Persisting: Let's Talk About Tricks

By Jessa Glassman and Joanna Im

“You’ve conceded a priori 2,” your opponent says as they chuckle and grandstand for 4 minutes of the 1AR on why that one dropped argument, hidden in small text between 1AC framing cards 3 and 4 means, means that there’s no way you can win. Your face gets hot, and your mind draws an absolute blank as you realize there is literally no possible 2NR. The judge furiously types as they flow the speech, the keyboard taps getting progressively slower and slower until they stop completely and turn into scrolls through Facebook because their ballot is already submitted.  

If this scenario sounds even remotely familiar to you, it’s because rounds like these are far too characteristic of the national circuit. Spikes, skep triggers, nibs: the list goes on and on and these “game over” issues continue to end rounds before they really begin. For some of us, the problem with rounds that play out like this is obvious, but let’s delve into some more specifics for any tricksters out there that need further convincing. 

Tricks strip debate of its educational value. An undeniable truth about debate is that debaters learn things because of their participation in the activity. Debate is a unique site for exposure to different forms of scholarship, as well as a place to learn about foreign policy and current events. Going for sneaky tricks is most definitely a way of avoiding the meaningful parts of debate, whether intentional because winning a debate seems more important than having an engaging one, or not. If the entire 1AR is going for an a priori like the scenario above, the round will lack discussion and clash focused on the advantages, the framework and the entirety of the 1NC. The debate devolves into one debater that scoffs at the mishandling of the trick and the other with no clue what to do, likely feeling stuck and embarrassed at their mistake. This makes the round void of its clearest value: having an actual debate!

Every debater wants to win rounds. A W on Tabroom looks a lot nicer than an L, and we would pay good money to whoever can find someone who truly disagrees. Because competition is an integral aspect of debate, the appeal of reading a nailbomb 1AC is understandable. Despite this, tricks are like loopholes - they allow debaters to circumvent the core questions of the resolution through “gotcha” tactics that don’t require skill, but rather just a cunning teenager willing to sacrifice fair play and education in favor of a cheap shot win. 

Tricks debate also justifies a broader culture that spills outside of what may seem like an insignificant 45 minute round. It creates a model in the debate community in which people intentionally confuse and manipulate their peers for a win, forfeiting morals and harming the educational value of debate as discussed above. When reading positions that are already confusing like 3 minutes of spikes in the 1AC, debaters will often intentionally confuse their opponents even more by refusing to clarify and explain their arguments in a clear way in CX or being intentionally shifty.  This discourages debaters from being collaborative, inclusive, and generally good sports both at tournaments and at home, as well as in their futures.                 

The second important criticism of tricks has to do with access. Tricks, in the form of dense paragraphs or a handful of words hidden inside a speech, disproportionately put those with various types of disabilities at a disadvantage in debate, an activity which already favors people who can comprehend extreme speed-talking and think under time-crunched and high pressure scenarios. Cognitive differences magnify the struggle of understanding the implication of nonsense aprioris, abstract paradoxes, and skep triggers, which ultimately results in the practice of debaters taking advantage of others’ disabilities and making people feel like outsiders in the community, increasing the likelihood debaters with disabilities will quit. 

For novices, tricks can be especially difficult. This worsens the already existent exclusivity in circuit debate. Highly technical debates with dozens of silver bullet arguments make it difficult for new debaters who are often still learning to flow and comprehend high-speed debate to keep up with rounds. Furthermore, young debaters come to tournaments with a general understanding of the resolution itself and are usually not prepared to answer many of the nuanced and abstract arguments that tricks debaters read and that have complicated explanations compared to, for example, a straight-forward case turn.  

In many online arguments between various debaters, we have seen tricks debaters proudly justify their practice by saying that they are small school debaters, or ‘lone wolves,’ who need tricks to keep up with “big school prep,” arguing that tricks minimize the need for having massive frontlines with tons of recent evidence and that they create an equal playing field where debaters are forced to think on their feet. Resources like open source, open evidence, shared dropboxes, substantive core generics, and much more disprove the need for cheap shot tricks and prove that substantive debate is more accessible than tricks supporters make it seem. 

Edit: The fourth paragraph originally compared tricks to “cheating on a test”, but we decided to replace that with a more appropriate analogy.

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