Optimising, the TT, and Fatima Moreira De Melo

Few things in sport are as inspirational, or make the hairs on your arms stand on end as easily, as watching professionals performing at their absolute best.

Fatima De Melo knows this, not least because of her own experience as an Olympic gold medal winning hockey player. Competing at the highest level requires a commitment, not to mention ability, few of us could ever really understand. That goes for hockey players, it goes for poker players, and, as De Melo found out at the Isle of Man TT this summer, the world of motor sport.

Even if you don't know what the TT is, the likelihood is you've heard of it. It's arguably one of the most famous weeks of motor racing in the world. As meriting Valhallas go it's right up there with Monaco and Le Mans.


tt_course.jpgA snapshot of the TT course (at something like 100 mph)

First run in 1907 it has since become known as the most dangerous motorsport event in the world. The 37.7 mile course has taken the lives of more than 200 riders over the past 100 years; something riders live with, that spectators acknowledge, and which presumably De Melo knew as she climbed on board the HondaCBR of pro racer Connor Cummins to ride pillion around the Tourist Trophy course.

De Melo wasn't the first person to meet Cummins, who is sponsored by PokerStars, after having watched YouTube footage of him flying through the air like a rag doll, sustaining massive injuries in a horrific crash during the 2010 TT. But it served as a useful conversation starter when they met during the UKIPT IoM charity event.

"I thought: oh my God this guy is so cool for getting back out there. How do you get back up after something like that?"

That in turn led to an idea. While in no position to race on the TT track, when invited to check out the course on the back of his bike she jumped at the chance.


connor_tt.jpgCummins at work

And so De Melo flew to the Isle of Man (also the official home of PokerStars) to experience the TT for herself. There she met Cummins for a once in a lifetime ride around the Snaefell Mountain Course. His job was to provide a glimpse into the world of a motorcycle racer. De Melo's job was to hold on tight as they reached speeds upwards of 130mph.


connor_fatima_bike.jpgConnor Cummins and Fatima De Melo

"I have this moment where [I think] if I let go I'm dead," said Melo when asked if she was scared. "That's weird to think that. Because of a bump or something you lose your balance or whatever. You're more vulnerable that way."



For speed freaks footage of De Melo on the bike gives an idea of the types of speeds reached on the infamous circuit (although not close to the 200 mph so riders hit on the straights). De Melo wasn't done, and the next day joined TT legend Ed Swain for a lap in the course car.

"Ed just knew every little bump in the road, every little tree, every little mark he had to aim for, and was commenting through the entire drive."


ed_swain_course_car.jpgEd Swain at the wheel of the course car

De Melo was learning what racing drivers and fans already knew, that driving fast is about more than putting your foot down.

"It was amazing," said De Melo, who spends the duration of the video with an enormous smile on her face. "I was just enjoying it because there's so much skill that goes into that."



Swain explained every bump and curve of the course, and the optimum line around it, all while driving at high speed. Like her experience with Cummins, all of this stuck with De Melo.

"It's like poker when you first start playing online. I can always see the chip stacks of other people, now I have to count them myself. Oh, how much is the raise, you don't have any over view. Once you know everything you can check the patterns of that person and how he bets, and how he throws his chips in, you know, you have that overview.


helmet_tt.jpg

"That's exactly what guys like Connor have on the bike. They have so much room for other sh*t. Everything is automatic. The rest is just the edge that they have. There's so much knowledge and skill that goes into it. Whenever there's something like that that I never knew before, it's kind of cool. But I never knew what went into it. When you know it becomes way more exciting."

De Melo admits to being something of a thrill seeker. Or at least her mother says she is. Her most recent experience was a parachute jump in her native Holland, to mark the launch of a magazine.

But as on the bike with Cummins, and in the car with Swain, De Melo had absolute faith in the ability of her instructor. Well, for the most part.

"The guy had done 5,000 jumps already and I was asking all these questions, I was interested right, what goes into this?"
This took place as they circled the Euromast, alongside the Maas River in Rotterdam. Below them the river sparked as it wound its way through the city, and the mayor got ready to greet them as they made their landing.

"At some point the instructor interrupted me and said: 'Ah, I really have to focus now. There's more wind than I thought there would be.'"

Strapped to her instructor (Britishness prevents me from detailing exactly where she said the straps hurt her) De Melo leapt out into the Dutch sky, aiming for the Euromast. But the instructors fears about the wind were accurate, and they landing amid trees in a park several miles away. Any safe landing is a good one, but they covered the distance back to the reception committee on foot.

The trip to the Isle of Man wasn't all about De Melo meeting experts in their field, but also serving as one herself. In that role she paid a visit to the Vikings Hockey Club, a local team celebrating their 100th consecutive win.

"It was really nice to meet these people, so enthused, and so eager to learn," said De Melo, who ran a workshop with the team. "Even though I hadn't been playing hockey for seven years or something, I hadn't even picked up a stick. It's like riding a bike. You're always scared that you'll fall, but you don't."

Over the course of a couple of hours De Melo passed on the kind of instruction that, while second nature to the professional gold medal winner, is invaluable to the amateur player trying to improve for their weekly game.

"The funny thing is once I started playing poker I was way more aware that you're just optimising things," she said. "So I was just optimising everything."

She gave an example.

"If you have two-on-one, where do you run if you want to be the receiver? Do you run really wide, behind the defender and step back out? What do you do? These girls were just running along next to their team mate, not the most optimal line of running. So that's what I did. They were like oh my God!"

De Melo admitted that she always assumes people know what she knows about hockey, something that no doubt applies as much to TT racers and poker players.


Fatima de Melo_30sept16.jpgFatima Moreira de Melo

Such lessons don't just apply to non-professionals. De Melo herself still takes on board the things she learns and applies them to her life, and to her poker game.

"It's funny," she said, looking back on the tip. "I became way more aware of what the real process of that is. Also I play tennis a lot. It's more about if I hit this shot I'll make it one out of ten times. If I hit this shot I'll make it five out of ten times, so I should make this shot. But when I was a kid it was just hit the ball."

It's hardly surprising that this also applies to poker.

"What poker does is make you aware of the process, it's very clear because you need to do so much in order to get an edge, you know? So it made me way more analytic. I live my life more analytically because of it. It came back in all these things - skill, training, optimising. It's funny. And it's cool."


Stephen Bartley is a staff writer for the PokerStars Blog. Follow him on Twitter: @StephenBartley.
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