Ray Lee

Master Point Rant

I’ve never been a big fan of master points, or indeed any kind of cumulative ranking system.  I grew up as a chess player, a game in which ratings are jealously guarded, but where each time you play you put your rating on the line: lose and it goes down, win and it goes up.  Lose to a bad player, and it goes down a lot.  Even in that arena, there’s been inflation — but only maybe 10-15% in the 40 years or so since I stopped playing seriously.

Master Points, by contrast, were a brilliant, simple concept that without a doubt contributed to the growth of the game in the USA, Canada and other countries.  But that was in the old days, when they were hard to get.  When you had to beat every top player in the city to win your 1 Master point in the once a week game in which they were awarded.  And when it was tough to accumulate those 300 points to become a Life Master.  When being a Life Master really meant something.

What do we have now?  Well, enter any Regional KO, win a couple of matches in a low bracket, and walk away with 25 points. (Forget the matchpoint events, they don’t pay nearly as well as the ubiquitous KO’s and Swiss games.)  They tried to curb galloping MP inflation by introducing a rainbow of pigmented points, but now you can win gold points playing in a club game, so that’s pretty much gone by the board too.  They’re finally raising the bar for LM to 500 (I think), and judging from the tone of the Letters to the ACBL Bulletin Editor, taking candy from a baby would be less offensive.

None of this is new, so readers might wonder what has occasioned this rant.  Well, I just read in the March Bulletin about some guy who this year won over 3000 points playing with himself — I mean, against robots.  Yes, against robots — I kid you not.  You can go online, and play in an ‘Individual’ tournament where the only players at your table are robots.  You then compare your score against other human players doing the same thing.  And Watson these things are not.  They’re not bad to practice against, but like any software they have their little quirks and it’s quite easy to manipulate them once you understand how the logic works.  And there’s another constraint, apparently — none of the robots is allowed to hold more HCP than you, so not only do you get to play a disproportionate number of the hands, but on every deal you have unauthorized information!  And ‘winning’ all these points this way is presented in the Bulletin as some kind of great achievement.

I lost interest in collecting MP’s for myself many years ago, recognizing that they measured very little beyond the amount of time and money you were prepared to give the ACBL.  But now it seems they really are officially toilet paper — or at least, computer printout.


FredMarch 5th, 2011 at 1:40 am

Ray, you shouldn’t hold back! I promise dinner and wine tomorrow will make you forget all this and bring your blood pressure back to normal 🙂 PS: I agree with you.

John Howard GibsonMarch 5th, 2011 at 2:50 pm

Howard Bigot-Johnson here, Yes, I’m with you all the way on this one. Somewhere way back in my blog I have had several rants of my own over the absurdity of grading players on the basis of simply turning up to events as opposed to what they achieve at these events.

Matchpoints result from handing over entry money as opposed to be handed back cash prizes for doing well. If grading was done on what you earned rather than spent, the system will be helluva lot fairer.

But hey the idea behind matchpoint rankings is to ensure the EBU over here stays rich. The more rankings you can create, the bigger the pole, the greater the dosh each player has to fork out to climb up it. A truly marvellous scam as it sucks tens of thousands in.

ps. I took 20 years to make it as regional master. Far inferior players who attend all the congresses can achieve the same within a year.

Nick KrnjevicMarch 5th, 2011 at 7:04 pm

Hi Ray;

You’re 100% right that MP totals are not indicative of skill. Like you, I grew up as a chess player. When I moved from the world of tournament chess, where the ELO rating is an accurate, brutallly Darwinian measure of a player’s skill, to the world of tournament bridge, I was very surprised that such importance was given to mp totals, which are essentially a cumulative meausre that rewards attendance.

But mps encourage participation so I think they’re good for the perpetuation of mass interest in the game.

While no serious player believes that mps accurately reflect skill, they provide an easily attainable prize that appears to be a substantial incentive for a surprisingly large number of players.

This is particularly true both for players who are starting out and for intermediate players who need a goal that keeps them at the game.

And without meaning to be cynical, mps provide players with the illusion of progress-the more they play, the better they appear to be.

And peple respond very favorably to positivve incentives.

Indeed, I’d wager a *very* large sum that if mps were replaced by the equivalent of an ELO rating bridge attendance would decline catastrophically.

Let’s face it-most casual recreational players don’t want to admit that after years of playing the game they still haven’t made very much progress-and they most certainly don’t others to see that they have remained patzers after all these years.

Can you imagine what the drop in turnout would be like at the local club if the players were told”oh, by the way, if you play poorly you’ll lose mps”.

The very large numbers of players who play socially-and who most emphatically do not want their bad games to weigh against them-would not play.

All of which to say you’re right to say that mps have little to do with skill, but I’d sure hate to see them go, because it would likely cause a substantial decline in mass interest in a game we both love.



Jeff SmithMarch 5th, 2011 at 8:46 pm

Masterpoints are valuable for one thing and one thing only, they show what type of bridge shape you are in. Let me elaborate, show up at year, or any other years CNTC and watch on days one and two the performance of those players with 300 or more MPs in the last calendar year, and those without, the ones with 300MP in the last 365 days will perform markedly better than those without and the simple reason in being in bridge shape.

Come days 3 and 4, throw all that out the window as the inactive players are getting into bridge shape, while the active, yet limited skill players are being pulled back into the pack. I have always thought that masterpoints are great for determining who is in shape and who is not and that, is the only value I subscribe to masterpoints.

kenrexfordMarch 6th, 2011 at 4:48 pm

IMO, the average player will be impressed by your masterpoint total, thinking you are a top player if you have a lot of masterpoints but thinking you are a lesser player with fewer masterpoints.

The players who matter, however, will have no idea or will not care a lick about your masterpoint total, instead knowing how you generally declare, defend, and bid. The unspoken player ratings are generally more reliable.

The question, then, is whether ACBL ranking is important to you or whether peer ranking is more important.

I mean, sure. One could carry around a badge that identifies you to others as one of the elite, a title bestowed on folks by the ACBL. Or, your known face or known name works better.

LindaMarch 6th, 2011 at 7:08 pm

Back to the problem of playing with robots. If that is all you did you would not be in bridge shape. They do not really play bridge as we humans know it. No human would do the things the wild weird and often horrible things robots do.

Imagine you have a minimum hand and you plan to pass out a partscore at the 2 level. Partner who showed a minimum balances. You bid they bid and yes the robots wound up in slam going for a million.

Their play is peculiar. Their defense even more so. As you learn the robot approach you will truly become a better robot killer but not a better bridge player.

Maybe some day.

Fred GitelmanMarch 7th, 2011 at 2:32 pm

Linda – I get the impression you haven’t played any club bridge recently (or maybe you only play club games Toronto where my experience suggests that the standard of play is higher than average in ACBLland).

We at BBO have data that makes it very clear that the robots on BBO are overall significantly more effective at bridge than the average club player in North America.

Of course the robots still have plenty of room for improvement and we are working very hard on that. But I think you fail to realize that the games on BBO are really club games that are designed for club-level players. I strongly believe that playing against robots is at least as “good for your bridge” for such players as is playing against other club-level human players.

One of the great virtues of our robot duplicate tournaments that many people fail to recognize is that they are arguably the fairest bridge contests ever devised. Robot tournaments take the concept of duplicate to a whole new level – not only does everyone play the same boards, but everyone has the same partner, the same opponents, and plays the same bidding system.

Furthermore, the “best hand” concept is also a real breakthrough in terms of making bridge more entertaining. Naturally all bridge players like to hold good hands and the “best hand” format of our robot tournaments guarantees that this will always happen.

Another huge plus of robot tournaments is that they lower the barrier for entry into duplicate for new players. In robot tournaments you never have to worry about things like rude opponents, angry partners, or director calls. As I am sure you know, one of the biggest problems in bridge is that many new players get immediately turned off duplicate by such things.

Robot tournaments have proven to be highly-effective tools for attracting young players to our games.

Many people are concerned about cheating in online bridge, but in some of our robot movements it is impossible to cheat. In others, while it is possible to cheat, it is both difficult and easy to detect.

The bottom line is that robot tournaments on BBO are extremely popular for a number of very good reasons.

Fred Gitelman

Judy Kay-WolffMarch 8th, 2011 at 2:47 am


Your blog was truly amusing!

I don’t know a thing about robots. Have enough problems with real people. However, master points can be equated to attendance records.

At one time, winning master points was an achievement — especially in a good field.

Today, it means little. How can you award

mediocrity or poor play (and it is common at the club level) where MPs are awarded to those who are in the money with 40% games. Why not at least give the newer players a goal — strive to be at least average than to reward them for games that equate to the old school ratings of D’s, E’s and F’s?

Bridge is changing, but not for the better.

Nick KrnjevicMarch 15th, 2011 at 12:49 am


I am intrigued by your statement that BBO has “data that makes it very clear that the robots on BBO are overall significantly more effective at bridge than the average club player in North America.”

What data are you using to determine the skill level of the ‘average club player’?


John Portwood (UK)August 22nd, 2011 at 10:29 pm

As for the skill of bots – I played this hand a few years ago http://www.dur.ac.uk/bridge.club/POOR/94.html

The EBU is supposed to be utilising the new Pay to Play system (all results in EBU affiliated clubs are uploaded to the EBU database) to start providing rankings for all the members – I am awaiting this with interest as a reasonable ranking may be obtained.

TerryAugust 29th, 2013 at 10:54 pm

Fred . . . I just finished playing one of those Robot tournaments at BBO. In reviewing my results, I noticed that the Robots defended the same hands differently against different contestants . . . even when the bidding and the contract were identical! The differences in the Robot defense were varied enough to produce results of 4S +1, 4S =, and 4S -1. The gib on this hand showed that it should be set everytime with the proper defense.

My point here is that making them play randomly (I hope it’s random) but differently, reintroduces a luck factor that would perhaps be similar to what would happen at a club. I just wonder . . why did BBO did this?

MattSeptember 8th, 2013 at 4:21 pm

So what if the master point model is an extremely poor measure of ability? Just think of all the people who get pleasure out of increasing their master points, who find some motivation in adding a few points here and there to their totals or who see achieving a certain rank as doable. More power to them. More power to US. I’d take a 10,000 people getting their Bridge Bulletin in the mail and saying, “Ah, I did well for the month in question,” than someone who feels disgruntled because he feels his ranking is somehow impure. To him I’d say, if you really think you’re that good, go out to your local/regional/national tournament, and beat the best.

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