Contesting is competition -- plain and simple. There are no second-place winners. The term for those who don't win is "loser." There is no shame in losing. I have been a loser many times. Winning feels good, but losing educates you. Ask my 6-year old daughter what being a loser means and she'll tell you without hesitation: it means you have to try harder. No one ever won a contest by whining.
If you want to be competitive, you must do everything within your power (and the rules) to maximize your advantages and minimize your disadvantages. Complaining that a contest is unfair accomplishes nothing except to brand you as a bitter, dissatisfied, jaded, jealous naysayer.
Ignore advice or whining from folks who don't even participate in the contest. What can they possibly tell you except how to be a bitter loser? If you want to win, associate around winners.
If you want to be competitive, you must be positive. Here are some suggestions.
1. Aquire as much knowledge as possible about the contest.
First, learn the rules of the contest. That means knowing the exchange and the scoring. It also means understanding what strategy you should use to maximize your score. Figure out how long should you chase a multiplier and how many Qs do you need to be competitive.
Figure out if a mult or a 3-point qso is more valuable to you toward the end of the contest. Calculate how many mults you will need to be competitive.
2. Decide where to point your antenna and when.
You must understand how propagation affects your area. Read the propagation forecasts and make sure you understand them. Know where your greyline goes. Know when 40m opens and 20m closes. Keep an extra antenna and radio tuned to popular 10m frequencies (you know them because you researched, right?) to check for band openings.
3. Study the local competition.
Study the scores, mults, and prefixes worked by those in your area. Call them or write them and find out their strategies. (Of course, they may not want to tell you!) Ask for copies of their logs. Study where they pointed their antennas and when. Find out what bands they favored and why.
Anyone who beats you is in a position to teach you something. Instead of reviling them, study them. Don't forget the other end of the spectrum. Some of the most valuable lessons I've learned have come from low-power stations with wire antennas.
4. Know the field.
Study the contest results from the past 2-3 years. You must know the calls that were active. You must know if any special DX stations be on. You should know who you'll be listening for.
You must know the frequencies that JAs can use on 80m. You should know the 40m allocation world-wide. You should know where VKs will be on the low bands. Instead of figuring out why the contest is unfair, learn how to work it.
5. Improve your station.
Learn the truth about feedline matching, antenna loss, VSWR, directivity, and gain. That means read and study. That means experiment. That means cut and try.
Shrug off the myths embraced by the mediocre. Don't listen to people who tell you that 2:1 SWR is good enough because all the power goes somewhere eventually. Or that 9913 is lossless at HF. Or that a 1 dB difference in a signal is unnoticable at either end. Or that connector loss is negligable. All those statements are lies. Find out why.
Work on your antennas. Nothing is perfect or stays that way. Put up new antennas. Try wires. Try loops. Try beverages. Try low-noise receive antennas. Try slopers. Try, try, try. All these antennas are relatively low-cost.
6. Learn your radio.
All (well, most) of those knobs on your radio have a purpose. Find out what they do. Read and study the manual. Do you know where the manual is?
If you can quickly set a split frequency, you might be the first to work a new station of 40m. If you learn how to use those 100+ memories efficiently, you can stack up big stations and throw your call in rapidly to 2, 5, or more stations simultaneously.
Get all your filters in place. Get a voice keyer. Learn your DSP. Get a better mike. Tweak the audio until it sounds crystal clear and with all the punch of a buzz saw cutting through aluminum. Remember that setting for the contest, then turn it back to mushy so the boys on 80m don't complain.
7. WORK the contest.
If you're going to work a contest, then, by God, WORK IT. A 48-hour contest runs for 48 hours. If you want to be competitive, you will run for 48 hours too. Hey, if you can't, then you can't. But then don't whine about not winning.
The single biggest weapon that a small pistol has is persistance. I've heard lectures from big guns where they advocate switching bands when your QSO rate drops below 60/hour. That's okay for a big gun, but here are some suprising statistics:
At a rate of 60 Qs/hour, you would work 2,880 stations in a 48-hour contest.
At 30/hour, you'd work 1,440 stations in a 48-hour contest.
Even a rate of 15/hour (only one QSO every 4 minutes!), you'd still work 720 stations in 48 hours!
How many Qs did you work in the last contest? I've WON contests where I didn't make 720 total Qs.
Cherry pickers don't win. If you give up when the time between Qs stretches out to 4, 6, 10, or more minutes, you give up your competitiveness. A contesters mettle is measured in the dead of night when calling CQ endlessly on a seemingly dead band or when tuning 20m or 40m or any other band straining to pull that next new station out of the noise. (Hint: This is where 1 dB or less makes all the difference in the world.)
8. Have fun.
Winning is fun. But so is competiting. It's great fun being a part of an overall event that's larger than some petty self-centered concern about whether your QTH is "unfairly disadvantaged." If you want to have fun in a contest, find people who are having fun and do what they're doing. Don't be poisoned by the facile argument that a contest where everyone isn't a winner is unfair and unfair is no fun.
Everything is fun if it involves amateur radio.
I love working SSB, CW, and RTTY contests -- although my skill in each mode varies widely.
I love domestic contests. I don't like the spate of non-SASE cards they generate, but I answer every one -- I will NOT be responsible for discouraging a ham for a few bucks.
I love DX contests. Every time I hear GW4BLE or ON4UN or EA7USA it's the same thrill.
Everytime someone remembers my call I light up like a little kid. Gosh, they remember me!
I love working the all-Bulgaria QSO party and being the only USA entry -- winning with 4 QSOs!
I highlight my name in every contest result that published. What a thrill! Any contest I miss I consider a failure. Every contest I make is a victory.
If you like contests or think you might, understand that there are hundreds and thousands of like-minded souls out there who want you to be the best you can be. We'll help, encourage, and congratulate you for every QSO you make and every log you submit. Every DX station is looking for you. Every QSL you get is a thank you.
Ignore the bitter, the miserable, and the perpetually dissatisifed. They're not your compeitition; they're QRM.
Rob Hummel (WS1A)