Professional games and sports need to be organized so that the competition is interesting to watch. And one frequent way to do this is to keep the ultimate outcome of an individual contest in doubt for as long as possible. The techniques for doing this often compromise fairness and other values.
In other posts, I’ve been at some pains to define some essential words, such as “game”, “sport”, and “fairness”. But if there’s one concept at the heart of tourneygeek, it is “tournament”. Defining that word proves a bit difficult.
I’m running for the Board of Directors of the United States Backgammon Federation, or USBGF. In connection with this, I’m hoping for a small influx of readers interested specifically in what this blog has to say about backgammon. This page provides a starting point.
National Basketball Association Commissioner Adam Silver has floated the idea of changing the way that teams qualify and are seeded in the NBA playoffs. Instead of qualifying eight of the fifteen teams in each conference, and seeding those eight into separate knock-out bracket, with the winners of those two brackets playing in the finals for the championship, perhaps the league should qualify the 16 teams with the best record, regardless of conference, into a single 16 bracket.
The reason that alternatives are sought is that the two conferences of the NBA are widely regarded as being badly our of balance. According to the gnomes at fivethirtyeight.com, eight of the nine best teams in the league, including the top three, are in the Western conference.
One of the possible objections, anticipated by Mr. Silver himself, is that the regular season schedule is not balanced between the two conferences. In the 82-game season, each team plays each other team in the league at least twice, but each team plays ten of the teams in its own conference four times, and the other four in-conference teams thrice. Is this a problem?
Hearts full of youth,
Hearts full of truth,
Six parts gin to one part vermouth.
– Tom Lehrer, “Bright College Days”
In The Only Thing that Matters is October, I derived parameters for Major League Baseball that track Lehrer’s recipe for martinis, with luck taking the role of gin, and skill relegated to the role of vermouth.
In earlier posts, I’ve fretted a good deal about what I thought was a strikingly large role of chance in backgammon, e.g., All That Luck. Can it possibly be true that the ratio of such to skill in baseball is twice as large as it is in backgammon? What does that mean for the way baseball is played?
One of the more peculiar features of the Major League Baseball playoffs (or “postseason”, as the league prefers to call it) is the fact that five teams from each league qualify. The three division winners each get a bye, and the two non-winners with the best records play a single game to see which will join the other three. Including the World Series, then, the MLB playoffs are, essentially a single-elimination tourney on a 16 bracket with six first-round byes.
Six byes? A single-game first round? My first reaction is that this has got to be one of the worst formats in use for a major professional sport. But, working through the ramifications, I’ve come to opposite conclusion. The Major League Baseball wild card system is a stroke of genius.
The Major League Playoffs begin tonight with the “wild card” game between the Twins and the Yankees. This event is being promoted by one of the networks with the tag line “The only thing that matters is October”. This reflects the structure of the playoffs, where the entire 2430-game regular season matters only for qualification and seeding for a relatively brief knockout postseason.
It would be hard to argue that this arrangement is designed to award the championship to the best team. Instead, it appears that the intention is to create as much interest as possible for a limited time. October, for baseball, is like March for NCAA basketball – a special time when the attention of less avid fans can be captured by a series of high-stakes games. Fairness, at least in the sense of fairness (C), is less important than creating good spectacle.
So how severely is fairness (C) compromised? This post, and a few to follow, will look at the structure of the playoffs, and compare it in fairness (C) terms to some possible variations.