The Official Rules of Chess discus only two tournament types: the round robin, and the Swiss system. Why is it that the round robin is so popular, and why is it used so rarely for other kinds of tourney?
The Swiss is sort of an elimination tourney in which no one ever gets eliminated. For the second round, first-round winners play other first-round winners and losers play losers. In subsequent rounds, players are grouped by won/loss record, with, for example, players with two wins and two losses facing each other in the fifth round.
The Swiss system makes sense whenever the limiting factor is the number of rounds to be played. With a bit enough room and lots of chess sets, there’s no reason why some players should have to drop out of the tourney early, or to wait around for a match to become available. It would seem a natural choice not just for chess, but for other games like backgammon. Why shouldn’t backgammon players enjoy the same maximum participation that chess players do?
[apologies to Jonathan Steinberg, author of Why Switzerland?, which is the best book I know for understanding Switzerland, the country.]
The Swiss System is not unknown for backgammon tourneys, but it’s not the norm. Let me suggest three reasons for this:
- Running a Swiss system tourney is complicated. Lots of non-chess players don’t really understand it, and perhaps are also inclined to think that the complexity hides a lot of opportunity for the tourney director to favor friends and punish enemies;
- Swiss systems (and round robins also) produce lots and lots of ties, and ties are a pain in the neck;
- Swiss systems require one round to finish (or at least nearly finish) before the next one can begin, and this seems inefficient; and
- Some backgammon players think that playing for prize money is an essential part of any tourney, and so don’t want to keep on playing once they’ve lost enough games to ensure that they’re out of the money.
As for point one, it’s true that Swiss systems are more complicated than bracketed elimination tourneys, and there’s a learning curve to running them. Rules 27 and 28, which govern Swiss system tournaments together occupy 45 pages of the USCF rulebook, whereas rule 29, about round robins, needs only two pages.
One should bear in mind, however, that running a Swiss tourney for backgammon should be much less complicated than running a Swiss for chess. In chess, it’s important to give each player nearly the same number of opportunities to play white, with the advantage of the first move. Chess is a very high-skill game in which one should expect lots of skill progression. And chess tourneys (at least the ones run by the USCF) also organize play according to numerical ratings that represent skill, and are handled so as to introduce a kind of seeding into the tourney. Backgammon doesn’t have to worry about white and black, has a relatively low level of skill progression, and is almost never seeded.
Ties are a problem for backgammon, too, and perhaps an even bigger one. In chess there are draws, which means that there will be more different records. after one round of chess, there are 1-0 players, 0-1 players, and 1/2-1/2 players who got a draw. At backgammon, there are only the first two groups.
The need to finish one round before starting the next is also a problem, though there are some advantages to it, also. One of the maddening things about backgammon tourneys is that you often have to hang around waiting for your next match because you don’t know when your opponent will become available. If you know that the next round is going to start as a time certain, you know whether you have time for a walk (or even a nap) to clear your head.
Finally, the need to be playing for money is a real issue with some players, though not with others. It’s often the better players who feel this way – weaker players who are not expecting to win money often still want to play several rounds.
In the next few posts, I’ll explore ways to deal with these problems.