Maximizing Tournament Experience

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Judging a tournament serves many purposes. One of the most important is self-improvement: improving and extending existing skills. Most skills can only be developed or acquired through judging at tournaments, and require time and effort. But how do you learn from your experiences at each tournament? How does each event help you improve and how can you learn the most from each?

George Michelogiannakis, Level 3

Learning from your experiences is not as easy as it sounds. To maximize your learning you need to know your own weaknesses and you need to plan and prepare before each event. Part of this planning is the definition of goals. What areas are you trying to strengthen? What judging skills would you like to hone? Each judge should have at least one goal for every event, whether it’s head judging a GPT successfully or being able to post pairings properly. Having a goal also keeps your interest high during the event.

Not all tournaments offer the same learning opportunities: try leading a team at an FNM! This makes some of them, usually PTs and GPs, infrequent and valuable. It is important to receive the maximum benefit from them. This article aims to assist judges in speeding up their skill development and progress within the judge certification program.

We will examine a few practices useful for learning the most from your experiences and pursuing more experiences at each event. You may have already encountered some of the techniques below, as many are common practice at PTs and some GPs.

Here are a few things you can do to maximize your tournament experience:

  • Develop goals
  • Practice shadowing
  • Learn Through Observation
  • Participate in discussions
  • Solicit feedback
  • Learn to handle mistakes
  • Apply what you learn

Develop Goals

Before each tournament, take a few moments to write down a few goals you would like to accomplish during that tournament. These goals can be seemingly minor; such as finally mastering the result slip cut machine, or more important; such as improving your mentoring and review skills. It is also a good idea to make these goals attainable. This will help prevent you from being overwhelmed and disappointed for missing out on your goals. Try to limit your list to no more than five goals, otherwise you might find yourself overwhelmed and unfocused. Forming goals requires a considerable amount of self-knowledge, as you need to have an understanding, and acceptance, of what your weaknesses are. Before writing down your goals it is a good idea to evaluate yourself to determine where you stand. This evaluation can be a thorough analysis in all relevant skills or it can simply be an analysis based upon the requirements of the next and current level.

After recording your goals, you should write down how you plan to achieve each one. This can include what activities you would like to be involved in, what roles you would like to assume, and how you will actively pursue achieving the goal. In any case, you should write down an action plan for each goal. This will enable you to have a clear picture of what you are going to do at the tournament. This may require the assistance of another judge with whom you can discuss your ideas and concerns and ask for assistance. Even if you are satisfied with your goals and ideas on how to work on them, it will be beneficial to have a second opinion. Do not hesitate to ask other judges for assistance if you are having difficulty framing your goals.

Practice Shadowing

Whenever a floor judge responds to a call, the next nearest judge should follow. The second judge, or "shadowing judge," should keep enough distance so that it is clear that the other judge is responsible for the ruling. The shadowing judge’s function is to observe the responding judge making the ruling and learn by observing a different judge’s methods. The shadowing judge should not interfere with the ruling unless the responding judge wishes to consult the shadowing judge away from the table. If any of the players ask about the shadowing judge, either of the judges should reply that the shadowing judge is there to learn. After the ruling, the two judges should discuss the ruling and exchange opinions and thoughts about it.

Shadowing enables you to observe other judges investigating what happened at a table, interacting with players, and communicating their ruling. Regardless of your and that judge’s experience, use this opportunity to learn from another person’s approach by comparing it to yours, weighing the advantages and disadvantages, and also comparing the effectiveness as shown by the players’ responses. During the post-ruling discussion, compare that judge’s approach with what you would have done and get that judge’s opinion. If your ruling would have been slightly different try to discuss that and understand the other judge’s reasoning.

Although you could shadow other judges when making rulings without prior communication, it would be best if shadowing was and explained by the head judge during the pre-event briefing. Not only will this ensure that every judge is participating in shadowing, but it will allow players to see that every judge observes other judges and not just you. The latter could give an incorrect impression of your role at the event.

Learn Through Observation

Another way to improve is by observing other judges; especially the ones performing duties you would like to have someday. Make sure that this does not distract you from your own role and responsibilities and is at all times a secondary task. Observation can be helpful for discovering new approaches and techniques and for reassuring your own skills.

You can learn a lot by observing other judges. Regardless of your level and experience, every other judge has something you can learn. As explained by John Carter (L4 judge and Judge Center Content Manager), “The moment I believe that an L0 or L1 can’t teach me anything is the last moment before the decline.” If the judge you are observing is more experienced than you, consider how they decided that particular course of action and draw your own conclusions. As always, you are encouraged discuss your observations with that judge.

Participate In Discussions

You might be surprised at how many interesting discussions you can have with all the different judges at each tournament. Each one of them has a different perspective or experience to share. These discussions could be introduced by any judge, and relate to any situation: past, current, or future. They can take place before, during, or after the tournament: in teams meetings or privately. However, do not let yourselves be distracted from the tournament or form “zebra herds” if you choose to discuss during the tournament. These also excellent socialization opportunities, which is one of the things I like most about international tournaments. Some of the best discussions I have had were in a bar or restaurant after the tournament with a group of judges.

Sample discussion topics you can bring up include: controversial rulings, a tricky rules question, handling upset players, the best way to check a deck, pre-tournament announcements, or anything else you are unsure or would like another opinion about. It would be beneficial if you took some time to write down such topics before the tournament to counter effects from forgetful memories.

Discussion also includes participation in seminar. They are a rare resource of knowledge and insight from experienced judges on various topics. Seminars are usually held at PTs and sometimes at GPs. However, you can always ask your local experienced judges if they could lead a seminar at a local event.

Solicit Feedback

As you might have anticipated, receiving feedback is important for identifying your weaknesses and setting a path for improvement. Feedback is an important part of the judge certification program and will play a large role in your development and advancement. The best way to receive constructive feedback is to sit down with a few of your fellow judges and discuss your performance. A key to making this work is to let these judges know before the event that you are interested in receiving feedback. This way, they can pay more attention to your performance. Ask for ways to improve. If the reviewer is more experienced than you, also ask what the next step for you is. You could also suggest that the other judge (reviewer) could enter a review for you on the Judge Center. For more information on feedback and reviews, read “Reviews that Work.”

Handle Mistakes

As a judge, you will make mistakes. Everyone, no matter how hard they try to avoid this, eventually messes up and makes an incorrect or suboptimal ruling. They also, eventually, mess up again. The sooner you accept this, the better. The tendency to put mess up is decreased with experience. Knowing how to handle a mistake and take full advantage of it is hard.

What must you do in such a case? Your first action should be to confront the players and fix the situation if possible. If it is not, honestly explain to them what happened, what mistake you made, and what would have been the correct course of action. This will probably result in at least one of them being rightfully unhappy. Unfortunately, there is nothing that can be done to fix the error. This explanation will ensure those players do not expect the incorrect ruling from another judge in the future. It will also (in the long run) increase the player’s trust in you because now they know that you will tell them if you make a mistake.

After trying to minimize the impact, it is time to determine what went wrong and how the error can be avoided in the future. Opinions of the involved players or other judges can be helpful for this. For example, in the case of a rules error, the course of action is to refresh your knowledge of that particular section of rules or mechanic. If it was a non-rules error, you should reconsider how you perform investigation on a table, balance the different factors, and hand out a penalty by applying the penalty guidelines. If you think you let a cheater get away, consider how you could have better investigated the situation.

I know I have made my share of mistakes. I also know that each one of them has made me better. I can recall a few occasions where I did not handle a ruling well and also others where I thought I knew the answer to a rules question but did not. If you do not let each mistake get you down and always do your best to avoid errors, you are left with the benefits such an experience can bring.

Apply What You Learn

Lastly, do not forget to take any applicable techniques learned at an international tournament back home and to apply at your local tournaments. International tournaments are a great resource of learning how the most experienced judges organize tournaments and handle rulings. What you learned at those events can be used to make your life easier at your own tournaments. Familiarize yourself, and your players, with the techniques they will encounter if they travel to another area.

For example: at GP Lisbon we performed an extra check after deck registration but before deck construction (as the limited decks were being swapped). This check was made by the person sitting opposite each player and had the sole purpose of cross checking the deck contents against the registered cards on the list. At that GP, but also at subsequent limited PTQs, I have been applying it. It prevented approximately half of the deck registration errors that would otherwise have slowed down the event. Moreover, the judges at those PTQs also picked up this technique and use it at their own tournaments when possible.

Lessons Learned

After the tournament is over it is important to review what happened. Did you follow your action plan and achieve your goals? Take the time to evaluate your progress in each of these goals after the tournament and identify any improvement that was made but also what work has yet to be done. You should get an idea of where you were before the tournament, where you are now, and where you would like to be. One important part of this step is comparing the goals you wrote down and conclusions you drew on your own regarding yourself with the feedback received from fellow judges. This will help you to know if the image you have of yourself is the right one. You will also know if the impression that you think you give to other judges is the one they actually perceive. You can enter a post-event self-evaluation of yourself into the Judge Center in order to help you track your progress and your success at reaching your pre-event goals.

Some of the points I’ve discussed above may seem obvious at first. Using them will make a difference in the long run. The goal you are trying to achieve is to make every single tournament useful and not just “another tournament” that has nothing to offer you. With the proper preparation and focus during the tournament, you will surprise yourself with what a difference you can make.

I owe much of my progress to applying the above techniques to my judging, and I hope you will find them helpful too.

George Michelogiannakis, Greece, L3

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