JARS v59n1 - Round Robin Judging

Round Robin Judging
Michael Martin Mills
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Though not quite nightmares, a couple of dreads have followed me in chairing the Greater Philadelphia ARS annual cut-flower competition over the last several years. (In the chapter and wider ARS, of course, we call it a "truss show," but for the public at large "cut-flower competition" says it all without prompting raised eyebrows.).
The Philadelphia show uses six judges, divided in panels of three. Since before my time, that has meant three judges for rhododendrons (elepidotes and lepidotes) and three for azaleas (evergreen and deciduous) with the final Best-in-Show judging by all six. Therein lie the dreads..
Dread No. 1: Assigning the judges to rhododendrons or azaleas. I've never had a judge complain or make an obvious gesture of displeasure. But I know full well that, every year, each of those six, some of whom have traveled overnight for the Saturday morning contest, wants to do rhododendrons. They have nothing against azaleas; it's just that ravishing trusses are what really float their boats. And I have to put three of them in the azalea brigade..
Dread No. 2: A tie vote for Best-in-Show. When our competition gets to this last decision, it is typically down to four entries that have beaten out all their peers and are now being judged against one another for the first time - a rhododendron truss (almost always an elepidote), an evergreen azalea spray, a deciduous azalea spray, and the best species entry. What if the three rhododendron judges think the elepidote truss is best and the three azalea judges want the evergreen spray - and don't change their minds in the jawboning stage?
For a couple of years I told the six that I had a tiebreaker method if it came to that, but I used a tone of voice that said you really don't want me to use it. (For those who may need such devices for whatever reasons, my two methods were the benign five-white- beans-one-black-bean plan, giving the judge who drew the black bean an extra vote, and the more perilous "survivor" tack, in which each judge secretly votes for which other judge to eliminate, the "eliminatee" being the one with the most votes.) We've never had a tie vote, but the dread was always there.
In 2003, I devised a judging system that happily got rid of both dreads - as well as one I hadn't targeted but which may be more dreadful after all. I call it Round Robin Judging. Instead of three rhododendron judges and three azalea judges for the whole competition, the six are regrouped several times.
The Philadelphia show has six basic classes (rhododendron species, elepidote hybrids, lepidote hybrids, azalea species, evergreen azalea hybrids, deciduous hybrids), plus specialized classes (such as hybrids exhibited by the hybridizer, foliage, seed exchange, specimen plants). Under the round robin system, you might have Judges Allison, Bernady and Cresson judging lepidote hybrids while Judges Dalton, Elsworth and Flanagan judge deciduous hybrids. When those sections have been judged, change the lineup to Cresson, Dalton and Elsworth on elepidote hybrids and Allison, Bernady and Flanagan on evergreen azalea hybrids. When those sections are complete, scramble the judges again. And then again.
When it comes time to judge the "lower" trophies (Best Rhododendron Hybrid, Best Species, etc.), each judge sits one round out, so that there are five judges (no ties possible!) for each trophy.
No more disappointment about not getting to judge any big knockout elepidote trusses, because eventually everyone does. By the time it gets down to Best-in-Show, all six judge the finalists, but I no longer dread a tie. When the judges were cleaved into two sets, rhododendron and azalea, there was a tendency to vote for the home team, so to speak. It was natural - three had followed this one entry of the hypothetical Layman's Splendour' from blue ribbon in section, to best in class, to best hybrid trophy, and they knew it was a winner. And now, after they knew all the great attributes of Layman's Splendour' it was being put up against an entry of (also hypothetical) Keim's Glory'. No time for Keim. On the other side, the three judges who'd seen Keim's Glory' rise through the ranks were clear that it had the edge.
But with Round Robin Judging, those allegiances don't build up. In the course of the rearranging of the judges, the six come to the final judging for Best-in-Show having judged all the finalists at one stage or another. The Best-in-Show decision seems to come naturally with minimal jawboning or advocacy.
And then there's the third dread, which I hadn't set out to eliminate, but which most felicitously fell as well: The Alpha Dog judge. Anyone who has been in the room during the judging of a truss show knows of whom I speak. This is the judge in the panel of three who dominates the discussion, who pronounces a final decision while the other two are still pondering, who in gesture and tone considers other opinions to be trifling. Now it's true that some Alpha Dogs are that way from the first instant, but in the competitions I have overseen, that proclivity seems to build up as the judging progresses - by the end of the judging, Alpha Dog need merely point at an entry to cow the other judges. (Okay, I exaggerate. A little.)
But with Round Robin Judging, the groupings are constantly changing. Unless you have a pit bull on hand, the Alpha Dog judge doesn't have much chance of establishing superiority - soon enough he (or she, except it's always he) is with a different group of three, and back to square one for trying to rule.
The judges who have gone through Round Robin Judging, both at the Greater Philadelphia competition and the 2004 ARS Convention show in King of Prussia, Pa., have spoken highly of the experience, saying that process seems to minimize the marathon feeling that sometimes hits them when they see a room full of entries. They like being reshuffled, because they get to work with everyone else eventually.
Employing the Round Robin technique requires some methodical planning. Based on the format for entries in a competition, a flow chart needs to be worked through in advance, so that you don't inadvertently put one judge in similar classes over and over while the others get all the changes. I have devised a master flow chart for Greater Philadelphia, with Judges A, B, C, D, E, and F, regrouped for each class and trophy in sequence. Now, each year I can plug in the names of that year's judges (A = Wilkinson, B = Rossetti, etc.) on the computer template and produce the schedule for judging, with copies for everyone so they don't get lost as the regrouping proceeds through the day.

Michael Martin Mills is a member of the Greater Philadelphia Chapter.