The 4-2 Screw by Breann Smith

It is a major tournament, and you have hit fierce competitors, including Round Robin participants. You are 4-2, and have a good chance of breaking. Then, the breaks are posted. You rush up to the list, and scan it eagerly for your name. After checking then double-checking, you look to the speaker point cut off. You realize you have missed breaks. By six-tenths of a speaker point. 

At major tournaments, most 4-2s are expected to break, but what if a debater’s speaks are not high enough? This happened, for example, to six 4-2s at the Greenhill tournament, where the average 4-2 missed advancing by merely six-tenths of a speaker point.1  This phenomenon, known as the “4-2 Screw”, affects all tournaments, national and local alike. Many ways of evaluating speaker points exist, and within those evaluations there exist a variety of variables.

How “Pretty” You Speak

Some judges evaluate rounds based on how “pretty” the debater speaks. While this is consistent with what most think when they hear the term “speaker points,” it has a few fundamental flaws. First, it advantages those with speech patterns that are closest to the judge. If the debater speaks like they would, the judge is more likely to think they speak well and thus reward them with higher speaks. Inversely, if they speak in a way that the judge finds peculiar, the odds of higher speaker points do not seem likely. Second, this method of evaluating speaker points is not ideal because some may have an accent the judge finds cacophonous, or English may not be their primary language. In both of these cases, the debater is at a disadvantage because the judge may not think they spoke well and thus give them lower speaks. Both of these points have been confirmed by a study at the University of California,2 which found we strongly prefer voices that sound similar to our own and we prefer “breathier” tones as opposed to more “raspy” ones. The third and most important problem with evaluating how “pretty” a debater speaks is it disadvantages those with speech impediments, such as stutters, lisps, etc. This puts the debater in a double bind of sorts. They could either a) tell the judge about the impediment or b) not tell the judge about it. With the first option, the judge could over, or under, compensate with their speaker points, depending on that particular judges evaluative tendencies. With the second option, the debater risks receiving poor speakers points due to something they could not prevent. Each of these options leaves much to be desired.

Strategic Decisions

The second type of evaluative mechanism for evaluating speaker points, strategic decisions, seems even more arbitrarily decided than how well one speaks. First, it encourages judges to come up with their own strategies of how they would win the round. This is harmful because they may not pay full attention to the arguments presented in the round because they are thinking of their own strategy, and it rewards debaters for thinking like the judge does. Second, judges may not see the strategy the debater was going for. While thinking of their own strategy, judges might not see, or even completely dismiss, the strategies actually present in round. This is unique to speaker points because judges have empirically voted off arguments they do not like, and the same could go for strategies. With speaker points, there are more variables in it’s determination and thus less likely the resulting points would be very high.

Out Round Odds

Odds of being in out rounds are a third method of deciding speaker points. This has two main problems, the first of which is the competition level of the particular round. If it is a competitive round, and the opponent is a nationally ranked debater, a good local debater might not show their best. This particular round may not show their true chances of being in out rounds and thus reflect in their speaker points, affecting their chances of breaking. The second main problem is the debaters odds of being in out rounds are often determined by those speaker points. If according to this scale a judge views a 28 as “good and should clear” but the speaker point cutoff is around 29, the debater that “should clear” may miss clearing based off those speaks.


Yet another way to evaluate speaker points is how entertaining the debater is in round. Unless the judge puts exactly what they find funny on their paradigm, debaters will not know how to “be humorous” according to what the judge likes. This is not Humorous Interp, and debaters often make arguments that when paired with humor would be inappropriate. For example, if an affirmative ran a Revenge Porn AC on this topic it would be kind of hard to crack a joke somewhere in there without being plain offensive. Further, if a debater is not funny according to the judge they either will not get good speaks or the judge will decide their speaks in some other arbitrary manner. Another problem with this method is how does one separate out the categories of “humor?” Would a 28 be, “You were kind of funny, but I didn’t laugh,” but then what about a 29, or a 30?  This seems to be an arbitrary and ineffective measure of who should break at a tournament.

Point Fairies & Tenths-of-a-Point

We all know and love those judges that give out 30s, but is that really a measure of who should break? According to this paradigm, you can be a decent or mediocre debater and still get high speaks. While this is encouraging to the debater who receives the 30, it creates an unbalance within the tournament pool. If a debater goes 4-2, hits good competition, and struggled for 28s and 28.5s does not break over a debater who was under the same conditions but received a 30, the pool has effectively been skewed despite similar debating skill. Another point system that skews the breaks (although somewhat less juristically) is utilizing tenths of a point. With the inflation before mentioned, some judges have started using half or even tenths of points to differentiate debaters. While the intention behind this was good, it creates only more arbitrary distinctions. Is there really a difference between a 28.9 and a 29? Odds are no, but judges insist on doing this to offset inflation. This only created frustration when, for example, a debater misses breaking at the Greenhill tournament by .3 speaks. This clearly shows how important arbitrary tenths of a speaker point really are in the grand scheme of breaks.

The Alternative

Times may seem bleak for 4-2s everywhere, but do not fret, there is an alternative! Instead of the traditional “Record-Speaks-Opponent Wins-Opponent Speaks” format, tournaments should utilize opponent wins BEFORE speaker points. If power matching and breaks were determined by opponent wins, the quality of rounds would increase. Say for example two TOC level debaters hit in one round, and two novice debaters also hit round one. Due to Mutual Preference Judging, the national circuit debaters would most likely pref a judge that does not hand out speaker points, because they are constantly judging that level of competition. On the flip side, the novice debaters at that same tournament may get new judges or point fairies. The result would be one TOC level loser and one novice winner, seemingly undifferentiated according to speaker points. By using opponent wins, the TOC level debater would be rewarded with higher chances of breaking for hitting good competition while the novice level debater would be less likely to break due to the quality of their competition. Using opponent wins would also increase the quality of rounds by weeding out the “easy draws.” This is due to the matching based off of opponent wins pairing debaters who hit similar level competition, thus increasing the quality of the round.

Once written down, this alternative does not seem all that crazy. In fact, when asked “How should breaks and power matching be determined,” 72.4% of those involved in debate were in favor of opponent wins, while only 27.6% were in favor of continuing to use speaker points.2 Compared to arbitrarily decided speaker points, using opponent wins before speaker points seems to be a very supported and viable option for determining breaks and power matching.

Notes And Methodology

  1. For each competitor, it was calculated how many points they were from breaking. Those points were then averaged to get the final result of .6, meaning that the average 4-2 missed breaking by six-tenths of a speaker point.
  2. McGuire, Grant. [Professor at the University of California Department of Linguistics] “Why Some Voices Sound More Attractive.” Phys.Org. American Institute of Physics, 5 Nov. 2010. Web. 30 Nov. 2014. <>.
  3. The question “How should breaks and power matching be determined” was presented to five different debate-centered Facebook groups over a time span of one week [October 22, 2014-October 29, 2014]: (i), NSDA Student Leadership Committee, (ii) High School Policy, (iii) Debate Girls 2016, (iv) YAAS Lab, (v) Finktank. Anyone who was in multiple groups only got one vote. If that same person voted one way in one group, and another way in a different group, their vote(s) were voided.


Total Members- 173

Number Of Respondents- 54

Opponent Wins- 47

Speaker Points- 7

High School Policy:

Total Members- 2,059

Number Of Respondents-95

Opponent Wins- 61

Speaker Points- 34

Debate Girls 2016:

Total Members- 82

Number Of Respondents- 15

Opponent Wins- 8

Speaker Points- 7


Total Members- 21

Number Of Respondents- 9

Opponent Wins- 8

Speaker Points- 1


Total Members- 16

Number Of Respondents- 8

Opponent Wins- 7

Speaker Points- 1

Total: 171

Number For Opponent Wins: 131

Number For Speaker Points: 50

Percentage for Opponent Wins: 72.4%

Percentage for Speaker Points: 27.6%