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Guest Post: A Royal Flush, the Jimmer and Why MJ is the Anti-Belichick of the NBA Draft

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My boss at the Mirage would not have been thrilled if he found out that his 19-year-old summer intern was spending every waking hour he wasn't on the clock in the poker room. For six weeks, I grinded it out, moving up from $2-$4 to $4-$8 limit hold'em and steadily building a bankroll. In 1991, there were the same number of no limit games in Las Vegas as there were poker shows on TV and poker players with endorsement deals: zero.

I finally took the plunge to play $10-20. Soon after, I was dealt an ace and a queen of diamonds in last position. A player in front of me raised; I re-raised to $30 and six of us were in. I had never seen $180 in a pot before, and I couldn't wait to see the flop. I watched Eddie, the quietest dealer at the Mirage, in anticipation of those three mysterious community cards. I didn't bother to watch the other players (and thankfully, they didn't bother to watch me). Instead, I stared at the middle of the table, waiting for my fate to be determined. At last, Eddie placed three cards in the middle of the table: Ten-Jack-King...all diamonds.

I did a double-take. I looked at the flop for a third time. I checked my hole cards. There was no denying it; I had flopped a royal flush!

I quickly went into Hollywood mode. Had any of the other players been watching me, they would have seen my fake nonchalance as classic "weak is strong." Thankfully my opponents, unlike NBA General Managers, weren't paying attention. I ended up getting even luckier when the queen of clubs came on the river because two other players made straights (one of whom bet) and both called my raise.

When I turned my hand over and raked in the $500 pot, by far the biggest of my life, I said, "I'm surprised you couldn't hear my heart beating." Eddie, the normally taciturn dealer, said, "No, but I did see your eyes bug out of your head on the flop." Lucky for me, Eddie was the only one paying attention.

One last point about poker and you'll see what this has to do with the NBA Draft. Just as professional poker players watch the other players instead of the cards when the flop comes, they also don't look at their hole cards until it's their time to act. The reason is that players acting before them can gain information based on their reaction. Suppose I look at my cards before it's actually my turn and see the worst possible starting hand, 2-7 offsuit. I decide not to play the hand and my eyes drift to the TV or the cocktail waitress. Meanwhile, the players before me have decisions to make. If they're paying attention and see that I'm going to fold, that information allows them to play their hands more profitably. 

You might argue that it's no big deal if another player gained an advantage as long as I didn't lose anything. After all, nothing is going to change the fact that I'm folding 2-7. But this example takes us to the difference between Michael Jordan and Bill Belichick. In the "meta-game" if I'm making it easier for my opponents to win, I am making it harder on myself. This critical point of poker strategy is the same one that applies to MJ and the 2011 NBA Draft.

Everyone knew that the Kings and Jazz liked Jimmer Fredette, and it was almost a lock that he was going to get picked somewhere between 7 and 12. MJ's Charlotte Bobcats had the ninth pick and because they didn't even bother pretending to show an interest in Jimmer, they made the job of other GMs easier. Conversely, we'll never know if Cleveland was really serious about drafting Derrick Williams, but they at least handled the process in a way that didn't tip their hand and scared the heck out of Minnesota GM David Kahn. The Cavs' bluff made life harder on its opponents and could have induced a bad trade. Simply because Kahn didn't freak out and trade Kevin Love for Alonzo Gee to move up one spot doesn't mean the Cavs' bluff wasn't worthwhile. Putting Kahn in a situation in which he might freak out was still a victory because winning in the long run--in poker, sports personnel and life--is about making the best decisions and continually honing your process, regardless of short-term outcomes. 

I happen to like the Bobcats' trade and also think Kemba Walker is worlds better than Jimmer. So why choose now to criticize MJ? Because by giving away information, he made the jobs of opposing GMs easier and therefore didn't maximize value. You may argue that because he ended up making a deal with the Kings, he had to tell them he wasn't going to pick Jimmer ninth. But that doesn't change all the potential moves that could have happened (an extra second rounder or a veteran big to groom Bismack Biyombo?) if MJ had played his cards closer to the vest.

Bill Simmons, aka The Sports Guy, said that he approaches everything with the question: WWBBD? (What would Bill Belichick do?). If Belichick had been in MJ's shoes, he would have concealed his intentions. The man never gives off any tells. He's such a master that his pre-draft interest in QB Ryan Mallett convinced everyone he wasn't going to draft him (and, of course, he did).

Asking the WWBBD question, once Brandon Knight dropped to seventh, if MJ thought the Pistons liked Knight and weren't going to take Biyombo, he could have called the Pistons and bluffed. We don't know that he didn't, but we've seen enough of his process to know that he lacked the credibility to put the necessary fear in the Pistons. To run a bluff, you have to tell a logical, believable story. Since MJ didn't bother to even feign an interest in Brandon Knight (or Jimmer), he never had the option to run any bluffs and we'll never know how that might have impacted other trades. What we do know is that once other GMs knew that MJ was definitely not taking Jimmer, their jobs became easier.

If you still don't get how this puts the Bobcats at a competitive disadvantage, you probably also don't get why your buddies keep sending a limo to pick you up on poker night. MJ might have been the best basketball player who ever lived, but he's a lousy poker player. It's skill in the latter that's more important on draft night and explains why the Bobcats have become a fixture in the lottery. WWBBD if he flopped a royal flush? He'd have a whole range of options and would maximize value because no one would have any clue about his hand. That's because, unlike MJ and me, he would have been watching the other players instead of the cards.

Greg Dinkin, http://www.gregdinkin.com/, is the author of 3 books including The Poker MBA. He is giving a free poker lesson at Diamond's Direct at 7 to 9 p.m. in South Park at 4521 Sharon Rd. on Thursday, October 6th to prep players for The Queen City Shootout, http://queencityshootout.com/, at Whisky River on October 12th. Proceeds from the poker tournament will benefit the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.