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:


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.

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.

Layout & Strips, Part 3: General Principles

OK, we’ve got strips laid out and numbered, so we’re ready to start the fencing. How do we decide which events to put where?

For local tournaments, assigning strips is easy, so much so that even using the word “assigning” is silly. Local events in my own area rarely use more than five strips—normally, we just hand scoresheets to the referees, who pick a strip and call out their fencers’ names. Both the venues and the competitive fields are small enough that a more complicated procedure is completely unnecessary, and would be downright silly.

As tournaments get larger, particularly when you’re dealing with more than one event occurring simultaneously, you need to pay more attention to how you’re using your strips and where you’re putting each event. At medium-sized events—say, 8 to 16 strips—there might be a couple of events starting at the same time, with another one or two starting a couple hours later as the first events shrink through their DEs to their finals, and perhaps a third wave a few hours after that.

Ideally, the sizes of all these events should be known when the schedule is made—it’s far easier to assign events that are spread appropriately throughout the day than struggle with planning delays because too many fencers are scheduled to fence at the same time. At the very least, tournament organizers need to have solid projections for their event numbers—without a well-planned schedule, even the best assigners can only achieve least-bad outcomes.

(Though scheduling is not my main concern in these posts on strip management, there are a few general guidelines for workable schedules, the most important of which is to get the biggest and slowest events started first on as many strips as possible. There are those who argue that it would be better to let the faster events go first and get out of the way, so the monster events can then have the venue for as long as they need it and not make everyone else wait around, but that hardly ever works. Big events usually need a lot of strips for their early rounds, but shrink down to fewer strips once their pools are done. Using the strips they free up as they become available is usually more efficient and makes for a shorter day overall, even if some fencers have a longer stay than they might otherwise. Keeping referees and other officials to more reasonable hours helps keep them more competent, too.)

Let’s assume, in any case, that we’ve got a reasonably decent schedule. How does the assigner decide what to do? I’ve usually got these guidelines in mind:

  • Keep each event on adjacent strips as much as possible—it’s easier on fencers, coaches, and spectators, and makes it easier for tournament officials to track progress.
  • Give each event as many strips as possible for each round, keeping in mind the other events scheduled.
  • Always think at least two or three rounds ahead—what happens now can drastically affect the choices available later in the day.
  • Try to keep team events and finals bouts on the edges of the hall, to allow as much room as possible for spectators.
  • As the day winds down, move the remaining fencing increasingly closer to the bout committee, to allow armorers to check and shut down equipment, volunteers to clean up, and keep the traipsing back and forth to a minimum. (This also gives the bout committee members a chance to finally watch some actual fencing.)

Next time: The ins and outs of assigning pools.

Layout & Strips, Part 2: Numbering Strips

Seriously? She’s going to write a post about numbering strips? Don’t you just start at the beginning with 1 and go on until you run out of strips?

Once upon a time, it was almost that easy. When strips were set up in rows from one end of the hall to the other, the only question we had to decide was whether to go back to the other end to start numbering the next row or to snake the numbering back and forth. When I first began working bout committee, I favored going back to the start, so that the numbers all increased in the same direction. It seemed to me that way was the easiest for fencers and coaches and spectators to grasp. But snaking has its advantages, often allowing strips across both rows at the same end of the hall to be numbered consecutively. (This only works at one end of the hall, though.)

But straight rows aren’t the only way strips are laid. Sometimes we get one row straight down the length of the hall and several clumps of strips at right angles to those, with or without large gaps between groups. (Structural columns and power access plates in the floor are often the reasons for such odd layouts.)

With pods, we number consecutively within the pods, and then down the rows through the pods in order. Not only does this make sense to fencers looking for their strips, it makes it easy for the strip assigner to keep track of which events are where—pods are always contiguous numbers on the chart we use to track our assignments.

(One time a few years ago, I arrived on setup day to find that the strips had already been numbered. Unfortunately, whoever’d done it had put the numbers up before the pipe barriers had been installed, so that the numbers went straight down to the rows with no regard for the pods. This meant that the first pod had strips 1, 2, 15, and 16, the second had 3, 4, 17, and 18, and so on. Keeping track of which pairs of strips matched up into pods would have been ridiculously confusing—we changed the strip numbering immediately.)

With some layouts, such as the one we had for Summer Nationals this year in Atlanta, there is no obviously good way to number the strips. When I first looked at the map of the layout, I thought, “There’s got to be a better way,” but after looking at it for a few minutes, I realized that it was already numbered in the least horrible order. (Sigh. So much in Atlanta this year amounted to “least horrible” options.)

With a good pod layout, good numbering can make the strip assigner’s job much easier. When pods are strips 1–4. 5–8, 9–12, and so on, it’s easy to visualize where strips and events are. In Atlanta, with that less-than-optimal layout, the first pod contained only two numbered strips (along with the Wheelchair frames), so that the pod numbering was off—whole pods were 3–6, 7–10, and so on. Combine that with the odd groups of two and three strips in half the hall, and it was almost impossible to assign events without constantly referring to a map. The layout and numbering were so unusual that it never began to feel familiar over the whole ten days.

Another issue to think about when numbering strips is whether a finals strip should be included in the numbering system. Actually, this is an issue that shouldn’t take any thinking—unless it’s absolutely the last strip, it shouldn’t be numbered at all. Anywhere else, that single strip will mess up the pod numbers and make the strip assigner’s job half again as difficult as it might otherwise be.

Next time: Figuring out which strips to use.