The other side of Columbia

I’m gradually emerging from the intensity and focus of the Columbia Invitational.

This year’s version went very well; Matty Skillz put forth a fine showing together with his agile assistants David Yin and Caitlin Halprin. They all fundamentally got it. I like it when I can run tournaments where the folks I’m helping understand the purpose and the aim of a tournament, and I don’t have to have arguments about priorities and investment in the future and showing the kids a good time versus profit. Some college teams, like Columbia, want to really put on a good time and if they make a little money on the side, then that’s terrific. Others are driven solely by profit. I have little interest in the long term in the latter sort of tournament; they’re impossible to improve over the long term.

If I’m not arguing that point with college hosts, I can spend more time refining the actual tournament. My role in these things is to remember last year’s mistakes and victories, and attempt to repeat the latter while avoiding the former. If we all agree on the ideal — showing a good time to the kids who attend — then the details are all we need worry about. When priorities conflict, I get gravely unhappy, not least because then last year’s problems aren’t fixable because the host schools do not care about them much. I also tend to start spending ridiculous amounts of money on meals and other frills.

This year’s college crop was 2 out of 3 on the attitude front, which is a good sign for the college tournament world. The odd ones out, those Yalies, I think are coming around as well. I hope they’re not just doing it out of fear that I’ll abandon them (which I would), but because they recognize the genuine value of their tournament.

Our big problem at Columbia was a lack of competent people for tabbing who didn’t need to be told how to do things. Usually we have a raucous party of folks in the tab room there, enough so that everyone gets a break. This year, Emory and Ridge intervened due to a disappearing January weekend. It may not have sucked away our oxygen for quality competitors or judges, both of which we had in spades. But it sure kicked us in the tab staff, as Vaughan and several others were off missing in Atlanta. As far as I knew, the only folks at the tournament who’d run TRPC before were myself, Jonathan (who hates it), Jim Menick, and Anthony Berryhill, whom we hated to lose as a judge. So we ran on a tight, tense shoestring tabwise. C’est la vie, a point of improvement for the next year, when we won’t conflict with anything.

If the online chatter is to be believed, the tournament has passed from a “doubtful finals” bid to a “probably could use a semis” bid in just a few short years. That said, the tournament was tightly fitted to a small campus, so who knows how much growth it can handle. But I think we’ll end up shrinking instead, in a directed way.

We could use an excuse to slice out the schools that seem unable to observe the proper tournament etiquettes of listening to announcements, making their students appear for rounds, reading the invitation, and picking up ballots. I’d love a tournament with the 80% of folks who understood that the whole onus of managing a tournament does not fall on the tab staff and tournament hosts; a smoothly run tournament is as much a function of the attendees as anything we do. I just release schedules and pairings, and hope for the best; no tournament can run around and accompany debaters and judges to each round. Releasing a pairing is a moment of trust; and invariably it’s broken. Often by repeat offenders.

However, you can do wait lists and caps all you like, but unless you go to an Emory system of applications, there’s no perfect filter. After Columbia, where dozens of people complained about having to judge after having signed up to be a judge, simply because the schedule was inconvenient to them, I’m contemplating just playing blatant favorites with the wait lists and being done with it. Playing fair with people who do not is a fool’s game. Perhaps I can make position on the waitlist track how many fees and fines you paid the previous year. That might nip things in the bud nicely.

That’s one of the luxuries of a tournament like Columbia, which was about 15% too large this year. You can tell anyone you like to piss off, so everyone has to play by the rules. Sometimes in the early stages of a tournament pissing off the wrong person might collapse the whole thing; they don’t come back, and nobody else does either. After this year, I don’t think that’s true of the Powder Blue Classic anymore; Yale crossed that threshold about four years ago. And certainly of the three huge schools that do attend, only one is a less than exemplary citizen.

There were a lot more thoughts that came out of Columbia this weekend. The combination of a tight schedule, long hours, and college tournament hosts who cared a lot about the tournament as a tournament, not a concessions opportunity, has stirred up a lot of thoughts about the process and place of tournaments. More to come.