Model judging: why 1-2-3 works best at the nationals

The IPMS/USA National Convention and Contest approaches – it’s August 19 to 22 in Columbus, Ohio. The show is getting better organized every year, and we members are the beneficiaries of that. Still, some people are not yet fully satisfied. Over on the IPMS/USA  members’ forum, there’s a debate that’s raged on and off for several years over the topic of judging – or, more accurately, over the organization of model contests and how awards are presented. I’ll synopsize it briefly:

Most IPMS contests are run on a 1-2-3 basis. That means that the hosts have a set number of categories, and the judges select the top three in each.

Some organizations (AMPS, most notably) have a gold-silver-bronze system. Each entrant is evaluated against a set of criteria and if it achieves a certain standard it is given the corresponding award – or no award, if it fails to meet the standard.

Both systems are totally valid, and organizers are entitled to employ any system they choose for local shows. However, I am strongly in favor of keeping 1-2-3 at the nationals, for several reasons. If you’ll bear with me, I’ll state my case.

First, the nationals are big – 3000 models big. Judging a category in such a show with 1-2-3 involves a pass through the category to eliminate models with major flaws, then a second elimination pass, then close examination of the survivors. In reasonable time, the teams get down to five or six contenders, then start really poring over them to determine the final ranking. It’s actually pretty simple if you run your team in a business-like fashion.

Using gold-silver-bronze in such a show would be very difficult. Many more models would be subject to that last-six scrutiny, which would draw the process out. Currently, judging takes about four to five hours at the nationals; I don’t think it’s in the best interest of the show to have the judges on duty for much longer than that if only because people will stop volunteering to judge. Also, you want to keep the display room open as much as possible, and drawing out judging works against that.

AMPS is often used as an example of how this might work: entrants bring in their models and leave them at the judges’ table, where they are evaluated and then transported to the display tables by the judges. However, AMPS draws about 15 percent of the models as the IPMS/USA nationals – meaning you’d need many more judges, and you’d need them on duty at all times during the times entry was permitted. Also, the idea of the crush of people bringing their models in on the first day and on Friday, and the backup at the judges’ table, is awful to think about. (During a previous debate over this topic, Cookie Sewell, the former AMPS honcho and a veteran IPMS judges, said the AMPS-style of judging would not work at the IPMS event for reasons of scale. I take Cookie’s word on this as perhaps the best educated in the entire debate.)

1-2-3 is also pretty easy to execute on; there’s a judges handbook, and every discipline has a general approach to evaluating workmanship. Implementing gold-silver-bronze would require a new set of criteria to be drawn up, and few have asserted a good way to approach this. At the very minimum, this would require a lot of time, effort and education of the judges. The suggestion of some that it could be based on “points” is a bit scary to me, since that tends to downplay very major flaws and keeps in contention models that would otherwise fail to be in consideration. For instance, let’s say that a 40-point system mandates that general seam work and construction is worth 10 points, painting and finishing 10, alignment 10, decals 5, and clear parts 5. A model could have horrendous glue fingerprints all over the canopy and still lose just five points. In 1-2-3, that model would be set aside from contention immediately. Also, a clever builder could figure out models that don’t have things like clear parts (RQ-1 Predator, for example) and thus get rewarded for work not done.

1-2-3 is rather easy for the host club to plan for – get trophies for the planned categories, and you’re done. With gold-silver-bronze, there’s really no way to estimate what you’d need for your awards – it would be contingent on the number of entrants and the quality of those entrants. I’ve heard arguments that the hosts could then limit the number of golds, silvers and bronzes handed out – but doesn’t that fly in the face of the basic notion of that judging approach?

Finally, the advocates of this system contend that it would increase the number of people entering the contest because it would spread more awards around. There are three basic flaws to this contention: first, there’s no guarantee that any awards would be presented – there could very well be fewer awards presented, and if the argument is that people enter only because they want to win something, then gold-silver-bronze would work against the stated goal. Second, the contest at the national convention is not the only reason people go to the event; I contend that going to hunt trophies is exactly the wrong reason to go to the IPMS Nationals. Finally, three of the four largest IPMS/USA National contests have come in the last four years, so the idea that the contest format is harming attendance seems utterly unsupported by the evidence.

I also happen to like 1-2-3. As in life, 50 percent of the national contest is about showing up. The categories allow the IPMS to express things it values – like vacuform models, scratchbuilds and other off-the-beaten-path modeling areas. (I still keep meaning to build a 1:72 airliner so I can support one of my favorite smaller categories!) And it is fun to see what finishes in the top three on any given Saturday; because human beings are doing the judging, that may change from week to week, and healthy competitors understand that and value their awards (or lack thereof) appropriately.

Those are my well-reasoned arguments for 1-2-3 vs. gold-silver-bronze. The other issue I have with efforts to change judging – a style of judging that’s been refined over 35 years, by the way – is that all too often it those efforts are led by people whose motivation is that they do not win. In my region, there’s a modeler who loves detailing interiors but whose exterior craftsmanship is fairly shoddy (no, I am not speaking about myself here, thank you!). Not long ago, he started agitating for greater weight in judging to be placed on extra detail work. At a contest where he was head judge, I had to step in during the judges’ meeting and stop him from instructing the judges to give greater weight to detailing; that’s simply not how you judge at a contest in my region. But his reasons for wanting a change were transparent and self-serving, and I fear that some of the advocates for gold-silver-bronze are similarly self-serving and feel they come in fourth in over-sized categories (which, again, shows a failure to understand the organization of the national shows; when a 400-model category is split into 10 subcategories, you’re still getting a fair shake).

I’m not arguing from the position of someone that 1-2-3 has benefitted; in 14 years I have taken one award, a second in small composition diorama for a project that I finished in two days! (Vladimir Yakubov was kind enough to let me know that a V-1 I built came in fourth a few years ago – he judged the category, and it would have taken some hardware except that I forgot to paint inside the jet pipe! You’d think I’d be a big fan of gold-silver-bronze under such circumstances!)

I have the dubious privilege of coming at this issue as a former IPMS/USA Nationals chairman (I bid for it when I was 29 years old – what an idiot!) and I understand you have to balance out what’s fair in the contest with what’s fair for the judges and what’s fair for the organizers. Too many advocates of gold-silver-bronze dismiss legitimate logistical concerns like awards, the development of a set of standards and the methods of organizing manpower for judging as something to be worked out later, or perhaps explored by using gold-silver-bronze at a regional as an experiment (I’d hate for that to be my regional!). These are not workable methods for proving a point, let alone instituting a major and potentially highly disruptive change to the system – a system which, by the way, works rather well the way it is.



  1. Chris,

    I couldn’t disagree more. Let’s start by agreeing that all judging is subjective. Once we understand that, all the details of judging standards are just that, details. Nothing that can’t be easily worked out. I would submit that the standards would be very much the same as they are now.

    As to how the system would work logistically, again it is details. It can be worked out. We judge 3000+ models now; we could come up with a way to judge them under a GSB system. Same with awards. It might mean moving to a standardized award, or there might be another solution. Again, none of this is anything that a bunch of smart folks could come up with a solution for. We came up with the present system, and made it work.

    As for experimenting at a Regional, before the recent IPMS/USA edict, our local club held 2 Region 4 Regionals in the GSB style. Both were highly successful.

    Finally, I really think that it hurts the 123 folks when they start accusing those promoting change as folks who can’t measure up under the current system. There are many folks promoting a GSB award style that are national award winners.

    From watching this debate play out again and again, I’ve come to a conclusion. It is like being liberal or conservative or libertarian. Some people like a “this model beat that model” system. It is the way they are wired. Others prefer a system wherein one is competing only with oneself. Neither is better nor worse, only different, and people rarely change their minds on the subject. But the worst argument IMHO is “it can’t be done”. Heck, as they say, “we’ve put a man on the moon, surely we can” implement a GSB judging and awards system if we wanted to.

    • Well, the idea that “it can be worked out” to me is a show stopper. How? Describe a process or a plan. That’s a big issue to me. Standards are not that easy to “work out;” it took a long time to reach agreement on our current standards. Logistics are not easy to work out, and I say that as a former chairman. I sometimes don’t believe the GSB proponents fully understand the list of what would have to change at the nationals to put GSB in place: judging team structure, volunteer times, a set of judging standards, table arrangement, the structure of the final awards banquet, the awards, an education component for the entrants – even the Journal. Sure, these things could be worked out – but why? I believe in keeping things simple; this is a hobby and working out these things (and more, I’m sure) would require a lot of hours from a lot of people to address a problem, as I have stated, that really does not exist. We did in fact put a man on the moon, but it took billions of dollars and tens of millions of man hours. And it was not done part time, as a hobby.

      The current system was not born fully formed; it evolved over 35 years. A lot of things were tried and discarded. I trust in that evolutionary process.

      As for the comments about non-winners, I guess I failed to say that not all proponents of GSB are people who can’t win under the current system. However, I do know from first-hand conversations that some are. So I apologize to those who do not fall into that group for painting you with too broad a brush.

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