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Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Strategic losing and sporting rules

Thanks to Dan for inviting me back. I will be blogging more about my home domain (patent law) over the coming month. But I, like I presume many readers, am currently devoting more of my attention to the Olympics.

So here is a brewing controversy from that front. A bunch of badminton teams have been disqualified for deliberately throwing matches. Not because of any betting-related issues (at least, not that we know) but because they were strategically playing for an easier opponent in the next round. Somewhat like the soccer world cup, Olympic badminton comprises an initial round-robin tournament, and then a knockout finals round where the initial placement depends on the placement in the round-robin tournament. What happens is that, once a team has ensured they have a finals berth, there is the additional strategic incentive to ensure that one’s place in the knockout finals in a favorable quadrant with weaker opponents.

For a law professor, there are endless issues worth pondering here. First, it is a great illustration of the difference between overall and marginal incentives. The overall incentive of any player is surely to make the finals round, rather than deliberately lose and risk being excluded altogether. But once a player has ensured a finals berth, the marginal incentive is to strategically manipulate placement. Another great issue is the role of sequencing rules. The first player to finish their round robin matches has a hard time strategically manipulating placement, because he doesn’t know who his opponents will be if he wins versus loses, but the last players to finish their round robin matches know perfectly. There is thus some strategic advantage to playing later versus earlier. We can then imagine various regimes (e.g. alphabetical order, random draw, priority based on prior rankings and results, etc.) to determine the order of play.

But this all leads to the issue I really want to ponder, and which I don’t have any great answers for, which is how a sport should react to the obvious incentive for strategically losing matches. Two extremes are do nothing and accept such strategic losing as legitimate, or to create rules that deter such strategic play. What badminton has done is probably the worst of all worlds, in that it holds such strategic play to be prohibited, but it then (a) sets up a regime which has predictable incentives for strategic losing, and (b) prohibits the behavior only using a weakly specified rule (“using one’s best efforts to win a match”) that is extremely difficult to enforce. What this means in practice is that players will still have the incentive to strategically lose, but they will camouflage the strategy enough that they cannot be called out on it. The player who comes out on top is thus the one who is best at committing fouls but hiding them well, which is surely not what the sport should try and encourage.

Posted by Tun-Jen Chiang on August 1, 2012 at 11:23 AM | Permalink


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Right on!

Posted by: John | Aug 1, 2012 7:23:30 PM

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