Is the 3 1 0 scoring system fair?

Is the 3 1 0 scoring system fair?

Dec 14, 2009, 2:43 PM |

On ICC, there was some heated discussion among GMs and amateurs alike concerning whether the 3 1 0 scoring system currently employed in the London tournament is fair or not.  One could also ask, regardless of whether it is fair, if the 3 1 0 system is good or bad, better or worse for the tournament organizers, and whether it's good or bad, better or worse (than the standard scoring system) for chess enthusiasts.  Those are three distinct issues that I will discuss.

1) which system is used is arbitrary in the sense that there is nothing intrinsic to the game itself that demands one scoring system over another.  The game itself has nothing to do with tournaments, or ratings or prize money, any more than the game of soccer ('football') intrinsically demands a particular scoring system for ranking teams in the World Cup tournament.  There are all kinds of ways of paying competitors, all kinds of incentives that can be given to winners and losers (ie, money or prizes for 2nd, 3rd, 4th place,etc).  As long as all competitors in the chess tournament have to play by the same rules, the system is 'fair' if it is executed in a way that is consistent to all players involved (of course, there can be other elements of unfairness, ie, if one player is stuck playing black for all games).  But with respect to whether the 3 1 0 system itself is intrinsically "unfair", it is hard to see what argument can be put forth to possibly support that conclusion. 

Let me try to support the argument that the 3 1 0 system is unfair, even though I think this argument is flawed.  One commentator suggested that the 3 1 0 system is unfair because a player, let's call him "Patzeroff," can have four draws and one win and two losses and end up with a score of 7 , whereas another player, "McPatzer", could have 7 draws and also have a score of 7.  Using the standard scoring system, the score would be Patzeroff 3,  McPatzer 3.5.

In one scoring system, Patzeroff ties McPatzer, in the other scoring system, Patzeroff is behind McPatzer.  Therefore, so the argument goes, the 3 1 0 system is unfair because it rewards the player who performed worse with a higher standing.

The problem with that argument is that it begs the question--it presupposes what it wants to prove, namely, that the standard scoring system is fair, the one, true, absolutely right system, and the other system, insofar as it can yield different standing results from the same set of wins and losses must be unfair.  So part of what is at stake in the scoring system is deciding who performed 'better' or 'worse' in the tournament and, with respect to the offical score, there is nothing more to go on than the score based on the scoring system that tournament uses.  The score is determined by the game results and the scoring system.  So, if you are playing in a tournament with the 3 1 0 scoring system, then Pateroff and McPatzer did equally well, and if the same game results occur with the standard system, then Patzeroff performed worse than McPatzer.  There is no High and Mighty Scoring System that Moses brought down from the mountain straight from God to bestow upon us.  We simply make up whatever scoring system we please.  There is no one right scoring system, just different scoring systems.  

But taking the form of argument that tries to defend the standard scoring system as fair, you can also show that the standard system is unfair because, if you assume that the 3 1 0 system is fair from the get-go, then any system that yields different results could be considered unfair.  So neither system has the upper hand over the other.  Neither argument can prove, non-circularly, that it is 'fair' and the other is 'unfair'.  The main thing the standard system has going for it is habit, like bell-bottom jeans in the late 60's and butterfly collars in the late 70's, the standard scoring system is what has been fashionable through most of chess tournament history.  It is ingrained in some members of the chess community as the 'right' way to score, but that is as arbitrary as any other culturally contingent norm or as any other pay-out system or scoring system in any other sport or game (ie, World Cup soccer, or the college bowl system).  

So, concerning the first question:  Is the 3 1 0 system unfair?  No, it's not 'unfair', it's as 'fair' as the standard system, and there is nothing to decide between them with respect to 'fairness' since it is, strictly speaking, arbitrary with respect to the game of chess itself which system is used.  


2)  Now it is not arbitrary that some tournament organizers want more money, want to draw more attention to their tournaments, and want more 'exciting' games---and for them, they might consider the more 'exciting' games to be games that do not end in draws.  Of course, one can legitimately argue that draws can be more exciting than wins, at times, and that an educated chess public would not want to encourage decisive games per se, but only encourage strong chess.  So it is a separate debate on what is more 'exciting' and a separate debate on how chess tournament organizers can get more money for hosting tournaments.  That is, strictly speaking, a management question and the kind of thing you could study in a Harvard Business school "case".  A marketing manager would do research on different tournament structures in the past, look at scoring systems, pay-out systems, whether Sofia rules are used or not, take into consideration the location of a tournament, the time of year, the kinds of fans and corporate sponsors one would expect given those variables, and try to set up the tournament that would maximize profits.  That is not an arbitrary question, but strictly a marketing management problem.  It has nothing to do with what's 'fair' or what's 'better for chess'.  

3) A third issue is, taking a step back and considering (2), is it good for chess, as an international game, to have one scoring system over another?  This question has nothing essentially to do with the business dimension, but can involve it.  Perhaps it is better for the game to have only one scoring system used all the time, perhaps it is good for the game to have a variety of tournaments with different structures and different scoring systems.  It is unclear what it means for something to be 'good' for the game, but it is not totally opaque either.  It's good for the game to have exciting chess games from top-notch players, it's good for the game for there to be full-time players and, so, financially reward them enough that they don't all leave to play poker or get real jobs instead.  There are countless issues as to what would be 'good' for the game, and I can't possibly address all those issues here.  It's a big debate and worth thinking about. My point is that this debate, to the extent that it can involve the question of scoring systems, should not presuppose that the 3 1 0 scoring system is somehow intrinsically unfair, or that the standard system is obviously fair and obviously the best system to use all the time and everywhere in chess tournaments.  There are distinct issues at stake.