On Slam Strategy by Alvin Lau (Part 1)

I am re-posting this from facebook with Alvin Lau’s permission. Alvin is a Chicago poet and fiction writer who has graced several finals stages at poetry slam events including: Brave New Voices, i WPS and the National Poetry Slam. Alvin tours colleges as a poet and makes his living as a high-stakes poker player.

I thought this post might offer an interesting peek inside the world of poetry slam, even to those with a casual interest. Poetry slam is sometimes dismissed as “theatrics” or as a debasement of the noble art of poetry, or (as Amiri Baraka once said) “capitalist.” It is easy to make snap decisions about an artistic movement, and often these judgements come from people who attended one slam in one city. I would argue that this approach is a bit like attending one poetry open mike and thinking you can make a statement about all poetry.

At any rate, strategy is an interesting part of the slam movement. It emphasizes the game part of a poetry slam rather than the writing or performance part. But, some would argue, the game is part of the art. Discussion rages among poets on slam teams about the best strategy to win a slam. Alvin, a professional poker player, provides this fascinating insight into the numbers.

One note: at the National Poetry Slam, poets compete as part of a team of poets. At most other slams, poets compete individually.

On Slam Strategy, Part 1:
Results, Equity, and Important Concepts

Warning: Please forgive my typos, spelling, grammar, and syntax. I didn’t proofread.

For a game that’s been played for twenty years, it’s surprising how little has been written on slam strategy. There was an uptick of interest in the early 2000’s with the publication of Taylor Mali’s guide to slam strategy, though that “guide” demonstrated a superficial understanding of slam and was probably written more for deception than anything else. And since then? Very little has been added to the conversation.

Which is not to say that slammers don’t need strategy. Oh, they do. Desperately. The amount of radically off-base decisions poets and their coaches make are mind-boggling. I’ve seen superstar teams flush all their potential down the drain in the first poem of the first bout, wasting a whole year’s energy and preparation in a decision that was made before a poem was even read. It’s such a shame to see talented poets get crushed by significantly worse teams because they didn’t understand the math. This guide is for people who want to stop wasting that talent, and win when they clearly deserve it.

I play poker for a living, and before that, I played a lot of other nerdy games at a nationally competitive level. So when I first came to slam, my first inclination was to apply a math-based, game theory perspective to strategy, rather than the subjective, yet half-heartedly “scientific” approach that others use. I wanted something more concrete, that others could read and come away with a solid, fundamental understanding. So this guide is the accumulation of data and analysis over nine years of competing, and it is the only correct way to think about strategy.

While there certainly are many other successful coaches– I feel that many of their decisions are intuitive decisions that are accidentally, rather than purposefully, correct. It’s like comparing a chess master’s blitz move to a computer’s slow, deep analysis: while the human’s intuitive decision might match the computer’s, it is done so with much less substance and justification. I’ll trust the soundness of the computer’s decision any day of the week.

This guide is both my baby and my best boomerang, and while I’m reluctant to release it into the wild, I’m sure other people will be able to do things with this information that I wasn’t able to. I hope this is an informative read, or if not informative, at least entertaining. Because you know. I’m going to talk hella shit.

Rule #1: Brilliance wins.

If you want to win a slam, write an amazing poem and perform it beautifully.

This closely guarded “secret” isn’t a secret at all. The people who win consistently are extremely
talented writers and performers. If you want to be the be best– and to beat the best– there is no shortcut.

Rule #2: Do not be results-oriented.

A talented, well-known poet goes up and performs a solid, consistently successful poem. Think Mike McGee’s Soul Food, Roger Bonair Agard’s Song for Trent Lott, or Andrea Gibson’s Blue Blanket (if you don’t know those poems you have some youtubing to do!). The poem bombs.

Your usual line of thinking is this: “That poem was a bad decision.” You’ll try to justify why it was inappropriate: the crowd didn’t want funny; political poems aren’t doing well; that poem was too well-written; the judges wanted stupid poems. Your justifications will be as pure speculation, because in reality, you have no actual insight on the judges’ thinking.

Poetry slam is a gambler’s game, and this is coming from a professional gambler! Nothing is a sure thing. Upsets and robberies are commonplace. You can have significant winning or losing streaks for no real reason. The year after I made finals at both NPS and iWPS, I failed to qualify my local team, and I also bricked off at both NPS and iWPS. Was I a worse poet than the year before? Hell no. Shit happens. The poets at the top of Day 1 leaderboards often don’t make finals stages. Embrace this fact. Slam is game of extreme luck. Once, I lost a $1k money slam to a girl who came on stage in a black tutu and, reading out a valour-covered book, announced “This poem is called Frosted Bloody Velvet Curtains.” I’m not saying she didn’t derserve to win, but come on. I read Tiger Woods.

All you can do, in the face of luck, is to make the best decisions possible.

Don’t think of a poem in terms of score. There’s no such thing as a “30” poem. Luck and variance just make it impossible to consistently get perfect scores. You can however, have poems that will rock the crowd 70% of the time. Or if you’re really good, poems that will rock the crowd 80% of the time. But you can never get that magic 100%.

So when you see that really good poet read that really good poem and bomb, it wasn’t because they made some huge error, or any error at all. In fact, it was probably a really, really good decision. it’s just luck reared it’s ugly head.

Just to prove a point, let’s take this to an extreme. Take Andrea Gibson, who I’ve often heralded as the toughest slammer on the planet. If I was coaching a team she was on and sent her up to read Blue Blanket, my decision would have been a very profitable decision. Clearly, sending up an astronaut-of-a-poet to read one of her signature poems is a brilliant (though obvious) decision. Now, let’s say Andrea bombed. Was my choice to send her up incorrect? Not at all. Given all the information at the time, sending her up was a specular choice, and probably would have resulted favorably 90% of the time. You cannot focus on the 10% of bad luck and misinterpret the results. You cannot let the results of one random night cloud your perception of what good strategy is.

In 2007, the whiniest of my teammates was a fair-weather strategist. Whenever we won, my strategy was brilliant and spot-on. Whenever we lost, it was because I made terrible calls, and he often attributed the because of my poor decisions. This attitude is short-sighted, and doesn’t acknowledge the vast amount of luck that’s involved with slam. Don’t be the fair-weather strategist! Be confident in your decision making, even when you lose. In the long run, you’ll show better results.

Rule #3: Understanding Equity

In a multiple round slam with cuts between rounds, it is much more important to win some rounds than others. Let’s take a look at the current individual finals format:

12 poets all read, cut to 7 poets, cut to 4 poets, 1 champion. Clean slate every round.

In the first round, let’s assume that everyone has the same chance of winning the slam. This isn’t ever the case, as some poets have much higher chances of winning than others, but let’s just go with it for now. So if everyone’s got the same chance to win, then everyone has about 8.3% equity, that is, everyone has a 1/12 chance of taking down the whole chalupa.

Let’s figure out our equity in every round. In the first round, you have 8.3% equity. In the next round of 7 poets, you have 14.3% equity, and in the final round you have 25% equity. At the end of the slam, you have either 100% equity or 0% equity, that is, you either won or you lost. With my so far? Here’s the quick chart:

12 poets = 8.3% equity
7 poets = 14.3%
4 poets = 25%
1 poet = 100%

How important is it to win the first round in these slams? Surprisingly, not that important at all! If you advance from the 1st to 2nd round, you only have a small uptick in equity, only 6%. That’s a pretty negligible change in your overall chance to win. From the 2nd to 3rd round, you get a bigger, 10.7% jump. That’s pretty significant, and puts you within arm’s reach of the prize…

But if you make it to the last round, your potential equity now skyrockets. If you win the final round– the round that matters– your equity leaps from 25% to 100% … a 75% increase! That means it’s more important to setup a win in the final round than to win any other round in the competition. Exactly how important? Well, put it like this: if you advance from the 1st to the 3rd round, you only enjoy a 16.7% increase in equity. That means it’s 4.5 times more important to actually win the whole slam than to make it from the first to the last round.

In Austin 2007, I made indie finals with five reasonable poems left in the tank, though I could only choose three for finals. From a scoring perspective, my strongest remaining poems were, in order: For the Breakdancers, Full Moon, and To My Hair. So those were the poems I ended up reading. But what order should I have read them?

From equity analysis, I knew that I should to lead with my weakest poem when the equity is least important, and no matter what, I should save my best poem for the last round, even when facing possible elimination in an earlier round. A lot of slammers will squirm at this strategy. They feel that if they saved their best work and didn’t get a chance to use it, the poem is wasted, not realizing that saving better work for later is often the choice that will yield the most wins in the long run. Don’t make that mistake. Be willing to pass on a tiny 6-10% equity gain for the 75% jackpot at the end of the slam.

This conclusion is very counter-intuitive to the reasoning behind most strategies, which focus more on survival and advancing round to round. Instead, your goal should be to win the early rounds by as thin of margins as possible, saving your best work for the last possible minute.

As for Austin results? I read To My Hair in the first round, barely advancing, read Full Moon in the second round, advanced by the skin of my teeth, and read For the Breakdancers in the final round and got blown out. Kind of sounds like I got spanked the entire time, right? It sure does. But did I make a mistake? Not at all. Going into the final round with “For the Breakdancers,” I’d argue that my equity was much higher than 25%– I’d argue I was a much closer to a 40-45% favorite going into the final round. I was reading my very very very best scoring poem, saved the entire tournament, against my opponents’ 6th and 7th best poems. Clearly, there was an advantage to be had there.

Not all slams follow this same format, and you have to apply different analysis to each one. Let’s take a look at Mental Graffiti’s grand slam format. This slam format is particularly interesting,because it involves both cumulative and clean slate rounds, and out of the starting 9 poets, 5 of them make the team.

Mental Graffiti Finals: 10 poets read, then all 9=10 poets read again in reverse order. First two rounds are added up. Top 6 advance to the clean slate final round. Poets read from low to high score cumulative score. Top 5 make the team.

10 Poets = 10% equity
6 Poets = 16.7% equity
5 poets = 20% equity

The correct strategy here should be obvious after our previous example. After the 1st cut of poets, you equity increases 6.7%. After the 2nd cut, you equity only increases 3.3%. So it’s twice as important to win the first two rounds than it is to win the third. In this slam, it is a significant mistake to play for 1st. You should be expending your best poems as early as possible, trying just to get by (this morning, I woke up) in third round.

Another advantage of winning the early rounds is that you get to read later in the final round, which will give you an equity edge correlative to the score creep in the final round. But that’s a complex topic for another post completely.

So far, these models have only predicted equity when all the competitors are of the same skill level, which is pretty unrealistic. Next time: how to use weight models and use them to make better decisions, what is the real effect of score creep, and advice on how to strategize for a three-day tournament like iWPS and WoWps.

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