Yale IV II: The Saturday Slog

In high school land, we’ve been using TRPC for well over a decade to run tournaments, and tabroom.com for nearly as long to run speech tournaments.  However, there are plenty of us who still know how to do things the Old Fashioned Way.  High school coaches have a relatively long tenure in the activity, so most of us still remember the Good Old Days with distaste and bile, when tab rooms required twice as many people and involved a lot of bending over large table filled with rows of index cards.

Occasionally we still use the old card method. When a tournament has very small divisions — fewer than 12 or so students — or your entry is lopsided, with a few large teams making up most of the field, TRPC tends to fail in mild to spectacular ways.   Your pairings are never going to follow all the rules and constraints, and TRPC’s response to that is not to degrade gracefully, but to just give up and leave teams off the schematic.  You can put the teams that were left out back in manually, but at the point when you’re manually re-entering half the field each round, cards are just easier. Manual methods also let you choose which constraints you want to break first, and to be creative in paneling; sometimes it makes sense to panel round 2 in a suboptimal way to pre-empt an even larger problem in round 3.

However, disaster sometimes forces us to break out the index cards, too.  Once at Yale, about 9 or so years ago, an early version of TRPC completely scrambled its own brain between rounds 2 and 3.  The whole thing was irrecoverably lost.  We had printouts of round 1 and 2 results though, and so Tim A and the LDish Yalies created cards, and handled the rest of the tournament on them.  It took a lot of work, but we kept it only an hour behind schedule.  So all in all, it turned into a good war story and a good tournament.

TRPC has grown much more stable since, and the fear of tragedies like that has diminished.  TRPC also gives you tools to manually fix minor corner cases.  However, those tools are mostly useful to people who understand debate tournaments. Understanding tournaments comes from running a few manually, so you know how the computer does what it does, and why.  Otherwise, you’re just entering data and hoping, you’re not actually directing your tournament.   So I’m comfortable using TRPC because I know what it’s doing and that I could do it myself if I had to; and I have nothing on JM:  the good Admiral can practically make TRPC dance jigs and sing opera, because he both understands the software very well, and he understands tournaments themselves just as well.

And of course tabroom.com does whatever I want it to; pairs speech, follows my rules, annoys the Admiral.  That’s the benefit of rolling your own software.  When you get annoyed at something it does, you change it.

However, I’ve been worried about the day when a tournament is run by a staff entirely unfamiliar with manual methods, and which trusts the computer to do all and know all.  That approach will work nearly all of the time.  But it won’t work always, and if it ever doesn’t work, there’s no way to recover from it.

That’s where international debate appears to be stuck.  On Saturday night at the lovely hour of midnight, when we started making cards at the Yale IV, the Worlds folks were astonished by this “crazy, messy system”.  They had no idea how it was done.  It became clear they wouldn’t be able to help much, so we tossed them back into the judging pool; having them judge and me tab was probably the best division of labor for the tournament anyway.  But the card system is actually neither crazy, nor new — and it was very neat and tidy, thank you.  There’s a certain satisfaction having your whole tournament layed out on two tables in neat rows, there for all to see and check.  But our international guests were totally unfamiliar with even the possibility of card tabbing, and didn’t understand what was going on, so to them it was novel.

Making cards in the old days, of course, meant starting days before, and in the later days, printing out labels from Excel.  The local Staples was closed at 11 PM on Friday, amazingly.   Having to do all that manual work after Round 2 was much less fun.  We ended up staying up until 4 AM getting cards and judge cards written, rounds 1 and 2 recorded, and round 3 paired and written up.  I took excuse of advanced age and insomnia, and slept until the end of Round 3 the next morning, which got me about 4 hours of sleep — AC and DD had to wake up for the start of Round 3 at 8:30, which got them a 2 hour nap.  They’re law students, which makes them both more used to it, but also less rested to begin with.

Saturday was a bit foggy for all — exhausted, going through the motions.  The rounds progressed steadily, with longer than usual but not unacceptable delays between them, and we got them all in.  We broke to quarters, and then semis, and finally got the chance to leave and have some pizza and beer and a break from the tab room.  There was a driving rainstorm, but none of us cared much.  My phone was off with a dead battery, my internet largely ignored — it was just one task after the next and get us to the end.  In the end, we kicked finals off at about 10:30 PM.  Such a late start time would have been monstrous to high school debaters and coaches, who would have broken out the pitchforks and torches long ago, but the collegians took it in stride.  I think they regularly have rounds late.

The final of a single-event tournament is a Big Deal.  The four teams in it were the four top seeds, which I gather is about as rare at BP tournaments as it is for us.  Three teams were Canadian: McGill, Hart House (University of Toronto) and Queens.  The Americans were from the University of Alaska, which I gather usually competes in Canada and thus is Canadian by proxy.  I’ll talk about the final itself in the next post about British Parliamentary debate.  But I did watch, and it was entertaining and funny, if not really that serious.

After the final (Hart House won), they had an actual party which actual debaters go to, unlike high school tournaments which sometimes ill-advisedly offer parties and no debaters go to them unless forced.  The important difference is that colleges can offer more interesting beverages than high school tournaments would.  The Yalies then gave me a round of applause and a bottle of a very interesting beverage indeed in thanks for saving the day.  I was a bit spotlighted — AC and DD were at least as critical, probably more, though they did get similar bottles.  But DD and AC are known to that community; I was a total mystery, and had never introduced myself or been introduced.  I got asked by a couple of Canadians who exactly I was — “You seemed to just be there fixing things and carried a lot of authority at the tournament but no one knew who you were.”  Crap, is it that obvious?  Am I permanently unable to just blend in at a tournament setting, even one where I know nearly no one?  Am I going to always be asked when round 3 is going to be posted, even if I’m among complete strangers?  Not a good sign.  They can smell the tab room on me.

I stayed until it was socially acceptable not to, trudged to the hotel room, and fell dead asleep for the next nine hours.  My train was supposed to leave at 6:15 PM on Saturday.  Ha.  So I hitched a ride home Sunday with a very kind MIT debater who is friend to many Yalies.    I sank into my sofa and nearly cried for the joy of it, and watched England host New England in shellacking the Bucs on the tifaux.

Tomorrow:  on the debates themselves.  I did get to see two rounds, a pretty good Round 2, and the final itself.