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Meanwhile in San Antonio

In a comment to Steve Robinson's recent article, Mark Raphaelson asked: Question for the "top experts" if you're reading. And if you are too modest, let me modify the question as being for "players who are regularly/always on teams that are easily in bracket I.":

How do you feel about matches with players that are either playing way up, or have been put into the top bracket because of a lack of other "true" top teams entering the event?

When I last looked, no one had really answered Mark's question. I started to answer, but the answer became so long that I decided to post a separate article. (I try not to miss good opportunities to stick my foot in my mouth).

I don't consider myself a "top expert"--that's Steve Robinson, Michael Rosenberg, etc. I am, however, a "player who is regularly/always on teams that are easily in bracket I." The short answer Mark's question is that I have very mixed feelings.

The San Antonio Regional last weekend was typical of recent mid-sized regionals in my part of the world. I played two days of Bracketed Swiss, the format du jour here. In this format, the field is divided from top down based on average master points into 9-team brackets (except the bottom bracket is 9 plus any extras). I hope someone will correct me on this, but I don't think any team is allowed to play up or down. Through a series of 3-team round robins, each team in a bracket plays a 6-board match against every other team in the bracket. The boards are shuffled, not duplicated. The event is score by VPs on the 20 VP scale.

The players in the top bracket could be very roughly broken into four categories: 3 teams that clearly meet Mark's rather loose definition of "top expert" and were much stronger than the other teams (however, no sponsored teams entered);  a few players with fairly large holdings of master points, who "sorta" belonged in Bracket 1, had some chance because of the large luck factor in this format, but would likely be defeated by a large margin in long match against any of the first three teams; a few players who are young by ACBL standards, seem to be trying to learn the game but have quite a bit yet to learn, and were (I hope) delighted to be in the top bracket; and about 1/3 of the players seemed forced into the top bracket by master point "inflation," clearly belonged in a lower bracket, and (I imagine) were not so happy to be in the top bracket.

My feelings, in no particular order:

(1) I really felt sorry for some of the weaker players. Some of their card play seemed more like kitchen table bridge than the bridge that is supposed to be played at a medium-major tournament. Rather than describe play atrocities, it's easier to describe two bidding "problems" that "stand out": Axxx, 82, Kxxx, xxx. Player's partner opens 1, player bids 1, partner bids 1NT, and player corrects to 2! Two hands later, the same player holds: xxx, xxx, AQxx, AKx. Player opens 1, partner bids 1, and the player rebids 2!

Immediate questions: Why is this player in Bracket I??? Would she be happier in, say, Bracket V?

Second thought: This player, presumably, has quite a few master points and, presumably, has been playing for many years . Would she know more about the game by now than she seems to had the ACBL never invented flighting, bracketing, gold rush pairs, etc., etc.?

Third thought: On the other hand, would she have long ago given up bridge were it not for the ability to win master points against weak competition in formats that provide random results?

Fourth thought: Harsh as it may seem, would it be better for Bridge, the wonderful mind game, if this player were enjoying a weekly game of Canasta?

Fifth thought: I saw several players in lower brackets who are much closer to belonging in Bracket I than many of the players who landed in that bracket.  If the ACBL is going to continue to run events where the players are, supposedly, divided by skill level, the need for a more rational rating system has reached the level of DESPERATE.

(2) I was very happy that the team that included the youngest pair did very well on the first day I was there and finished 3rd (at least, I think they were youngest. I may be way off in my age estimates).  I was dismayed by the stupidity of the master point system when I noticed that at least one member of this pair was playing in a lower bracket the next day.  [Skipping back in time to a recent sectional.  A team won Bracket 1.  The silliness of master point totals put the same team in Bracket 2 the next day.  This is absurd].

(3) I actually liked this format when it first appeared, but I now feel that the combination of the six-board matches, the shuffled boards, and the very large variation in bridge skill in the top bracket make this format rather random, with the result depending to a great extent on how severely the strong teams beat up on the much weaker teams. If bracketing is the thing, I would prefer to return to a system where the directors have discretion to look for "breaks" in master point totals and assign brackets that way (or, much preferably, "breaks" in rating under a better rating system).  Players who are trying to improve should be allowed to enter a higher bracket.  If directors' discretion results in a 3-team top bracket playing round robin against each other, that's okay with me.

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