Sat, Dec 27, 2008 - Page 18 News List

Season, survivor pools come to a nail-biting finish


Big E is a New Jersey optician. His credit cards have five figures of memories from his son’s recent bar mitzvah. And all he needs to pay them off is to pick the winner of just one more NFL game tomorrow, make it 17 weeks in a row, and win up to US$300,000 in his season-long survivor pool.

Baltimore over Jacksonville? Atlanta over St Louis?

Picking the last winner is actually easier than the negotiations that he will surely begin percolating by yesterday. Will he want to split the pot now with his 14 fellow survivors — take US$20,000 and call it a season? Or will he risk his sure share by putting it all on the Ravens or the Falcons, with the possibility of one full-back’s ill-timed fumble leaving him with nothing?

It’s fourth-and-inches, time ticking away. And like the coach whom so many fans scream at when he wimps out and settles for a tie, Big E is finding himself a tad conservative.

“I would probably go for the US$20,000,” said Big E, who uses only that nickname in his pool dealings because he will not report any gambling income on his tax return. “It’s nice to get some cash off the table. Maybe take a vacation. And that bar mitzvah. But it’s hard. I mean, 300 grand is real and it’s real close.”

As the NFL playoff races clamber to the finish line, tens of thousands of fans’ so-called survivor pools will climax in a nail-biting, flat-screen-smashing and cash-counting frenzy tomorrow. They are simple games — every week, people must predict the winner of any game they want, forget the point spread, but any loss knocks them out. The last person standing wins.

The catch in most such pools is that a player cannot pick a team more than once each season. So while identifying a mismatch each week is not particularly hard, strategizing when to take your one shot with the dominant Tennessee Titans or to trust that the lowly Detroit Lions will not awaken becomes an exercise in patience, probability and searing regret.

Survivor pools have become Fall’s Frenzy to March’s Madness. And in the final week, when the roughly 2 percent of players still alive can choose between certainty and fantasy, they find themselves firing synapses so intrinsically human that even football coaches share them.

“It’s called loss aversion and in some cases, the endowment effect,” said George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University who specializes in the role of emotions in economic behavior. “People don’t want to lose what they have in their hands already and they’re more likely to risk it if it’s a low-enough amount.”

This tendency is illustrated in a famous coin-flipping experiment. Offer people the chance to win US$150 on heads or lose US$100 on tails, and a considerable majority will decline — even though it is a fantastic deal — because losing one’s own money is so distasteful. But these same people will blithely toss US$25 chips on a blackjack table because they do not feel quite real. (This helps Las Vegas pay for all those flashing lights.)

Loewenstein said that he expected that people in football survivor pools this week, most of whom are simply fans making the season more fun, would grab their piece of a big pot now. Although some people are just daring — or too confident to credit their competition’s skill in getting this far — most players would consider their share to be too substantial and enticing to risk on some — dare they say it? — football game.

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