Will’s World Keeping Score

By Will Carlin

Two years ago, I wrote a column about the merits of nine-point scoring versus 15-point scoring. I argued that nine-point scoring made the game more interesting. But today, I started to think about completely different ways of keeping score.

What if, for example, squash were a timed sport instead of a sport played to a certain point total? Three of the four major sports do this, and the changes would be intriguing. Imagine dividing the hour-long match into halves, quarters or thirds. Each of the major sports has a 15-minute intermission between the periods. That alone would change squash dramatically. Though one-sided matches would be problematic, the intermissions would offer an almost complete re-start of a match, so there would be ample opportunity for huge momentum swings as the match went along.

There are other aspects of each of these sports that add intrigue. In basketball, each team is allowed to call a certain number of time-outs per half. Though they are called by a player on the court, they usually are signaled by a coach from the sideline. Imagine squash with a coach who could get the player to literally stop momentum swings cold with a signal to call a time-out, during which the coach could offer immediate suggestions to the player to help turn the tide. These two changes would help mitigate the risk of the blowout match.

In football, there are penalties and play clocks. Imagine a play clock that counted down to the start of the next point. If the server didn’t put the ball in play by the time the play clock expired, a penalty would be assessed. And what about those penalties? There isn’t really an equivalent to yardage on the squash court, but penalties could be assessed by either full or partial points. The idea of different weights of penalties is intriguing as well. Imagine that lets might have some consequence. If both players were responsible, they could be offsetting penalties, but if one person were more responsible, but there was good effort at clearing, some sort of partial point penalty could be assessed.

Ice hockey does it slightly differently, by assessing penalties for a period of time. That, too, could be interesting. Imagine, for example, that you have been assessed a two-minute penalty during which time you can not hit the sidewall first, or when you can not let the ball get to the back wall, or when you have to keep the ball behind the service line. It is sort of like playing a man down for a period of time. Even in one-sided matches, the penalties could completely change the dynamics of the match.

The fourth major sport is, of course, baseball. This is one that really intrigues me. Suppose you played squash with innings where one person was designated offense and the other designated defense. One person would serve until the other person made three errors (“outs”). During the time that the receiver was “up,” their scored points would count. The server’s total mission would be to win three points (get three outs) and end the half inning. The receiver, on the other hand, would have the chance to rack up as many points as possible. The offense’s score during the half-inning are the points that would count. Nine innings, of course, with extra innings in the case of a tie. I can see a particularly offensively minded player figuring that until there are two outs, there is a big opportunity to go for as many quick winners as possible. It could be thrilling.

Then, of course, there are the other racquet sports. In the early 90’s, I actually played an exhibition match in France that used tennis scoring, and I found the ebb and flow of the match was completely different. We played an eight-game pro set, and it took a long time, but though I had played competitive tennis as a junior, having every four points be its own little war required a surprisingly different mind-set. One of the appeals of this scoring is that people are familiar already with tennis scoring, but the timing doesn’t really work right unless the length of each set is severely shortened (to four-game sets or even three). And that really defeats the purpose.

Using traditional table tennis scoring would have minor consequences, but what would happen, do you think, if each person served for a certain number of points instead of after having won a point? Maybe nothing, but it might alter things in small surprising ways.

Each of these are just different ways of keeping score, the points themselves would be played the same way. But the game would be completely different. Now let’s imagine, for a second, that squash became a judged sport, like gymnastics, figure skating, or perhaps a better analogy, boxing. What if there were timed periods of point-playing (“rounds”) that were scored by judges. Points scored would be one factor, but perhaps not the only one. They might score aggressiveness and other factors. If you think referees can influence a match now…

All of these are fun to think about, but one of the most interesting things about sports is how the scoring system seems to work well for the sport. The nine-point scoring in squash was a brilliant device that meant that a match was never over. Despite the PSA trying other methods, most people I talk with prefer both to watch and play the nine-point method.

Maybe some of the other sports should try our scoring method. Tennis, anyone?