Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Does sandbagging regularly occur in bowling?

It is my contention that current methods of USBC league handicapping actually encourage sandbagging. Furthermore, the system punishes bowlers who perform well at the start of a league, while overly rewarding those who start poorly. In short, the cost-benefit structure of USBC rules provide incentives for bowlers to cheat. Why is sandbagging cheating? It is prohibited by USBC regulations. USBC Rule 17a, Part 3 defines "Establishing an average below the player's ability to gain an unfair advantage in handicap or classified competition" as an "Unfair Tactic", which is punishable by loss of games, prize winnings, league removal, suspension, or denial of USBC membership.

Here's a really simple and kind of dumb way to look at the problem:

When someone is considering the choice of whether to cheat or not, to me it really comes down to the perceived cost of cheating. If somebody truly felt like they could be shown without a doubt to have intentionally misrepresented their bowling ability, then the potential costs might outweigh the benefits of sandbagging. In other words you would choose to compete fairly. However, in the real world, those costs are pretty much meaningless because we know that it would be next to impossible to demonstrate the act of sandbagging. It is simply too difficult to distinguish between a bad day of bowling and intentionally bowling poorly.

My point is that although there are legislated costs to sandbagging, in the real world they are meaningless. The net effect is that the only repercussion of cheating by bowling poorly to establish a high handicap is that you are in the position to make a lot of money. If you contrast that to the alternative, to bowl fairly, with honor, and by the rulebook, you will lose money to those who cheat but maybe feel good about yourself in the process.

As an issue of Game Theory (think of John Nash in A Beautiful Mind), it is actually an interesting problem. Here we have two strategies. We could call them: 1) Sandbagger and 2) Rule Follower. The Sandbagger strategy can only be successful if there are also people who follow rules. If everybody sandbagged, the advantage would be eliminated. So, naturally we would expect some mix of Sandbagging and Rule Following to occur in bowling leagues.

In that light, I have added a poll to the margin. It simply asks whether or not you have done this. It is completely anonymous, and I'm looking for honesty. I am curious how common this phenomenon is within the bowling community. Because I don't get a lot of traffic to this site, I'm going to leave it there for a few months to try to get a big sample. I have my doubts about whether any sandbaggers will actually fess up to it, but we'll see.

Finally, I think there are changes that could be made to the rulebook to reduce the incentive to sandbag. I'll save those for another day, but I don't see the solution being on the punishment side of things given the difficulty of conviction and enforcement. Rather, I think it would be better approached by addressing the benefit side of the equation.


  1. I'm in a league (80% of 200) that runs for 30+ weeks, divided into 3 rounds. The handicaps do not carry over from past seasons.

    We have a guy who sandbags at the start of each season. He spent 2 weeks practicing shooting at the 10 pin for 3 straight games with his high game of the series being a 79.

    Th1s guy can obviously bowl. He rolled a 278 a month ago (9 X's, 9/, X) and has had multiple 200's lately.

    You can't fault his strategy though. His team has swept the top honors for the past 3 years. Everyone knows he's a sandbagger but no one does anything about it.

    I'd like to have our averages/handicaps carry-over from previous seasons to combat this kind of crap. What ideas do you have?

  2. Exactly. That would make a huge difference. In fact, all of my ideas have to do with the calculation of the average and handicaps. I wrote about this a while ago.

    So, yes: 1) have averages carry over from season to season. 2) Use a running average based on the last say 30 games, or maybe the last 50 games. 3)I would toss out the three lowest series from the calculation of average. If you do all of this, then I think the effectiveness of sandbagging would decline dramatically. This is very similar to the way that a golf handicap is calculated.

    On a side note, I can't believe your league lets him get away with that.

  3. I can't believe it either. If it wasn't a church league....

  4. If only dignity played some sort of role in all of this; though I recognize that domination in a league that most people treat as recreation is the pinnacle of life forsome.

    I have far more experience in adult softball/baseball leagues where sandbagging is rampant. They try to alleviate it with division transfers and roster checks from previous years, but it has degraded into teams fighting fire with fire; my team last year had 7 players who hadn't played before, and we played teams with NCAA Division I players. We did win three games...

    ...two were forfeits :)

  5. Good point. We have so few realms in which we can dominate something, so why not bowling league? The problem is that you are using dishonest behavior to steal money from other people.

  6. I remember in my youth bowling league, there would be kids who sandbagged at the beginning of the season, but in my current league, I have never seen it, which is remarkable in a sense.

    Love the blog. Keep up the great work.

  7. Thanks Josh. I am not sure if anybody sandbags in my league. If they do, it has not been obvious to me. I wish a sandbagger would actually comment. I'd be curious to hear their point of view.

  8. Something has happened in 2 leagues we bowl in that I have never seen before, in almost 40 years of bowling, or even thought of. Last week in one league, the week before position round, we bowled against one of the top teams. We didn't/don't stand a chance of 1st place. This team does and it was important for them to win. First off, in comes Mr. Top Bowler (200+ average) with a few intimidating remarks. We won the first game; 2nd game #2 top bowler is not doing well, way below his average. In the 7th frame, all of a sudden, he leaves, no explanation to us. They mark his score with the blind score, 10 pins below, which turned out to be better than if he had finished bowling. We lost and he came back in time for the last game. We lost that one too. Lo and behold, on our second league today, position round, the team we are bowling against, the best bowler, 154 average, doesn't come close to average in games 1 or 2. 3rd game, bowler says experiencing breathing problems and sat out last game. Blind score rules - use bowlers average - 154. We lost that game, won 1 and 2. Cheating??? We'll never know but sure seems suspicious.

  9. That's really strange. Well, I checked out the USBC Rulebook on this. I am assuming your league is USBC sanctioned. It says:

    When a player is unable to complete a game because of disability, injury, or emergency, and another eligible player is not available, the team shall count the actual score for the grames bowled plus one-tenth of the leagues absentee score for each frame.

    In the second case, breathing problems (if real) would constitute "injury" or "emergency" assuming the guy is being honest. In the first case, I don't think the rule applied. Somebody must tell you why they did not finish the game. In that case the rule reads:

    When a player does not complete a game for reasons other than disability, injury or emergency, the player’s team shall count zero for each remaining frame in the game.

    The score for those frames should not have counted.

  10. Thank you for your response. Yes we are USBC. I will pass the info on. As for the breathing problems, the person did not look in distress to me. They remained at the table, and watched us finish the game. My better half pointed out that had he also sat out the last game, we would have won.

  11. I have been bowling in handicap leagues for 3 years now. and If you want to win these leagues you can do it in one of 2 ways. 1. all team members bowl their averages in every single game which will cause you to have a big enough lead no sandbagging SOB on any team will be able to catch you. 2. you sandbag.

    No. 2 is how i have seen most teams win in my experience.

    It does seem at times if you don't want a cheating sob to steal your money you will have to play the cheating sob's game to beat him.

    I think the only way to really combat sandbaggers is to practice your game and get good enough to bowl in a scratch league.

    there are no sandbaggers in scratch leagues. sandbaggers are wussies and wouldn't have a chance in a scratch league.

  12. Unfortunately, I bowl in a league that is not sanctioned. The problem I have is that the bowling lanes in our town (rural) is always on the verge of bankruptcy, complete with old wood lanes, machines held together with bailing wire, and aging lane conditioning equipment. It is a very tough house in which to have a good average. So, while our league can only find six teams for the eight lanes, we do have tons of guys who want to sub. And by sub, I mean come in to bowl only enough games to establish an average - then you never see them again, until they come in to tell everyone how they cashed in at a big tournament. Still, our league has several guys who always seem to be able to turn it on at crucial times. My main frustration is that I'm not a high-rev cranker. I try to bowl clean games (no open frames), but I never stand a chance against the crankers who couldn't pick up a spare if their life depended on it, but they can regularly get on a roll, and string strikes together to make up for their lack of spare shooting. They are the ones who always come knocking at my door when the periodic "best frame doubles" tournaments come up.

  13. I was called a sandbagger earlier tonight by the manager of an amf bowling lanes. He asked me what I bowled in league, which is around 185, and then I told him that I usually bowl around 225. (He has recognized me from before, I do very well by myself when practicing in a quiet alley)He assumed I did worse in my league on purpose, but I need the handicap because I do worse when people are shouting and making comments while you bowl. I bowl for a league that likes to have fun and drink. Clearly, its not the best atmosphere to do you best, especially if you are easily distracted by others actions. Before I could even tell him this and the fact that I crack under the pressure of bowling that well on this league, he told be I am lucky he doesn't call my league and accuse me of cheating and that he would have me suspended from USBC. I stood there taking his crap, all because I said I like having my average around 185, especially because I can't physically do better while in that league. I still bowl my hardest. I don't throw games or try to do worse. Any thoughts? Does that make me a cheater?

  14. If you are not intentionally bowling poorly, then you are not cheating. It's as simple as that. Don't sweat it. He can do all of the complaining he wants, but it would be VERY difficult to actually demonstrate that someone is sandbagging.


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