Collusion and the Appearance of Impropriety

Posted in NEWS on August 2, 2001

By Wizards of the Coast

Eric Smith

As collusion is one of the more difficult issues that judges can face I thought that I would take the time to talk about an incident which occurred recently at a PTQ event for PTNY for which I was acting as head judge. As a general rule, I typically don't respond to criticism of my rulings online as I feel that such debates serve no useful purpose. In this case, however, I feel that a discussion of the ruling from my perspective would serve a worthwhile purpose in stimulating some thought about not only the issue of collusion but of the underlying issue of attempting to determine player intent.

The situation that occurred at the qualifier was as follows. It was the eighth and final round of the qualifier. The cut would be to the top two teams and the top six teams overall would win prizes. There were two teams with 18 points, five with 15, and one with 13 along with several other teams with lower point totals going into round 8. The two teams at 18 points had played each other and thus would both be paired down against a 15-point team. Obviously, a draw by either of the 18 point teams would assure that team of a place in the top two. Likewise, their opponents would not be able to make the top two with a draw.

As Magic is a game designed by a mathematician it seems appropriate to discuss the events which followed in cases. So keeping in mind the above information here is what happened (since the identities of the teams are not important I have kept the discussion generic):

Case 1: Team A (18pts) vs. Team B (15pts). In this case the team with 18 points is paired against a team with 15 points that has good tiebreakers. If Team B were to win the match they have the potential to move into the top 2 based on tiebreakers. Team A wants to offer a draw and as an inducement to accept the draw they also want to propose a prize split between the two teams. Team A asks me if this would constitute collusion. While the floor rules explicitly state that it is collusion to offer such a split in return for a concession, they are less exact when it comes to intentional draws. Still, I feel that it is clear that the intent of the collusion rules is to prevent the use of such offers to affect the outcome of the match. Thus I rule that while teams A and B can still agree to draw, Team A can not use an offer of a prize split as part of the agreement. Team B decides to play the match.

Case 2: Team C (18pts) vs. Team D (15pts). While superficially similar to the above case, there is one important distinction. In this case Team D has the worst tiebreakers of all of the teams in contention for prizes. They are currently in 7th place and need to move up at least one place in the standings to win a prize. Regardless of the outcome, Team D is not in contention for making the cut to the top 2. Team C would like to offer a draw. Both teams look at the standings and the tiebreaker situation. A member of Team C analyzes the standings and states that there are three potential outcomes for Team D. If they play and lose they win no prizes. If they play and win, they can expect to finish in 5th-6th place (same prize). If they draw there is a very high chance that they will still finish in 5th-6th place. Team C then proposes that a draw would be in the best interest of both teams as it would move Team C into the finals and would give Team D the best chance of winning prizes without running the risk of losing the match. After some discussion during which Team D also looks at the standings, Team D decides that a draw does offer them the best chance to win a prize and accepts Team C's offer. Note that at no time did members of Team C offer any inducement to Team D to accept the draw. From what I observed, Team D's decision to accept the draw was based on their desire to maximize their chance of winning a prize. Thus I concluded that there was no collusion involved. After the teams agree to draw Team A asks what the outcome of the match was. Team C informs them that it was a draw and Team A argues that they should also have been allowed to draw as well. I again explain to them that while in their case they were offering a prize split which was illegal under the floor rules, in this case there was no collusion as both teams agreed to the draw based on self-interest rather than outside inducement. Team A grumbles but continues to play its match.

161. Cheating-Bribery/Collusion - DCI Universal Penalty Guidelines
A player attempts to bribe an opponent into conceding or changing the results of a match, or two players attempt to determine the outcome of a game or match using a random method such as a coin flip or die roll. Refer to section 25 of the Universal Tournament Rules for a more detailed description of what constitutes bribery/collusion.

25. Conceding Games or Matches - The DCI Universal Tournament Rules
Players may concede a game or match at any time within the following guidelines. The conceded game or match is recorded as a loss for the conceding player. If a player refuses to play, it is assumed that he or she concedes the match. The following actions are prohibited:

  • Offering or accepting a bribe or prize split in exchange for the concession of a match
  • Attempting to determine the winner of a game or match by a random method, such as a coin flip or die roll
Splitting a prize in exchange for concession is only permitted in the final match of the single-elimination portion of a tournament (this means there are only two players remaining in the entire event). It is not permitted at any time in Swiss-only tournaments. Offering to split a prize in exchange for concession must be done in the presence of a judge. A prize-split agreement in exchange for concession must involve only the prizes associated with the first- and second-place prizes. A player may not introduce any incentives other than the prizes associated with the tournament.

27. Intentional Draw - The DCI Universal Tournament Rules
Players may mutually agree to accept an intentional draw at any time before the match results are submitted. This agreement should not be regarded as a violation of section 41.(41: Cheating - e.g. Collusion to alter the results of a game or match)

In the final outcome, Team B wins their match against Team A. However, Team A still makes the cut to the final 2 based on tiebreakers. Team C also makes the finals, having assured themselves a place with the draw. Now, since Team C does not intend to compete in New York with the same player configuration they are only playing for prizes. But they are also already qualified based on Pro Tour points. I wanted to confirm that while Team C could choose to rescind the invitation that they were under no obligation to do so and that they would not be required to compete in New York with the current Team members if they won the invitation. A quick call to the DCI confirmed that in fact Team C was under no obligation to rescind the invite and members of the team could form new teams for New York based on Pro Tour points without penalty. As a quick aside, I feel that the policy of allowing qualified teams not to rescind the invite should perhaps be looked into as it gives these teams a significant advantage in terms of trading a concession for prizes in the finals. Since Team A still needed to qualify for New York they quickly decided to offer Team C the majority of the prize in return for a concession. Team C accepts and that, as they say, was that.

Or so I thought. Unfortunately, the day does not finish that easily. Due to some strange pairings, Team D (remember them . . . .) finished the day still in 7th place, having missed 6th place by about .04% in the tiebreakers. And this is where things get interesting. Several members of Team C are surprised to learn that Team D didn't finish in the prizes.. They look at the pre-round standings again and come to the conclusion that they may have been wrong in their analysis of the probabilities involved. They feel bad that they may have unintentionally mislead their opponents and decide that the fair thing to do would be to give them the packs they would have won had they finished in 6th. Note that at no time did Team C state that they were obliged to give anything to Team D and no member of Team D approached Team C looking to collect. However, Team A overhears this discussion and concludes that this is obviously evidence of collusion between Team C and D. Having been present for both discussions I disagree. While on the surface, the events give the appearance of impropriety I explain to Team A that in my opinion the actions of Team C were motivated not by a prior agreement but by a desire to see a fair outcome for Team D after the fact. That they had just won a substantial amount of money and packs may have also put them in a charitable mood. However, Team A does not accept my explanation and goes on to write bad things about me on the internet.

So there we have it. While I am not going to enter into a prolonged debate about these events I think that there are some interesting questions raised with regards to what constitutes collusion. Obviously, the most important factor in my opinion is the intent of the players involved. Are they looking to exchange compensation for a favorable match result? This was the case with the proposed prize split and was the basis for my ruling in that case. The discussions between Teams C and D are a more complicated matter. At what point does a discussion between players about their positions in the standings and what they could expect to happen following a draw cross the line from what is allowed and become coercion and/or collusion? This sort of discussion occurs in the final rounds of most tournaments where players are looking to draw into the top 8. And in this case I didn't feel that one team was attempting to coerce the other unfairly. But should such discussions between players be allowed at all? As happened in this case, one of the players was mistaken in their analysis of the standings. And even though their opponents also looked at the standings and came to the same conclusion, this did likely play a role in their decision. Was it intentional? I don't feel that it was. Given the same circumstances I would have come to the same decision myself were I in their shoes. Still, the issue is there. I don't think that as judges we can effectively stop such talks from happening, even if we wanted to. The best that we can do is to observe as many of these discussions as we can and intervene when we feel that one player is trying to coerce his or her opponent. This also ties into the other issue that was raised at this PTQ, namely when does the appearance of collusion equate with there actually being collusion. I admit that had I not been present for the discussions between Teams C and D it would have appeared to me that the teams might have been engaged in collusion. Still, in this case I would have been wrong. Everything that I witnessed convinced me that there was in fact no collusion between these teams. I think that this only serves to stress that we should not act as judges until we have done our best to determine what the true facts of the matter are. It also illustrates the dangers of forming conclusions based on hearsay and rumor. But that's just my opinion, I may be wrong.