, their eyes moist as the anthem plays. But sport is a zero-sum game: for one person to win, everyone else must lose. For every gram of glory at the Olympics, there is a kilogram of tragedy. The Olympics are where dreams come to die.

“One of us will win a medal for India.” Vinesh was carried off in a stretcher. But Sakshi was still standing.

Wrestling has a unique procedure called the repechage that Indians especially must appreciate. Basically, once the two finalists are decided, all the wrestlers beaten by them re-enter the competition and fight it out for the bronze medals. This is how Sushil Kumar in 2008 and Yogeshwar Dutt in 2012, both beaten in earlier rounds, had gotten back into the contest.  And this is what kept Sakshi hopeful. Valeria Koblova, who beat her in the quarter-final, was “a very strong fighter”, she said. “I kept myself mentally prepared. I knew I would get another chance to go for a medal. And now, with Vinesh injured, it was up to me.”

After Vinesh was carried off in a stretcher, her coach had gone to Sakshi with tears in his eyes. “My eyes were also wet. Vinesh was such a big support for me. We’d discuss strategy before each bout, give each other confidence.” Now she was alone – with a billion voices inside her head.

‘Do you have any tips?’

Everything has changed. When Sakshi took up wrestling, the handful of other girls who also wrestled came from wrestling families. But now, starting with the success of Geeta Phogat in the 2010 Commonwealth Games, the appeal of the game has widened. “There are so many girls at our academy,” says Sakshi, “that there’s not enough place on the mats for all of us. We have to train in shifts.”

And mind you, this is Haryana.

“People would taunt me earlier, say that wrestling was only for boys, who would marry us after this, what kind of girls were we? Family friends would come home and ignore me, treat me disdainfully. Now they come home to ask for selfies. They tell me, Beta, we are sending our daughter also for wrestling classes, do you have any tips?”

What is Sakshi like when she is not in training mode? “Ekdum shaant,” she says. “I am not a party girl at all. I like to stay home and chill, just relax.”

And what would she be if she wasn’t a wrestler?

“I would study hard, get a job, then get married, I suppose. I had no special ambitions at all.”

“What are your class friends doing now?”

“They are married. Most of them. Many of them have children also.”

A reminder: Sakshi is 23.


We are a story-telling species. We make sense of the world through narratives. We’re bound to fit Sakshi into some narrative or the other. She is a woman from Haryana beating a patriarchal system. She is an Indian sportsperson rising to the top despite the system. She is beti bachao. She is achhe din. She is falaana, she is dhimkaana. At some level, all these narratives are both lazy and condescending.

Sakshi Malik is a 23-year-old girl who found, early in life, something that she loved doing more than anything else in the world. It was like puja for her. The best day in her life was when she did nothing but that. It gave her entry into a world where she made close friends, experienced heartbreak, felt the ecstacy of standing on a podium with her anthem playing. It made her fly, literally. It gave her joy – and sport is so wonderful, so transcendent, that for a few moments it gave millions of us some joy as well. That is the medal.

Posted by Amit Varma on 06 October, 2016 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Sport

Usain Bolt vs Mrs Patel

This is the 13th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page


Usain Bolt was sprinting like a gale
When he was passed by Mrs Patel.
The crowd was entertained.
Mrs Patel explained,
‘Haven’t you heard? Zara has a sale!’


Once there was a minister of sport
Who loved using his pretty passport.
He went on pilgrimage
To the Olympic village.
What a superb holiday resort!

Posted by Amit Varma on 28 August, 2016 in Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes | Sport

Sindhu and Sakshi

This is the 12th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page


There was a young girl who was told
Girls should be demure, never bold.
She gave a sharp retort
On the badminton court,
And almost won Olympic gold.


Once there was a Haryanvi lass
Who would never let a problem pass.
She’d fling it to the ground,
Expertly pin it down
Because desi girls can kick ass.

Posted by Amit Varma on 21 August, 2016 in India | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes | Sport

Two Essays

It’s been a long time since I wrote something substantive on sport, so here are two recent essays I’ve written that scratched my itch. The first, published in The Cricket Monthly, is a 4000-word longread titled ‘What Cricket Can Learn From Poker’. It basically talks about the importance of probabilistic thinking, not just in poker and cricket but also in life in general. In what is a cricket magazine, I get in thoughts on poker, probability, football, the free-will-vs-determinism debate and even the Bhagawad Gita. An excerpt:

One way to think about probability is to imagine parallel universes. You flip an evenly weighted coin, and instantly the world splits into 1000 parallel worlds, and the coin falls heads in 500 of them and tails in the other 500. You flip again and these universes are split into units of 250, each showing sequences of HH, HT, TH and TT. You keep flipping.

This is true for everything that happens. Every single thing that happens in this world (or may happen) has a probability attached to it. These probabilities change at every instant, affected by all other events to some degree or the other. So imagine, in every single moment, for every single event, the parallel universes multiplying. You can increase or decrease the number of hypothetical parallel universes depending on how granular you wish to make the thought experiment, but there are basically infinite parallel universes, each of them containing unique outcomes. And the world that you are in right now is just one of trillions of trillions of freakin’ gazillions. Imagine the level of randomness, then, of this world being what it is.


My other essay, ‘The Tamilian Gentleman Who Took On The World’, was part of’s series of The Top 20 Moments in Indian Sport. Vishy Anand winning the undisputed chess world championship in 2007 was ranked No. 4 by ESPN, though I would place it at the top. Being a chess lover, I’m obviously biased, but I’d hope that after reading my piece, which is about the context of Anand’s remarkable achievement, you will agree with me!

Posted by Amit Varma on 02 August, 2016 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Sport

Black Man Rising

This is the 28th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

How do we choose our sporting heroes? I believe they are born in three ways. One, at a primal level, we pick them on the basis of tribalism. We support someone because they are doing well for the club or country we support, and that is reason enough. Two, we like them for their specific skills in a game that we love. The elegance of a Federer, the technical finesse of a Dravid, and so on. Three, we like them for reasons that go beyond the sport. Maybe their story evokes something personal in us. Maybe we are drawn to them because we are a species that understands the world through stories, and there is something universal about their journey that goes beyond the sport.

Muhammad Ali, who died a few days ago, transcended boxing. His life was so deeply intertwined with American history in the 1960s and ‘70s that to immerse yourself in the story of the man would be to understand the history of the nation. His journey encapsulated the essential conflicts of his times to such a degree that his sporting achievements almost didn’t matter.

Ali was born Cassius Clay, named after a 19th century abolitionist who defied the dominant narratives of his times. So did Ali. He did this, first, with regard to the way he boxed. Heavyweight boxers were supposed to be men of heft and power, but Ali subverted expectations by being a big man who danced around the ring with balletic grace, who could turn a brawl into an artistic display. His model was the welterweight (and later middleweight) Sugar Ray Robinson, a much smaller man. Boxing pundits didn’t take the young Clay seriously. The iconic sports writer AJ Liebling described him after his Olympic Gold win in Rome 1960 as ‘attractive but not probative’, and later dissed him as ‘Mr Swellhead Bigmouth Poet’. He was such an underdog in his first World Championship match against Sonny Liston in 1964 that his team found out which hospital had the best emergency room and mapped out the quickest route there from the venue. They thought Liston might kill him.

But the narratives that really mattered had nothing to do with boxing style, and he subverted them too. Boxing was a gladiatorial sport in America in the 50s and 60s, run by the mob, and many top boxers, usually black, like Liston, were virtually owned by the mob. Audiences needed palatable, simple narratives as packaging for the sport: Liston vs Patterson, for example, was sold as a fight between ‘Bad Negro’ and ‘Good Negro’, with one man (Liston) an uncivilised brute, feeding into racist fears of the archetypal black savage, and the other (Patterson) a sophisticated ‘liberal’s liberal’, as the novelist James Baldwin called him. (Both portraits were unfair.) But Ali would not allow others to shape his story.

Soon after his shock win over Liston in 1964, Ali further shocked America by announcing that he had joined the Nation of Islam, and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. Many resisted this, and as if to remind him of who he really was, kept calling him by his ‘slave name’ of Cassius Clay. But Ali fought back. In 1967, he got into the ring against Ernie Terrell, a black heavyweight who refused to address him by his chosen name, and kept taunting him as he jabbed him repeatedly, ‘What’s my name, Uncle Tom? What’s my name?’

His bravest act, with which he lifted himself above his sport, was refusing to be drafted. Conscription is a form of slavery, and Ali refused to be a slave again. He was stripped of his title, and lost almost four years and tens of millions of notional dollars for his act, but he would not waver or compromise. In the magisterial biography ‘King of the World’, David Remnick quotes Gerald Early, a literature professor, describing what Ali’s action meant to him as a teenager: ‘When he refused, I felt something greater than pride: I felt as though my honour as a black boy had been defended, my honour as a human being.’

Ali came back into the sport and won the heavyweight title again, and achieved much glory in boxing. Not all of his story is uplifting. He often went overboard with hate-filled rhetoric, especially in his early days with the Nation of Islam, and his disrespect of his opponents, and his trash talk, often crossed the line. This is particularly so with Joe Frazier, who had helped Ali get his boxing license back after his suspension was over, but then became roadkill on Ali’s journey. In the words of the writer William Nack, Ali ‘humiliated and enraged and ultimately isolated Frazier, casting him as a shuffling and mumbling Uncle Tom, an ugly and ignorant errand boy for white America.’ He called him ‘an ugly gorilla’ among other things, building a mythology around himself that was as false as the racist narratives he had earlier rebelled against. (He justified it as good marketing for the fight, but Frazier carried the scars forever. Nack memorably wrote later that Ali had been ‘living rent-free for Frazier’s head for more than 25 years.’)

As much as Ali transcended the sport, he was also a creature of the sport, and the sport is essentially barbaric: one man beating another man, ideally causing brain damage (for the knockout is the ideal end to all fights), a negative-sum game where in the end both men lose. The accumulated blows that Ali took were a likely cause of his Parkinson’s, and as his legend grew over the decades, the man himself faded.

But the ways in which boxing diminished him—and before that he diminished himself—should not affect his legacy. All human beings are frail and weak and flawed in countless public and private ways—but very few people rise above themselves, and their sport, and their times, to the extent that Ali did. He meant so much to so many. As Kareem Abdul Jabbar wrote in a recent tribute: ‘I may be 7’2”, but I never felt taller than when standing in his shadow.’

More than the shadow, though, it was the light.

Posted by Amit Varma on 10 June, 2016 in Essays and Op-Eds | Lighthouse | Sport

A Wrestler Sweats in the Summer

Starting today, two of my limericks will appear every Sunday on the edit page of the Sunday Times of India. This is the first installment.


Once there was a problem of water
Summer was hot and getting hotter
A politician explained,
‘Our hands are blood-stained.
Bad governance is equal to manslaughter.’


Once a wrestler tried to move a building
Muscular Sushil grunting and pushing
When chastised,
He said, ‘I was advised
To move court, so that’s what I’m doing.’

Posted by Amit Varma on 22 May, 2016 in India | News | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes | Sport

Goodwill Machine

Once there was a star of the screen,
Sent to Rio as a goodwill machine.
‘With my foot on the pedal,’
He said, ‘I’ll race towards a medal
And crush any blackbuck that intervenes.’


Posted by Amit Varma on 25 April, 2016 in India | News | Rhymes | Sport | WTF

National Highway 420 (and the EV of Aggressive Batting)

Before this IPL started, a friend of mine, who shall go unnamed, called me up.

Friend: Amit, you have such understanding of cricket, do you have any gyaan about this IPL? I want to place a few bets.

Me: Um, don’t do cricket betting, bro, you’re bound to lose in the long run. But if you absolutely have to, because the dopamine craving is unbearable, and you really hate your money, then do one thing: make a bet, at the toss of every game, on the side batting second. Ignore everything else.

F: What are you saying? Team composition, past records, pitch, weather, my gut feel—ignore all that?

M: Yes. Ignore it all. And don’t even watch the game, your blood pressure is a problem, isn’t it? Just place that one bet and forget about it.


Four days later, I Whatsapp him.

M: Bro, how’s it going? Have you noticed that the team batting second won three out of the four games so far? :)

F: Amit, it’s all fucked up, man. The matches are fixed. Just see yesterday, bro, X was at 40 paisa when I bet, and suddenly the game turned around and I lost so much. Such an unlikely turnaround! It has to be a fix!

M: Um, unlikely things are actually inevitable. Why didn’t you just bet on the side batting second like I told you to?

F: Arre, yaar, that is so simplistic. I have been betting on cricket for 20 years. Main apni analysis karta hoon, bhai!

M: Oh.

F: But these bloody games are fixed!

M: Well, just keep in mind what I told you.


I call him after eight games.

M: Champ, this IPL is crazy, isn’t it? Seven out of eight matches so far won by the side batting second. When are you throwing a party?

F: Arre, forget party, I will have to sell one of my flats soon. I bet heavily on X yesterday, and Y won! It was fixed!

M: Er, not likely bro, very hard to fix entire games. Only spot-fixing is realistic, and even that…

F: No no no, it was fixed! See, X had a sure win! And the bookies gave odds of 84 paise. Why would they give such great odds? To lure the money in! And then Y wins! Fixed!

M: Are you saying the bookies fixed it?

F: No bro, the game has evolved beyond that. Bookies and punters don’t fix matches anymore. The BCCI fixed it!

M: Bro, that’s a wild conspiracy theory. Firstly, it’s almost impossible to fix actual results. Secondly, the BCCI makes a lot of money anyway, and their incentives are aligned towards keeping the game clean. I think you’re just rationalising…

F: Arre, stop this rational talk. Nothing good can come out of it.

M: Well, I did tell you about the team batting second…


And now, two weeks later, I speak to him again.

M: Dude, it’s 13 out of 14 wins now for the side batting second. What did I tell you at the start of the tournament?

F: Arre, forget all that, you won’t believe how hard I’m getting banged. My ass should be renamed National Highway 420. I’m telling you, it’s all fixed. I should never have bet a single paisa!

M: Er, well, look, I did tell you…

F: I hate cricket. I’m going to Bangkok for some decleansing. I need to get some detoxing done.

M: Er, actually all this detox talk is pseudo-science, dude, you see…

F: Amit, shut up! You know nothing!


So there it is. My friend will never wake up and see the light, but the weird thing is that many pundits and cricket managements aren’t doing that either. It is a fact that 13 out of 14 games have been won by the side batting second. Not just that, they have been won easily, in an average of 17.2 overs and with an average 6.6 wickets an hand. Why is this happening?

I have speculated on this in an earlier post, but forget all speculation, there is one obvious conclusion to be drawn: teams batting first are consistently underestimating the par score.

In my column before the IPL, ‘What Cricket Can Learn From Economics’, I had pointed out that many sides do not understand the economic concept of opportunity cost. Basically, they need to be more aggressive in order to utilise the 20 overs optimally, and attack the bowling from the get go. (Read the piece for the full argument.) Now, some teams get this, and do actually frontload, but many don’t. And they often adjust sub-optimally when wickets fall.

For example, consider this: A team begins their innings aggressively, but then drops wickets. They drift to 44 for 3 after eight overs, with the bowlers bowling exceptionally well. Here’s what happens: if they’re batting first, they’ll reset the par score in their heads, and aim for something conservative like 165 at 10 an over. If they’re batting second, they’ll aim for whatever the target is, even if it’s 190. They don’t have a choice.

Now, it is my belief that many teams underestimate the ‘expected value’ of aggression. The risk-to-reward ratio for aggressive batting is vastly different in T20s as compared to ODIs because the relationship between the two kinds of resources available to a team (players and time) has changed. And because they underestimate the payoffs, teams are not aggressive enough while batting first. While batting second, though, they often don’t have a choice but to be appropriately aggressive.

This is not the only factor in play, of course—the strength of a side’s bowling attack matters, as do local conditions on any given day. But all of those are largely toss-agnostic. This mindset is not.

Despite my explanation, this streak is an outlier, and I don’t see it continuing: I will be very surprised if 13 of the next 14 games are won by the side batting second. However, I do see this trend continuing. Sides batting second should win more than sides batting first. And when sides batting first do win, it will be because they frontloaded, as RCB did in game 4, and Gujarat Lions try in every game.

Please don’t put your money on it, though. Anyone who bets on cricket is a long-term loser. I’m serious.

Posted by Amit Varma on 21 April, 2016 in Economics | Sport

Once There Was A Man Named Finch

Once there was a man named Finch
Who would not give an inch.
With his team in a fix,
He smashed ‘em for six.
‘I decapitate, I don’t pinch.’


Posted by Amit Varma on 16 April, 2016 in Rhymes | Sport

The Side Batting Second…

After I wrote my last column, ‘What Cricket Can Learn From Economics’, my friend Prabhat Kiran Mukherjea commented on Facebook (quoted with permission):

This is the truth that an increasing number of people seem to be realizing, but not so many within the establishment of the game.

This is one reason for the toss being so important in this tournament. The best sides preferred to bat second [in the T20 World Cup], and batting second severely limits the degree to which sides can convince themselves that this sort of batting is appropriate.

This was the day before the IPL began. And now, one week later, the side batting second has won five of the six games so far. (In the one game that the side batting first won, they put up 227, frontloading most pleasingly.)

This is a small sample size, so I won’t force any conclusions upon you, but Prabhat’s insight does seem to hold some food for thought.

I haven’t been watching the games too closely, but one thing I have noticed is that Mumbai Indians are frontloading intent but not talent. Basically, they are attacking from the start, as they should, but taking a pinch-hitting approach by sending out guys like Hardik Pandya and Mitchell McClenaghan at 3 and 4, as in their last game, keeping higher quality hitters like Jos Buttler and Kieron Pollard for later. I’m not sure what to make of this.

At the moment, the teams I find most impressive are those that are frontloading both intent and talent. RCB have Gayle-Kohli-ABD at the top and Gujarat Lions have Finch-McCullum-Raina. Both have decent bowling attacks. So these are the guys I’d back.

Posted by Amit Varma on 15 April, 2016 in Sport

Intelligent. Modest. Soft-Spoken. Philosophical

Check out this lovely little speech by Ravi Abhyankar on his old friend, Viswanathan Anand. A memorable excerpt:

[W]e often judge an entire community or a nation based on one or two people whom we know. It is called stereotyping. Chess fans in 180 countries judge all Indians, all of us, by watching Viswanathan Anand. Thanks to him they think all Indians are intelligent, modest, soft-spoken, philosophical with a great sense of humour.

Indeed, people who excel in sports often become, by default, brand ambassadors for both the sport and their countries. Because character and sporting talent are both randomly distributed, sporting heroes often tend to be mediocre ambassadors. But Anand was is exceptional. (For contrast, look at the boorish, arrogant way in which the cricketers of today often behave.) We are lucky to have him.

Link via a Chessbase article by Sagar Shah.

*  *  *

Also read: An old tribute by me when Anand won one of his five World Championships, The Man With The Maruti 800.

Posted by Amit Varma on 15 April, 2016 in India | Sport

What Cricket Can Learn From Economics

This is the 26th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

Is there anything that cricket can learn from economics? Over the decade-and-a-half that I have written on both these subjects, I’ve come to believe that understanding and applying the principles of economics can enrich the way we live our lives. It follows, then, that all economic concepts can also be applied to cricket.

This is especially relevant at the time of writing these words, when the Twenty20 World Cup has just come to an end. I was delighted that West Indies deservedly won the cup; and saddened that a number of teams, including India, made basic errors because they did not understand one fundamental economic concept: Opportunity Cost.

The term ‘opportunity cost’ was coined by the 19th century economist Friedrich von Wieser, and its simplest definition is: ‘the loss of other alternatives when one alternative is chosen.’ The online site Investopedia defines it as “the cost of an alternative that must be forgone in order to pursue a certain action.” Let me illustrate that with an example.

Say you step out of your office one muggy evening, and have Rs. 300 in your pocket. You feel like drinking a refreshing frappe at a nearby café; and you also feel like taking an AC cab home instead of your normal bus-train routine. The thing is, you only have enough money for one of them. So you go for immediate gratification and get that frappe. The opportunity cost of the frappe is the cab ride home.

Every banal decision in our lives involves opportunity cost. Do I watch TV or read a book? Do I go out with friends or spend time with family? When I choose to spend an evening watching Batman vs Superman, the cost of that decision is not just the price of the ticket and the popcorn, but all the things I could have done with that time.

Understanding opportunity cost is important because it helps us navigate the one fundamental truth about this world: scarcity. Everything is scarce: there is never enough money; or enough time; or enough energy. We have to negotiate scarce resources, which is why all our decisions carry costs. And as the economist James Buchanan said, the concept of opportunity costs “expresses the basic relationship between scarcity and choice.”

Cricket is no exception to these laws of nature. Within a cricket match, there are two kinds of scarcity that a captain or coach must contend with. One is a scarcity of time. The match can only last either five days or 50 overs per side or 20 overs per side. The second is a scarcity of resources. A team can only have eleven players.

Strategy in cricket boils down to negotiating between these two constraints of time and resources. For example, if a team needs 250 runs to win a Test match with two full days in hand, and are 18 for 2 against fired-up new-ball bowlers, they should be more worried about running out of batting resources than about running out of time. That would be a good time for careful consolidation. In contrast, in an ODI, if a team needs 15 to win in one over with eight wickets in hand, they are running out of time but not batting resources. This is a time to hit out and run for everything, and not to preserve wickets.

Every decision carries an opportunity cost. When a batsman shoulders arms to a ball outside off stump, that decision carries the opportunity cost of the runs that might have been scored off it. When he tries to drive it and instead edges it to slip, his action bears the opportunity cost of the runs he might have scored later had he not played that shot. These are opposite actions, and to evaluate which is appropriate in any situation, you need to consider the relative scarcities of time and resources.

Now, here’s where it applies to T20 cricket. Each side gets 20 overs to bat instead of the 50 they would in an ODI; but they still have 11 players! The balance between resources and time has shifted – but many teams haven’t adjusted to this. They apply the ODI innings-building template to T20s: hit out in the powerplay, taking care to consolidate if early wickets fall, then build the innings till the slog overs, then have a slog. This is wrong. It is a waste of resources – and it also allows the bowling side to allocate bowling resources optimally, with specialist death bowlers bowling at the end. What would they do if every over was a slog over?

The teams should adjust to this new dynamic by ‘frontloading’ – a concept I first wrote about in this context a couple of years ago. They should go for their strokes right from the start. If catastrophe comes and four wickets fall in the space of 10 balls, they can dial it back and look to bat all 20 overs so as not to waste the resource of time – but otherwise, they are wasting the batting resources available to them.

The optimal approach in a T20 game is to treat your first three overs as if they’re the last three. On average you will make as many as you would in the last three. Sometimes you will click and the momentum continues. Sometimes wickets will fall, and you can adjust accordingly, and still not make less than you would have with the traditional strategy.

Teams are wisening up to this, and both the finalists of this T20 World Cup frontloaded through the tournament – but India did not, to my dismay. In their semi-final, India made 192 for 2 and the wicket column alone tells you what was wrong with their approach. By losing only two wickets, consider the strokeplaying resources India left unused: Raina, Pandey, Pandya, Jadeja, even Ashwin at 9. Our middle overs were consumed by Ajinkya Rahane making 40 off 35, which was a criminal waste. Consider the opportunity cost: had Rahane been out while on 20 off 18, do you really think that this army of hitters would not have made way more than the 20 off 17 he eventually added?

This is not Rahane’s fault per se: he is a fantastic Test player, but he doesn’t have a fourth gear and this is the best he can do. It’s the fault of the selectors and the decision makers within the team who ignored this key lesson of T20 cricket. (To be fair to MS Dhoni, though, CSK usually frontloaded in the IPL under him.) It is also the fault of those pundits who will praise an innings of 50 off 40 without considering the opportunity cost, and the unused resources in the pavilion.

Teams will learn, though, and T20 cricket will continue to flourish. This is the future of the sport. Indeed, Test cricket might die out altogether, for reasons that can also be explained by economics. As the number of options to spend our time keep increasing, so does the opportunity cost of watching Test cricket. What is five days worth to you?

*  *  *

Also read:

The lesson from this IPL: Front-load your innings (2014)

Never Mind the Bullocks, Here’s the Lamborghini (2015)

The New Face of Cricket (2015)

Posted by Amit Varma on 08 April, 2016 in Economics | Lighthouse | Sport

Hou is Mariya

Hou Yifan is currently leading in her Women’s World Chess Championship match against Mariya Muzychuk, and I suppose this is a good time for me to tell you about what happened when they met for the first time. Basically, Maria went up to Hou and introduced herself.

MM: Hi, I’m Mariya.

HY: Hou.

MM: Er, Mariya.

HY: Hou.

MM: I just told you. Mariya. May I know your name please?

HY: Hou!

MM: Mariya, Mariya, Mariya! Aaargh! (Storms off. Harika Dronavalli walks up to Hou.)

HD: Hey, Hou. Who was that?

HY: Some strange girl called Mariya Mariya Mariya.

*  *  *

A kind reader points me to this:

Most magnificent!

Posted by Amit Varma on 09 March, 2016 in Sport

How Much is Pawan Negi Worth?

Pradeep Magazine is unhappy that Pawan Negi got more than a million dollars at the recent IPL auction. He writes:

Ever since a new cricket format and a new business model – the IPL – in the name of sport has been created in India, this accepted rationale of how sport functions is being challenged each passing year. Among the many questions being debated is the relationship of talent with the wages earned and the impact it will have on the very foundations of cricket in the country.

That is where Pawan Negi and most of his tribe become relevant to this debate. Here is a young talent, not sure of his place in the India team, a surprise selection for the T20 World Cup, who has all of a sudden been catapulted ahead of his much superior seniors and showered with riches — and even he can’t understand why.

Magazine implies that Negi has gotten more money than he is worth—and I don’t have an opinion on that. However, consider the larger philosophical question of who should determine Negi’s value as a player? Should it be the mandarins at the BCCI, or the selectors? Should it be knowledgable journalists who have covered the game for years like Magazine himself? Should it be the owners of IPL franchises, an assorted mix of businessmen and filmstars who may not know much about cricket?

The clue to the answer is to ask yourself who has the best incentives to put in the work to determine Negi’s value. Who is actually putting his money where his mouth is? If Magazine makes a judgment about a player that is wrong, it doesn’t matter, journalists get things wrong all the time. There is not much of a reputational downside. If the Indian selectors get it wrong, ditto, they move on and pick someone else the next time, and only a whole bunch of ludicrous selections can affect their position. If the IPL bosses get it wrong, on the other hand, they lose money. Hard, cold cash. For this reason, the incentives are highest for IPL bosses to put in much work in scouting and analytics, and by all accounts they do exactly that. So insofar as there can be said to be a ‘correct’ price for Negi, the IPL auctions are the closest mechanism available right now of arriving at that. (And of course, econ 101, prices are determined by supply and demand, and you need a market for that.)

Of course, the IPL auctions are not a free market. All players would probably get paid much more if spending caps did not exist. Also, Negi would probably have gotten much less if he was first up in an auction where no team had retained or picked a player yet, and he did get lucky that he came up for auction when there was a scarcity of available players like him, teams had holes to fill, and the demand for what he could supply went up. That’s just luck, and it’s fine. If he doesn’t perform, he won’t get paid this much next time.

An aside: Magazine also says in his piece:

In this bizarre game, where players are bought and sold in an auction, is there any cricketing logic that governs these decisions?

This is a common, and badly phrased, complaint: of cricketers being bought and sold like cattle. But that is not what is happening. Their services, as represented by contracts they have willingly signed, are being bought and sold. It is principally the same thing that happens when you check out different employers to see where you want to work, except that the mechanism is different. Cricketers are not being degraded here, but honoured and valued in a much better way than men in board rooms with nothing at stake could manage.

Posted by Amit Varma on 10 February, 2016 in Economics | India | News | Sport

Carlsen 1, Fischer 0

In an excellent feature on Magnus Carlsen in the Telegraph, Nigel Farndale writes:

He [Carlsen] has always been interested in the history of chess and has had the chance to play both Karpov and Kasparov, two legends of the game. But if he could play anyone in history who would it be? ‘I think the top ones would be Fischer and Capablanca, maybe Mikhail Tal, but I think I would beat Tal pretty easily. Fischer would be more difficult, but I think I could beat him too.’

Carlsen isn’t being arrogant, just honest. And here’s the thing: he’s unquestionably right. Chess is actually that one sport where the best player of the current generation is likely to be the best ever in objective terms. That is because the body of knowledge expands enormously with every generation, as do the tools of analysis (and therefore preparation). If Fischer at his 1972 peak met the Carlsen of today, he would be bound to lose. Indeed, I believe he would lose to some other top players as well, such as Caruana and Nakamura, simply because they’d be much better prepped. Of course, if Fischer was born in the same year as Carlsen, it could be a different story. But that’s a counterfactual, and all we have to go by is the games they actually played. So Carlsen is right.

I think when he doesn’t speak of Kasparov, he’s just being respectful. Kasparov coached him at one point, and bumps into Carlsen now and then as a grandee in the chess circuit, and Carslen would want to avoid awkwardness. But I have no doubt he believes he can beat Kasparov as well.


We will find out in March which of eight contenders takes on Carlsen for the World Championship later next year. Whoever it is, Carlsen will be favourite to win. But he does, according to me, have one weakness: his tendency, in poker terms, to go on tilt. Here’s an old piece I wrote about it, though Anand sadly could not capitalise.


And ah, Farndale also writes in his piece:

For someone who exhibits phenomenal powers of concentration at the chessboard – he is capable of calculating ‘lines’ that are 30 to 40 moves ahead – Magnus Carlsen is easily bored.

I hate to quibble, but Farndale is wrong here. No human can actually calculate 30 to 40 moves ahead accurately. In fact, as a famous study once demonstrated, experts actually calculate the same number of moves ahead as novices do—but they calculate the right ones. This is not a glib remark: grandmasters have a far wider understanding of recurring patterns on the chess board and motifs than lesser players do, and this knowledge is implicit, their responses to it instinctive. So a top GM would not even consider some lines a lesser IM might, and an IM would instantly see things on the board that would escape me completely. But we’d all see the same number of moves ahead!

Posted by Amit Varma on 30 November, 2015 in Sport

The Shahid Kapoor of Cricket

In a column that begins by asking why Indians don’t dominate cricket, Aakar Patel writes:

[W]e are the Shahid Kapur of cricket though we think we are Shah Rukh Khan.

This is a clever line, and a provocative one, and Aakar loves to provoke. Even his provocative pieces, though, usually contain some insight. In this one, there is none, and the best answer he can offer to the question he asks is one of culture. (“Perhaps [the answer] lies in the idea of ambition and excellence.”) This is vague; it’s also incorrect. I don’t think one can generalise about Indians that we lack ambition or don’t try hard enough to excel, and even if that were true, there would be enough outliers in such a large population for excellence to emerge anyway.

Let me take a shot at an answer. The clue to where our cricket is lacking lies in the composition of our all-time cricket XI. Try and draw one up. You will find yourself conflicted about batting spots (Merchant or Sehwag to open with SMG; Viswanath or Laxman or Kohli at No. 5) and spinning slots (Prasanna or Harbhajan; Chandra or Kumble), but the bewilderment that comes when you consider the fast bowling slots will be of a different kind: not of who you keep out among some excellent options, but who you pick among some mediocre players. Kapil Dev walks in; who partners him. Whoever you pick—Srinath, Zaheer, maybe Amar Singh in desperation and misplaced nostalgia—would not be a contender for the all-time fourth XI of any other major side. Indeed, no other side would have such a huge problem in any department while picking their all-time XI. (Try West Indies, just for fun.)

This is India’s key weakness. To win abroad, we need to take 20 wickets, and we rarely have the fast bowlers to do it. But why don’t we produce enough fast bowlers? Consider what batting and spin bowling require, and what you need for fast bowling. The former two both come down to skill: strength and endurance don’t matter; physical attributes are irrelevant. Fast bowlers, on the other hand, need to have fast-twitch muscles. This is genetic; you either have them or you don’t; and Indians tend not to have them.

This is why we can’t be world beaters in sports that require either strength or endurance. (Even in hockey, we declined when astroturf became ubiquitous and speed became important, and the dribbling game wasn’t enough.) I do have hope for cricket, though, because fast bowling isn’t everything, and we were the No 1 side in Test cricket for a brief while. To use Aakar’s analogy, I don’t think we’re the Shahid Kapoor of cricket: we’re more like Akshay Kumar, or like Govinda in the 90s.

And oh, I don’t hold that nature is everything and nurture doesn’t matter. Culture is important, and is is true that we are not a country with an outdoor sports culture, the kind Australia has. I’m just not sure which way the causation runs.


Also read: My old piece, ‘Will Cricket Decline in India?’

And a piece by my friend Girish Shahane, ‘Why India Sucks at Football.’

Posted by Amit Varma on 02 November, 2015 in India | Sport

Is Don Bradman Still Alive?

Reading Ram Guha’s excellent piece on Mahatma Gandhi’s attitude towards sport, I was struck by this sentence about Nelson Mandela:

Once, when a friend came to visit him in Robben Island, Mandela asked: “Is Don Bradman still alive?”

I found that incredibly poignant. It gave me a greater sense of Mandela’s sacrifice than a hundred essays could.

Posted by Amit Varma on 31 October, 2015 in Politics | Sport

‘Too Good’

Viswanathan Anand just drew his round one game against Anish Giri at the Bilbao Masters despite having an overwhelmingly superior position. Why couldn’t he win it? Here’s what Giri had to say:

I think the problem for my opponent was that his position was too good. He could afford to make absolutely any move, and he abused this fact.

I read that quote, and I immediately thought of the BJP and their comfortable majority in the Lok Sabha.

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 October, 2015 in India | Politics | Small thoughts | Sport

Why I Loved and Left Poker

This is the 42nd and last installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

This is the 42nd and final installment of Range Rover, and I end this column at an appropriate time: after around five years of being a professional poker player, I have stopped playing fulltime, and am getting back to writing books. I am the first winning player i know to walk away from this game – but more than the money, I cherish the life lessons that poker has given me. As I sign off, let me share two of them: the first accounts, to some extent, for my love of the game; the second is the reason I am leaving it.

Poker is a game centred around the long term. The public image of poker is based around hands we see in movies or YouTube videos, and the beginner fantasizes about specific events, spectacular hands in which he pulls off a big bluff or deceives someone into stacking off to him. But once you go deeper into the game, you learn that short-term outcomes are largely determined by luck, and your skill only manifests itself in the long run. You learn to not be results-oriented but process-oriented, to just make the optimal move at every opportunity and ignore immediate outcomes. You learn, viscerally, for much money and pride is involved, the same lesson that the Bhagavad Gita teaches: Don’t worry about the fruits of your action, just do the right thing.

Needless to say, this applies to life as well. Luck plays a far bigger part in our lives than we realise: the very fact that you are literate enough to read this, presumably on a device you own, means you have already won the lottery of life. Much of what happens to us and around us is outside our control, and we would be foolish to ascribe meaning to these, or to let them affect us. Too many players I know let short-term wins and losses affect them, and become either arrogant or angry. This is folly. Equanimity is the key to being profitable in poker – and happy in life.

Why am I leaving a game that has given me so much? There are many reasons: Poker is all-consuming, and impacts one’s health and lifestyle; my real calling is to write, and I am pregnant with books that demand labour; but one key reason is that poker is a zero-sum game.

In life, you benefit when others do too. When two people transact a business deal, they do so because both gain value from it. When lovers kiss, the net happiness of both goes up. Life is a positive-sum game. But poker is not. You can only win if someone else loses, and the main skill in poker is exploiting the mistakes of others.

Now, all sport is zero-sum and consenting adults play this game, so this should not be a problem—except for the fact that poker lies on the intersection of sport and gambling. Gambling addiction destroys lives and families just as drug or alcohol addiction do, and i have seen this happen to people around me. I can sit at a poker table and calculate equities and figure out game-theoretically optimal ways of playing—but where is the nobility in this when my opponent is not doing likewise, but is a mindless slave to the dopamine rushes in his head? In the live games I played, I sometimes felt that there was no difference between me and a drug dealer: we were both exploiting someone else’s addiction.

When I write books, i have a shot at enriching myself by enriching others. This can never happen in poker. And so, my friends, goodbye.

*  *  *

Addendum: You can read all the archives of my column on the Range Rover homepage. Here, briefly, are some I enjoyed writing.

My first column, The Bookshop Romeo, talks about the importance of thinking in terms of ranges, and its applicability to life. The Numbers Game and The Answer is 42 are about the importance of mathematics in poker. Make no Mistake, Finding Your Edge, The Colors of Money, The Cigarette Case and The Importance of Profiling deal with some basics of exploitive poker, while The Balancing Act, Miller’s Pyramid and Imagine You’re a Computer  talk about game-theory optimal (GTO) poker. Om Namah Volume is about the importance of putting volume.

I had great fun writing this series of pieces of probability, randomness and the nature of luck in poker and in life: Unlikely is Inevitable; Black Cats at the Poker Table; Running Good. I fed into my interest in cognitive psychology and behavioural economics for those pieces, as I did for these: The Interpreter; Poker at Lake Wobegon; Keep Calm and Carry On; The Endowment Effect; Steve Jobs and his Black Turtleneck.

Beast vs Human and The Zen Master Speaks deal with temperamental aspects of poker. The Game Outside the Game is about the politics of access, and Raking Bad about the ill effects of excessive rake. Sweet Dopamine talks about poker as an addiction, and The Dark Game and The Second Game of Dice expand upon this subject using personal experience.

Posted by Amit Varma on 21 May, 2015 in Essays and Op-Eds | Personal | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

Steve Jobs and his Black Turtleneck

This is the 41st installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

The next time you are sitting at a poker table, faced with a big decision for a lot of money, take a few seconds off and think of Steve Jobs, naked after his morning shower, walking to his closet to pick out the clothes he will wear for the day. Does he tank over what to wear? No, he doesn’t. He just takes out a black turtleneck, a pair of jeans, and that’s his outfit for the day. Through the last years of his life, in fact, that was his outfit for every day.

Jobs wasn’t lazy or devoid of imagination. He had just cottoned on to a phenomenon called Decision Fatigue. Basically, neurologists have found that every decision you take tires you out a little bit, and robs you of energy. Through the day, Decision Fatigue accumulates, as you get more and more pooped. So if you want to use your energy optimally, the smart thing to do is to automate all trivial decisions, or get them over with quickly, so you can bring all your powers to bear on the big decisions that really matter. Basically, don’t sweat the small stuff.

Jobs did this by wearing the same outfit every day, as does Mark Zuckerberg, thus eliminating one early decision at the start of the day. You could do this by having the same breakfast every day (or letting someone else decide for you), parking in the first available spot instead of searching for the perfect one, and so on. One way to deal with Decision Fatigue is by Satisficing. When I shop, for example, I don’t look for the perfect item to buy, but pick the first adequate one. This is Satisficing: making quick and easy decisions instead of perfect ones. If I’m buying a TV or a T-shirt or a portable hard drive, I won’t agonise for hours over all the different models available, but just pick the first one that seems satisfactory. I’ll devote more scrutiny to big ticket items that really matter—like buying a house, for example.

Consider the implications of this for poker. Poker players typically play sessions that last for many hours, sometimes upwards of 15, which is tiring in itself. They have to stay focussed, observe the action even when they’re not in the hand, and in live games, where such things matter, interact with others for the sake of conviviality. Add to this Decision Fatigue. In any session, you will face dozens of decisions, some of them big ones, increasing the likelihood of your getting exhausted as the session goes on, and thus more prone to errors. So what is one to do?

The obvious answer is to automate. At a beginner level, if you have a starting hand chart for every position, at least those preflop decisions won’t consume energy. As you grow into the game, you can have default decisions for more and more situations. But there is one huge problem with playing like this: you run the risk of becoming predictable, and therefore, exploitable. As you rise up the stakes in poker, you need to start balancing your ranges. This involves a huge amount of work off the table, so that decisions are easy while actually playing. I think of it as akin to a batsman spending thousands of hours in the nets till it becomes reflexive for him, in a match, to lean into an elegant cover-drive against a half volley outside off. Test cricketers don’t actually make a decision on every ball when they are batting; they just follow their reflexes. They have to hone their second nature.

This is why online grinders, whether they are playing cash games or tourneys, multi-table with such ease. Most decisions are automated. Of course, since most of us are playing exploitive poker instead of GTO, we also have to be observant for mistakes to exploit—but even this becomes second nature with practice and hard work off the tables. So here’s my takeaway from this: to reduce decision fatigue at the tables, and to become a better player overall, you need to put in lots of work off the tables. If you do that, there’ll be many black turtlenecks and jeans ahead of you, and Steve Jobs won’t be naked no more.

Posted by Amit Varma on 14 May, 2015 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

Never Mind the Bullocks, Here’s the Lamborghini

This is the 16th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

I saw the strangest thing the other day. Out on the road, there was a sleek Lamborghini with a man in a dhoti-kurta at the driver’s seat. His hands weren’t on the wheel. Instead, he held a whip in his right hand, which extended out of his window, and he was whipping a couple of bullocks tied to the front of the car. The engine was off; the bullocks were pulling the car.

Now, okay, this is perhaps a bit too weird even for India, and I confess that I didn’t see exactly this. But I did witness something very close. I was watching the IPL.

Twenty20 cricket is a relatively new form of the game which makes new demands on the teams that play it. Like a bullock cart driver who has just been given a Lamborghini, the men who run the teams and play for them haven’t quite come to terms with this. So they continue to whip the bullocks. When one-day cricket was born, teams played it much like they would a Test match—consider Sunil Gavaskar’s 36 not out in 1975 through 60 overs, and while that is an extreme example, consider the low par scores of those times. Eventually, players adapted. Even Gavaskar made a thrilling World Cup century before retiring, and par scores crept up until, as I wrote in my last installment of Lighthouse, they crossed 300 in the subcontinent, which was once an outlier score and not the norm.

Similarly, in T20 cricket, teams have basically adapted their ODI approach to this shorter format. So maybe they tonk in the powerplay at the start, then they consolidate and set a platform, then they tonk again towards the end. They often have freeflowing openers, but leave their hard-hitting maniacs, like Kieron Pollard of Mumbai Indians, to bat at the end. This is a flawed approach, because T20 is not just a modified version of ODIs, it’s a whole new format with its own imperatives.

First of all, consider that T20 cricket is played with the same number of players in each side as ODI cricket is: Eleven. This is not a banal point, but crucial to understanding how to approach the game. If T20 games were played 8-a-side, you would be justified in structuring your innings as you structure an ODI innings. But with 11 players, you have extra resources for the time given to you. Your task is to make sure these resources are not wasted, and are optimally used. If the hardest-hitting strokeplayer in the team routinely gets only four or five overs to bat, you are screwing up somewhere. So what should you do?

I’d written a piece after last year’s IPL for Cricinfo where I’d laid out what I felt was the biggest tactical advance of last year’s IPL: Frontloading. Basically, King’s XI Punjab decided to snort at the concept of building a platform, and just sent their hardest hitters upfront and treated every over as sides would usually treat overs 16-20. They attacked from the outset, with Glenn Maxwell, David Miller and George Bailey coming in at Nos. 3, 4 and 5, and sometimes if an early wicket fell, Wriddhiman Saha coming at 3, but also to tonk. Their frontloading ensured that batting resources were not wasted, and this approach got them off to an excellent start in the tournament. In contrast, Mumbai Indians consistently sent out their best hitter, Kieron Pollard, with just a handful of overs to go, and he had nowhere near the impact he could have had. Kolkata Knight Riders started poorly, but then adapted, dropped Jacques Kallis the accumulator, frontloaded the hitting, and things worked out. They also had a better bowling attack than Kings XI, and deservedly won the IPL.

This year has been bizarre. King’s XI, far from continuing to frontload, has reverted to traditional structures of building an innings, sending in Maxwell later than they did last year and even, at the time of writing this piece, dropping him from the side. Mumbai Indians haven’t learnt from their past mistakes, and continue to save Pollard for a dash at the end. They would be better served if Pollard and Corey Anderson batted 3 and 4, in whatever order, with Rohit Sharma opening. But no, they don’t use their elite V12 engine. The other day Mumbai Indians, with Pollard and Anderson mostly at the crease, added 81 runs between overs 16 to 20, but lost because the team scored too slowly in the first 15. What a waste. Imagine if they had scored those 81 runs between overs 6 to 10 instead. How nicely that would have set up the innings. Their chances of doing so between overs 6 to 10 were the same as between 16-20, but the upside of going for it early was far more and the downside the same. Keep the bullocks for later, if the engine fails.

The idea is not just to frontload resources but also to frontload intent. Every side doesn’t have a Maxwell or a Pollard. But whoever goes out there should attack, attack, attack. Sure, if a Starc or Malinga is on fire, play that one guy out. But otherwise go for it. Not only does it ensure you don’t waste batting resources, it also ensures that soft overs in between by lesser bowlers are not wasted. Batting strategies are so predictable that fielding captains can plan how to use their resources well, keeping their best restrictive bowlers, like Malinga, for the end of the innings. But what can they do if you’re going at them all the time?

The one team that has gotten frontloading right in this IPL so far is the Chennai Super Kings. Brendan McCullum and Dwayne Smith play every over like it’s the 18th of the innings, and Suresh Raina and MS Dhoni, two outstanding strokeplayers, follow at Nos. 3 and 4. This is exactly right, and good captaincy. Of course, Chennai also have an excellent bowling attack, which is why they’re among the favourites in the IPL year after year. All things being equal between teams, though, frontloading makes the difference. So when you have a Lamborghini, drive the damn thing.

Posted by Amit Varma on 01 May, 2015 in Essays and Op-Eds | Lighthouse | Sport

The Zen Master Speaks

This is the 40th installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

Once upon a time, a poker player went to a Zen master in the hills, Quiet River, and prostrated himself at his feet. ‘Sensei Quiet River,’ he said, ‘I have something I need to ask you. I am a poker player. But I am not as good as I can be, despite studying both the mathematical intricacies of the game and the psychological tendencies of others. Something is missing. I need you tell me what it is?’

Sensei Quiet River just looked into his eyes.

‘Here,’ said the poker player, whipping out his smartphone. ‘I have all my hand histories here. Let me play them for you. Please tell me my leaks.’ He switched on the hand replayer on his phone and held it up in front of the Sensei. But the Sensei ignored it and kept staring into the player’s eyes. Many seconds passed. Finally, the player understood.

‘I get it now,’ he says. ‘The problem is not in the math or the psychology. The problem is me.’

Sensei Quiet River smiled.

In the last installment of Range Rover I wrote, ‘We lose money in poker not because we think too little but because we feel too much.’ I promised to elaborate on it this week, so here goes.

Poker is a challenging game not because of mathematical complexity but because of human frailty. You can master it in a technical sense: you can understand equities, put people on ranges accurately, balance your own ranges, and so on. You will never be perfect at this, but you can easily be adequate for the games you play. But technique is half the story; temperament is the other half.

Even if you know all the right moves to make, you still need to have the discipline to detach yourself from the short-term outcomes of hands or sessions and play correctly. It’s hard to do this: we are all emotional creatures, casting a veneer of rationality on our reptile brains. We get tired, upset, elated, impatient; we give in to greed, sloth, arrogance, and, most of all, anger. Every poker player is familiar with a phenomenon called ‘Tilt’? What is tilt? The sports psychologist Jared Tendler, writer of a brilliant book called The Mental Game of Poker, describes it as “anger+bad play.” We get angry, so we play bad. And why do we get angry?

In his book, Tendler identifies different kinds of tilt. There’s Injustice Tilt, where you feel you are getting unluckier than others, and it’s just not fair. There’s Revenge Tilt, where you take things personally against certain other players at the table (maybe they gave you a bad beat, or they 3b you frequently). There’s Entitlement Tilt, where you feel you deserve to win more than you are, because you’re better dammit. And so on.

Our emotional condition at any point in time can cause us to play sub-optimally, even when we know what the optimal play is. This is most likely to happen at times of stress, and poker is an incredibly stressful activity, because there is always lots of money involved – not to mention ego. We often equate our sense of self and our well-being with the money we have – though we shouldn’t – and having it taken from us can destroy our emotional equalibrium. It isn’t easy, as that saying goes, to keep calm and carry on.

Let me now end this column with a tip. The next time you are at a poker table, facing a difficult decision, buffeted by emotions, here’s what I want you to do: Imagine that Sensei Quiet River is standing by your side. What would he do in your place? Do exactly that, and see him smile.

Posted by Amit Varma on 29 April, 2015 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

Imagine You Are A Computer

This is the 39th installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

Being human sucks in many ways, but one of its great advantages is that little thing called the imagination. We can imagine away our frailties and pretend to rise above our cognitive limitations. We are all Walter Mitty and Mungerilal, so this following thought experiment should appeal to you. Imagine that you are not a human being, but a computer designed to play poker perfectly and take the money of puny humans. Now tell me: what would change in the way you play the game? (Pause and think about this before you go to the next para, please.)

If you were God, you would know what cards your opponents held and the rundowns of all future boards. But as a computer, you wouldn’t need that information. You would play game-theory optimal (GTO) poker, with a strategy guaranteed not to lose in the long run regardless of the hands others might have or what they might do with them. Most of us humans, on the other hand, play exploitive poker, for which the hands and tendencies of others do matter. Let me illustrate the difference.

You are heads up in a hand, and on the river make a pot-size bet. Your opponent is getting 2 to 1 to call, and needs to be right one in three times to break even. Now, the aim of GTO poker is to make your opponent indifferent to calling or folding. You will do this by having what is known as a ‘balanced’ range jn this spot. Because you are offering him 2 to 1, a balanced range here would have 1/3 bluffs and 2/3 value hands. (Note that the composition of a balanced range depends on bet sizing, or the odds you give the opponent. If you bet half-pot, giving him 3 to 1, a balanced range would have 75% value hands.) Being balanced in any spot means that your opponent has to play perfectly to break even—and if he calls too much or folds too much, you make money. Basically, you cannot lose, and are thus likely to win.

Unless you’re playing high stakes online cash games, you’re unlikely to ever actually need to play GTO. The cash-game poker I play is exploitive poker. I try to identify mistakes my opponents tend to make and exploit them. In the above example, if my opponent tends to give up too often on the river, I will increase the number of bluffs in my range. If he is a calling machine and never folds, I will have 100% value bets in my range. While this is exploitive, this is also exploitable. By deviating from GTO to exploit his mistakes, I offer him (or someone else) a chance to exploit me. If i start bluffing more because he folds too much, he, or another player, could increase their calling frequency against me.

A computer would aim to play GTO poker, and it would do this by building balanced ranges for every spot, starting from preflop, across streets and board textures. This is incredibly complicated, and humans can just come to an approximation of this. This is useful, for understanding balanced ranges help us understand our own mistakes, and those of others, even if we don’t actually intend to play GTO poker. But my question at the start of this piece was not supposed to turn into a lecture on game theory. Indeed, my own answer to that question has nothing to do with game theory or exploiting others.

In any game I play, I tend to assume, correctly so far, that I can acquire the technical knowledge to beat the game. My big leaks are temperamental ones. If i was a computer, I would not feel any emotion, and would thus avoid all the pitfalls of being human at a poker table. We lose money in poker not because we think too little but because we feel too much. I shall elaborate on this in my next column.


Also read:

The Balancing Act
Miller’s Pyramid

Posted by Amit Varma on 09 April, 2015 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

The New Face of Cricket

This is the 15th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

One trend that never goes out of fashion is lamenting the present, claiming that things were better in the past. Logically, one would not expect this to be the case in sport. After all, most sports seem close to their zenith at any given point in time. Usain Bolt is way faster than Carl Lewis, Federer and Nadal would whoop McEnroe or Becker’s ass, Magnus Carlsen would probably beat Bobby Fischer. Better technology (including in training) and more accumulated knowledge about the past make this inevitable. The one sport that seems to defy this sort of analysis, though, is cricket.

We cricket romantics still speak of Don Bradman as the greatest batsman ever, of the West Indies pace quartet of the 70s and 80s as the best fast bowling attack, and we still sigh when we remember India’s famous spin quartet. Recently, a poll named Viv Richards, from the neolithic age of one-day cricket, as the greatest ODI player ever. And while batting records have been taken apart recently, including in this World Cup, cricket tragics ascribe this to a shift in the contest between bat and ball, the heavier bats which enable top edges to go for six, batsman-skewed field restrictions, and so on. This is a valid point, but it’s not the whole truth. My contention is that the game has evolved significantly in the last few years, and—please don’t burn me at the stake for saying this—Twenty20 cricket has been a hugely positive influence on the way cricket is played.

T20 cricket gets a lot of flak, and while much of the criticism about its commercial structure is justified, I don’t agree with any of the criticism about its cricketing value. Test cricket snobs complain that T20s are just a slogfest, but this is far from true. Bowlers have been hugely influential in the IPL, and every side that has won has done so because its bowlers stepped up and influences the game. Think Narine, Malinga, Ashwin, Warne. Just because bowlers go at 7 an over instead of 5, as in ODIs, doesn’t mean the fundamental nature of the game has changed. The goalposts have shifted, the parameters have changed, but the game is still a contest between bat and ball. If it wasn’t, the sides would just go out and have a slog-off against bowling machines, and teams would pick 11 specialist batsmen.

What has changed, though, is that batting has evolved to adapt to the challenges and constraints of a 20-over-a-side game. (And bowling has changed as a response to this.) When one-day cricket began in the 1970s, for example, games were 60-overs-a-side and batsmen approached their innings must as they approached Test matches. The traditional virtues of the game were still applicable, and a run-rate of 4 through an innings was acceptable. If a side scored 250, you’d say their batsmen did well, and not that the opposition’s side’s bowlers did a great job, as would be the case today.

One-day cricket underwent a change through the 90s, as sides began to exploit the field restrictions at the start of the innings. Opening batsmen before Sanath Jayasuriya had gone berserk, like Mark Greatbatch in the 1992 World Cup, but the Sri Lankans of 1996 were the first to treat it as a philosophy, not a tactic. The change in approach saw generally higher scores in ODIs, and a knock-off effect in Tests.

The T20 revolution, and specifically the IPL, turbo-charged the game.  Twenty20 did not deserve any of the disdain it was greeted with: if we don’t diss football games for lasting 90 minutes or tennis matches for getting over in an afternoon, then why mock a three-hour game of cricket? Cricket is a beautiful sport, and the T20 format offers all the drama and nuance that any other sport in the world possesses. And because of the constraints of time, the format demands more out of both batsmen and bowlers than cricket did earlier. In T20 cricket, you have to optimise. To understand the creature that emerges from this, consider the insanely talented Glenn Maxwell.

The most remarkable graphic I saw during this World Cup was one the broadcasters showed after a cameo by Maxwell in this World Cup. It showed where bowlers bowled to him and where he hit them. Most of the balls pitched on off or outside disappeared on the leg side; most of the balls pitched straight or on leg were whacked on the off side. This is not because he got randomly funky. There was a method to his madness.

In the past, batsmen would carry a mental map of where the field was, and adjust to the ball according to that. Now they adjust to the field before the ball is bowled, and dance around the crease and set themselves up accordingly. If point and third man are up and a spinner is bowling, Maxwell is very likely to set up a reverse sweep, which in his hands is an orthodox stroke, like a cover drive or pull, with a similar risk-reward ratio. It doesn’t matter if the ball pitches two inches outside leg; he’s already decided where it’s going to go. And he plays like this from ball one. In that graphic in question, the bowlers actually bowled to their field; and he batted to that field too.

Players like Maxwell and AB deVilliers, who is known as a ‘360°-batsman’ because he can hit the ball to any part of the ground and plays as if the stumps aren’t there, have transformed the game with their inventiveness (and enormous talent), playing strokes that Richards, or even the recent Tendulkar for that matter, couldn’t have conceived. And they are not alone. Every team is optimising, and we have seen the knock-on effect this has had on ODIs in this World Cup, where, I submit, batsmen not only scored more runs than before, but also batted better. You will see Test matches transformed by this as well. I predict more successful fourth-innings chases of 300-plus in the next ten years than in the last 30. Hold me to this.

Having said this, I would not argue with measures by administrators to tilt the balance more towards bowlers. One could mess around with field restrictions, and I certainly think the 10-over limit on how much a bowler can bowl should go: there aren’t corresponding limits on batsmen. But please, do not say that there is no longer a contest between bat and ball. The two main contenders for the man-of-the-series award in this World Cup were bowlers (Starc and Boult), and a bowling performance got MOTM in the finals (Faulkner). When Mitchell Starc spears in that yorker at 150kmph to Brendan McCullum, after setting him up with two fierce dot balls, you know the game is doing just fine.

Posted by Amit Varma on 03 April, 2015 in Essays and Op-Eds | Lighthouse | Sport

Why I Will Not Grow a Beard

A Telegraph report tells us about a study that reveals that more and more men are growing beards because they are “feeling under pressure from other men and are attempting to look aggressive by being more flamboyant with their whiskers.” There are evolutionary reasons for this; apparently, we are wired this way.

You will note, now, that there were more beards in the New Zealand team than in the Australian one in today’s World Cup final. Does this mean that one side was pretending to be macho and signalling aggressive intent, while the other side, um, didn’t need to?

Also, what about Sir?


While on beards, a friend of mine insists that beards make men more sexually attractive. If this is so, I shall certainly never grow a beard. I can hardly cope with the adulation I already receive, and more would be overkill.

Posted by Amit Varma on 29 March, 2015 in Miscellaneous | Sport

The Answer is 42

This is the 38th installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

The answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything, according to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, is 42. The computer that came up with this took 7.5 million years to calculate it, though the question for this answer wasn’t known. Well, I have a guess as to what it was.

My guess is that Douglas Adams was a keen connoisseur of Pot Limit Omaha, and he got into the following hand with his friend Richard Dawkins. Adams had T985ds, spades and diamonds, and the flop came K67, one spade and two diamonds, giving him a humongous wrap, a flush draw and a backdoor flush draw. Dawkins potted, Adams repotted, Dawkins jammed, Adams called. Dawkins had AAKKds, clubs and hearts, for top set. ‘Ha,’ he exclaimed, ‘I have the nuts. Take a hitchhike, my friend!’

‘Now, now, calm down,’ said Adams. ‘It is in your genes to be excitable, I know, but I must inform you that your top set is not the best hand here. Indeed, I am actually the favourite to win here.’

‘You’re kidding me,’ said Dawkins, as he looked at Adams’s cards in growing horror. ‘So what percent of the time do I win this hand?’

And that’s the question, dear reader, to which the answer is 42.

As it happens, the turn gave Adams a straight flush, at which point Dawkins became a militant atheist, as indeed am I, but that is not a matter on which I shall dwell today. Instead, I wish to bring up the role of numbers in poker. I have written before on how poker is a numbers game, and to master the game, you must master the math. In my last column, I wrote about the hard work involved in teaching yourself the game, much of which involved number-crunching. In response, my friend Rajat, a keen player with a recent live tournament win under his belt, tweeted: ‘I’m an old-school player, terrified of numbers. What advice for me?’ This is a reaction many people would have, so here’s what I have to say.

The mathematical laws that govern poker, and indeed, the universe, are not ‘new-school’ inventions. Just as an old-school physicist before the time of Newton was subject to the laws of gravity, so is poker subject to mathematical laws, rewarding those who master them. Indeed, ‘old-school’ players knew their math, as you will note from the vintage of David Sklansky’s The Theory of Poker (1983), and the musings of Doyle Brunson, a man who knew his fold equity, in Super System (1979). Since the internet boom in poker, the math behind the game has been far better understood, to the extent that a talented player who ignores the numbers is like a prodigious swimmer trying to cross an ocean but just refusing to get on a bloody boat.

All decisions in poker come down to the math of estimating pot equity and fold equity and making the best decision possible. You may use your ‘reads’ and psychological insights to get a better sense of your opponent’s range, and how likely he might be to act in a particular way, but all these merely help you come up with the right inputs. The answer, in the end, lies in the math. And here’s the thing: if you ignore the math, that doesn’t mean the math goes away. No, it’s working away in the background, like the laws of nature, ensuring the survival of the fittest – or those who adapt the best, as Dawkins would say.

If you have been winning at poker without caring too much about the math, it is either because you’re playing really soft games, or you’ve been lucky. The way the game is growing in India, both of these are bound to change. So here’s a thought for you: It is a truism in poker we must not be results-oriented, and should just focus on making the right decisions so that we show a profit in the long run. But how do we know what the right decisions are? The answer lies in asking the right questions – as Dawkins did to Adams.

Posted by Amit Varma on 26 March, 2015 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

Don’t Maro Ratta

This is the 37th installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

Imagine you’re seven years old and you’re sitting in a classroom where an old professor who scratches his ass constantly is teaching you poker. ‘Now children,’ he intones , as if a robotic app is speaking from inside his body and not an actual human, ‘Imagine you have 13 big blinds in the cutoff and the action folds to you. What is the bottom of your shoving range?’

Someone titters from the back benches. The teacher ignores him and continues: ‘I will tell you what your shoving range is. Now everybody write down what I am putting on the blackboard, and learn by heart for exams. Okay? Learn. By. Heart.’ He turns to the board and starts writing with his right hand and scratching his ass with his left. Someone throws a paper plane at him.

Wouldn’t you hate to learn poker like that? I bet it would kill your interest in the game forever. Maybe you could have been a recreational shark, emptying people’s bank balances in your spare time. But no, classroom happens to you, and you take up stamp collecting as a hobby instead, for the sheer adrenalin rush that gives you. What a shame.

Poker has never been taught in a classroom, of course. It is a recent science, and if anyone wants to learn poker, they have to put in the hard yards and learn it on their own. There’s no university course, no poker diploma you can get, no MOOCs on Coursera, and most instructional books are outdated. Friends may help you, you could even get some online coaching, but if you want to be really good, you’ll have to do most of the hard work yourself. And before you learn how to play poker, you’ll first have to learn how to learn.

One of the problems with Indian education is the emphasis it places on ratta maroing – or learning by heart. When I was a student, I would spend all night before an exam mugging up facts from a guidebook, only to forget them the day after the tests. I believe that every time I did this, a small part of my brain died. And I didn’t learn anything about the subject in question.

Why do I bring this up in the context of poker? It is because too many beginning players indulge in their old habits of ratta maaroing when it comes to learning this game. I know tournament players who will know their push-fold ranges quite precisely, but have never, ever, even once calculated the equity of a particular move. Indeed, some tournament coaches begin and end by teaching ranges for different spots, and while this is useful, it would make more sense to teach a beginner to figure out those ranges for himself. Get the calculator out, figure out fold equity against players left to act, pot equity against calling ranges, and so on.  It’s a lot of work, but at the end of it, such knowledge will be deeper than just mugged-up push-fold charts – and as the game evolves, you will have the tools to do so as well.

In cash games as well, where stacks are deeper, you need to work hard at understanding how to play in different spots. Poker is, ultimately, about nothing more than maximising EV. If you don’t spend lots of time fiddling around with tools like Odds Oracle by ProPokerTools, which helps you figure out equities against weighted ranges, and Flopzilla, which helps you understand how different ranges connect with different board textures, then you can’t improve beyond a certain point.

Let me sum it up: inside your brain there is an old teacher who scratches his ass and encourages you to take shortcuts and ratta maro. Expel him.

Posted by Amit Varma on 12 March, 2015 in Poker | Range Rover | Sport

We Are All Sharks

This is the 36th installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

A few days ago, I was shooting the breeze with a friend of mine when he told me about a couple of business ventures he was planning, and the investors he’d lined up for them. ‘You won’t believe how gullible they are,’ he said. ‘If there’s one thing I’ve learned from poker, it’s how to find fish and exploit them. And there are so many fish in the business world.’

It’s a good thing I was sipping lemonade at the time and not my usual hot Americano, or I’d have singed myself. Having recovered from the shock of his statement, I shook my head sadly. Poker is a beautiful game, and it can teach you a lot about life. But the lesson my friend had learned was entirely the wrong one.

Poker is a zero-sum game. (A negative-sum game, in fact, if you’re playing a raked game.) The only way you can win money is if someone else loses it. So it’s natural that the key skill in poker lies in exploiting the mistakes of others, sometimes after inducing those mistakes in the first place. It is a mathematical exercise that plays on the frailties of human nature. The game is played by consenting adults, and as your opponents are also trying to exploit you and take your money, they’re fair game. But the real world works differently.

Life is a positive-sum game. This is most eloquently illustrated by what the libertarian writer John Stossel once described, in an old column, as the Double Thank You Moment. When you buy a cup of coffee at a café, you say ‘thank you’ when you are handed the coffee, and the person behind the counter says ‘thank you’ on receiving your money. Both of you are better off. Indeed, the vast majority of human transaction, including all business transactions, are like this. Both people benefit – or they wouldn’t be transacting in the first place.

This amazing phenomenon, which we take for granted, is responsible for the remarkable economic and technological progress of the last three centuries. The economies of nations across the world have grown in consonance with the rise of free markets within them. Think about it: if every transaction leads to both parties benefiting, and a consequent increase of value in the world, then the more people are free to transact, in whatever form, the more we progress as an economy and a society. This is why libertarians such as myself consider it a crime to clamp down on any kind of freedom, be it economic or social.

The positive-sumness of things is unintuitive, and many people reflexively speak of the world in zero-sum terms. For example, socialists, with all their talk of ‘exploitation’, the rich getting richer at the expense of the poor and the need for redistribution. But that is not how the world works; it is not a game of poker. Just as in poker there is no possibility of a Double Thank You Moment, in life, we can all be sharks.

So much for learning the wrong lesson from poker. What does poker teach us about life that is useful to us? Well, the most important lesson I have learnt from poker is not to be results-oriented. Luck plays a huge role in the short term, you only get what you deserve in the long run, so just focus on doing the right thing and don’t worry about the fruits of your actions. The Bhagawad Gita teaches the exact same lesson. Lord Krishna would have crushed the games.

Posted by Amit Varma on 26 February, 2015 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

It’s All a Gamble

This is the 35th installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

Some people, when I tell them I play poker, look at me kind of strange. They may not say it, but inside their heads they’re saying, ‘OMG, he’s a gambler!’ And because I am skilled at getting inside people’s heads and listening to them think, inside my head I’m sayin’, ‘Yeah, and guess what, OMG OMG, you’re a gambler too!’

What is it that gamblers do? They weigh up the odds of a particular situation or event, the risk-to-reward ratio, and make a bet. This is not something that just happens inside casinos; this is the stuff of life.

You walk up to someone you fancy and ask them out for a date: you are gambling. You buy a stock: you’re betting on it to go up. You sell a stock: you’re betting on it to go down. You buy real estate: gamble. You buy a book because you like the blurb and the cover is amazing: ditto.

Little in life is certain, and everything is scarce, because time itself is scarce. You have one life, and the smallest decision you take today could change the course of your life. Maybe you have to choose between the PHD abroad or the comfortable job at home. Maybe you have to decide whether to say ‘yes’ to your boyfriend’s proposal when you know he’s not the dream guy, and you’re settling, and he hit you once when he was angry, but who knows if you’ll ever do better because you’re chubby, and you do love him sometimes. Maybe you get a puppy, betting that the love you get for a decade or so will be worth the pain you feel when it dies, as is inevitable. Everything you do, big or trivial, may be worth it, or it may be a mistake. And the thing with real life is, you’ll never know where the road not taken would have led. But you have to gamble; you have to choose.

Poker is slightly different. Poker is also gambling but it involves repeated small decisions with relatively little on the line on any particular occasion. And importantly, you get to put in volume. Even though luck plays a greater role in poker than in other sports or mindgames, it is not gambling gambling: if you’re skillful, you will eventually make a profit. Good poker players keep making, on average, profitable decisions, and though luck (or variance, as we grizzled vets call it) may hit them hard in the short run, in the long run they will end up winners. In life, on the other hand, as Keynes said, in the long run we’re dead.

A poker player can play a million hands or 20,000 tournaments, and those sample sizes are pretty good. You don’t get those in real life. How many times will you enter a romantic relationship? How often can you switch jobs? You get the drift.

There are different types of gambling. There are casino games like roulette, baccarat and craps in which, in the long run, you’re guaranteed to lose. I disapprove of playing those; it’s just giving money away. Then there’s life itself. You’re forced to gamble by circumstance, but it’s okay, life’s a positive-sum game; though one could argue that since we all die in the end, the final sum is zero. At least until then the odds aren’t weighed against you. And then there’s poker, in which, unlike in life, we can put in volume and bring the long run close. So, you, who do not play poker, don’t make fun of us and call us gamblers. All of us are born in a casino, and will die in one.

Posted by Amit Varma on 12 February, 2015 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

Deep Thought

This is the 34th installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

I discovered poker as a grown adult approaching middle age, but I was a hustler in college as well. I was a decent chess player, and used to offer a prop bet to people with the following terms: ‘I will play 10 games with you, and will win all ten. If you even draw one, you win the bet.’ I never made this bet with anyone I’d seen on the circuit, thus guaranteeing that all my customers were patzers, and unlike in poker, the quantum of luck in chess is low enough that I won this bet every time I made it. One of my early victims, dazzled by my magisterial play, asked me what the difference between me and him was. ‘How many moves ahead do you think?’ he asked. ‘The same as you,’ I replied.

A famous study by Adriaan de Groot published in 1946 showed that, contrary to what you might expect, novices and expert players think more or less the same number of moves ahead. The difference in quality arises because the experts think the right moves ahead. Their candidate moves for analysis, in other words, are better moves to begin with. Their skill lies not in depth of analysis, but in understanding the nature of a position, which, in turn, comes from better pattern recognition. A grandmaster will look at a position not as a conglomeration of individual pieces, but in chunks of pieces that form recognisable patterns. He will understand the positional vulnerabilities of different kinds of patterns, and the tactical motifs that recur in these spots. In a spot where a novice thinks ‘If I threaten this piece, he’ll move it here to counter me,’ the grandmaster may think, ‘His pawn structure has weakened his dark squares, let me exploit that weakness and exchange off my weak white-squared bishop for his strong knight on c6.’ Guess who is more likely to win.

Why do I write about chess in a poker column? Well, there is exactly the same difference between beginning poker players and experienced ones. Beginners think in terms of what hand they have and how it connects with the board, and graduate to this from thinking about their opponent’s hand, and from there to considering what hand the opponent puts them on. But good players think not in terms of hands but ranges. They never ask, in any spot, ‘Am I ahead here?’ but ‘What is my equity here?’ and ‘How can I maximise my EV?’ They have a better sense of how specific ranges interact with different board textures, and can plan for future streets.

For example, let’s say you call with KJ on the button after a nit raises UTG, and the flop comes 876 two-tone. A beginner may give up when the nit c-bets, but a pro will usually continue in the hand and take down the pot with either immediate or future aggression, because the flop texture is terrible for the UTG’s range of big pairs and high cards, and most turns and rivers are bad for him. Indeed, this will be practically a reflexive decision for the pro, requiring no thinking at all. He would play this hand better than the novice not because his reads are better or he has a better poker face or suchlike, but because he understands the underlying math better.

Here’s one thing common to both chess and poker: the bad player does not know what he does not know. So here’s a tip on how to get better at both games: play a hell of a lot, and stay humble. The day you stop learning, you will be the fish at the table.

Posted by Amit Varma on 29 January, 2015 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

Poker at Lake Wobegon

This is the 33rd installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

One of the ironies of poker is that at a nine-handed poker table, all nine players believe that they are profitable, if not the best player at the table. This obviously cannot be the case. Poker is a negative-sum game: the rake takes a percentage of each pot or tournament, and winners win less than what losers lose. Also, easily more than 90% of players are long-term losers, and most of the winners are just marginal winners. So what’s going on here?

I have two answers for you: 1. The nature of poker as a game. 2. Human nature itself. Let’s get the easy one out of the way.

Every game contains differing elements of luck, and although poker is unquestionably a game of skill, the quantum of luck in it is far higher than in other games. A winning player’s edge translates into a profit only in the long-term. Over a short span of time, it is difficult to tell from results who is the fish and who the shark. Losers win their fair share of pots and tournaments, which fosters the belief that they are better than they really are. But their flawed self-assessment is a consequence not just of the nature of poker, but of human nature itself.

A few decades ago, the writer Garrison Keillor created a fictional town named Lake Wobegon, where, he wrote, “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” This gave its name to the Lake Wobegon Effect, also known as Illusory Superiority, a tendency humans have of overestimating their abilities. This tendency crops ups across contexts: in studies, people have been known to overestimate their driving skills (everyone can’t be above average) and terminally ill cancer patients have also, poignantly, overestimated their chances of survival.

You will see the Lake Wobegon Effect in poker, as also its sister, the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Wikipedia defines the Dunning-Kruger Effect as ‘a cognitive bias wherein unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than is accurate. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their ineptitude.’

In the context of poker, a player may think he is better than he is because he lacks understanding of the game, or the intellectual tools to perceive his own weaknesses. I see this around me in many players. They don’t understand the long-term nature of the game, focus only on their own hand and don’t think in terms of ranges or equities, are results-oriented rather than process-oriented, and consider pots they win to be a validation of their skill while attributing their losses to bad luck. Some of these guys avoid putting in the hard work to get better, and rationalise this sloth; some of them are simply not capable of improving. This is not a defect in character any more than being human is.

How can you guard against the Lake Wobegon Effect and the Dunning-Kruger Effect in yourself? Here are two things you can do. One, always ask yourself what your edge is in any game you go to. If you can’t define this precisely in terms of how you are exploiting the specific weaknesses of others, you don’t have an edge. Two, keep track of all your scores, and see how much money you make over a decent sample size of sessions. Your brain might deceive you—but the numbers won’t lie.

Posted by Amit Varma on 15 January, 2015 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Science and Technology | Sport

The Myth of the Made Hand

This is the 32nd installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

There is no term in poker that is as dangerous for the novice player as ‘made hand.’ Newcomers to poker divide all hands into two categories: made hands and drawing hands. If they have hit a pair or better, they say they have a made hand. If they are drawing to a flush or a straight, they call it a drawing hand. This is a terrible way to think about poker, especially when it informs your decision-making. For example, some players I know find it hard to fold a made hand, and never raise with a drawing hand because they ‘haven’t gotten there yet.’ This is fundamentally flawed thinking.

To explain myself, let me present a couple of axioms to you.

One: Every Drawing Hand is a Made Hand: There is one term that should dominate your thinking all through the course of a hand: equity. On any street except the river, equity refers to your share of the pot if every possible combination of outcomes was accounted for. Beginners think of a made hand as one that is 100% there, and a drawing hand as one that isn’t there yet. But if you look at equities, most of the time a made hand just has a big share of the pot, and is sometimes even behind the drawing hand. Consider, for example, that on a board of A67 with the 67 being spades, 89ss will win a pot against AK 52.6% of the time. Which is the made hand, then? What does the term, ‘made hand’ even mean? How much equity does a hand need to qualify as a made hand?

If 89ss has more equity there than AK, is 89ss a made hand? If not, why is AK, which has less equity? Where do you draw the line? At AsTs, pair and flush draw (46% against AK)?  QJss, the bare flush draw (32%)? The gutty T8 (22%)? What about AQ (16%), an otherwise fine ‘made hand’ that is a ‘drawing hand’ against AK because there’s a better ‘made hand’ around. Consider, in fact, that AQ, which is 16% against AK, is 83% against AJ and 55% against a range of all sets, Ax hands, and plausible flush and straight draws. So how would you classify it?

Two: Every Made Hand is a Drawing Hand: Unless your opponent is drawing dead after you flop a royal flush or quads, every made hand is a drawing hand in the sense that it is drawing to bricks. Not just that, on the flop, against a drawing hand, it is drawing to runner-runner bricks. This is why AK is behind 89ss on that Ax6s7s flop. This is why, in PLO, a hand like AK45r is so shitty on a 367 two-tone board. You have flopped the nuts – the ultimate made hand, one would think –  but if you’re up against two guys, and one has a higher wrap-FD (T985ds) and the other has top set with backdoor FD, your equity in the hand is, sit down before you read this, 7.5%. That’s right, you flop the nuts, go all in joyfully, and win just 1 in 13 times because your runner-runner brick draw is just so unlikely. Your best made hand is actually the worst drawing hand here.

Made hands, drawing hands, these terms melt into one another and mean nothing anyway. When you play poker, you should think of nothing but equity. Whether you have 80% equity on the flop, or 49% or 23%, your aim is to have 100% by the time the hand ends. Sometimes you do this at showdown – but a lot of the time, you do this by making the other guy fold, so that his share of the pot becomes yours. To do this, you need to understand his range, your equity against his range, and your fold equity against him (ie, how likely he is to fold to your aggression). As James Hetfield famously said after a 22-hour cash-game session, nothing else matters.

Posted by Amit Varma on 01 January, 2015 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

Turn it into a Bluff

This is the 31st installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

I played an interesting hand the other day that I would have played differently three years ago. The game was nine-handed, stacks were deep, and I had KTdd on the button. A loose player raised UTG +1, MP2 called, cutoff called, I called on the button and the blinds called. The flop came K72 with two spades and a club. (The king was a spade.) Original raiser checked, MP2 bet, cutoff folded, I called, small blind overcalled, the others folded. Both MP2 and SB are straightforward players, and MP2 check-calls flush draws in this spot, so he certainly had at least a King. Given position and his bet in a multiway pot, he probably a stronger king than mine. SB’s overcall disappointed me, because he is not the kind to mess around here with A7 or 99, and had either a king here or a flush draw. And if he had a king, it had to be stronger than mine.

The turn was the ace of spades. The flush got there, as did an overcard to the king. Both of them checked. At this point, the novice in me from three years ago would have checked back, thinking I had showdown value. But my read here was that my hand simply could not be good against both these guys, and I needed to turn it into a bluff to win the pot. I bet big, and they both folded, saying that they had KQ, and MP2 whined about how I always get lucky on the turn. So of course I showed him my hand, putting him on tilt, and he later stacked off to me. Yum yum.

Well, here’s one of the most useful lessons I learnt through my journey in poker: showdown value is overrated. Too often, we take a passive line with medium-strength hands thinking we have showdown value, so why inflate the pot? But there are two circumstances where it might be profitable to take a different approach. One, when we can bet those hands for thin value and get called by worse often enough for it to be profitable. Two, when we can turn it into a bluff and profitably make better hands fold, like in the above instance.

Often, on an early street, we adopt a particular mindset for a hand and don’t modify it as the hand progresses. For example, we get into pot-control or bluff-catcher mode on the flop, where that might indeed be justified, but fail to shift gears on a later street when it becomes profitable to do so. There are all kinds of situations where it makes sense to turn our made hand into a bluff. Maybe we 3b in position with JTs, the flop comes QJ3r, we call a donk bet, turn K, call again, river T and villain checks. Our two pair is often beat here, and better hands can fold given we are plausibly repping the ace, and depending on the opponent it is sometimes correct to check back and often correct to bomb river. Similarly, in PLO, we could bang the river when a flush completes to get a straight to fold, even though we have showdown value with a set that didn’t fill up.

That said, you should be clear about your reasons in turning a made hand into a bluff, and not do so just because raising makes you feel macho. In the live games I play, I often see players make testosterone-laden raises in spots where no better hand folds and no worse hand calls. Do not burn money in this manner. Remember, it is better to be rich than manly.

Posted by Amit Varma on 11 December, 2014 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

The Bird and the Elephant

This is the 30th installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

One of the most important skills for a professional poker player, it is often said, is knowing when to get up. When exactly should we quit a session? Should we have a stop loss? Should we get up as soon as we reach a pre-decided profit? Should we play X number of hours, no more, no less? What are the factors that determine how long we sit at a particular table?

The rational answer to this is clear. We should continue in a game as long as it is +ev to do so, and get up as soon as we feel we’re no longer profitable on the table. How much we are up and down should not matter. We need to think of all poker games we play as being essentially one lifelong session, and the score on any one day should not affect our decision. At any given point, all we need to ask ourselves is: Is my staying on this table a +ev decision? Whether you are stuck 3 buyins or up 4 should not be a factor in that decision.

In practice, this advice is not that easy to carry out. For example, I have a tilt problem, and shift from my A-game to my C-game if I’m losing a lot and fatigued, playing recklessly and trying to recover. Tilt has perfect timing and usually comes towards the end of sessions, when stacks are deep and mistakes are costly. I am obviously not +ev when I tilt – but tilt not only shatters my emotional equilbrium, it also affects my judgement. I rationalise continuing in the game, though I really should be getting up.

To prevent this, I have set a stop-loss for myself. When I hit that stop-loss, I quit the game, regardless of how calm I feel, because tilt could be just around the corner. This is not something I recommend to you if tilt is not a factor in your play, and you make decisions with as much clarity 15 hours into a game and 10 buyins down as you do at the start of the session. But how many of us can manage that? If you do have a tilt issue, and tend to magnify your losses by chasing them, a stop-loss might be a handy tool.

When I am winning, on the other hand, I usually sit till the end of the session. There was a time when, at a particular game, I would play for six hours every day and then leave, because I’d begin to get tired. As I’d mostly win, I got a bit of a reputation for hitting and running, though this was not my intent. So, as a point of principle, I started sitting till the end of every session, and realised that this made a lot of sense because stacks are deepest at the tail end of sessions, many other players are tired and tilted and more prone to errors, and that is when my edge can really turn a hefty profit. If fatigue affects your play, of course, you should factor that in and leave before your edge dissipates and you’re the fish on the table. But tilt and fatigue aside, there are no good reasons to quit a juicy game.

One big mistake I see some players make is win small and lose big. They become taala-chaabi and book their profit as soon as they’re one or two buyins up, but continue buying in when they’re down, trying desperately to recover, and lose far more than they win in a winning session. In his book, Elements of Poker, Tommy Angelo quoted a friend of his named Cowboy Bill as describing one such player, ‘He eats like a bird and shits like an elephant.’ Make sure you do it the other way around.

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 November, 2014 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

The Cigarette Case

This is the 29th installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

One of my favourite stories about chess has a lesson in it for poker players. A few decades ago, the great Aron Nimzowitsch was playing in a chess tournament when his opponent took out a cigarette case and placed it on the table in front of him. Nimzowitsch, who couldn’t stand cigarette smoke, called the tournament director to complain.

‘He has not lit a cigarette and there is no smoke,’ said the TD. ‘So your complaint is noted, but it is not valid.’

‘I know,’ replied Nimzowitsch, ‘but he threatens to smoke, and you know as well as I do that in chess the threat is often stronger than the execution.’

In poker, too, the threat is stronger than the execution. The most obvious example of this this is the concept of Leverage. Let’s say you open from late position with KJs to 4bb. The button calls, with effective stacks of 150bb. The flop is a dry K74r. You bet 5.5bb into 9.5, your opponent raises to 16. You call. The turn is a Q. You check. Your opponent bets 30 into 41.5. What do you do here?

Unless your opponent is super-spazzy, it’s hard to continue. If this bet closed the action, you might consider calling this 30bb bet – but it doesn’t. This bet carries the threat of a further bet that involves the rest of your stack: 100bb more into a pot of 101.5. So you don’t just have to decide whether to commit 30bb more, but 130bb more. You are unlikely to want to play for stacks with just a single pair.

This is leverage: the threat of future bets in a pot that is growing exponentially bigger. In the above example, your opponent bet 30bb to put you at a decision for 130bb. Maybe had you called 30bb on the turn, he would have checked back the river, giving up on some random bluff he was trying. But maybe he wouldn’t have. It doesn’t matter whether or not he would have lit that cigarette – the cigarette case was on the table.

Leverage can apply at any street except the river, of course. A 3b from a good aggressive player in position who is likely to keep barrelling postflop. A check-raise on the flop. Most of the time, though, you really feel leverage on the turn, when pots are getting big, stack-to-pot ratios are dwindling, and you have to decide how far you want to go in a hand. In the deep-stacked games that I play, I have found that it is on the turn that players make the biggest mistakes: whether that involves calling, folding or just going nuts and spazzing.

The threat you represent does not even have to be a result of your betting in a particular hand; it can arise out of your reputation. If you have a reputation for check-raising rivers a lot, your opponents might give you easy showdowns in position. If the turn check-raise is known to be a part of your arsenal, your opponents, in position, might not bet for thin value or charge you to draw on the turn like they otherwise would. Of course, your threats have to be credible, and against thinking players, your ranges should be somewhat balanced. If every check-raise of yours on the river is with the nuts, then your opponent will know that he is not making a mistake by bet-folding there for thin value. You need to mix it up to induce errors. You want your opponent to throw his hands up and say, ‘Yeh kya khelta hai? Main tho baukhla gaya hoon?’

The bottomline: to constantly pose a threat to your opponents, and to thus unsettle them and induce mistakes, you have to be aggressive. A study a few years ago looked into 103 million hands on Pokerstars and found that more than 75% of them never reached showdown. Think about what this means – and put that cigarette case to use.

Posted by Amit Varma on 13 November, 2014 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

The Importance of Profiling

This is the 28th installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

Poker at its heart is mathematical, I often argue, and everything else is secondary. You put your opponent on a range, calculate your pot equity against that range, estimate fold equity and then make the most profitable decision. But the math will get you nowhere if you input the wrong values. You first have to put your opponent on the correct range. And you have to accurately estimate your fold equity against him. To do this, you need to get inside his head, you need psychology. Although psychology without math is directionless, math without psychology is pointless, as you’ll end up with the wrong numbers.

This doesn’t apply if you’re playing Game Theory Optimal (GTO), of course, where your opponent’s tendencies are irrelevant as long as you’re playing balanced ranges, and the math is all that matters. But you’ll only ever need to play GTO at the highest levels of online cash games. In your everyday poker life, you’re best served playing exploitable poker, looking to make money from your opponents’ mistakes and avoiding making too many yourself. Player profiling is hugely important in this context. The better your powers of observation, recall and inference, the more money you will make in the game.

I’ve been running very good recently at a local online game, where PLO is all the rage. The key to my winnings is taking copious notes on every opponent I play. I note down practically every significant thing I see any opponent do. Every time I identify a tendency – any tendency – in an opponent’s play, I’ve caught a weakness I can exploit.

For example, Player A always bets pot on the river when he’s bluffing and 2/3 pot when he’s betting for value.  Player B almost always calls one barrel and almost never the second. Player C loves to float out of position with air and will donk-pot the turn if any scare card hits or any draw completes, and will barrel ¾ on the river if called. Player D goes pot-pot-pot when you check to him because he thinks you must be weak and who cares what he’s repping, maybe he’s not even looking at the board. Player E pot controls too much and never bets for thin value, even checks K-high backdoor flush on an unpaired board on the river, which polarises his range when he does make a river bet, and makes your decisions that much easier.

Once you start identifying these tendencies, they become easy to exploit. Against Player A, I once called a pot-sized river bet with 8766ss on a board of T94TA (two-tone on flop but flush not completing) and my sixes were good. I usually double-barrel against Player B, which is an insanely profitable play because of his warped frequencies.  Players C and D increase the variance of the game, but give you tons of value as long as you don’t get tempted to call them down too thin, which can be a leak in itself. And I make thinner river calls against Player E than against others, because while he may be polarised, he definitely isn’t balanced.

The last month has been unusual for me: my bread-and-butter game is live NLHE, where, again, profiling is everything, and most players don’t do it assiduously enough. The biggest mistake a live player can make is to switch off after he has folded a hand, and not keep observing the action and making mental notes. In poker, every nugget of information counts, so I’d advise you to always stay tuned in during a game. Remember, the most profitable seat at a poker table is inside your opponents’ heads.

Posted by Amit Varma on 29 October, 2014 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

The Endowment Effect

This is the 27th installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

There’s something strange that happens to me quite frequently. A friend will ask me for advice on a hand, and I’ll dispassionately tell him what I think is the correct course of action, and the reasons why. For example, while playing PLO he calls a raise in a 3-way pot from the big blind with 9876ds, with spades and hearts, and the flop comes JT2 with two spades and a heart, for a wrap and flush draw. My friend, huffing and puffing with excitement, bets, the next guy repots, the third guy further repots all in. What is my friend to do? It’s an easy fold, I say, because while he has a universe of outs, none of them make him the nuts. With so much action, the likely range of hands he’s up against include higher wraps and flush draws (like AKQ9ds), as well as sets, and against this range he’s crushed like Yokozuna sat on him. ‘Easy fold, you shouldn’t shame yourself by even thinking about it,’ I say, all clear and rational. And yet, I have found that while I give sound advice as an uninvolved observer, I do some incredibly stupid things when I myself am in a hand, especially when it comes to not folding. It’s like Amit the Player and Amit the Poker Thinker are two separate people. Why is this so?

Part of the reason, of course, is that we’re human, and humans crave action and dopamine, and that makes us rationalise doing silly things. Also, our brains are wired in a way that makes us reluctant to fold a hand – any hand. To be specific, we suffer from what behavioural economists term ‘The Endowment Effect.’

The term, first coined by the economist Richard Thaler in 1980, refers to the phenomenon where we value something we own more than we would if we did not own it. For example, in a 1984 study by Jack Knetsch and JA Sinden, participants were randomly given either a lottery ticket or US$ 2. After a while, they were given the option to trade their ticket for the money or the other way around. Most of them refused the switch, having come to value their randomly allotted gift more than the alternative. A famous 1990 study by Daniel Kahneman, Knetsch and Thaler offered a similar demonstration. In Kahneman’s words: “Mugs were distributed randomly to half the participants. The Sellers had their mug in front of them, and the Buyers were invited to look at their neighbour’s mug: all indicated the price at which they would trade. […] The results were dramatic: the average selling price was about double the average buying price.”

You can see illustrations of this all around you. Ask anyone which car to buy and they’ll recommend the model they own. I suspect that many Apple fans who rave about iPhones and diss Android are displaying the Endowment Effect – besides rationalising and validating their own purchasing decisions, of course. (Vice versa also, though I use Android and it really is better.) I have seen it at the poker table when, after the cards are dealt, a player absent-mindedly reaches out for his neighbour’s cards. Nonononono, goes the neighbour, those are mine, thereby displaying an irrational attachment to them even though the distribution is random and he doesn’t even know what they are yet.

More commonly, you see the Endowment Effect in action when a player, to use an old cliché, ‘gets married to his hand’. The most common leak in the world of poker, by far, is that people don’t fold enough. This is understandable; we’re programmed not to let go. That is our endowment –  and we must fight it.

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For more of my poker columns, do check out the Range Rover archives.

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 October, 2014 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

The Tournament Lottery

This is the 26th installment of my now fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

I write these words at the end of a three-week period in which 100,000 dreams have been crushed. The World Championship of Online Poker (WCOOP), a three-week festival of poker on Pokerstars, has drawn to a close. It featured 66 tournaments, with a total prize pool of almost US$62 million. The Main Event, which just got over, had a buyin of US$5200, with the winner getting US$1.3 million. That’s a cool Rs 8 crore. It’s the stuff of dreams – but most of the over 120,000 people who played the WCOOP were net losers. Just a handful of people won big.

The poker boom was kickstarted 11 years ago when Chris Moneymaker won the World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event in Las Vegas for US$2.5 million. He’d won his way into the tournament via an online US$39 satellite, and this fairy-tale story riveted the world. Combined with a glut of televised poker tournaments, like the World Poker Tour, featuring hole cards and taking viewers straight into the heart of the action, it led to poker becoming one of the most popular games on the planet. Online poker exploded, home games sprouted up in every city in the world, and millions of people play the game today. The common dream: to finish first in one of the marquee events, like the WSOP or WCOOP main events, and make lifechanging money. (The WSOP main event winner this year gets a cool US$10 million.)

Beginning players tend to be more drawn to tournaments than cash games, despite the success of the cash game show High Stakes Poker. I usually advise recreational players to play mainly tournaments, because this restricts their possible losses while allowing them to indulge in the game they love. And I advise serious students of the game to study cash games, which require greater skill because of deeper stacks, and also feature less variance. Indeed, variance is the key reason why playing professional tournament poker is a hazardous line of work. Tourney variance is off the charts.

To begin with, the rake in a tourney is between 7% to 10%, which accumulates over time and bleeds you dry. Around 15% of the players make it to the money (and top players cash around 15% of the time), but the big money only starts at the final table, and especially the top 3. Winning a tourney has even been described as the biggest bad beat in poker, because you outlast every other player who played but just get between 15% to 25% of the money. And no matter how skillful you are, to go deep in a field of 1000 people requires a lot of luck: winning more flips than is your due, evading coolers, hitting cards at the right time, again and again and again. If you have an edge that’s big enough to beat the rake, it only manifests itself in the long term. Indeed, a sample size required to accurately judge a player’s skill could run into the tens of thousands of tournaments.
The modus operandi of the online tourney pro is to put in volume to counter the variance and bring the long run closer. (Note that live players simply cannot put in meaningful volume.) The typical rhythm of a tourney player’s life is to lose a lot, get a big score, rinse and repeat. And when those scores don’t come, they go broke. This is also why most pros are part of large staking stables. Collectively, the greater the volume, the more likely those big scores become.

Many of my friends are tourney grinders, and it’s a frustrating life. Unlike for cash game pros, most sessions are losing sessions. With relatively shallow stacks, everything is standard, and most pros play the same way. Once you reach a certain level of competence, you just sit and wait to get lucky. Every tournament, seen on its own, is a lottery. And the wheel, it spins round and round.

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For more of my poker columns, do check out the Range Rover archives.

Posted by Amit Varma on 02 October, 2014 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

The Second Game of Dice

This is the 25th installment of my weekly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

The Mahabharata is an amazing piece of storytelling. It was written at least 2400 years ago and it still resonates today in India. One story that speaks to me strongly is of the time when Duryodhana and Shakuni invited Yudhishthira to a game of dice.

Accepting an invitation to play dice with an opponent, using his dice, surely has negative expected value. (One version has it that the dice were made out of the bones of Shakuni’s father, whose spirit resided in the dice and did as he wished. That’s a marked deck if there ever was one.) Yudhishthira gave some spiel about how it was the dharma of a Kshatriya to accept all challenges, but this sounds like rationalisation to me. I think he had a gambling problem. He craved dopamine.

Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that the brain releases every time an addict gets a dose of anything he’s addicted to: a hit of cocaine, a peg of alcohol, a throw of the dice. This makes gambling addiction similar to drug addiction or alcohol addiction. Basically, you become a slave to brain chemistry. You might know, at a rational level, that you should get up and leave, but you can’t stop yourself. And so it was for Yudhishthira. He lost his kingdom, his brothers, his own self, and finally he lost Draupadi. (The misogyny in the Mahabharata is staggering, but leave that aside for now.) He must have been devastated at this point, and you’d expect him to lose all respect for himself.

Somehow, in a turn of events that involved a never-ending saree, a blind king and no dice, Yudhishthira got lucky, and everything he lost was returned to him. At this point you’d imagine that this man, held up as a paragon of wisdom and virtue, would realise that he had a weakness for the game, which was his strategic vulnerability, and resolve never to play again. But no. Duryodhana, upset by the reprieve his father Dhritarashtra had given the Pandavas, invited Yudhishthira for another game. Yudhishithira accepted the invitation. The stakes were that the losers would go into exile, and so off went the Pandavas.

It is that second game of dice that astonishes me. Yudhishthira’s behaviour during the first game was appalling, but understandable: he was a slave to dopamine, and too weak to stop the unravelling. But when that session was over, you’d expect him to introspect and never play again. However, rationalising furiously, he went for that second game. The force of his addiction took his family down with him and, eventually, in the events that unfolded,  all the characters of the Mahabharata. (The bloodshed in that book makes Game of Thrones seem like a Rajshri production.)

I see Yudhishthira every day at the poker table. On one hand, poker is a complex game that requires analytical rigour and psychological acuity; on the other, it is a game of dice that can destroy lives. Most players I meet lose money over the long run; but most of them are recreational players who can take the hit, and can control their losses. Many, however, are addicts. I’ve seen fortunes wiped out, marriages destroyed, once-proud men become shadows of themselves, helpless, needy, pathetic. Even as you sit across the table trying to take their money, you sometimes grow to like them. I have, at different times, counselled a couple of them over breakfast and coffee to give up the game, stop throwing good money after bad, to put their lives together. ‘You are addicted,’ I say. ‘Go cold turkey. Give your wife all control of finances, your ATM cards, your cheque books, so even if you want to play, you can’t.’

Both of them agreed with me and nodded their heads. They knew they were addicts. But they could not fight it, and they have both gone back to gambling, for that second game of dice. I feel helpless writing this, but there’s only one way this story can end: as it did with Yudhishthira, in epic sadness.

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Also read:

The Dark Game
The Game Outside the Game
Sweet Dopamine

Posted by Amit Varma on 24 September, 2014 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

The Interpreter

This is the 24th installment of my weekly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

If there is one quality that distinguishes humans from other species, it is our arrogance. We think we are masters of the universe – but really, we are not even masters of our own selves.

In the 1960s and ‘70s, the cognitive neuroscientists Michael Gazzaniga and Roger Sperry carried out a series of studies on split-brain patients that are now legendary in the field. One of the treatments for severe epilepsy is to cut the corpus callosum, the collection of neural fibres that connects the two hemispheres of the brain. This results in what is known as a split brain, when the two halves of the brain cannot communicate with each other. (In popular psychology, the left brain is considered to control rational thought while the right brain is more intuitive and creative. This is a simplification, but a useful one.) Gazzaniga and Sperry’s experiments aimed to find out what consequence this had on behaviour, and what it revealed about the brain.

The good doctors separated the visual fields of the two hemispheres, and flashed an instruction to the right hemisphere. In one example: “Walk”. The subject got up and started walking. When asked why he suddenly got up and started walking, he replied, “To get a Coke,” – and here’s the remarkable thing: he actually believed that was the reason. Time after time, across instructions, across split-brain subjects, the docs found that the right hemisphere responded to one thing and the left hemisphere, having no way of knowing what the right brain was responding to, would rationalise the actions the person took.

Steven Pinker, in his influential book The Blank Slate, referred to these experiments and called the conscious mind “a spin doctor, not the commander in chief.” Gazzaniga himself referred to the left brain as merely “the interpreter.” VS Ramachandran wrote in Phantoms in the Brain, “[t]he left hemisphere’s job is to create a belief system or model and to fold new experiences into that belief system. If confronted with some new information that doesn’t fit the model, it relies on Freudian defence mechanisms to deny, repress or confabulate – anything to preserve the status quo.”

Consider this possibility: we do many things, some would even argue all things, driven by forces we can’t control. We are slaves of our wiring, our brain chemistry, of impulses and drives we may not even be aware of. Our left brain, our ‘spin doctor’, our ‘interpreter’, neatly rationalises all this and comes up with reasons for everything we do. Why are we walking? Because we want a Coke. There’s a reason for everything we do; but it’s not necessarily the real reason, even if we believe it to be so.

This brings up the obvious question of the existence of free will, and Gazzaniga actually wrote a fascinating book about this, Who’s in Charge: Free Will and the Science of the Brain. (Contrary to what you might expect, he actually makes a case for free will.) But that is a complex philosophical subject that is beyond the ambit of this column, which, after all, is about poker.

All the time, on the poker table, I see players articulate reasons for actions that sound just like the bullshitting of the left hemisphere. I see addicts, chasing one more dopamine rush, playing every hand, but rationalising any particular call. (“I was in position.” “I thought I’ll outplay him postflop.” “What if I hit?”) I see them making terrible calls because they’ve gotten attached to their hands and can’t let go, and give silly reasons after the fact. (“He was polarised there.” “He often bluffs, I have history with him.”) I see them unable to get up from sessions when they should book their hefty profits, and ditto when they should just book their losses. (“The table was so juicy, I thought I will clean it up/recover.”) I see players not in control of themselves, and with reasons for everything.

So when you play poker, or do anything at all in your life for that matter, watch out for the interpreter at work. Always ask yourself hard questions, and remember, the easy answers are usually wrong.

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For more of my poker columns, do check out the Range Rover archives.

Posted by Amit Varma on 17 September, 2014 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Science and Technology | Sport

Magnus Carlsen’s Weakness

This is the 23rd installment of my weekly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

Last week was an extraordinary one in the world of chess. The strongest tournament of all time, the Sinquefield Cup, the first ever with an average rating of 2800, came to an end. Six of the top ten players in the world, including the top 3, played each other in a double round robin. The young Italian-American Fabiano Caruana destroyed the field with an incredible score of 8.5 out of 10 rounds, including wins in his first seven games, which is a ridiculous streak in a tournament of this strength.  He finished three whole points ahead of second-placed Magnus Carlsen, the World Champion.

Carlsen, still World No. 1 and the highest ranked player of all time, didn’t take it well. Through the tournament, whenever he was asked about Caruana’s streak, he made the requisite graceful noises but added caveats. For example: “What he’s done here is absolutely incredible. But we shouldn’t completely forget what’s happened the last four years.” When asked before their round 8 encounter if he now felt he was the underdog – Caruana was 7 out of 7 at that pointCarlsen said he didn’t see himself as an underdog, “because I’m a better player.” Caruana’s streak came to an end in that game, but Carlsen just about managed to hold on to a draw.

To add to this, Carlsen played well below his usual clinical best, which augurs well for Viswanathan Anand, who plays him in a World Championship rematch in November. Carlsen is an impeccable technician, in terms of ability probably the greatest chess player who has ever lived, and certainly the favourite in the rematch. But Anand’s greatest opportunity lies not in Carlsen faltering on the board, but in disintegrating inside his own head. I think we saw Carlsen’s weak spot during the Sinquefield Cup. To use poker terminology, he has tilt issues.

In his landmark book, The Mental Game of Poker, sports psychologist Jared Tendler defines ‘tilt’ as “anger + bad play.” In short, you lose your mental equilibrium and start playing below your best, often making big mistakes. Tilt is caused by many different factors, and Tendler defines seven types of tilt. The one that I believe Carlsen suffers from is called ‘Entitlement Tilt.’

Entitlement tilt comes about when you believe that you should be winning more than you are, and you start tilting because you are being denied your due. In Tendler’s words, “Winning is a possession and you tilt when someone undeserving takes it from you.” So you could be at a game where you are clearly the best player, but the run of the cards leaves you five buyins down while the two biggest donkeys at the table are up 10 buyins each, and even though you know, rationally, that in the long run you will all get what you deserve, you are still upset about the situation. So you tilt, start playing badly, and suddenly you are the fish at the table.

My sense, from watching Carlsen over the last week, is that he’s been hit by entitlement tilt. It was hard for him to watch Caruana dominate the field in a manner that Carlsen believes only he should, and this affected both his emotional equilibrium and his play. This is where Anand’s opportunity lies in November. If he can hit Carlsen early and take the lead, Carlsen might go on entitlement tilt. Rather than stay calm and just play every game optimally, he might let his emotions affect his play. Poker players, when on tilt, move from their A-game to their C-game. Anand cannot match Carlsen’s A-game – but he can crush his C-game.

So come November, you might just see Anand, unlike in the first match, eschew the kind of quiet positional lines that Carlsen thrives in and go for high-risk-high-reward tactical lines to get Carlsen out of his comfort zone. If he manages to strike the opening blow, the gap in ratings and ability will not matter. In the normal course of things, Anand is unlikely to beat Carlsen. But he can help Carlsen beat himself.

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For more of my poker columns, do check out the Range Rover archives.

Posted by Amit Varma on 10 September, 2014 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

Keep Calm and Carry On

This is the 22nd installment of my weekly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

Writers like watching other people – part of our job description is to understand human nature – and there are few better places to do that than at a poker table. We have captive subjects, sitting in one place for many hours at a time, subject to massive emotional swings, and mostly with their guard down except, once in a while, when they are in a big hand and try to be stoic and impenetrable. Watching a poker game is like watching a reality show, except that the participants don’t display the occasional self-consciousness that a camera might provoke.

One of the things that most fascinates me in long sessions is how people behave differently depending on their stack sizes. If they’re winning and stacked up, they tend to be talkative and cocky and in a generally merry mood. When they’re losing, they can be upset, irritable, silent, sometimes even angry. Although short-term swings in poker are largely determined by luck, winners can be arrogant and advise others on how to play hands, as if their immediate good fortune is related to their skills, and losers can be sullen, diffident and negative. Comically, all this can be inverted within seconds. You could have a 4000bb pot at the end of which the guy who was winning is suddenly stuck for the day, and the erstwhile loser has recovered and made a profit. And snap, their demeanour changes as well, and the arrogant prick from a few minutes ago is now sitting with his shoulders slumped and his lips pouted, and you almost want to ruffle his hair and give him a bone.

This is how it is in the real world as well, for the poker table is a microcosm of life. The psychologist Paul Piff from UC Berkeley recently gave a TEDx talk about a number of social experiments he and his colleagues carried out. In one, they got 100 participants in their lab to play a rigged game of monopoly. Players were randomly assigned the roles of ‘rich player’ and ‘poor player’, and the rich player got “two times as much money,” “twice the salary” when they passed Go, and “got to roll two dice instead of one.” As you’d expect, the rich players started crushing the poor ones, purely due to the luck of the draw at the start. And their behaviour changed.

In Piff’s words, “One person clearly has a lot more money than the other person, and yet, as the game unfolded, we saw very notable differences and dramatic differences begin to emerge between the two players. The rich player started to move around the board louder, literally smacking the board with their piece as he went around. We were more likely to see signs of dominance and nonverbal signs, displays of power and celebration among the rich players. […] One of the really interesting and dramatic patterns that we observed begin to emerge was that the rich players actually started to become ruder toward the other person, less and less sensitive to the plight of those poor, poor players, and more and more demonstrative of their material success.”

At the end of the game, when interviewed, these rich players “talked about what they’d done to buy those different properties and earn their success in the game, and they became far less attuned to all those different features of the situation, including that flip of a coin that had randomly gotten them into that privileged position in the first place.”

Déjà vu, some? This is exactly how people behave in the real world, allowing privilege to give them a sense of superiority and entitlement. The consummate poker professional is immune to this, and does not allow himself to be affected by temporary swings, whether they last a few hours or a few sessions. He is always in the moment, trying to simply do the right thing. This is how he gets the most out of poker. And this is how we can get the most out of life. Don’t let success get to your head or failure get you down. Keep calm and carry on.

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For more of my poker columns, do check out the Range Rover archives.

Posted by Amit Varma on 03 September, 2014 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

The Five Commandments of Pot Limit Omaha

This is the 21st installment of my weekly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

Four years ago, when I started playing poker seriously, the games in India were incredibly soft. If I knew then what I know now, I would have made a fortune. Most players had either discovered poker on Zynga, or transitioned from teen patti. They either gambled it up, or played ABC poker. If you knew just the fundamentals, you could beat the game. I’m talking about No Limit Hold ‘Em (NLHE), of course.  That game has moved on a bit since then—but the new NLHE in India is PLO, or Pot Limit Omaha. Everyone’s just learning this variant of poker, the standard of play is low, and you can crush the tables by getting the basics right.

Last week, I spoke about the first key insight I learnt about PLO: that you need to be selective about the hands you play, keeping in mind their post-flop playability. This week, I bring you five essential tips that should help you beat the easy PLO games spread in India, where most pots are multiway and many players play 70% to 100% of hands. (Yum yum.) Here are the Five Commandments of Pot Limit Omaha.

One: Draw to the nuts. The biggest pots in PLO are nut full house vs smaller fullhouse. You have A987ds, the board comes K997A, and you stack off to KKxx. Similarly, set-over-set, flush-over-flush and nut straight vs sucker straight are also common situations where you can win and lose big pots. Therefore, it is foolish to play small pairs for their own sake, and smaller rundowns also make sucker straights too often. And when you draw, be aware of how many of your outs are to the nuts. You don’t want to chase a draw, hit the draw, and get stacked. So understand hand structures: T986, with a gap at the bottom, will have far more nut wraps than T876, with the gap at the top. And JT98 will hit six times as many wraps as JT92, with a dangler. Do some homework, study these structures and play accordingly. (I recommend Jeff Hwang’s books and Vanessa Selbst’s videos on Deuces Cracked.)

Two: Respect Position. People play way more straightforward in PLO than in NLHE, and lead out for protection much more, so the information you get in position is more reliable. Even when you bet after being checked to and get check-raised, you are far less likely to get check-raised in PLO with air. This is a post-flop game, and position is paramount. Respect it, and be super-tight out of position (OOP). An illustration: if you have 76xx rainbow and hit the nuts on a two-tone flop of 985, you are in deep trouble OOP. Opponents who continue will have wraps to higher straights, flush draws and sets. Most turn and river cards are bad for you, with offsuit A to 4 being the only bricks, and you need runner-runner brick. In position, you could pot control, and value-bet thin on the river even when the nuts change. Out of position, you’re all set up to make a mistake on a future street.

Three: Respect suitedness. PLO is all about redraws, and even backdoor flush draws add important equity to your hand. For example, let’s say on a board of QJTr, you have AK98ds with two backdoor flush draws. Your opponent also holds AK98, but he’s offsuit. You will win the pot 9% of the time, and the rest of the time it will be chopped. That’s a huge edge in the long run. Every backdoor flush adds around 4% equity to your hand, and in a game where one often sees set vs wrap-and-flush-draw all in on the flop, suitedness matters. On the same note, avoid offsuit hands, and don’t stack off with wraps on two-tone boards without a flush draw.

Four: Be aggressive. There are two ways to win in poker: by reaching showdown and letting your equity manifest itself; and by making the other guy fold and avoiding showdown. The key to winning big in PLO is being aggressive. Every time you jam a draw and make two pair or bottom set fold, you make money. Add fold equity to your pot equity, and your profits will shoot up, as long as you don’t overestimate either. Don’t go buckwild and raise-reraise every hand – you need significant pot equity to begin with, in PLO, and the first commandment about nut draws applies.

Five: Manage your bankroll. PLO is a high-variance game, and downswings, which are statistically inevitable, can be much more brutal than in NLHE. You’re playing a long-term game of percentages, so don’t enter a game you’re not adequately rolled for. There’s no point being the best player at a game where a downswing can wipe you out, leaving you without the funds to re-enter the game. You’ll just be banging your head on the sidelines, moaning about bad beats as donkeys gamble it up with each other.

These fundamental principles apply to easy games filled with beginners, which is what you’ll get in India right now. Keep doing your homework, and you’ll find yourself falling in love with this elegant, complex game. As a Chinese friend once told me, “Two cards good. Four cards better.”

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For more of my poker columns, do check out the Range Rover archives.

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 August, 2014 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

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