Never Tell Me The Odds

Hang around enough at tournaments and you’ll notice that debaters often complain about the bad luck they encounter during certain rounds. That they were on the wrong side of the motion, they had atrocious judges, a really tough draw - basically a plethora of reasons explaining losses or poor performances. We all know luck can play a role in debating and there are some situations where it was nigh impossible to get the win. The question then is, how big of a role does it have, and are there ways to minimise the impact of luck? Why do some debaters seem impervious to tough situations and perform so much more consistently, and why do others swing wildly in terms of performance, even though both these groups of debaters appear to be roughly equal in terms of ability?

In order to understand this phenomenon we’re going to use another competitive sport, poker (specifically one of the most popular variant Texas Hold 'em), as an analogy. Yes poker is a competitive sport, where skill matters and better players often are rewarded for good play. It’s also why there are structured tournaments all over the world, as opposed to something like blackjack and roulette. However, because it is a game with random outcomes and combinations of cards, luck or more specifically variance, is an important part of the game, and good poker players take it into account in order to better make decisions.

What does variance actually mean in the context of poker? If you have the strongest possible starting hand, a pair of Aces, you have an 85% chance of winning against another person with any random 2 cards. While this means you should win 85% of the time, or roughly 4 times out of 5, it is possible to win less than that, or to not win at all if you were to play just 5 hands (statistically improbable, but not impossible). But play enough hands, and it should average out.

The problem is that the human mind notices bad luck far more often than it notices good luck. So even though you know that a pair of Aces will not win every single time, you are more likely to attribute every loss with that hand to bad luck rather than your actual play. The truth is, your opponent always had a chance of beating you, and that chance could have been increased with poor play.

Good poker players then follow a few simple rules to maintain their win rate

1. Acknowledge that variance is part of the game, but skill matters the most.
2. Try to minimise the impact of variance.
3. Acknowledge that bad beats (where you have strong cards, your opponent makes a bad play but still wins in the end) do occur, but making it a point to see how those bad beats could have been avoided or the impact of those bad beats minimised
4. Accept bad beats as part of the game.

How then does variance manifest in debating? The rules of debate remain the same, but the game always changes because of the circumstances of each round.

Who they are, which circuit they are from, what arguments they are likely to appreciate, what styles they find persuasive, what is their mental state, are they paying close enough attention, can they understand you/your accent.

What sort of decisions they will make, what cases they will run, how experienced/strong they are, how will they react to your own case.

What type of motions you got, whether you are aware of the issues, how the motions are phrased, how they are balanced, whether you are on the ‘right side’ of the motion if they aren’t balanced, whether the arguments are intuitive for you, whether you happened to have done this motion before, have your opponents practiced this motion before.

Their experience level, how well they work together with you in prep/during the debate, their mental state.

Your own mental state, your ability to generate arguments, remember information, remember past cases, react and rebut to opponents.

I think you get the idea.

You can be dealt any combination of cards and your opponents can react in a number of ways, and the circumstances will limit or enable different options. That’s what makes debating so difficult, but at the same time allows even the biggest underdog to pull off upset victories. Read more about it how to beat anyone here.

Remember when I was talking about the human mind being pessimistic earlier? In debating, people think they win because of skill and lose because of luck. “Oh I didn’t deserve to lose, my opponents were bad, the judge just gave them the win because they are dumb.” When you make the finals for the first time you think it’s because you’ve improved massively, without acknowledging the favourable circumstances that allowed you to be in that position. To be clear, this does not mean that every loss is deserved, or every deep run in a tournament is a complete fluke. However, taking a simplistic view of the situation without breaking down every round in the tournament and all the variables that led to specific results will end up doing you far more damage in the long term. I’ve seen debaters have streaks of incredible success very early on, only to be frustrated later by mediocre results. They then are stuck in the trap of trying to meet their own unrealistic expectations. The reverse is true when debaters lose. It becomes all too easy to blame external circumstances with every loss, blinding them from identifying key areas of improvement.

So how can we apply the lessons learnt in poker to debating?

First off, recognise that the randomness in each debate round is part of the game. The way variance works is that across a high enough sample size, everyone will fall victim to it. That’s why nobody has a 100% win rate in debating. It’s practically impossible to do so. There’s just no point whining about it.

Second, focus on distilling every single variable and figuring out what is within your control and what isn’t. Because you already recognise that variance exists, this gives you an edge. You are now able to differentiate between true random results,and things that were actually within your locus of control. Don’t get me wrong, there sometimes are unwinnable positions, but the biggest problem is that people often think their position was unwinnable when it wasn’t. There is actually a difference between unwinnable and unfavourable, and if you want further reading about what to do in unfavourable situations, click here. There will be future articles on specific situations but here are a few examples. For example, if you happen to get a judge that you think is bad, there are often ways to appeal to those judges as well. Even the worst of judges tend to adjudicate debates fairly consistently and if you can figure out what they appreciate in a debate, you can increase your odds of success.

While you have really tough draws/luck make it a point to see about how those bad beats could have been minimised. I recently attended a tournament where I thought almost all the motions were atrocious. I often had no idea what the debate was about (because they rarely were about real world issues) but I tried not to let it get in the way of my performance. The end result was a decent performance in the the preliminary rounds, but I did lose early in the break rounds. Even though I hated the position I was put in during the round I lost, I still made it a point to break down every single thing I could have done to because it will undoubtedly come up again. The key lesson is to take into account the multitude of variables to make the most of any and every situation. The best debaters are always able to do this.

Sometimes, the hand you were dealt was just complete garbage, but you wonder whether you should pull the trigger to get the best possible outcome, or should you cut your losses. In poker, you might choose a spot to put all your chips in the middle on a bluff, because there simply was no other way to win. Similar situations present themselves in debating too. For example in the ABP 2017 finals, on the motion This house believes that countries whose main language is not English, should adopt English as the main language of politics, academia, and commerce, IIUM in closing opposition ran an extreme extension about rejecting the language of historical oppressors. It was a huge gamble, either get they would get the 1st, or they were clearly out of the debate. Knowing what is a risky move, allows you to choose spots to take a calculated risks because you can evaluate your options. It’s probably a move they wouldn’t have made in earlier rounds in the tournament, but in the finals, with 3 other good teams, and needing that 1st to win it all, it was an admirable gamble (I’m not actually sure whether they made the conscious decision to run a crazy extension or they just do this all the time, but I’m going to assume it was a calculated move).

Just because there are so many variables in debating, it does not mean your win rate has to be affected as a result of it. Break every aspect of every round down, think about what you can control and what you can’t. And remember, it’s not the hand you’re dealt, but how you play your cards.

Becoming Super Saiyan

Andre BP (Krabi ABP 2017)