A Chat With ASP Head Judge Richard Porta

posted by / Blogs / March 8, 2012

Who are these middle-aged men?

Who are these middle-aged men?


The 2010/2011 ASP season has been rife with controversy — Adriano’s floater in Rio, Parko over Julian at Trestles, Taj over Travis in France — and the volume at which pundits are calling bullshit grows louder with each event. “Who’s making these calls? That was no 9! Are the judges watching the same waves as us?” Even we, the venerable SURFING magazine, have joined the lynch mob from time to time. But we’ve decided to put down our pitchforks…

SURFING: What goes on up in that tower? RICHARD PORTA: There are five guys, plus myself sitting there. They each have a booth with a partition so you can’t see the guy next to you. Everyone sits there. Not much talking. We watch the guy surf. Then everyone writes down the number on a sheet, whatever it is, zero to 10. You write it down first, in case the electricity goes or whatever, you still have a copy. Then I check everyone’s sheet. There’s still no talking. If there’s a slightly different score, we’ll check the replay.

You’re saying someone’s score might be wrong? Everyone’s opinion is valued. The other four guys might be wrong. But we watch the replay and usually the guy on the different score will say, “Yeah, that’s a little better than I thought.” So he’ll rub out his score and write in the new one. And then we type them in, the highest and the lowest get taken out and the average of the three middle scores is what comes out. That’s why it can take so much time. We have to get it right.

Do some judges have reputations for scoring harder than others? No. If you’re constantly low or constantly high, it stands out. So anyone that would fall into that group wouldn’t last long in this game.

So, to be successful as a judge, you just need to score the same as the other judges? It’s a team effort. But if four guys say they’re right and you believe you’re right, that’s OK. That happens. But at the top level they’re experienced enough to know what they’re calling. It may seem like we’re all the same because we’re that good at it. And we have the video replay as a back up.

How do you know you’re a good judge? It just flows. You don’t have to think about it too hard. It’s a confidence thing. I don’t sit there and go, “That’s a 7-point ride.” I say, “That’s a good ride, but not an excellent ride.” And then the numbers just come to me.

So, you’re not crunching numbers into the criteria decoder? Those things all come into effect, but you try to keep it as basic as you can. Then you have to find the spaces in between. Whether it’s an 8 or a 6 is irrelevant. If it’s an 8, the next wave has to be compared to that. We try not to get too hung up on the numbers until we need to. We’re dealing with the best in the world, so you have to be super critical. Otherwise, everything is an 8.

Do judges need to be able to surf well? You gotta know what it’s like to get barreled off your face or take a heart-in-your-throat drop or get hammered over this shallow reef so you can be empathetic with the guys you’re scoring. I’ve surfed for 40 years and truly understand surfing. We get criticized all the time, but if you came surfing with us you’d see that the boys can hold their own in any kind of waves.

Do you ever feel hated? You gotta have a thick skin in this job. If you don’t have judges, all you have is freesurfing. That’s fine, but most people love sport and competition. And to have that, there’s got to be a winner and a loser.

Are you friends with the pros? Or are you the enemy? I tell my younger guys, “Get one thing straight: These guys are not your mates. That’s not what you’re here for.” We’re all civil to each other, but it’s not our job to have a beer and be mates, because the next day you’re going to drop a score that’s going to make him lose a heat by 0.1 and he’s going hate you until the next event.

Are you a fan at all? Do you have a favorite surfer? I’m a surfer that’s doing a job. That job just happens to be scoring guys that surf better than me who are also doing their job. Where I come from, we never looked up to anyone. I’ve always admired the best surfers in the world out in the water, but there’s no room for having favorites in this job.

How do you stay detached from the dramas of an event, or of the tour as a whole? I take interest in what’s going on around me, but it doesn’t mean that I care. All we care about is, at the end of the heat, which guy’s coming out smiling and which guy isn’t.

What about the drama of a heat itself? Do you know what score a guy needs at the end of a heat? You can’t not know. But the most important thing for our job is that, first and foremost, the guy who surfs better wins the heat. So if a guy is needing a 4.5 and surfs a last-minute wave that could be a 4.4 or a 4.6, and his other score is an 8, if this guy surfed better than the other guy, that’s what we do; we just compare it to the other guy.

Is that how you decided the Owen Wright vs. Adriano de Souza heat in Rio this year? That heat came down to critical turns versus turns on a noncritical part of the wave. To give you some insight into that heat – that left was a really shallow, draining wave. CJ went to the hospital on it. Michel Bourez went to the hospital on it. It was so shallow that they got hammered into the sand. So, Adriano does his floater on this heavy sandbar, lands it on a critical section, and then gets that other little wave and does two taps. Then Owen does his air-reverse on a softer part of the wave and gets his 6.5. Next wave, pretty much the same thing. Up until his turn at the end, it was a 2.5- or 3-point ride on the flat section. The air took him up to a 6, but it still wasn’t as critical.

So, the scores were discussed in the tower and you gave Adriano the score he needed? We looked at the video and it was a 3 against 2 decision. The guys stuck to their opinions and the result is history. Then the whole world goes into “The sky is falling” mode because Adriano won a close heat in his home country. The same thing happened with Taj and Adriano at Snapper this year when they were trading high 9s. When Taj won, the Brazilian world was ready to get on boats and come over and take us on because Adriano didn’t win.

No matter who wins, someone is going to blame you for who lost. Exactly. In Brazil, the site crashed and there was so much traffic that they asked me to release a statement. As I’m writing it, I’m thinking, “Oh, this is gonna make things worse.” Which it did. The actual heat got lost and it turned into a racial slurring match.

People love controversy. And that’s why when Travis [Logie] lost his close one to Taj in France, a South African magazine wanted to do an article and I was like, “If we’re gonna turn it into a racial debate, I’m not interested.” It’s a subjective sport. The guys who do the airs want more, and the guys who do the carves want more. For me, I think we’ve found a good balance. We score everything according to who’s ripping.

Is style important to a score? Not really. If you’ve got kind of a weird style, it’s OK. The criteria says, “speed, power and flow,” so the only time we’ll detract from it is if your style is hindering your ability to surf; like, your rail gets stuck or your turns bog. That’s not surfing with speed, power and flow.

How could style not be included? It comes in subconsciously. The quality surfing stands out. You don’t have to analyze it too much. All we’re replicating on our scoring criteria is what it feels like for a competent surfer to surf. It’s a simple formula that is sometimes hard to understand.

So, scoring is basically just a gut reaction by an experienced judge? That’s why we have surfers as judges. You know what that wave was, and what the next guy’s wave was. So, was that wave better or worse? That’s all we’re doing. You go with your gut, drop your scores and there’s your result. Sometimes the judging panel splits 3/2. And if the judges are 3/2 you can bet the competitor’s area is 3/2 or 50/50. And you can be sure the Internet audience is 50/50. It’s not a level playing field. Every wave is different. And people see what they want to see.

Are the first scores of an event necessarily lower, to keep from throwing off the scale? We all arrive early, so we’re assessing the conditions a half-hour or an hour before the event. We’ve got an idea what’s available out there. And you’ll find on the world tour events, you might see two or three or four waves ridden before the first score comes in. ‘Cause we’re just holding to see if we need to move. Everyone’s got a score written, but we’ll watch and see what the other guy does to compare it.

So, you actually hold back scores? They’ll be written down, but the guys get a chance to move if they think it should be different. Once we have the score, whether it’s a 6 or an 8 or a 10, everything else is based around it for that heat. We can adjust that scale as the conditions change. So, if the wind goes onshore and crappy, what’s now a 7 might have been a 4 in the morning.

Is there sometimes an 11? For sure. That happens. Kelly’s no-grab backhand barrel at Peniche was probably the hardest one of the day. But the 10s before it were all pretty worthy, too.

How do you know a 10? You feel them, mainly. They don’t come very often. But you know it when you see something that can’t be anything other than a 10.

How much dialogue do you have with the surfers about the scoring? They know how to access us. We’re not coaches, but we have to be able to explain how we score and why we score. We have to let them know what we score big and what we don’t score big. And then it’s their job to go and do it.

Are there times when you learn from them? Some of the aerial guys have told us what’s more difficult and what’s less difficult in terms of grabs and stuff. I have to learn from what those guys are telling me, ’cause they’re the guys inventing the moves.

Do you know all your grabs? They’re developing them every day. Slobs and mutes, and we dropped a high-score on Josh’s varial, so everyone’s trying to do varials now. That’s where the replay comes in handy because we can see where they’re grabbing and how inverted it is. We have a video we show to all the judges before we head into a beachbreak situation, just to refresh everyone on what’s going and what’s not.

Like a “know your grabs” instructional video? Basically. We got some grief a few years ago for not knowing what’s what, but the guys are all well versed now. They all know what it is and how hard it is. It’s a growing part of the sport, but you still have to balance it out with every other part of surfing so it’s not just an air show. You don’t have to do an air-reverse to win a heat. Power surfing is still alive.
[Editor’s note: following this interview, Porta took an impromptu photo grab test, scoring 9 out of 10.]

How about when a guy’s flipping off the tower as feedback? It starts at a thousand bucks and goes up from there.

Can you really not hold a grudge in future heats? Not in the slightest. I understand that guys get upset, but they have to learn to control their emotions. If they come and see us right, we’ll sit there and show ‘em the video and explain why. But if they come storming into the tower dripping wet and swearing at me, well, better bring your checkbook.

What in the ASP system needs fixing the most right now? We can’t seem to get enough women’s events. We finished the women’s World Tour in Huntington in July. Ideally, we’d have another four events for the girls and some more events in the tropics for the boys. But at $3 million a pop, who’s paying? Hand it over and we’ll go there.

Do you ever feel like the commentators are working against you? You see my eyes rolling? Every time they say, “I’m no judge, but…” they’re undermining the event from within. The easiest job in the world is to say, “That’s not a 7, it’s an 8.” But the hardest job is to find the 8 on your own. The fans want to know about the athletes. They don’t care about the judges.

Does it sometimes feel like the best surfer doesn’t win? All the time. A guy’s been ripping through all the rounds then falls over in the semi or even the final. This happens in all sports. It takes so much energy and passion to get to the final,

Do the judges stick around for the awards ceremony? Depends on the traffic. Usually we’ll watch a bit and talk about where we’re going surfing. I like to surf after an event to wash it off and clear my mind. Then it’s like, “OK, where’s the next one?”

[WHAT WOULD YOU SAY YOU DO HERE? is a feature from our March 2012 issue]


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  • Mik

    Cool. Thought there were 5 judges tho’?

    Hope number 5 isn’t another Aussie, cause I don’t see any Euros or Mainland Americans in the above 4… And that ain’t right… Is it?

    Regardless, Pro Surfing is amazing, no matter who wins, i win, because I get a great experience out of each event. Even in shitty surf. The talent is beyond the beyond.

  • dean cook

    i think the judges are doing a great job who wants to see someone doing whitewash floaters after the waves closedout ,its great they reward people for progressive maneuvers like airs and tailslides as well as full rail carves ,so personally i think they have it correct, they dont want to go back to the 80’s style of judging at the moment there’s a good mix of tricks and carving !!!

  • dirt

    I can’t beleive they are still trying to justify the Owen v Ads heat in Brasil last year. Their Moto, When in doubt, go with Kelly.

  • greggers

    I take back that shit about Riogate. Owen beat adriano. proof: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G7h_FMk0kgc

  • Tim C

    Interesting interview. I had always assumed that the judges would be ex pro’s, alas not. I guess this is because of on potential on going loyalty to sponsers?

    Also, if flipping the tower costs upwards of $1000, I wonder what a full-on board smashing would cost?

  • greasymeatloaf

    “‘Is style important to a score?’ ‘Not really.'”
    I’ll still watch it but, really!?

  • Steven

    What a monkey… You gave Taj the win on the Goldy… Jordy smoked him in semi 2…. Just like you gave Taj the win in France when Travis smoked him…. Those calls exposed the tours flaws and you lost giant credibility world wide… Keep the major sponsors happy rather than let the real truth out…. Thanks for ruining any chance of professional surfing every being taken seriously….

  • dewgun

    Nice article…would also have liked to know how they feel about repertoire on a wave,such as in Ace Buchan’s case.Dude does the SAME move on every wave over and over and gets HUGE scores.It’s a nice move,but mix it up! I see Owen and Wilko mixing it up and keeping it fresh and not getting close to those scores.

  • james b

    Hey, greggers, i´ve watched your video of the ADS x Owen heat and, watching ADS´s floater from that angle, and watching Owen´s waves, it´s reaaaaly clear that ADS won.

    Just like in Snapper in 2012.

  • Dave Mailman

    Only thing that video proves is that the surf at that comp was shit! As for who won, too close to call. Neither of them surfed terribly well at all…

    And, by the way, bash them all you want, Richie and his boys don’t give a shit what you think. They make the calls, live with the consequences, and don’t lose much sleep over it at night.

    Also, while all of them are not ex-Top 16 pros, the vast majority of the judges have surfed competitively and professionally for part of their careers, and outsurf by far 99% of the people in the blogosphere who enjoy wasting their time complaining about the scoring. I’m not saying they are right all the time… but pretty darn close.

  • Mike Anderson

    Its all subjective guys, like saying who the most beautiful girl. Our opinions very. Here is one for you though how about this, change the rules 30 min man on man heats total points. No more best two wave scores. Keep 5 judges, keep throw out the high and low score, but just go for it all out catch as many waves as you can rip as hard as you can surf and paddle your ass off best man wins. That would sort out some arguments would it not? Just a thought…

  • eolo

    how can style not count? style is precisely making the difficult look easy, how could a nervous non articulated monkey score the same that a calm cool collected not a limb out of place artist

  • Jacque

    (People love controversy. And that’s why when Travis lost his close one to Taj in France, a South African magazine wanted to do an article and I was like, “If we’re gonna turn it into a racial debate, I’m not interested.”) – racial debate??? Maybe they should use the video reviews more.

  • Kevin

    There is no way that ADS won that heat. It doesnt matter how many people got hurt on the sandbar that day. A single floater wave is ridiculous for an 8 compared to what Owen was doing. I know they will never admit their mistake, and that I would like to see is ADS realize that there is a huge question mark next to that contest win.

  • Peter

    ASP is way behind the times. My post on the ASP web site was no published as I stated ALL ASP Judges should be ex top 30 surfers from the tour. As how can they judge style, power and a maneuver if these judges have never surfed this good or no how technical some maneuvers are.

    And typical, ASP did not publish the comments like other surfers have tried to say the same thing. Controlling bunch of men with no skill in the water.

    It seems is surfing, judging has had more problems that any other sport on getting the correct surfer right on winning.

    I hope one day another multiple national company takes on a rebel tour and push a more professional approach on who judges, and where a competition should be held.

    Until then, we will only have half a world surfing series with 15 guys who rip and 15 others who really should not even be their.

  • bernice the cave troll

    ASP judges are a $*%(ING JOKE!