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Game theory in the popular press.

Prof offers proof Cubs have only themselves to blame

Chicago Sun Times
Dave Newbart
October 24, 2003
text is a cache of http://www.suntimes.com/output/cubs/cst-spt-fan24.html

"It might not take a rocket scientist to conclude that the Cubs' failures were bigger in their loss to the Florida Marlins last week than that of infamous fan Steve Bartman. But a professor has shown scientifically that the Bartman play had little impact on the outcome of the game and series.

Ben Polak, a professor of economics who teaches a course in game theory at the Yale School of Management (and apparently has much too much time on his hands), used an algorithm to analyze the Cubs' chance of winning both before and after the play in Game 6 when Bartman inadvertently prevented Cubs left fielder Moises Alou from catching a foul ball.

Polak had handy an analysis of every National League plate appearance for the last few years to determine a team's chance of winning at every possible moment during a game.

Before the play, leading 3-0 with one out in the eighth inning, the Cubs had a 91 percent chance of winning the game, according to the analysis. If Alou had made the catch, the Cubs' chance of winning would have jumped to 94 percent. That means the foul-ball fiasco cut the Cubs' chance of winning by only 3 percent.

Much bigger factors were Alex Gonzalez's error (10 percent), Derrek Lee's double (34 percent) and Mike Mordecai's double (more than 20 percent). "The 3 percent effect of the fan was small potatoes,'' said Polak, who got his masters degree in history at Northwestern.

If you add the fact that the Cubs still had a 50 percent chance of winning Game 7, the fan's interference affected their chance of going to the World Series by only 1.5 percent. By the end of the Marlins' eight-run inning, the Cubs' chance of winning Game 6 had plummeted to 3 percent.

Numbers aside, what about a momentum swing after the fan's fluff? "We are not buying,'' Polak said. "Professional athletes should be able to cope with a 3 percent change in their fortunes.'' Unless they are the Cubs -- with a much larger history of failure to cope with."