The Cruelty of Random Variance

Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Long before I got into soccer, I got hooked on the game of Poker. I played every day for over a year, 4 to 8 hours hours a day. And although I was never particularly good, I did learn a lot about the game, as well as about the math and human nature that it relies on. Bear with me for a bit, and I'll explain how this all relates to soccer, and specifically to the Timbers right now.

Poker is notorious for driving people into bankruptcy. Why do so many people gamble away all their money, while others reap huge profits, and some (like me) keep on playing but with nothing to show for it? A lot of reasons... but the short answer is because of variance. Variance is a term from statistics, used to describe the way random numbers can spread around an average. A coin will average 50% heads, but when you actually go to try flipping it the results will be very different. If you try gambling on coin tosses with a friend, the theoretical average is that neither of you will win or lose money, but in practice one of you will always come out ahead.

The reason that so many people go broke playing poker, is that variance hides the true average. They think that they're a good player having bad luck, when in reality they're just a bad player, so they keep throwing away money. And every so often the variance goes their way, and for a while it really does seem like they're a good player who will win money, but inevitably the luck runs out. And these are not stupid people either- it's just very, very hard to see through the variance to see the true average. A hot or cold streak can go on much longer than you'd ever expect. Even if you know that, and prepare yourself for it to last a long time, it will last even longer than you would have thought possible.

It works the other way too- an excellent, winning player can find himself on a month-long losing streak, and has to constantly discipline himself to keep doing what he mentally knows will work, and ignore the results in front of him. Worst of all is the situation where you start off playing well but hit some bad luck and lose money, then change your play to a bad style but simultaneously start getting lucky- then you'll be totally confused about what works and what doesn't. Even very good, very experienced players have been utterly destroyed by runs like that.

And now for the part where I talk about the Timbers.

This season has been terrible so far- just 4 points in 7 games, putting us almost last in the league. With a start like that, it's only natural to ask "what went wrong?". At first it seemed obvious- it was the changes they had made since last season. Maybe Norberto Paparatto was giving away goals, or Gaston Fernandez messed up our formation, or Diego Valeri was still injured, or Ryan Johnson/Rodney Wallace/Sal Zizzo was the key to all our success. But our more recent games have seen the Timbers going back to the same basic lineup and tactics that we used so well last year- a 4-3-3 with Valeri at the center, and none of the new players- and it's still not working.

The post-match threads here are a constant battle between people who want changes, and people saying "give it some more time". I think the unstated question here is- is it a real change, that we're seeing, or just the cruel results of random variance. If this is the real, long-term potential of the 2014 Timbers then the team needs to make big changes, immediately, or else this season is lost. On the other hand, if our team is still the great team from last year, and it's only been bad luck so far, we need to just ride it out- any change will be counter-productive. Worst case- we could end up going back to an inferior style of play just because of short-term results. And of course it doesn't have to be just one or the other- we could be seeing bad luck mixed with bad changes- but then that makes it even more complicated to tell what's going on.

So which is it? I have no idea. What I was hoping to convey, with my poker story, is that it's very hard to tell whether bad results are because someone is playing badly, or they've just been unlucky. It's especially hard when you're talking about something that isn't expected to succeed very often- for example, a very good player might score on average of 1 in 3 games, but have goal droughts of 10 games or more. Then again, a player who hasn't scored in 10 games might just be playing badly. The only way to tell is analyze the games very, very carefully.

I post a lot of random thoughts on this site, but I don't really know what I'm talking about. It's times like this that I'm glad I'm not the one making the tough calls. My bottom line here is that, as fans, we need to be aware of just how hard Porter's job is, and to try not to fall into mind game's like "Player X looked good in that one game where he played 20 minutes! He's the answer!" or "Player Y hasn't scored lately so he's obviously terrible". Maybe the team will improve. Maybe they won't. Maybe they'll improve but still not get any points. Maybe they'll get worse but pull out some results anyway. That's the cruelty of random numbers- you have to wait a very long time, to see any justice.

Alright guys, I don't believe I have to say this but, just in case, please do not submit anything racist, homophobic, sexist or otherwise not appropriate for even the younger Timbers fans.

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