To moor your yacht in a prime position over Grand Prix weekend in Monte Carlo will set you back a six figure sum; a suite overlooking Casino Square tens of thousands of euros and in certain night spots you can spend fifty euros for a slim line gin and tonic.
People come to watch people watching other people. It’s a crazy few days where you can rub shoulders with the rich and famous, soak up the late spring sunshine on the Cote d’Azur and encounter normally sane and successful people getting giddy on the atmosphere and the rivers of champagne that flow. Monaco isn’t cheap, no one ever said it was, but you can do it on a budget if you try hard enough and there’s always the chance you could win all your money back if you get your strategy right.
There is also a motor race taking place.
Monaco is to Formula One what the World Series is to poker. They are showpiece events that all participants want to win. They have a legacy respected by drivers and players alike and the stories associated with them become amplified because of the magnitude of the prize.
A rare, costly mistake
Last Sunday, we witnessed the headline of the season so far; a strategic mistake rarely seen in this sport and brought about by a split second decision by the team in the heat of battle. It was an error that shouldn’t have been made, and after lengthy analysis probably won’t be again. However, for the world champions Mercedes to make it in Monaco and cost Lewis Hamilton the victory was of huge embarrassment to the team. As we know strategy in poker is one of the hardest arts to master, it is the same in F1 where there are banks of computers to help you work out the best tactic for the race. In poker, your brain is your computer.
Going into the race, Hamilton was holding a pair of aces in his hand. He had qualified fastest and was on pole ahead of his team-mate Nico Rosberg in second and Sebastian Vettel in third. For the purposes of this analogy let’s say that the two men behind him are holding high value suited connectors in a three-handed game with Hamilton having position on the table/track.
The race gets underway and as Hamilton’s lead stretches this becomes the equivalent of a sizeable pre-flop raise. Monaco is a really tight track with plenty of scope for error and with very playable hands Rosberg and Vettel call him, refusing at that point to throw in the towel.
The metaphorical ‘flop’ in the race came in the form of a young driver called Max Verstappen who crashed into a wall, resulting in the safety car being deployed. This bunches up the field on the track and gives the teams the option to pit for fresher, quicker tyres. The safety car appearing was the equivalent of a couple of picture cards of the same suit dropping onto the felt, increasing the winning probability for the two German drivers in behind Hamilton.
Mistakes happen when under pressure
At this point Hamilton would still know he was ahead at the table with the highest pair but he would also know that if Rosberg or Vettel pitted for fresh tyres they would have the chance to overtake him. In poker it’s similar to the board turning against you and under pressure Mercedes made the decision to pit the British driver whilst he was still in the lead. This is the equivalent of checking behind when his other two opponents checked to him, giving them a free card. He should have stayed out on the track.
The sensible decision in poker, racing and life in general is to eliminate risk when you know you are ahead. People tend to take chances when they are desperate. With a sizeable gap and on a Monaco track where overtaking is notoriously difficult, keeping Lewis out would have been the same as putting in a big raise. It would have shown his pursuers who was boss and might have forced them to take a risk or force them off their hands. When you know you are in front you can retain control by making the right decisions. Even in a three-handed poker game there is danger when you slow-play your aces.
As it turned out the Hamilton pit stop meant that he came out behind Rosberg and Vettel, who had hit their draws to make a flush and a straight that both trumped Hamilton’s top pair. Rosberg took the hand, the World Series bracelet and with it his third Monaco Grand Prix victory in a row. For Hamilton there was only despair.
It doesn’t matter whether you are in the last 10 laps of a race or the final hand of the World Series of Poker, strategy remains at the centre of your game-plan and in professional sport, under the greatest of pressure, the slightest error can bankrupt you or cost you your