I love poker, and one of the great strategies in poker is knowing when and when not to bluff.
Kenny Rodgers wasn’t joking when he said “you’ve got to know when to hold them, know when to fold them, know when to walk away, know when to run.”
There are bluffs you can get away with, and there are bluffs that you cannot.
It’s not as simple as sitting with a shitty hand and thinking you can brass neck it out and swipe the pot. Poker is a skill game, and whilst bluffing forms part of the strategy of good players those good players also know that there’s a time and a place for it.
It’s not enough to appear willing to lose your shirt, you have to be able to convince those around the table that you might actually win.
The community cards are a dead giveaway. A good player, who knows his odds, can look at the community cards and tell at once when another player is crawling out on a limb with his betting … and he or she will act accordingly.
There is no surer way for a bad player to lose the lot, because if you combine bluffing with a big ego – and a good player can exploit the latter even more quickly than the former – a bluff inevitably leads to a bigger bluff and a bigger one after that until suddenly you’re sitting there with a two and a six and you’re looking at the table and find you’re all-in.
One of my favourite movies is Rio Bravo, one of the best cinematic examinations of brinksmanship ever committed to film.
In that Howard Hawks masterpiece, John Wayne’s sheriff John T. Chance, and a mismatched group made up of a young, confident kid, a working girl on the run, a drunk and an old man with a bum leg, guard a high-profile prisoner whose family and friends have vowed to set him free.
Wayne and his crew hole up in the town jail, whilst the bandits hold court in the saloon across the street, each waiting for an opportunity, all knowing there’s a clock ticking – the arrival of US Marshalls in a few days, who will take the prisoner and hang him for his crimes.
Both sides feel each other out. They intimidate. What not clear at any point is whether either side is bluffing; both appears willing to go all the way.
The bandits have said that if the prisoner isn’t freed they will storm the jail and kill those guarding it.
Chance and his people make it equally clear that if the jail is stormed the first thing that’ll happen is that the prisoner will be “accidently” shot.
Because neither side is sure if the other is for real, the film explores what it’s like to sit and wait for a doom that may or may not come and those twin threats hang over them all like a lead weight.
What makes the bluff – if indeed it is one – work so well for John T. Chance is that the prisoner’s family once stole the land from the old geezer with the bad leg. He guards the prisoner with a loaded gun ever at the ready. And of course, the US Marshall’s will arrive eventually and take the matter out of everyone’s hands … that’s why the bandit, Joe Burdette, can make his threat and be taken seriously. This is how a good bluff is supposed to work.
Which brings us round to our current situation, and the predicament facing the SFA and the SPFL over what to do should we be unable to complete the season.
Lex Gold, of Hamilton and the SFA, said last night that the idea of voiding the league is a legal and financial minefield of such epic proportions that it’s barely even being considered as an option. That would suggest that the decision has been taken.
The people he’s talking about suing are the sponsors, TV companies and even the fans.
He points out that voiding an entire football campaign is uncharted territory and that even SPFL payments to clubs couldn’t be paid out until the issues had been resolved; voiding the campaign, of course, would mean that no resolution was possible and no money could be paid.
On top of that, as this site and others have already pointed out, there are provisions in the SPFL’s written constitution that allow for exactly this type of scenario; a mandated early finish to the league in exceptional circumstances, and which declares a champion.
The governing body is on rock solid ground here, and even more so as any such premature finish would be outside the control of clubs or even, perhaps, football itself. Those with objections – and there will be plenty of them – would have almost no place to go.
Almost no place. Except for one. The courts.
Which brings me back to bluffing and the art of brinksmanship.
Those, like Hearts, who are talking about legal action here are bluffing, and it’s not even a very good bluff. As I said earlier, the SPFL has a solid basis, in the rules, for calling a premature halt to the season in the current exceptional circumstances.
Sevco hasn’t uttered a word yet.
They will wait until it’s official, make some demented statement and probably issue the same pitiful threat, but it will all be playing to the gallery. I mean for openers, isn’t that club already in enough courtrooms? And let’s be honest, its record in them really isn’t all that great.
This is one they can’t win, and won’t win.
What’s more, I’m not even convinced that any club who might make the threat is ever going to attempt to deliver on it. Because it’s not real. How can it be real? If the SPFL and the English FA are both singing off the same hymn-sheet it will be because they’ve already run this by UEFA and FIFA and it will come with the rubber stamp of both.
In other words, it will be a football decision taken in conjunction with the two main organisations and both of those organisations have constitutions which explicitly forbid clubs and national associations from trying to resolve football matters through the civil courts.
UEFA and FIFA level pretty stiff sanctions on any clubs or associations, which do not toe that line. Anyone who’s in doubt should ask Sion how they got on when they tried to take a football matter to a courtroom outside the jurisdictions of Nyon and Zurich.
The saga, which was trigged by their disqualification from the Europa League after they played ineligible players against us, ended with CAS overturning not only a civil court verdict but with UEFA and FIFA threatening to expel Swiss teams from European and international competitions unless Sion was heavily sanctioned by the FA.
They were. They were deducted 36 points and nearly relegated.
And that is precisely the sort of threat, and possible sanction, that any club who decides to go out-with football to resolve a football matter can expect to face. The thing with FIFA and UEFA is that neither goes in much for bluffing.
They would demand that the SFA levy harsh penalties on any side which acted like that, and our governing body would have to impose them.
You will note that Hearts “threat” today wasn’t presented in a statement from the club or with the imprimatur of anyone on their board.
It was leaked to a local newspaper; they didn’t even bother to put it in a national title.
It is strictly for domestic consumption, and I don’t mean the consumption of the football public as a whole, just their own fan base.
It was, in a sense, a piece of posturing, a little bit of playing to the gallery.
But no-one at the SFA or the SPFL will take it seriously, because it’s not a credible threat and the same will apply to anything that emanates from Ibrox in the event that the season is closed early and the prizes handed out. They will make a lot of noise because they have to, if they want to sell season tickets. It’s toothless though and everyone will know that, which is why in all likelihood it won’t even be a threat as much as a pathetic snark, a statement that they don’t recognise the title as legitimate.
That, of course, will have no more legal or moral force than when King said in 2017 that Celtic had actually only won “two titles.”
When you are already on the record as devaluing titles won for no other reason than to burnish your ego you don’t have any credibility left to stand up and make such ludicrous claims when yet another outcome doesn’t go your way.
Any statement to that effect will be seen, across football, and by history, as the rantings of pathetic, desperate men trying to cover for their own cataclysmic failure. How many years has he been at Ibrox now? How many trophies have they won in that time?
Better yet, how many have Celtic won on his watch?
For all those reasons, their own bit of posturing may warm the hearts of a certain section of their support, but the history books will record the achievement nonetheless, and put it with the rest of them, alongside the bald, and incontestable, fact that when the season was completed we were thirteen points clear at the top.
History will also record – and we won’t let them forget – that any other outcome would have taken a confluence of events so unlikely as to label them fantastical; Celtic would have had to lose twice as many games in the final stretch as they had in the entire domestic season beforehand, and Sevco would have had to put together a better run of form than they’ve managed in their entire time as an SPL club, and from a position of deep malaise and crisis.
So who would have given you odds on it?
All this chatter is soon going to be for naught. The decisions have, in all likelihood, already been made and might even have been conveyed to the clubs before now. Some will resist, spotting in this moment of profound national crisis an opportunity to erase their own failures, but their feeble efforts are set to be rendered futile and pointless.
In the end, the bluff is all they’ve got left.
And only a fool – a pure fool – would dare pull a stroke like that with a handful of nothing.
And we don’t have anyone like that in Scottish football, do we?