2014 SN Diary: Travel Day, June 20

I’ve set this post to be published at around the time I board my first flight Friday morning. It’s rare for me flying anywhere for fencing besides Portland or Phoenix to get a flight that leaves later than 6:00 am, which means I get up at 2:30 or 3:00 to get myself to the airport in time. I learned long ago not to try to work on my way to tournaments—flights are for traversing the wormhole into the alternate universe of Tournament Time. My main goal is to stay awake long enough to board my flight, and then sleep. If I can’t sleep, I’ll watch the landscape out the window, and if it’s cloudy and I can’t sleep, I’ll resort to a crime novel or science fiction. The point is to avoid anything like reality, because that transition into the unreality of Summer Nationals is an important factor in how I survive it.

Over the last couple of weeks, in addition to working on the BC staff schedule and other SN prep (plus reviewing material for tomorrow’s board meeting), I’ve been creating the beginnings of posts for every day of SN. I think I’ve finally figured out a way to blog SN as it happens that I will be able to keep up with through the ever-increasing cognitive dysfunction.

The pre-written sections are a look at what each day’s competition is expected to look like from my point of view, and includes what I think of as the “big grid” in the strip planning spreadsheet we use. So this post will provide some basics about how that spreadsheet works and how we use it.

Here’s the big overview of a typical competition day:

whole sheet

The big grid on the left is the overall view of strip usage by the half hour through the whole day. The righthand two-thirds are columns for each event. What we do is enter the data for each event in the appropriate columns, and from that the formulas generate the grid view.

Here’s a look at the information on a single event:

eventThe category, sex, weapon, and number of entries are entered in the blue boxes at the top. On the left side of the column, we can enter the time. Traditionally, we enter the time as a half-hour later than close of registration, to allow for the withdrawal of no-shows, resolution of conflicts, and assignment of referees. With the new setup, using the referee auto-assign, we can now start as soon as 5 minutes after close, but we have chosen not to adjust the spreadsheet for that yet, since slight overestimating the time required works in our favor.

Below the number of entries, the worksheet gives us the range for the number of pools possible. For national events, we almost always choose the smallest available number because the rules require maximizing pools at 7 members whenever possible. (Veterans are the one category allowed to have pools of 5 even when larger pools are possible, but we don’t like to do that unless we’re really pressed for time, since the Vets, like most fencers, always like having more bouts.) Also in this section, we can set the promotion rate and whether the pools should be flighted, and the worksheet shows how many strips that will use and how long the pools can be expected to take.

The next section shows the DEs and how many fencers are promoted to that round. After indicating whether there is repechage (always and forever at national events, I hope that box shows “N” because a “Y” means 2-3 hours longer for that event to occupy 8-16 strips than without repechage. Again, we set the number of DE strips and the worksheet shows the time required.

If there is repechage, the next section down shows the strip usage from the round of 32 or 16, as applicable.

Finally, the last section shows the timing for the round of 8. The formulas have not yet been updated to show the effect of replay, so we sometimes bump up the “seeding minutes” between rounds to allow for the extra time replay takes.

What we do when we create the schedules for national events is enter the data for all the events for each day, and then we start playing around with the start times, the number of DE strips, and whether pools need to be flighted in order to make everything fit into the overall day, as shown in the big grid. Sometimes it’s a pretty easy process. Other times, there are long stretches of time filled with exclamations like “Ack!” and “Yikes!” and “Crap, that didn’t help at all!” and “Oops, so not going there!” as we try various options.

Note, by the way, the number in the top upper left of this column of information. That’ll tell you which column in the grid shows this event.

 

Looking at the whole-day picture, we can find additional useful information:

grid

In the main part of the grid, each column represents a single event, with the weapon indicated at the top of the column, and each cell shows how many strips are used during that particular half hour. On this day, there are 5 individual events and 2 team events (those are further to the right, in the “T” columns). So looking at our event from above in column #2, we can see that the pool round will use 22 strips from 8:00 am to 12:30 pm and the DE round will use 16 strips (4 complete pods) from 12:30 pm to about 4:00 pm. The actual time will vary according to how fast the fencers fence and when the complete round of 16 can move over to replay. So the timing shown here for the final rounds will be only an approximation of the eventual reality.

Further to the right are three columns under “Weapon,” which show how many referees are needed in each weapon during any given half hour, and at the bottom, the maximum number required simultaneously.

The last column on the right shows the number of strips in the hall, and further down, ominous red numbers that indicate strip deficits. As a general rule, red numbers here are bad, but some are worse than others. A -1 or -2 when a final of 8 is finishing isn’t really a problem, because by then that 8 is probably in its semis or gold medal bout and not using all 4 of its allotment. And the -17 on this day is what I think of as a squishy negative—many of the 32 DE strips used by the #1 event will already be free as the last few finish up, so not too many of the pools of the afternoon events will need to be delayed. Unless, of course, that #1 event has a major injury or equipment problem that delays the last pool coming in, so that the DEs start late and then finish late, and suddenly we’ve got a competition day that’ll run later than projected.

Down at the bottom left, we can change the times allotted for each kind of bout and match. They’ve been where they are now for the past couple of years. It used to be that foil durations were somewhere between epee and saber, but that changed with the foil timings. It also used to be that saber generally ran faster than projected, and foil and epee more slowly, to the point that if the point weapons finished within an hour after their projected end times, I considered it in good time. Since we’ve started using replay, saber tends to run at or slightly later than projected, and epee often runs as much as an hour ahead. Foil these days consistently runs more slowly than both other weapons, though we haven’t quantified it well enough to change the timings yet.

So that should give you the basics of how to interpret the “how hard was today supposed to be?” grids I’ll be posting throughout SN.

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How Many BC Staff Does It Take To Run a National Fencing Tournament?

I realized from some of the comments on Fencing.net after my Playing With Numbers post that there are still a lot of misconceptions about how the bout committee works. One comment suggested that a more useful statistic than the ones I’d come up with would be the number of bout committee staff per total fencers—that more BC staff would make tournaments easier to run. Another suggested that splitting the hall in half and having two separate BC tables and staffs would ease tournament operations.

Neither is true.

(Don’t think for a minute, though, that we don’t need more BC staff. However, what we need is a larger pool of qualified staff to hire from, not more people up on the platform at any given time. We need more staff so we have time to train current staff to handle jobs like lead computer and BC chair, and time to train new people at the entry level. With more regional tournaments, we need that larger pool to help those organizers staff their events—we ought to have (and are already planning) a BC staff list like the referee list the FOC has on FRED.)

For a typical NAC, we hire a BC chair, a computer lead, three computer operators, and three table staff. If the NAC is very large, as the November and January NACs were this season, we’ll add another table person. If there are many events—say, more than 18 over 4 days, as in March this season, with all those Vet age-levels—we’ll also add a fourth table person. If there are team events, as at JOs or the March NAC, we’ll hire both a fourth table person and a fourth computer operator, because teams are run on a separate computer at a dedicated floor-level team table.

During the week or two before the tournament, the BC chair and computer lead use the strip management spreadsheet (which gives us the number of pools, DE bouts, and estimated times for each round of each event, among other useful information), to plan the staff schedule, which is sent out to all staff a few days before the tournament. Usually, computer staff each day work one computer with all the events in a single weapon. Table staff assignments vary a bit more—one person might work a single huge event, or one morning and one afternoon event, or one morning and several simultaneous small afternoon events.

The BC chair and computer lead normally fly in late Wednesday or early Thursday to be able to work on set-up day at the venue, usually along with a couple of other BC staff whose flights are early enough, unpacking the big black BC crate (just like the ones strips are shipped in). The computers are unpacked and the network set up: there is a master computer and three laptops set up as slaves; if there are team events, another laptop is set up as a team computer for when it will be needed.

(On tournament days, you’ll usually see quite a few more computers up on the platform. Tanya has one with access to Railstation, so she can check (and correct) entries and fencer profiles. The BC chair and computer lead usually bring their own laptops—I use mine to run the strip management spreadsheet for planning throughout the tournament. The head referees often bring their own machines, too. This proliferation of electronics got so bad, what with all the referees who want to charge phones or other devices, too, that this season we seriously upgraded our power strips; the tournament computers are always on a separate circuit from everything else.)

Here’s how an event typically runs:

Before the event closes, the table staff person (we’ve never figured out a good title for this position—event manager? competition coordinator? generic BC person?) retrieves the event sign and bio forms from the event folder, picks a marker color for the event, and stakes out a place at the BC table to hang the sign and set up the table side of the event. At close, she (usually a she, though by no means always) receives the printout of the no-shows from the registration desk and calls them over the PA system. Once that’s done, the list is given to that weapon’s computer operator to withdraw the no-shows, update the seeding list, and create the format sheet.

When the final seeding and format sheet are printed, the operator gives them to the table staff for copying and posting; once it’s posted, she announces that it’s up. Meanwhile, the computer operator sets the pools, checking for unresolved conflicts and that the larger pools are the higher-seeded pools. If solutions to the unresolved conflicts can be found within about 20 minutes, that is done; otherwise, they are left standing as unresolvable. (This process can be far more complicated than it first looks, requiring frequent reference to the seeding list and multiple cascading swaps.) Then a seeded copy of the pools is printed and given to the referee assigner, and a randomized copy of the pools and an alphabetical pool list are given to the table staff. The BC chair, by this point, has informed the table person of the strips her event is assigned to, and those are penciled onto the pool assignment sheet before it is copied and posted. (We prefer to post the seeding and pools separately, especially for point events, in order to allow a bit of time for fencers to verify their final seeding; unfortunately, few take advantage of the opportunity.)

Once the pool and strip assignments are posted and announced, the table person adds the strip numbers to the pool sheets, which she’s already marked with the event color to distinguish from the other events running that day. We usually try to spread any pools of 6 around among the 7s, to allow double-stripping the 7s more easily once the 6s are done. Then, all that’s needed are the referee assignments; some assigners (most, so far this season) are fairly quick at this, while others can take 30–40 minutes to allocate 50 or 60 referees to 30 or 40 pools. On occasion, the referees have not yet finished their morning meeting by the time the BC has events ready to go; some head referees make a point of getting to the platform in plenty of time, while others are not so conscious of the passage of time and therefore get calls from the BC chair asking if they are on their way yet.

When the assigner provides the referee list, the table person adds the referee names to the pool sheets; for a big event, we often split the list, and two or even three people will copy the referee names. Then the referees are called to pick up their sheets, and for the next 5 or 10 minutes, they’ll come in person or call to ask for second calls on fencers who’ve not yet shown up. Once the fencing is underway, the BC staff—both computer and table sides—for this event are free for most of the next 90–150 minutes, depending on the weapon.

What do we do with the free time? Read email and web-surf for those with connected devices, play computer games, read books, knit or cross-stitch, make group coffee runs if there’s a Starbucks or Peet’s in the convention center, shop at the vendors in the hall, work on other fencing matters (check seeding for the next day’s events, create training materials, other projects). Sometimes we even go watch fencing.

Ideally, about halfway through the pools, the table staff will tour the pools to see how many bouts are left on most strips and whether any have fallen significantly behind the rest, in which case, the assigner is informed and extra referees might be sent out to take bouts, if there is an extra strip available. Some assigners—but not all—keep a close watch on their events and handle this themselves. Sometimes, though, head referees get pulled into what we fondly refer to as “Things” (as in, “Sharon got called out to a strip for a Thing”)—requests to observe a particular referee or mediate a rules dispute or see that a black card is handled properly, so it never hurts for the BC to keep an eye on progress, too.

Once the pools start coming in, the table person checks them off on her master sheet and hands them to the computer operator for entry. Once all are entered, the operator prints out the round results, on which the table person draws a line between the ups and outs if there is a cut, and gets it copied, posted, and announced. While that is done, the operator prints the DE tableaux, once with divisions for the assigner and one without for posting. The assigner and the chair have usually already decided on the number of strips to be used for the DEs and how they will be grouped (in pods, in pairs or (preferably not) as singles), so the table person writes the strip assignments on the table and gets it copied, posted, and announced, too.

Meanwhile, back at the computer, the operator prints out the bout slips (at 4 per page, a full 256 table would be 32 pages for the first round alone), marks the sheets with the event color, and slices and sorts the bout slips in stacks for each bracket of the table, the process we refer to as “slicing and dicing.” When the assigner gives her the tableau with the referee assignments, the table person makes two copies and returns the original to the assigner. One set will be used at the table for recording bouts as they come in; the other is split up and given to the assigned referees with the bout slips for that section of the table.

After the slips have been sent out with the referees, the table person organizes her tableau. Most of us lay the pages out vertically in pairs—a table of 128 prints out in four pages, so pages 1 and 2 would be on the left and pages 3 and 4 to the right. The table person then numbers the bouts on the tableau (XSeed puts bout numbers on the bout slips but not on the tableau, so if we want to match them up, we need to do our own numbering) and then sorts the slips for each round into quadrants (or octants, in the case of an 8-page table of 256) so that there’s a stack for each page.

As bouts come in, the table person verifies that the winner is actually the fencer the slip says it is (you’d be amazed at how many fencers sign slips that say their opponent won), records the winner and the score on the paper tableau, writes up the next bout slip if there is one, and stacks the returned bout slips for the computer operator, who usually comes to pick them up more often than the table person gets a chance to take them over to the operator.

Why do we even run the paper tableaux? Why don’t we just enter results directly into the computer? When there are four or five events at once in the same weapon on a single computer, there’s less waiting for the fencers if there are separate lines to turn in bout slips for each event. It’s easier for the computer operator to enter the data accurately if she’s insulated from dealing directly with several hundred fencers. And with all the paper we produce, even marked with its distinguishing colors, it’s easy for bout slips to be misplaced, and the paper tableau gives us an additional record of each bout in such cases, rare though they are.

A table of 128 (or fewer) can be run easily by a single person; using two for an event that size is overkill. Only if we’ve got a BC trainee will we split a 128 table, so they can see how the event is done without it being overwhelming. For a table of 256, it’s nice to have two people for at least the early rounds of the DEs—8 pages of tableau is a bit of a stretch for one person to cover, though it’s nowhere near impossible. Sometimes, if there aren’t too many other things going on, we’ll have a computer operator or a volunteer act as a concierge of sorts, to check fencers’ bout slips as they arrive and direct them to the proper half of the tableau. (For a table of 512, which the BC has done once and hopes never to do again, we’d need at least 3 people—preferably 4—to run the 16 pages of tableau, and a concierge would be a necessity rather than a luxury.)

But those extra bodies are only useful for the first few rounds. From time to time, I’ve run a 256 saber table alone, and it’s always a rather breathless experience getting through the the first few rounds, because the bouts just keep coming and coming. (But it’s fun, too!) Big tableaux in foil and epee are easier to keep up with, because in those, the fencers tend to come in small waves—the bouts are longer and more of them go to time. But by the time any event fences down to the 64, one person is plenty for running the table. Getting the strips and referees assigned for the round of 8 is a snap (though less so than it used to be for events using replay these days); once the fencing is completed, all the table person needs to do is arrange and mark the bio forms according to placement for the medal presentation and then make sure the bio forms are returned to the computer operator for the event folder.

For tournaments with many smaller events (in Detroit we held 44 events), it’s common for a table person to run two or three events simultaneously. When events are only two or three pools, if that, and the DEs fit on a single page, it’s easy to run multiple events as long as each has its own color, and it’s far less stressful than adding extra people to the crowd already on the BC platform.

But what about that idea of having two separate BCs in the same hall? Wouldn’t that solve the crowding problem? I’ll talk about that next time, along with running teams and a few other ideas.

Layout & Strips, Part 4: Pools

From here on, I’m going to be talking mainly about national tournaments, which are different from any other category. Even large sectional championships or regional tournaments like Duel in the Desert or Pomme de Terre have a completely different feel from NACs and SNs. Mostly it’s a matter of scale: the quantitative differences—more days, more entries, more square footage—are big enough to make real qualitative differences. While the general principles are the same for local and regional tournaments, their application varies with the specific venues, events, and entry fields.

So to pools. At national tournaments, the pools for most event categories are maximized to 7. This means that pools always consist of 6 or 7 fencers, except where the number of entries makes that impossible, such as a field of 15, where 3 pools of 5 are allowed, or a field of 9, which is usually run as a single pool on 2 strips. A few categories, such as Veterans, allow pools of 5, 6, or 7, in which case the bout committee may opt to use all pools of 5 and 6 instead of 6 and 7, but more on that later. In any case, the pools should be as evenly divided as possible, and there should never be more than two sizes of pools (except occasionally where an injury or expulsion knocks someone out of one of the smaller pools—always a frustrating occurrence).

Let’s say for our theoretical tournament that we have 40 strips, laid out in 10 pods of 4 strips each, with men’s epee, with 197 entries, and men’s saber, with 93 entries, closing at 8:00 am, and a women’s foil event with 112 entries closing at 10:30 am. We’ll keep it simple—80% promotion rate, no repechage. (I’m saving repechage for a later post.)

Our 197 ME entries give us 23 pools of 7 and 6 pools of 6. We could just put these 23 pools in order on strips 1 through 23, but that would mean that all the pools of 6 would be grouped together. Once they finished, there would still be those other 23 pools working through their bouts, and only a few of them would have one of the now-empty strips from the 6s close enough to use to double-strip.

We could assign the ME pools three to a pod, and put saber pools on the fourth strip in each pod. Since the saber pool will only take about half as long as the epee pools, that fourth strip could be used for epee bouts once the saber is out of the way. But wait, there are only 10 pods, which means that there wouldn’t be enough strips that way for the 14 MS pools (9 of 7 and 5 of 6) that we’ve got—we still need to get 4 more saber pools out. So the MS will have to be flighted.

But what if both flights of saber finish before the epee pools are done? That would mean we’d have to assign the DE bouts for the saber to strips scattered all over the room instead of to adjacent strips, or we’d need to hold the start of the MS DEs until enough adjacent epee pools have finished to give us the 2 pods we’ll need for the saber. Neither of those options is likely to make the saber people happy, especially since they’re already flighted as it is.

Ideally, what we like to do as much as we can, is put pools out on the same strips that each event will use for their DEs. So we’ll put out 7 or 8 pools of the MS on 2 adjacent pods, probably at one end of the room, and the MS will simply stay there on those 8 strips for their DEs, too. With even or almost-even flights like this, it’s not usually worth trying to place 6s next to 7s so the 7s can double-strip when the 6s are done, and since saber runs so relatively quickly, it wouldn’t save all that much time anyway.

(While I like to run events efficiently, I’ve never seen much point to rushing everybody just for the sake of going as fast as we can. On a relatively simple day like this theoretical day, there’s no real need to rush the saber—rushing it would not make the overall day any shorter and there is no other event waiting to use the same strips.)

With the saber pools out on 2 pods, that leaves 8 pods for the ME pools. We could arrange those pools so that 6 of the 8 pods each had one pool of 6, so that once the 6s were done, the extra strip in each pod could be used to help speed up the remaining 3 pools of 7.  We’d then have 3 pools of 7  and 1 empty strip on one of the last 2 pods, and 2 pools of 7 and 2 empty strips on the other. If we’re lucky, the slowest epee pools will occur in the pods with empty strips, but that hardly ever happens. More likely, 2 or 3 pools at opposite ends of the building will be the last to finish, as much as half an hour or 45 minutes after the first pools finished.

In any case, with this arrangement, the MS will be able to start their DEs as soon as they finish their pools—they won’t need to wait for any of the epee to be out of the way. And once all the ME pools are done, their DEs will be put out on 16 strips, and the remaining 16 strips will be turned over to those 16 pools of 7 in WF who’ve been waiting for the ME to finally be out of their way so they can get started.

But we’ll save that for next time.