Why Masterpoints Deserve Care

Principles of Masterpoint Administration (you are here)

Teams Versus Pairs
Changing the massive discrepancy between team and pair events

Building a Better Formula
Criteria for a good formula, problems with the current formulas, and a better formula.

What You Can Do

Other Information

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Principles of Awards

The Law of Merit

The value of an award is proportional to the merit needed to achieve the award.

Commentary. No suprise here. This is why masterpoints and Life Master have value.

Masterpoints are Awards

I will define an award as anything given for meritous performance. An award can have intrinsic value, such as the Olympic gold medal (which can be melted and sold for gold.) An award can have no intrinsic value, such as a trophy. An award also need not have any physical existence, such as being on the honor roll or Dean's List.

Masterpoints are awards, because they are given for meritous performance. They are also used for other awards, such as Life Master and Unit Mini-McKinney races. Masterpoints are occasionally used as a measure of ability, but to properly manage masterpoints, they must be managed as rewards.

Masterpoints function primarily as awards to ACBL members, are governed by the principles of awards, and should be managed as awards.

The Law of Inflation

The Law of Inflation follows logically from the Law of Merit.

Increasing all awards by some proportion devalues the awards to the exact same proportion.

For example, a club game with 12 tables currently awards 1.20 for first place. If all awards were doubled, that club would award 2.40 for first place. But the merit is exactly the same, so the masterpoints would be exactly half as valuable. (There would be a lag in this change in value, as explained below.)

Of course, if the ACBL suddenly doubled all masterpoint awards, that would devalue all previous awards. It would also show that, at the ACBL's whim, masterpoints can lose value. This would create disillusionment with masterpoints.

The Law of Least Merit

When the merit needed to achieve an award can vary, the value of an award is proportional to the least merit needed to achieve the award.

Example. If the purple heart is awarded for serious injury in battle, then it is a prestigious award. If it is awarded for any injury in battle, even a cut that just needs a small band-aid, then it has no value. We still might respect someone with a serious injury in battle, but the respect will be for the injury, not the award.

Similarly, suppose the ACBL wanted to raise money, so it literally sold gold points. They would be expensive, of course, but compared to the time and expense of attending tournaments for just a chance of gold points, they would be a good deal for some people. Buyers would be happy, and the ACBL could gain some badly needed funds. But then gold points would be worth nothing. Someone could say "I have all the gold points I need for Life Master." But we would not be impressed, because the person could have bought them.

Commentary. The ACBL should not view itself as being in the business of selling masterpoints. But if it did, what could it do? It can't increase production. By the law of inflation, that would simply reduce merit proportionally to the increase in production.

Worse, if the ACBL increases masterpoints for just some events, so that event awards more masterpoints than other events of equal merit, then the ACBL is actually reducing the value of masterpoints. For example, if team and pair events gave the same awards, the value of the masterpoints would be proportional to the merit needed to win them and the situation would be optimal. But team events give twice as many masterpoints. Therefore, the value of the masterpoints is proportional to the merit needed to win them in the team game. In terms of value, not enough masterpoints are given for pairs events. Therefore, this differential in reward essentially decreases the production of masterpoints -- the value for team games is equal to what it would be if team and pair events were the same, but the value for pair events is less than what it would be if team and pair events were the same.

So, ironically, when people are "nice" about giving away awards, they are probably causing more harm than benefit. When people are strict about giving away awards, they might seem not-nice, but they are protecting the integrity of the award and probably causing more benefit than harm. Putting this as a law:

The overall value of masterpoints is maximized when the awards are proportional to merit.

There are practical limits to the Law of Least Merit. If the ACBL sold gold points but the price was so high that only a few people bought them, the value of gold points would still be decreased, but the decrease would not be as much as if everyone could afford to buy them. Similarly, the law of merit will counteract the law of least merit enough that masterpoints are a little more valuable than the least merit needed to earn them.

The Lag Law

When the merit needed to achieve an award changes, the value of the award changes, but the change is not immediate.

Commentary. There are two reasons for this lag. One is informational -- it takes time for people to learn about the change.

The other is psychological. Awards acquire their value through association with merit. If suddenly less merit is needed to achieve the award, the person's perception of value could change right away. But most people require experience with the new system in order to learn the new values.

The Law of Distorting Participation

Inequities in masterpoint awards decrease enjoyment of bridge by encouraging participation in less popular events.

Explanation. Imagine a masterpoint policy in which the masterpoint awards are always proportional to merit. Suppose -- as actually is the case -- that players are interested in winning masterpoints. A player will have incentive to play in the clubs and events that player does best in. That is unavoidable. Otherwise, the player will play in those clubs and events the player likes most.

Now suppose that policy is changed. For example, large club games give out more masterpoints per person than small club games. That creates what I call a masterpoint gradient. The masterpoint gradient encourages the player to play in the large club rather than the small club. (Note that all gradients follow the Law of Punishment, described below.)

The problem is this. It was given that the player was attending the smaller club because the player wanted to attend the smaller club. We don't know why. Maybe the club was friendlier. Maybe the club was closer, or cheaper. Now there is a gradient. Suppose that gradient is large enough to influence which club some players attend. Those players are now attending the club that they prefer less. This is not good for their enjoyment, and hence it is not good for bridge and the ACBL.

Intentionally creating a gradient is called "social engineering". The purpose is to influence participation away from what a player would normally choose. When the ACBL intentionally creates a gradient, it is saying that it can judge better than the player what is good for ACBL members. That strikes me as possible. I think the ACBL should give a gradient to club games over internet games, because I think the club games are better for bridge. But I also think these gradients should be small; the ACBL should think carefully before making them; and that they should always be conceptualized in terms of both reward and punishment (as described below).

Accidental gradients are the real problem. These too change participation. But being accidental, it is very unlikely that the change is good. Currently, there is an enormous gradient for team games versus pair events. There is also a large gradient for large clubs versus small clubs. See the essay on Distorting Participation for a discussion of how participation seems to be distorted by these gradients.

The Law of Punishment

Every change in masterpoint distribution that rewards (someone or something) causes an equivalent amount of punishment (to whoever or whatever is not being rewarded).

Commentary. Whenever you institute a policy, change a policy, or try to justify a policy, you might be thinking in terms of rewarding someone. Whenever you think about rewarding someone, you absolutely MUST also think of who you are punishing.

Examples. Let's reward the clubs by allowing them occasionally to give sectionally-rated masterpoints. We can call this club appreciation month. That sounds good. The ACBL wants to reward clubs, doesn't it? The problem is, if you are rewarding the clubs with increased masterpoints, you are making masterpoints less valuable. That punishes all the non-clubs. Who are the non-clubs? Mostly sectionals. Does it sound good for the ACBL to punish the sectionals?

Right now the award system rewards large clubs. Large clubs are large probably because they are offering a good service to members. They are also bringing in more money to the ACBL. It sounds all right to reward large clubs, right? Actually, this logic is wrong, but the point for now is this. If you want to justify an ACBL policy as rewarding large clubs, you absolutely must also justify punishing small clubs.

You might think, let's reward small clubs too. But there is no reason to punish medium size clubs. So let's award all clubs, all sectionals, all regionals, everyone! But that is just general inflation, which does not reward anyone.

This is not to say that social engineering is always bad. It is most reasonable that the ACBL engage in a little social engineering. For example, open clubs award more masterpoints than closed clubs. This can be justified in terms of merit, but it is probably good engineering too. In the case, we can identify what we like (the open clubs) and what we do not like (the closed clubs).

When the entity receiving the award is small, and the entity being punished is large, it is easy to see the reward and difficult to see the punishment. Just because you can't see it doesn't mean it's not there. The punishment is always there -- it is a small punishment to a large number of people, exactly balacing out the large reward to the small number of people.

Awards Based on Masterpoints

Masterpoints are awards by themselves, but the awards and contests based on masterpoints may be as important or more important. These awards will follow the same rules, though the details might vary.

The value of Life Master is proportional to the least merit needed to earn it. There is a lag, but with steady masterpoint inflation over the years, the value of Life Master has steadily declined. Now the main difficulty for most people is earning enough gold points, so the value of life master is about equal to the difficult of earning gold points in a bracketed Regional knockout.

For the races involving masterpoints, everyone plays on "an even field". The value of the award is not is not substantially influenced by the inequities in masterpoint awards, because "conditions of contest" are the same for everyone. The problem is distorting participation, which lowers enjoyment. Players competing in these races will be especially sensitive to masterpoint gradients.

But for a player to be enchanted with an award based on masterpoints, the player cannot be disillusioned with masterpoints. So making masterpoints more meaningful will increase the number of players interested in awards based on masterpoints.

A worse case scenario is when someone does not know that they are following an inefficient path to earning masterpoints. They are trusting the system to be fair and will feely betrayed and be disenchanted when they discover it is not.

See also:
A Tale