The Law is an Ape

I’ve always known that I have long arms relative to the size of the rest of my body. I think I discovered this sometime in the late 90s, around the time I both stopped growing vertically and started wearing full arm shirts. I remember being forced to buy shirts one size too large for my shoulders because otherwise the sleeves wouldn’t reach all the way down.

My father had the same problem as well, and so he wore shirts one size too large as well. Over time, I managed to find brands that fit both my shoulders and my arms properly (the Aditya Birla stable is good for this -Loius Phillippe, Van Heusen, etc. Arrow never fits me). And then I took to getting my formal shirts tailored. Last year I bought a bunch at Gap, after I found that they fit me well.

Only recently, while I was trying to analyse my performances at the gym, that I realised that my long arms might be affecting stuff apart from my attire as well. For the longest time now, I’ve been trying to learn to power clean, and have never quite managed it.

The power clean involves, among other things, holding the bar with your arms outstretched where it touches the fold in your waist (where your torso meets your groin). The idea is that as you pull the bar up past your thighs, you make it touch the fold in your waist while performing a “triple extension” and jumping, and that will power the bar up.

And I recently discovered that I can’t make my bar touch the fold of my waist unless I hold it really really wide, like you do for a snatch. “Maybe I have long arms”, I thought, and then remembered my troubles with buying shirts.

And then I started wondering if I could quantify if I actually had long arms. Looked around a little and found that there is the concept of the “wing span” or “arm span“. I figured how to measure it, and got my wife to measure it for me. It’s 192 cm. My height is between 179 and 180 cm. This means my arm span is 12-13 cm, or nearly 5 inches longer than my height.

Most humans have their arm spans about the same as their height, or just a little longer. According to this article, my long arms mean that I could have been an elite basketball player or a swimmer, since these sports are good for people with long arms. That perhaps explains why I was a decent defender in basketball in school, though I was among the least athletic people you could find.

I kept looking, and reading articles. I thought of myself as being “the Law” (long arms, get it?). And then I came across this measure where rather than subtracting your height from your arm span, you take the ratio. The ratio of your arm span to your height is called “ape index“.

Most humans have an ape index close to 1. NBA players have an average ape index of 1.06. My ape index is higher than 1.07. Shortly after she had measured my arm span, I told my wife about this. “Well, I always knew you were an ape”, she said.

So yes, for my height I have really long arms. This means I find it hard to buy shirts that fit me. This also means I find it relatively easier to deadlift. Long arms also mean that I find movements where I have to lock out my hands upwards, like the bench press or the overhead press, really difficult. Maybe this explains why I have piddly bench and overhead numbers compared to my squat or deadlift? Long arms also make it harder to do pull ups, which possibly explains why completed my first ever pull up in life at 37.

You could think I am the law. You could also think I am an ape. Or maybe, the law is an ape?

The first heart attack

Gerard Houllier is no more. The man who led Liverpool to the “cup treble” in 2001 passed away following a heart operation. Supporters of the club might remember that he had had yet another heart operation when he was managing Liverpool, and the impact of that heart attack on the club was serious.

I’m reusing a graph that I’d put here a couple of years back. This shows Liverpool’s Elo Rating (as per clubelo.com) over the years, with managers’s reigns being overlaid on top.

Notice the green region towards the right – it says “Houllier”, and it has one massive up and one massive down. Actually I’m going to re-upload this graph to blow up the Premier League period.

Liverpool’s Elo Rating in the Premier League period

Now you can see that there are two separate regions marked “Gerard Houllier”, with a small gap that says “Phil Thompson”. This gap represented Houllier’s first heart operation. Notice how, before his heart operation, Liverpool had been on a massive upswing, on their way back nearly to the levels where they had started off in the Premier League (they had last won  the league in 1990; compare to the first graph here).

And then the heart attack, and heart operation happened. Houllier’s assistant Phil Thompson took over and held things (here is Thompson’s tribute to Houllier). And then Houllier came back and he and Thompson became joint managers (the “orange” region here). And Liverpool’s rally was gone. The 2001-2 season was gone.

Looking at this graph, with the full benefit of hindsight, Houllier’s sacking in 2004 (to be replaced by Rafa Benitez) seems fully justified. And then notice the club’s steep fall under Benitez after Xabi Alonso got sold in 2009.

I’ve said here before – these Elo graphs can be used to tell a lot of footballing stories.

Yet another initiation

I’m still reeling from the Merseyside derby. It had been a long time since a game of football so emotionally drained me. In fact, the last time I remember getting a fever (literally) while watching a game of football was in the exact same fixture in 2013, which had ended 3-3 thanks to a Daniel Sturridge equaliser towards the end.

In any case, my fever (which I’ve now recovered from) and emotional exhaustion is not the reason today’s match will be memorable. It also happens to be a sort of initiation of my daughter as a bonafide Liverpool fan.

 

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Initiating @abherikarthik to the Merseyside derby. #ynwa #lfc

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It’s been a sort of trend in recent times (at least since the lockdown) that Liverpool games have been scheduled for late evenings or late night India times.  That has meant that I haven’t been able to involve the daughter, who on most days goes to bed at seven, in the football.

She has seen me watch highlights of Liverpool games. She admires the “Liverpool. We are Champions” poster that I had ordered after last season’s Premier League victory, and have since stuck on the walls of our study. She knows I’ve been a fan of Liverpool for a long time now (it dates to more than eleven years before she was born).

However, till date, after she had truly started understand stuff (she is four now), we had never watched a game together. And so when it was announced that the Everton-Liverpool game would be held at 5pm IST, I decided it was time for initiation.

I had casually slipped it to her on Tuesday (or so) that “on Saturday, we will be watching football together. And we will have drinks and snacks along with it”. And then on Wednesday she asked me what day of the week it was. “So how many days to Saturday”, she asked. When I asked her what was special about the coming Saturday, she let out a happy scream saying “football party!!”. On the same day she had informed her mother that we both were “going to have a football party on Saturday”, and that her mother was not welcome.

She’s spent the last three days looking forward to today. At four o’clock today, as I was “busy” watching the IPL game, she expressed her disappointment that I had not yet started preparing for the party. I finally swung into action around 4:30 (though a shopping trip in the morning had taken care of most of the prep).

A popcorn packet was put into the microwave. The potato chips packet (from a local “Sai hot chips” store) was opened, and part of its contents poured into a bowl. I showed her the bottles of fresh fruit juice that I had got, that had been pushed to me by a promoter at the local Namdhari’s store. Initially opting for the orange juice, she later said she wanted the “berry smoothie”. I poured it into a small wine glass that she likes. A can of diet coke and some Haldiram salted peanuts for me, and we were set.

I was pleasantly surprised that she sat still on the couch with me pretty much for the length of the match (she’s generally the restless types, like me). She tied the Liverpool scarf around her in many different ways. She gorged on the snacks (popcorn, potato chips and pomegranate in the first half; nachos with ketchup in the second). She kept asking who is winning. She kept asking me “where Liverpool was from” after I told her that “Everton are from Liverpool”.

I explained to her the concept of football, and goals. Once in the second half she was curious to see Adrian in the Liverpool goal, and that she “hadn’t seen the Liverpool goal in a long time”. Presently, Dominic Calvert-Lewin equalised to make it 2-2, giving her the glimpse of the goal she had so desired.

At the end of the game, she couldn’t grasp the concept of a draw. “But who won?”, she kept asking. She didn’t grasp the concept of offside either, though it possibly didn’t help that Liverpool seemed to play a far deeper line today than they have this season.

I’m glad that she had such an interesting game to make her “football watching debut”. Not technically, of course, since I remember cradling her on my lap when Jose Mourinho parked two Manchester United buses at Anfield (she was a month old then), and that had been a dreadful game.

A friend told me that I should “let her make her own choices” and not foist my club affiliations on her. Let’s see where this goes.

 

Kneel down

When Colin Kaepernick knelt down during the national anthem, it was cool, and a strong sign of protest against racial violence in the United States. When other athletes, in the US and elsewhere decided to copy him (and did so on their own volition), it was cool as well.

What I find not so convincing is that after the Floyd murder earlier this year, sports organisations across the world decided to institutionalise the kneel down. When the English Premier League restarted after the covid-19 induced break, it was decided that all players and referees would kneel for a minute at kickoff.

Now it seems like it has been decided that the gesture will continue for the 2020-21 season as well – players and officials will take a knee for a minute at the beginning of each game. Of course, it has also been decided to make it “non-mandatory” – players who choose not to not join the protest will be free not to kneel.

The problem with the institutionalisation of the protest is that the protest loses its information content. Prior to the institutionalisation in June, if a player knelt, he/she was making a statement that he/she believed that “black lives matter”. Now that kneeling has become standard practice, there is no way for a player to convey this information.

Alternatively, it is possible now for a player to send out the opposite information (that he/she doesn’t believe in this protest) by refusing to join the protest. However, given the PR repercussions of such a move, it is unlikely that any player is going to take that stance (no pun intended).

Actually – by institutionalising the kneel, the protest level is getting changed, from individual players to leagues. I can see why the protest is going to be continued – it will be a continuing statement by the sporting leagues that they believe in the cause. However, individual players will not have the opportunity to show their protest (or dissent) any more.

I also wonder if and when this protocol is reversed, since it takes effort for some team or league to “bell the cat”. Even saying that “this is mere symbolism” is bound to attract wrath of protestors elsewhere, so teams are all caught in a Nash equilibrium where they continue to kneel down in protest.

And the longer this kneeling down protest continues, the more the meaning that it will lose. Rather than serving to make a statement, it will end up as yet another ritual.

Front Five, Back Five

I recently realised that there are two ways in which you can describe a team’s formation in football. The traditional way is to describe it in terms of the number of defenders, midfielders and attackers. 4-4-2 and all that (speaking of which, I don’t think I’ve mentioned here at all about The Paper, a new venture I’ve started with Suprio Guha Thakurta, where we dissect one piece of India business news every day. Subscribe here if you aren’t yet a subscriber. In yesterday’s edition, we used Inverting The Pyramid to describe India’s National Education Policy).

Back to football, so you can describe teams as 2-3-5, or 4-4-2, or 4-2-3-1, or whatever. However, in the last few months, maybe since Jose Mourinho took over at Spurs, I’ve discovered another way of describing a football team. It’s not that elegant, I must admit, and it takes more effort to describe it. This is what I call the “back five, front five” method.

In his early days at Spurs, Jose sort of surprised us by the way he set up the team. We all expected a 4-3-3 (or even a 4-2-3-1) given his history. It was still a nominal 4-2-3-1, but it was highly asymmetrical. Right back Serge Aurier was given license to attack, while left back Ben Davies stayed back. So the “front five” (players responsible for attack) were centre forward Harry Kane, wide left forward Heung Min Son, the attacking midfielders Dele Alli and Lucas Moura, and Aurier.

In other words, it was the 3-1 of the 4-2-3-1 and the right back that constituted the front five for Spurs under Jose. The remaining two defenders and two defensive midfielders were the “back five”, responsible for holding the position when the front five went on attack.

Now, Jose has tweaked his formation several times after this, but once I had seen this front five back five description, I couldn’t “unsee” it. Every team’s formation fit nicely into a front five and a back five.

Liverpool and Manchester City both play with nominal 4-3-3s, but that doesn’t tell you how different these teams are in the way they attack. Well, for both, the front line of three are all attackers, but the interesting thing is who joins them.

For Liverpool, it is the full backs Trent Alexander Arnold and Andy Robertson. The job of the entire midfield is to be part of the back five (though they do join attacks in turns), which makes their job very different from similar midfielders at other clubs. Check out this statistic, for example:

Manchester City (and Guardiola’s Bayern Munich before them) do it differently. For them, all the back four are part of the back five, assisted by one of the midfielders. The other two midfielders (most commonly, Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva in the last two seasons) are part of the attack (Pep  calls them “twin eights”).

Manchester United struggled for most of the season, trying out different formations and not being particularly good at it until they landed Bruno Fernandes in the winter break. That, along with the emergence of “wide striker” Mason Greenwood meant that they’ve since adopted a front-back policy similar to their City rivals. The resurgence after the pandemic break was spectacular.

So think about it – the reason nominally similar formations might play very differently, or why nominally different formations produce similar styles of play, is that they interpret the front five and back five differently. Maybe it doesn’t work for all teams, but this is a good framework to describe teams.

Scrabble

I’ve forgotten which stage of lockdown or “unlock” e-commerce for “non-essential goods” reopened, but among the first things we ordered was a Scrabble board. It was an impulse decision. We were on Amazon ordering puzzles for the daughter, and she had just about started putting together “sounds” to make words, so we thought “scrabble tiles might be useful for her to make words with”.

The thing duly arrived two or three days later. The wife had never played Scrabble before, so on the day it arrived I taught her the rules of the game. We play with the Sowpods dictionary open, so we can check words that hte opponent challenges. Our “scrabble vocabulary” has surely improved since the time we started playing (“Qi” is a lifesaver, btw).

I had insisted on ordering the “official Scrabble board” sold by Mattel. The board is excellent. The tiles are excellent. The bag in which the tiles are stored is also excellent. The only problem is that there was no “scoreboard” that arrived in the set.

On the first day we played (when I taught the wife the rules, and she ended up beating me – I’m so horrible at the game), we used a piece of paper to maintain scores. The next day, we decided to score using an Excel sheet. Since then, we’ve continued to use Excel. The scoring format looks somewhat like this.

So each worksheet contains a single day’s play. Initially after we got the board, we played pretty much every day. Sometimes multiple times a day (you might notice that we played 4 games on 3rd June). So far, we’ve played 31 games. I’ve won 19, Priyanka has won 11 and one ended in a tie.

In any case, scoring on Excel has provided an additional advantage – analytics!! I have an R script that I run after every game, that parses the Excel sheet and does some basic analytics on how we play.

For example, on each turn, I make an average of 16.8 points, while Priyanka makes 14.6. Our score distribution makes for interesting viewing. Basically, she follows a “long tail strategy”. Most of the time, she is content with making simple words, but occasionally she produces a blockbuster.

I won’t put a graph here – it’s not clear enough. This table shows how many times we’ve each made more than a particular threshold (in a single turn). The figures are cumulative

Threshold
Karthik
Priyanka
30 50 44
40 12 17
50 5 10
60 3 5
70 2 2
80 0 1
90 0 1
100 0 1

Notice that while I’ve made many more 30+ scores than her, she’s made many more 40+ scores than me. Beyond that, she has crossed every threshold at least as many times as me.

Another piece of analysis is the “score multiple”. This is a measure of “how well we use our letters”. For example, if I start place the word “tiger” on a double word score (and no double or triple letter score), I get 12 points. The points total on the tiles is 6, giving me a multiple of 2.

Over the games I have found that I have a multiple of 1.75, while she has a multiple of 1.70. So I “utilise” the tiles that I have (and the ones on the board) a wee bit “better” than her, though she often accuses me of “over optimising”.

It’s been fun so far. There was a period of time when we were addicted to the game, and we still turn to it when one of us is in a “work rut”. And thanks to maintaining scores on Excel, the analytics after is also fun.

I’m pretty sure you’re spending the lockdown playing some board game as well. I strongly urge you to use Excel (or equivalent) to maintain scores. The analytics provides a very strong collateral benefit.

 

Shooting, investing and the hot hand

A couple of years back I got introduced to “Stumbling and Mumbling“, a blog written by Chris Dillow, who was described to me as a “Marxist investment banker”. I don’t agree with a lot of the stuff in his blog, but it is all very thoughtful.

He appears to be an Arsenal fan, and in his latest post, he talks about “what we can learn from football“. In that, he writes:

These might seem harmless mistakes when confined to talking about football. But they have analogues in expensive mistakes. The hot-hand fallacy leads investors to pile into unit trusts with good recent performance (pdf) – which costs them money as the performance proves unsustainable. Over-reaction leads them to buy stocks at the top of the market and sell at the bottom. Failing to see that low probabilities compound to give us a high one helps explain why so many projects run over time and budget. And so on.

Now, the hot hand fallacy has been a hard problem in statistics for a few years now. Essentially, the intuitive belief in basketball is that someone who has scored a few baskets is more likely to be successful in his next basket (basically, the player is on a “hot hand”).

It all started with a seminal paper by Amos Tversky et al in the 1980s, that used (the then limited) data to show that the hot hand is a fallacy. Then, more recently, Miller and Sanjurjo took another look at the problem and, with far better data at hand, found that the hot hand is actually NOT a fallacy.

There is a nice podcast on The Art of Manliness, where Ben Cohen, who has written a book about hot hands, spoke about the research around it. In any case, there are very valid reasons as to why hot hands exist.

Yet, Dillow is right – while hot hands might exist in something like basketball shooting, it doesn’t in something like investing. This has to do with how much “control” the person in question has. Let me switch fields completely now and quote a paragraph from Venkatesh Guru Rao‘s “The Art Of Gig” newsletter:

As an example, take conducting a workshop versus executing a trade based on some information. A significant part of the returns from a workshop depend on the workshop itself being good or bad. For a trade on the other hand, the returns are good or bad depending on how the world actually behaves. You might have set up a technically perfect trade, but lose because the world does something else. Or you might have set up a sloppy trade, but the world does something that makes it a winning move anyway.

This is from the latest edition, which is paid. Don’t worry if you aren’t a subscriber. The above paragraph I’ve quoted is sufficient for the purpose of this blogpost.

If you are in the business of offering workshops, or shooting baskets, the outcome of the next workshop or basket depends largely upon your own skill. There is randomness, yes, but this randomness is not very large, and the impact of your own effort on the result is large.

In case of investing, however, the effect of the randomness is very large. As VGR writes, “For a trade on the other hand, the returns are good or bad depending on how the world actually behaves”.

So if you are in a hot hand when it comes to investing, it means that “the world behaved in a way that was consistent with your trade” several times in a row. And that the world has behaved according to your trade several times in a row makes it no more likely that the world will behave according to your trade next time.

If, on the other hand, you are on a hot hand in shooting baskets or delivering lectures, then it is likely that this hot hand is because you are performing well. And because you are performing well, the likelihood of you performing well on the next turn is also higher. And so the hot hand theory holds.

So yes, hot hands work, but only in the context “with a high R Square”, where the impact of the doer’s performance is large compared to the outcome. In high randomness regimes, such as gambling or trading, the hot hand doesn’t matter.

Games of luck and skill

My good friend Anuroop has two hobbies – poker and wildlife photography. And when we invited him to NED Talks some 5 years ago, he decided to combine these two topics into the talk, by speaking about “why wildlife photography is like poker” (or the other way round, I’ve forgotten).

I neither do wildlife photography nor play poker so I hadn’t been able to appreciate his talk in full when he delivered it. However, our trip to Jungle Lodges River Tern Resort (at Bhadra Wildlife Sanctuary) earlier this year demonstrated to me why poker and wildlife photography are similar – they are both “games of luck AND skill”.

One debate that keeps coming up in Indian legal circles is whether a particular card game (poker, rummy, etc.) is a “game of luck” or a “game of skill”. While this might sound esoteric, it is a rather important matter – games of skill don’t need any permission from any authority, while games of luck are banned to different extents by different states (they are seen as being similar to “gambling”, and the moralistic Indian states don’t want to permit that).

Many times in the recent past, courts in India have declared poker and rummy to be “games of skill“, which means “authorities” cannot disrupt any such games. Still, for different reasons, they remain effectively illegal in certain states.

In any case, what makes games like poker interesting is that they combine skill and luck. This is also what makes games like this addictive. That there is skill involved means that you get constantly better over time, and the more you play, the greater the likelihood that you will win (ok it doesn’t increase at the same rate for everyone, and there is occasional regression as well).

If it were a pure game of skill, then things would get boring, since in a game of skill the better player wins every single time. So unless you get a “sparring partner” of approximately your own level, nobody will want to play with you (this is one difficulty with games like chess).

With luck involved, however, the odds change. It is possible to beat someone much better (on average) than you, or lose to someone much worse (on average). In other words, if you are designing an Elo rating system for a game like poker, you need to change players’ ratings by very little after each game (compared to a game of pure skill such as chess).

Because there is luck involved, there is “greater information content” in the result of each game (remember from information theory that a perfectly fair coin has the most information content (1 bit) among all coins). And this makes the game more fun to play. And the better player is seen as better only when lots of games are played. And so people want to play more.

It is the same with wildlife photography. It is a game of skill because as you do more and more of it, you know where to look for the tigers and leopards (and ospreys and wild dogs). You know where and how long you should wait to maximise your chances of a “sighting”. The more you do it, the better you become at photography as well.

And it is a game of luck because despite your best laid plans, there is a huge amount of luck involved. Just on the day you set up, the tiger might decide to take another path to the river. The osprey might decide on a siesta that is a little bit longer than usual.

At the entrance of JLR River Tern Lodge, there is a board that shows what animals were “sighted” during each safari in the preceding one week. Each day, the resort organises two safaris, one each in the morning and afternoon, and some of them are by boat and some by jeep.

I remember trying to study the boards and try and divine patterns to decide when we should go by boat and when by jeep (on the second day of our stay there, we were the “longest staying guests” and thus given the choice of safari). One the first evening, in our jeep safari, we saw a herd of elephants. And a herd of gaur. And lots of birds. And a dead deer.

That we had “missed out” on tigers and leopards meant that we wanted to do it again. If what we saw depended solely on the skill of the naturalist and the driver who accompanied us, we would not have been excited to go into the forest again.

However, the element of luck meant that we wanted to just keep going, and going.

Games of pure luck or pure skill can get boring after a while. However, when both luck and skill get involved, they can really really get addictive. Now I fully appreciate Anuroop’s NED Talk.

 

Night trains

In anticipation of tonight’s Merseyside Derby, I was thinking of previous instances of this fixture at Goodison Park. My mind first went back to the game in the 2013-14 season, which was a see-saw 3-3 draw, with the Liverpool backline being incredibly troubled by Romelu Lukaku, and Daniel Sturridge scoring with a header immediately after coming on to make it 3-3 (and Joe Allen had missed a sitter earlier when Liverpool were 2-1 up).

I remember my wife coming back home from work in the middle of that game, and I didn’t pay attention to her until it was over. She wasn’t particularly happy about that, but the intense nature of the game gave me a fever (that used to happen often in the 2013-14 and 2008-9 seasons).

Then I remember Everton winning 3-0 once, though I don’t remember when that was (googling tells me that was in the 2006-7 season, when I was already a Liverpool fan, but not watching regularly).

And then I started thinking about what happened to this game last season, and then remembered that it was a 0-0 draw. Incidentally, it was on the same day that I travelled to Liverpool – I had a ticket for an Anfield Tour the next morning.

I now see that I had written about getting to Liverpool after I got to my hotel that night. However, I haven’t written about what happened before that. My train from Euston was around 8:00 pm. I remember leaving home (which was in Ealing) at around 6 or so, and then taking two tubes (Central changing to Victoria at Oxford Circus) to get to Euston. And then buying chewing gum and a bottle of water at Marks and Spencer while waiting for my train.

I also remember that while leaving home that evening, I was scared. I was psyched out. It wasn’t supposed to be that way. This was a trip to Liverpool I had been wanting to make for the best part of 14 years. I had kept putting it off during my stay in London until I knew that I was going to move out of London in two weeks’ time. Liverpool were having a great season (they would go on to win the Champions League, and only narrowly lose the Premiser League title).

I was supposed to be excited. Instead I was nervous. My nerve possibly settled only after I was seated in the train that evening.

Thinking about it, I basically hate night trains (well, this wasn’t an overnight train, but it started late in the evening). I hate night buses as well. And this only applies to night trains and buses that take me away from my normal place of residence – starting towards “home” late in the night never worries me.

This anxiety possibly started when I was in IIT Madras. I remember clearly then that I used to sleep comfortably without fail while travelling from Madras to Bangalore, but almost always never slept or only slept fitfully when travelling in the opposite direction. While in hindsight it all appears fine, I never felt particularly settled when I was at IITM.

And consequently, anything that reminds me of travelling to IITM psyches me out. I always took the night train while travelling there, and the anxiety would start on the drive to the railway station. Even now, sometimes, I get anxious while taking that road late in the evening.

Then, taking night trains has been indelibly linked to travelling to Madras, and something that I’ve come to fear as well. While I haven’t taken a train in India since 2012, my experience with the trip to Liverpool last year tells me that even non-overnight night trains have that effect on me.

And then, of course, there is the city of Chennai as well. The smells of the city after the train crosses Basin Bridge trigger the first wave of anxiety. Stepping out of the railway station and the thought of finding an autorickshaw trigger the next wave (things might be different now with Uber/Ola, but I haven’t experienced that).

The last time I went to Chennai was for a close friend’s wedding in 2012. I remember waking up early on the day of the wedding and then having a massive panic attack. I spent long enough time staring at the ceiling of my hotel room that I ended up missing the muhurtham.

I’ve made up my mind that the next time I have to go to Chennai, I’ll just drive there. And for sure, I’m not going to take a train leaving Bangalore in the night.

Finite and infinite cricket games

I’ve written about James Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games here before. It is among the more influential books I’ve read, though it’s a bit of a weirdly written book, almost in a constant staccato tone.

From one of my previous posts:

One of the most influential books I’ve read is James Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games. Finite Games are artificial games where we play to “win”. There is a defined finish, and there is a set of tasks that we need to achieve that constitutes “victory”. Most real-life games are on the other hand are “infinite games” where the objective is to simply ensure that the game simply goes on.

I’ve spent most of this evening watching The Test, the Amazon Prime documentary about the Australian cricket team after Sandpapergate. It’s a good half-watch. Parts of it demand a lot of attention, but overall it’s a nice “background watch” while I’m doing something else.

In any case, the reason for writing the post is this little interview of Harsha Bhogle somewhere in the middle of this documentary (he has appeared several times more after this one). In this bit, he talks about how in Test cricket, the opponent might be having a good time for a while, but it is okay to permit him that. To paraphrase Gully Boy, “apna time aayega” – the bowler or batsman in question will tire or diminish after some time, after which you can do your business.

He went on to say that this is not the case in limited overs cricket (ODIs and T20s) where both batsmen and bowlers need to constantly look to dominate, and cannot simply look to “survive” when an opponent is on the roll.

While Test cricket is strictly not an “infinite game” (it needs to end in five days), I thought this was a beautiful illustration of the concept of finite and infinite games. The objective of an infinite game, as James Carse describes in his book, is to just continue to play the game.

As a batsman in Test cricket, you look to just be there, weather out the good spells and spend time at the crease. You do this and the runs will come (it is analogous for bowlers – you need to bowl well enough to continue to be in the game, and then when the time comes you will get your rewards).

In ODIs and T20s, you cannot bide your time. Irrespective of how the opponent is playing, you need to “win every moment”, which is the premise for a finite game.

Now, I don’t know what I’m getting at here, and what he point of this post is, but I think I just liked Harsha Bhogle’s characterisation of Tests as infinite games, and wanted to share that with you.