austin_dern (austin_dern) wrote,

You said you'd meet me there

The Amazing Race format seems to be a new one to competitive pinball. We first encountered it as the side tournament in the state championship back in February. The idea is that all the players compete on a string of pinball machines, with the lowest-scoring player or players on each table being dropped. The last one to lose a game wins the championship. Or would, except that Pinball Master Command insists that there be some direct head-to-head play. So instead the last four people to lose a game go into the finals, and play three head-to-head rounds. This blesses the whole tournament with International Flipper Pinball Association sanction and points good for state championships and the like.

The side tournament in February took roughly six weeks to play out. Maybe not quite that long, but it was long. bunny_hugger had to have a shorter tournament. March Hare Madness couldn't be a weekend night; the hipster bar books paying acts then. It had to be a workday night, and it couldn't start before people might get out of work and over to an Eastside hipster bar. bunny_hugger and I spent some time trying to figure out elimination rules, how many people should be knocked out per round if there are still 10 people in the tournament, or still 20 people, or still (shudder) 30 people, or more.

bunny_hugger also put some thought into making things run faster. The obvious way was to put index cards reporting the threshold score --- the lowest score to pass on to the next game --- on each machine, and to keep that updated. This might sound chaotic. But there'd be only three or four tables being actively played by anyone at a time. And it doesn't matter how good a score anyone has once they've beaten the lowest one needed to move on. So players, or people watching the players, could see when they had done all the pinball they needed on one game and could move to the next table safely. That's a small innovation and it comes from having seen in February people running back and forth to the official scorekeepers wondering what the minimum scores were.

Subtler and nearer genius was her breakthrough in traffic management. She gave all the players a seeding. The lowest-seeded player was to go first. This meant, first, if there were an empty table, someone --- in practice, CST, with minor help from other scorekeepers --- could find someone who needed to get on the table and play. This eliminated those long awkward pauses of nobody knowing who should be where doing what.

The other bit of brilliance was in how seeding was assigned. The seeds were based on International Flipper Pinball Association ranking. The lower-ranked the person, the closer to first they go. This is not a guarantee that the worst players would go first in any round. After all, a mediocre player can get a high ranking by going to lots of tournaments; a great player can have a lousy ranking by not going to many things. But it's a good proxy for ``how good a player is''. And a lousy player can have a great game, and a great player can have a lousy game. But twelve lousy players aren't going to have great games in a row. So this would weight the system to probably get a fairly low threshold score for moving on, pretty fast, and one that the better players would mostly zoom right on past.

This also ameliorated one of the vicious things about the Amazing Race format, the sitting around waiting and hoping for someone else to do worse than your own rotten score. Mostly people would end up beating the threshold score easily and moving on. There's little that feels better in competitive pinball than being able to walk away because you've already won and don't need to play any longer. And this seeding scheme seems to encourage lots of people to have walk-off games.

The index cards are surely going to be copied by other Amazing Race tournaments; it's too obvious not to be. The seeding scheme, at least in the sense of having some assigned order for people, likely will be. It's too handy to be able to point to someone and say, ``You! Go put up at least 25 million points on The Walking Dead now!'' and have them obey. The genius of seeding being based on estimated skill level? That's the part that needs to be copied and I'm not sure it was obvious that was going on. But it surely helped the impression bunny_hugger gave of running a well-managed, steadily moving tournament.

Trivia: In May 1981 seven space shuttle launches were cut from the 1982-1985 manifest, partly due to the inability to build enough External Tanks. Source: A History of the Kennedy Space Center, Kenneth Lipartito, Orville R Butler.

Currently Reading: Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, Mary Roach.

PS: A Leap Day 2016 Mathematics A To Z: Transcendental Number, or as I argue it is, ``Number''.

Tags: march hare madness, pinball

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