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A Brief Reflection on Trials

Posted on 10 December 2013

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Laura Cecilia PorroIn Italy there is currently a lively debate about the introduction of trials to select the Open team, which will represent Italy in international competitions. So far, the Open team had been chosen by a selector, without a tournament. But in 2014 trials will be run instead, as Medugno, the new president of the Italian Bridge Federation, had promised during the electoral campaign Presently, there are still no conditions of contest, but the dates of the trials have been announced, and from the short statement made by the Federation it looks like it is going to be a teams competition. (About Italian Open Trials read here »)

Waiting for Italian Open Trials, I would like to look at three other countries which run trials in different ways, to compare the advantages and disadvantages of each method.

In England, the English Bridge Union (EBU) runs two different trials. The Open team for European Championships is selected by hand. The team for the Home International Series (Camrose) is selected by a teams competition called “Premier League”. Teams who compete are divided into two divisions. The winner of the first division becomes the Open team. Additionally, the two bottom teams of division one are demoted to division two, and the two top teams of division two are promoted to division one. The format is as follows (from the EBU website): “there will be three complete round robins of 20-board head-to-head matches” (the number of boards slightly changes every year depending on the number of entries).

In the US the structure of the selection process is similar to England’s. A Round Robin for teams that do not get a bye is followed by knock-out stages. The round of 16 is played over 90 boards, and all subsequent

In Poland the Open team is selected through a very complex process. A series of pairs and teams tournaments select a team that has the right to challenge the current Open team. If the current Open team win, they retain their status and the right to represent Poland in the next year. If the current Open team lose, they can ask for a rematch within four weeks of the first match. The winner of the rematch becomes the new Open team. Both these matches are 160 boards long, played in 8 20-board segments.

Each method has its merits and issues. Unfortunately, it is not possible to simply compile a list of pros and cons and pick the method with less disadvantages. This is because different countries have different bridge populations and thus what works well in a country may not work so well somewhere else.

What all listed methods have in common is that they try to make sure that the best team win. This is not easy, because it is possible that a worse team/pair may prevail over a better team/pair, if the match is not long enough. All selection methods are attempts to remove this risk.

The merit of the old Italian method, i.e. direct convocation, is that the best pairs are chosen, and no mediocre pair can make it to the team “accidentally”. The manual selection ensures that worthy pairs make it to the team. On the other hand, this system has some disadvantages as well. Firstly, it is not always a transparent process. Secondly, who selects the selector? Should the selector be whoever is going to be its sponsor? Or a bridge theorist? Thirdly, good players who are technically excellent, but are quite young and have not been in the spotlight yet, are not given a chance to prove their value and to emerge. Lastly, this system may generate conflicts of interest when the selector is the major sponsor of Italian bridge, and when the best pairs are owned by different sponsors. On one hand the current Italian system has generated a lot of arguments: surely everyone remembers the scandal when Fantunes were not picked to represent Italy in the 2010 European Championships. On the other hand, the team which was summoned won the Europeans in 2010 and the Bermuda Bowl in 2013.

The straightforward trial system used in England for Camrose avoids the issues of hand picking. The tournament is transparent: whoever wins becomes the Open team. It seems like the fairest option, however the matches are not very long. A 60-board match is too short to significantly reduce the risk that a technically worse team will prevail. In particular this means that the current Open team, regardless of how well they did in the previous season, still have to go through all selection stages. Some however may think that this is only fair, and that the current Open team do not deserve any facilitation through the selection process.

The US system is an improvement over the English system, because the matches are very long and this reduces the risk mentioned above.

The English and US system work well in an environment where multiple sponsors operate. It is good for sponsors to play in teams trials, rather than in pairs trials, because it gives them a better chance to get to the final stages of the competition.

The Polish system has, I believe, a good balance of different elements. On one hand, normal trials are run. This ensures that all pairs and teams in Poland are given an equal chance to compete and show their worth. On the other hand, the current Open team is protected from the risk of being eliminated by a weaker team at an early stage of the selection process, and at the same time it is not guaranteed to automatically represent the country again. Moreover, the match between the selected team and the current Open is very long, thus reducing the impact of luck on the result.

Some may think that this system is unfairly skewed in favour of the current Open, because they are given the right to rematch. I do not have strong feelings about this, but I think that two 160-board matches are long enough to make sure the best team is selected. If the team selected through trials is better than the current Open, 320 boards should be enough for them to prove it. A further disadvantage of this system is that trials take a really long time and they do not attract as much interest as the US or English trials, which are major events of the calendar.

The main reasons to change the old Italian selection system are:

– being transparent

– being inclusive

– selecting the best team

– being financially sustainable.

At the moment, the manual selection is extremely good at picking the best team, but it is not transparent, inclusive and it is not financially sustainable either. I feel that a combination of the US and Polish systems could address all these issues. The idea is to start with a teams competition (not pairs), run over several weekends, playing long matches (around 60 boards per match). The winning team challenges the current Open team in a very long match, following the Polish example.

This mixed approach could fit well the Italian environment. The general teams trials gives everybody an opportunity to participate. Moreover, the Polish “challenge and rematch” system ensures that the current Open team is not eliminated at an early stage. Many Italians are quite attached to the current Open team, and this method would give them every chance to retain their role.

It is a lot trickier to assess benefits and drawbacks of running a teams competition rather than a pairs competition. Firstly, the Italian Bridge Federation has to make sure that it can afford to send teams abroad. As Medugno highlighted in his program (see link above), it is very expensive to send teams to international competitions, and the Italian Federation is currently facing many financial issues. Running trials is in itself a method to raise money to support the trips.

Moreover, the choice of running teams trials (as opposed to running pairs trials) aims to support sponsors to get organised. Running pairs trials does not generate any disagreement between sponsors at the beginning: each pair participates, and then the three best pairs become the Open team. But let us imagine a hypothetical scenario where the best pairs have signed contracts with different sponsors. Now there is an issue about who the sponsor of the team is going to be. If the sponsors do not come to an agreement, the team might end up without a sponsor and this is not financially sustainable, in the current climate. On the contrary, if teams trials are run, each sponsor would support his/her own team, and there would be no quarrels when the winner is announced.

***

Laura Cecilia Porro

Notes

1)This method has been used up to 2013, and the UBSF (United States Bridge Federation) is currently working on the format for the 2014 season (if you want to contribute to the discussion about it, go to https://groups.google.com/forum/#!forum/usbf-ittc). However, the changes on the format concern only minor details and the main structure will be the same.

 

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