I may have given the erroneous impression in my last blog post that scorecreep (that strange slam phenomenon, whereby the scores get more and more generous as the night goes on) was entirely the fault of progressively drunk judges. It isn’t.
Slam organisers often go to great lengths to try to minimise the effect of scorecreep, e.g. by inviting expert judges (the pros and cons of which I discussed last week) or by having heats, so that each slammer is only directly competing against two or three others, not against 5-19 other slammers, with the first and the last up to an hour apart. This still doesn’t entirely eliminate the problem of scorecreep (scores tend to creep upwards even within the individual heat) and heated slams bring with them a whole raft of other complications.
The fact remains, however, that even if you eliminate judge bias and introduce heats, on average, poets who take the stage later in the competition will perform better than those who appear earlier, for a number of reasons.
Firstly, both audience and performers are more relaxed later in the competition. This relaxation is only partly alcohol-induced (although I do definitely tend to find that the more drinking time available before I take the mic, the better my performance) – audiences take time to warm up and the warmer they are when you get into bed with them, the better.
Some poets arrive at slams with a very rigid plan of what poems they’re going to do and in what order. Others come with a whole suite of poems and make tactical substitutions, if required. If you like playing the tactics game, then a late draw is a godsend: you can see what everybody else is doing and how it’s going down with the judges and audience, and then adapt your own set accordingly. So, for example, if comedy is going down like a lead balloon at that particular slam and earnest pieces about sociopolitical issues are getting the big scores, you might want to rethink your choice of a funny poem about dog wee as your opener. On the other hand, if absolutely everybody is doing earnest sociopolitical poems, you might decide to ditch the worthy piece about the impact of global warming on polar bears you were planning to do and do the dog wee poem, instead, on the grounds that everyone will be heartily sick of “issue” poems by that stage and a funny bit of froth will come as a breath of fresh air. If the judge on the left with the outre hair clearly really likes metaphors, then give him metaphors!
These kinds of tactical shenanigans don’t always pay off- I once lost a slam that was mine for the taking by making a disastrous last-minute decision to do an obscure and po-faced “art” poem in the last round, instead of the crowdpleasing ribtickler on my original plan which would almost certainly have won, in an insane bid to impress the judge on the left with the outre hair – but if you have a late draw, you have the option of whether you employ them or not. If you’re drawn early, you are denied that option – you just have to go with what was on your plan and hope for the best.
You also know your opponents if you are drawn last. You’ve seen how good they are and what score they got and you know exactly how good you have to be to beat them. However much you may think you’ve given the best performance you can possibly give when you perform in isolation, if you know that you have to be 2 points better than Slammer X to make it through to the next round, you can usually somehow find more.
But arguably the biggest advantage of a late draw is that, as a culture, we are so used to Saving The Best ‘Til Last, Beauty Contest Order etc, that, even though on a logical level everybody knows that the running order at slams was drawn out of a hat and thus has no significance, on a subconscious level both audience and performers are kind of expecting the person drawn at the end to be the headliner and on a surprising number of occasions he or she rises to those expectations magnificently.