Principles of Prize Money (PM) Competition

Since Bobby Fischer's revolution in chess, it has become clear that players will follow the money ("Show me the MONEY"). This slogan works well not only with football players, but also with intellectual athletes.

One of the best ways to attract young players to intellectual games is to have enough prize money opportunities where the best can make a living from their skills. A second reason why it is essential to play for Prize Money (PM) was best expressed by one of the best backgammon players of the last century, Prince Alexander - "One of the best ways to improve your game is to play for money. Nobody likes to lose money, whether in a game, in a stock market, or on a street, and for this reason you will play your best game when money is involved".

So, why in the beginning of 21st century are bridge and chess players still not playing for meaningful PM?  There are simply not enough PM tournaments for professional chess players to make a living. And 150,000 USA bridge players play only for points - with no money awarded. Meanwhile, the USA has become the poker "capital" of the World with millions of people enthusiastically playing poker for money.

You might think: "The bridge and chess players are smarter than others. They know  that most players who are playing for money are losing it. So they are trying to stay away from this activity!!"  Nice try!?  Is this how you can explain why just last year more than 25,000 of the brightest and  most advanced college students, from very prestigious schools across the country, entered a poker tournament, competing for a Prize Money Pool (PMP) of $94,000 with $41,000 to the winner (in scholarship money, to make it legal in all 50 states)? After all, the average card player knows more about odds and statistics than the average chess player. Statistically, about 80-85% of the poker players are losing money and every serious poker player knows that!

Or you may think: "The most popular game to play for money will be the game that is easiest to master." On the surface, such an opinion seems to hold water. After all, in the 1930's when the new game of contract bridge had just been introduced by Harold Vanderbilt, everybody was close to the "starting line", so despite the relative complexity of the rules (compared to the Poker, for example) for decades it was the most popular intellectual game in the country. Some 50 years later, bridge and chess players alike, were "under influence of the second most popular opinion", and had tried to recreate the excitement of sporting competition for new-comers, by creating stratifications and flights ONLY for NEW PLAYERS. It would take a serious student of the game only 2-3 days of intense study "from scratch" to be able to compete in such group (compare that to 2-3 MONTHS of the very hard work for the new-to-the game poker player to have decent chances to win some money in $1-$2 poker table, where is no such thing as a "kiddy's section of the players' pool").

Did that strategy work? Yes. It helped to invite new players, but the retention rate was so low it did not have a desired effect on long term membership growth.

So, there is another school of thought - it is all in marketing!! While marketing, social playing atmosphere, and success of the expert players on an international arena have all huge contribution to popularity of the game, the effect has been short term.

So here is what we want to say by writing this article:

In the long run, the most popular Mind Sport Game (MSG) played for money will be the game where an AVERAGE player has MORE CHANCES to win.

(here is where the average reader can skip to the AoIG solution, for the few  who left, we will try to give a scientific proof of what we just said).

First, we need to start with analysis of each game and chances of the more skillful player to win. Below are the results of AoIG research. The percentages used are for illustration and while your opinion of the exact numbers may vary, we want to hear from you if you think we got the overall picture wrong.

The SKILLS column lists odds for more skillful player to finish ahead of the less skillful in a format of the fair sport competition. The remaining CHANCE reflects the probability a less skillful player might win.

Chess  95% 5%
Duplicate Backgammon  95% 5%
5-in-a-row and GO 95% 5% 
Duplicate Bridge:  Teams 90% 10%
Duplicate Bridge:  Pairs 80% 20%
Duplicate Bridge:  Individual 75% 25%
Backgammon  70% 30%
Poker 60% 40%

Second, let us picture a Healthy MSG pyramid. We can take the entire universe of players - from Novice to Experts.(Pic 1.a)

Pic1.a Pic1.b Pic1.c

Then we can slice it  further in way that each "slice" would represent more detail playing level expressed in rating points commonly used for stratification of Prize Money Tournaments (PMTs). As an example we take a chess pyramid - their current Elo-rating system is most easy to work with. On a bottom we have a 1200 rating and on a very top about 2800 (Pic 1.b).  We can then take one slice, say the  2200-2400 slice, which represents a club level Pro and magnify it's scale for visibility. Presuming our universe includes a great number of players we would have enough people in 2200-2400 slice for all possible rating variations to be present from 2200, 2201, 2202 & all the way up to 2400.

What would be the average playing level for this group? You would come up with the same answer whether you rely more on math or physics (for physicist, you are looking for the center of gravity of the "slice")  ~ 2275, see the blue dot (Pic.1.c).

Now we want to run a very serious, a week long, chess tournament among all those players, giving each a Million dollar entry so nobody will refuse and will play their very best. We will re-direct all money from the entry fees to the PMP and use a current system where a PMP distributed between top 30% of the final standing. 

FINALLY, we are ready to answer the most important question: what is the mathematical chances for average chess player to leave with at least an entry fee in his pocket at the end of such tournament. GOT it? Yes, about 5%. (Now, for a second, lets assume they are poker players. For an average poker player of any given playing level group there is a  whopping  40% chance to finish with money -  8 times the difference). Now, what do you think?

"I thought those chess players who are playing for money are very smart, now I think they are stupid!" Well, things are not that simple. If you know the system, one can still make some money without even moving to the very top of chess pyramid. Lets look at  2200-2400 group again. When your playing abilities and rating (theoretically should have a tight correlation) will go over 2200 you will be encouraged to "swim" to the top 30% of your new strata (~2340) as soon as possible. When you have reach that playing level you are 95% in the money in any serious tournament, which has entertained such stratification division. Now, you are the King of the hill, but for how long? You got to watch that 2400 level. As soon as you reach 2400 you  are the "dog meat" again with a long, tedious way to the top.

Should I explain the "sand-bagging", now? Yes, same players do that - lose rating in less important tournaments on purpose to stay in a money zone in others, with bigger PMPs.

Even very best variable rating system (where rating can go not only up, but down as well) can ONLY accurately measure a real playing ability of player if the player ALWAYS has a goal to win.

Having said that, one can better understand a strange looking bridge, Go and 5-in-a-row rating system, where the rating has only one direction - UP. Do those games have no problems with PM tournaments? Check Current situation of the Duplicate Bridge for details. But the short answer is NO!

Again, we offer to any impatient reader to jump now to AoIG solution. But later you may need to go back to our last detailed explanation, in order to fully understand how and why the solution will work.

So, here it is.

Let us take a 100 brightest college kids in the country, in their 20s. Check any business, not only the mind or physical game industry, this demographic group is a target (make it a bulls eye) of any recruitment effort.

Lets say we successfully made the most important step, catch their attention. Now we are going to give each of them the favorite toy - a computer. Each computer will have a different number from 1 to 100, written on its case. We will distribute them randomly with no correlation to race, sex, or sexual orientation, in other words, in most Politically Correct way. Since they are bunch of students, we promise to provide them with some educational experience in exchange for their attention. First lesson, they learn, is that LIFE is not FAIR . Each computer looks the same on outside, but it has a different CPU, inside.  #1 is the most fast and powerful - all way down to the #100 the slowest and the dullest. The good news is that they all powerful enough to run the latest versions of chess, bridge, poker and backgammon software.

Now we give a million dollars to each student as a salary for a yearlong commitment. Their job description will be to bring their silicon partner to the 200 one-day tournaments and assist it in playing one of the MSG games for Prize Money. Students will pay the entry to the PMP of each tournament and they also will keep the winning money. As you  notice, we did not mention which game yet. Which game to play will be decided by the popular vote!

The only two things the organizers can vary to influence the vote is a percent of top players receiving PMP (in a given reasonable range from 10% to 50%) and a Prize Money Pool Entry (PMPE). We will give choices for PMPE as $5, $10, $20, $50, $100, $200, $500, and $1000. 

Ho-o-oh! Lets us play with this model for a while - we have spent so much time to building it.

Scenario #1. PMP will be distributed between top 10% of a final standing for each tournament, and the PMPE is only $5. Which game will be chosen by a popular vote?  What is the right answer? We can not tell - not enough information. Since money at stake will not influence decision of any reasonable person.($1000 for a year is a 0.1% of their salary). The vote will depend on personal preferences forward each game.

Scenario #2. PMP still going to the top 10%, but now PMPE is $1000. Now, what will be the popular choice of game to play? The PMPE (which is $200,000 for a year) become a factor in a decision making process. Playing Chess,  90% of the students with slower computers (##11 thru 100) are rated to lose some big chunk of $200,000. It will be no surprise to see 90-10 vote in favor of Poker , a 40% chance for player with weaker computer to win (vs 5% chance in chess).

Scenario #3. PMP to top 30% (current chess structure), still PMPE=$1,000.

Expected 70-30 vote for Poker.

Scenario #4. PMP to top 50% ( AoIG's proposed fair distribution), PMPE is still at max  of $1,000. Expected popular vote is 50-50. Tied!

Remember above examples are mathematical models. We can use them only as guide lines. What do we learn from this? Let us compare Scenario #1 and Scenario #4. They certainly look completely different, but have stunning similarity - there is no clear majority when it comes to the choice of the game!  Even under conditions of Scenario #4 (big money at stake) there is no clear mathematical advantage for average player in any game. In other words the average player, once again, is free to choose.

AoIG three initiatives to change the landscape of PM competition in MSGs:

FIRST, Unify the Rating for all MSG:

  AR = (1+MR) * PR, where MR is a money rating, and PR - pride porting of the rating.

SECOND, Winners play for free ("fair" distribution of PMP - to the top 50%). No surprise here, for the reader of this article. This principle is designed to benefit the average tournament player and therefore to increase the popularity of any MSG that uses it.

THIRD, but not least. Separation of Entry Fee to cover administrative and facilitation expenses of running tournament from the PMPE - players contribution to the PMP.

AoIG's guide lines to the size of PMPE per 1 GU (Game Unit) (Usually about 4 hours of play).

Group ## PMPE/GUs in $$US General description Game specific rating
USCF Rating
ACBL Points
G-0 5 .. 9 First step 0    .. 1199 0 .. 5
G-1 10 .. 19 Beginner 1200 .. 1399 5 .. 50
G-2 20 .. 49 Novice 1400 .. 1799 50 .. 100
G-3 50 .. 99 Amateur 1800 .. 1999 100 .. 500
G-4 100 .. 199 Skillful 2000 .. 2199 500 .. 1000
G-5 200 .. 499 Regional Expert 2200 .. 2399 1,000 .. 5,000
G-6 500 .. 999 National Expert 2400 .. 2599 5,000 ...10,000
G-7 1000+ World Expert 2600 + 10,000+

According to AoIG' principle, after an Entry Fee is paid to cover organizational expenses, player (or team) is free to choose the playing level group he elects to play in. Groups may be flighted or stratified at choice of tournament organizers. 

We are not afraid to repeat one more time, the main AoIG "discovery" is separation of the Admin Entry and PMP Entry, from the very beginning. That allows a fair structure of the tournament, where every player pays the same to cover tournament expenses; but after that, every player can choose which prize money group/section to enter depending on his own estimation of his playing abilities.