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Fish Shows, Part II

Here Comes the Judge!

Last year I wrote a brief article on how to prepare a fish for a show, and some of the things to expect at a show. If you read this widely circulated tome, thank you. Hopefully you were inspired to enter a fish or two in an event. If not, the coming calendar year provides a number of excellent opportunities to try your hand at it.

Anyway, the article was directed at the novice or beginning show enthusiast, and many commented that it was quite informative. Even a few people said that the article finally got through to them why their particular fish was always a bridesmaid at shows. On the other hand, many of the judges who read the article got a little bent out of shape. Considering they were not the intended audience, I'm not surprised. People showing fish need to understand that they will run across all kinds of bizarre circumstances, and the occasional bizarre judge is one of them.

But alas, the judging corps felt slighted and probably would've reacted better if I had offered a similar pre-show primer and pep talk for their role in the grand drama we call a fish show. Not being a judge myself, I can't offer any sagacious prose to that end. But I am a typical crybaby entrant, so perhaps in fairness I can provide the judicial side with some helpful insights.

Court is now in session. What follows is written for judges only. If you are not a judge, please turn the page.

First of all, anybody who enters a fish show is abnormal. As a judge, you need to know that going in. While millions of Americans maintain aquariums, 99.999% of them are unaware of, let alone participate in, fish shows. This means that only a tiny minority enter shows, and we members of this lunatic fringe have convinced ourselves that our fish is worth catching, transporting, and displaying...and then we pay money for the privilege of entering. In our minds, our fish is clearly the winner, and we are not bashful about explaining this to you very loudly. When you do not agree with our limited perspective, we head straight for the hospitality suite to tell all the other obsessive fishkeepers that you missed the boat. As a judge, you have to expect this inevitable chain of events.

Secondly, the majority of us know less than you judges do. We haven't actually seen many good specimens, so we base our opinions on information gleaned from books. These books are frequently older printings from Axelrod's empire, which are cobbled from scientific sources that include the original writings of Ben Franklin, James Audobon, and the Rev. Lechmere Guppy himself. Thus, as a judge, you need to plan for an encounter with a loony fishkeeper who is relying on information from two centuries ago.

Every fish club prides itself on authoritative and voluminous show rules, enforced by an experienced chairperson that will inform you of all special considerations. I've been a show chairperson, so I know firsthand how incompetent we can be. With that in mind, it is a good idea to request and review a copy of the rules that the entrants are playing by, but likely have not read. Try to work with the judging standards set forth in the rules, and ask for clarification from the show chair when you see irregularities. But be aware that no matter what standards you use, somebody will approach you afterward to describe the way it was done at their show two years ago, and don't you think that was a better way?

The show chair is also the person tracking you down like a dog at the appointed judging hour. But in many cases, the speaker chair has scheduled your presentation for more or less the same time period. Many fish shows will appoint a scribe to "assist" you. Scribes tend to fall into three categories: Expert, novice, and "other."

The expert scribe believes that they are virtually a "co-judge," and offer their opinion whether or not it is requested. They unknowingly lobby for their particular favorite, and give you cause to reconsider fish that are otherwise unworthy. Generally, the expert scribe is there to confuse you, and makes you wish you were working with a novice.

The novice scribe is often someone who has just left the other 99.999% of fishkeepers and recently joined our crazy little fraternity. This person has attended every speaker presentation during the show weekend, and can still recite the number, species, and character traits of every fish in every tank he or she owns. They may not even be your assigned scribe, but somehow manage to get involved, follow you around, and produce an endless stream of inane questions. For example, while you are carefully studying one entry, the novice will point to another nearby and query, "Do you take off points for the big goiter on his head?" or when you are commenting on color, they suddenly blurt out something like "Do you think it's okay to give gerbil food to your convicts to color them up?" You'd gladly trade the novice for some other type of scribe.

The "other" scribe is one who could care less about the task at hand, for whatever reason. He or she is volunteering because they feel they have to, or because his/her girlfriend/boyfriend is show chair, or club president, or something like that. They are noticeably preoccupied, and forget to write down some of what you've said, which is the very definition of their job. When you ask them to visually confirm something, they sigh and say "I don't see it...but I don't really know what you're talking about anyway." This type of scribe makes you wish you were working with the expert scribe....see above.

Beyond the entrants, volunteers, scribes and other characters, there is one final person at the show who conspires to make judging a life of hell. I call this one the "professor emeritus" syndrome. This is usually an ex-judge, who lays in wait to second-guess your picks. While you were driving to the show venue, you were hoping that this person would not be there, but then is frequently the first person you see when you walk in the door. They couldn't handle the pressure of judging in past shows, so they hang around like an old professor on campus that is no longer wanted but has no idea what else to do.

The first thing the professor says when he sees you is "Hey! I heard you were gonna be here!" The second is, "So what class are you judging?" Since they already know the answer, they will be in the showroom within the hour to pre-judge the fish, then tell you which one "looks good," i.e., you should pick. They'll even hang around while you are judging, ready to offer any assistance, so that they can enjoy the power of being judge without the responsibility of dealing with the crazy fish people afterwards. Some of these ex-judges wait until the trophies have been handed out, then rile the hezbollah by pointing to non-winners and declaring that they are actually more deserving, and suggest that the losers go and ask you why you didn't pick their obviously great entry.

Occasionally the fish themselves will make a judge miserable. This is usually a rare, seldom-seen or new species that is entered by a know-it-all fishkeeper. The fishkeeper is often a complete flake, and probably mailed a trout to Paraguay in exchange for this exotic entry. They know that you don't know what you're looking at, and lurk around to see if you consult an atlas, which will be inconclusive anyway.

Some helpful points

Basically, judging is an unrewarding task that forces you to interact with way too many fishkeepers that have gone way overboard with an otherwise pleasant hobby. In almost every category you judge, one person (the winner) will think you are a genius, and a whole slew of people (those who didn't win) will think you are blind and/or stupid. Friends within the hobby are waiting to pounce on your mistakes; enemies are going around telling everybody that you totally blew it.

How then do you deal with this misery? First of all, speak with finality and authority. When some bozo (like me) asks why you picked that other fish, talk about scale counts, fin rays, dentition problems, or anything else beyond our grasp. Or you can just say, "too small," since there is always a bigger one somewhere.

As far as the scribes are concerned, well, if I were a judge I would bring my own. Failing that, you might put on a glazed, psychotic expression and tell the scribe not to talk. At least you won't look out of place.

Dealing with the "professor emeritus" is another story. The best bet is to study this individual, as old burn-outs tend to be creatures of habit. Once you understand their haunts, you can be somewhere else. When you are cornered, which is inevitable, make up a new species name within their area of expertise, and ask them what they think of it. After they begin to puzzle over the information, explain that it is very similar to...and make up another name.

"What do you think of those new Pseudotropheus hifidelitalis?"

"Uh, hmm...huh?"

"Very similar to shagcarpeticeps."

Say it with conviction, and his entire weekend will be spent in pursuit of more information, asking anyone who might know and sounding quite idiotic in the process.

Obviously these have been presented somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but I will say that each is based on a real incident. Some of these wacky scenes play out at virtually every show I've ever attended, so let it be said that judging is not an enviable job. Hopefully the day will dawn when judges won't have to worry about being second-guessed, hassled with questions, or intentionally sandbagged.


At the recent New Jersey Aquarium Show, a group of guppy heavyweights showed a number of outstanding specimens. We brought in a guppy expert -- but non-experienced judge -- named Frank Schulterbrandt to handle the difficult judging task. He spent significant time looking at each fish; easily more than the usual minute or two. He pointed each specimen according to our criteria. Then he re-checked each fish thoroughly. He made notes, compared fish, and carefully scrutinized his numbers. Finally, Frank announced the winners. Although each of the exhibitors was a more experienced guppy breeder and might be expected to raise questions, none did. Frank's decision was respected because of the time and care he put into the task. The judge did his job, and the guppy guys were a class act. So whether you're a judge or an entrant, that's the example to follow.

Please click here if you would like to read part one, Tips on Showing Fish.

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