From basketball’s 3-point shot to football’s “Hail Mary”, underdogs win by taking unexpected risks. The ancient Chinese general Sun Tzu, who led a small army to great victory, predicted as much in his 2,500 year-old strategy guide The Art of War.

Attack where he is unprepared, appear where you are least expected. Thus you may see than in war, surprise is the key to victory.

Sun Tzu

Using unconventional tactics, from guerrilla warfare to stalling, gives the underdog an advantage. In war, being spontaneous means that the weaker country has a 63.6% chance of winning.

Conventional vs. Unconventional Underdog

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Data from political scientist Ivan Arreguín-Toft

Percentage of Wars Won

How do unconventional war tactics translate to sports? Ambushes and raids meant to surprise and exhaust the enemy army resemble intentional fouling and stalling for time. Winning on both the battle and playing field depends on calculated risk.

Football: Hail Mary

Desperate times call for desperate measures. When there are only a few plays left in the game but many more yards, statistics calls for a football miracle: a long pass of 50 yards named “Hail Mary”.

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MIT physicist Brian Skinner Scoring Strategies for the Underdog

An MIT study found that runs should occur when there remain many plays and few yards, a short pass when there are more than a few yards. While runs and short passes are common to football, the 50-yard long pass are much more rare. A team relying on a “Hail Mary” usually only needs one to work, so even though the pass is unlikely, the risk is worth the reward.

Basketball: Shooting 3’s

The three-point shot is basketball’s most common risk, although teams are rewarded extra if they make it. But let’s assume you have a team who will make a 3-point shot 33% of the time and a 2-point shot 50% of the time, on average. The expected value would be 1 point for either type of shot. The MIT study shows that an underdog should nevertheless shoot 3’s while the favorite should shoot 2’s. This is true even when the expected value of a 3-point shot is lower than that of a 2-point shot. The closer the underdog is to losing, the more 3’s they should shoot.

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MIT physicist Brian Skinner Scoring Strategies for the Underdog

The winning team should shoot 2’s more often because there is less risk for missing a shot and falling behind the losing team. The losing team doesn’t have the advantage of falling back on low-point shots because they need more points than they could get just by shooting 2’s. The math adds up to a risk-taking strategy for the underdogs and a risk-avoidant strategy for the favorites.

The unconventional tactics Sun Tzu promoted more than 2,500 years ago stand strong today in the world of sports: intentional fouling, stalling for time, 3-point shots, and “Hail Mary” are integral to the arsenal of underdogs. Taking calculated risks lets the weaker team win.

A victorious leader plans for many eventualities before the battle; a defeated leader plans for only a few.

Sun Tzu
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