Understanding Debate as a Chessboard

Every debate consists of numerous flows containing dozens upon dozens of arguments made by both teams. In fact, the vast majority of arguments in a round will have little bearing on the ultimate RFD. Some are simply gateways to winning other arguments. Others are completely irrelevant. In this way, debate rounds function a lot like chess. There is the board, the debate itself. The different pieces function as different arguments. Some arguments, like pawns, are simple, but they can do a lot of damage if not handled properly. Others, like the knight, have a specific utility. And some, like the king, must be won at all costs.

So what are the arguments that matter? That is a good question, and it is hard to answer because each debate is different. One thing to keep in mind is that a debater should understand how their arguments interact with others in the round. Arguments never operate in a vacuum. If debate is a chessboard, then moving one piece alters the entire board and changes the strategies that are needed to win. To key to winning is understanding how the board is altered minute-by-minute.

The best way to approach this is to keep the following formula in mind:

If we win that _________, then __________.

All arguments have a claim, a warrant, and an impact. X is true for Y reasons, and as a result, Z. (When I say “impact,” I do not mean that in the sense that it is a literal “impact” like war--merely that there exists some corollary derived from the claim.)

Assuming that a debater has won that the warrants supporting a given argument are sound, and the claim itself is reasonable, they are entitled to the impact of that argument. What happens to the chessboard with a successful maneuver? The player has only advanced one piece. How does that one piece, that one argument, affect the rest of the board?

An example:

If we win that there is no value to life in the world of the affirmative…

What are the implications? This is something that we find in a lot of ontology-based kritiks. Just proving that there is no value to life in and of itself does not really mean much. We have to extrapolate additional corollaries from the claim in order to parlay it into a strategic advantage.

Some possible conclusions:


- Even if they save lives, those lives have already been rendered meaningless.

- Advantage impacts relying on body counts are not important anymore.

- The same utilitarian logic used to quantify such individuals must be flawed if their net worth is zero.

- No value to life justifies the extermination of those viewed as worthless--creates the potential for genocide which is a material impact that can outweigh case even if we ignore philosophical conceptualizations.

…and so forth. Just winning that one argument impacts many other arguments made in the round. Point out to the judge what the ramifications of winning a particular argument are. More importantly, one will have to explain how they are deriving their access to those ramifications. For example, a debater will still need a lot of warrants and analysis to explain why “no value to life” nullifies their advantages, because that is not going to be an automatically granted claim (i.e. the opponent can argue that while a lack of value to life is reversible, bodily death is not).

Obviously, not all arguments are made equal. For example, just winning a simple uncontested uniqueness claim (a pawn) is not likely to impact much of the board; while powerful, overarching claims like the one discussed (a bishop) can have significant ramifications. A debater’s job is to understand their own arguments and figure out how they interact with other arguments to affect the board. Furthermore, debaters need to be capable of doing the same type of analysis on their opponent’s arguments. This is harder because there is not much time to think about the opposition’s strategic options. But if one can anticipate how their arguments will develop as the debate progresses, then a debater can really avoid costly concessions and make it difficult for the opposition to find an easy way out of the round.