Wednesday, December 22, 2010

How to Cheat to Win (without Cheating): Scrapple

This is the final segment in the Cheat to Win series and will deal with all the odds and ends that didn't have a home, comments and questions.

Calling people out. I always assumed in writing this series, that because of my own history as a player, I was calling myself out. About halfway through, I realized that not everyone who was reading this was there to remember, so I'll make it clear. There is a reason I know all this stuff and it's not because I was an innocent victim. I included people and stories I thought were pertinent to the topic at hand in order to make my point, not to settle old scores. Generally, calling people out is irresponsible and counterproductive. Thanks to Donovan for having a sense of humor - our sport would be better off if more people did.

You can make every call correct and still be a cheater.
There are a million calls to be made in any game, which you choose to call defines you. If you are consistently calling fouls and violations that benefit your team and the timing of those calls is calculated for maximum effect and they are made without regard to your own behavior as a player, then you are a cheater. Well, sort of. It's a weird situation because technically you aren't a cheater. However, you've created an unfair game because two different expectations for rules and enforcement are being used. Typically, a person responsible for making a game unfair is considered a cheater. The more you engage in this sort of gamesmanship, the more your calls and play will be scrutinized and disrespected. Every single call you make will be seen in the most cynical light and you will no longer get the benefit of the doubt in anything you do.

The 'contact' rule

KFC wrote: "Isn't the 11th edition "disc space" call basically your "contact?"
Mortakai wrote: "Now the reset to 0 also comes with a stoppage (stoppage = advantage: defense), whereas play does NOT stop with the "contact"/reset to zero (no stoppage = advantage: offense). I think THAT was Lou's point."

It was.

Fight fire with fire.
Heinous boy wrote: "The problem with drama is there is more of an advantage than just the mental edge you get. You can't expect to win against an equal opponent if they're making more calls."
#28 wrote: "One thing in particular I've considered- that instead of playing your normal game and being the white knight, you should change strategies and play their game harder than they play it. Don't match them call for call, as Carleton did, [but] make their calls look reasonable by making egregious plays to shake them up."

First, I'd like to disagree with Heinous boy's proposition that you can't win against an equal opponent if they are making more calls than you. One of the main points of the Drama article was that you are often better off making fewer calls. The Carleton-Florida game is just another in a long line of games where one team (Carleton) would have benefited from fewer calls and stoppages. Matching call for call is penny-wise, pound-foolish.

Secondly, fighting fire with fire is a sure strategic failure. I've had a front row seat to see it fail on multiple occasions. Sockeye won a game-to-go over Portland in 2003 where a portion of the Portland team attempted to match Sockeye's meanness. Their elan and athleticism was more than we could really handle, but they tried to beat us where we were strong, which was toughness and tenacity. At the end of a long and hateful game, the young fresh talent on Portland wilted under the pressure. I also discussed the 97 Worlds Final (where DoubleHappy tried to match Sockeye's gamesmanship) in the Drama post, but perhaps the granddaddy of them all was Boston's 93 season. After watching NYNY's nastiness win four consecutive National titles (and 5 of 6), Boston inherited a transfer from NYNY, Joey Giampino. With a little nudge from Joey, Boston went down the dark road and tried every mean trick they possibly could. It was a titanic failure and the poison from it is still out there today.

It's a moral failure as well. The only possible way to "win" with this line of thinking is to match or out cheat-and-game the other team. The only way to "win" is to become the very thing you despised in the first place. Gambler's take on marking sums up the strategic decision leading to a moral failure well: "If your team's own marking style is aggressive (code word for cheating), then you get to practice playing against that all season. You'll be prepared for other teams that play that way. But your marks are also going to be illegal, perpetuating the problem and institutionally violating SOTG." Very few players set out to cheat their way to victory. Most just set out to get theirs and make sure that the score is even. The problem is, the gamesmanship skills involved are tough to learn and have to be practiced and then are ingrained and then...

The 4-person cup. Ben Iberle asked how to beat it.
I think the best focus on this one is tactical rather than through calls. Women's teams use the four-person cup a ton and most of the time, it is played legally and effectively. First of all, don't let them catch you and never let them catch you on the sidelines. Move the disc immediately to the first open player. Your wings should stand 5-10 yards clear of the sidelines and when they catch it, they should be getting rid of it immediately. Second, a varied attack makes a huge difference because it keeps the defense from keying in on any one thing. There are four ways to break any zone: inside, around, through and over. You want to set up with the inside (the little hand-off in the cup) because it gets you a couple yards, sets you up for the through and pisses the cup off. As they begin to react to the inside, then your around or through will open up more. It's a bit like establishing the run to set up the play-action pass; you want to get those linebackers (middle-middles) to bite. This is a good illustration of these principles.
From a call-game perspective, there's not a lot you can do without observers. You can sit back for the swing and call double-team after double-team until they back off. I have seen that done and be effective in changing the other team's behavior. It's a way of saying: 'We're not going to play until you play fair.' But again, I don't think you want to do that much. You still have to beat the zone. And if they are really cheating with the big-time double-team, they are creating a huge hole behind the cup. Crash and collapse the cup, then take advantage.

Summing the whole thing up.
1. The more you know, the better.
2. Just because you know how to play the call game, doesn't mean it's the right strategic choice.
3. Just because you know how to play the call game, doesn't mean it's the right moral choice.
4. Your team should discuss and create a plan for the call game.
5. Ignore antics from the other team and stick to your plan.

What's next?
Thanks for reading all this stuff. I hope you found it helpful and interesting. I'm going to work a bit on organizing the Without Limits blog roll and get Fugue up and running for 2011. Then, coming in January, I am going to take a look at referees and why they are a really, really bad idea.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Women's Ultimate Blog

Michelle and I are trying to increase the coverage of college women's ultimate. In the new media world, we are hoping to use player-generated content. If you are interested in helping, great! If you know someone who is or might be, please let them know. My vision is to bring together 10-15 of these...which would be sweet. Here's the official release; pass it on.

In an effort to increase the media coverage of women's ultimate, Without Limits is sponsoring a blog roll to increase coverage of women's ultimate. What we need is you, the writer. Our vision is a group of blogs that will cover the division from regional and national perspectives. We are hoping to recruit an author from each of the ten regions, as well as authors to provide weekly columns for each day of the week. Our hope is to consolidate existing blogs and encourage players to begin new blogs, together expanding the total media for women's ultimate.

We would like writers to be willing to commit to 6-8 stories over the course of the season, with flexibility based on the number of tournaments. We would also welcome team previews and other special features to help round out the coverage.

If you are interested, please contact Michelle Ng ( or Lou Burruss (

Sunday, December 12, 2010

How to Cheat to Win (without Cheating): The Lightning Rod

You know the guy, probably before you ever even play his team. "He's sick," your teammates tell you, "but what a dick!" Then you get in the game and he's not that bad...until it's 12-12. Then all of a sudden, he calls three travels, screams at your best defender to "quit fucking hacking me!" spikes it on your star rookie...and smirks his way to a 12-15 victory as your team melts away.

All of the things I've discussed in the Cheat to Win series: drama, traveling, fouls, marking and all the little gamesmanship moves are actually quite difficult to pull off. Like any other aspect of sport they require a certain level of talent, a certain way of seeing the game and certainly a flexible sense of morality. Not everyone on your team can or should huck. Not everyone on your team is a great receiver. That's as it should be. Just as strategic aspects of a game plan are divided up, so to are the Cheat to Win aspects. On most teams, this burden is carried by the Lightning Rod.

1. The Lightning Rod is always one of the best players on their team. Creating drama, making tons of calls, stomping around and yelling - these are all ways of saying, "I am more important than you. I matter. You don't." When those things happen, it isn't just to the opposing team that the Lightning Rod is imposing their importance, it is on their own team as well. A rookie or bencher just doesn't have the cache to pull this kind of stuff off. Their team wouldn't put up with it in practice, so it never develops as a behavior. This can be a little different for a men's club team, particularly one that is heavily split O and D. You have lightning rod players on the D team who aren't huge stars on the entire team, but that's because you are actually looking at two separate teams.
2. The team has to look away. This is where the morality of ultimate gets really slippery, really quickly. It's easy to condemn bad calls and cheaters and all those Lightning Rods out there, but they have teammates who tacitly condone that behavior. They may not even condone it. They may criticize it behind that player's back and fight about it in practice, but it doesn't matter because they take the wins. I'd encourage you to read this piece, by Tully Beatty of Wilmington. Amid all the crap Wilmington ultimate spit out, Tully was always a class act, but he still took the wins. (Sorry to call you out Tully; you got nailed for having the courage to say what others just think.)
3. There can be more than one. It's not the Highlander and often you will find a team where different players are doing different aspects of gamesmanship. This is much more true at the club level than the college level. This isn't surprising. Club teams, because of their greater depth of talent and experience, have a wider division of labor that a college team. Gamesmanship is no exception. There are two recent games that illustrate this perfectly: CUT-Florida and Ironside-Revolver. Notice (or remember) how many of the calls involved Brodie Smith (whether he made them or they were made against him.) In the Club Final, the calls were spread all over and the little bit of drama Crockford tried to start died pretty quickly when he turned it over.
4. It'll go both ways. I alluded to this a second ago, while discussing the College Finals. When you have a Lightning Rod involved, often their mere presence will generate bad behavior from the other team. Of course, since a Lightning Rod is totally comfortable with calls and drama, this only helps him. When Jonny G went up and played with the Monkey after all his bridges were burned in Seattle, we [Sockeye] were relentless about his play, his calls and his behavior - even though they weren't that bad anymore.

So what does this all mean?
1. Get him out of your head. Seriously. Why are you letting someone whose game you don't respect in your head? When you are all torqued up about so-and-so and his calls or spikes or whatever, you're not where you should be, which is focused on your play. The best way is to respect his play, be nice and when he pulls bullshit, stay nice. When you are playing an inferior team and someone on the other team starts pulling drama and making a lot of calls, what do you do? You mostly ignore it. You shake your head dismissively and you beat them. Later you think, "what an idiot." This should be your attitude in all such games, win or lose.
2. Check your own behavior. Before you whine or criticize too much, make sure you aren't part of the problem. Does your team have crappy, drama-filled games once or twice a tournament? Hm. Do you always have a problem with a particular team? Might be them. Might be the two of you together. Remember, it only takes one or two players to make a team be "a bunch of assholes." You personally might be just fine, but if your captain or fifth-year senior is pulling a bunch of bs...that's on you.
3. If you really have a problem with a teammate, vote with your feet. I have seen many players walk off teams because they didn't like the attitude created by one or more players. Usually, it happens in the off-season, but I've seen it happen once or twice midstream. It's bad for the team, but if it's the right decision for you, do it. You can also vote at the ballot box. It's pretty common for the team's biggest criminal to be a captain and captains need to be elected. My on-field behavior was always an issue when we voted for Sockeye captains and ultimately was one of the reasons I quit that job.

I am about ready to wrap this series up, but I am going to run one more post next Wednesday. It'll be a grab bag of responses to comments, some odds-and-ends that couldn't find a home, and answers to questions. If you have some, add them to the comment section or email them to me: louburruss at gmail.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

How to Cheat to Win (without Cheating): Marking

In the fall of 1994, I went to Chicago to play the first ever Tune-Up with Buddha (who became Sub-Zero in 1998.) For a period of five to six years, Tune-Up was the premier preseason club tournament and it was my first experience playing the likes of Dog, Rhino, Chain and Ring. I was arrogant and naive, over-confident and inexperienced. In short, I was about to get my ass handed to me.

There are two moments that stand out from that weekend. About four losses into Saturday, we were playing against Huntsville. I had a pretty good step-around backhand and all day I'd been trying to get it off, only to get hammered by the marker. Finally, frustrated and indignant, I went up to tall Donovan and whined, "You guys are such big cheaters. Every time I try to pivot and throw my backhand, you guys foul me. This doesn't happen in college ultimate. Why can't you play spirited like college ultimate?" Donovan looked down at me and said, "Go back to college," and walked off.

The second was in the Dog-Rhino final. Rick Melner (#00) v. Cork (picture not available). Cork catches the comeback about fifteen yards out and leans out into his classic straight-leg forehand. Ricky climbs right up Cork's leg like they're dancing the tango. It's such a brutal straddle that Cork's pivot foot must have been a good foot-and-a-half behind Ricky. But Cork leans out a little more, throws the goal and calls "Foul," just as cool as a cucumber.

The title of this series is How to Cheat to Win (without Cheating), but we need to be honest - these marking tricks are cheating. They all amount to trying to get away with whatever you possibly can. They depend on putting the onus for legal play on the calls of the thrower, not where it belongs, which is on the play of the marker. Here's how it works:

1. Get away with whatever you can. If you can hug them for ten seconds, do it. If you can fast count them, do it. If you can put both of your arms straight out and keep them from pivoting, do it. Straddle? Check. Less than a disc space? Check. In everyone of these scenarios, you put the thrower in a position to enforce fair play. If they don't, because they don't want to or don't know how or haven't realized you're cheating - big advantage. At the college level, the two most effective tactics are the hug-a-mark (arms straight forward to prevent pivoting) and the not-a-disc-space mark. That's because college players don't realize what is happening or have the skill set to take advantage of it. At the club level, it's the backpack, the bump on the catch, rough play early in the count. That's because even if the thrower does something about it (like call a foul), it still helps the defense.
2. Even against good throwers, foul between 0-5 in the stall count. It's during 0-5 that throwers do good things: like throw goals and big gainers. Stopping play here is a big advantage for the defense, so even if the thrower calls the foul, it's a win for the defense.
3. Backpack. Even if they catch it, they still have to stagger ten steps, losing yardage and time the whole way.
4. Fast count. The advantages here are obvious. On a side note, all of these strategies are designed to induce the rush state in the thrower and nothing hits the panic button like a quick trip to stalling 6.
5. Don't foul between 7 - 10. This is when turnovers happen. Really, it should be rephrased, don't get called for a foul between 7 and 10. See rule #1 for details.

How do you beat it?
1. Poise. The best weapon you have against a hack is the same calm composure Cork showed while throwing that goal. The effectiveness of the fouling mark is partly because of what it prevents you from doing, but even more so because of what it makes you think you can't do. Recognition of the problem is the first step to solving it. Once you realized you are being hacked, you have a number of excellent options.
2. Take the free throw. If the marker is continuously fouling you, step through and throw the backhand. Call foul. Make sure your move maintains contact with the marker the whole way, so when they try to argue the foul was before the throw, they'll be wrong.
3. Play through. Generally, stoppages benefit the defense. They can rest, assess the situation and stop the rhythm of the offense. The one time a stoppage benefits the offense is if you are about to get stalled. If you are being fouled, then this previous post applies.
4. Play fast. If you are throwing quickly and playing in an uptempo offense, there are far fewer static marking situations. It is the static situations that really allow the marker to clamp down. If you are releasing on stalling 1, before the marker can even get to you, they can't foul you.
5. Observers aren't that helpful for dealing with marking. Well, they are if your team really doesn't know how to deal with physical marks. But for everyone else, the more effective solution is to deal with it yourself in the ways described here. Club Nationals is the proof of this: tons of observed games and physical marking remains endemic.
6. Advocate for the "contact" call.
This new call, where a fouled thrower can call "contact," thereby resetting the stall count without stopping play, is a good cure for this problem. It removes the two biggest advantages the defense has in this situation: the opportunity to stop a throw and stop the rhythm of the offense. I talked to USAU Observer Scoops about it over the summer and I know it was in a trial phase then, but I haven't heard much since then. It remains to be seen how the game will evolve around such a big rule change, but I think it will be largely positive. (Although likely requiring another adjustment that will benefit the defense, like stalling 7.)

There are two posts remaining in this series: the Lightning Rod and a final wrap-up/comment discussion.