Sunday, January 13, 2013

Masterpoints, or "dumb and dumber"

Several recent occurrences have reminded me of the issues with the rather odd system we have of recognizing bridge success, which we in ACBL land call masterpoints. I last wrote about this subject three years ago in Points, schmoints.

The latest and perhaps most trivial silliness is the recent announcement that platinum points, albeit fractional, will be awarded at an event restricted to players with fewer than 10,000 masterpoints. On the one hand this seems like more "dumbing down" by the ACBL and a new thin-end-of-the-wedge, similar to the devaluing of gold points. On the other hand, it's ludicrous given that the event will exclude all of 553 players (one third of one percent of all ACBL members) from participating. Are they serious?

Then there's Adam Parrish's contribution to Bridge Winners Give the 27-54s some love! This article makes the very good point that the ACBL is doing nothing to encourage the middle-aged players. Surely these are the future of the game every bit as much as the juniors and youths? Many of the points of discussion relate to basic questions like Why do people play bridge? What motivates them to play in particular events? etc. I think I have mentioned this before in my blog but we know from the types of articles that are these days missing from the Bulletin (in particular Partnership Bridge) that the editors are deliberately dumbing down its content.

But perhaps the most significant recent event is the effort by officials of my district (25) to discover why the B flight members are not coming to tournaments as much as they should. Apparently, the C flight is coming in droves because of the "Gold Rush" events (yes, I've noticed this of course). The A flight comes because they love to play bridge and win points. I don't know if the absolute numbers of B players is down but it seems that C players who have been amassing gobs of masterpoints in Gold Rush events eventually get "promoted" to the B flight and whoa! it's not so easy to win any more. So they stay home.

Could it possibly be that we gave them a false expectation of their ability to win points? Could it be that we made them think that winning points was all bridge is about? Could it be that after life master, there is no meaningful rank left to attain, other than the very remote (for most of us) Grand Life Master?

Tweaking masterpoint awards, event schedules, dividing the field into brackets, and the like are all very well to increase membership and table counts. But I think they are a short-term solution.

Here's my proposal:

Divide the field into three tranches, possibly four. Beginners, "relaxed," and open. A possible fourth tranche might be NABC+ (a special kind of open). Any player may play in any tranche. No restrictions, although club directors would be able to exclude players from the beginners group at their discretion. There might not even be such beginner events at tournaments, but if so there would probably have to be some upper limit to keep it sane. Clubs would not normally hold open events, except perhaps for club championships, charity games, and that sort of thing. On such occasions, if the club is big enough, it might hold two sections, one competitive, one relaxed.

Each tranche would have a different type of masterpoints. Let's call them white, pink and blue, but I really don't care: perhaps we could name them after quarks: charm, up and down, etc. The different types of points would not be interchangeable. If you just want to play bridge and don't particularly enjoy playing against experts, you play in the relaxed game. You will never reach so many points that you can no longer play in this game. If you are a competitor, you try to play in open games when you can.

Simple, right? Players would still see their point totals going up month by month. Milestones would be different for each tranche. There would be no such thing as a "life master." Open/NABC milestones would be more meaningful: a certain number of points, a certain type of win (single-session tournament, two-session, KO, etc.)

In many ways, this would be a reversion to the "old days," before flighting and pigmented points. Except that in those days, there were no beginner games and no relaxed games. When you joined the ACBL and started playing you were swimming with the sharks, like it or not. Earning even a fraction of a point was an achievement!

We would eliminate "senior" events altogether. Given that most players in the ACBL are already in the 55+ group, it hardly constitutes a meaningful demographic division. Older players who wanted a little less seriousness in the game would play in the relaxed events.

I'll add one more observation. In the Boston area (specifically the "Route 128" corridor), we have three clubs which offer a Saturday afternoon game. For those of us who live on the West side of the city, there are two games within reach. One game is a very competitive club game (Westwood). The other is a so-called "Goodtimers" game (but open to anyone who wants to have a good time) at Dean Panagopoulos' Bridge Spot. Players are to a large extent already voting with their feet (well, their wheels) as to which game they prefer. And why not? Give people the type of game they enjoy. Isn't that ultimately what will bring people back to play more bridge?

This subject is one of the most controversial of all bridge topics so I expect some comments!


  1. A longer reply having been misplaced somewhere in cyberspace, I will re-write only the portion that I would define as the threshold question.

    When players choose to enter a "lesser" event, are they making that choice to increase their mp expectation or are they making that choice to avoid playing the sharks?

    That the mp award system needs to be reworked is pretty obvious (although I would suggest that redistribution of mps is more needed than just deflating mps). But if the core reason that players choose to enter "lesser" events is to avoid playing the sharks, then the appropriate solutions are not terribly drastic. Just eliminate most of the restricting criteria for "lesser" events (yes, especially age restrictions), and ensure that all players have the choice to enter a Relaxed Game or an All Comers game. Each can be scored across multiple strata, so choosing the game should not affect one's ability to earn mps, but rather just the probable quality of the competition one faces.

  2. Assuming games were stratified instead of flighted, it would be easy to avoid promoting C players to B before they were ready. Promote them only after they've placed in B a sufficient number of times, or accumulated a certain number of points from flight B finishes. In other words, the way you get into flight B is by proving yourself against the existing flight B players, not by beating up on flight C.

  3. Interesting article. Your ideas might work, but masterpoints are here to stay, I'm afraid.

    "we know from the types of articles that are these days missing from the Bulletin .. that the editors are deliberately dumbing down its content."

    The Bridge Bulletin has to be all things to all men, so to speak. The experts think there is too much stuff for beginners. Beginners think there is too much stuff catering to experts, and so it goes.

    The ACBL marketing department surveys (randomly) members each year and the Bulletin staff use the results to guide many of their decisions. The average member surveyed has 500 masterpoints and is 70 years old. What they would like to read and what you're interested in are likely quite different.

    1. Yes, I shouldn't be so hard on the ACBL. They have a business to run whether we like to admit it or not. On the whole they do a great job. And I do look forward to reading each new Bulletin.

      And it's not that I have anything against masterpoints as such. I just think that if we don't stop and think it through, we will be tinkering with this and that forever.

  4. Robin,

    I've likened masterpoints to the Dutch Tulip Bulb craze of centuries past. Tulip bulbs are nice little commodities that grow up to be nice flowers. But there was a day in time (early 1637) where they were suddenly imbued with investor craze and become, briefly, more valuable than gold and jewels. Then somebody noticed just how ... surreal ... that was and sanity was restored.

    I mean, seriously, does anybody REALLY take masterpoints seriously once they become something more advanced than a novice? I DO remember my first fractional black points. Point zero eight in my first duplicate bridge game ever. 'Cuz my high school chum and I WON a four-table game at the local library. Didn't win again for another year, but that little slip kept me coming back for more. Moved past the 20-point barrier by captaining the Novice Teams champs at the Canadian Championships a little bit less than a year later. That was 1977. And even by then, I knew masterpoints didn't mean much in the way of identifying who was the better bridge player. Sure, BIG gaps were pretty indicative. But unless talking about an order of magnitude, masterpoints were meaningless.

    Of course, joining the ACBL staff meant paying lip service to the company's main product. But that came to a crashing halt out in Portland OR for a Spring NABC. Henry Francis assigned me the task of getting a hand for the Daily Bulletin from the table where a noted celebrity was playing with a noted Bridge journalist. I've never identified the person in re-telling the story because the person is extremely likable and a treasure in that person's chosen field. But boy was this Life Master a crummy player. Would not have been in the top 30 in our little 24-person club back home. I couldn't come up with a single hand to report back to Henry.

    On that day, masterpoints and even the vaunted Life Master status ceased to have all meaning to me. I didn't send in club points (this, being the Dark Ages of last century, there were no computers doing that for me), and dawdled along without ever checking a masterpoint award ever again. Fact is, I never, ever did become a Life Master.

    Which MIGHT sound like sour grapes from a player with a self-inflated sense of capability. 'Cept I have all the gold points I need. And then some. I haven't played in less than a top flight for decades, even if I had a lower level to play at. I was so upset at winning the C Strats in a pairs at the Summer NABC's in Toronto that I quit playing. Again. All because we played lousy bridge that just happened to be the best in that stratification because few of that rank chose to play in the Open Pairs for that day.

    Once you lose the worry over the ACBL's masterpoint manipulations and satisfy yourself with how you played, Bridge goes back to being a fun game. And oddly enough, you end up winning the ACBL point 'race' more often as a result.

    The emperor has no clothes.

  5. My response is here:
    TL;DR version: your post is directionally correct but with some additional thought a more robust system is possible.