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The Ethics of Dumping

In a recent article about slow play, the topic of “dumping”, or strategically losing a match in order to create more favorable matchups later in the event, came up. There are two main reasons a team might think it would benefit them to lose a match. One is to allow their opponent to qualify for the next stage of the event at the expense of a stronger team. The other is to lower one’s own ranking in the following stage of the event in hopes of creating an easier matchup.

I was one of the few, if not the only one, who argued that this strategy should be considered unethical. As such, I feel compelled to explain my view. I will attempt to do that by examining the main arguments that were used against me in favor of strategic dumping. I have paraphrased them below, in approximate order from most to least important.

My ultimate goal is not to make the contract or even to win the match. It is to win the event.

I completely agree with that statement, and believe me that I want to win every event I enter as much as anyone. However, what it comes down to for me is what we want “winning” to represent. There are many ways to “win” by the rules that I suspect would leave a number of us unsatisfied. What if your opponent was kidnapped and the rules thus declared you the winner? What if they had a family or medical emergency at the table and could not continue? (And I think it would be a bit hypocritical to decry those examples if you are a player who would ever discard a club specifically because you hope your opponent has a ‘vision malfunction’ and thinks you discarded a spade.)

The reasons we want to win are because of the feeling of satisfaction it gives us, and the accomplishment that it represents. (I intentionally omit reasons that aren’t “pure”, such as anything to do with money.) I derive little satisfaction from winning because I was better at losing, or because I was able to maneuver to allow a very weak team to qualify ahead of a good team, and don’t believe it represents far more meaningful of an accomplishment than winning by those examples I just stated above.

In the comments section of the article on slow play, I was mainly arguing these points against Michael Rosenberg, a player with a reputation as the most ethical. He is well known for allowing his opponents to return revokes to their hand with no penalty, if the revoke didn’t cause damage. My observation is that most people tend to commend him for that. It seems that he feels, just as I argue here, that he would rather not “win” in certain ways that are completely legal. I commend him as well, not for the specific act itself, but for the attitude that not all “winning” is created equal to him.

If I can lose a trick to help my chances in a contract, why can’t I lose a match to help my chances in an event?

I attempted to define what I feel “winning” should represent in the prior section. Now I will attempt to define what I feel “winning” should actually consist of. I feel winning, in any game or sport that I have ever heard of, should involve attempting to positively impact your own scoring margin over that of the opponents in either of two ways: either you attempt to increase that margin, or you attempt to prevent that margin from dropping below a certain important level. There are examples of the second strategy in almost any sport, from basketball teams with a lead holding the ball as long as the shot clock will allow, to baseball teams walking a player with the bases loaded in order to prevent even more runs from scoring, to (American) football teams giving up on passing plays in favor of the run so the clock will stop less often. I have no problem with any of that.

Then what’s wrong with losing as a form of that second strategy as it helps your chances in the overall event? I have two issues. The first is that when I refer to “winning” in those ways, I mean winning at an individually-scored unit at its most basic level. In other words, there is no scoring comparison for individual tricks. After a match, you don’t compare the results of trick 4 on board 7, you just compare the results of board 7. In that sense I view tricks as tools, not as goals, and they can readily be sacrificed in an attempt to aid the contract. I would never think a contract should be sacrificed for a match, nor a match for an event, as that would involve intentionally decreasing one’s results in terms of score comparison against an opponent.

My other issue with dumping as a form of the second strategy I named is that it doesn’t actually represent that strategy at all. There is a big difference between “making sure my scoring margin remains above X” and “making sure my scoring margin stays below X”. Competitors in some sports (such as college basketball) have been punished and publicly chastised for attempting to win by less than a certain margin even if they were still trying to win (aka “point-shaving”). And conversely, there are examples (such as World Cup qualifying) in which a team doesn’t mind losing as long as the differential doesn’t exceed a certain margin. I believe point-shaving is wrong whereas attempting to lose by less than a certain amount (if it benefits you in the event) is fine, because all attempts at scoring should be to cause a positive outcome or prevent a negative outcome on the scoring margin, not cause a negative outcome or prevent a positive one.

If the organizers don’t want me to dump, they should change the rules.

I have heard this argument a number of times, but never had adequate ideas suggested to me. Perhaps the carryover to the following round could be increased, but that creates its own problems and wouldn’t prevent dumping to teams that have no chance of qualifying. I think organizers haven’t attempted to tackle this issue on a large scale partly because it has managed to avoid rearing its head for the most part, but also because any way of doing it would have potentially larger unintended consequences.

I find it interesting that this point was made repeatedly by Rosenberg. In his example of not accepting revokes, he is adopting a strategy that intentionally violates a rule (because he thinks it’s a bad rule). That seems a stronger violation than what I suggest, which is rejecting a strategy that the rules fail to prevent.

Perhaps an analogy would clarify my viewpoint. I work in the casino industry. Casinos in Nevada are required to comply with a set of regulations put forth by the state Gaming Control Board called MICS (Minimum Internal Control Standards, sounds like “mix”). Each individual casino is also required to write and comply by their own matching set of regulations called ICS which must be at least as strong as the MICS. So if the MICS state each casino must run a certain test a minimum of three times per month, then your ICS can require your own casino to run that test a minimum of four times per month, or a minimum of three times, but not two.

I think it’s a great system to encourage casinos to go beyond the minimum of what is technically required if they feel a situation is not adequately covered by an existing rule. So to anyone reading this, I ask you to examine your ICS. Perhaps your ICS are identical to the MICS, meaning you follow all rules precisely as written and attempt to gain every advantage within them. I don’t feel that makes you a bad person (frankly it’s not even a question I tend to ask myself) and you have every right to feel that way. But my ICS don’t allow me to win by dumping. By maintaining the integrity of what I feel it should mean to win, I feel as good as possible whether I win or lose. If another team has won partly based on intentionally losing a match, they may get the official win, but in my eyes they didn’t really “win”.

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