Fourth and inches

Chances are you’ve heard the saying, “Won the battle but lost the war.” While it is hard to willingly accept defeat or failure, sometimes your best strategy in a given situation is to not give it your all. To not try your absolute hardest to be successful. To not try to win at the specific task at hand. To lose a battle so you can win the war.

In baseball, a manager may have a batter sacrifice (bunt or fly) themselves to advance another runner. Or have a pitcher intentionally walk a good batter to get to a relatively weaker batter. In American football, most teams choose to kick – either a punt or field goal – on fourth down instead of going for it. In basketball, coaches may call for intentional fouls late in a game to prevent a sure two by the opponent and risk a 1-and-1 foul shot situation. In chess, a player will intentionally sacrifice pieces to improve board position. You get the idea.

What each of these situations have in common, of course, is that the goal is not to get an individual hit, or out, or touchdown. The goal is to win the game, and ultimately a tournament or season. You weigh the risk of doing what is typical against the potential benefit or cost in terms of that goal of winning. You may not “go for it” on fourth and inches early in the game deep in your own half of the field, but you probably will if it is late in the game deep in your opponent’s end and you’re down by four points. Context is key.

Of course, no one would ever intentionally lose an actual game. Or would they? Depends on the context.

During the 2012 Summer Olympics several teams were disqualified and removed from the Badminton competition for deliberately trying to lose a game. From the outside this seemed crazy, and the crowds at the games were rightfully angry at what they were seeing. Did I mention that these teams were playing against each other, both of them intentionally trying to lose.

But for the teams at the time the strategy made perfect sense in the context of their ultimate objective – Olympic gold. For various reasons, the rules for the badminton tournament were changed going into the Olympics. The teams who wanted to lose games on purpose were simply adjusting their strategy on the court to increase their chances to win gold based on these new rules.

I say “simply”, but the whole situation was anything but simple. The rule-makers had failed to consider this second order effect of changing the rules, and the athletes had failed to take into account the reactions of the fans and officials at their blatantly unsportsmanlike conduct. And so they were disqualified, even though they hadn’t technically broken any rules.

They won the battle, but lost the war.

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