Sorting Out the Entrants

In my friend’s tennis league, the players prefer “interesting” matches, which in this context means matches between teams of roughly equal skill. In the last post, I showed how I generated partnerships, but not matches, for the league. Presently, I’ll discuss how the matches are done, which will also explain why I’m calling this format a “social Swiss”. But first it’s worth discussing the idea of interesting matches in general.

A concern for interesting matches is most common when choosing which players or teams are eligible to enter an event. The tournament will generate more interesting matches if the range of skills among the entrants is small.

This is, perhaps, easiest to accomplish in the case where you want the entrants to be the most skillful ones available. Here you reduce the spread of skill levels by pruning from the bottom – only the best players can meet the entry requirements. This is commonly what’s done for the most visible competitions in professional sports. Not just anyone is allowed to enter Wimbledon or the Master’s – you need to prove that you are among the elite at tennis or golf.

If there are elite events, of course, there need to be less elite competitions in which players can show their mettle. So, for professional tennis, there are “challenger” events, in which a player can earn points toward qualifying for more selective competitions. The PGA has an elaborate process by which golfers can earn a “tour card”, which allows them to compete on the tour, and the best players on that tour can aspire to earn a card that allows them to play on the main PGA tour.

In team sports (except in North America), it common to have more than one tier of play, with rules for promotion and relegation to ensure that only the best of the best teams compete at the highest level. In North America, where promotion and relegation schemes for teams are rare, it is still common for individual players to be promoted and relegated through a hierarchy of more and less elite leagues. In some cases, the “minor leagues” of a sport are the major leagues in some other part of the world. Thus, a hockey player not quite good enough to play in the NHL may make a decent living playing in one of the European ice hockey leagues, and in which they just might shine brightly enough to be offered a spot on an NHL roster later.

In most professional sports, it’s not really necessary to have policies in place to prevent elite players from entering low-tier events. The contrast in salaries and other living conditions between the minor leagues and major league baseball is so great than it’s almost unknown for a player to refuse promotion. Likewise, the prize money available on the tour is not enough to tempt golfers to decline a “tour card” for the PGA tour if their results are good enough to qualify for one.

There are, however, some sports where there’s enough money at the lower levels, and enough of a skill difference between levels, to tempt players to try to resist being promoted to more elite events, staying at a lower level to clean up against lesser competition.

Perhaps the most interesting ways to combat this are found in thoroughbred horse racing. In horse racing, organizers need to run lots of individual races with uncertain outcomes to provide punters many opportunities to bet. So it’s important that there be ways for non-elite horses to run for serious stakes.  There are graded stakes races, which admit only horses judged to be of a certain quality, and handicap races that increase the uncertainty of the outcome when contested by horses of different mettles. But the most common expedient is the claiming race. In a claiming race, as a condition of entry, a horse’s owner is required to sell the horse to any interested party for a fixed sum. Thus, it’s risky for horse owners to try to make money by winning purses in claiming races by entering horses that are conspicuously better than the other entrants because they may have to sell the horse for less than it’s worth.

In other forms of gambling there are often strong incentives for skilled players to seek our competitions where they can win money from the less skilled. In many games, the ability to find money games with less-skilled opponents (also known as suckers) is more important to the professional than attaining world-class skill.

Where there is no gambling on individual match results, but significant prize money for tourney winners, there is still a problem of players electing to “play down”, especially in competitions where most of the entrants are amateurs.  The ways to solve it are often limited.

Backgammon tournaments commonly empower the tournament committee to refuse entry to a players who’s thought to be too good to play as an “beginner” or an “intermediate”.

In chess, there are commonly separate prizes for the best results for players with ratings below a certain threshold, which in turn causes certain players to try to lose ratings points by playing poorly in other competitions where there’s no money as stake.

In contract bridge, divisions are defined in terms of “master points”, which simply accumulate and are never taken away. But in bridge it is common for very poor players who play a lot to accumulate enough points to place them in divisions that are really beyond their skill, and for good-but-inexperienced players to win prizes easily. This would be intolerable, I suspect, but for the fact that cash prizes are rare in bridge. The way for an outstanding player to make money in contract bridge tournaments is to accept money to play as a partner to a well-off but unskillful player who is trying to earn points.

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