Thursday, November 12, 2009

Timing is What? Everything?

There is an old saying about comedy--that it is about .... timing.  And the same is clearly true about poker, given the results of this past weekend's World Series of Poker final table, where the timing of events (and position around the table, which affects when one makes decisions) greatly shaped the outcomes. 

Joe Cada, the youngest to ever win the main event, was only around to catch a third two to beat two jacks and a third three to beat two queens, because of the following hand:
  • He pushed all in with j-4 because he was down to 2 million chips (less than 1% at the total at the table).
  • Another player called with 5-4 since he already had some chips in the middle (antes and blinds) so it was not costing him much to call and it was unlikely that he was dominated (that Cada had either a four or a five and a higher card).
  • A third player could have gone in with a6 but the second player served to deter him since he had already lost a fair amount of chips to the second player.
  • If the third player had called, he would have won and Cada would have been out.  But he didn't, so Cada doubled up on that hand and then several others, mostly going all in with weaker hands and catching cards.
So, it is about timing.  Gladwell (whose latest book I will review once I finish) points out in Outliers that luck has a great deal to do with success--that being born at the right time matters a great deal.  One still has to put in the reps (repetitions--work) to get excellent at one's profession, but having good timing as well. 

Well, in the academic world, timing matters a great deal.  Being a great Sovietologist was a great thing until 1989.  Studying corruption or counter-insurgency was a wise investment but only in the 2000's.   Likewise, job success depends on timing.  I graduated during the previous recession, and that led to many years at a less than preferred destination.  These days, there are lots of great, accomplished, skilled, creative folks on the academic job market but few jobs.   

The problem of merit pay is similar.   At most institutions, academics are evaluated by their yearly production and then given whatever share they deserve of that year's merit pool.  But one's work does not flow in a relatively fluid, evenly distributed manner.  So, one can have a great year or two of publishing and other output (service, teaching awards, whatever) but have that happen in years with little or any merit increases.  One can have poor years during years of abundant merit pay.  You can guess how I feel about timing right now.

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