Friday, November 16, 2007

Three Pints for a Win

(not strictly Charlton related)

With nothing to write about Charlton, I've decided to write about a vital topic, namely what I term, the 'three pint problem'.

It is related to another topic (tipping) that I've written about in the past, because bar staff in the US rely upon tips more than most. It is positively frowned upon to leave any less than a dollar tip per drink ordered, and it is reflected in the strange way you receive change at the bar.

For example, if a round of three drinks costs $14, and you pay with a $20 note, then you will find the change comes back in the form of six $1 notes, rather than a $5 note and a $1 note. The implicit message is clear. Indeed, I was even once informed curtly by a barman that he did not 'accept' coins as a tip (even if they amounted to more than a dollar). I found this to be a terrible shame as I had a Kruggerand in my pocket, and until then I'd been rather enchanted by the quality of his service.

Bar owners are not required to pay their staff the minimum wage, so long as their wage (set at a different and much lower minimum) is supplemented by tips (that they are permitted to keep) to at least the level of the usual minimum. As a result, unlike in the UK, you are never left ignored at the bar whilst the bored barmaid serves her regulars, but instead receive exemplary service (so long as you keep those dollar bills in good supply).

However, something has been bothering me about this system. The real value of those $1 tips is falling by the rate of inflation, currently 3% or considerably more if, like me, you choose not to believe the figures. This erosion in the real value of the tips is not affecting the likes of taxi drivers or waiters to the same degree, because they tend to receive tips as a flat percentage of the total cost (which is presumably rising in line with inflation).

Unfortunately for barstaff, they are non-unionised and collectively working for an incredibly diverse group of employers. Who is going to represent them? And how can they force the issue and begin to persuade the punters that their livelihoods are under threat?

I suspect this problem will only be resolved by the gentle persuasion of customers by the barstaff themselves, preferably attractive red-headed ones with names like Sinead. And this indirectly leads me onto the aforementioned 'three-pint problem'.

Any married men, particularly those with young children, will appreciate that the ability to sneak away for a couple of hours to indulge in all the things we used to enjoy are rather limited. Thus, if I spot that the wife is about to settle into the armchair for an hour of brain-numbing television (The Bachelor is a particular favourite), then my opportunist side sees the chance for a brief escape (or as it's termed within my marriage, a visa).

Depending on my mood and the weather, this usually involves either a run around Central Park or a trip to the local Irish pub, alongwith some suitably stimulating reading material. I have contemplated trying to squeeze in both, but which do you do first? Boozing after exercise gives a cast-iron guarantee of a monumental morning headache, whilst exercising after boozing is best left to Andrew Flintoff.

As the nights draw in and the weather turns decidedly chilly, the exercise option has increasingly given way to the pub option, and my tipple of choice is Bass (on draft), and three pints thereof.

Three pints is a self-imposed solitary drinking cap which strikes a reasonable balance between utilising my free time to the full, avoiding any nasty morning surprises, and all whilst shunning any semblance of a drinking problem. Three pints is the choice of today's modern drinker.

Four pints however takes one to the land of the boor (and the bore). After four pints, my political views are veering dangerously to the right, and UK house prices are not just about to fall 20%, but they've already done so.

I also have an unfortunate habit of daydreaming at this juncture (often about Charlton winning a major trophy) which leaves me with tears in my eyes, and thus the lonely appearance of a man whose wife has just left him (when infact she's at home watching The Bachelor).

In return for being paid such low minimum wages, barstaff are given a considerable amount of freedom to reward their most loyal customers with the occasional free drink (in return only for another tip).

"This one's on me" will echo around any genuine neighbourhood bar, as a way of giving thanks for that incessant supply of dollar bills. Unfortunately for me, there seems to be an unwritten rule that it's usually the 4th drink that's the free one, to the extent that there is one offered at all (and therein lies the problem).

If the free 4th pint was absolutely guaranteed, then as I polished off the dregs of the 3rd pint, I would simply have to declare, "That's my lot, I'll politely decline the free pint (thank you)." In actuality, I would describe the free pints as being delivered in at best a stochastic fashion (essentially random, but with some degree of direction).

Hence, I feel that this wholly undisciplined framework has forced me into a difficult corner, leaving me perhaps four suboptimal choices:

1. Stop after only two pints - this choice also retains the unlikely possibility that the free pint will be the 3rd one (a drinking concept known as upside optionality), though this usually requires a good degree of chat which I'm reluctant to provide. The downside of this choice is that the vast majority of the time I will return home less inebriated than desired, and moreover The Bachelor won't have finished.

2. Drink the 4th pint (in the event that it arrives) - perhaps the simplest option, but there is a severe risk in this case that the reduction in rationality that it brings on may lead to a 5th or possibly 6th pint. In short, an option fraught with considerable danger.

3. Decline the 4th pint (in the event that it arrives) - there is surely no more impolite and ungrateful act, than to turn down a genuine gift. One would cause less offense by reeling off a series of jokes about the Potato Famine. The impact of such a heartless act would reverberate around the bar, and soon have the staff and regulars marking you down as an oddball to be avoided (admittedly in my case, they may already have done so). If the 4th pint arrives, then in the interests of Anglo-Irish relations, it simply must be drunk.

4. Negotiate - many seemingly intractable microeconomic problems are solved in this fashion, but it is not as simple as it sounds. Consider this potential conversation, "Excuse me barman, but in the event that you were planning to offer me a free 4th pint, I will politely have to decline it," to which the barman replies, "I wasn't planning to." A more awkward exchange of words cannot be imagined. Indeed, like any awkward conversation, I will make great efforts to avoid having it at all.

However I believe I have found a solution to both my three-pint problem, as well as the erosion in real incomes of New York bar staff. Most importantly, it is what is termed a Pareto optimal solution because it leaves at least one party better off (or in this case both parties), whilst leaving neither party worse off. Admittedly the bar owner will be worse off, but spare your sympathy; he's paying his staff a pittance.

Thus from today onwards, New York Addick is delighted to declare that when embarking on a solitary drinking session, he will henceforth increase his tip per drink by 100% (to $2), provided that the 3rd pint is both provided free, and guaranteed.

The bar staff are better off, because they receive total tips of $6 rather than $3 (or perhaps $4). Meanwhile, I am better off because I am guaranteed to consume my optimal amount, my free pint only effectively costs me $3 (ie. the additional tips, materially less than it would cost if I was paying for it), and I get to avoid the undesirable quartet of options above.

So the next time you read in a New York guidebook that it's traditional these days to tip $2 per drink, remember who got the ball rolling. They'll probably name a pub after me.


At 3:00 PM, Blogger charlton north-downs said...

The first pint is always the best
The second makes you relax
The third makes you happy and merry
The forth can change your personality
Tipping is one of my pet hates as I feel obliged to give one even if the service has been crap and I suppose its affected by inflation and currency variance just like any other service.

At 7:35 PM, Anonymous stuart said...

you never were any good at game theory.

tip $3 on first and second pints and nothing on third if you have to pay for it but $1 if you get it for free.

the barmaid cannot complain if you don't tip on third pint as you have over tipped on the first two. the $1 tip on the third one is the usual tip so again no reason to complain.

this gets better with continued play. the rational bar maid knows there is an incentive to give you a free third pint as it maximises her tips.

At 7:38 PM, Anonymous newyorkaddick said...

But that doesn't rule out the possibility that she gives me the 4th pint for free, unless you are assuming that the lack of tip on the 3rd pint rules it out?

At 7:55 PM, Anonymous stuart said...

exactly -lack of tip on third makes it very unlikely plus continued play makes third pint free the equilibrium.

incidentally this is also optimal situation for bar owner as you get best result from continued play so encourages you back to same bar

plus you can go to the pub regularly and claims its research

At 8:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great blog. How much do you pay for a pint of Bass?

At 8:04 PM, Anonymous newyorkaddick said...

$5 I think (plus tip!). Given that it's thus effectively $6 (and often more in midtown bars), it's one of the few things in the US that's as expensive as UK (if not more so), even at current somewhat inexplicable exchange rates.

At 7:44 PM, Blogger Chicago Addick said...

True about the cost of a pint compared to the UK, particularly when a tip is added PLUS the pints here are actually smaller and quite noticably so after about 4 pints because that would be almost 5 in the UK!

Once I went to a pub and all the drinks were free. I went to the bar first and 'bought' the first round. I went back a bit later and the barman blatently ignored me. After 10 mins I was getting the hump, but then realised that others were collecting their drinks and then tipping the barman.

Not having to part with any money - I never gave it a thought. I eventually got served when literally he had no one else to serve but made sure I dropped the bloke $5. I was quickly served next time with a big smile.

The whole tipping thing in this country is fraught with difficulty.

Great post NYA.


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