Quantitative Analysis of How to Win H-O-R-S-E … Seriously?

As the production editor of the International Journal of Sport Finance during all of its five years of existence, I have grown to appreciate the quantitative research and analysis that permeates the journal. Even though my brain functions primarily in a qualitative mode (what do you expect from an editor who works daily with words?), I have been enlightened and seen the importance of such analysis relating to sport topics such as stadium finance, uncertainty of outcome, ticket pricing, salaries, state appropriates, donations, and even gambling.

That’s why I was so excited when I saw a post on the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective blog titled “Optimal H-O-R-S-E Strategy.” I thought to myself, “Sweet! I can learn some secret tips that will help me dominate my opponents when we play H-O-R-S-E on my driveway basketball hoop.” After all, my son is nearly 5 years old and is growing stronger and taller daily, and my daughter, nearly 3, can already dribble a basketball. I desperately need some tips or else they’ll soon start defeating their old man in our games of H-O-R-S-E.

I read through the post, concentrating as best as I could in order to grasp the meaning of the equations and all of the letters such as p, n, and k. Math was always my strongest subject in school, but after changing my major from engineering to journalism, I think the portion of my brain that comprehended statistical analysis went into permanent hibernation.

Anyway, the statistical analysis in the blog post wasn’t really difficult to comprehend. But to be honest, the end of the article left me feeling a bit duped. Sure, it was interesting to learn when to take higher percentage field goal attempts and when to take more risky shots (like my favorite from behind the goal and over the backboard). But I felt a bit deflated when I read the following:

“The bad news is if you’re a weaker shot than your opponent it can be very difficult to win even when you use superior strategy. While it will help if you call your shots based on these calculations, at the end of the day the best way to improve your H-O-R-S-E odds is to become more familiar with a basketball and not just with a calculator.”

Upon reading that, I felt crushed. My dreams of being a dominant H-O-R-S-E player by implementing the findings of the article were just dashed. When the snow melts away, the temperatures rise, and winter gives way to spring, it appears my calculator and all my newly acquired knowledge about the statistical analysis of shot selection in the game of H-O-R-S-E won’t really compensate for my utter lack of shooting prowess.


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