Adding a Twist to the Cup

Blowouts are not much fun for competitors or spectators of match races, but what if the trailing boat were given a chance to “double”? "From the Experts" from our July/August 2010 issue

Sailing World

FTE: AC Rules

Gilles Martin-raget/ Www.americascup.com

After many America’s Cup fans reported watching this year’s Cup races on their computers, and complaining about how boring it was to watch long stretches of the races during which one boat was well ahead of the other and nothing much was happening, I began to develop an idea for making match racing more interesting for both competitors and spectators.

My idea combines a feature of match racing as I used to do it and a feature of backgammon. As a college student, I was totally hooked on collegiate racing. During the winter, only two of us would turn out for practice. We would set marks for a short course, and match race until dusk. We never let our races get boring. If it became clear one of us would win a race, the other would concede the race by shouting, “Uncle.” Then we’d sail back to our starting line and start the next race.

My idea for match racing, and in particular for the America’s Cup, is to combine this concession option with the “doubling” rules used in backgammon, which I will describe below. Here’s how the scoring for the America’s Cup would change if this idea were accepted. Instead of the winner of the Cup being the first boat to win a specified number of races (that number was only two this year), the winner would be the first to score a specified number of points. The value selected for that specified number would depend on how many days the organizers wanted the event to last and how frequently match racers use the doubling feature.

The default score for the winner of a race would be 1 point. However, at any time after the start and before the winner finished, either boat would be allowed to “offer a double” to the other boat. As I’ll discuss below, it would not be logical for a boat to offer a double unless she clearly was in the lead. The boat offered the double (almost always the boat behind) would then, within a short specified time (say, 3 minutes), be required to choose between two options. She could “refuse the double” by retiring, in which case the boat in the lead would score one point and, if that day’s schedule permitted, the boats would immediately return to the starting area to start another race. Her second option would be to “accept the double,” in which case the race would continue with the winner scoring two points. What’s more, the boat that accepted the first double made in a race would have the right to offer a second double at a later time in the race, but the boat that offered the first double would not have the right to offer a second double. If a second double was offered and rejected, the boat that offered the second double would score 2 points; if the second double were accepted, the winner would score 4 points. Obviously a second double would only be offered if, after a first double was offered and accepted, the boat that accepted the first double managed to wrest the lead away from the boat that offered it.

In backgammon, doubles beyond the second double are permitted, and so a single game can result in the winner scoring as many as 64 times the original stake. If that were adopted in the America’s Cup, then the Cup might be awarded after just one race. That does not seem like a good idea to me, and so I would suggest that it would be best to allow no more than two doubles in a single race. Under this system, each race would usually be worth 1 point, occasionally 2 points, and, on rare occasions, 4 points.

Of course, the offer of a double would have to be communicated in a way that was clear to the other boat in the race, to the umpires, and to spectators. The boat offering the double could display code flag “D.” If that boat were far ahead of her opponent, the signal could be relayed to the opponent by an umpire boat. Then, the opponent could signal either rejection of the double by flying code flag “R” or acceptance by flying flag “A.” Alternatively, for large boats, the whole “conversation” about a double could be handled over a VHF radio on a channel that both boats, the umpires, the race committee, and the spectators could monitor.

One significant improvement that these new rules would bring is that there would be more races, more starts, and better close racing. It would also add a new layer of strategy for match racing. Will the leader offer a double? If she does, will the boat behind accept it or refuse it? Obviously, a boat well behind would never accept a double when the wind was steady and the leader was just a few lengths from the finish line. When would it pay a boat to accept a double? It would depend on her crew’s estimate of their chances of winning at the time the double was offered.

Suppose the first double of a race were offered to you. If you reject it, then for sure your opponent scores 1 point and you score none. If you accept it, then if your opponent holds on to the lead, she will score 2 points and you will score none. However, if you overtake your opponent and win the race, you will score those 2 points to your opponent’s none. It’s easy to calculate that over many races your average score will be higher than your opponent’s if you accept doubles only when you have at least a 25 percent chance of winning.

Conversely, it would not make sense to offer a double unless your chances of winning were at least 75 percent. However, there will be some circumstances when it would never make sense to offer a double. Suppose the winner of the Cup will be the first boat to score 15 points and you have already accumulated 14 points. Then, if you score just 1 more point, you will win the Cup. In that case, there is no point in your taking the risk of doubling, because you have nothing to gain and the possibility of losing a second point should your opponent pass you and win the race.

Even the wind might play a role in a boat’s doubling strategy. Suppose the wind on a particular day favors your boat, and that the forecast for the next day is for wind that is not favorable to your boat. You might well be more likely to offer a double in the favorable wind because it would put you in a win-win situation. If your opponent accepts your offer, your chances of retaining your lead in the favorable wind are high, and if she rejects your offer, the odds for another race in the favorable winds are increased.