Before the madness began
12 of the original 25 jurors were present for final jurying--though all were invited, some had come in from out-of-town, or they were not available for a second missed day of volunteered time. One had been a last-minute replacement from Europe who was here at the time but was no longer in NYC. This meant that each juror now had twice the voting power as before. This I was fine with!
Murray Tinkelman, weighing the finalists for the grand prizes
After a leisurely period familiarizing ourselves with the work we were told to start making selections. Prizes were awarded greatest to smallest, which meant the first ones to be chosen would be the two $5,000 prizes. We were each to grab two pieces we would personally have awarded the prize money to, and bring them to another space in the room. One of my two choices was grabbed by someone else, so I grabbed a third pick, and took my two pieces over. Once these ~20 or so pieces were separated, the poker game began.
I simply mean that SI-branded poker chips were dealt out, 2 per person. These represented our votes. I was a little concerned that there'd be verbal debating, and that winners might be decided on the strength of rhetorical persuasion by enthusiastic champions of particular works. This was not at all the case--the vote was strictly democratic, with a few ad-hoc organizational suggestions as the morning wore on. Chips were collected and redistributed between rounds, varying in number depending on the round and prize pool available.
The ground rules were as follows: no turning over the artwork to see name/school, which made voting anonymous again. I was glad for this, as I'm sometimes a little suspicious of competitions on precisely this point. This rule was obeyed faithfully. You could not double-or-triple down your chips on single works. I might've preferred this personally, but what it allowed for is for a more democratic selection of winners--if something got 8 votes in a particular round, that's because 8 people favored the work. Otherwise, 3 people could've provided 8 votes. It spread the power around. Allowing it would've allowed for greater individual power for strongly favored pieces, and more pressure to counter-vote similarly. I was completely fine with this decision, and think it reduces grounds for criticism since winners were chosen by a larger quorum of votes.
So, with ~20 pieces in the running for two $5000 prizes, voting began. At this point a bit of strategy comes into play. You can vote purely on your preference, but if you see that some pieces have 3 or 4 votes, putting a lone chip on another piece will likely do nothing for it. However, of three pieces tied at four votes, a chip placed on one of them could break a tie in favor of your chosen of the tied pieces. So most rounds I was able to spend votes on preferred pieces, but I always held back a "kingmaker" vote to the end, in the hopes of propelling a worthy piece into a prize bracket which it was in the running for (even if it was not strictly a favorite of mine overall). This was often done because the last vote I might've wanted to place would not have caused that piece to proceed to a prize bracket anyway.
I was happy to see that all 3 initial pieces I championed eventually qualified for prize money in various brackets. None of them, however, took top prizes, although one of them was a strong contender each round until it did win.
As pieces were picked for prizes, they were removed. Occasionally, the stack was refreshed and we were allowed to bring in single additional works if we wanted. This changed the dynamic greatly. I think I only did this once--so long as my initial favorites were still in the running for prizes, I did not choose to give them additional competition. Single artists could not win multiple cash prizes. Each juror likely had their own voting strategy. Or none at all.
Another factor was how quickly you spent your votes. For instance, quickly placing chips down caused other jurors to take a second look at a voted-for piece. Some rounds, there seemed to be a definite shift in opinion based on first-placed chips. I noted this as other jurors' strategies, not my own.
On occasion there were ties with fewer slots in a given prize bracket than there were pieces. When this was the case, a simple hand-vote was used to remove a piece from the running. As pieces won, we were then told the artist's name and school. I was happy to see San Jose State University well-represented among the winners. Though I didn't go there, it is after all my hometown!
Jurors who had conflicts of interest were gracious in recusing themselves from voting in certain brackets. Once again, the fair and respectful atmosphere gave me a very positive feeling towards the competition. There was no collusion among judges in the sense of vote-trading, and people respected the one-vote-per-piece rule.
Choosing next year's Call For Entries poster: (L-R, holding art) Scott Bakal (Chairmain, Student Scholarship Competition), Anelle Miller (Director, Society of Illustrators), Leo Espinosa (Juror)
At the end, there were a few special prizes given out. Some organizations had prizes of expense-paid workshops that we could award. One such was a full-paid scholarship to 2009's Illustration Master Class (a $1850 value), chosen among finalists which were broadly speaking within the fantasy/sci-fi genre. Another of these was a hand vote for next year's Call For Entries poster--a fantastic promotional opportunity. These were chosen from among the two $5000 winners and a third piece which endeared itself to a number of folks for being...unusual.
In the end, democracy decided the day. Doubtless most of the jurors did not get favorite pieces highly placed, since only about 4 pieces took the fattest of the prizes. However, I am happy knowing I was instrumental in a couple of pieces getting awards at all by putting them in the running where they were considered and voted upon, and in propelling certain pieces into higher brackets by breaking ties. Each of us had the privilege of so doing, during the various rounds.
So, congratulations to all the winners, and to everyone who made it into the show. Just getting in really is a high compliment, believe me. I look forward to meeting some of you in May, at the opening! Best of luck to future years' entrants--I hope this breakdown helps you understand the process better. Perhaps you can glean some strategic points by reading between the lines a bit and understanding the way it works between both posts.