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Soccer: A Mirror Image of Poker

Tactical Innovation in Soccer: A Mirror Image of Poker

Of all the things to which poker might be commonly compared – business, investing, chess, eSports and more – it’s rare to see a team sport make the list. Even rarer, a contact sport such as soccer.

Yet, despite the obvious differences in the basic nature of the two games, poker and soccer have a lot in common when it comes to their strategic evolution over the years.

While soccer is ostensibly a lot older than poker on an organized level – the English Football Association dates back to the mid-1800s, while the World Series of Poker didn’t get going until 1969 – the two games have seen surprising similarities in the paths they have taken towards their modern forms.

It could be argued that this is a natural process, one by which all new art forms, disciplines and competitive enterprises are advanced over time. It could also be argued that these particular similarities between the two are mere coincidences; this may very well be the case, but the comparison is an interesting one nonetheless.

The Dark Ages: Soccer pre-1970 and poker pre-2003

While everyone who’s been in poker longer than five minutes knows that 2003 was the watershed moment for poker’s popularity, but the influence that the Moneymaker Effect had on poker strategy should not be underestimated.

Prior to 2003, poker training websites and strategy forums were virtually unheard of, and only a handful of meaningful strategy books existed. The era of GTO calculators and Nash Equilibria was some way off, and even PokerStove was as yet unavailable.

There was really only one basic blueprint by which the game was commonly played, and players who stepped outside of that blueprint – usually on the aggressive side – were often branded as ‘wild’ or ‘unconventional’. Witness the image Sammy Farha had going into his iconic heads-up match with Moneymaker for the evidence.

While the tactical evolution of soccer took a lot longer, it did nevertheless follow the same pattern. The watershed moment for the Beautiful Game was the 1970 World Cup, where a Brazil side featuring the likes of Pele, Tostao, Jairzinho and Carlos Alberto trampled all over its opposition.

Up until that Brazil side rewrote the book, there was pretty much only one way to play soccer, tactically speaking. The 2-3-5 formation was the norm, with two full-backs in defense, two half-backs either side of a centre-half in midfield, and five forwards – left and right wing, inside left and right, and a centre-forward.

After Brazil’s revolutionary 4-2-4 formation swept them to a convincing 4-1 victory over Italy in the 1970 final, the floodgates opened when it came to new and dynamic tactical approaches. The Dark Ages were over, and much like poker after the 2003 World Series, all bets were off as to which direction the game would go next.

The Explosion: 1970-2004 in soccer and 2003-2011 in poker

Between 1970 and the early 2000s, soccer underwent a number of iterations of tactical change. There was the ‘Total Football’ style of the great Dutch sides of the 1970s, the 4-2-2-2 of the 1982 Brazil side, and the invention of the ‘libero’ or ‘sweeper’ in the great Italian teams of the 80s and 90s.

After that there was the invention of the ‘wing-back’, and the introduction of a variety of three-at-the-back systems that utilized it effectively. Suddenly it became difficult to place players within a standard three-line formation – is a wing-back a midfielder in a 3-5-2, or a defender in a 5-3-2? Is an old-fashioned winger part of the midfield in a 4-5-1, or a forward in a 4-3-3?

Essentially, soccer went through a period where coaches were realizing that there really were no boundaries as to how a team could set themselves up. Unexpected tactical adaptations became a way to throw an opposition manager off the scent of what exactly your team was trying to do during a game.

This process is more or less exactly what happened in poker between the beginning of the poker boom and the advent of Black Friday. Players began to realize that they didn’t need to have queens or better in order to 3-bet, they didn’t need to flop top pair or better in order to bet the flop, and they certainly didn’t need to have the nuts in order to get a big stack into the middle.

In a short eight-year span, the game went from one or two partially-defined viable approaches, to a myriad. By the time Black Friday rolled around and put a temporary halt to the game’s development, it was not uncommon to see 4-bet and 5-bet preflop wars on a common basis, and the continuation bet – along with the two-barrel and the three-barrel bluff – had become an integral part of any player’s strategic arsenal.

While this period in poker’s development had a definite end point – April 15th, 2011 – it was a little harder to pin down the end point of the explosion in soccer. The point I’ve chosen is the end of the 2003/04 European season, when Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal side became only the fourth team in over 100 years to go a full season unbeaten in one of Europe’s top five leagues.

Razor-Thin Edges: 2004-present and 2011-present

Wenger’s Arsenal side achieved success by embracing aspects of the game that were previously ignored by the majority of soccer coaches. One of the first things Wenger did when he arrived at Arsenal in the 1990s was to employ a team nutritionist to fix his players’ diet – something virtually unheard of for a Premier League team at the time, but now considered standard for all professional teams.

What Wenger also did was get his Arsenal side playing in a style never seen before in England – they played the ball almost exclusively on the ground, rarely relying on direct passing routes and instead banking on the superior pace, agility and fitness of their players to run rings around opponents.

While many use his lack of league or European success in recent years with Arsenal to impugn his track record as a manager, it can also be seen as evidence of his impact on the game as a whole – the type of free-flowing attacking game played by his great Arsenal sides has now become uniform among top teams, and it could be argued that the likes of Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp have simply learned to beat Wenger at his own game.

Wenger’s breaking of the mould of English football showed other managers that it was possible to buck the trend of pragmatism that had begun to take root in the game. He adopted a particular philosophy, stuck to it, and backed his players to execute a plan more effectively than others.

But as more and more teams began to embrace a more aggressive, fast-paced offensive style, the margins of error for managers employing such a style became thinner and thinner. When everyone has a team full of athletes, suddenly nobody does.

Nowadays, teams look for the smallest of advantages wherever they can find them. Psychological development, elite nutrition and fitness work, and micro-level tactical adjustments are the name of the game.

Sound familiar? If you’re a poker player, it certainly should. While it’s definitely still true that poker represents a highly profitable enterprise for skilled players, there can be no denying that in the years since Black Friday hit the American game hard, the competition at the elite level of the global game has only intensified.

Groups of players from Germany, Brazil, Russia, Spain, the UK and Scandinavia have emerged as powerhouse online and live stables, while the provision of high-level tournaments and cash games for televised purposes has grown since the advent of PokerGO in 2017.

While soccer managers are experimenting with seemingly bizarre new tactics and formations (Antonio Conte’s highly-successful 3-4-3 and Thomas Tuchel’s 3-1-2-4 spring to mind), poker players try out big blind leading strategies, or check their entire range out of position.

Once a game evolves to a certain level, the edges get smaller, but the ever-increasing level of complexity leaves even greater room for adaptation in the right circumstances. While elite-level competition in any field will always be a hard-fought battle for supremacy, such a situation doesn’t mean that the game is over. In fact, it is just beginning. In the cases of both soccer and poker, nobody knows from where the next game-changing evolution will come.