Debate: A Game

Kevin Xu
8 min readOct 14, 2020

I used to do debate in high school, and I did pretty well all things considered (ranked top in the nation for a few years).

But compared to most of my peers of that caliber, I didn’t spend very much time on the activity or effort in the community.

I was never the “best” debater.

I was a poor public speaker for much of high school. While others could talk up a storm, people were surprised to see that I was the type of person to never ask a question in a lecture. I would never say no to a pamphlet handed to me on a street. I would always say sorry when others bumped into me.

I was also not the hardest worker for much of high school. While others spent days and countless hours researching and preparing for the activity, I watched a lot of youtube about random things I thought were interesting, like supermarkets as a propaganda tool for civil wars.

In general, I had low stamina. Some of the top debaters I knew were also not the best speakers or the hardest workers, but damn, they could cram before a tournament. I got tired easily and needed my 8 hours of sleep, a poor formula for an activity that runs on weekends from 6 am to 11 pm.

So why did I do well? I believed that unequal players playing a game with equal rules lead to unequal outcomes. I was unequal to most players, so I decided why should I play this debate “game” by the equal rules set in the rulebook. Let me basically change the pace of the game, so that they can play my game, one that I’m pretty good at. (Note: sometimes it was unavoidable to play the game of debate as it was meant to be. In those cases, I tried my best and did okay. I did exceptionally well when the game was the one I designed, and by doing okay in a few and exceptionally well in most, overall I did pretty well).

What did my version of debate look like versus others? To me, I stripped debate down to its core: Debate is about convincing someone you win. The entire activity and the norms that exist are built around that. And there are multiple ways to convince a person, but the overwhelming norm in the community is through meaningful discussions, authentic argumentation, and clash. Why? Maybe that’s the most fruitful way to get something out of the activity. But I used to think to myself: if all debate is convincing then man, there have to be easier ways to do that.

Anyways, here were some strategies that I employed. There are plenty more, but I’ve selected a few.

Non-Content:

I used to think that if you make the judge love you, the judge will vote for you. My parents used to tell me, I’d vote for you 100% of the time no matter if I thought you were actually winning. I thought, dang, can I try to be so likable that someone‘s implicit bias is so strong they have no choice but to vote for me.

For context, I debated on a circuit with a lot of first-generation immigrant judges.

I figured that if I had trouble understanding some of the arguments we talked about, these parents whose second or third language was English would probably have way more trouble following along with the 4 minutes, 900-word rapid-fire speeches about monetary policy from high schoolers who don’t even understand the policy themselves.

At first, I thought what’s the point of content? If I tune out for 10 seconds, I’m lost. I’ll wager that most of these judges are tuning out for more than 10 seconds in a 1-hour match and are even more lost.

If these judges are tuned out, how are they going to make the decision? By voting for who they think “deserves” to win. If they don’t know who “deserves” to win because they got lost, maybe they’ll vote for who they like the most or looks the sharpest in addition to who perceptually seemed like they were winning.

So instead of content, let me focus on fixing perception. Let me look like the smartest guy in the room. Let me have that nice, sharp tie that others may not have. Let me look as nonchalant as possible while others shake their legs with anxiety before speeches. Let me have a face of chagrin as I hear an opponent’s speech that doesn’t seem to make sense, while others look at my speech with a face that looks like agreement in comparison. Let me focus on being that guy who you go “eh, I have no idea who’s going on but he looked like he won. He’s someone I want to vote for anyway.” Let me speak confidently, continuously, and repeatably talk about how my opponents are misconstruing, misunderstanding, and missing the whole point of the round.

If you are a judge and I happen to bump into you outside our round earlier, it’s not a coincidence that I learn your kid is applying to college. And we talk a lot about his dream college and his life story and the ways in which he would be a great fit at any top university. We talk about what your kid doesn’t do well, how I can relate, and how there are ways to work around it. You end up being my judge 15 minutes later and dang.

These were the things that I did, that made up for the holes in content to “win” a debate round.

Content — Stories

But all of this is more or less pandering or an act. And the acting is obvious. A lot of judges are sharp and educated. They see through it. They don’t like it. They want to engage in the content. They have kids that are also debating, and complaining about the judges that fall for pampering or that aren’t listening to their argumentation. They don’t want to be that person.

Pandering is also non-excludable. Everyone can pander, and once people caught on that pandering worked, they learned to do it better than me. I was not the most handsome fellow, not the sweetest talker. I made the effort, but once others made the effort, they were naturally much better than me. I was not the most wealthy. Others soon got nicer suits and made even more outrageous faces. So at a certain point, those non-content strategies became a tool in the bag for the right audience and opponent. But they were far from the silver bullet solution to win all rounds that they once were. At its core, I realized debate was about content, and I couldn’t avoid the content that made the activity meaningful.

So I went back to content. Why did conveying content have to involve heated discussions about complex topics with a slew of words at an expert-level intensity of discourse, all in the span of a few minutes? If I saw two professors in foreign fields speaking as fast as they could about an issue, I wouldn’t get a thing. That would sound like a foreign language to me. My professors had always used analogies and stories to explain things concisely and in abstractions to me. When they wanted me to relate, they brought up stories and examples of people I could see myself in to visualize and internalize the concepts.

Why couldn’t I do the same? Why not avoid the trap to engage in a furious debate, and remember debate isn’t something between me and them. It’s about me explaining a concept to a judge and once they’re on board convincing them after.

Thus, when it came down to crunch time, while others dove into why the policies I advocated for were problematic in the state legislature or law in their two minutes of precious speech time, I used analogies and stories with characters I thought the judge could relate to.

Like the story of Sam, who was forced to move from his home and drop out from school because housing prices got so expensive he had to leave? Sam’s not an isolated incident. There are 50,000 other Sam’s in the world that exists when you vote for them. It’s that simple. And yes, my world’s not perfect. We need extra money and capital to push legislation through, but it’s for keeping those 50,000 Sam’s in their homes.

Content- Framing and Confusion

There were many times in my debate career when I was thoroughly outclassed and outmatched by the other team in preparation and speaking ability.

I knew in a traditional game, I had lost, but why did it have to be traditional? If we think of debate as a tug of war, why did this have to be a match where if the opponents crossed the middle point by an inch they won? Could I make it such that they only won if they dragged me 50 feet past the middle point? All I had to do was convince the referee that’s how the game was played.

That’s exactly what I did. Convince the judge for the opponents to win, they had to do much, much more than was necessary. So even if I was losing by a lot, I was losing by enough to lose.

There were a few ways I did this:

One was getting my opponents to agree with small concessions about what we had to prove and what they had to prove to win. To them, it seemed like an innocent act: clarifying the round for all stakeholders. But in reality, it was like a trojan horse. Those small concessions became the large parts of my speeches where I trapped them into not meeting the absurd obligations they agreed to.

One common, interesting strategy was a confusion framework. It went something like

Our opponents were tasked to prove to you why we should do something. If you’re confused, they haven’t done their job. But I have.

I would follow that by then confusing the heck out of everyone. A person can only remember 3–4 facts at any given time. If you give them too much information, they’ll forget everything. Usually, the last thing you want to do when convincing someone to vote for you is to get them to forget everything. But if things are terrible, maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

And that’s what I did. I confused judges as much as I could. I said nonsense, contradicted my own claims, agreed with their claims, denied my own claims, and agreed with the disagreement of my own claims. At the end of the day, when the judge was confused beyond belief, I would wrap it up by bringing it all into our framing.

Example 4 — Anticipation

When a debate topic for a given month gets released, you kind of know what people were probably going to argue about on each side. For example, if the topic was about globalization, you’d get arguments like

Globalization lowers prices for consumers! Globalization causes jobs to leave the country!

If you knew what people are going to argue, you can definitely throw them off.

How? Take a look at this snippet from a real round.

Them: Globalization lowers interest rates! (Implicitly, they and almost everyone assumes that lower interest rates is a good thing. We hear about this all the time in the stock market and in the news).

Me: Why is that a good thing? I’ll argue that lower interest rates are bad.
Me: Here are 3 reasons why lower interest rates causes higher utility prices, more student loans, and war in the middle east (absurd reasons that probably aren’t true, but I’ve spent my time finding evidence for)

Them: What?

Me: I have the evidence. Take a look! (I pieced together studies that would “support” what I said. One author who said this was a possibility. Another who found a statistical correlation between the two, etc)

Them: Uh..

I basically did this every month with every topic.

I was a menace.

--

--