Strategy and tactics

Olympics Badminton is organized so that a team can improve their odds of winning the tournament by losing the odd early match, which changes their seeding in the final rounds. Badminton rules also forbid “not using one’s best efforts to win a match” and “conducting oneself in a manner that is clearly abusive or detrimental to the sport.”  If your best efforts to win a match reduce your chances of winning a medal, the players are in an impossible position under the first rule.  Today, four teams were expelled for going for the medals as well as they could, even though they didn’t make the rules; in fact, it’s the organizers who should face punishment under the second provision above.

Whatever the rules are, and they have to be consistent, playing strategically rather than tactically is central to excellence in lots of sports and more.  A sacrifice bunt in baseball, all kinds of tactics in bicycle and auto racing, and losing a piece on purpose in chess are part of those games and make them interesting.  “Cannae” is military shorthand for a classic strategy in which a general tactically retreats the center so the enemy will advance to be flanked on both sides and lose the battle.

The players didn’t cheat; this isn’t like doping or putting a roll of nickels in a boxing glove.  It’s the competition designers’ job to make rules in which the incentives for players at each stage match how they want the whole event to unfold.  If motivating dogging early games is a problem, fix the rules, as the wise neighbor did when two farmers had each bet that he had the slowest horse and the race to settle it dragged on into the evening: “change horses!”

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

24 thoughts on “Strategy and tactics”

    1. My point is that a lot of contests comprise subcontests and subsubcontests. The badminton rule – in the context of an olympic competition for three medals – is analogous to requiring every player to do his best to get on base in every at-bat, or requiring the pitcher to try to get every batter out (no intentional walks). Baseball teams don’t always start their best pitcher against weak opponents, even though that would maximize their chance of winning that game, because they’re trying to win the season. Bicycle riders routinely lose a stage as a way to let their team leader win it, even though bicycle racing rules aren’t AFIK written to recognize teams, and so on.

      1. The contest / subcontest issue can be understood by listening to the spectators.

        They felt cheated in a way that the spectators of all those other examples do not.

        1. I agree the spectators were misused, but not about by whom. Anyway,large groups of people who are really upset about something are not always a good indicator of what’s true or appropriate. Would you say, “the rights and wrongs at Penn State can be understood by listening to the Paternophile football fans?” or that the merits of our presidential candidates can be understood by listening to a Teaparty rally, or an Occupy demonstration?

          1. Other unwritten rule in sports: Don’t show up the Ump.

            The players were told to stop f-ing around, and continued to fail intentionally.
            So the league brought down the hammer.

            I call foul on the Penn state analogy, as it concerned off-field crime. I’m talking sports regarding in-game rules.

          2. There’s a fairly obvious difference between spectators who have paid to attend a sporting event in the expectation of seeing an honest contest – whichever side won or lost – and groups with tribal allegiances disagreeing about the merits of a political candidate or sporting celebrity. I would say that dragging in the “large groups of people are often wrong” claim really has nothing to do with the issue under discussion here. No-one disputes that the spectators did not see matches being played honestly – which they had every right to expect. No-one (except, sometimes, the fixers) buys tickets for a sporting event in the expectation of seeing a fix, which, effectively, is what was going on here. That the fix was engineered by the players, probably with the encouragement of their team managers, does nothing to make it cleaner or better.

    2. FWIW, in 1981, the Dodgers lucked into the weird playoff that year by having the best pre-strike record. Tommy LaSorda, the Dodgers’ manager, played the second half very differently–resting his regulars a lot, limiting starting pitcher innings–in order to keep them more rested for the playoffs. Arguably, that strategy meant the Dodgers, more or less intentionally, won fewer games in the post-strike period than they might have otherwise won. Was that acceptable? Why or why not?

  1. Oh – simple fix:
    Winner of a match has an option to count game as a loss for seeding purposes. So if you really want to lose, you have to earn that right.

    1. Simple in one sense, but almost certainly would achieve nothing except adding a new level of bureaucratic confusion to a situation that has essentially happened because the Badminton Federation allowed players to get away with rigging the system – until it became so blatantly obvious that the public rebelled very loudly against it. The solution here is for the Federation to actually apply the code of conduct, disqualify and ban players who try to game the system and make it clear that cheating has consequences.

  2. Michael, I believe the players should be disqualified from the remainder of the games since they were deliberately trying to lose the matches, while feigning that they cared enough to win. A sacrifice bunt is a poor example since you are trying to advance the runner to score a run, to win the game, not lose it.

    The players cheated the spectators, those who had paid money to watch this farce, not to see them perform as badly as possible. If the so called players, had just sat down on the court and broken open a few bottles of wine, or mooned the crowd, would you have condoned their actions just the same, since you feel so strongly that a central element of sport is to advance, by losing any way possible, in order to face a lesser opponent even if it means abusing spectators that had taken the time an expense to come to the sport presumably to see them compete and try to perform to the best of their abilities, and not be made fools of.

    1. Would it be OK for a team to feign a particular weakness, losing some points or even a match, to induce later opponents to try to take advantage of it? Is it OK for a trainer to start a mudder only on dry days to get better odds when the horse finally runs in the wet?

      I agree the spectators were abused, but they were abused by the competition designers.

      1. How does one design a multiple elimination tournament that achieves the “correct” result (that is, the highest seeded teams getting the preferred path and to the final four) in the face of all upsets by long-odds teams? The unexpected win by the Dutch triggered this whole attempt at strategic behavior; should the Dutch team have just quit to preserve the “correct” seeding? Should Norfolk State have quit shooting so that Mizzou could get to the NCAA Final Four in the spring of 2012 as Los Vegas preferred?

        Where is it written that when an entity (nation, league, etc) brings more than one team to a tournament that its two teams can only meet in the championship rounds?


  3. This topic has been the subject of considerable discussion in the world of tournament bridge. It has arisen in a context very similar to that of the badminton competition – losing an early match in order to improve one’s chances at a later stage.

    Bridge World magazine, the publication read by probably all serious participants, has taken the strong position that tactics like those described are not merely allowed, but are a required aspect of sportsmanship, which it defines as doing one’s best to win the event while playing within the rules. The editor would note, I think, that winning a match when losing would be beneficial deliberately gives some other team an advantage, a result that is itself open to criticism.

    The central point, of course, is that the rules should be designed so as to avoid creating opportunities for this sort of thing, not least because it puts the players in an impossily conflicted position.

  4. I’m not as sanguine as Mr. O’Hare. Many games are played by two sets of rules: a deontological “Sunday” set of rules, and a consequentialist set of workaday rules. This is especially true for legal rules. Consider, for example, the fiduciary duties of a CEO: a “punctilio of honor the most sensitive” on Sundays, and grotesque compensation on paydays. But it happens in sports as well: consider the phantom tag in baseball, or the infinitely complex set of unwritten rules governing the brushback pitch. The legal context, however, is the most fruitful. Consider again the unwritten–put quite predictable–rules governing when cops will refrain from stopping a motorist, or are willing to lie under oath. Or consider the Wal-Mart case, which upheld the antidiscrimination principle and showed employers how to discriminate. And this is not to mention the tax code!

    For such games, the competition designers must create contradictory public rules and private incentives: both are part of the game.

  5. Four pairs, not four teams, if we are to be precise. Three teams were involved: China, Indonesia, South Korea.

    “Thomas Lund, the secretary general of the Badminton World Federation, the sport’s governing body, said that the four sets of women violated the Players’ Code of Conduct, Sections 4.5 and 4.6, for “not using one’s best efforts to win a match” and “conducting oneself in a manner that is clearly abusive or detrimental to the sport.””

    It seems that the issue here is not, in fact, the design of the group matches, much less an ethical dispute – rather the failure of badminton to apply its own code consistently over the years. This isn’t to excuse what was clearly both cheating and a disgraceful spectacle, merely to say that the cheats should not bear all the responsibility.

  6. There’s no perfect set of rules. Those, who play the game will play strategically, and those, who make the rules must do so, as well. It seems to me that the rule-makers have, in this case, made a strategic intervention, which it is their responsibility to do. I really do not understant the complaint of the original post; it seems contradictory.

  7. To be fair, I don’t think the teams were trying to throw the match in order to secure their best chance, as a team, to medal. At least in the case of the Chinese team, they were throwing the match in order to have the two Chinese teams placed on opposite sides of the bracket so that it would be possible for China to win both gold and silver (otherwise, gold/bronze would be the best-case scenario and that would require winning an extra match).

    Of course, it’s stupid to try to mandate that people try their hardest via the rules. All you’d have to do is make a system where qualifying teams are randomly placed into two halves of a bracket and then seeded after this random sorting. This would randomly lead to some sort-of unfair situations, but so does randomly selecting groups for the initial games. Otherwise, in a sport such as Badminton with some countries offering multiple top teams, this will continue to be the case and they’ll just be less blatant about it.

    1. We can do away with some of the incentive for this sort of gaming by eliminating the jingoistic component of the games. Keep the medal ceremonies, but play an excerpt from Beethoven/Schiller An die Freude rather than national anthems. Stop the silly bean counting of medals. Allow multinational teams for pairs sports like tennis and badminton.

    2. = = = At least in the case of the Chinese team, they were throwing the match in order to have the two Chinese teams placed on opposite sides of the bracket = = =

      And this was desirable to the overall sport and tournament exactly why?


      1. All I’m saying is that it’s my impression that this isn’t a case of a strategy through which “a team can improve their odds of winning the tournament” as written in the original post. There are definitely times when it makes sense to drop a seed based upon the outcome of an earlier match, but I don’t think that’s what happened here.

  8. One simple solution to this particular Olympic situation: Allow the team in the round-robin with the best record (with ties broken by, e.g., margin of victory) to choose their opponent in the next round. In otherwords, provide a reward for winning, not for losing.

    1. You’d have a similar problem (although less severe since it at least doesn’t involve intentionally throwing matches). Winning teams would sometimes choose to play teams they’re more likely to lose to if it would split their country’s two teams into separate halves of the bracket. This could lead to unwanted outcomes like a match between two top teams in the first knockout round. The best solutions I can think of involve turning the knockout draw into something like the NBA draft lottery system, where seeds are randomly assigned with some weighting based upon the results of the group stage. You just need to add a little bit of random variation to make these strategies not be worthwhile.

      1. Determining “efficient conditions of contest turns out to be frighteningly difficult, and you’ve pointed out a problem with mine. (I’d solve it by allowing only one team per country–or one pair, as in badminton.) But the random seeding does not eliminate the incentive to lose an earlier match; it just changes the motivation–rest/recovery by tanking, for example, by a pair that has clinched an advance…

        Anyone interested in the scholarly literature on this issue should go to Google Scholar and google “tournament design.” You’ll get 70,000 hits.

        1. Sorry I meant randomized but not totally random. In the NBA draft, the worst teams get more ping pong balls in a lottery machine. Balls are drawn until each team is selected to determine the order of the first 14 (I think) picks. So there’s not so much incentive to be in dead last rather than second-to-last. In a soccer tournament, you could award 5 balls for each win, 3 balls for each tie, and 1 ball for each loss in the group stage. Then do a similar sort of thing to determine seeding in the knockout stage. There’s a huge bonus here for high-profile events because the draw would be a big deal and you could sell a ton of ads.

          This sort of strategy would also make it unnecessary to schedule simultaneous games as is done in many tournaments during group stages (Euro & World cups) and in the final week of the NFL season (although in the NFL there’s no practical way to avoid this without expanding the playoffs that I can think of). Playing simultaneous games isn’t good for ratings or the fans.

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