Why We Need the Swiss

Before discussing the ways that the Swiss system might be adapted to run small backgammon tournaments, let me show why I think something along these lines is needed by discussing the current practice for many such tournaments.

I recently played a backgammon tournament with 22 entries that used a main-consolation-last chance structure. I’ve redrawn the brackets that were used: IN Fall TrophyINFT2.

The format is trying to do a couple of different things. First, it’s trying to produce a winner, and it does that, pretty efficiently. Last year, and once before, I won this event, which requires five (or four, if you draw a bye) consecutive victories. In the main bracket, the matches are relatively long nine-pointers, which take about 90 minutes to play. If you win, you’re out the door with a large trophy and some worthwhile prize money by about 7:00. The tourney started at noon.

The second goal, however, is to give people a chance to play tournament backgammon, and it won’t do to offer only one match to those who lose in the first round. So there’s a progressive consolation, which gives everyone at least one more match. And there’s also a last chance. This particular last chance is open only to those who got at least to the last four of the consolation, so only 6 of the 18 players who don’t cash in the main bracket or the last chance get an opportunity to play on for the last small prize. And that prize gets awarded at about eleven o’clock.

As it happened, I had an indifferent day. I played four matches: won, lost, won, lost. I was done by about four o’clock, and I’d had my money’s worth. A friend had lost his first two rounds, and so was done shortly before three o’clock. Neither of us qualified for the last chance. But unfortunately, both of us had driven with people who did rather better. One of my friend’s passengers was in until the semi-finals of the last chance, which concluded about ten o’clock. And my passenger made it to the final of the last chance, which concluded at about eleven. So, both of us had to wait around for about seven hours.

The pathology of this sort of bracketed tournament is this: At the outset, they’re very efficient, with nearly everyone who enters playing the game. But as the tourney progresses, fewer and fewer players actually get to play. The progressive consolation keeps everyone in for at least a second round, but at the cost of extending the entire tourney from five to seven rounds. And even the truncated last chance in use here extends the tourney to an eighth round for very little benefit in terms of additional matches played.

The beauty of the Swiss format is that it offers everyone who enters as much play as it offers the winner, while still wrapping things up in a set number of rounds – five rounds for a tourney of this size. It takes a little longer to play than a five-round single elimination tourney because rounds cannot easily overlap – you have to finish, or at least nearly finish, each round before the next round can be called.

There are, to be sure, some challenges to running a Swiss system tourney, but I think it’s clearly worthwhile to give some though to how those challenges might be met.



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