Before you spend your time and money traveling to another city for a week or weekend of backgammon, you should have some idea of what you’re getting. Unfortunately, there’s much you can’t know until you get there. Even past experience with the organizers of a tournament offers only approximate guidance. Organizers can learn from last year’s mistakes — or cut corners unwisely in an attempt to lower expenses.
I’m not going to recommend this tournament or that one. But I will put forth some criteria you can use to judge backgammon tournaments for yourself. Some can be applied to the regular weekly tournaments at your home-town club.
Where is the Tournament?
The location of a tournament affects not only your expenses in traveling to it, but your expenses and enjoyment once you get there.
Will you be forced to room and dine at an expensive hotel where the tournament is held? Or can you find a wide variety of hotels and restaurants nearby, preferably within walking distance? Is it the right town for this time of year? You wouldn’t want to go to Duluth in winter, or to El Paso in summer.
Will you enjoy the town when you are not playing backgammon? This may depend on the precise location of the tournament. If it is in the heart of San Francisco, for example, you may enjoy seeing the city between scheduled matches. But if you are stuck at a hotel near the San Francisco airport, you may have little time for casual sightseeing.
Is it a place you would want to visit? Some people who can afford to gamble love Las Vegas, for example. But for others, Las Vegas is a dangerous snare. At the 4th Annual Plimpton Cup tournament in June of 1980, many of my acquaintances went broke at the gaming tables and spent the last day or two of the tournament begging friends for loans. A few backgammon players, knowing their own gambling weaknesses, skipped this tournament just because it was in Las Vegas.
Who's in Charge?
Is a legitimate backgammon director promoting the tournament? An imposing-sounding name of an organization means little. To be sure, the “Intergalactic Backgammon Federation” sounds more impressive than just plain “Mike Smith.” But the IBF may merely be Mike Smith’s DBA (“Doing Business As”).
The tournament advertising should identify the people in charge, of course. And these people should be easy to find during the tournament itself. The rest of the tournament staff should consist of capable backgammon directors, not simply entry takers and result posters.
Who's Eligible to Play?
Most backgammon tournaments are divided into two or three brackets according to skill. If you’re an amateur player, you may not want to find yourself in a bracket with professionals. This can happen in two ways. They can let a professional play in the amateur division, or they can deem you a professional.
To prevent grievances, real or imagined, the tournament rules should specify in advance clear eligibility criteria. The eligibility criteria should be in writing, and tournament officials accepting entries should call attention to them and explain them if necessary. Unless a plyer has misrepresented facts about himself, the taking of his entry fee should constitute acknowledgment of his eligibility.
Are There any Strings Attached?
Do the tournament organizers want anything more than your entry fee from you? Does promoter “Mike Smith” insist that you must pay an additional $30 dues to his DBA, the “Intergalactic Backgammon Federation,” before he lets you play? You can hardly balk at this after having spent hundreds on travel and room rent.
What Are the Prizes?
Are the prizes in cash? Some tournaments have paid prizes “in the form of merchandise.” If anything other than cash is being offered, this must be stated explicitly in advance. By “cashm,” of course, is meant United States money or cashier’s checks, not checks of the sponsoring person or organization. The tournament officials (rightly) refuse to accept your personal checks. You shouldn’t have to accept theirs. More than one prize winner in a tournament has been paid with a bouncing checker.
The prizes should be based on the entries collected expressed either as a fixed percentage or as a fixed dollar amount for each entry. Either something like “75% of all fees returned in prizes” or “after deducting $30 per player for overhead, all fees will go into the prize pool.”
Then, right on the bracket sheets, the tournament directors can post all the figures necessary for the players to verify the prizes: the size of the field, the fees collected, the prize pool, and its division among the top finishers.
Tournaments with a fixed size for prizes should be avoided. The players don’t know how much of their money is being returned to them and how much raked in in by the organizers.
But, far worse, there is a potential for abuse. By permitting reentries, perhaps even at a discount, the organizers can increase their own take while diminishing the money equity of all the players who do not or cannot reenter.
Another abuse of a fixed-size prize pool arises from the organizers’ incentive to recruit more entrants. Since each new entry fee goes entirely into the organizer’s pockets, they can afford to offer discount rates to local entrants at the last minute. Each new entrant reduces the winning chances of old entrants playing the regular fee.
How is the Draw Made?
Is the draw totally random? Furthermore, can you verify that it’s random, or must you take a tournament official’s word for it?
Nobody should be entitled to a better chance at a bye than anybody else, or a softer opponent. Billy Eisenberg and Alan Martin shouldn’t get any special seeding privileges because of who they are or what they’ve won in the past. You paid just as much to enter the tournament as they did, and you’re entitled to equal rights to a bye or a soft pairing.
They’re not entitled to be placed at separate ends of the bracket sheet just because they’re friends either. The tournament is a test of backgammon performance, not of skill at making fiends with world-class players.
The entire draw should be posted publicly during the first round of the tournament. No redraws or arbitrary later combining of two or more bracket sheets should be tolerated. Multiple byes should not be tolerated. There need never be more byes than entrants; never one player with two byes while another has none.
All bracket sheets must remain posted throughout the tournament, even after an entire subbracket of 16 except for a lone survivor has been eliminated. This provides a visible trail by which anyone can follow the progress of the tournament.
What Are the Rules?
The rules for the tournament should be communicated to each participant in writing. And they should be explicit, detailed rules, enforced uniformly. To say “considerations of fairness shall prevail in all rulings” is not enough. For two of the most knowledgeable rules experts — say Mike Gilbert and Billy Eisenberg, each trying to be fair — may make opposite decisions. Fairness requires the same rules for everybody, and that requires explicit details.