Lessons from poker party

In the past I’ve drawn lessons from contract bridge on this blog – notably, I’d described a strategy called “queen of hearts” in order to maximise chances of winning in a game that is terribly uncertain. Now it’s been years since I played bridge, or any card game for that matter. So when I got invited for a poker party over the weekend, I jumped at the invitation.

This was only the second time ever that I’d played poker in a room – I’ve mostly played online where there are no monetary stakes and you see people go all in on every hand with weak cards. And it was a large table, with at least 10 players being involved in each hand.

A couple of pertinent observations (reasonable return for the £10 I lost that night).

Firstly a windfall can make you complacent. I’m usually a conservative player, bidding aggressively only when I know that I have good chances of winning. I haven’t played enough to have mugged up all the probabilities – that probably offers an edge to my opponents. But I have a reasonable idea of what constitutes a good hand and bid accordingly.

My big drawdown happened in the hand immediately after I’d won big. After an hour or so of bleeding money, I’d suddenly more than broken even. That meant that in my next hand, I bid a bit more aggressively than I would have for what I had. For a while I managed to stay rational (after the flop I knew I had a 1/6 chance of winning big, and having mugged up the Kelly Criterion on my way to the party, bid accordingly).

And when the turn wasn’t to my liking I should’ve just gotten out – the (approx) percentages didn’t make sense any more. But I simply kept at it, falling for the sunk cost fallacy (what I’d put in thus far in the hand). I lost some 30 chips in that one hand, of which at least 21 came at the turn and the river. Without the high of having won the previous hand, I would’ve played more rationally and lost only 9. After all the lectures I’ve given on logic, correlation-causation and the sunk cost fallacy, I’m sad I lost so badly because of the last one.

The second big insight is that poverty leads to suboptimal decisions. Now, this is a well-studied topic in economics but I got to experience it first hand during the session. This was later on in the night, as I was bleeding money (and was down to about 20 chips).

I got pocket aces (a pair of aces in hand) – something I should’ve bid aggressively with. But with the first 3 open cards falling far away from the face cards and being uncorrelated, I wasn’t sure of the total strength of my hand (mugging up probabilities would’ve helped for sure!). So when I had to put in 10 chips to stay in the hand, I baulked, and folded.

Given the play on the table thus far, it was definitely a risk worth taking, and with more in the bank, I would have. But poverty and the Kelly Criterion meant that the number of chips that I was able to invest in the arguably strong hand was limited, and that limited my opportunity to profit from the game.

It is no surprise that the rest of the night petered out for me as my funds dwindled and my ability to play diminished. Maybe I should’ve bought in more when I was down to 20 chips – but then given my ability relative to the rest of the table, that would’ve been good money after bad.

Auctions of distressed assets

Bloomberg Quint reports that several prominent steel makers are in the fray for the troubled Essar Steel’s assets. Interestingly, the list of interested parties includes the promoters of Essar Steel themselves. 

The trouble with selling troubled assets or bankrupt companies is that it is hard to put a value on them. Cash flows and liabilities are uncertain, as is the value of the residual assets that the company can keep at the end of the bankruptcy process. As a result of the uncertainty, both buyers and sellers are likely to slap on a big margin to their price expectations – so that even if they were to end up overpaying (or get underpaid), there is a reasonable margin of error.

Consequently, several auctions for assets of bankrupt companies fail (an auction is always a good mechanism to sell such assets since it brings together several buyers in a competitive process and the seller – usually a court-appointed bankruptcy manager – can extract the maximum possible value). Sellers slap on a big margin of error on their asking price and set a high reserve price. Buyers go conservative in their bids and possibly bid too low.

As we have seen with the attempted auctions of the properties of Vijay Mallya (promoter of the now bankrupt Kingfisher Airlines) and Subroto Roy Sahara (promoter of the eponymous Sahara Group), such auctions regularly fail. It is the uncertainty of the value of assets that dooms the auctions to failure.

What sets apart the Essar Steel bankruptcy process is that while the company might be bankrupt, the promoters (the Ruia brothers) are not. And having run the company (albeit to the ground), they possess valuable information on the value of assets that remain with the company. And in the bankruptcy process, where neither other buyers nor sellers have adequate information, this information can prove invaluable.

When I first saw the report on Essar’s asset sale, I was reminded of the market for footballers that I talk about in my book Between the buyer and the seller. That market, too, suffers from wide bid-ask spreads on account of difficulty in valuation.

Like distressed companies, the market for footballers also sees few buyers and sellers. And what we see there is that deals usually happen at either end of the bid-ask spectrum – if the selling club is more desperate to sell, the deal happens at an absurdly low price, and if the buying club wants the deal more badly, they pay a high price for it.

I’ve recorded a podcast on football markets with Amit Varma, for the Seen and the unseen podcast.

Coming back to distressed companies, it is well known that the seller (usually a consortium of banks or their representatives) wants to sell, and is usually the more desperate party. Consequently, we can expect the deal to happen close to the bid price. A few auctions might fail in case the sellers set their expectations too high (all buyers bid low since value is uncertain), but that will only make the seller more desperate, which will bring down the price at which the deal happens.

So don’t be surprised if the Ruias do manage to buy Essar Steel, and if they manage to do that at a price that seems absurdly low! The price will be low because there are few buyers and sellers and the seller is the more desperate party. And the Ruias will win the auction, because their inside information of the company they used to run will enable them to make a much better bid.

 

Football transfer markets

So the 2017 “summer transfer window” is going to close in three days’ time. It’s been an unusual market, with oddly inflated valuations – such as Neymar going for ~ €200 million from Barcelona to PSG, and Manchester City paying in excess of £50 million each for a pair of full backs (Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy).

Meanwhile, transfers are on in the NBA as well. Given that American sporting leagues have a rather socialist structure, there is no money exchanged. Instead, you have complicated structures such as this one between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics:

 by trading Kyrie Irving (pictured, left), their star point guard, to the Boston Celtics. In exchange, Mr Altman received a package of three players headlined by Isaiah Thomas (right), plus a pick in the 2018 entry draft

A week back, renowned blogger Amit Varma interviewed me for his The Seen and the unseen podcast. The topic was football transfers, something that I talk about in the first chapter of my soon-to-be-published book. In that, he asked me what the football transfer market might look like in the absence of price. And I mentioned that PSG might have had to give up their entire team in order to buy Neymar in that situation.

Anyway, listen to the entire podcast episode here.

Oh, and I don’t know if I mentioned it here before, but my book is ready now and will be released on the 8th of September. It’s being published by the Takshashila Institution.

You can pre-order the book on Amazon. For some reason, the Kindle India store doesn’t have a facility to pre-order, so if you live in India and want to read the book on Kindle, you’ll have to wait until the 8th of September. Kindle stores elsewhere already allow you to pre-order. Follow the link above.

Betting by other means

In India, officially, sports betting is illegal. Of course, there are lots of “underground” betting networks which we will not go into here. This post, instead, is about a different kind of “betting” on sports.

I’ve long maintained that Mahendra Singh Dhoni is grossly overrated as a cricket captain. While he did win that ICC World T20 in 2007 (back then his captaincy was pretty good), since then he’s shown himself to be too conservative as a captain. In that sense, I’m glad he retired from Tests (thus relinquishing captaincy as well) in 2014, paving the way for the more aggressive Virat Kohli to lead.

Even in limited overs games, I’ve maintained that while in the past he’s been instrumental in orchestrating chases, that ability is now on the wane, with last night’s choke being the latest example of him botching a chase. Earlier this year as well, he choked a chase in Zimbabwe. There are more such examples from the IPL as well.

Given last night’s fuck-up, I think it’s a great time to replace him as captain for limited overs games. I’m not hopeful of this happening, though, and this is in part due to the “betting at another level” that happens in elite sport.

Back in 2011 or 2012, a hashtag called #SachinRetire started making the rounds on Twitter. The context was that with the 2011 world cup having been won, it was a great opportunity for Sachin Tendulkar to retire on a high note. He continued playing on, though, in the hope of hitting “100 100s in international cricket”, the result of which was mostly mediocre cricket on his part.

Tendulkar’s 100th 100 finally came a year after his 99th, in an Asia Cup match against Bangladesh. He scored at a strike rate of 78, in a match India lost. A lot of the blame for the loss can be put on his slow rate of scoring, and consequently, on the 100th 100 hype.

It was another good opportunity to retire, but he continued playing, until a special Test series was organised in 2013 so that he could retire “at home”.

The dope in sports circles in those days was that while Tendulkar himself was keen to go, there were plenty of endorsements he was involved in, and those sponsors would have had to take a loss if he retired. Thus, the grapevine went, he had to take his sponsors into confidence and “prepare them” in order to choose an opportune time to retire.

Endorsements and sponsorships are the “other kind of betting” I mentioned earlier in the post. As soon as a sportsperson “makes it”, there is a clutch of brands who wants to cash in on his popularity by asking him to endorse them. The money involved makes it a good deal for the sportsperson as well.

By choosing to sponsor a sportsperson and getting him to endorse their brand, sponsors are effectively taking a bet on the player’s career – the better the player’s career goes, the greater the benefit for the brand from the sponsorship deal. In case the player’s career stalls, or he is caught in a scandal, the brand also suffers by association (think Tiger Woods or Maria Sharapova).

The concern with betting on sports in India is that bettors might try to influence the results of matches they’ve bet on, by possibly fixing them. This, along with “protecting the poor punter” are reasons why betting on sports is banned in India.

The problem, however, is that with this “other kind of betting” (sponsorships), the size and influence of the bettors (sponsors) means that there is a greater chance of the bettors seeking to influence the results of their investments.

A sponsor, for example, will not be happy if their “sponsee” is left out of his team, for whatever reason. Any negative impact on the sponsee’s career, from being dropped, to being demoted from captaincy to being sold to a “lesser club” negatively affects the brand value of the sponsor (by association).

And so, in cases where it’s possible (I can’t imagine a sponsor trying to influence Jose Mourinho’s decision, for example), the sponsor will try to influence selection decisions where it might benefit them. So Tendulkar’s sponsors will lobby with selectors to keep him in the team. Dhoni’s sponsors will lobby to keep him as captain. And so forth.

I’m not advocating that some kind of regulation be brought in to curb sponsors’ influence – any such regulation can only be counterproductive. All I’m saying is that betting already exists in Indian cricket, except that rather than betting on matches, bettors are betting on players! And so there is no real argument to ban “real” sports betting in India.

At least in that case, sponsors will be able to hedge their investments in the market rather than seeking to influence the powers behind the sport!

 

When Jesus fails to cross

Ever since I watched Spain in the 2010 Football World Cup, I’ve been fascinated by what I’ve since called the “Jesus Navas model“. In game theoretic terms, it can be described as a “mixed strategy”.

In that tournament, when the normal tiki-taka strategy failed to break down opposition, Spanish manager Vicente Del Bosque would send on (then) Sevilla winger Jesus Navas. Navas would hug the right touchline and fling in crosses. So the opposition defence which would have otherwise been massed in the middle of the pitch to counter the tiki-taka now had to deal with this new threat.

Based on Spain’s success in that tournament (despite them winning most of their games by only a single goal), the strategy can be termed to be a success. The strategy is also similar to how Kabaddi is typically played (at RSS shakhas at least), where six defenders form a chain to encircle the attacker, but the seventh stays away from them to lure the attacker further inside.

I revisited this Kabaddi-Jesus Navas model some 2-3 years back, during the last days of the UPA government, when senior Congress leader Digvijaya Singh made a series of comments that ran afoul of the party’s stated strategy.

I’d described Digvijaya as “Congress’s official lunatic”, who had been authorised by the party’s high command to take stances contrary to the main party line. The advantage with this strategy, I had reasoned, was that there was one “official looney form of dissent”, which the party rank and file who wanted to dissent could follow.

At that time, I had pointed out that the then-opposition BJP had lacked such an “official lunatic”, because of which there were too many “fringe elements” associated with the party which ended up damaging the party’s prospects.

I don’t know if anyone in the BJP had read that post of mine, but they presently recruited Subramanian Swamy, who, in 1999, had been responsible for bringing down the BJP-led government. While the induction of Swamy into the party didn’t make intuitive sense, it was clear that he was being brought in to be the party’s official lunatic.

From all measures, he seems to have done rather well. The BJP’s looney fringe has rallied around him, and instead of having different fringes representing different ideas, the fringe has now been united. Swamy’s policies are crazy enough to attract the craziest of the fringe, and for those who find him too crazy, there’s always the mainstream party to back.

The problem for the BJP, however, has been that the “official lunatic” has now become too powerful. When Spain put on Navas, it was one guy who represented the alternate strategy – the rest were all committed to tiki-taka. In the BJP’s case, the official lunatic has got much more weight in the party.

And as Raghuram Rajan’s exit, and the attacks on leading finance ministry officials show, Swamy has actually started getting his way, with the rather large looney fringe cheering him onwards. The question is how the BJP should deal with this.

The obvious solution is to appoint a new official lunatic, one who is lunatic enough to attract the fringe, but no so popular as Swamy to have a following that rivals the mainstream party. A Digvijaya Singh equivalent would do well, but such “moderate lunatics” are hard to find. And even if one is found, the question is how the party can move the looney fringe to backing the new official lunatic.

Even worse, if a new official lunatic is appointed, the party will have to (at least temporarily) deal with two internal official lunatics, not an enviable task by any means. And if they decide to expel the incumbent official lunatic, there is the risk of alienating his (now rather large) support base!

It seems like there is no way out of this mess for the BJP! Sometimes copying policies from political rivals may not work out that well!

More football structuring

I’ve commented earlier on innovative structuring of football player contracts, with call options and put options and all other exotic options being involved. Now I see another interesting transfer structure, this time in the contract of Juventus (and Spain) striker Alvaro Morata.

In 2014, Real Madrid sold Morata to Juventus for a transfer fee of €20 million, but the sale had a “buy back clause”. Embedded in the sale was an option for Real Madrid to buy back Morata at any time for €30 million, and now it seems like they’re exercising it!

While this might be based on Morata’s performances (both for Juventus and Spain) in the last couple of years, the interesting thing about the buyback is that Real Madrid are unlikely to keep hold of Morata. Instead, talk is that they plan to sell him on, with PSG and Manchester United being interested in the forward.

Effectively the deal is something like “as long as Morata’s perceived market value is  < €30M, Juventus can keep him, but once his perceived market value goes up, all the upside goes to Real Madrid”. The downside (in case Morata regressed as a player and his market value went below €20M), of course, remained with Juventus. To put it simply, Madrid is exercising its call option on the player.

While loan agreements have earlier had clauses such as “right but obligation to make deal permanent” or “obligation but not right to make deal permanent”, this is the first time I’m seeing an actual transfer deal with this kind of a clause, which is being exercised. So why did Juventus and Real Madrid hammer out such a complicated-looking structure?

For Juventus, the simple answer is that the option they wrote reduced the cost of buying the player. While they have given up on significant upside in writing this call option, this is what perhaps made the purchase possible for them, and in some ways, it’s worked out by giving them two more Scudetti.

The answer is less clear from Real Madrid’s perspective. Clearly, the fact that they got a call option meant that they believed there was a significant chance of Morata improving significantly. At the point of time of sale (2014), however, he was surplus to their requirements and they believed sending him elsewhere would help in this significant improvement.

It is possible that the market in 2014 wasn’t willing to bear the price implied by Real Madrid’s expectation of Morata’s improvement, but was only willing to pay based on his then abilities and form. In other words, while Morata’s current abilities were fairly valued, his future abilities were grossly undervalued.

And Madrid did the smart thing by unbundling the current and future values, by structuring a deal that included a call option!

Again, this is only my speculation of how it would have turned out, but it’s indeed fascinating. Given how global financial markets are performing nowadays, it seems like structuring of football deals is now far more interesting than structuring financial derivatives! But then the market is illiquid!

Stephen Curry and mixed strategies

Ever since I learnt recently about the rise of Stephen Curry, and Golden State Warriors’ rise using a three-point strategy, my interest in basketball and the NBA has gone up. I still can’t watch a game – the randomly spaced ad-breaks are too mindfucking for that. But I’ve been reading a lot more about Curry and Golden State Warriors and Joe Lacob of KPCB.

There are two ways in which you can attack in basketball – you can either keep tiki-takaing and drive in to get close to the basket to layup/dunk or you can go for a three-pointer. We can think of each basketball attack as a “game”, where the offensive team decides to go for either the three-point or the tiki-taka, and the defensive team decides how to defend against it.

I won’t bother with drawing the payoff table here, but given research on similar “games” in sports (such as penalty kicks in football), it wouldn’t be hard to guess that the dominant strategy here is the “mixed strategy”, where a team chooses at random whether to tiki-taka or long range.

Over time, this would have led to a certain proportion of the time when the team would have decided to take long shots, and defences would have adapted accordingly (defence against a mixed strategy is also a mixed strategy).

What Curry’s extraordinary three-point shooting skills have done is that they’ve completely changed the payoffs for his team, but significantly increasing the payoff of the three-point strategy. So the Warriors have adapted their strategy accordingly, by going for the three-point game more often than the tiki taka game.

And my sense is that Curry’s shooting statistics are so much better than others’ that the proportion with which the Warriors go with the three-point strategy (as the game theoretic solution suggests) is significantly higher than the proportion with which other teams adopt such a strategy in attack.

Consequently, defences have failed to anticipate this change in the payoff matrix and defend like they do against other teams (whose mixed strategy hasnt changed). In other words, the Warriors’ opponents haven’t been playing the optimal strategy while playing against them. And this is what has led to their unprecedented 73-win NBA season.

With time, other teams are likely to adjust and adapt more optimal strategies. It’ll be interesting to see how the Warriors perform next season!