Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Quidditch: Even Dumber than Hockey

So, in an attempt to catch up with what the cool kids were reading a decade ago, I got around to reading the Harry Potter books recently. I'd read the first iteration, Harry Potter and the Magic Rock, years earlier, and like many of you--assuming you're like 30 Rock's Twofer--I was perplexed by the vagaries of Quidditch. This is apparently a thing now, but at the time, my friends seemed happy enough to gloss over the incomprehensibility of the sport. A former lesbian of mine once explained it to me, but I wasn't convinced. She was a hockey fan, and it's hard to take those people seriously.

For the uninitiated, the Chasers try to hurl the Quaffle (pronounced "basil") through any of the opponents' three goal hoops, for 10 points per goal. The Bludgers attack the Chasers, and the Beaters use bats to beat them off. Finally, the Seeker must catch the Golden Snitch, which grants 150 points and ends the game. Crucially, this is the only way a game can be ended.

So, unless one team is behind by more than 150 points, the Seeker is the only relevant player, and the Snitch the only relevant goal object.  In theory, you could try to delay the opposing Seeker from ending the game to give your team time to catch up, but since the scores are rarely so disparate, it doesn't really matter.

At the time of my first reading, I chalked it up to a poorly thought-out sport and left it at that. It takes real sports quite a while to get the rules situated in such a way as to avoid boredom or chaos, and fictional sports lack the de facto beta testing we have here in the really real world. But, somewhere around Goblet of Fire, in which Viktor Krum defeats his own team by catching the Snitch as part of a complex, long-term plan to bang Hermione Granger senseless, it started to make sense.

I shall digress briefly here to note that, at Hogwarts, the scores are carried over and applied to the House totals, so there's an incentive to both maximize wins and minimize losses. There is no slaughter rule in Quidditch, so every goal counts, even though most of them don't. What this suggests to me, first and foremost, is that if Quidditch is as important to Hogwarts culture as it seems to be, they really ought to have some kind of post-season. The pros have the World Cup--which, like the American World Series, excludes the rather extensive Muggle world, who could kick the Chudley Cannons' asses with drone aircraft--so it's unclear why the scoring system would make any sense for them.

The answer is provided by the dual Weasleys: betting. Quidditch essentially has two independent scoring systems that rarely overlap. The first, managed by the Seekers, determines who wins the game. The second, managed by the rest of the team, manages the point spread.

As a contest of agon, or a spectator sport, it sucks. But for gambling, Quidditch is probably the greatest sport ever devised. Six out of seven players are exclusively focused on manipulating the point spread.

Which, in turns, points toward a different mystery. Ere Harry's arrival, Slytherin has been dominating Quidditch for some time. After his arrival, Gryffindor becomes undefeatable. One would think that this would chafe at the two other houses, who are already annoyed that the attributes associated with their houses are best exemplified by two of the Gryffindor kids. Well, it's hard to imagine the Hufflepuffs mind. They're probably just so pleased to have made the other team happy that they celebrate defeat with the same enthusiastic group hug with which they meet victory. But Ravenclaws are the smart chicks, right? Symbolized by the wise and agile eagle, whose deadly precision is augmented by having a raven claw, in addition to their own?

The answer is as brilliant as it is subtle: the Ravenclaws don't care. Winning would just draw attention to themselves, and that's the last thing you'd want when you're running a numbers game. I expect they require their third-years to spend their summers studying combinatorics and game theory in secret. And what's the long-term plan for the money? Where do the Ravenclaws' loyalties ultimately lie?

This is the one mystery Rowling's tale does not answer for us. Clearly, the whole Voldemort vs. Potter dust-up is a little too provincial for them. I assume the money is managed by a different source, such as the Rothschilds, or the Illuminati. There has to be some level of Muggle cooperation involved in maintaining the Secrecy pact. It has to take a lot of work to prevent the wizards from realizing that their magical technology is, empirically, quite primitive. Even Harry can't protect Hogwarts from the works of Donna Harraway forever.