Based on the CA Book of the Same Name by Bill Lamb
Many sports incorporate a handicapping system in order to allow competitive games between players of different abilities. Most are simpler to achieve than croquet, as the games are not interactive, e.g. golf, where the handicap is set against the course, compared to tennis, where the handicap reward can only be freely won points. In croquet, the interaction comes at the end of a turn. The out-player then has the chance to make a roquet, play a few strokes and score a few points until the turn ends. The use of bisques, which prolongs the innings, reduces the interaction, and therefore reduces the possibility of the stronger player winning the game immediately.
Any handicapping system will be subject to fundamental limitations. The system in croquet is designed to give each player an equal chance of winning half of the games he plays over a period of time. It is not designed to guarantee that any single game is equal, as the consistency of the player, or form, may mean that the weaker player is playing better than his handicap on the particular occasion, and therefore be more likely to win the game.
The game of croquet is a race between the players to peg out, even though play is not simultaneous. In other sports where the first to the line is the winner, the aim of any handicap is to give the slower player a start, which is sufficient to get him to the line at or about the same time as a quicker person. The use of bisques is designed to give the weaker player such a start as to give a reasonable chance of achieving the peg-out before his opponent. This can be recognised easily if the weaker player uses any bisques at the start of the game - the clips advance to the point where the bisques run out. From there onwards he has to complete the game with his own ability.
Exactly the same effect could have been obtained by starting the weaker player the same number of hoops ahead, but the tactical break-building nature of croquet means that giving, say, six points, might be more advantageously applied by moving one clip to one-back, rather than both clips to hoop four. The use of bisques to give additional turns rather than arbitrary points adds to the competitive nature of the game, without destroying the natural order of the game, i.e. building the break to advance the cause.
Note that bisques do not transform a poorer player into a better one, just as being given a start does not change a slower runner into a faster one.
The setting of handicaps, and judging the difference between players, can be expressed mathematically, with the start-point being the assumed ability of a scratch player being capable of taking a ball from the start to the peg in a single four-ball break, given that the opportunity is reasonable. To give a weaker player the chance of competing equally, then the number of bisques to be allocated would be that which would allow the player to complete two four-ball breaks from beginning to peg, and the peg-out. That is not to say that this will happen on every occasion, because chance does play a part in croquet, as does the tactical approach of the opponent in denying the easy start to the break, but the system is designed to provide equalisation over a number of occasions.
Although the basic handicap system may be justified mathematically, the actual play is always to be taken into account. The ability to play breaks, to pick up breaks, to hit roquets from distance, to run hoops, all give an individual game a different direction, yet the basis of any handicap system has to be a standard objective approach which can be applied consistently. It is because of this that the Automatic Handicapping System has been developed, and why it stands the test of time.
Principles of Handicapping by Bill Lamb, on which this feature is based, has been sent to all Clubs and describes the full system, including the reasoning behind it, in 16 pages. It also covers the Croquet Grading System