Human Tab

Here is a more concise and simplified set of instructions on how to make use of human tabulation at debating tournaments. The original article came from Glen Whitman, Associate Professor of Economics at California State University, Northridge. For the full article, visit If you want more details on tabbing, visit ‘The Tab‘.

How to Hand Tab a Debate Tournament

Advance Preparation

Prepare the following in advanced of the tournament. Approximately 1 week early.

1) Tab Policy
Create a written document, much like this example, which explains the rules relating to the tab clearly and explains how the tab will be conducted. Make sure that competitors are aware of this to avoid any misunderstandings.

2) Tab Cards
Create a summary sheet per team and put it on hard card. It must include :

  • 1 row for each preliminary round
  • 1 column for side (Gov/Opp)
  • 1 column to indicate the opponent
  • 1 column for each debater’s speaker points and ranks
  • 1 column for team speaker points and ranks
  • 1 column for cumulative team speaker points and ranks
  • 1 column for judges
  • Slots for individual speaker totals
  • Space at the top for the team name and speaker names
  • Space at the bottom for notes

3) Room Lists
Each round should have a room list with the date and time on the top. Rooms should be in one column with additional columns for prop, opp and adjudicators. Make multiple copies.

4) Tab Room
Organize a tab room near the Convening room. There should either be long narrow tables or lots of space on the floor. Limit access to tab room to reduce confusion and keep others OUT. Set up a table outside with an assistant so judges don’t have an excuse to walk in.

5) Judge Cards
Have a card for each judge and indicate the teams they can’t adjudicate.


Before the tournament, fill in 1 card for each time with the following information. Write the team name in the upper left corner and put each speakers name above 1 speaker column :

  • Each team’s team name
  • The names of the debaters on the team
  • Any special status of the team (seeded, novice, ESL etc)

On the day, check that the information on each tab card is correct during registration. Create one pile of cards for teams that have arrived and another that haven’t arrived. Check that all team members have arrived, not just one.

Between Rounds

Put all gov sides on one table and all their opponents right next to them. Place the judge’s card next to each pairing.
Between any two rounds, you should fill in the following information on each tab card: side, opponent, and judge. The fastest way to do this is like so:

  • Write in “G” for all the Gov teams
  • Then write in “O” for all the Opp teams
  • Then write in the Opp team in each Gov team’s versus column
  • Then write in the Gov team in each Opp team’s versus column
  • Then write in the judge’s name on both teams’ cards
  • If anyone got a bye, write “BYE” in big letters in the row for that round

Then fill in team names on the judge cards. For each judge, write down the two teams she is judging this round. (Again, this is intentionally redundant. By putting judge names on team cards and team names on judge cards, you make it less likely that you’ll accidentally assign a judge to the same team twice.)

Tabbing Rounds

As ballots arrive, have someone check them at the tab room door before the judge leaves. It is much harder to chase after them later. They should also look for outrageously high or low speaker points.

To tabulate a ballot, find the round it corresponds to by looking for the Gov team. Then take one team card and write in the following information in the appropriate columns :

  • A W or L in the win/loss column
  • The first debater’s speaker points
  • The second debater’s speaker points
  • The team’s total speaker points and rank

Leave the cumulative speaks/ranks column blank for now. Then repeat this process for the other team. You should set aside a place in the tab room to put the finished tab cards. After you have finished recording all results, lay out the cards according to the next rounds draw.

For the last round, put them in piles according to wins/losses. For 3 Rounds, you’d have 3-0, 2-1, 1-2 and 0-3.

Should you want to have rankings by round, place teams in piles by wins after each round and then ranking them within their pile. You should be able to copy teams down after you lay each pile out on the table in order.

The Break

After the last round, lay tabbed cards out in piles according to wins and losses. Look for the breaking teams (usually they will be in the first stack, and maybe the second depending on the size of the break). This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t tab the other teams, you need them tabbed to calculate speaker awards and rankings of non-breaking teams later on. It is crucial that you double and triple check your results in this step as this is the most important task.

Once you think you have the set number of breaking teams, check all remaining teams in case you have made an error. Recalculate the breaking cards to check there hasn’t been a miscalculation. Also check teams that are tied for win/loss record or very close to breaking (the last breaking team and the first non-breaking team)

Break ties as follows :

  • Head-to-head. If the teams have debated against each other in the preliminaries, the winning team is ranked higher.
  • Adjusted speaker scores. Ignore each teams highest and lowest speaker score for any round and calculate again.
  • Double-adjusted speaks. Same as above except you ignore each teams two highest & lowest speaker score rounds.
  • Opposition strength. Here things get touchy. Find the win/loss record of the five opponents of each team in question. Average the number of wins for those five teams. The team who’s opponents had a higher average win/loss record wins. It means they faced tougher opponents.
  • Flip a coin. This is the last resort and has never known to have been used.

Once the breaking teams are found, order them from first to last in the following way.

  • Win/Loss ratio
  • Speaker scores
  • Ties are broken by the same method as described above

Pair them according to the designated format. Usually top breaker against bottom breaker. You do not need to care about pairing conflicts. However, if the teams have already debated, you may want to switch their sides. Otherwise, a team should get the side they least get. If both teams have the same Gov/Opp split, flip a coin.

Now place judge cards next to the break pairings. Conflicts should be avoided but preliminary adjudications can be ignored. Copy down the break and make the announcement.

Elimination Rounds

Usually the tabber doesn’t need to care about the elimination rounds as there is no tabbing involved. However, if you wish, you can choose to record the elimination rounds on the cards anyways as a better record. Otherwise, each panel announces the winner of the debate and they move on to the next round.

Total Tab

Team Rank
Ranking all non-breaking teams by the same rules as described above. For breaking teams, keep those who progress separately and place those who have lost in the elimination rounds at the top of the order. If there are multiple teams to be ranked after an elimination round, rank them as you would for the preliminary rounds.

Speaker Rank
Only do this after the team rank is established as the ordering will be messed up. Find the top teams of each category (Overall, ESOL, Junior, Senior etc) and set them apart in separate stacks by overall ranking.

You do not need to calculate every debater’s speaker points. Most top debaters will be in the top few teams. Take a rough guess of the number of speaker scores debaters will need to be ranked in say the top 10 (3 rounds of 80 gives 240) and subtract 3. Now start looking for debaters with scores above the guessed number and set them apart.

As you set them apart, write their name and speaker score on a sheet of paper. If you get too many names, raise the threshold. If you don’t get enough names, lower the threshold but remember to go thorough the pile again.

Once all cards are considered, look at the names. If you have less than desired, go for a lower threshold and repeat the process. If you have too many names, cross of the lowest scores until you have the desired number. Finalize their ranking by putting a big red number beside their name.

Speakers who are tied should be separated in the following ways:

  • Adjusted scores. Ignore each speaker’s best and worst rounds in terms of speaker points, and then find his total speaks for the remaining rounds.
  • Double-adjusted scores. Ignore each speaker’s two best and two worst rounds in terms of speaker points.
  • Team performance. Find out which speaker’s team did better. The better team wins.
  • Coin flip.
Other Issues

Byes and Forfeits
If a team gets a bye, put a W in its win/loss column.
If a team forfeits, put an L in its win/loss column.

Late Teams
Late teams will often beg and plead to be allowed to debate rather than forfeit that round. Make sure you have an established and clearly announced policy on how to deal with them. Always stick to the policy no matter what. A sample policy is as follows :

No team, regardless of the circumstances, is guaranteed a pairing if they arrive less than 1/2-hour before Round 1. If the team calls in advance, and they have a good excuse for being late (e.g., car trouble), they’ll get a bye, winning first round. If the team does not call in advance or has a lousy excuse, they’ll get a forfeit, losing first round. Late teams in other rounds automatically forfeit.

Although you can pair late teams easily by maybe removing swing teams, don’t let them slow the tournament down. Under any circumstances, never let late teams debate rounds that have already started.

Avoiding Errors
When reading pairings aloud, say Alpha, Bravo, Charlie or Delta to avoid confusion.
Check tabbed cards as you put them into their win/loss pile.
Avoid teams with byes or forfeits when ranking them for awards.