I have always been intrigued by the scoring systems for different sports, and the degree to which they contribute to the enjoyment of any game. As a friend of mine remarked, had tennis been given the same scoring system as basketball it would be tedious to play, and even worse to watch. Once you glanced at your TV and saw Djokovic leading Murray ‘by 57 points to 31’, you would shrug and change channels to something more gripping, like an unsubtitled version of Last Year at Marienbad.
Tennis scoring isn’t quite socialist — one player can demolish -another — but in such cases the contest is over in a mercifully short time. There is, however, a kind of social security system in the scoring of tennis which means that for the duration of any game, the losing player feels he is still in with a chance. It’s genius, frankly.
Another feature found in the scoring of many good games is where greedily aiming for the highest score comes with a high degree of concomitant risk. Shove-ha’penny works this way, as does bar billiards, where the highest-scoring pot sits behind an unstable black mushroom (technically a ‘skittle’), which will wipe your entire score if knocked over.
This may explain why darts is an enjoyable spectator sport while archery isn’t. In archery the scoring is concentric. You simply aim for the bullseye, which scores 10, and if you narrowly miss you get 9. Miss the 9 and you get 8. The only strategy of the game is to aim for the 10 and hope. It is a perfectly logical scoring system, but it doesn’t make for great telly. The dartboard, by contrast, is not remotely logical, but is somehow brilliant. The 20 sector sits between the dismal scores of 5 and 1.