What playing football taught me about hacking - Part 2

As part of my MSc, I'm reading MoneyBall. OK, I just watched the film! Cut me some slack!

The basic thesis of the book is this:

  • Our baseball team doesn't have much money to buy new players
  • Which baseball players have the best Statistic X for the lowest price?
  • Buy undervalued players which increase your Stat X

The film book is well worth watching reading. What I like about it - and the above scene especially - is that it shows the tension between winning and entertainment. Will anyone show up to a game full of players they've never heard of? Are boring but consistent players entertaining? Do you want to win in such an "underhand" fashion?

My school's attitude to PE was the usual psychotic obsession with running fast, tiring kids out, and the occasional splash of teamwork. Our class was split into football teams. Once per week, a student would be made captain of their team. In order to build up leadership potential - or some-such rubbish - our team captains were to be treated with reverence. Their word was law. Players had to follow the captain's strategy.

I hated it - as I hated all sports. But I wondered if there was a way to bend the rules.

When my turn as captain came, I told the three players who were any good to go and score a goal. They knew the game better than I did, and I trusted them. Once they had scored a single point, they were to join the rest of the team standing across the goal.

Yes, that's right, standing.

With our dozen players - of various girths - we completely filled the goal mouth. There wasn't a ray of sunlight that could have penetrated that goal. We were a wall of living flesh.

Our star players managed to score a goal and, obeying my weird edict, returned to the goal.

It worked.

We were a bit bruised from having footballs lobbed at us, but it was no worse an ignominy than a usual game. It was low effort, high reward. We expended virtually no energy to maintain our lead. Was it a boring match to watch? I'm sure if we were in a professional stadium, we would have been booed off the pitch. But it worked.

Until half-time. The PE teacher was enraged by our laziness (fair). And said that our wall was an affront to the game, unsportsmanlike conduct, and probably in breach of FIFA's rules.

In short, stop acting like arseholes and run around the pitch.

This gave me my second genius idea.

Our halves were only 20 minutes long. Unlike a real game, there was no extra time because we all had lessons afterwards. So my strategy was simple. Every time we took possession of the ball, we had to kick it as far away as possible off the pitch.

This had two positive impacts (from our point of view).

  1. It tired the opposition out. They spent the half running from one end of the pitch to the other.
  2. It reduced the amount of time available for play. It takes a while to recover the ball and to throw it in.

Again, not a flawless plan, but it worked. The other team were knackered from chasing the ball and wasted a significant amount of time retrieving it.

I don't watch sport (obviously) and I'm sure such shenanigans wouldn't be tolerated in a professional game. But the experience taught me a healthy appreciation for looking for loopholes that inconvenience your opponents, while costing you very little.

I'm reminded of Tim Ferriss' (almost certainly dodgy) claim to have become a kickboxing champion by gaining weight and simply pushing his opponents out of the ring.

To be clear - these are hollow victories. If you care about genuinely being a kickboxing champion - then the semantic win probably doesn't count. A sports team is about entertaining fans - not necessarily about winning. Getting to one-nil and then parking the bus is a legitimate tactic, but won't win you any friends in football.

But if all you care about is the metric, then it is immaterial how you obtain it.

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