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July 29, 2009

How Beckham & Manchester City Saved Football (and Something About The Orange Properties in Monopoly)

Wouldn’t it be nice if Manchester City and their tasteless, sterile, obscene, undignified, unsustainable, curiously small-time spend to the top might somehow be the saving grace of football?

Man City have been an ugly club for a while – the monstrous Commonwealth Games stadium and the three stars above their badge after their focus group decided it would give them a more continental feel – but their new billionaire owners may have turned something ugly into something despicable. This Summer has been one endless, sickening stream of delirious offers of nonsensical wages to every not-quite-world-class misfit footballer available. All they need now is to add in a little simulation and the pretence that football was invented in 1991 and they will represent absolutely everything wrong with the English game. They’re not the new Chelsea, they are worse than that. There was never this cynical a chairman, never this bottomless a pocket, never this desensitization to the value of money.

However, most of Manchester City's sins are symptomatic of English football’s problems in general, problems built upon improper regulation and problems which the FA will never solve until one of the football powerhouses collapses. Manchester City are the way for that to happen. Something will occur soon, we've seen what happens when markets escalate to false and unsustainable levels and companies plunge themselves into insurmountable debt in order to keep up with them. The balloon cannot keep pumping up forever, and Man City are making it pump a whole lot harder. If they push one of the big four out of Champions League football then that club (if it isn’t Arsenal) could easily collapse. Just one, the others get scared – immediately we get new rules: only debt-free teams can play in Europe, salary cap, 6+5...

Which leaves me in a predicament come the start of the season: can you reconcile supporting truly hateful enterprises if you believe that they will hasten systemic change? In the same vein, in the absence of proportional representation or a ‘none of the above’ on the ballot, might a couple of UKIP seats at the next election not be so bad? Might it adequately express to the governing party the public disillusionment with the vapid tit-for-tat of mainstream politics (whilst handing UKIP a lighted petard with which to hoist themselves)?


David Beckham arrived in Los Angeles in 2007 to save more than LA Galaxy; he arrived to save football in the US. He was the first football star in a generation to go to America whilst still at his peak, and the hope was that he would perhaps show the Americans a little bit of what the game is all about: because how could we get passion in the stands without passion on the pitch? (Passion from the stomach I mean, not the passion that you see at American sports games which appears to originate somewhere less vital – in the forearms or, often, private places).

And you know what? He succeeded. The banners that greeted Beckham this month as he returned to Galaxy (after practically begging Milan to sign him) had a bile and vitriol unprecedented in the American game. Terms like ‘Judas’ and ‘Traitor’ are being painted on signs and taken to MLS matches; even better, one can only imagine what a spectator last week shouted at Beckham (no stranger to heavy abuse) that made Becks confront the fan on the pitch and later label him ‘a disgrace’. Becks should be proud – he has brought them passion, and a passion that we just can't be cynical about. 

These things have a way of working themselves out, and there’s a certain beauty in it when they do. It reminded me of a story about Andrei Markov, the Russian Mathematician who gives his name to the Markov Chain. (I should say that as an English student with a sideline in Maths I know that the best way to identify humanities students is to talk about stochastic processes and see whose eyes are first to glaze over, so fear not: there are no formulae here, only stories).

Andrei Markov (1856-1922) always had literary aspirations. When, in 1906, he produced the first trials of the process of mathematical prediction that would come to be called the Markov Chain, he didn’t look to the sciences for his first test-run; instead he went to the St Petersburg University library and applied his theory to the first 20,000 letters of Eugene Onegin.

Graduating from student to professor at St Petersburg University, the exemplary Markov eventually found equals in his twenties at the world-famous St Petersburg Academy of Sciences, where he stayed for forty years, continuing his research and generally getting angry about everything. He wrote endlessly to newspapers concerning the state of Russia; the press dubbed him ‘Andrei the Furious’. Markov was a revolutionary writer trapped in a mathematician’s body. He mixed with all the great writers of the time, and when the Catholic Church excommunicated Leo Tolstoy, Markov wrote to them, politely asking if they wouldn't mind excommunicating him too. When Duke Dundook, a nobleman, was accepted into the Academy on the basis of his breeding alone, Markov wrote a (sadly lost) limerick to his friend Alexander Pushkin, which Pushkin branded ‘unfit for a lady’s ears’.

In his final years Markov lived to cause trouble for the Academy. At one point he declared himself unable to attend meetings of the Academy because he had no shoes, and the Academy decided to call his bluff and sent him some fine tailored shoes. At the next meeting, there was a message from Markov: ‘Finally, I received footwear; not only, however, is it stupidly stitched together, it does not in essence accord with my measurements. Thus, as before, I cannot attend meetings of the Academy. I propose placing the footwear received by me in the Ethnographic Museum as an example of the material culture of the present time, to which end I am ready to sacrifice it.’

But Markov will always be remembered for his gift to mathematics, Markov Chains: situations in which you can predict all of your future states from your present state alone. The beauty is the simplicity –  you don’t need to know anything about the past, just where you are at the moment and the odds of going to each place. You can keep feeding those odds in and see where you would be at any point in the future, without knowing anything about where you have been.

So when does the past not matter when predicting the future? Quite often, actually. Gambling machines are a good one – if you’ve just won, the odds of winning are x; if you’ve just lost, the odds of winning are y: simple. Weather would work, though it would be a little crude (you’d have the weather today, and the odds for each kind of weather tomorrow given that it’s whatever-it-is today). I think the best ones are sports which follow closed patterns – snooker, tennis, baseball. Markov Chains can map every single outcome of these sports because the matches follow a set order: at every point there are only a certain number of things that can happen, entirely independent of what’s happened in the past.

Another one I like is Monopoly, because we think it’s a skilful game but Markov Chains show us that once you’ve chosen your piece (dog, of course) you will never have an opportunity to control it. Go on, try to think of a moment in Monopoly where you control your piece... Everywhere you land is entirely pre-determined. Chance cards teleport you but they themselves are finite, mandatory and randomly selected – there’s no choice involved. Purchasing property is a false freedom, because purchases or a lack of them will not alter where pieces ultimately land in the course of the game. Buying and building will affect who wins, but the game plays the way it plays; we can’t change it.

Consequently we can now map a game of Monopoly and say that after 23 goes, the likelihood that you will be on Pentonville Avenue is whatever. We can also map things like the total relative frequency of landing on each square, multiply each of these by the square’s rent and see which set is genuinely the best set to buy in terms of expected returns. (It’s Orange.)


1984. Long before Perez Hilton, Stephen Fry and dearest Charlie Brooker, the first internet journalist with legions of fans was an erudite San Franciscan perennial on an early internet forum called Part Andy Kaufmann, part Thomas Pynchon, the obtuse writer’s acerbic leftfield observations regularly appeared on the forum, hanging in the air, breathing life and satire into the sorry clichés of his fellow users. Some favourite extracts:

I spent an interesting evening recently with a grain of salt.’

I hope that there are sour apples in every bushel.’

Never mind. I am afraid of it becoming another island in a nice suit.’

‘He screams back you’re a cow, give me some milk or else go home.’

It was 1989 before Scientific American revealed the truth about the legendary writer, and his pseudonym Mark V. Shaney will probably tell you all you need to know. He was a piece of computer code written by a young researcher at AT&T who utilised the fact that language, like Monopoly, Snakes and Ladders, snooker and the like, is forever bound by probabilistic limits. The Shaney code simply processed the text in a collection of forums and having analysed enough text, computed the likelihood of any word choice, based entirely upon the previous word. Then it would generate a word at random, dependent upon those respective probabilities.

Thus the text which ‘Mark’ generated remained topical and matched the tone and vocabulary of those around him without error. He was exactly the same as them – just a bit less predictable. And so Andrei Markov did realise his literary aspirations, because seventy years after his death, he wrote:

One morning I shot an elephant in my arms and kissed him. So it was too small for a pill? Well, it was too small for a while. As I’ve commented before, really relating to someone involves standing next to impossible.’

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