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Variations in Handicap Play

Proposals for debate by Geoffrey Cuttle

There has been significant correspondence in `Croquet' about different methods for handicap play, particularly full bisque play, and this is a frequent topic of discussion between spectators and players drawing bisques at tournaments.

The topic was also raised at the AGM this year, when it was pointed out that higher bisquers (who were meant to benefit) tended to prefer the normal difference game. This article attempts to analyse the various issues that have been raised, to consider the implications for players, and to suggest a sensible way forward as a basis for future debate.

What's the Difference?

First, the issues. Normal Difference Handicap Play gives bisques according to the difference between players' handicaps and this is still the most frequently played variation. A few years ago Full Bisque Handicap Play was introduced, in which both players receive bisques according to the difference between their handicap and the 'base' (unless one player is below the base) and different bases have been advocated with scratch and 6 most commonly used. More recently, Advanced Handicap Play appeared, with either Difference or Full Bisques (to various bases) being made available but played according to the Rules for Advanced Play with bisque turns interpreted as continuations of the original turn so that lifts and contacts are not affected.

All of these variations have been experimented with in occasional club events, and have been introduced, often as an option, in some tournament events although normal Difference Handicaps have still predominated. All of the variations have their advocates, and there is much debate (generally between low bisquers) as to which is better for high bisquers, and also whether the variations have the same effect on the automatic handicapping system as the normal system. Although The All England has been used to try out opinions, and it has been demonstrated theoretically that handicaps confer equal benefits regardless of base, most of the opinions expressed are anecdotal and, where statistics have been quoted, they have tended to cover only one or two variations so do not provide a proper basis for rigorous analysis.

Furthermore, every participant in the discussion is biased by their own experience (generally of only some of the variations) and by their own personal skills which inevitably make some variations more attractive than others. With so many variations and so many differences between players it is hardly surprising that the more the debate continues the less a consensus emerges. Indeed the only consistent comment on handicapping at tournaments is that something has to be done about 'bandits', and that is probably only uncontended because the bandits themselves are always in play so never take part in the discussion!

The Heart of the Matter

But it is possible to analyse the variations in a rational manner and make logical deductions. The underlying principle is that the effect of bisques is to reduce the recipient to the level of his own handicap less the number of bisques received. Thus an eighteen playing a ten under the normal Difference Handicap basis receives eight bisques which allow him, to a first approximation, to play as a ten would. So he is as likely to sustain similarly lengths of breaks, using his bisques, as a ten would during the game, and to achieve hit ins, or use his bisques to do so, with equal frequency. Of course he could also squander them all to make an initial all round break (which a ten would be unlikely to succeed), but would then be at a severe disadvantage for his second ball so the balance is maintained, and on average (because of the automatic handicapping system) he is effectively on a par with his opponent. Similarly if he plays a fourteen, receiving four bisques, he can perform to a first approximation as a fourteen. In contrast, if he plays either opponent in a Full Bisque game to base six he receives twelve bisques, they also receive their appropriate bisques, and to a first approximation they should all perform on the lawn very much as an average six should.


The implications of this are important. They mean that a high bisquer, playing only the normal Difference Handicap game, has to play every game at the level of his lower handicap opponent. When he plays a ten, he has to adopt the tactics of a ten, when he plays a fourteen the tactics of the fourteen, and he only has the opportunity to contemplate more substantial breaks when he plays a six or better. In effect the tactics for the higher bisquer vary with every game, whereas a lower bisquer can play the same game most of the time and only has to reassess it when he faces a superior A-class opponent. No wonder the average high bisquer finds the game confusing! Furthermore, if as at present he only occasionally plays the Full Bisque game, that is equally confusing because, with his opponent also receiving bisques, he loses the comfortable cushion that he has become accustomed to when playing better opponents and has to learn yet another variation. This undoubtedly explains much of the scepticism that many higher bisquers feel when told that the Full Bisque game will make life easier for them. It will? But only when they have been taught or have learnt how to play it, as John Solomon pointed out during the discussion at the AGM.

An Ideal World?

Consider the scenario that would apply if all handicap games were played Full Bisque, to the same base. Until he improves, the high bisquer will always receive the same number of bisques (other than on the rare occasions when he meets an opponent below the base), and he can patiently learn how to use them to the best advantage. He can develop consistent game strategies to set up breaks, and then to play breaks, and finally will learn to modify that strategy intelligently according to his own and his opponent's successes and failures. He will learn the importance of positions and breaks, and suffer (because whatever their level his opponents have the same benefits) if he indulges too much in negative Aunt Emma tactics. Moreover, unless both players are totally incompetent, games should seldom go on interminably hoop by occasional hoop.

As the high bisquer improves, he will no longer have to keep learning a new set of tactics. He will still, with his bisques, play effectively to the same base level and he will be using exactly the same strategies as those he has already learnt. He will have to sustain his breaks that little bit more consistently to save those bisques that his greater competence have taken from him. This is a far more natural progression than that suffered by an improving high bisquer playing the Difference Handicap game who suddenly finds himself bereft of all bisques when playing other high bisquers only marginally worse than himself. In financial terms, the Difference game is excessively highly geared for games between high bisquers.

Setting a Base

This analysis also helps to indicate the proper base level that should be used. The strategy for a high bisquer playing a Full Bisque game will typically use two bisques to set up each break so that at least four and possible six will need to be reserved for that purpose. As his competence, and handicap, improves so will his break play and for a long while he will still rely on those four or so bisques to get in and set up breaks. But eventually he will improve beyond that and then he will have to learn how to set up breaks unaided by bisques. It is only at that stage that a player can really begin to play a reasonable level game properly without bisques, and that will not arise until he can cope reasonably whenever he has a four ball break. Typically (except for bandits) that does not come until the twelve or ten handicap level, so not till then should an improving player be expected to give up those four to six bisques reserved for setting up breaks. All of which suggests that to allow the type of steady improvement proposed the base should be at most eight and probably rather less than that.

There are also constraints the other way. Prima facie, the obvious base for Full Bisque games would be scratch, but consider the implications of this. Once players had become accustomed to it, everyone playing a handicap game would have a competence on the lawn comparable to that of a scratch player, and historically that is known to be an unsatisfactory game that was only resolved by the introduction of the Rules for Advanced Play. It would take time for everyone to learn, but there can be no doubt that if all handicap games were played Full Bisque to base scratch we would eventually be thoroughly bored by the results. To avoid this, the base needs to be sufficiently high that a player's effective competence after bisques was not good enough to kill the fun. This suggests that a minimum base of at least four is needed, and probably slightly higher.

Vive la Full Bisque

So to allow players to improve sufficiently we need a base less that eight, and to prevent the game becoming dull it should be more than four. This points inevitably to a base of six and this (not surprisingly) is the base that has also emerged pragmatically as that most widely favoured by most of those experimenting with the Full Bisque game. I would therefore strongly advocate the use of the Full Bisque game for all events under the rules for Handicap play, and that these games should always be to base six. Further, although for traditional reasons the Difference game should remain in the Laws, I suggest that it should be discouraged for both Tournament and Club events (though still available for Handicap games between experienced players) so that higher bisquers have only one game and one set of strategies that they have to learn.

Shoot the Bandits

What would this approach do about bandits? The two most common complaints of bandits are first that they make breaks beyond their handicap competence and second that their clubs should have done something about them. These complaints give useful clues to the nature of banditry. A tournament may well be the first occasion when a bandit plays a substantial number of games against significantly lower handicap opponents, and thus the first occasion when he regularly receives a generous helping of bisques. If he has reached that level of maturity when he can playa break, once set up, with a reasonable chance of success then those bisques inevitably give him an exceptional advantage. Conversely, if before then his competitive games were generally only against other high bisquers in his club, who probably (recognising his ability) played a somewhat negative Aunt Emma game, then his valiant attempts to make breaks without the bisques to set them up would founder and, despite his growing ability, he would lose enough games under the Automatic Handicap System that his club could not justify enforcing the reduction that his maturity would otherwise deserve. This explanation could certainly apply to a number of bandits I have observed, and if it is valid then the adoption of the Full Bisque Game would counter it because the moment a player acquired the skill to sustain breaks he would begin to win games regardless of the level and tactics of his opponent and (provided he played some qualifying games) the AHS would immediately start to bring him down to a more appropriate level. He would still, deservedly, win some tournaments but not so outrageously as some bandits do at present.

Getting Advanced

And now what about Advanced Handicap Play? The purpose of this variation is to provide a means for middle bisquers to begin to play and understand the Advanced game. To achieve this, the tactics should mirror those of Level Advanced Play and should not be distorted by the presence of bisques. For example, players should expect to take their first ball to four back and contrive a reasonably elegant leave; should expect the lift shot to be critical; and should expect to take their second ball to the peg and to consider seriously a triple peel in the process. But to do any of those things requires a competence approaching that of a scratch player and a triple is certainly beyond even the most accomplished middle bisquer. So for Advanced Handicap Play to be sensible there must be sufficient bisques to give each player that competence, and (by all the arguments above) this inevitably means that Advanced Handicap should always be played Full Bisque to Base Scratch and no other form should be recognised.

There is one further point about Advanced Handicap Play that affects the Laws. The lift shot, and the various leaves before it, are absolutely critical to the tactics of the game. This was why it was ruled that bisque turns could not be used to negate a lift because otherwise a quite different game would evolve which would no longer satisfy the purpose of the innovation. But, given a full complement of bisques, there is another problem area as well. It would be easy for middle bisquers to keep some bisques in reserve to ensure 100% hit ins on the lift shot and, knowing that, it is likely that players would evolve new leaves for the Advanced Handicap Came that would give away less. This would distort the game in one of its most fascinating areas which cannot be desirable. I propose that along with the ruling that Advanced Handicap is always played to Base Scratch there should also be a codicil to the Laws (as already played by some clubs) that a bisque cannot be taken to create a hit immediately after the first stroke in a turn for which an Advanced Play lift may be conceded (the slightly convoluted wording is to recognise that lifts are not necessarily taken). This change should ensure that the tactics are not distorted by bisques but remain very similar to those for Level Advanced Play, and that bisques are used constructively to achieve A-class breaks and, with practice, well controlled triple peels.

A 12 Certificate

It will be realised from the above that for Advanced Handicap Play to be meaningful a player must have a reasonable level of competence regardless of the number of bisques he receives. The extra six bisques proposed for the Advanced over the Ordinary Handicap variation do not make it an easier game but rather reflect the much greater degree of precision and control that is required to play Advanced constructively. It is not sufficient just to make breaks, they have to be executed in a specific and complex way. It is unlikely (except for bandits) that a player with a handicap much above ten or twelve would have that competence and it would not be sensible for them to embark seriously on Advanced Handicap Play until they have it. It is therefore suggested that there should be a maximum playing handicap of twelve for Advanced Handicap. This would not preclude higher bisquers from entering, but they would have to play off twelve and this should be sufficient to deter those who could not cope with the Advanced game from entering serious events.

I would also recommend a similar upper limit, in this case eighteen, for ordinary Full Bisque Handicap events in serious tournaments. This would mean that, except when playing opponents below six, no player would receive more than twelve bisques which should be enough for any player seriously entering a CA tournament and would ensure (especially in time limited games) that no?one could win games solely through the impenetrability of their forest of bisques.

Not A Classless Society

Still considering tournaments, the proposals map well onto typical C & D Class Events. The former should well be able to play Advanced Handicap Play to Base Scratch and, if they are accustomed to playing it in their Clubs, should do well at it. The latter will play ordinary Full Bisque Handicap to base Six and should perform equally well (and more importantly for the manager, equally speedily) if it is their regular game. The A and B-class Events will continue to be Level Advanced Play although perhaps over the years, as the B-class players begin to have the experience of Advanced Handicap Play behind them, there should be more gold medal triples attempted than at present and the tactics will more resemble A-class play than sadly many B-class games do today.

To summarise the proposals. Although normal Difference Handicap Play will remain as an allowable variant in the Laws, Clubs and Tournaments will be expected to play only the Full Bisque variation to Base Six as the normal handicap game. Middle bisquers reaching twelve or better will be encouraged to play the Advanced Handicap Came to base Scratch, and Tournaments should provide events for them. B and A-class players will continue to play Level Advanced, but B-class players should have benefited from the opportunity to play Advanced Handicap to have honed their tactics first. No other variations should be authorised or encouraged and, from such evidence as is available so far, the Automatic Handicap System should be able to cope equitably with all these proposals.

See Me

Please note that this article is not just another set of proposals being wafted around to complicate even further an increasingly bewildering variety of options. It is a serious attempt to reduce the present complexity to a minimum set of variations for the enjoyment of players at all levels and the prosperity of the game. Readers are invited to offer their views through the columns of Croquet, and if there appears to be sufficient support the author will then seek to get the proposals more firmly established.

Reproduced from The Croquet Magazine Issue 236 Winter 94/95

Author: Geoffrey Cuttle
All rights reserved © 2004

Updated 28.i.16
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