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A Disturbing Trend

Usually I don’t pay much attention to bridge politics. I don’t care who’s on the Board of Directors, although I’m very happy with my district representative, Al Levy, and I’m rooting for my friend Adam Parrish in his election in New England. I wouldn’t run for the board in a million years, though I appreciate the work of the ACBL’s countless volunteers, and I have given my time where I could, serving on committees that require only my bridge expertise, not any political savviness. However, I feel compelled to speak about two motions in front of the board in Chicago that I find deeply troubling, both individually and as part of a larger trend I have noticed in the last couple of years of a decidedly anti-professional sentiment coming from the BoD.

The first is the motion to have the ACBL stop paying dues to the WBF. Trust me, I have plenty of concerns about the WBF. But I’m worried about the ramifications if the ACBL were to stop paying, and no one seems to really know what they would be. We may be effectively terminating our relationship with the organization that runs international bridge. Would the US still get to participate in world championships? Would we still get to send two teams to the Bermuda Bowl? Would the USBF have to cough up the $165K annually? Where would that money come from? The fact that the ACBL BoD could put our standing in world bridge in doubt — could jeopardize our country's ability to compete in future Bermuda Bowls — is terrifying.

The second motion that worries me is the reduced masterpoint payouts for five- and six-person regional KO teams. It’s possible that awards based on participation should have been the model from the beginning; I certainly see the fairness of awards based on how much you have played. But there is something to winning and losing as a team, and many sports follow the model of officially rewarding all players on a team equally, no matter how much they played or contributed. Whichever model is actually best is debatable, but we’re not designing the system from scratch. To change the system now is to levy a tax or punishment on your best customers — clients, professionals, and volunteers. If we are going to try to restructure the masterpoint system to create greater parity, it needs to be a comprehensive and thought-out process, not an isolated attempt at a quick fix aimed only at a small population.

There’s a scenario where this motion could mean less money for the ACBL. Players, particularly the core clients and professionals, may decide not to play as many regionals. Clients already often choose not to play the Swiss on Sunday because the proportional payouts make it not as worthwhile to them. If the professional teams aren’t there, the event will pay fewer masterpoints, reducing the masterpoints for four-person teams as well. And for what? The ACBL has done a masterful job of creating a product with no intrinsic value and building a huge market for that product. Why in the world would you now want to re-value your product, especially among the most loyal consumers?

These are just the most recent and closest-hitting examples of a disturbing trend I have noticed of the ACBL going out of its way to alienate its professional members, without appreciating that this group influences, shapes, motivates, and helps all the other levels of bridge. The Board has already passed motions aimed at top players, including removing entry fees in national GNT events for every flight but the championship flight… why?

Rather than antagonizing professionals, why not do something to try to help us and find a way to deal with alleged cheating? We need an effective and transparent mechanism for handling cheating allegations so that there is both a real disincentive to cheat and a means to clear one’s name and move on after a suspicion is aired. I applaud the motion that would vacate wins by teams that included convicted cheaters, and I urge the members of the Board to vote for it. But it’s not nearly enough. When cheating is not stamped out quickly, it can create an environment where people feel they cannot compete against cheaters without cheating themselves. If we don’t deal with this effectively we could end up with an epidemic, like baseball faced when it did not act swiftly to curb the use of steroids. Instead of cutting ourselves off from the world bridge community, let’s take the lead on this critical issue and create an international standard for dealing with cheating allegations.

This isn’t the ACBL I grew up in. That ACBL understood that professional bridge was a critical component of the League’s health. Today’s ACBL seems to think that professional bridge is either extraneous or impervious to abuse. But if the disturbing trend of anti-pro legislation continues, they may find that established pros will vote with their feet and take more of their business to other countries, while aspiring pros will find it more difficult to establish a career. Representing the USA in international competition has been one of the greatest experiences in my life, and it would be a shame to deny future professionals that opportunity if we pass legislation that effectively forces them to play for other countries.

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