Monday, March 31, 2014

GP Richmond and the Pink Paper Team Part 2

Last time, I started my diatribe on how to run a good Paper Team and made it all the way through... posting pairings. It turns out there is a lot to the subtle art of traffic control. Yes, part of this is on the TO to rest a sufficient space for the expected number of players and lay out the tables in a manner that helps. I've actually given some thought to whether it is better for the tables to arranged vertically or horizontally relative to the main event stage area and/or pairings boards. I don't have a definitive answer on this, but if you've got some theories, I would love to hear them.

Moving on to the next task for a Paper Team, the cutting of match result slips. Just as with pairings, it's important to start pulling these off the printer as early as possible. In Round 4 of the GP, it took 3 minutes and 25 seconds to print all of the match result slips. This is with SCG's super fast tower-style printer, probably one of the fastest I've seen in use at a Magic event. The average box-style printer will be a little slower still. Point being, waiting until all of the slips are printed for a GP-sized event will take several minutes, and those are minutes that could be spent cutting an early batch of slips.

Recently (at least in the United States), the GP kit has featured a massive paper cutter that can only be adequately defined as a guillotine. I'm not sure what the upper limit of this paper cutter is, but I've heard tales that it can slice all the way through an entire round's stack of slips. Even so, it's probably best to cut half of the slips at a time. The sooner you cut at least that much, the sooner you can get to passing them out. Why such a hurry on passing out the slips? It's not like any matches will finish that quickly. Two reasons: first, getting the slips out quickly allows the players to verify if they are at the correct table. Ideally, we'd like to have the slips out before the round clock starts so that players who do find themselves in the wrong seat can work on fixing this problem before they are subject to Tardiness penalties. The second reason to get slips out before the round starts is so that judges will have an easier time recording said Tardiness penalties. Without result slips out, judges need to resort to various triage techniques like writing down the table numbers with all of the Tardy players or telling the opponent to call a judge if the opponent shows up or the clock hits 40:00. These methods are fine in practice, but there are various things that can go wrong, and the best way is to have the slip available to record the penalty. For GPs, it's probably not realistic to have all of the slips out before the round begins, but for smaller events, this should be a top priority for the Paper Team.

In the Pink Ballroom, we didn't have one of the new super guillotines. I imagine those were in use downstairs in either the Green or Blue split (or both if they were running concurrently). Instead, we had 2 of the basic plastic cutters. These are, quite frankly, sub par. They can only cut 10-12 pages at a time. However, having 2 of them allowed us to form an assembly line of sorts. One judge would stand by the printer and pull off pages of slips 10-12 at a time and put them in piles by the paper cutters (which we placed right next to the printer). Then 2 judges would take those piles and go to work on cutting them. A final judge (or 2 depending) would take the cut slips from both cutters and consolidate them back into ordered piles.

This last part of the process is very important any time you have a sufficiently large tournament that requires you to cut the slips in sections. Normally match result slips are printed "for cut machine" which means that table #1 is on the first page, table #2 is on the second page, and so forth. This is repeated for each of the 4 rows. If you have 100 tables, your first page might have tables 1, 26, 51, and 76. This is so that when you cut the slips starting at the bottom of the page, the third section will naturally fall onto the 4th and the numbers will be continuous throughout. However, once you start dividing up your pile of pages, this all falls apart and you need to set aside each section to consolidate with the other sections in that particular row.

In Richmond, it took us one round to get this right; the way we were consolidating worked out better to put the slips face down so that the next section could be laid directly on top of it. Once we did get the proper method down, things really took off in the cutting department, but we still weren't getting the slips out fast enough. One of the earlier rounds we almost didn't get them all out by the 40:00 mark, which is really bad for all of the reasons I stated above. It turns out that 6 or 7 judges isn't enough manpower to distribute 700+ slips in a timely fashion. This is especially true if any of those judges gets stopped during their task to answer a call. When I'm handing out slips and a judge calls goes up in my row, I'll always look around and see if I can flag down someone else to take it. If you're not assigned to anything specific at the beginning of the round, keep your eye on the judges distributing slips and either run interference for them, or if they do take a call, swoop in and take their slips to continue distribution. To alleviate the distribution problem, Ryan Stapleton made 2 judges from his team available to me at the start of each round to assist with slip distribution. I was grateful for the help. It's always nice when other teams chip in at times like this.

One final thing. As part of the Paper Team's duties, I emphasized taking good care of our Scorekeeper, Kali Anderson. having done plenty of scorekeeping, I know just how integral this position is to a well-run tournament. And yet so often judges ignore the Scorekeeper unless they absolutely need something. There are a couple of things that judges can do to help, and they are generally very simple. First, be a blocker. The SK is often the most visible person on the stage because they sit there at the corner where the match result slips are turned in, and the Head Judge tends to wander away from the stage for things like appeals. This means that players will bother the SK constantly with questions that range from "Where are Side Events?" to "How do I drop?" and everything in between. The SK doesn't need to be the one to answer all of these questions. This is where a blocker judge can be invaluable. Just stand in front of the SK and answer questions. Direct traffic. Just make sure not to block the result slip box.

Oh, and while you're standing there, go ahead and sort some slips for the SK. This doesn't mean putting them all in numerical order. Take the slips that are coming in and make them face the same way. See, slips tend to get turned into the basket/box facing up, down, upside down, and folded in half. Fixing all of these issues eats up valuable time for the SK and if you as a blocker judge can do that instead, your SK will be eternally grateful. On that front, I also came up with a new invention called "the Wedge." It is... exactly what it sounds like, just a simple wedge that goes under the results box to prop it up at a 45 degree angle. This has the interesting effect of making people not turn their slips in facing every which way because they can see the previous slip in the basket and will orient their slip in the same way. The angle also utilizes gravity to pull the slips down towards the bottom. The use of the wedge actually greatly reduced the need for a blocker judge at this event and I encourage all SKs to utilize this simple yet effective technology. The final thing that we did for Kali was to have at least one judge helping her to sort all of the entered result slips at the end of the round.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

1000 Miles - Week 10-12 Update

Week 10
Tuesday: 6.2 miles
Wednesday: 6.5 miles
Week Total: 12.7 miles
Year Total: 191.5 miles

Week 11
No miles
Year Total: 191.5 miles

Week 11 was rather unfortunate. As my weeks start on Thursday, I had no time before taking an early flight out to GP Buenos Aires. Our flight was scheduled to get back on Tuesday afternoon, so there was the hope that I would have Tuesday and Wednesday to get some running in for the week. Then our flight got cancelled and we didn't make it back until Wednesday afternoon.

Week 12
Thursday: 3.5 miles
Sunday: 6.5 miles
Monday: 6.0 miles
Wednesday: 9.8 miles
Week Total: 25.8 miles
Year Total: 217.3 miles

Passed the 200 mile mark, but I'm a little behind schedule for 1000 miles. This was a good catch up week though, and I should be able to add a significant number this week since I'll be at home all weekend for the first time since February.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

GP Richmond and the Pink Paper Team

Last time out, I discussed some of my social anxieties tied to this mega-sized Grand Prix Richmond. I reached out to Event Manager Jared Sylva and Head Judge Jason Lems independently, explaining my issues. I don't know how much was due to this, but when staff assignments came out, I was in the Ballroom, which later became known as the Pink Split/Room, because our Scorekeeper was Kali Anderson and she procured pink paper to run the event on.

A side note, when a GP is split, it is customary to have different colored paper for each event so things like match result slips don't end up going to the wrong Scorekeeper. This was less relevant to the Pink Room because the Ballroom was in a completely separate part of the Convention Center from the Blue and Green Splits. This made for a much more comfortable event for everyone involved. We didn't have the added distractions of coverage, feature matches, vendors, side events and the associated mass of humanity. We just had a 1600-player tournament. This made things a lot easier on me from an anxiety standpoint, and it was great for the judges and players as well. We even had carpeted floors. All of the feedback I've heard about the Pink Room has been positive.

But a nice room alone isn't enough to deliver a great experience for players. When I spoke to the Paper Team, I made it clear that we were the team that had the most real impact on how fast the tournament finished, something that Head Judges love to emphasize. Sure, time extensions from deck checks could spill over and make for a long round turnover, but whether they did or not was largely a matter of luck. The Paper Team is directly responsible for additional time burned during what Nick Fang describes as the Prep portion of a round here. Paragraph break for emphasis time.

The longer it takes to get the pairings from the printer to the pairings board is time that you, the Paper Team, are exclusively costing everyone in the tournament.

There are a couple of things you can to do get back this time. Even if each of these actions only saves seconds on its own, that's seconds per action over multiple rounds, potential minutes that you can save 1600 players and 30 judges. Isn't it worth that extra effort?
1) start taking pages off of the printer as soon as they start printing. Do not wait for an entire set to finish printing. Most large tournaments will have multiple letter ranges and each range could have multiple pages. It takes time to collate and divide these pages among your team members, so the sooner you start taking pages off of the printer, the sooner you can get to that task.
2) have tape prepped. The easiest way to do this is to have tape prepped at each pairings board. I recommend doing this when you take down the pairings in the previous round. (You should be doing this because it takes time to take down old pairings and put up new ones at the same time. Leaving old pairings up too long can also lead to player confusion.) One innovation that someone suggested at GP Richmond (at least this was the first time I had seen this--and I apologize for not remembering who suggested this) was to have reusable tape loops. This solved the twin problems of tape ripping off when you take down old pairings and having ugly pieces of tape lining the sides of the pairing board in preparation for the next round. The tape loop is simple. You attach the piece to your surface as normal, but at the bottom you loop it so that it adheres to itself, leaving you with a non-sticky loop or tab. You can then lift that tab until some of the adhesive portion is exposed, and slide the piece of paper under it and attach the tape to it.
3) walk fast. Judges are advised to not run on the floor. It looks unprofessional. It is dangerous. However, as I told the Pink Paper Team, when you have pairings in hand is the fastest you should be walking in your judging career. Those seconds matter. And the effort you display to the players matters. You want to be seen hurrying with the pairings because...
4) get players out of your way. Use your judge voice to announce that you are coming through with the pairings. They will move out of the way for you. One surprising thing I found at Richmond. They will even help you put up the pairings. I was having a little trouble with the tape and a player reached out to help me. They just want to find their table number and get to their seat. If you need help to make this happen, they will give it to you, and in the future I'm thinking of being a little more proactive in asking for their help.

Another important factor in saving time is traffic flow. This is all about the room layout and the positioning of the pairings boards. One mistake I see Paper Teams make is automatically placing the boards in alphabetical order clockwise around the room no matter what (because we read from left to right and the letter ranges are displayed this way (A-B, C-F, etc). Why does this matter? It may not necessarily match the way that players are seated for Player Meeting, which is seated alphabetically from Table 1. In the Pink Room, Table 1 was to the right if you were standing on the stage and the tournament expanded to the left. If you place the pairings boards in alphabetical order starting on from the left of the stage going clockwise, you are created an unnatural traffic flow for that alphabetical seating. The A-B name range has to walk to the left to find their seat, then travel all the way to the right to their table. at the opposite end of the alphabet, T-Z will go to the right to check their seating and go back all the way to the left for their table. Hey, at least the middle of the alphabet won't have to go far. :(

This is terrible. Not only are you forcing the 2 ends to walk the maximum distance, they have to cross each other in the middle, leading to a traffic jam in the middle.

There are other factors that can lead to traffic jams. One classic one is space around the pairings boards. For the Pink Ballroom, the entire floor plan inside was taken up by the tables and chairs for matches, plus the main stage and single dealer booth (a small ad hoc one in the corner). If we had chosen to place the pairings boards inside the Ballroom, they would have been up against walls and the distance between them and the tables would have been far too narrow. You need to allocate enough room around pairings boards to allow people to both come and go, keeping in mind that up to several hundred people may need to access each board. Unfortunately, Magic players haven't acquired any kind of sensible etiquette like "enter from the right, exit from the left." Perhaps there's a social engineering opportunity there.

Due to the lack of space in the room, we placed the boards outside the Ballroom in the lobby area. At first, we had all 6 boards in the main lobby. The Ballroom was rectangular in shape with 4 sets of double doors as entrances from the lobby on the long side of the rectangle. The main stage was on the opposite long side. Again, this meant a long walk from printer to boards, making speed of the essence.

But wait. After placing the 6 boards in the main lobby, I began to worry about the traffic through those 4 double doors. As with space around boards, doors can be a serious impediment to traffic, especially because players do not follow any orderly traffic pattern as a norm and will just try to walk through each other going both ways. 4 double doors for 6 boards seemed low. I spoke with a few of my team members about my concern and they agreed with me. We noticed that there was a set of double doors on each of the short sides of the room. They were closed, but we confirmed that they could be opened and did so, placing the A-B and T-Z boards at the appropriate sides to match the numbering layout (counter-clockwise).

It's important when doing any job not to get married to the plan just because it is the plan. Flexibility, especially in light of actual logistical issues is important. It would have been a simple matter to stick to the plan of all 6 boards beyond the 4 main doors. Looking back at the way that traffic ended up flowing just with the 4 remaining boards in the center, this clearly would have been awful, and I'm glad that we made the adjustment.

Speaking of adjustments, it's important to watch the actual flow once players start moving and see if you can identify any problems with it. Theory is all good in... theory, but what matters most is what actually happens. In our case, we immediately noticed that the P-S board was taking a considerably longer time to clear and get seated. We went out in the lobby to examine the issue and discovered that the problem was that the P-S board was standing right next to an ill-placed pillar. This caused awkward in-out traffic flow issues since players couldn't use the pillar side of the board, essentially cutting the traffic capacity of the board in half. We moved the board away from the pillar. Even though it meant a longer walk from the Ballroom, getting the traffic flowing better meant that it kept up with the other boards.

Speaking of traffic flow at the pairings boards, we were lucky to have the new double-sided zip banners. This meant that we could put pairings on each side of the banner, doubling our capacity per board. Frankly, even without the double-sided banners, I would have probably put a second set of pairings on the backside anyway. When you're dealing with 1600 players, you have to do everything you can to divide people up into smaller chunks for the process of seating. Twitter pairings are a great innovation for this, but the buy-in has been slow and being dependent on Convention Center WiFi or having their concrete bunkers block signals has caused issues at more than one location. I briefly considered putting up a third set of pairings somewhere, but couldn't find a sufficient location that would reduce the stress on the existing traffic points or not cause other logistical issues to crop up. My understanding is that the Blue and Green Events (running together in the main hall) only had 1 set of pairings each at the start of the day for about 1300 players apiece. That's certainly one among many reasons why we finished so much faster.

I tracked the amount of time it took from when the printer started printing pairings to when the round started for our event. As I said, this is time that we the Paper Team cost everyone between just getting pairings collated and posted, and traffic issues. Some of it is on the players actually getting to their seats quickly, and yet another factor is the Head Judge and his or her willingness to start the round when enough players are seated, absorbing some number of tardies or "you're okay because you were on your way."

In Round 1, the printer to round start turnover was 12 minutes. Part of this is probably a natural player education period. It takes a few rounds for players to get used to the room layout, find good traffic alleys, and learn the general layout of table numbers. (btw, putting up signs or maps with table numbers is another way to potentially cut down on this turnover time.) Part of it was also the Head Judge making a few more announcements. For the rest of the day, the printer to round start turnover averaged under 8 minutes. It wouldn't surprise me if an equal-sized tournament with only one set of pairings took 10-15 minutes on average. Given that, it's likely that the decision to only post one set of pairings initially (my understanding is that this was corrected in either Round 2 or 3) cost those events around 5-10 minutes.

Wow. I've already written quite a bit and I haven't even talked about cutting result slips or how we took care of our Scorekeeper. I guess there's going to be a Part 2 to this episode. Stay tuned because you don't want to miss the greatest innovation in Scorekeeping technology of all time. Before we go, I want to give a huge shout out to the Paper Team, Ward Warren, Rick Salamin, Ben Klein, Jarrod Williams, Xander Forral, and Michael Mills. They bought into my messaging and their experience and willingness to engage me in conversations about how to improve our processes led to a lot of the things I've discussed here. The day was so hectic that I didn't note who said or did what in most cases, but each of you added something important to the team that made it better, and my hope is that future Paper Teams can learn from the example and bar that you set in the Pink Room.

Monday, March 10, 2014

GP Richmond and Social Anxiety

"Never again. #GPRichmond" - me on Twitter

With those words, I began my journey through GP Richmond. Since GPs Charlotte and Las Vegas last year, I've been publicly vocal about my dislike of record-breaking events. I wanted to explain my position because apparently some people think that I hate Magic and want to see it die off or some other nonsense.

First, I am absolutely thrilled by the growth of Magic. For 3 years of my life, I worked at, a job whose life was directly tied to the health and growth of the game. Even after leaving SCG, I judge on a regular basis and hope to land somewhere in the industry where I can make a living off of something related to the game. More players is absolutely a great thing for such a future. I just wish there weren't so many players at any individual event, especially at ones that I am at.

I've commented in the past that I have social anxiety issues related to large crowds of people. I've also commented that Magic tournaments are generally okay because most of the crowds have a purpose and are going somewhere. Events like GP Richmond really break that mold, and I know it, which is why I've tried to duck the record-breakers like Charlotte and Vegas in the past. As the hype on social media started to hit a fever pitch, it really began to tap into my anxiety in a way that I've never experienced before.

As everyone grew excited over the pre-registration numbers, I grew more anxious. It got to the point where I was seriously considering canceling on the event. I wrote a fairly grumpy post about judges and social media, partly because I just wanted to see less of it show up on my feed. Yes, I had other more altruistic goals like being considerate for the judges not on staff, but mostly I just wanted to get my anxiety under control.

When I got to the Greater Richmond Convention Center, things got worse for me. We were there at around 11am, an hour before doors were set to open to the public. Magic players were everywhere. Every seat in the hallway of the GRCC was filled. People were playing games on coffee tables. A group of players was outside smoking. And the line. The line outside the main door to the event hall was already out of control, spilling this way and that.

Seeing that line really set me off and I've been trying to understand why. It was a line with a purpose, to get into the hall, so it should have been similar to a line to board an airplane, which I obviously have no problem with. Being inside the hall helped calm me down, but it was almost as if I could feel the crowd outside, growing larger and more chaotic.

I was hoping that when the doors opened, it would be business as usual, just a bunch of Magic players playing Magic. Unfortunately for me, the Mini-Masters events were a huge cluster-F and didn't help my emotional state. The fact is, this whole Mini-Master thing is still new and we are still trying to figure out the best way to run them. What we did in Richmond wasn't it, and my hope is that we can learn from this experience.

After Friday, things improved for me dramatically. I was in the "Pink Room," which was the third of the tournament in a separate Ballroom. That cut down significantly on the noise and chaos of what we had to deal with. It was "only" a 1600-player event with no other distractions. I can handle that, and handle it I did. More on how I did what I did as Pink Paper Team Lead next time.

In the meantime, I want to thank everyone who reached out to me, remotely or on site, to reassure me that everything would be okay, offer to do stuff for me, or just give me a place to vent my anxiety. Sometimes it wasn't easy to talk about what I was feeling because I didn't want to say "I'm fine" when I wasn't. But I truly appreciate that you were willing to look out for me. I especially want to thank Jared Sylva. He sat down with me on Sunday and asked me what he could do for me in the future for me to be able to attend GP New Jersey. Right now I'm honestly considering never working an SCG GP again because it seems like with their marketing machine, 3000+ will become the norm rather than the exception. But Jared being willing to talk to me about it gives me hope that I may be able to find a way come back. My first suggestion was to sneak me in through the back entrance to avoid seeing the line.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Judging, Social Media, and You (and me, and everyone else)

GP Richmond! OMG! Travel! All the airports!

If you are even relatively tied into the US judge network on Facebook, it's hard to miss the fact that there is a record-breaking event going on this weekend in Richmond. Given the singularity that this event is becoming, and the amount of characters that have been devoted to it on social media, I thought I might share my thoughts on it. Keep in mind that this blog is just the opinion of one man.

The Facebook hype for this event actually started months in advance, as it always does among judges, with the string of "Accepted!" posts. These typically have anywhere from 1 to 5 exclamation points and tag other judges who are also on staff with "see you there" remarks. Here's the thing about your Facebook posts. They go out to everyone on your Friends list (or whatever sub lists you may use). If you've been around, there are probably quite a few judges on your Friends list, including very likely some of the 40+ judges who were declined for GP Richmond. Think about that the next time you decide to post about how happy you are to be selected. They say that judging isn't a competition--wait, who says that--of course it is a competition. It may not be popular or political to call it a competition, but what else do you call something where 150 people wanted something and a third of them didn't get it?

Thinking about it in terms of a competition really changes the frame of reference on all of these "Accepted to Event X" posts. You should also think about your growing list of Judge Friends in several other terms. How many Friends do you have in common? Imagine if every single judge who was selected for GP Richmond posted about it on Facebook? 100 of the same damn message. Now how does the declined judge feel?

As soon as I saw the first Richmond-related post, I posted something along the lines of "Exalt not about being selected for GP Richmond. Instead contemplate how you will make this event a success for the organizer and what you will learn from it." Hopefully as a result of this, there were fewer pure exaltation posts for this event. Is it a sustainable trend? Probably not, because excitement is more prevalent and easier than thoughtfulness.

Judge culture is full of travelers. I know because I'm one of them. And while I didn't invent the culture of frequent flying/judging (Adam Shaw and Nick Fang were my progenitors in this), I've certainly spawned a generation of miles-hounds. I've spoken to many people about this recently, but this culture isn't very healthy. Back when I first started to conquer the globe, I went to "every event," meaning every GP in the US, a few outside, and every PT. That was less than 1 event a month. Nowadays, going to every US GP is a multi-event-per-month slog. Add to that any reasonably close SCG Opens (whatever that means to you), and you have a growing number of judges who might not see their own bed on any weekends. I hope to do some statistical research that shows that jamming so many events in a row is harmful to judge development, the idea being that if you just do events over and over, you aren't spending enough time feedbacking, reflecting, and growing.

The social media aspect of all of these events is that there are more posts than ever about them all. Accepted to GP X, judging SCG Y, and on and on. If you are Friends with a modest number of judges, you know this feeling. I guess it is the whole point of social media to post about stuff you are doing, but just like that era where people were posting a little too much about every meal they were eating, perhaps we as a community are reaching a critical mass of this kind of thing. Singularity events like GP Richmond highlight this issue in the worst possible way, where every other post is GP Richmond this and GP Richmond that.

Yes, we get it. You are a unique flower and the center of your universe. It's just that there are 100 other unique flowers also going to this event who are also posting about it. And it's not even just about the 40 declined judges. For every Judge Friend who is going to GP Richmond, you probably 2-10 times as many Judge Friends who are going to Richmond. And to them, your posts are not unique; they are just a cacophony of noise. Less and less these days, I post my event travel updates on Twitter. At least those people have opted in to getting my unique flower messages by following me. And if they don't like my unique flower messages, they can opt out easily. Facebook is more complicated because of their marketing of this idea of "Friends." It's such a loaded word, and I've participated in plenty of drama over the act of defriending.

Earlier today Bryan Prillaman posted "I don't care how you are getting to Richmond." And he's actually on this event! Several other people have been posting messages about not going to GP Richmond (and being happy/content with that). It's a general shift away from GP Las Vegas last year, when people not on the event were generally jealous of those there and wishing they were there. As with many things, this is just the beginning and it's only going to get worse. Let's end with some traditional bullet points:
1) consider getting a Twitter account and using that more for event postings. It's a better "buy in" medium for this kind of thing.
2) if you must post to Facebook, think about your audience of Friends. What do you want to say to them? What will they think of what you are posting?
3) ultimately, it's your Wall. Do what you want with it. If posting pictures of airports and planes makes you happy, do it. If posting your travel itinerary makes you happy, do it. I'm just a grump, sitting here being grumpy, telling you what a growing number of grumps are thinking but not saying. But that shouldn't impinge on your happiness.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

1000 Miles - Week 7-9

Week 7
Friday: 7.5 miles
Monday: 3.1 miles
Tuesday: 7.5 miles
Week Total: 18.1 miles
Year Total: 151.7 miles

Week 8
Thursday: 5.1 miles
Monday: 3.1 miles
Tuesday: 9.5 miles
Week Total: 17.7 miles
Year Total: 169.4 miles

Week 9
Tuesday: 3.2 miles
Wednesday: 6.2 miles
Week Total: 9.4 miles
Year Total: 178.8 miles

Monday, March 3, 2014

SCG St. Louis and Customer Service

Customer service is a big part of judging, some might say the biggest part, but what does it really mean to give good customer service? I think most people see judging and customer service as a reactive thing. We don't get involved in a match until the players call us over. Once they do, the customer service kicks in, but how? Get the ruling right, do it quickly, and do it with a smile. Is that all we can do?

Obviously I say no. As a judge, part of good customer service is recognizing when players are having a bad experience and taking the time to talk to them about it. My first example of this is from the Round 1 feature match between Chris Van Meter and Gregg Diekhaus. Chris wrote about his account of that game in his article here and you can watch the video here. The short version is that Gregg was a very new (or old and returning) player who got thrown into a feature match because he was paired against a name player. This wasn't an ideal situation, as his lack of experience combined with the bright lights led to him play slowly. These things can happen, especially in Round 1. I want to point out that players do have the option of declining a feature, whether it is to hide their tech or because they just aren't comfortable playing under the lights.

I arrived at the match during extra turns and watched Gregg play through some turns slowly enough that I checked the match result slip for a Slow Play Warning. When I didn't see one, I asked Matt, one of the judges in the feature match area, if it had been that way all match, and he indicated that it had. After the match, I also spoke with Nicolette, the spotter judge, about Slow Play. She said that it had been an issue and that she had said something to Gregg several times because Chris had brought it up. No, we shouldn't necessarily cater to one player's opinion of what the pace of play should be, but it can be a good sign that the pace isn't sufficient to finish the match, which is indeed what happened here.

Based on the testimony of the two judges who had been there, it seemed likely to me that Gregg should have gotten a Slow Play Warning at some point during the course of the match and didn't. I told Nicolette as much, and she agreed that she should have pulled the trigger. It's a definite growth area for many judges, and it is even harder when you are working as the coverage spotter, a role that we are trying very hard to divorce from "actual judging" due to the heavy constraints it puts on being able to actually pay attention to the board while you talk back and forth with the coverage director.

If you watched the match, it's plain to see that Chris was quite frustrated to walk away from the match with a draw. Even though he was behind on the board at the conclusion of the match, in an 11-round tournament, a draw in round 1 is pretty close to a loss, and more to the point, it was about how the match played out, with Chris having to play the "bad guy" by prompting Gregg to play faster, and pointing out things like missed triggers on Bident of Thassa. In hindsight, with the ability to watch the replay, Chris does a lot of talking in these situations, where I would prefer a judge to explain the tournament rules at Comp REL and take that "bad guy" burden off of a player's plate.

When Chris sat down for round 2, I sought him out to have a quick chat about the situation. I apologized to him because based on the talks I had with the judges it seemed like a Slow Play Warning was warranted and was not given. This didn't change anything tangible for Chris. He still started off the day with a draw. And looked at objectively, had the Warning been given and Gregg sped up his play, Chris might have lost the match instead.

But feelings matter. By Chris's own admission from his article, he was on tilt after the match, and my main goal was to provide Chris some relief from that. "Sorry" can be a meaningless word when used excessively, but it can be one of the most powerful words when used sparingly in times like this.

My primary regret in exploring this axis of customer service is that I also did not speak with Gregg. He too was likely under some amount of emotional distress after his match. I should have done more to alleviate his tilt as well. I will admit that the reason I didn't think to talk to Gregg was based on my bias of knowing Chris for a couple of years, and seeing and understanding his situation as a competitive player better. It's a flimsy reason upon reflection, but I'm happy that at least my follow up conversation with Chris on the topic yielded good thoughts on being an ambassador to newer players, and Chris's excellent article on the topic.

The issue of potential bias is something that has followed me since my early days as a Judge/Writer when I wrote about my friendship with Luis Scott-Vargas. After getting advice from Seamus Campbell and Sheldon Menery, two senior judges who also had Internet-writing careers at the time, I settled on a philosophy to deal with this. Since it was impossible for me to stop being friends with players (and my circle of friendship among players has grown considerably since then, especially thanks to the SCG Open Series), I would set out to treat all players like my friends.

This philosophy is in action in the other big customer service interaction I want to write about, which happened with a complete stranger. In consecutive rounds, I took complex appeals that took some time to unravel and get the stories straight, and I ultimately upheld rulings that essentially lost the match for one of the players in the match, the same player in both cases. After the second time, I sat down with the player while he de-sideboarded and offered him a handshake. "Hey, I'm sorry that we keep meeting under these circumstances. I'm Riki."

There's that word again, "sorry." Note that I wasn't apologizing for the rulings. In our conversation, I stood by the rulings. It's important not to apologize for things that you aren't sorry about, because that's disingenuous. The player, Kevin, expressed his obvious frustration, and I let him vent that a little, but also told him that I was just trying to do my best to make the correct call based on the information provided to me. In the end, I don't think we were ever going to agree on the ruling itself, but we reached a good point where again, my hope was that Kevin would be able to play on without tilt, and perhaps with some restored faith in judges.

As it turned out, there was another appeal on Kevin's match later in the tournament that went, if not in is favor, at least neutral, and after the match we exchanged a "Hey, that wasn't that bad." We also crossed paths again on Sunday and exchanged pleasantries.

This isn't exactly proactive customer service. It's still in reaction to situations that occur. But it's the type of customer service that many judges don't even think of delivering because it is beyond the scope of a normal ruling. It's important to think about the impact we have on a tournament and on the feelings of players, who are our customers. Even when we do everything by the book, there's always the potential feel-bads, and how we react to, and try to mitigate those feel-bads can make or break someone's tournament experience.