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The Becker and Agassi Edition
On competition, tells, and tongues
Colin here. As the level of play increases, so does the need for competitors to find any sliver of an edge they can. In poker, there’s card counting, or noticing “tells” or twitches to signal a mental state. In downhill skiing, the type of wax used is based on snow conditions or temperature, or in F1, changing the amount of air in the tire is based on track conditions or temperature. Just as hedge fund managers or traders are looking for a sliver of a second to beat the market and find alpha, so too are competitors and sportsmen.
I loved this short story about one of the best sporting rivalries of all time: Boris Becker versus Agassi:
Why is this interesting?
Agassi was known for having an incredible, aggressive return of serve that could take away an opponent’s usual advantage. His sense of timing, aggression and positioning was something unique to his game. But as the video recounts, his power of observation was equally important. He thoughtfully assets that “Tennis is about problem solving” and in a vivid example of such, Agassi noticed small mouth gestures from Boris Becker that would indicate where the ball would be placed. This tiny observation led to an outsized advantage.
As Agassi recounts, there was a sub-game at play, which was not letting Becker know that he was onto this subtle physical tell. It’s fascinating that Becker’s tongue was so correlated with his physical and mental positioning of the ball, so much so that it served as a turn signal of sorts, allowing Agassi a mind-reading sort of advantage. This is exactly what Becker thought Agassi was doing, before being told of the “tell” by Agassi post-retirement (over an Octoberfest beer, no less).
This example also begs the question of how many of these subtle “tells” existed in sporting history but weren’t ever disclosed to the opponent. (CJN)
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