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An Open Letter to ACBL Unit and District Officers

Special Note to Bridge Winners Readers:

The letter below is being sent to every unit and district officer in the ACBL, based on the listings on the ACBL's web page of these individuals.  Since these email addresses must be copied and process individually, weeding out many duplicates, this is a time-consuming process.  My goal is to complete it by early next week.  As of this posting (Friday afternoon, 11/22/19), 454 individual officers from 5 Eastern Districts--1,2 ,3, 24 and 25--have been sent the letter.  However, given that this process may take some time, I am also posting this on Bridge Winners, both for officers who have not received it yet to see it and for comment from the general bridge community.

To ACBL District and Unit Board Members:

This is an open letter to all members (who have email addresses listed on the ACBL’s website) of district (regional sponsors) and unit (sectional sponsors) boards. It will also be posted on Bridge Winners. It specifically addresses motions being considered at the ACBL Board of Directors (BOD) meeting in San Francisco next week and, by extension, the current state of the ACBL and the effectiveness of the Board of Directors to correct and improve ACBL operations.

Who Is Writing This Letter

First, simply by way of introduction, my name is Peter Marcus. I was an ACBL Tournament Director for 36 years, 23 of them as an employee of the ACBL. I rose to the rank of Associate National Director, was a salaried employee of the ACBL for 6 years and director-in-charge (DIC) of regionals in New England (District 25) for 15 years (continuing to this day), regionals in several other districts, and countless sectionals in the Northeast.

You may know my name because of my association with legal claims that have been brought against the ACBL relating to the payment of overtime. However, this letter has nothing to do with lawsuits, overtime, or ACBL employment practices. Rather, it concerns BOD motions designed to prevent sponsors from running events that have proven to be highly successful in New England and to prevent sponsors from coming up with any other new events, even if legal under ACBL rules, if the BOD and Management haven’t thought of and approved of them.

It must also be known that these comments do not reflect the opinions of anyone other than me as the author. Specifically, I am not speaking on behalf of District 25 or any other tournament sponsor.

Overview

I apologize as I know this is a long letter. In brief, it addresses two issues, which rumors indicate the ACBL BOD is highly likely to pass at its meetings in San Francisco, that would

1) Kill a new, totally legal knock-out format, created in New England for District 25 regionals, that has generated significant tournament attendance increases, brought members who had abandoned tournaments, if not the ACBL itself, back to the game, and proven highly successful with new players and

2) Create a new regulation that wouldallow ACBL Management to prevent a sponsor from running a TOTALLY LEGAL(!!) event, as long as the event's format is unprecedented, that is, prevent sponsors from creating LEGAL events if the ACBL BOD or ACBL Management objects to the event or the sponsor proposing it.

If you find it concerning that the BOD is actively trying to kill a new, successful and legal event, without even allowing sponsors to run it experimentally for a short period to determine its actual value and then planning to prevent anyone other than themselves from creating any new events, even ones that are also legal under their own rules, then please read on.

New Event

About two years ago, the ACBL started to experiment with a new way to run bracketed Knock-Outs. Rather than the traditional format of winners going on and losers being knocked out each round, the idea was to create brackets and, within each bracket, run an all-day round-robin or Swiss team event, qualifying 4 teams to the semi-finals on the second day. This had the advantage of ensuring all teams entered played the entire first day and, if a team qualified to the semi-finals, it would again play all day since there would be a play-off match for 3rd and 4th overall between the two semi-final losers This format proved popular at a number of tournaments so, as of 2019, the ACBL BOD authorized this as a legal format for KO events.

At the time, the BOD apparently intended that it would be legal to run one or two small (5 or 6 team) brackets at the top, and was accepting that these small brackets would still pay 4 overall places with significant point awards, often more than 30.00 gold points for 1st overall in the top bracket. Apparently, this was not seen as being overly generous or “devaluing” masterpoints.

In New England, we did not run any of our regional KOs using this format. We had serious trouble with our knockouts, which were once almost 100 tables but by 2013 had fallen to under 20 tables. The situation was so bad that the district took KOs off the regional schedule. But, in 2015, our new District President (and now ACBL BOD representative), Bob Bertoni, felt that KOs were critical to the success of our tournaments and increasing attendance, so got them put back on the schedule. To encourage teams to “come back” our first reinstated KO event was free for all rounds and drew an incredible 99 teams. While we have not achieved that level of success since then, our KOs are now totally viable and successful events. So, at first, the District did not want to “tamper with success” and try the new all-day format.

However, at the Seniors Regional in April 2019, where KOs had been off the schedule for several years, the District decided to try the new “all day” KO format for the event. While only 24 teams entered, the players at all levels, from top players to novice players, liked the all-day format. From this feedback, the District decided to run one of the two KOs at an open regional using this format.

I was not the DIC at the Seniors Regional due to a personal conflict. But, the DIC of the tournament, with approval from ACBL management, ran the 24 teams with 4 brackets of 6 teams each, qualifying 4 in each bracket to the semi-finals. This meant that 16 of 24 teams (67%) won overall places and got gold points. This was not a result of the point totals of the teams; it would have been totally reasonable to create only 3 brackets with 6, 9 and 9 teams respectively. But, running 4 6-team brackets gave overall awards to more teams.

When I saw this, it was obvious that this was inconsistent with the ACBL’s traditional view of what percentage of entrants should get into the overalls. I checked with ACBL management, since I had to assume this was a well-intended but technically illegal way to run the event, and was told that this was totally legal and valid.

So, with this support from ACBL management that the new “all day” KO format allowed for creation of small brackets for the entire event, each qualifying 4 teams to the semi-finals, I proposed creation of a new event for a D25 regional, the “Knock-In Knock-Out” or KIKO. The idea was to intentionally make brackets of 5 teams (with maybe a few 6-team brackets), each qualifying 4 teams to the semi-finals and overalls. In essence, 80% (4 out of 5) of the teams would be “knocked in” to the semi-finals and the overalls.

The District embarked on a significant marketing campaign to describe this “new” event. Our first time running this format was at our regional in August 2019 where the KO attendance increased from 56 tables the previous year to 91 (62%). While other concurrent events did lose some attendance, the daily attendance increased significantly. And, because so many teams were going on to the second day of the KO, the overall impact was also a real increase in tournament attendance.

We ran the format again at our regional in November of this year, and the KO attendance increased from 39 teams in 2018 to 54 in 2019 (38%), with daily attendance again increasing from the previous year despite small decreases in the attendance for other concurrent events.In other words, the players really liked this format. Certainly, the number of teams getting overall points was a factor. But the biggest factor was the very small brackets, so the players knew that all the teams they would face would be “just like them.” There would be no players with 100 points playing against players with 700 points, or players with 2500 points playing against players with 6000 points.

And, as great as this concept is for newer players, to whom we have heavily marketed the new format, it has even greater potential to bring back to regionals many players who have so excelled in Gold Rush events that they have "graduated" and then abandoned tournaments where they would now have to compete with little chance to win against much stronger players in Open or Mid-Flight events. This event is perfect for these players.

As soon as the ACBL heard of this event, many of the “powers that be” wanted to stop it. However, when the BOD passed the rules allowing the all-day format, they didn’t address this issue. In fact, they had considered having small brackets, but their view was that these would only be “at the top,” with one or two small brackets for the very best players, and then much larger (9-16 team) brackets for everyone else. Put simply, they were content with 67% or 80% of the entrants receiving overall awards as long as these were the top players, the 5% of ACBL members that seem to be the focus of the great majority of BOD actions. When District 25 extended this concept to the 80% of district membership under 750 points, the reaction from the ACBL was extremely negative. It was discussed by the Bridge Committee of the BOD at the Las Vegas meetings, and several motions are being considered in San Francisco to kill this format, such as allowing only 1 or 2 brackets of less than 7 teams in any KO event or taking away overall (gold) points from 3rd and 4th place teams in small brackets. The argument for this is basically that we are “giving away” too many points. So, although the ACBL BOD has expressly approved a five-team bracket of top experts paying 30+ gold points to the winner, many Directors now seem to be deeply concerned that a five-team lower bracket might pay less than 0.50 gold points to the 4th place team.

This reaction of the BOD is both mystifying and terrifying. They came up with a concept and passed rules to implement it. A representative from a district had an idea for an event that was totally legal based on the rules the BOD created. In fact, before trying it, the District confirmed it was legal. The format proved highly successful in terms of both tournament attendance and player response. So, the BOD goes into immediate action to find a way to “kill” the concept. They can’t even be bothered to allow it as an experiment for a year, to see if the success continues or proves to be short-lived and whether other sponsors will adopt it and find it works for them or reject it. Over a year, the format could prove to be unpopular and just die away. But, if it were popular, it could lead to new members, retained members, recovered members and tournament attendance increases. The ACBL BOD can’t even be bothered to see if it will work, they just want to find ways to kill it while continuing to allow significant points to be given to top players in small brackets.

In fact, to add insult to injury in this case, knowing that the BOD was considering ways to prohibit this KIKO format, after the first time it was run in June, the District, mostly through the District 25 I/N Coordinator, encouraged players who participated to send their feedback about the event to the ACBL BOD. Since all 25 BOD members would consider and vote on proposals to kill the format, the players were encouraged to write to all 25 BOD members, whose addresses are publicly listed on the ACBL’s website. When they did this, most BOD members ignored the emails and a small number wrote back with thanks for the feedback.

But one BOD member, Jay Whipple from District 9, the immediate past-President of the ACBL and current Chairperson of the Board, wrote back to many with emails they interpreted as angry, insulting and intimidating, asking who had set them up to write to the whole Board, why were they bothering the whole Board, that it was wrong for them to write to anyone other than their own District representative, etc. Even worse, when some didn’t respond, he accessed ACBL membership records and actually called them, wanting to know “Who had told them to write.” Since many of these members were new to the ACBL, they were concerned if not terrified that they had done something bad. At least two came back to the regional over the next few days and were in tears because they felt they had committed some terrible ACBL infraction and were now in serious trouble for having written their feedback to the BOD.

It Gets Even Worse

However, as sad as this situation is, the ACBL BOD has taken it a step further for the BOD meetings in San Francisco. They had now written another proposal to be considered there.

This is the motion for consideration at the San Francisco meeting that is rumored to be very likely to pass.

Item 193-26: Non-Conforming Events

The sponsor of an ACBL-sanctioned tournament must, prior to submitting a schedule for approval or publicizing a schedule, request and receive permission from Management if intending to schedule an event which does not conform to practices in common tournament usage. This requirement applies in all situations, and specifically in situations where existing Conditions or ACBL regulations appear to be silent, ambiguous, or even permissive.

This includes, but is not limited to, number of boards played, number of matches played, scoring method, flight or strata limits, bracket size, awarding of Masterpoints and pigmentation thereof, etc.

Permission may be denied, or may be granted with specific conditions attached, including ones pertaining to Masterpoint issuance.

It is very difficult to believe that anyone could even think up, let alone support, this motion. It says that any sponsor requires pre-approval from ACBL Management to run any new event, even if that event is totally legal (permissible) under ACBL rules!!! Management isn’t required to have or give a reason; it can just approve or disapprove without explanation or attach any additional conditions or restrictions it wants. In theory, this means, if a sponsor wanted to change the point limit for their I/N event from 299 to 349, ACBL Management could prevent this, since it would not be in “common tournament usage.” Or, Management could tell a sponsor they can’t run a pair game with only 22 boards played, since this is not currently normal at tournaments. Both are 100% legal under current rules but, since no one regularly does them now, prior approval from ACBL Management would be required and Management could use this new regulation to prevent either.

Obviously, I would hope Management wouldn’t do this. But, under this rule, it could. And, it could do so for any, or even no, reason, such as the BOD representative from the requesting district having given an unfavorable rating to the Executive Director or voted against some motion the ACBL President supported or because some senior representative from that Unit or District had incurred the ire of the ACBL BOD or Management.

It also means that ACBL BOD can write any rule it wants, without bothering to even consider its impact or ramifications, since, if some sponsor tried to do something that would be legal under the rule but the BOD hadn’t considered or included when writing the rule, and the ACBL BOD didn’t like it, they can just have ACBL Management refuse permission. It also makes clear that the ACBL BOD does not believe that anyone, other than themselves and a few senior members of ACBL Management, has the intelligence, creativity, or ethicality to come up with a new good idea, even a legal one, without getting their approval first.

By enacting a regulation that permits denial to any legal format that has not been expressly blessed by the BOD, that body is admitting that as a group the BOD lacks foresight and is more interested in throwing its weight around than in creative solutions to chronic problems. Such a response would be limiting in good times; in a time of a critical decline in attendance, the response is at best tone deaf and at worst self-destructive.

What This Rule Could Have Lead To

It should also be noted that, had this rule existed 15-20 years ago, it most certainly would have been used to prevent one of the most successful events in ACBL history. In the early 2000s, when directing at the Gatlinburg TN regional, I saw that, three times a week, there was a special event run as part of the I/N program. Each day it had a “cute” name, such as Magnolia Pairs or Poinsettia Pairs. There were a small number of sections but not much mention or extensive marketing of these events.

These events were 0-750 point games that paid gold points in the top stratum. They existed because of a loophole in ACBL rules that ACBL BOD didn’t foresee or address but someone in the Mid-Atlantic Conference (District 6 and 7) had found. When I saw this, I proposed to District 25 that they run them, and was told by a member of ACBL Management that this was totally illegal. Yet, Gatlinburg continued to run them and, eventually, District 25 agreed to give them a try. They came up with a new marketing name to advertise these events--Gold Rush Pairs. Our first Gold Rush event, at the August 2009 regional in Nashua NH, had 99 tables (in New England, apparently, we just can’t get over the hump to a 100-table event).

Doug Grove, a National Director from District 6, repeatedly said that the Mid-Atlantic Conference created the Gold Rush events, but New England popularized them. Just consider, for a moment, the impact Gold Rush events have had on tournament attendance at your regionals.

Well, if this new regulation had been in effect then, there would be no Gold Rush events, since this was a totally legal event that was not contemplated when the ACBL BOD made some changes to the masterpoint regulations. Ten years later, I am not aware of any regionals anywhere, including all NABCs, without Gold Rush events almost every day. But, if the ACBL BOD has its way, this kind of ingenuity and creativity (and attendance increases) can be permanently banned, even when ACBL rules allow them, because ACBL Management can just prohibit a sponsor from running a totally legal event.

Now What

Over the last few years, the ACBL BOD has had to address some serious problems facing the tournament bridge community—cheating, continued membership losses, significant tournament attendance decreases, etc. As a result of serious attendance problems at one NABC, bad IT contracts for expensive software that turned out to be unsuited for ACBL use, and several legal setbacks in situations where ACBL Counsel repeatedly assured ACBL Membership that the ACBL would prevail, the ACBL lost almost 50% of its net assets in one year, 2018.

Yet, despite all these problems, the ACBL BOD is now spending lots of time and effort and seems committed to trying to kill a new idea, that is perfectly legal but that they don’t like, even after it has demonstrated on at least a limited basis to be beneficial to increasing tournament attendance and retaining/recovering ACBL members. And, to prevent anyone from trying to come up with a solution for these problems in the future, they want to prevent sponsors from doing anything “new,” even if legal, without their approval.

If you have read this far, many thanks for doing so and considering these issues.

In conclusion, if you believe that you and your colleagues at the local level can contribute to addressing ACBL problems, make sure your BOD representative knows you expect him/her to oppose these motions. If you believe that new ideas that demonstrate success should be encouraged, or at least allowed experimentally for some time for greater evaluation, then make sure your BOD representative knows you expect her/him to oppose these motions. If you want the freedom to plan legal events that your players want, even if other geographies haven’t adopted them, then make sure your BOD representative knows you expect him/her to oppose these motions.

And, if your BOD representative is more interested in pleasing his/her BOD colleagues and ACBL Management, and not representing what is best for your tournaments and members, make sure your BOD representative knows you will remember her/his positions on these issues at the next election.

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