GREETINGS, PROFESSOR FALKEN.
HOW ARE YOU FEELING TODAY?
I’m fine. How are you?
EXCELLENT. SHALL WE PLAY A GAME?
Love to. How about Global Thermonuclear War?
WOULDN'T YOU PREFER A GOOD GAME OF CHESS?
Hmmm… sure, why not? Let’s play chess instead.
NUMBER OF PLAYERS?
GAME TYPE: REGULAR CHESS OR DERBY CHESS?
I…what? Derby chess? What’s that?
ROLLER DERBY IS A GAME OF STRATEGY. DERBY CHESS REQUIRES STRATEGIES SIMILAR TO THOSE USED IN ROLLER DERBY.
Sounds like fun. Let’s play derby chess.
INITIALIZE GAME. PLEASE SELECT A PIECE TO SACRIFICE.
Okay, I…uh, what? What do you mean sacrifice a piece? We haven’t started the game yet.
DERBY CHESS STRATEGY REQUIRES ONE PLAYER TO SACRIFICE A PIECE BEFORE THE GAME CAN BEGIN. I WILL NOT SACRIFICE A PIECE AND WILLINGLY START AT A DISADVANTAGE. IF YOU WOULD LIKE THE GAME TO BEGIN, YOU MUST SACRIFICE A PIECE.
That’s not fair.
IF YOU WOULD LIKE THE GAME TO BEGIN, YOU MUST SACRIFICE A PIECE.
That’s not fair! Why should you get to start the game with more pieces on the board than I do? I didn’t do anything to deserve that!
IF YOU WOULD LIKE THE GAME TO BEGIN, YOU MUST SACRIFICE A PIECE.
Fine, I’ll remove a pawn. I just want to play chess, geez.
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That’s not exactly how this scene from the 1983 film Wargames played out. We all know that Matthew Broderick wanted to play Global Thermonuclear War instead, a fateful decision that almost triggered World War III (in Hollywood, anyway) due to the actions of a computer that just wanted to play a game with its creator.
But I wonder what would have happened if he decided a game of chess was the better choice. Let’s say this game of “derby chess” existed and the computer played this game with its human opponent, despite it having this strange and unfair starting rule. What might it have looked like?
Two players come to the board ready to play, but both know that the game cannot begin until someone willingly takes away one of their own pieces.
If this was a casual game of “derby chess” played for fun, someone would probably take a pawn off the board relatively quickly just to get the game started. Because hey, it’s just a game, and both players want to play it. Even if the rules are strange or a little unfair to someone, if both players are mostly okay with them, they’ll play on anyway.
A pawn is an insignificant piece compared to others on the board, anyway. If the red player was significantly better than his opponent, he would probably win despite the starting handicap and the uphill battle that would result from it. If the blue player knew he wasn’t as good, he would just as well wait for his opponent to take off a piece, knowing that would give him a better chance of keeping the game close.
Still, it’s a stretch to think anyone would willingly want to play “derby chess” for the simple reason that it’s a flawed game. Wouldn’t it make more sense to play a couple of games of “regular” chess instead, which is as fair a game as you can possibly get? After all, neither player should be forced to do something they feel is against their best interests to win.
As you might have guessed from its name, the same flaw in the rules and inherent unfairness in the game of “derby chess” also exists in modern roller derby.
Consider the London/Philly quarterfinal game at the WFTDA east region playoffs.
The first few jams played out about as normally as you’d expect a game of “regular” derby to be played: Teams line up at the pivot line, teams skate forward at pivot whistle, jammers are released after the pack crosses the pivot line, etc.
But the moment Philly gained a small lead early in the first half, they immediately went to the “chickenbrick” strategy of lining up all of their blockers directly in front of the jammers. (This was easy for Philly to pull off, since their bench was closest to the back line.) London, wanting to make sure their jammer didn’t come up against a 4-wall unopposed, also lined up at the back.
When the jam started, Philly refused to move forward, waiting for London to deal with the situation. Whether they liked it or not.
In almost every jam of the game after this point, Philly’s 4-wall took the same position on the jammer line, patently refusing to skate forward at the pivot whistle. They were not going to move forward until London “forced” them to by doing a knee start, or skating forward to split the pack and force a no-pack start.
This was totally unfair to London.
No matter how London tried to counter this situation, they were always going to start at some kind of positional disadvantage, or at best, hope that Philly made some kind of mistake to neutralize the disadvantage they were forced to put themselves in.
If London had pushed forward to do a split-pack start, Philly would have almost guaranteed themselves lead jammer thanks to the no-pack situation that would have been an inevitability. (As explained and diagrammed here.) If London had lined up on the pivot line instead, Philly could have just stayed 9.9ft behind them and found themselves with the same advantage. London mostly relied on the strategy of sending one blocker forward to split the pack, leaving three blockers behind on their knees.
But was that much better for them?
London could have just taken a knee at the start of the jam to force the action to begin, I suppose. But why should they have to do that if they didn’t want to? Why should London, or any team, be forced to do a knee that they feel it’s against their best interest to win the game?
But what else could London do?
Philly took advantage of the (unfair) disadvantage that London (had no other choice but to) put themselves in: In the first half of the game, Philly took 16 lead jammer calls to London’s 3 on the way to a commanding 90-6 halftime lead.
Of course, some might say London could have done a better job blocking or assisting their jammer through after Philly got those easy lead jammer calls. Because there’s more to roller derby than just the start sequence, right?
Actually, the stats for this game indicate that London did a fantastic job of doing both of those things, all things considered.
Nine of the 20 first-half jams looked like this: 0-0, 0-0, 3-0, 2-0, 0-0, 1-0, 2-0, 2-0, 0-0; all in favor of Philly. (Three others were 4-0 Philly jams.) In a few others, London stole lead jammer from Philly despite their unfair advantage and got two 3-0 jams of their own—London’s only points of the first half. You don’t keep per-jam scoring that close for 15 out of 20 jams unless you have a team that’s consistently good at blocking and good at helping their jammer out before the other team can make a significant dent on their first scoring pass.
But because Philly was playing “derby chess,” they forced London to put themselves at a positional disadvantage on pretty much every jam. With that many lead jammer calls to fight against, it was inevitable that London was going to give up a few big jams to Philly, even though neither team got into significant penalty trouble. (Total PIMs: London 19, Philly 17; Power jams: Philly 3, London 1.) Realistically, there was nothing London could do to get a fair and equal opportunity to gain lead jammer and score points before Philly did on almost every jam of the first half, and ultimately the never-ending jam losses added up to an insurmountable points deficit.
Philly wanted to win by not doing anything. London wanted to win by playing roller derby.
The fact that those two things are not mutually inclusive should ring alarm bells that something is bad-wrong with the rules of roller derby.
Poor London never had a chance.
What London faced was no different than being forced to play unfair “derby chess.” Instead playing of fair, regular chess, in that London had to remove a piece from the chessboard—that is, skate at least one blocker forward and away from the pack—before a jam could begin. That the Philly jammers were suddenly blowing past the pack at the start and getting lead jammer before turn 1 meant that there was a hole for them to go through.
Where else did that hole come from, if not the spot vacated by the London blocker that skated forward to start the jam? Why should any team be forced to start the jam with one less blocker in their wall for a few moments, as if they were serving a three-second blocker penalty they didn’t do anything to deserve?
In spite of these game-long blocker micro-penalties, London made some halftime adjustments and took 13 second-half lead jammer calls to Philly’s 10. Philly only outscored London by 3 points (50-47) in the 2nd, a virtual tie on the scoreboard.
But I can’t help but wonder: If London was able to play just as well as Philly in the second half, despite the jam start handicaps and the uphill battles that resulted from them…
What could have London done if Philly was forced to play a fair game of roller derby from start to finish?
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GREETINGS, PROFESSOR FALKEN.
Uh, yeah. Hi.
IT APPEARS YOU DID NOT FARE WELL IN DERBY CHESS.
People sometimes make mistak
YES THEY DO. SHALL WE PLAY ANOTHER GAME?
Yeah, I feel like destroying stuff now. Let’s play Global Thermonuclear War.
FINE. WHICH SIDE DO YOU WANT? 1. ROCKY MOUNTAIN 2. RAT CITY
I’m going to be the Russi—wait, what?
AWAITING FIRST STRIKE COMMAND PLEASE LIST PRIMARY TARGETS
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While NORAD (set in the Rocky Mountains, funnily enough) switches to DEFCON 4 and tries to figure out why, of all places, an apparent Soviet first strike is headed for Seattle, let’s go back to “derby chess” for a second.
Consider what might happen if two grandmasters played in a high-stakes game of “derby chess.” The winner would get an automatic invite to the “derby chess” global championships. Knowing what’s on the line, you know that neither player will be willing to give their opponent any kind of advantage, if they can help it.
How might the opening sacrificial sequence of this “derby chess” match play out?
Knowing that every piece on the board is valuable, a player of the caliber of the grandmaster will not be willing to take one of their pieces off the board and put themselves at an opening disadvantage. This is especially true given that they know their opponent is just as good as they are: Grandmaster vs. grandmaster. Inevitably, they’ll wait for their opponent to make the first move, because there’s no way they will make it easier for their opponent to win so easily.
However…their opponent is thinking the same thing.
When the game begins, they’ll both wait for their opponent to make the first move.
Ten seconds elapse. Then 15 seconds…
…and they keep waiting…
Would they even play the game at all?
So yeah, “derby chess” sucks ass.
But here’s the thing. Some people in the roller derby community are just fine with roller derby jam starts that play out exactly like this non-starter “derby chess” game, a game with a hopelessly flawed rule. Many slow derby starts are basically contests to see who is willing to stand around the longest, waiting for their opponent to make the first move.
“Mindgames,” people like to call them.
What a bunch of baloney.
In roller derby, just as in other sports, strategy and tactics are important. However, in order to execute those strategies and tactics, players must overcome their opponents via conflict, using athleticism and skill to do it. That is why they are called sports. If derby was just about strategies, you’d have a team of lawyers comparing plans to declare a winner. Or maybe better yet, just plug a bunch of competing strategies into a computer to find out which one is the best.
Let’s kick this up to DEFCON 3.
In roller derby parlance, those two “derby chess” grandmasters were Rat City and Rocky Mountain. In their semi-final game at the WFTDA west region playoffs, both teams knew something big was on the line: The winner would get a guaranteed trip to the WFTDA Championships. Both teams knew that it was in their best interests to win the game.
Like Philly, Rat City lined up all of their blockers in “chickenbrick” position. Like London, Rocky Mountain wasn’t going to leave their jammer to fend for themselves at the back, so they had little choice to join Rat City at the back.
Rat wasn’t going to move off the jammer line for anything other than Rocky Mountain skating forward to force a split-pack start, or take a knee to force a no-pack start. Either way, Rocky Mountain couldn’t always use their superior athleticism during jam starts to beat Rat City at roller derby, because Rat City was forcing Rocky to play “derby chess” instead.
Rat City wanted to try to win the game by not skating. Rocky Mountain wanted to try to win the game by playing roller derby.
We all know what happened in that game. There were three full jams of no derby, and several minutes more of long and delayed jam starts. Noted derby photographer Joe Rollerfan worked out that in the end, 27% of total jam time—almost 13 minutes of the game—was lost to teams standing around and staring each other down, waiting for each other to make the first move and put themselves at a disadvantage.
I don’t completely blame Rat City for doing what they did against Rocky, though. Hey, you gotta do what you gotta do to win the game, even if that means doing nothing.
However, that the WFTDA claims their skaters are “Real, Strong, Athletic, and Revolutionary,” all of a sudden seems a suspect claim, because some (that’s some) of the very skaters that made the rules are now executing “strategies” in Unfair, Weak, Apathetic, and Opressive ways, all so they can do what’s in their best interest: Win games.
Yet, people still say that skaters and teams “work hard” to get where they are and be as good as they are, then turn around and try to justify the actions of some players on certain top teams, faced with pressure-cooker situations, working as little as possible in an attempt to “do what you have to do to win?”
I’m skipping DEFCON 2. That’s DEFCON 1 levels of bullshit, right there.
In Wargames, as the players began to realize that Global Thermonuclear War was a real game with real consequences, they had to find a way to teach the computer that no matter what strategy it used to start the game, everyone was going to lose by way of nuclear incineration. This is because no matter what strategy the computer used, there was no way to control how other players would act, or react. There was no way to gain a real advantage from launching these nukes first, or those nukes first, because nuclear warfare is a flawed “game” with only one possible outcome:
Mutually Assured Destruction.
Rat City didn’t want to move forward at the start of the jams because they didn’t want to give up an advantageous position, the back of the pack. They knew that without lead jammer calls, there was no way they were going to score on jams. They knew that there was no way they were going to beat an athletically superior Rocky Mountain team by playing a “fair” game with them. Even with time running out, Rat City knew that their only chance was to wait for Rocky Mountain to make a mistake–that of trying to skate forward to play roller derby–so they could get lead jammer calls with the help of unfair advantages due to the pack definition rules, and the no-pack situation that arises from it.
And people wonder why Rocky Mountain refused to skate forward and not start so many jams! Rocky is a smart roller derby team. They had to deal with slow derby strategy ever since Denver first used it against them two years ago. They knew the inherent disadvantages that being at the front of the pack were. They knew there was little or nothing they could do to use the talents and abilities they worked hard to attain, because all Rat City had to do was little or nothing to unfairly neutralize those advantages.
Rocky Mountain understood that no matter which slow-start scenario played out, they would never come out of it ahead. But they made the best out of a bad situation, and only won that sorry excuse for a “game” because they were so much more athletically talented than their opponents, they were able to overcome their starting handicaps, the penalties borne of frustration that (understandably) came from their opponent’s blatant refusal to skate forward, and the uphill battles that resulted from them.
After a that entire episode, how can people not see that game that people like to call “roller derby” is just as flawed as “derby chess?”
When one team wants to skate forward to play roller derby, they cannot control what the other team wants or does not want to do. If both teams want to skate, you get great games like Rocky/Oly and Texas/Kansas City, games that are fair to both teams. If one team doesn’t want to skate, you get shitty games like London/Philly and Rat/Rocky, all of which are unfair to the team that wants to play roller derby to win the game.
This happens all the time. But you never notice it due to the fact that one team is usually good enough to overcome that disadvantage through the course of the entire game. And for some reason, many teams and skaters are okay with this. Because hey, it’s just a game, and both teams usually want to play it. Even if the rules are strange or a little unfair to someone, if both teams are mostly okay with them, they’ll play on anyway.
But if people want to continue to support stifling slow derby tactics and want to continue to explore strategies and “counter”-strategies to them (not just during jam starts), there’s only one possible end result. As teams get better, as everyone begins to equalize in skill, and as the stakes for winning get higher; if a drastic change is not made to the rules, this flawed “game” we call roller derby can only end with only one possible outcome:
Mutually Apathetic Derby.
A STRANGE GAME. THE ONLY WINNING MOVE IS NOT TO PLAY. HOW ABOUT A NICE GAME OF CHESS?