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November 28th, 2010

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09:58 pm - Ain't no party like a mind sports party
I found a very interesting link the other day, from a source I consider credible, suggesting that initial contracts have been signed to host a second installment of the World Mind Sports Games in Manchester in August 2012, starting on the day that a certain physical games event concludes in London. The governing body, the International Mind Sports Association (IMSA), have nothing official one way or the other on the matter, yet, but these minutes of the meeting of congress of the World Bridge Federation (WBF), a month previously, suggested in section 7, on page 4, that "hopefully the 2012 World Mind Sports Games would be held in Manchester". I don't regard this as cast iron confirmation, but these are definitely the right noises that I would hope to hear if this were true. The first edition of the World Mind Sports Games were held in Beijing in October 2008. I made passing mention of them at the time, but felt at the time that they bore the hallmarks of being one-and-done. I'll believe it when I see it, but I would be delighted to be proved wrong, especially if mind sports truly were coming home. (Or, at least, near my home.)

You may know that I had, at one time, a partly professional interest in this, having worked behind the scenes at the Mind Sports Olympiad (MSO), sometimes - briefly! - for pay and far more frequently for not, for about eight or nine years. The basic concept of "if there can be a multi-sports event featuring competitions of global significance in physical games, why can't there be one for mental ones?" is an attractive one, though I have reluctantly drawn the conclusion that there is far less crossover between people who play different mental sports than (at least) I would like; at various different levels of expertise, the majority of people seem to prefer to try to master one game, rather than to try to crossover and develop interests in several. I'm a firm believer in dilettantism here, but then again, I have never really even approached mastering any games.

The Mind Sports Olympiad got its name from long-established competition naming patterns in specific mind sports; the Chess Olympiad has existed, in various forms, as a competition between national teams of chessplayers for about eighty years, and the card game Bridge has had a World Team Olympiad along similar lines each leap year since 1960. The original Mind Sports Olympiad organisers had long had happy memories of participation at the Chess Olympiad, so viewed the Mind Sports Olympiad in similar terms but on a less exclusive basis, and with a much broader base rather than concentrating on just the single mind sport. The World Bridge Federation have supplanted their World Team Olympiad with the World Bridge Games, featuring competitions along very similar lines but also junior and individual competitions in addition, which probably formed the cornerstone of the first World Mind Sports Games. Indeed, WBF President Jose Damiani is also the first president of the IMSA.

The IMSA web site suggests that it has four members: the governing bodies of bridge, chess, draughts (all codes and board sizes) and go. The first World Mind Sports Games featured tournaments in all four mind sports and also xiangqi, also known as Chinese chess, which makes great sense considering the event was being held in Beijing. Chinese chess is a much more domestic mind sport than the other four; while a global governing body exists, there is a rather smaller degree of international competition and very heavy concentration on expat communities. A report of the International Go Federation meetings in 2009 suggests that May 2009 saw IMSA members meet as part of a larger gathering of sports federations, and decide that:
The last business of IMSA was to define criteria for future members. We converged on three: that the game be universal, that the game be a skill game only, and that the federation representing the game be a member of GAISF. Backgammon and poker were refused because of the second criterion, while Scrabble was refused because it is based on English language and hence not "universal".
But that was then and this is now; April 2010 saw the International Federation of Poker report that the IMSA had accepted poker as a mind sport. It does seem a little strange that bridge might be in and poker might be out; if the governing body of bridge can decide that some formats of bridge are suitable for formal competition when others are not - and I'm thinking duplicate vs. rubber here - then it would seem unusual to me not to let the governing body of poker make the same determination for itself. My inclination would be towards liberalism on the issue of where the boundaries of sport, game, mind sport or other miscellaneous thynge might lie. Thought experiment: if mind sports had funding and physical ones did not, and - say - snooker wanted to consider itself a mind sport with a healthy dexterity requirement, would I object? That would strike me as liberalism to the point of diluting the term.

On a more skeptical day, it's tempting to wonder to what extent the financial aspect of things is relevant here. Poker - particularly online poker, but not just online poker - has a business model that succeeds on its own terms, in a way which cannot be said for many mind sports. Backgammon gets away with it to some extent. It may well be the case that the fact that poker is not without chance elements makes it particularly likely to attract paying participants for whom the tripartite equation of (the entertainment from the activity) + (games at a suitable level to provide them with their preferred level of competition) + (the chance of returning a profit from the day's play) proves worthwhile. While poker bots do exist, the state of poker AI (particularly in no-limit ring games) is sufficiently underdeveloped that people are still willing to play it for money without worrying about whether they're up against a computer, in a way that you could not consider for chess. Not many mind sports have that property; conversely, it's interesting to consider online blended-luck-and-skill games which are played in the same way, using the online poker business model. (Are they mind sports? Of a sort!)

It's also relevant which mind sports attract sponsorship; the world chess championship can still attract major sponsors, all the Oriental mind sports attract heavy media attention and corporate money in their territories and bridge is so heavily associated with the moneyed that I can't imagine that it isn't heavily sponsored as well. Poker is rich enough to sponsor everything in sight, even other mind sports! I can't help wondering whether poker has been accepted on the hope that the poker industry will pay for everything. If that is the case then, frankly, it's a pragmatic way of looking at things. I would hope that the mind sports in the IMSA would have the integrity to admit this, as it's far from a bad inherent trait to have. I don't think there is a sense of nobility that makes some games good, and thus mind sports, and other games bad, and thus not mind sports, though.

The whole issue of luck vs. skill is not quite as clear as at first it might appear. What is the purpose of holding a world championship, commercial concerns aside? One issue is to attempt to discern who is the best participant in the world at the activity of choice, with the winner of the world championship being the best approximation of who has played best in that tournament. However, when the competitors in one particular mind sport are of comparable skill, the better player will not always win - and while the result of one particular game, in that mind sport, is an indicator, or a sample as to which player was better on that particular day, when players are so closely matched that one might win 60% of the time and the other might win 40% of the time, the result of a single game is not perfectly conclusive.

This is why a match may often involve several different games of a mind sport, with the player winning more games being adjudged the winner of the match; one game may make us 60% sure who is better at that moment in time, but best-of-three might make us 65% sure (64.8%?) and best-of-five might make us, ooh, 70% sure. With this in mind, there needs to be thoughtful design to work out how to find out who is the best player in that particular installment of the tournament; while the easiest way to do this is to play very many matches so that dominance might be established, there's a fine balancing act between "as many matches as possible" and the practicalities of holding a tournament. It does provide one justification why the World Chess Championship has traditionally been held over the course of a long match, though "long" was once 24 games or more - once, 48, but the logistics kicked in - and these days 12.

The level of luck or skill can be dialed up or down even without changing the fundamental way a game is played; to increase the degree of skill, require the participants to amalgamate the results of more games against each other. A thought-experiment considers a game called "chess-dice". Two players play a game of chess against each other, then roll identical dice. The winner of the game of chess adds half a point to the number they rolled, and the higher score wins. This game is won by the loser of the chess 5/12 of the time, and by the winner of the chess 7/12 of the time, which makes it (arguably) at least 5/6 luck. By changing the dice used and/or the size of the advantage, it is possible to create any element of luck, subsidiary to the result of the skill element of the contest.

With this in mind, I am not wild about the distinction between games with no (or very little, at the level of an initial coin-toss for choice of colour) overt element of luck within the game and those with some overt element of luck within the game. Even "luck-free" mind sports cannot claim to identify the player of greater skill, between two players of comparable high skill, more than 60% of the time based on a single play. Sure, one game of a "high-luck" mind sport might only be able to identify the player of greater skill 55% of the time, or 51% of the time, but that's not that big a difference; if you can, you play enough games to reduce to an acceptable level the chance of players performing unrepresentatively well or unrepresentatively poorly through overperformance or underperformance on the day, in much the same way that "high-luck" mind sports play enough games to reduce to an acceptable the chance of players performing unrepresentatively well or unrepresentatively poorly through the element of luck within the game.

It is interesting to note that duplicate bridge is the form of bridge played, whether in large fields of partnerships in pairs events or parallel competitions between two identical sets of partners in (at least some) team events. A thought-experiment considers which other games, with elements of chance within the game, might be made nominally chance-free by having similar "duplicate" amendments. I've long considered the idea of a duplicate "The Settlers of Catan" tournament, where teams of four players would be split among several parallel boards, and each team consists of one player "in first position", one player "in second position", one player "in third position" and one player "in fourth position". I am not entirely sure that all the different boards would "go through" dice rolls at the same rate, which might confuse things, and whether it would be necessary to require all the different packs of development cards to be similarly aligned.

Another aspect that has been glossed over is the number of players involved in one game of the mind sport. Chess has two players, so does go, so do all the IMSA's forms of draughts, so does Chinese chess. Bridge has two sides to a game, even if each side consists of two players - and even if team formats feature teams of two (or more!) sets of partners on the same team. Not all games are two-sided. Games of, say, The Settlers of Catan are played by two to lots, but conventionally four. Games of Diplomacy are conventionally seven-sided. Games of poker could be two-sided, could be ten-sided. (Sometimes more, but rarely.) Memory skills, and quizzes, and puzzles, and mental arithmetic, are one-sided. Does a mind sport have to be two-sided? Weightlifting is one-sided, but nobody disputes that is a sport; many track and field athletic activities are conventionally eight- or twelve- sided, but there's little or no interaction between the participants.

I would be inclined to reject any hypothetical restriction on a number of sides per game as a requirement for making a game a mind sport, though it's interesting that games between numbers of sides above two, which are not overtly non-interactive games, are rare. (Races outside lanes do have scope for teamwork or co-operation, though usually tacit.) Games featuring more than two sides are common, and fun, though part of the skill of the game, in some more-than-two player games, involves incentivising opponents to do your work for you - either explicitly, or by trying to align their goals with ones that help you. Now Diplomacy has been designed for that as one of the most overt, deliberate factors, but not every game that isn't Diplomacy needs to turn into Diplomacy - and some more-than-two player games are criticised as being less suitable tournament games for just such a reason. This shouldn't disqualify them from mind sport status.

There is often a natural "gang up against the leader" effect in more-than-two player gmaes, and trying to play multiple sequential instances of the same game between the same players (for instance, if a group of four players make it to the final of some tournament!) to declare an overall winner often works badly, as "ganging up against the leader" takes a meta-game effect. This will always happen to some extent, and a tournament in some more-than-two player game will test players' ability not at the game itself, but at winning tournaments in that game, which takes many skills - of which skill at the game is one, but not the only one. Again, this is hard to avoid, and I don't think this should disqualify more-than-two player games from potentially being mind sports.

Another issue that is being skated over here is whether a game has to have a long and ancient tradition to be considered a mind sport. While I think some degree of standing the test of time is probably wise, I would be inclined towards a requirement of ten or twenty years rather than one of fifty or a hundred. As a case in point, contract bridge was codified only in 1925, though it was directly evolved from games played over the previous forty years and indirectly from games played for centuries before that. The rules of mind sports continue to develop over time, though admittedly the changes these days tend towards the procedural. A related question is whether a proprietary game could ever be considered a mind sport, with or without the involvement of the manufacturer in the governing body, or whether the rules have to be in the public domain. Again, I counsel liberalism in definitions, though mostly for the sake of opposing conservatism.

The other criterion claimed by the IMSA is a much more relevant one; the governing bodies of chess, bridge, draughts and go are accepted as governing bodies by a body formerly known as GAISF, the General Association of International Sports Federations, which does what it says on the acronym, being an assembly of sports' governing bodies. If ever you wanted a canonical list of sports and para-sporting activities, the GAISF (or as it is now known, SportAccord) membership has a load of authentic ones which would seem to me to offer a good starting point. It is far from complete, though; I am not sure if the GAISF will ever be a complete collection of sporting governing bodies, not least because new sports are being invented all the time. Is there a line to be drawn? Case in point, Muggle Quidditch had a great big tournament in New York the other week and has at least a nominally international association. (Permit me to be over Muggle Quidditch, though; been there in 2003, done that in 2005.)

But even among long-extant sports, there is a long way to go. One of my favourite interesting border cases for sports considered unusual by Western traditions is bandy, an alternative codification of hockey on ice. While the sport known as ice hockey is not entirely an indoor sport, outdoor ice hockey is uncommon; bandy is overtly played on ice outdoors, on a much larger pitch. I have heard the comparison that ice hockey is relatively close to handball played on ice with sticks, whereas bandy is relatively close to association football played on ice with sticks. The sport has a governing body and a world championship with 11 participants, but the Federation of International Bandy isn't a member of SportAccord. (Though it apparently is recognised by the International Olympic Committee!) Last time I posted about Tchoukball, I had all manner of lovely people comment - so, as another example, why is SportAccord missing that sport's governing body, the FITB?

So, without disrespect to those sports which are not represented at SportAccord - for instance, I love burly old Aussie Rules Football, another not-yet-represented sport - it does seem to take a fair degree of status for a sport to get into SportAccord, rightly or wrongly. Could we pass the buck to them as to declare whether something is a sport or not? Hmm, perhaps. If they're liberal enough to include mind sports then perhaps their heart, or at least their pragmatism, is in the right place.

SportAccord are also very interesting and relevant for another reason, though; a couple of weeks ago, they announced that they will be staging the first SportAccord World Mind Games in Beijing in September 2011. "The event will be composed of the six mind sports Bridge, Chess, Go, Draughts, Xiang Qi and Duplicate Poker and will be accompanied by a cultural program. The competition will take place in an all-in-one venue and will feature the best players worldwide. Winners will be awarded with attractive prize money." Again, these are the noises that you'd hope to hear, and SportAccord are very clearly sensible, realistic players. I am more confident that they'll be able to bring the event to fruition than the International Mind Sports Association... though I'm hopeful that both may come to pass. (It's particularly interesting to see duplicate poker specified. While duplicate poker is played elsewhere, occasionally, it has not proved a huge hit; for instance, a - the? - web site set up to specialise in duplicate poker rather than any other form did not stand the test of time. I am not sure that a big old Swiss system in best-of-7 heads-up wouldn't work just as well, though it would be tricky to schedule; best-of-7 heads-up could last an hour, or it could last more than sixteen.

SportAccord do have history here, having founded the World Combat Games in 2010. It's clear that they see mind sports as a subsection of sports, much like they see combat sports as a subsection of sports, and that's a pragmatic way of looking at things. They also are set to found the World Beach Games from 2012 onwards - which, I suppose is borne of the same thinking behind winter sports contests, but searching for hot temperatures and sand underfoot rather than cold ones and snow underfoot. Are there other niches to be explored? Fewer and fewer, but if the X Games can make a go of it - fifteen years old, now! - then there really are gaps in the market. However, even the World Games, probably the single biggest multi-sport festival for non-Olympic sports, has not really set the world alight, and the mass media forces of the world seem to be trying to concentrate sports fans' attentions on a few properties, rather than letting them diversify.

The most interesting question is which games might be most suitable additions to the mind sports family in future, either by slavish adherence to the properties of the mind sports so far, or by my more liberal interpretations of what really might fly in practice. (See also discussion elsewhere; for instance, here.)

1) Shogi, or Japanese chess. This would seem to fit the definitions pretty squarely. As little luck as Western chess, as obsessively followed and as structurally highly developed in its home nation as Go, with a bigger international tournament following than Chinese chess. This is a shoo-in for the first time there is an event in Japan, which surely must be one of the most receptive nations as potential hosts, and will probably follow the circuit afterwards.

2) Scrabble. OK, it's a proprietary game, though proprietary with two owners (Hasbro in North America, Mattel elsewhere) and Hasbro have discontinued their support of adult tournament Scrabble over recent years, which reflects badly on them. Scrabble has done well from the Internet over recent years, with Scrabulous and Words With Friends - even if neither an official game, or even played by the same rules - both instrumental in bringing Scrabble further into the public eye; the Western world - at least - would consider a multi-sport event incomplete without a Scrabble tournament. I would even suggest that Scrabble games get more mainstream media coverage than Chess games; people can instantly understand why an unusual word may be a spectacular and interesting move, in a way where an amazing chess move's subtleties cannot be easily appreciated.

I do not buy the IMSA's argument that the game is "not universal", supposedly being restricted to English-speaking nations, not least because some of the world's very best players do not live in countries conventionally considered English-speaking - and, at the risk of falling for a popular misconception, may not even speak English particularly well. (Thought experiment: I'd love someone to bet a top English-language Scrabble player good money at long odds against them being able to learn other dictionaries well enough to take on the best players in other languages at their own game.) If draughts can be a single mind sport with several different disciplines, so can Scrabble; Scrabble played in different languages are at least as similar games to each other as the different draughts disciplines.

3) Othello. OK, technically this is a proprietary (and semi-modern; 1970s) version of Reversi, which has over a hundred years' history. However, it's quite a familiar game with a long-established world championship - and a proper world championship, with national championships determining participation. (On the downside, it seems to suffer from a common flaw that the base of tournament participants seems to be at a very high standard, with relatively few up-and-coming players arising to challenge them.) It's a sufficiently popular, storied game that it is well worth inclusion on its own terms, whether or not the manufacturer would be prepared to support it. And why wouldn't they, to have the game recognised on par with other mind sports, if the mind sport brand becomes sufficiently successful?

4) Backgammon. Backgammon is rare in that it has managed to follow the online poker boom to some extent, and both online and offline backgammon are flourishing, with strong (if player-funded!) prize purses. While the dice rolls have a very great deal of influence in individual games, matches are long enough to reward long-term skill, and the presence of the doubling cube only adds to the skill. Or, perhaps, while the skillset required to win backgammon matches is a superset of the skillset required to win backgammon games, backgammon matches are interesting enough to be their own sort of mind sport.

5) Mancala. This refers to a family of counting games, traditionally played with seeds, most strongly considered to be associated with Africa. On the downside, I am not sure how well-developed tournament play is in these games, and I am not convinced that any one member of the family is pre-eminent among games of the type - but, as with Scrabble and languages, including several members of the Mancala family is just as valid as including several members of the Draughts family. I once tried to defend the wildly politically incorrect position that the members of these family are more similar than different draughts variants or different chess codes and had several parts of my own anatomy handed to me, so I have since thought about it harder.

6) Mah Jongg. Possibly the East's spiritual equivalent of backgammon - though obviously with far different equipment and sources of within-game chance - but tonnes of skill required and very highly funded tournaments. Just as valid as poker and/or backgammon. A "different variants among the same family" situation may also apply here.

6b) Dominoes. Why not? Very familiar, very simple, and it's been shown on ESPN2.

7) The Mental Skills family: memory, quizzes, puzzles (including sudoku), mental calculations, maybe crosswords, maybe intelligence. I have no problem with the competition in these being "human vs. challenge" rather than "human vs. human" face-to-face. Memory, mental calculations and puzzles have worked hard to be culture-free and the existence of global quiz competitions show that the quiz world copes with the issue of global culture.

8) Other playing card games. There are many great playing card games out there; I'm not entirely sure which might be best-placed to take a theoretical big step forward in publicity. Skat is quite a big tournament game in Germany and maybe central Europe, but I'm not sure if it has global recognition. Spades and hearts have done well in the third millennium; stretching back a little, gin rummy has a following, or perhaps the related melding game canasta earlier still, cribbage even further back in time.

9) Proprietary games. It's far from uncommon for manufacturers to try to introduce the next great mind sport, but not many of them have stuck. Stratego probably has as good a shout as any. Abalone would work in France. Twixt has a small but loyal and dedicated following. Boku... well, there are other members of the go-moku / renju family which might work better. Diplomacy is brilliant in its way and effectively one of a kind, but hopelessly impractical. Monopoly is deliberately pitched as family fun rather than as a mind sport, but probably has as strong a claim as any considering the heritage of its world championship, and I half-wonder whether it might work in a duplicate format. Magic: the Gathering. too, is well worth considering, but is possibly the most proprietary of them all considering the card game business model, and I'm not sure whether it might "play well with others". Again, on the liberal side, I'd love to see it.

10) Modern proprietary games, German games, boardgamegeek.com games, call them what you will. The Settlers of Catan and, to a lesser extent, Carcassonne are not just some of the most popular of the breed, but are proven global tournament games. I'm not sayin', I'm just saying.

All highly hypothetical, though. I'll measure progress in small steps forward, will count no chickens whatseover before the events properly start and will be inclined towards skepticism. Still, though... wouldn't it be lovely?

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