On Tilt: The Psychology of Lovie Smith’s Texas Hold ’em Showdown Against the Packers

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In poker there is a psychological phenomenon called tilt; basically tilt occurs when player becomes too emotionally invested in the hands that he plays. Usually this occurs after losing a big hand, and instead of taking it as “losing the battle but not the war” the player adopts a more aggressive and less optimal strategy in order to make up for the loss.

Unfortunately this almost always backfires, being on tilt often results in making bad decisions; which then loses more hands, which then snowballs until players make incredibly stupid decisions on the chance that one hand can bring them back.

What does this have to do with football? Lovie Smith went on tilt with the Chicago Bears against the Green Bay Packers and lost, and it might cost them more than just this game. (If you know nothing about Texas Hold’em I recommend checking out this wiki article or none of this allegory is going to make sense)

The Deal: Lovie Smith gets dealt a pretty bad hand, his team has already qualified for the playoffs and with the Atlanta win against Carolina in the morning, they are also locked into the 2nd seed in the NFC, essentially making the Packers game a meaningless one.

The only reason to even play is that the Packers happen to be the bitter rivals of the Bears, and knocking them out of the playoffs would be a little bit of vindication after getting swept by the Packers last year.

However, the risk of hurting a player is quite high (see Wes Welker last year), and common sense dictates that regardless of the emotional victory beating the Packers would be, the starters should be pulled quickly to avoid getting stuck in a bad position.

The Bet: Love Smith announces publicly that his starters will play a significant part of the game, even though it means nothing to them. In my opinion this was a bluff, ironically more for his own team than for the Packers. The Packers had to win in order to qualify for the playoffs so it really didn’t matter who they had to play.  For the Bears, if the starters thought that they had to be ready for a full game then perhaps they would be more driven and focused during the week and during the game.

Of course this is basically psychologically impossible; just like playing with fake money will never be the same as betting real money, the fact that losing the game meant nothing means that that the players wouldn’t care if they did lose, regardless of how much bluffing was done by the coaching staff.

The Flop: Things are turning out fairly well for the Bear during the 1st half; the Packers have failed to put any points on the board and the offense is doing a pretty good job keeping Jay Cutler upright and moving the ball, albeit without putting points up on the board either.

At this point, the wise decision would have been to fold, or in football terms pull the starters. They’ve proven that they can handle the vaunted Packer’s offense and the while the offense hasn’t done much they also haven’t done terrible.

The only factor keeping Smith from pulling his starters is the score, at 3-0 the game is still very much in the air and he wants to win it, had either team started to pull away I’m convinced that the starters would have been pulled as well.

The Turn: The 3rd quarter is where the game starts to shift to the Packer’s favor. The Packers get a huge pass play from Greg Jennings to the 1 yard line and while they don’t end up scoring a touchdown, they do manage to tie the game with a field goal.

Jay Cutler starts to get antsy (2 sacks in the 3rd quarter) and ends up throwing an interception in the end zone to strong safety Charlie Peprah. Again at this point, Lovie Smith should have sensed that the team had proven all that it needed to prove and that the game was starting to go downhill, but with the score tied at 3-3 his desire to win overrules common sense to pull the starters.

The River: Things start really going bad for the Bears, the Packers score the only touchdown of the day and regain a semblance of a running threat, which they had lost during the middle of the game.

Unfortunately, Lovie Smith has already committed too much into the game already and pulling his starters in the 4th quarter with only a touchdown to tie would be suicide for the team’s morale so he’s now forced to let them stay on the field and try to win the game.

Lovie Smith then decides to abandon the running game, despite the fact that leading rusher Matt Forte is averaging 6.1 yards per carry. A desperate pass attack leads the Packers to call all out blitzes with Jay Cutler ending up being sacked a total of 6 times and pressured and knocked down countless time more. With Jay Cutler rattled, he proceeds to start making desperation throws, which culminated in a interception by free safety Nick Collins to end the game with a Packers victory.

The Showdown: So in the end, despite the best efforts of the Bears to sweep the division, they allow the Packers to sneak into the playoffs, which by itself is a psychological defeat. Instead of giving themselves a psychological “out” by pulling their starters, now they have to contend that they’re best were not able to beat the best of the Packers.

Had they put in backups and lost the game they could have always blamed the loss to the fact that it was 1st stringers playing against 2nd and 3rd stringers and been no more psychologically damaged than before.

The Aftermath: So what does Lovie Smith now do? The media was finally recognizing the Bears as a good team and after the loss all of a sudden they are back claiming that the Bears aren’t really that good and have serious issues, most notably in the offensive line and the secondary.

Does Smith try to overcompensate for his lack of blocking by pulling in running backs and tight ends to provide extra blockers? Does he shy away from the long passing plays since he is afraid that he will get his quarterback killed if he has to wait so long for a play to develop?

On the defensive side of the ball, the Packers were taking shots at the deep ball the entire game and had the Packers been a little more effective they could have easily scored another 3 touchdowns. Does Smith decide to try to limit the deep pass by playing more cover-2 or cover-3 shell and sacrifice blitzing? Or does he do nothing and hope that other teams can’t take advantage of what the Packers did?

So in the end, Lovie Smith let his emotions get the best of him. Common sense dictated that in a meaningless game starters should have been pulled out after they get warmed up, but his drive to beat the Packers ended up being his own undoing.

It was the same emotion that forced him to keep his players in when it was obvious that they should have just lost the game of no consquence and moved on. Instead its Lovie Smith’s emotion that has to answer to a loss that didn’t have to damage the morale of the team. Does Smith decide to let his emotions get the best of him in two weeks?


Thomas Hobbes is a staff writer for Jersey Al’s AllGreenBayPackers.com.


20 thoughts on “On Tilt: The Psychology of Lovie Smith’s Texas Hold ’em Showdown Against the Packers

  1. Very interesting perspective, Thomas. I enjoyed your post and look forward to more of them.

  2. Very good Thomas. So, MM was bluffing when he didn’t have an offense Sunday? I hope so!

    1. Well to milk the analogy even further, the Packers were short stacked and had just pushed all-in so there really wasn’t any bluffing involved when everyone knows that you have to win. I will say however that the Bear defense did a very good job with our offense, the Packers didn’t help out much by dropping a ton of balls, but the Bear’s defense did what it had to do.

  3. Great article! Lovie was definately “all in” for this game. I was totally shocked that the starters didn’t start leaving the game in the 2nd half. He was truly lucky that Cutler didn’t get his bell rung with all the shots he was taking. I wonder how he would have explained an injury, if it had happened.

    1. Well it’s debatable how much an injury would have effected them as compared to the psychological damage inflicted. Obviously losing Cutler, Peppers or Urlacher would completely destroy the team, but while losing a starter might hurt, losing after going all in is damaging to the entire team. The team now has more doubt than it had coming into the game, and that was completely avoidable if they had not played their starters.

  4. Great article! Loved the analogy. Let’s just hope it holds true with the bye. It may allow them to calm their emotions a bit.

    1. Or give themselves more time to panic and pick each other apart, who knows? Either way my opinion is that this all could have been avoided by not playing their starters the entire game.

  5. a nicely reasoned piece dealing with the most important concept to come out of the game.

    i believe the loss, after going “all in”, will have a significant impact on the Bears going forward.

    likewise, i see a mirror image positive impact for the Packers.

    at this level of NFL football believing is everything and the Packers now believe/know they can win against anyone after prevailing in sunday’s four quarter slugfest.

  6. That game proved only two things. The Bears aren’t good enough to be a two-seed. The Packers are too good to be a six-seed. Nothing more; nothing less.

  7. Good analogy. To take it one step further, I see the two hands like this. BEARS down cards [Q][Q] PACKERS down cards [A][8] FLOP [J][2][7] TURN [8] RIVER [A]. Lovie thought he had it from the beginning and got burned on the river. We’ve all been there. I’m just glad our ace in the hole held up.

    1. Well I would put the Bear’s hand more as 2-T, its a pretty terrible hand with emotion value, Doyle Brunson (Bill Belichick) gets away with it, but then again Lovie Smith is no Doyle Brunson (or Bill Belichick for that matter) and got burned.

  8. I’m not a card player but I can see when someone goes all-in and the best win is a split pot.
    Lovie Smith put more than his “players”(chips) all-in into a hand where the most you(Lovie) can win is a split pot but lose your seat at the final table and next years invitation to even play with these “chips” again.

    The gamble for him now is to not be “one and done” in the play-offs,as he could have rested and waited for the better hand.Which as many would discount as false,playing the Saints is more probable a win at home,than another game against the Packers.
    Reasons:Brees has been turnover happy,Weather disfavors the Saints,Bears defense against the run
    If Lovie read his cards correctly he would have seen his next opponent would be the Saints, no matter the winner of the Pack-Iggle game,who may be closer to an “all-in” feel after traveling to Seattle.
    The Saints have never won a road play-off game and may struggle for this victory even over Seattle.
    Lovie Smith needs to listen to “The Gambler” and know better when to hold or fold them.

  9. Good thoughts. In 2006 players, Rex Grossman most noteably, admitted they weren’t really focused on the game. Now they lost knowing the tried to the very end. That could be much more detrimental to a team who’s confidence is vital to it’s success. If Lovie pulls his starters mid 3rd, he does so knowing he dominated the packers in the first half. Not pulling them, he knows their best wasn’t good enough that day.

  10. Lovie figured he was playing with house money with nothing to lose. All he did was give the Saints(most likley)a blueprint to bet the Bears next week.

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