The Game of Games: Poker Lessons from Five Famous Football Plays


The biggest football game of the season kicks off soon, a game that will be watched by an estimated audience of over 100 million people in the United States alone. Every play and coaching decision made will be scrutinized forever -- much as happens with hands at poker's biggest final tables.

Looking back at past season finales, many have produced plays that are still discussed years later, with decisions made by players and coaches being debated endlessly by millions of Monday morning quarterbacks.

Some of these plays have evoked specific, recognizable lessons applicable to poker. As we prepare for the big game, here are five of the most memorable decisions made in past games, all serving as reminders of what to do -- and what not to do -- when at the tables.

1. "Garo's Gaffe"

Miami Dolphins vs. Washington Redskins (1973)

The Miami Dolphins had dominated the Washington Redskins for three-and-a-half quarters, leading 14-0 in their quest to complete an undefeated season. Facing a fourth down with just over two minutes left in the game, coach Don Shula opted to send reliable kicker Garo Yepremian out to try a 42-yard field goal, later recalling how he'd had thoughts of making the score 17-0 to match the team's 17-0 record.

Yepremian's try was blocked, and when the ball bounced back toward him he scooped it up and rolled to his right before attempting an ill-fated pass. The ball slipped from the kicker's hand as he tried to throw it, then he awkwardly batted it upwards. Washington defender Mike Bass snared the ball then darted up the sideline to score a touchdown. Suddenly the game was 14-7 and no longer a sure thing for the Dolphins, but thankfully for them -- and Yepremian -- they were able to hang on and win.

Poker Lesson: When under duress - say, in a post-flop situation where things aren't going well -- don't attempt fancy plays outside of your comfort zone. An innocent mistake early in a hand can be made a lot worse by poor decisions later. You're much better off folding than check-raise bluffing big on the river in a desperate attempt to win the hand.

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When the stakes are high stick to the strategies that have been successful in the past instead of gambling on high-variance plays

2. "Rocket Screen"

Los Angeles Raiders vs. Washington Redskins (1984)

Down 14-3 with just 12 seconds left in the first half and pinned back on their own 12-yard line, most expected the Washington Redskins just to take a knee and go to halftime. But coach Joe Gibbs instead had quarterback Joe Theismann run a play called the "Rocket Screen" -- a screen pass that had only a very small likelihood of gaining any significant yardage, and probably would still run out the clock even if it did.

Alas for Washington, Los Angeles Raiders linebacker Jack Squirek anticipated the play and intercepted the pass, carrying it into the end zone for an easy "pick six" that made the score 21-3 at halftime. Washington never recovered, and the Raiders won the game in a blowout 38-6.

Poker Lesson: If you're behind in a session or short-stacked in a tournament, know the odds and don't recklessly go for longshots. Folding a bad starting hand might not feel like the right thing to do after you've been losing, but you should always try to avoid putting yourself in spots where you have to get lucky to succeed.


3. "Holmgren's Handout"

Green Bay Packers vs. Denver Broncos (1998)

With the game tied 24-24 and 1:47 to go, the Denver Broncos had a 2nd-and-goal on the Green Bay Packers' 1-yard line when Denver called a timeout. Packers coach Mike Holmgren then instructed his team to let Denver score a go-ahead touchdown to ensure Green Bay would get the ball back with enough time to try to mount a scoring drive of their own to tie the game.

But Holmgren was mistaken about the situation. While Green Bay had two timeouts to use, he thought Denver had a 1st-and-goal, not a 2nd-and-goal, which actually made a huge strategic difference. They might have tried to stop Denver from scoring on the next two plays and used their timeouts after each play. Even if Denver scored, Green Bay would have still gotten the ball back with adequate time. In other words, there was no need to let Denver score as they did.

Green Bay's attempt at a game-tying drive was unsuccessful, and Denver won 31-24.

Poker lesson: Always be aware of the situation. Don't make a blunder based on not knowing who is in the pot, what the stack sizes are, or what action an opponent has made. Often in poker even experienced players get sloppy and miss crucial details that would have changed their decisions had they been fully aware.

4. "Ambush"

New Orleans Saints vs. Indianapolis Colts (2010)

It was perhaps one of the most surprising "trick" plays in history. New Orleans was down 10-6 at halftime versus the favored Indianapolis Colts and their high-powered offense led by Peyton Manning. Kicking off to start the second half, Saints coach Sean Payton called for an onside kick -- a play named "Ambush" they had practiced all week -- the first and only time ever in the history of the final game of the season that a team has tried an onside kick prior to the fourth quarter.

The kick bounced off a Colts player and was suddenly up for grabs, and after a wild scrum the Saints came up with the ball, literally grabbing a possession away from Indianapolis. They'd soon grab the lead, too, with an ensuing touchdown drive, and would dominate the second half to win the game going away, 31-17.

Poker lesson: You often hear how it is important to change gears and be aggressive when necessary in poker -- say during the middle stages of a tournament after having previously established a tighter, less bold image. Such shifts in style can catch opponents off their guard, not only winning you a given hand but also changing the momentum and keeping others on their heels, unsure how to play against you thereafter.

5. "Disabling Beast Mode"

New England Patriots vs. Seattle Seahawks (2015)

Late in the fourth quarter the New England Patriots led 28-24, but the Seattle Seahawks had the ball on the Pats' 5-yard line following an incredible circus catch by the Seahawks' receiver Jermaine Kearse. On the next play the Seahawks' reliable running back Marshawn Lynch ran four yards to the 1-yard line. There was over a minute left, but New England strangely did not call a timeout, instead letting Seattle run the clock down to less than 30 seconds before running their next play.

Everyone watching expected another handoff to Lynch. After all, the running back known as "Beast Mode" had just crossed the 100-yard mark for the game, had scored one touchdown already, and for the year had a career-high 13 rushing TDs. But to everyone's surprise Seattle coach Pete Carroll called a pass play, a high-risk quick slant by quarterback Russell Wilson. New England's rookie cornerback Malcolm Butler recognized the formation and beat the receiver to the spot, intercepting the ball. Incredibly -- when the loss seemed all but a certainty -- the stunning turnaround gave Patriots the victory.

Poker lesson: When you're winning in a cash session or deep at a final table in a tournament, remember the strategy that has been successful for you, and don't be so quick to abandon it in an effort to outsmart opponents who maybe haven't yet caught up to what you have been doing.

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Here are three more "honorable mentions" of famous plays that also highlight good-to-know poker lessons:

New England Patriots vs. Philadelphia Eagles (2005)
With less than six minutes left and down 24-14, the Eagles huddle after every play during a lengthy touchdown drive, using up nearly four minutes. The lack of urgency forced them to have to try an onside kick (which failed), and the Patriots won 24-21. Poker lesson: Don't let yourself be blinded out when short-stacked in a tournament.

New York Giants vs. New England Patriots (2012)
In a situation resembling the one at the end of the Packers-Broncos match-up in 1998, the Patriots correctly let the Giants score a touchdown with just under a minute left to put New York up 21-17. Otherwise the Pats would have had no time to try to answer with a score of their own. Poker lesson: Sometimes it is better to fold and concede a pot in order to find a better spot.

Baltimore Ravens vs. San Francisco 49ers (2013)
The Ravens were ahead 34-29 with 12 seconds left and had to punt from their own endzone. Rather than attempt a risky punt that could be blocked and recovered for a winning TD, Ravens punter Sam Koch ran around for eight seconds before stepping out of end zone and giving up an intentional two-point safety. With four seconds left Baltimore was able to do a much safer free kick, and after tackling the returner won the game 34-31. Poker lesson: Know the rules -- in particular know how to use them to your advantage.

Martin Harris
@hardboiledpoker in PokerStars news