By Danny Jaffe, Brandeis University ’17
Author’s Note: This is a more advanced article on tight calls.
Strategies for Tight Calls
APDA debaters have devised several strategies regarding tight calls that are important to be aware of as a new debater.
First, there is the “tight block”. A tight block is essentially a list of pre-written arguments against your case that you can use in the event of a tight call. Tight blocks exist on the APDA circuit because many people, in order to have a greater chance of winning rounds, try to run the strongest cases possible that are just below or at the threshold of being tight. Since cases that are nearly tight can either win or lose in a tight call depending on how effectively the gov team defends the case being debatable, many teams prepare in advance for tight calls. While the idea of having pre-prepared arguments to help you win a tight call round may sound great as the gov team, there are strong reasons not to use them. Firstly, if you are reading off a pre-prepared text you are less likely to be engaging in the actual round and are therefore more likely to miss important points or get lower speaks. Secondarily, there is a more likely chance that your arguments will be, or at least be argued as, “spec” since you had infinite time to prepare the tight block to opp the case, while the LO only had 7 minutes and 30 seconds to prepare the opp to the case. Thirdly, many people are opposed to tight blocks on principle since they view this as gov conceding the case is either tight or nearly tight, which will often give gov teams a negative stigma which can swing the round in opp’s favor. In summary, while tight blocks can be a useful tool and you likely will encounter them at some point while on APDA, they also have significant downsides. Also, if you cannot think about opps to your own case in 8 minutes after the LOC, then perhaps the case is tight and you shouldn’t run it.
Second, there is what has colloquially been named the “30 second tight call”. This is exactly what it sounds like: the LO gives a speech for about 30 seconds in which the only thing they do is call the case tight. The major benefit of this, obviously, is that now the gov team has essentially no time to prepare their MG speech; since this is their only constructive speech in a tight call round this is rather devastating to gov. However, it is important to keep a few drawbacks in mind. First, if the gov team does have a tight block (and many gov teams do) their MG will be about as good as if they had the full 8 minutes, but you have now sacrificed 8 minutes of your chance to persuade the judge that the case is tight. Second, it can perceptually make a tight block seem more reasonable and it could make you look shitty depending on circumstances—for example if you do this specifically to undermine a novice MG in a ProAm.
Third, there is what is called a “strategic tight call.” This is an umbrella term for when an opp team calls a case tight for reasons other than thinking the case is tight. Perhaps you think the judge would be more likely to vote for you, perhaps you know gov has no tight block and you want to throw them off, or perhaps the case is nearly tight and you feel you would be better able to argue for the case than against it. Whatever the reasons are, it is important to be aware of this as an option, but also to be aware that people may use this against you. You will hear the phrase “debate is a comparative activity” thrown around a lot, but more importantly debate is also a strategic activity. It is undeniably true that there are times when calling a case tight, even if you don’t think it is tight, gives you a better chance of winning. The only disclaimer that should be attached to that is, as an opp team, you better be quite confident in your strategy because a gov team will have a much easier time winning in these circumstances, and tight calls already place very high burdens on opp.
Fourth, you will find that “theory” debate is very important and controversial in tight call rounds. The standard burden in a tight call is that opp needs to prove there was “no winnable, weighable, path to victory” and that gov needs to demonstrate that there were such paths to victory. However, this is not a requirement, and arguments suggesting alternative burdens in tight call rounds have become increasingly more common. For example, you may encounter an opp team that says “since gov had infinite time to prepare opp arguments, they should not just have to show paths to victory but be able to beat their own case”. The most important advice in dealing with these situations is not to simply appeal to the rules of debate and ignore their theory argument, especially if opp gives well warranted reasons why the rules of debate ought be the way they say. Theory debate, like any other part of debate, has to be warranted and responded to, or else judges can accept the theory arguments made even if they “violate the rules of debate”. The next piece of advice is to pause for a second and think about why the rules of debate are the way they are, because there usually are reasons. In this example, a response you can make is “this is abusive to gov because if gov had to beat their own case in a tight call then it makes sense strategically for opp to call any case that isn’t heavily opp-strong tight since it leaves gov with only one constructive speech to do the same thing that opp would have to do in two speeches.”
APDA Culture and Tight Cases
The APDA circuit—particularly in recent years—has developed a couple of important norms regarding what constitutes a tight case.
The first of these is the “APDA-tight” case. An APDA-tight case is essentially a case the APDA circuit has collectively decided is correct to one side and is therefore undebatable, regardless of whether or not it is a contentious issue in society. It is important to note that while this is not an official type of tight case, it is an omnipresent league norm that you should be aware of since it may come up in rounds you are a part of, and there is reasonable disagreement regarding whether or not it is a valid type of tight case. There are several justifications people use to legitimize calling a case tight due to it being APDA-tight: 1) APDA debaters are generally so liberal the bar for a case being tight is lower when it comes to liberal policy, 2) judges on APDA are generally very liberal so even if the case is arguable it would be impossible to reasonably overcome inherent biases in adjudication, 3) we as a society ought consider the case to be objectively correct even if it is contentious in society. To make this more clear, an example of a case that could be considered APDA-tight is “We say the United States should significantly increase taxes on the wealthiest 1% of Americans.” This case may be strong, but the idea that it is unbeatable or undebatable is incorrect. You can argue that property rights are a thing governments should care about, that individuals can spend their money better than the government can, that there is no active obligation for governments to help the poor at the expense of others, that instead of tax increases you can simply redistribute the existing budget more efficiently so we aren’t paying for a gargantuan military budget but ignoring food stamps, that the consequences of this political war this would ignite a massive turnout of passionate GOP voters who are now more empowered to enact Leviticus into law, etc. Therefore, if you call this case tight you should lose since there are clear paths to victory for opp, however, while many judges and debaters would agree this means gov should win the tight call, there are enough judges and debaters that buy giving wins in tight calls to opp due to the case being APDA-tight it is worth you being aware of and thinking about.
The second is the “spec-tight” call. A “spec-tight” case is a case that is tight not because it is unbeatable, but because the opps to beat it require accessing specific arguments that opp should not be expected to know. This type of tight call is the same as regular tight calls in most ways except 1) you explicitly say the case is spec-tight and 2) you argue why the case and potential opps are spec thereby making the case unbeatable. This type of tight call was developed because spec calls can only be made against specific gov arguments and are not voting issues for an entire round, and cases could win tight calls by using spec or borderline spec arguments in the MG speech that opp teams unlikely would have been able to come up with themselves given the lack of ability to pre-prepare arguments. Recently, spec-tight calls have been controversial in that they are disproportionately more likely to be used on certain case genres, namely economics and finance cases. Being aware of this is important because, firstly, certain judges are more likely to side with opp in spec-tight calls, secondarily, certain judges are more likely to side with gov in spec-tight calls, thirdly, you may have a case of yours called spec-tight, and finally, you may want to call a case spec-tight. Since what does and does not—and just as importantly should and should not—constitute a spec-tight case is strongly contested by the APDA community it can sometimes be tricky to deal with them, but there are some strategies to help you think about them. Firstly, if you truly think the case is inaccessible not just to you individually but the average college student, it is worthwhile to talk to your partner about calling the case spec-tight. Secondarily, make sure you focus on debate theory arguments; don’t just talk about why most people don’t know about the case, talk about why people ought not be expected to know enough to debate the case, talk about why this is unfair and bad for debate, etc. Finally, if it seems borderline that the case is spec-tight, as a gov team don’t be deterred from running the case since it is more likely than not that the case matter is about something that is important or meaningful (even if not too many people do debate about it), and as an opp team you should probably lean on the side of just opping the case and learning about the subject matter for the future since that will make you a more educated person overall and lead to better debate rounds about a greater diversity of topics (that you are more likely to win).
Tips on Recognizing Tight Cases
To help better identify tight cases you may see on APDA, here are some tips on recognizing tight cases. Keep in mind that this is obviously not an all inclusive list; something not on it can still very well be tight, and likewise, if a case you hear fills one of the categories described below that alone doesn’t make it tight.
The first type of case that is potentially worthy of a tight call is if the case is a “tool in the toolbox” case. What this means is if gov is proposing a case in which they are simply proposing an option be made available in addition to the status quo. A symbolic example of this could be “In the status quo actor X must perform action Y. We say give actor X the option to perform action Y or action Z.” Cases in which gov is simply proposing an option be made available are usually strong and frequently tight, because if the new option is bad then gov still has the status quo to fall back on, meaning opp needs to prove the option itself is harmful.
The second type of cases that could possibly be tight are “actor” cases. While these cases are usually fair game and are much less likely to be structurally tight than “tool in the toolbox” cases, since actors have specific obligations or beliefs there is often less room to debate about what an actor should do since it can be factually true that a certain action follows a certain obligation or belief. For example, the case “You are an animal rights activist who believes that the use of animals against their will for human purposes is immoral. However, you eat meat. We say, you should become a vegetarian.” is tight since as someone who cares about animal rights, you should obviously act in a way that so obviously helps protect animal rights.
A third category of cases that you should be on the lookout for are cases set in a book, a movie, a tv show, etc. While many of these cases are genuinely open and interesting, since these cases tend to on-face sound more fun and interesting setting tight case ideas in a more interesting setting is a tactic frequently used by APDA debaters to be sneaky about their tight case ideas. For example, the case “You are in the fictional world of the Harry Potter series and have the option to use a love potion on your crush at the Yule Ball. We say, don’t use the love potion.” may sound fun and interesting, but the case might as well be “You are at a prom after party and have the option to use a date rape drug on your crush. We say, don’t use the date rape drug.”
While you should trust yourself and not be afraid to pull the trigger for a tight call if you truly cannot think of winnable arguments, the most important thing is not to look at tight calls as a way to shy away from making bold or unconventional claims as an opp team. First, if you can effectively articulate a position that is counterintuitive to most people, you often will still win the round because rounds are decided by the quality of your arguments, not whether your arguments are “right”. Second, ingenuity in arguments is usually rewarded in speaks; it is impressive to a judge if debaters stray from staple debate arguments and make them think about important issues in new ways. Finally, it is flat-out good for debate. Nobody enjoys debate rounds where the participants refuse to substantially engage with their opponents, and nobody enjoys debate rounds that feel like a waste of your time. The beauty of debate is in its wide-ranging, nuanced, articulate, bold, creative arguments. If you remember that, not only will you win many rounds, but you will always remember why you do debate.