Q. Masterpoints do not measure ability. What should we do?
A. It is a myth that the function of masterpoints is to measure ability. Masterpoints themselves are an award. Furthermore, they are used to achieve other awards. Their primary function is as an award, and they need to be managed as awards. If you treat them like a measure of ability, you will not manage them properly.
Are they really used to measure ability? Not that I know of. Most players seem to realize that they are not a good indicator of ability.
They are in one way used to measure ability -- when a field is stratified. This usage is minimal. Furthermore, as measures go, total number of masterpoints is a reasonable measure of ability. (I would guess a correlation of .60 or higher.) Yes, masterpoint total is influenced by how much a person has participated. But skilled players tend to participate more than less-skilled players, and participation itself contributed to skill.
If a measure of ability is needed, masterpoints is a thus a reasonable measure, and certainly better than nothing. If someone wanted to develop a more accurate measure, they do doubt could. However, while that could replace masterpoints as a measure of ability, it would not replace masterpoints as an award.
From the ACBL's website, we get one statement about the function of masterpoints: "The ACBLís masterpoint system appeals to members because it permits them to know their approximate overall ranking relative to every other member." I doubt it. Frankly, if the ACBL wants me to pay attention to this, they should include my percentile ranking to me when they report my points. Then I will pay attention -- it will be another masterpoint "game".
Q. Masterpoints are a function of ability, yes, but they are also influenced by how often someone plays.
A. This is a relatively serious problem for masterpoints as a measure of ability. But they are primarily used as an award. If you are a sailor, number of trophies depends on both your skill and how many races you enter. That is accepted and fine -- no one complains that number of trophies can be increased by entering more races; the value of a trophy is not downgraded.
There is a much subtler issue. In chess, you have a rating. When you play in a tournament, your rating might go up, if you win. But it might go down, if you lose. People do not like to lose. When they lose, they might think "I wish I had stayed home." In bridge, people either win masterpoints or they do not. People do not like to go home empty-handed. But it is not as bad as actually losing masterpoints. There is much less reason to think "I wish I had stayed home."
Now we can see two consequences of the masterpoint system. First, players are happier. That is reason enough to keep the system. The second effect is that it does reward participation, so it motivates people to play more. Not to be crass, but that means more money for the ACBL.
There is little problem to using a chess-like rating in bridge. OKBridge does it. If a measure of ability becomes important, it can be used. But it would never replace masterpoints, and it would carry the downside that if people paid attention to it, it would mean punishing half of the players who participate. For that reason, I would not recommend publicizing such a measure.
Q. Maybe it is okay that larger club games award more masterpoints? With more tables, the results are more reliable.
A. Luck is more relevant in a smaller game. It is appropriate for the ACBL to give lower awards for less "reliable" events. However, as far as I know, the ACBL does not in general do that. (It seems to me that board-a-match has more luck than other methods of scoring.) Furthermore, if there was a premium for more reliable events, it should be small -- the current "reward" for larger games is way out of proportion to the modest increase in reliability.
Finally, the ACBL is not intentionally rewarding large club games. It is using a formula that accidentally rewards large club games. If the current formula was actually good, the ACBL would not stop using it when the club game size was larger than 15 tables. The 16-table game awards only 1.50 for first place.
Q. What about the problem that some clubs are stronger than others? In other words, it is easy to win masterpoints in some clubs than others?
A. There is probably no solution. This is a minor problem. A related problem is that some areas of ACBL-land might be stronger than others. The ACBL probably should not be in the business of rewarding some clubs (and hence punishing others).
The A awards could be based on what percentage of the field is A players. The problem with this is that it takes a little too seriously the idea that total masterpoints is a good measure of ability. Such as system would probably make awards more proportional to merit, but it seems like the gain would not be substantial.
Q. What about the requirement of 50 silver points for Life Master?
A. I can imagine there being a good justification for this policy. However, I cannot think of one, and of course there is no justification for it (or anything else) on the ACBL website. This makes achieving Life Master more difficult, but I can't see how it increases merit. The suspicion will be that it merely forces participation in Sectionals. People who perceive this will be resentful of the ACBL, which cannot be good.
The red point requirement was instituted in the late 60's to address the problem that making Life Master had become too easy. (You can imagine how difficult the requirement of 300 masterpoints is now, which 35 years of slow inflation.) The red point requirement was immediately rendered pointless because red points could be earned for winning matches in Swiss Teams. So the gold point requirement was instituted. This was and is a good idea. Of course, offering easy gold points at knockouts undermines this effort.
Q. What about requiring black points for Life Master?
A. See my answer for silver points, It seems even more obvious that the ACBL is being self-serving. Again, if they have a justification, it should be on their website.
Worse, the rule presumably influences very few people. So the ACBL is getting bad publicity for essentially nothing.
Q. Isn't it wise to ignore masterpoints and just enjoy bridge?
A. Yes, being too "attached" to masterpoints is not wise. It is better to enjoy bridge for the sake of playing bridge and to attach more importance to your own evaluation than to masterpoints. But I think players should find this enlightenment, not be pushed into it by a discourging masterpoint system. And once this enlightenment is found, I suspect it is appropriate to enjoy masterpoints, in a more detached way, and this enjoyment would be increased by a more equitable system.
Q. Will the ACBL consider any change in masterpoints before 2007?
A. They will do what's right. The examine the masterpoint policy every five years, and the next tune-up isn't planned until 2007. But they made a potentially major change in masterpoint policy in the Summer of 2004. So, when they want to, they act.
These are serious problems that need to be fixed. Waiting until 2007 to think about these changes is just an excuse not to consider them. These changes are too huge to be part of the tune-up process. Once fixed, smaller unexpected and undesirable consequences of these changes naturally will occur. The idea that they would make major changes in 2007 and then not make any changes until 2012 is ridiculous. Make the big changes. If they want to wait until 2007 to examine the effects of those changes, fine.