I don’t personally know Maria Konnikova. I only heard of her through my Kindle recommendations, but the title of her new book was enough of a hook to grab my attention and my money. How to Bluff turned out to be neither a good nor bad read, but a read that came at the right crossroads in my year nonetheless. No sooner did I finish flipping through the final page of Konnikova’s slice-of-life in the poker world this week, than a Twitter bomb tied to Bruno Peres was going off in the footballing arena.
In case you missed it, Ceres Brewery scored an own-goal on Twitter this week.
“Stop sending me this sh*t” was the post, captioned above a split-image between a branded beer bottle and Bruno Peres on the Olimpico field. That’s a post that has since been deleted.
Either their social media manager lost patience with Roma fans sending in memes of “Bruno Ceres”—a pun on the Roma wing-back’s drink-drive misdemeanour in years gone by—or @CeresOfficial figured they could score cheap social points over the player who was an easy fit to be Rome’s emotional punching bag before 2020 rolled in.
In either case, their social media team bet wrong. The responses to Ceres’ post ranged from telling the brand how awful their beer tastes in Italy, to Roma fans outright suggesting that if Bruno Peres was ever spoken of in ill terms again, then the beer company wouldn’t be welcome in Rome. Period.
This fan reaction went on for literally hundreds of comments, before the post and the brewer was forced to do a complete 180 apology to both A.S. Roma and Bruno Peres this morning.
July 23, 2020
Throughout the whole debacle, the Roma fanbase’s point of view stayed constant: “Bruno non si tocca.”
Just a few months ago, absolutely no one would have bat an eyelid at Peres coming under fire on social media, much less a joke being made at his expense. But the Brazilian wing-back has firmly turned his fortunes around in Rome, and mirrors—in my current stream of consciousness—the same core themes found in How to Bluff.
Here’s how I imagined Peres sombrero’d his way over another opponent into our good graces this season:
Bruno Masterclass #1: Take Losses with the Same Character as Wins
Konnikova suggests that poker—no limit Texas Hold ‘Em poker specifically—presents the right balance between the known and unknown. The game was the basis for John von Neumann’s theories of open and closed-information, as the father of Game Theory perfected his beliefs (and his way out of a first-marriage to his second wife) through to halls of Monte Carlo’s gambling circuit in the 1930s. The open-information side of a football-game is endless; the temptation to claim authority over it’s outcome even more so.
What makes football unpredictable are the 11 x 11 combinations that can unfold in any sequence of play on the field, through 90+ minutes of sequenced action. Just ask Leonardo Spinazzola, who’s final actions moments against Inter Milan cost one CdT member a 10-1 payday last week.
As much as we may believe we know how a game is going to play out, there’s plenty of opportunity for the final outcome to defy expectations. But that won’t stop the hubristic side of us looking back and claiming we know the difference in Bruno Peres’ fortunes today.
After all, isn’t it down to just a simple change from full-back to wing-back?
Explaining Peres’ renewed confidence in such a neat way lets us believe we’re masters of our own fate, and that if the coach had just done the “obvious” a long time ago, then inevitable good results would have followed much sooner.
But the truth is, Bruno Peres spent the first four years of his Roma career offering you several bankers of open-information: you could bet his flank would be wide open in defense. You could bet a fair amount of the opponent’s attack would come down Peres’ side on any given matchday. And even though this wouldn’t guarantee a Roma loss itself, the bottom line was that Peres spent a lot of time—on an individual level—losing his one-on-one battles.
Yet football mastery is essentially time, space and decisions. If you can remember your good decisions—even when you’re defeated by the known and unknown elements of the game—then you have something to build on.
Those good decisions you make in defeat will inevitably be the same decisions you ride on your way to victory. Similarly, a winning performance is never free of mistakes.
Bruno Masterclass #2: Be Clear That You Still WANT to Win
Finding character in your losses is all well and good, but that’s also a path to becoming a satisfied loser. You see this often in the anxiety of adulthood: adopting habits to middle-manage our way through life, finding comfort in easy limits. And, most fatal of all, believing that the strength it takes to admit there’s a problem is the same as what it takes to actually overcome that problem.
In How to Bluff, Konnikova is reminded by her mentor Erik Seidel that just cashing out of tournaments won’t be enough for her to make a professional career out of poker. She would have to cover her losses for the year by going deep into tournaments and collecting the big podium prizes, or else she’d gradually watch her life sink away to costs of travel, buy-ins and, most importantly, time spent that she cannot win back.
Players put themselves through the risk of losing not just for the money, but for the pressure of fine-tuning decisions on the way to mastery. There’s a similar dynamic in the professional world of football.
Taking the gamble on trying to become a total footballer sounds noble as a kid, until you make a fatal error in possession and the papers have singled you out as the reason your team have lost the game. And so many professionals aim for just above-average mediocrity. Why risk going deep with the ball and making the wrong final pass, when you can look to win an easy free-kick and pass the outcome to someone else instead?
Be clear with yourself that this isn’t a rhetorical question. When you first got into the game, you actually wanted to find out the answer. But even worse than becoming a middle-manager of your own career, is the temptation to willfully play up your own naivety.
If you stray into the territory of risking it all indiscriminately, and shaking off your repeated mistakes by reasoning “I just can’t help losing”, then you’re on the way to degeneracy. You may even become a lovable loser among your fanbase, but they’ll cast you out as soon as the entertainment factor has worn off.
Taking the risk of losing isn’t about being a martyr or a class-clown. It is a fundamental exercise in working through your reactions and high-emotion states.
Hopefully, the reason you want to make better decisions is because you want to win. That’s why we compete in the first place.
Bruno Masterclass #3: Don’t Be Weak
We all have flaws and blind spots. There is a lot to be said about giving ourselves the license to make mistakes. But building a personal narrative out of those mistakes is a dark path, and one that seems so innocuous while walking it.
The press have already asked Bruno Peres whether the switch to 3-4-2-1 made the difference in his career, and yes, according to him, it helped a little. But he was already showing the kind of renewed confidence before Roma switched to a back three, and he could have just as easily fallen flat on his face all the same (he actually did—literally in a game against Udinese).
They’ve also asked him if he’s “turned a corner” after his mistakes of old. Harmless questions on the face of it, right? But questions built to feed one of the classic and exploitative journalistic narratives of time: that old tale of redemption.
Unfortunately, the temptation to construct a personal narrative in our head is right around the corner, everyday. You hear it in music lyrics, see it in movie plots and through history. We’ve perfected story as a means to survive the emotional risk of living. But in the words of Will Smith’s character Ben Thomas, in the shamelessly and emotionally manipulative movie Seven Pounds: “Stop it. Stop it. Don’t be weak. Don’t be weak.”
The brutal reality is that our decisions—and mistakes—ultimately hold little weight in the game, much less whatever personal narrative we wrote for ourselves. We tend overestimate how much of a role we had to play in events unfolding, because denying what feels like a fundamental right to human agency is a scary thought.
But things can always take a turn for the unexpected, and they will. Denying that or trying to claim authority over it is fundamental weakness of character that will have you at your knees before long, even when the odds favour you from a winning position. And that’s truly a waste.
Ironically the people who are hardest on themselves are sometimes the ones you can least rely on when the chips are down. When you go around assuming responsibility for mistakes that aren’t even your own, it can wind up taking you to the extremes of either becoming a pushover or a hard ass.
You see this often in Roman-born players and the narratives around them. Lorenzo Pellegrini is only the latest in would-be club captains that end up beating themselves up over events that realistically have little to do with them. If he can get back to working on what he can actually determine for his team and his own career, Pellegrini can get back to making some kind of a difference.
When you do have a role to play in events, definitely do rejoice in that and make the best fist of it that you can. But don’t make a bubble of your own ego.
For me, it takes more guts to accept I don’t have that much control over the outcome. And even after I accept I don’t have that control, it takes yet more strength step up to the responsibility of building on what little I can determine in my day.
If Bruno Peres turns out to be a net failure in his Roma career, it won’t be because he’s falling back into bad habits or “couldn’t overcome” demons of old. And if he becomes a Roma success, it won’t be down to the “fateful moment” Roma decided to play with a back three, either. It’ll likely boil down to factors largely out of his control.
Football games play out under the influence of far bigger factors—the weight of the team Bruno plays in, the decisions that favour Roma in any given campaign—and yet the undying story is to be found in Peres owning his part in all of that.