The splendid UKBGF website has been sadly lacking in controversy since the five pre-election questions were provocatively posed late last year so it is a good time to raise the following divisive discussion. I encourage anyone who has a strong view either way on the following motion to get involved in what I hope will become a lively debate.
Variable pools favour the stronger, cash-rich player but penalise and
act as a disincentive to the weaker cash-poor player.
So what is meant by a variable pool? To answer that question, we will first look at traditional optional pools.
Originally, when a tournament or competition was big enough to justify it, there would be a choice of optional stand-alone pools set at two (or occasionally three) levels. Without talking values, let’s give our two optional pool levels names: High-Roller and Low-Roller. Generally speaking the better players (and a few with more money than sense) would go into the high-roller pool and the intermediate or weaker players would enter the low-roller pool. The players who travelled furthest in the main competition would collect from their respective pools.
This gave the weaker, intermediate players a modest but valid financial stake in the tournament even if they did not have a cat in hell’s chance of winning the main event.
Now a few years back, some bright spark with long hair came up with the notion of a variable pool.
A variable pool allows you to enter the main pool for whatever stake you are happy with. In essence, this means that there is just one pool and you can only win a proportion of the pool corresponding to your stake.
A simple example is that in a sixteen player tournament, 8 players choose to pay £5 into the pool, 4 players choose to pay £10 into the pool and the remaining 4 players pay £20. This puts a total of £160 into the pool. For simplicity, we will say that this is a Winner-Takes-All pool; there are no prizes for coming second.
- If a £20 player wins the tournament, he collects the full amount of £160.
- If a £10 player wins the tournament, he collects £120. This comprises £10 x 8 (from the £10 and £20 players) plus £5 x 8 (from all the £5 players). The remaining £40 goes to the furthest advanced £20 player.
- If a £5 player wins the tournament, he collects £80 (£5 x 16). The balance of £80 is collected by the furthest progressing £20 player, unless a £10 player progresses further in which case it is shared pro-rata.
When this idea was first put forward, it was well received by most. It meant for a bigger, more attractive prize pool as opposed to two lesser stand-alone prize pools. By lumping all the pool money together, it rewarded the players who risked more money and offered a smaller reward for those who risked less. This innovative idea was eagerly adopted.
But who is actually better off with variable pools and who is worse off?
High-rollers now can pick up the whole prize fund by winning the tournament, whereas before with traditional pools they could only pick up the high-roller pool and nothing from the low-roller pool. Even if they don’t win the tournament, but travel further than anyone else at their level, they still cash. This is a very favourable position for a strong player with a healthy bankroll. I am sure that for this reason stronger players will happily argue the case for variable pools to protect their advantageous position. It would be foolish for them to do otherwise.
Now let’s look at this from the perspective of a typical £5 intermediate player. Previously, this Intermediate, who was unlikely to win the main tournament, had a chance to cash by advancing further than all the other low rollers. With a variable pool, a low roller now has to actually win the tournament – an unlikely event – in order to cash. Is this really an incentive for a weak player to enter the variable pool?
Bearing in mind that this low roller is proportionally less likely to win the tournament than the better players around him; the low roller may perceive his variable pool entry as more of a tax collected for the benefit of stronger players than as a viable prospect of getting a return himself.
It can be argued that everyone is playing for a bigger prize fund if they do win, which is correct, but this is not much consolation to the weak player who is unlikely to win the main tournament. Backgammon players like to play the odds. Statistically, the weaker player is actually better off not entering the variable pool at all, whereas the strong player is better off entering the pool at the top rate. But weaker players have no choice if this is the only pool arrangement on offer. Pay up or play for nothing.
I feel strongly enough about this now that I will not enter a variable pool, and seeing that many local clubs are adopting variable pools de facto, many prize funds are missing out on what I would otherwise be contributing.
It is great that we have so many strong players in the UK willing to step forward and give up their time for running backgammon events and federations. My concern is that strong players in charge sometimes forget what it is like to not be a strong player. Their view of prize funds is coloured by their own realistic desire to win big. There may be a danger that the rest of us intermediates then become fodder.
My big fear is that the UKBGF is looking to adopt a form of variable entry system for the UK Open. I trust that the UKBGF Board and other Backgammon Organisers will take note of this article and more importantly the following comments for and against variable pools. In certain situations, variable pools work to the benefit of everyone but they should not be used as standard. I may be a lone voice on this, in which case I will put up and shut up. I just wonder whether there are any other intermediate players out there who feel the way I do about paying the “variable pool tax.”