Friday, November 2, 2007

Off The Board Strategies: Playing The Pairing Game

An outsider might think that all the maneuvering and strategical planning happens over the board. Those who play in a lot of tournaments knows there's a whole other game going on at the same time. Depending on one's rating or position in the tournament the end result may be different but the objective is the same. The object of this inner game is to try to out guess the pairing program in order to achieve a certain result. The result isn't a win, loss or draw of the game. The result is trying to get the most favorable pairing as possible.

There are different ways to play this game. A master rated 2200 - 2300 may look at the potential next round pairings and realize barring no upsets he's going to play a grandmaster in either that round, or the round after. Based on his calculations he'll choose to take a 1/2 point bye for the round that he anticipates playing the GM. This way he plays a "Swiss Gambit" deferred and avoids the GM and still slips into the money. Another variation on this theme is the player anticipates that 3 points will win money. He knows he'll get two easy pairings, and the next two rounds will be a crapshoot. He takes his two 1/2 point byes, and barring any upsets he has his 3 points and a piece of the action.

Along with strategic byes one has the reentry gambit. The reentry gambit is usually played by class players who get off to a lousy start and want to reposition themselves to have another crack at the class prize. However I've seen a few different objectives for the reentry gambit. One kid I knew used to re-enter when he anticipated that he would get the full point bye in the next round. This way he'd avoid getting the bye along with a chance to contend for the class prize. Sometimes I felt like he did it just to annoy me because when he'd reenter, usually I'd be the one getting the bye.

I won't play the reentry gambit for any reason. I see no point in spending more money to attempt to have a better shot at winning a prize, or to avoid getting a bye in a middle round. I also have sworn off the preemptive last round 1/2 bye to avoid middle round full point byes. I tried that in one tournament and it blew up in my face. I was forced to take the last round bye that I didn't need. Now I take my chances and hope that I can avoid byes or that at least a decent house player is floating around if I get a middle round bye.

Last night was the second week in a row I was the second lowest on the wall chart in 4 Rated Games Tonight! When one is that low there's a very good chance that a bye can't be avoided. Last week it came in the first round because the lowest rated player was taking a 1/2 point bye. I was given the option of playing an 1150 house player. There's always the risk that one may lose to the lower rated house player, and then get crappy pairings for the rest of night based on scoring zero in round 1. I wasn't thrilled by having to play someone that low, but I didn't feel like sitting around an hour for round two. It almost blew up in my face. He played much better then his rating, but in a very drawish position he let his time run out. Apparently the guy had never used a digital clock before. He didn't know what time delay was, and had no idea how to read the display on my Chronos. I dodged a serious bullet that round!

I would not have had to think about bye possibilities last night if I had managed not to lose that round two game where I declined a draw offer while up a rook. So I started looking at the wall chart and figuring out whether I'd end out with a bye in round 4, or be able to avoid it all together. One scenario had the bottom player and me both losing in round 3. That was possibility since we were both going to get paired up again. Though the rating differences amongst the zero score group wasn't significant so anything could have happened. If that happened then even if there were an odd number he'd get the bye, not me.

What I didn't take into account was one of the zeros playing the reentry gambit. I'm not sure why he reentered. If was to avoid playing down it didn't help. He still played the highest rated in the zero score group. He won, and then got paired up in the last round so it didn't improve his chances at the class prize. $15 down the tubes. His money, not mine. However his maneuvering caused me to play the lowest rated player. Playing the lowest rated player in this tournament is not a slam dunk win considering that he's only 70 points lower then me. What resulted was a totally bizarre game where I should have ignored the advice I give my students. Castle to keep your king safe. I would have been better off taking my chances in the center.


I lost on time because I just couldn't figure about what to do about all the threats along the b1-h2 diagonal. I let Fritz take a whack at the position, and it came up with 28. Rh6 Rad8 29. Rxg6+ Qxg6 30. g3 e5 31. Qc2 Qxc2+ 32. Kxc2 Ra6. Fritz rates it plus over equal for white. The two pawns for the exchange gives white a slight advantage. That's all well and good but when black has a 5 minute time advantage and white has very little time, all the numeric evaluations of the position go out the window. Unfortunately my brain doesn't work as fast as Fritz. I had not even considered that move. I was freaking out over the threat of 28...Bxc3, and didn't even consider that 28. Rh6 takes care of that threat. All I was looking at as a defense was 28. Bxd4 which doesn't work because of 28... cxd4 29. Rh6 Rc8 30. Rxg6+ Qxg6 31. Rd1 Rd5.

Back to the pairing sub-plots of bye evasion and improving one's class prize chances. My loss positioned me for a last round bye if there was an odd number. A last round bye allows me to make the 11:12 train home as opposed to the 12:30 train if I play the last round. It does have its merits, but I won't do a preemptive drop out to make the earlier train. As it turned out the number was even so I avoided byes all together. Unfortunately avoiding byes also afforded me another opportunity to lose which I did. As for our reentry player, he got paired up to a 2100 and lost. So much for improving one's chances at the class prize.


Liquid Egg Product said...

I hate how things work out so that not everybody is trying their utmost to win every game. It seems like that's the way it should be. Greg Shahade had some article lambasting the Swiss system, and has his own set of ideas of how to fix it.

Are his ideas any good? I'll allow brains stronger than mine work it out.

Temposchlucker said...

I'm surprised that such practices seem to be common in the US. I read about it in other US blogs too. And even about a phenomenon that you didn't mention: sandbagging.

I have never heard of such practices nor have I even ever thought about it. I don't know someone who has. Is it a typical American phenomenon?
I only take a bye when somebody has died. I mean, you play in a tournament to play chess and not to not play chess?

Polly said...

This Thursday night tournament that I write about frequently is a unique event. It's held every Thursday night, and it's very strong. The lowest class prize is under 2000 so for most players under 1800 there isn't a whole lot of incentive to play unless they're interested in playing strong players. That's my primary motivation for playing in it.

Tempo: I don't see a lot of sandbagging in this particular tournament because it's so strong. I do sometimes run across an opponent who is clearly trying to chuck points. I've received a few gift wins from sandbaggers. Though sandbaggers have to realize it's stupid to dump against me. I'm a TD, and I will let Steve Immitt know about my opponent. Since Steve directs at a lot of the CCA tournaments the sandbagger is not going to get too far.

LEP: The Swiss system isn't perfect, and perhaps some of Shahade's ideas might work in certain types of tournaments. I think it would work well in this particular tournament. Maybe if the pairings were random within a score group the low rated master might think twice about taking a bye since there's the possibility he may get an easier pairing then a harder one.

Glenn Wilson said...

Lost on time? Ok, I looked at the final position and yeah, that is scary!! A wild game. Quick random thought as I played through the game (which, if it is any good Fritz has probably suggested to you already) is Nxf4 instead of exf4 at move 24. The idea is to eliminate the white square bishop or at least making setting up the Q+B battery harder.

Rating points are a big incentive, for me, to play to win. There are lots of USCF players sitting on their rating floors so the rating incentive for them is almost non-existent (assuming they are never really going to move up). I only take byes when I can not be present and I arrange those before the tournament starts. Except, a time or two I have taken a last round bye when I did not feel well or was just exhausted.

There used to be stories about a certain GM who seemed to have an unfortunate habit of losing early round games in big open tournaments to get easy pairings for the first half-dozen rounds or so. I'm not naming any names and don't know if there is merit to the stories but this was referred to as the other Evans Gambit. :-)

Polly said...

Glenn: I didn't even consider 24. Nxf4. I guess I didnt want the double isolated pawns, but Fritz liked the move. Again when one is short on time the positional niceties of not having doubled or isolated pawns tend to blur one's thinking. But your accessment makes a lot of sense.

Analysis by Fritz 5.32:

1. +- (1.78): 24.Nxf4 Rab8 25.dxe6 Qb7 26.b3 Rxf4 27.exf4 Qe4 28.Qd3 Qxd3
2. +- (1.75): 24.exf4 Rab8 25.Nc3 Qxf4 26.Be3 Qc4 27.d6 Bxc3 28.Qxc3 Qxc3+

Regarding floors: I'm on my floor which can be a mixed blessing. I always want to win, and get off my floor. However sitting on my floor allows me to not obsess over rating points and not go crazy if I have a crappy tournament. I don't feel as though I do things differently because I'm on my floor. If anything I play more then I might if I had to worry about my rating plunging into the lower bowels of class C.

Liquid Egg Product said...

Re: Sandbagging. I know of one guy who did it. He was right around 2000, but would let his rating slip into the 1900's so he could play in U2000 sections.

If winning a section (ie, money) is the priority, then whatever, I guess that makes sense.

Shamefully, I was going to try sandbagging once. But after the games actually started, I couldn't help but play my best so it didn't quite work out.

Well, it sorta did: I played poorly enough to fall below 1600, but not in time for the rating supplement to come out for the tournament I was "sandbagging" for...