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Jeff Ma

Jeff Ma

Posted: June 1, 2010 11:43 AM

NBA Prognosticating: Real Intuition at Work

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Since my days as a card counter, I've struggled to find something in the "real world" as predictable as blackjack. As long as you have a large enough bankroll and execute your strategy correctly, we always won at blackjack (not every hand or even every trip but over the long haul)

The same cannot be said of other disciplines. In finance, irrational human behavior can cause the demise of the best statistical model. In medicine, imperfect clinical studies can prove irrelevant to the patient at hand. And in poker, the best played hand can fall prey to the schmuck sucking out on you on the river.

Even sports, where many "statistical experts" ply their trade successfully, falls short of the perfection of blackjack. For the last four years, I have competed against many of these "statistical experts" in the NBA Stat Geek Smackdown. This contest sponsored by ESPN super blogger, Henry Abbott, asks experts to pick the outcome of each NBA playoff series.

Each year I have finished near the top of the standings but until this year was yet to finish at the top. In previous years, I have used a pretty traditional analytical approach. Evaluating a few key season long metrics, examining Vegas odds and then incorporating any personnel changes caused by trades or injuries, I've made fairly traditional picks.

But this year I added a new weapon to my picking arsenal -- intuition. See as a trained card counter, I've never believed in intuition in the classical sense. There's no "feeling" that told me to split tens because the dealer was going to bust and no "hunch" that told me a four was coming so I should hit my seventeen. Every decision I made at the blackjack table was grounded on science.

No "statistical expert" worth his weight would tell you to use classic intuition, defined as "acquiring knowledge without inference or use of reason". Yet many successful business leaders believe in intuition or "blinking".

It was this dilemma I attempted to tackle when writing my book, The House Advantage (due out July 6th). My first conversation on this topic with poker superstar Andy Bloch helped me discover a new type of intuition.

Bloch is one of the most successful poker players of the last decade. He is one of the most educated having received two electrical engineering degrees from MIT and a JD from Harvard. He was also one of my teammates on the MIT blackjack team. Since Bloch no longer lives in the perfect world of blackjack, he seemed like the perfect person to help me understand the role of intuition in something imperfect like poker.

(Excerpt from The House Advantage)

So I decided to just outright ask him (Bloch) the question that was consuming me. "How do you balance intuition with math when playing poker?"


Bloch paused for a second and then started by saying, "I use intuition but I'm careful about it. If you listen to your intuition too much, you start listening to things that aren't really intuition. Like having pocket 10's and saying, I think there's going to be a 10 on the flop, so I'm going to go all in. That's not intuition. That's just a guess."

"You have to use the right intuition -- intuition that is based on some kind of fact. Like if you notice an opponent's tell that makes you call in a situation that you wouldn't normally. You might not be conscious of exactly why you make that call but your intuition was based on some kind of fact," Bloch concludes.

This was certainly a different type of intuition then most people talk about. Bloch continued explaining his version of intuition, "I use intuition when I face a situation that I've never seen before -- a situation that I haven't had a chance to model."

So in Bloch's world intuition was simply a less documented, less rigorous form of statistical analysis -- a necessary addition to a world where past data may not tell the whole story.

It was this new type of intuition I used when evaluating the NBA playoffs this year. And when the Celtics nearly swept the Miami Heat, I started to wonder if perhaps the season long numbers didn't apply to the Celtics.

I started to look for kernels that perhaps this current version of the Celtics was better than the one that stumbled into the playoffs as the fourth seed. Certainly they were healthier than they had been during the entirety of the season. Their outstanding performance on the road anecdotally told the story of a veteran team that could bring it when they wanted to. In their nine losses to the teams seeded above them (Magic, Hawks, Cavs), they were ahead at halftime in six of those games. They either tired or failed to execute down the stretch but they were right there in many of those games. Finally, I wondered if the Celtics really cared if they were seeded third or fourth in the playoffs. Their goal was never to reach the conference finals. Their only goal was a championship and there was little difference in a third or fourth seed in accomplishing that goal.

Of course, none of this would qualify as "statistical proof" but it certainly gave me the confidence to employ this new "intuition" and in the second round I was the only "expert" to pick the Celtics over the Cavs (in six games) and in the next round, only Henry's mother and I picked the Celtics over the Magic (also in six games).

This success means very little about my prowess over the rest of the field. In fact it likely means that I'm less of a "statistical expert" than the others since I was willing to go against what most of the numbers were telling me. But perhaps that's the important lesson. Data and statistics are incredibly useful in predicting the future, yet in areas like sports where the relevant data can be limited it is important to be flexible in your reasoning process. That flexibility is what helped me win the Smackdown this year.

So now the Celtics again enter the finals as an underdog to the Lakers. And most season long metrics would say the Lakers will win this thing in five or six games. Yet my "intuition" is telling me differently and I'm more focused on two things.

1) The Celtics are more like their 2008 team than their 2010 team.
2) The Lakers are more like their 2008 team than their 2009 team.

I'm not sure how healthy Bynum is and without him we've seen how this physical, tall, Celtics team can play with the Lakers. Also, I like the Celtics to force outside shots from the likes of Artest and Odom. Shots that likely won't fall as often as they have so far this playoffs. And shots that would better served going to Kobe.

But in the end, all the analysis and stats mean little in a seven game series that will likely come down to who shoots a higher percentage from three point range. Good luck trying to predict that.

My prediction... Celtics in seven!