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Dr Ian Plummer

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Technical
Handicap Play

Contents

What is Handicap Play?
How are Handicaps Set Initially?
What Happens in a Handicap Game?
How are Handicaps Adjusted?
Handicaps in Doubles
   Handicaps in Timed and Shortened Games
Handicaps on 3/4 and 1/2-sized lawns
Full Bisque Play
Problems with the Current Handicapping System
Suggested Modifications to the Handicapping System

What is Handicap Play?

Handicap play allows players of dissimilar ability to compete with either side being equally likely to win the game. This is achieved by allowing the weaker player extra turns. These are known as bisque turns and can be played at the end of any of that player's turns; normal or bisque. Consequently a bisque turn can immediately follow a bisque turn, etc. The only limitation is that the bisque turn must be played with the same colour ball as the turn just completed. The bisque turns are otherwise identical to starting a fresh turn and all the other balls can be roqueted again.

When games are being played as handicap games then additional rules are involved in dealing with bisques, primarily there is a rule which prevents a player pegging out his ball unless his partner ball is also a rover or an opponent's ball has been pegged out. The other rules cover what happens if a fault is committed or the game is being played to a time limit.

How are Handicaps Set Initially?

There are official handicappers appointed by the Croquet Association (in the UK) who will watch a new player in action and set an initial handicap. They can also change handicaps if it is felt that an existing player has an incorrect handicap. For clubs who do not have access to an official handicapper, initial handicaps can be set approximately and adjusted when those people meet opponents with known handicaps.

As a gauge for setting an initial handicap, a player can be given a set-up four-ball break on a full size lawn: a ball at hoop 2, ball in the middle and a dolly rush a couple of yards from hoop 1. The player then plays a break around all twelve hoops taking as many bisques as are necessary. The initial handicap is calculated as the number of bisques taken plus 2, all doubled (e.g. 2 bisque have been used to set up the break which is then taken around, and then repeated for the second ball). For example if 8 bisques were used to complete the circuit, then the approximate handicap is 20 = (8+2)*2. This method is adequate for handicaps down to six or so.**

From the above it can be seen that a good player has a low handicap and a beginner a high handicap. Official handicaps range from -3 to 20, but clubs may extend that range to 28 or more.

** The Croquet Association Handicap Guidelines suggest a similar test - the balls are set out as might be expected at the end of turn four of a game and the player has to contruct the four-ball break as well as take it around. The document proposes, take "the number of bisques taken to complete the exercise and then subtracts one bisque. The result is then multiplied by two and rounded to the nearest integer to give the appropriate handicap for the player." Hence 8 bisques used, subtract 1 = 7, then double = 14. If the precept is taken that a scratch (0) player can go around with no bisques, then the CA method sets the handicap too low. [2013]

What Happens in a Handicap Game?

The weaker player gets a number of bisque turns determined by the difference in the players' handicaps. Hence if a 14 plays an 8 handicap player then the 14 handicap player receives 6 bisque turns (14-8=6). Bisques can be used as soon as balls are on the lawn and a bisque turn can follow a normal or previous bisque turn. The same colour ball must be played if a bisque turn is used and at the end of each turn the balls must be brought on to the yard-line if necessary. It is normal to use a row of sticks or bisques stuck into the ground to indicate how many bisque turns the weaker player has remaining. At the end of a turn the player must clearly indicate to his opponent he is about to take a bisque, then a bisque is pulled out of the ground and a bisque turn is started.

How are Handicaps Adjusted?

Once a handicap has been set the player is given a number or index which is scaled to that handicap. The index increases the better a player is. When a handicap game is played the winner adds 10 points to his index and the loser subtracts 10 points. At the end of a tournament the index is inspected and if it is greater or equal to that for the next lower handicap then the handicap is reduced. Similarly if the index has slipped to or below that of the next highest handicap the handicap moves up. This generates an automatic system which should allow players to rise or fall in handicap according to their ability.

The index table mapping handicap to index is not linear. This is to reflect the fact that a single bisque is a powerful weapon in the hands of a 'low bisquer', but less powerful for a beginner. Consequently you need to win more games to get your handicap lowered by a step if you are a low bisquer. The following table is used to map indexes to handicaps:

Hcap

Index

   

Hcap

Index

   

Hcap

Index

-3

3050

   

2

1800

   

9

1300

-2

2800

   

2

1750

   

10

1250

-2

2600

   

3

1700

   

11

1200

-1

2400

   

3

1650

   

12

1150

-1

2250

   

4

1600

   

14

1100

-

2100

   

4

1550

   

16

1050

0

2000

   

5

1500

   

18

1000

1950

   

6

1450

   

20

950

1

1900

   

7

1400

   

22

900

1

1850

   

8

1350

   

24

850

This table also brings to light two other factors; some handicaps are missed out and there are 'half bisques'. Half bisques are bisque turns in which you may not score any points for any balls - you cannot peel balls nor gain your hoop if you 'run' it. Half bisques and double steps are used to fine tune the handicaps. Note you cannot split a full bisque into a half bisque.

graph of handicap versus index
Plot of Index vs Handicap showing the non-linearity

Handicaps in Doubles

In doubles games the number of bisques given by the lower-handicapped (better) side to the higher (weaker) side is half the difference between their aggregate handicaps. A fraction of a bisque above a half is counted as one bisque, a fraction below a half as a half-bisque - hence 'rounding up' fractional bisques. Either player of a side may use the bisques.

Example 1: Team A: -1 + 18 , Team B: 4 + 9 so summed handicaps for each team A: 17, B: 13. The difference is 17-13 = 4; half the difference is 2. So Team B would give 2 bisques to Team A.

2013 Modification. Although the above system works for players with higher handicaps, when minus (handicap) players are involved they can do so much with a single bisque that a new doubles handicapping system is being trialled for Croquet Association events in 2013:

"The number of bisques to be given by the lower-handicapped side to the higher is the difference between their handicaps. The handicap of a side is calculated by taking the mean of the indexes associated with the trigger points for the handicaps of its members, finding the nearest trigger point with an index equal to or lower than that, and taking the handicap associated with it."

The indexes versus handicaps are in the table above.

Example 2: Team A: -1 + 18 , team B: 4 + 9 (as in Example 1). Translate those handicaps into indexes, add then divide by 2: Team A (2250 + 1000)/2 = 1625, Team B (1600 +1300)/2 = 1450. 'Round down' to nearest entry in table and convert to handicap; Team A 1625 => 1600 => 4 hcap. Team B 1450 => 6 hcap. Difference is 6 - 4 = 2, therefore Team A gives two bisques to Team B. This is the reverse of the situtation above!

Handicaps in Timed and Shortened Games

It is essential to reduce the number of bisque turns involved in timed games. Clearly the weaker player can spend much of the available time using his bisques, depriving the stronger player of sufficient time to actually stand a chance of winning the game.

The act of taking a four-ball break around twelve hoops takes me (-½ handicap) between 17 and 20 minutes on a normal lawn hence I need 40 minutes to get both balls to the peg. What is required is a formula to determine how the bisques should be reduced for timed games. The duration of a game is a function of the absolute handicaps of the players as well as the difference in their handicaps. If a scratch (0) plays a three you would expect the game to last two to two and a half hours whereas a 10 playing a 13 may take three and a half hours or more. In both cases the difference is three bisques. To avoid complex formulae I would suggest estimating that the bisque quota would be expended in three and a half hours and it should be scaled down in proportion for any reduction in time. Consequently if a game time is set to two and a half hours only 2.5/3.5 of the bisques should be allowed. For shortened games there is a table in the Croquet Association Laws which give the reduction in the number of bisques awarded. This gives adjusted bisques from a full game to a 22/18/14 point game. As an example a 10 bisque difference in a full game yields 8.5/7/5.5 bisques in a 22/18/14 point game.

As of March 2001 it was agreed that the Automatic Handicapping System would also apply to 14-point games played on full-sized courts, with the points interchange being reduced accordingly. For handicap games the points interchanged after a match will be 5 points. For matches played level, the points interchanged will be in accordance with the following table:

14-Point Level Games

Handicap Steps Difference

Higher Handicap player wins

Lower Handicap player wins

0
5
5
1 - 2
6
4
3 - 4
7
3
5 - 6
8
2
7 and above
9
1

Note Fergus Mc Innes mentioned ...

In a tournament context where there are practical reasons for having time limits, [we] use the "Walker bisque system" (proposed by Jamieson Walker here in Scotland, and used in several handicap tournaments in the past couple of years) - i.e. 3 hours + 3 minutes per bisque.  When a 20 plays a 20, it's 3 hours (may well go to time, but no unfairness); when a 20 plays a 4, it's 3 hours 48 minutes [(20-4) * 3min], so the 20 is less likely to hog the time using the 16 bisques. (2012)

Handicaps on 3/4 and 1/2-sized lawns

A table giving the reduction of bisques can be found here.

Full Bisque Play

In full bisque play both sides receive the number of bisques equivalent to their handicap, hence a 8 handicap player has 8 bisques against six bisques for a 6 handicap player. This format of game is excellent for developing bisque play and discourages dour play where high bisquers do not construct breaks.

Full bisque play can be played off a base where a constant is deducted from both sides' number of bisques. Hence if an 8 played a 5 off a base of four then the five would have a single bisque and the 8 would have four bisques. This prevents a clean sweep since the number of bisques equivalent to the handicap should be enough for a player to play both balls to the peg.

The 'Yorkshire Variable Base System" uses an adjustable base determined by the difference in the players' handicaps.

Problems with the Current Handicapping System

(1) Psychologically few people enjoy being told that they are getting worse. It is a noticeable and big step to rise from a 5 to a 6 handicap. People resist such bad news and will protect their handicaps by avoiding games or forgetting to update their record cards.

(2) The peculiar rule that handicaps are only adjusted at the end of an event (e.g. tournament or fixture) is unfair. Some tournaments last a week. You could be playing much better or much worse than your handicap and be clocking up win after win or consistently losing. In a week tournament you can play 15 or more games and hence be 150 point better or worst off on your index. Most handicap trigger values are at intervals of 50 points hence at the end of the week you would be playing games in which your handicap is three steps wrong. Some week tournaments mean that you can be playing only at the weekends at either end and could play in a fixture during the week which would change your handicap - what happens then?

(3). The above system assumes that people have a nearly correct handicap and play many games which count to changing their handicap. If someone only plays within their club, or practices extensively then their handicap will not reflect their ability. For someone's handicap to converge towards their true handicap they have to play a reasonable number of games, this mathematical system relies on that. Hence if people are not playing in many games which count towards their handicap they will have an incorrect handicap.

Suggested Modifications to the Handicapping System

It is impractical and impossible to produce an ideal handicapping system. The one which is in place has its merits and is based on a history of handicap games over a number of years. Its primary faults are indicated above. Below I suggest a few small but highly significant changes.

(1) Abolish handicaps and work solely from the index. The handicap steps are crude: consider a player on 5 getting worse. His index is 1460 - he will become a 6 when he loses one more game and hits the 1450 index. His opponent is an improving 6 handicap on 1490 about to become a 5 if he wins one more game. Who is the better player? The '6' because he has a higher index. The 5 however has to give away a bisque to the 6!

If the index is used there are no abrupt changes in someone's ability - they just move up and down the index. Hence there is not the stigma of jumping in handicap. As an analogy in England they changed the currency some years ago from the old system of shillings and pennies to the decimal coinage. Everyone remembers the prices of things when they were frozen at the changeover point; bread was '1 and fourpence' = 7p in modern coinage, but they fail to appreciate it creeping up by 1p every now and again. Abrupt changes are painful, gradual changes are not.

Thus when a player of 1450 plays a 1490 the indices are subtracted and divided by 50 to yield the number of bisques: in this example 40/50 = 0.8. You can rule whether this is rounded up to 1 bisque or down to half a bisque. The good news is that the weaker player gets the bisques. Obviously by changing the index table values you could end up with indices which are subtracted then divided by 2 giving immediately the number of bisques.

(2) Play the next game off your updated index. You start your next game playing off your index after it has been updated from the game which has just finished. It seems strange to wait to the end of a tournament to adjust a person's index. It could be argued that "when" you play someone in a tournament becomes significant. If someone is playing badly, you would want to play them early on when their index was furthest out from their ability at the time. This is unsporting. The assumption about handicap play is that the person who pulls that little bit extra out of the hat should win, since in true handicap play the bisques give both sides an equal probability of winning.

(3) The index should be changed if it is wrong. The automatic system has a long relaxation time - many games have to be played if a person's index is substantially wrong before it gets corrected. In the mean time innocent players are being duffed up and having the prizes stolen from them. Handicappers are discouraged and reluctant to make changes to handicaps (indices) under the present system. You can change a player's handicap by not less than 3 handicap steps and fill in a form giving a case history and the justification for it. I do not want to give away two bisques to someone, just because the system is inflexible. The argument seems to be 'it will correct itself soon' - not if they are infrequent players (the prime culprits). Handicappers should make changes as necessary, under a set of sensible guidelines and without a pile of bureaucracy.

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Updated 28.i.16
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