Judging the JSS

Posted in NEWS on November 21, 2005

By Wizards of the Coast

Judging a tournament where no participant is over the age of 16 presents a unique and at times interesting challenge that often differs widely from “normal” Magic events. As a school teacher, I find working with kids on a regular basis to be fairly natural. Nevertheless, I find myself at JSS Challenges and/or the Championship encountering novel situations as a matter of routine. This year’s JSS Championship was no exception. This article is intended to be mainly used as a reference as we prepare to enter another season of JSS Challenges. Hopefully those of you who do not have a good deal of experience with these types of events will find this to be a helpful primer. For those with many JSS events under your belts, I hope you will still find some aspects of this article to be of some use.

What makes Junior events unique:

JSS tournaments offer a unique set of challenges and rewards that most other types of events do not. Here’s a run down of some of the most obvious ones:

  1. Kids play faster.
    It is a rare circumstance at a JSS for round lengths to exceed an hour. Younger players in general simply do not suffer from indecisiveness (sometimes to their detriment). Be prepared to keep things moving.
  2. Most junior players see judges in much the same way they see teachers.
    Obviously this is not always the case, but kids are simply used to being in the position where a person in authority tells them what’s what and that’s just the way it is. As a result it has been my experience that the amount of attitude and argument that I encounter at JSS are typically less than in any other type of event. This also means that sometimes a kid may have a legitimate complaint or concern that they simply will not share. My advice is twofold: First, pay attention to the body language of your participants. Sometimes you may have to ask them to speak up if it looks like they have something on their minds. Secondly, being friendly and approachable will make a big difference in how kids perceive you. If they trust that their views will not be trampled on, then they will feel comfortable expressing them.
  3. Some kids wear their hearts on their sleeves.
    This can sometimes mean outbursts of emotion both positive and negative when the stakes get high. In adults, we generally have the expectation that a person should be able to restrain themselves from getting excessively emotional (though I’m sure we can all share a story or two of a so-called “grown-up” that lost it at an event). We often look at outbursts of negative emotion as a sign of weakness. In kids, often this expectation is simply unrealistic. Some children are incapable of tempering their emotions well into their late teens. As such, judges need to mindful of a few things when the stakes start running high:
    First, crying is not something to panic over. Kids sometimes cry. The first thing you can do if a kid starts coming unglued is to discreetly remove them from public view. Compounding whatever the situation that’s causing the distress with being “watched” makes a bad situation worse. Secondly, give the player a chance to get it out of his/her system. Talk to them and give them a chance to express why they are so upset. Sometimes a little wash of emotion is all they need. Finally, if they can’t seem to pull it together, try to turn the focus away from whatever is causing the distress onto something more positive. Are they upset at losing in top 8? Remind them how well they did to make it that far.
    Second, anger can manifest itself in many forms with kids. Sometimes they take it out on others. Sometimes they take it out on themselves. Sometimes they take it out on things around them. Remind a kid who gets angry that it’s OK that he/she is angry, but not OK to be unsporting or aggressive. Suggest ways for them to vent their anger in a way that is less destructive (find a private place to have a yell; beat up on something that’s OK to beat up on, like a pillow; etc.).
    Finally, celebration is great, but it’s often a fine line between celebration and gloating. We often see the “big kids” cross that line, but frequently don’t object because we feel that other grown ups should be able to take it. That expectation does not hold with kids. My threshold for unsporting conduct at JSS events is easily crossed. I expect junior players to treat one another with respect – more than I do at regular events. Why? Quite simply young players are far more easily turned off by the poor behaviors of others. I’ve literally seen dozens of young players driven away from a store by the antics of a single boorish alpha male. Keeping boys who intimidate and bully others in check is a must at JSS events.
  4. There is a sportsmanship award (and it is important).
    I have heard in passing about events where the sportsmanship award at a JSS Challenge is handed out in a cavalier manner or in some cases not at all. This award is a great way for us to positively reward and recognize behaviors that we would like to see at all levels of play. Make a point of making this award a big deal at your events. Be on the careful lookout for kids that are deserving of the award. Don’t be snowed by “sell jobs” that some kids will put on just to earn a foil.
  5. Brand new players that are young are WAY more easily intimidated than new players who are older.
    It is incumbent upon us as judges (and to a large extent T.O.s & storeowners as well) to make kids feel welcome and comfortable when they first step into our events. Pay close attention to those kids who are filling out DCI cards for the first time. If their experiences are bad ones, there’s a reasonable chance you’ll never see them again. If I can’t do it myself, I often get a fellow judge or an experienced player to ask new juniors if they need any help or have any questions. Making their first event a positive one will go a long way in terms of ensuring that new players come back again.
  6. Unfortunately, the part of person’s brain that is responsible for making value judgments, planning, and forethought do not get completed until the late teens.
    This means that kids, as a group, are simply more apt to lie and cheat than adults. This is offset slightly by the fact that kids tend to be more fearful of getting caught if they do something they know is against the rules. Nevertheless, judges have to be extra vigilant when called to a table during a JSS event. This holds especially true when you get called to rule on a “my word versus yours” situation – cases where two kids claim that completely opposite things happened or were said. My advice is to take more time talking to the kids when these cases arise. Look for “tells” that someone may not be telling the truth (sorry, I’ll have to leave it up to you to find out what these tells are). Don’t be afraid to talk to kids privately to get to the bottom of a situation. It’s unfortunate, but I’ve probably disqualified as many or more juniors in my judging career as adults. Don’t always assume the worst, but always be mindful that shadiness is a distinct possibility.

General tidbits of advice.

Here are a few pointers that you may find helpful when dealing with JSS players that may help your events and rulings go more smoothly.

  • Talk to kids at their level (physically). When at a table, kneeling down helps to avoid feelings of intimidation and also helps keep attention from being drawn to the table.
  • Talk to kids at your level (verbally). Don’t pander or condescend. It drives most kids up the wall.
  • Kids are like mirrors. If you want a young player to calm down, speak calmly yourself. If you want kids to be respectful, be respectful yourself. If you want kids to have fun, have fun yourself (such that it can be seen).
  • You can typically get away with being more social with JSS kids than you can with adults. This is in large part due to the fact that no one’s going to suspect that you hang out with 13-year olds and may show favoritism towards one of them (I’m assuming that the average judge reading this is of at least legal voting age and actually doesn’t hang out with 13-year olds). Don’t be afraid to ask the kids how things are going for them or to chat about the metagame, etc. (also be prepared for lengthy explanations). It helps to add to the friendly, comfortable environment we’re trying to create.
  • Know your audience when explaining rulings. Sometimes a detailed description is warranted. Other times a simple “no that’s not how it works” is ample. Most kids have pretty limited amounts of patience and even less in terms of attention span. The moment you see their eyes get that glazed-over look, you might as well be reciting the constitution of Sweden for all that’s actually getting absorbed. Typically “short and sweet” is a good rule of thumb.
  • Constantly be on the lookout for unattended articles. How kids leave bags and binders with hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of dollars worth of cards lying around is absolutely beyond me, but they do it. No it’s not your job to keep track of their stuff, but their mothers are at home. It’s a nice little service.

Moms & Dads

A very important aspect of most JSS events is that frequently parents of the players are involved to some extent. The range of knowledge that parents have at your event can vary greatly. Some parents haven’t the slightest clue what Magic is (I’ve even had one ask me when the kids were going to start doing the tricks), while some are experienced players themselves. Here are a few things to keep in mind when dealing with parents:

  • Parents are as much your “customers” as are the kids who are playing. If mom and dad don’t approve of the game, then chances are their kids won’t get as many opportunities to come to events as they would if the parents were supportive. Treat them accordingly. It never hurts to go make some small-talk with the folks to make them feel welcome and comfortable as well.
  • Be prepared to briefly explain what Magic is in a way that puts the game in a positive light. Keep in mind that some people’s preconceptions of the game are that it involves gambling or the occult, so be ready to dissuade those concerns.
  • You may want to post a round start time or a round end time sign somewhere the parents would typically see it. Doing so will free you up from the litany of questions that invariably get asked.
  • If you get an irate mom or dad, someone who is angry and in need of venting, in general I suggest that you direct them to the tournament organizer or the site manager. Even if it’s a judging issue, a judge should not have to deal with someone who is losing their top. Parents can get very incensed when their children are involved (and who can blame them sometimes?), but in my opinion that kind of interaction should not be a part of a typical floor judge’s duties.
  • Be very mindful of the language that you, your fellow judges, and the players are using. Address inappropriate language and poor sportsmanship when they arise. Ensure that you and your fellow judges are all on the same page with respect to what will and will not be tolerated in terms of language and player conduct at your events.

I hope that you’ve found this to be a helpful resource. If you have any comments or questions, please feel free to contact me at snoman321@hotmail.com.


Jason Ness
Calgary, Canada