Tuesday, June 2, 2015

CQ WPX Contest: To Love It or Hate It?

I did a semi-serious QRP effort in this past weekend's CQ WPX CW contest. This is in any case a relatively relaxing contest for a single operator entry with its 36 hours operating time permitted out of a possible 48, I was also not fully committed to putting in an effort until well into the contest period. So I was in mellow mood. That the weather was less than ideal I was comfortable with the idea of staying indoors at a time of year when I'd rather be outside.

As it turned out I operated for 30 hours. Propagation was such that I took frequent breaks during the day due to poor propagation for QRP (good long openings but with poor signal strength), including a lack of 10 meters due to the low solar flux.

CQ WPX is a fun contest, though it is not without its peculiarities. What follows here is not a criticism of the contest or its exceptional management. It is just that the environment has changed around it. Let me start with a brief background for those unfamiliar with the contest, the WPX operating award with which it is bound and how amateur radio licensing has changed over the years.

A brief history

When I was contesting more seriously in the 1980s the WPX contests were 2 of the 4 major contests with a truly global feel and participation. the others were the CQ WW contests also sponsored by CQ Magazine. In comparison the ARRL DX contests were, and remain, second tier contests due to their effectively being large North American QSO parties.  The 4 majors were the sole focus of a multi-op team effort I was part of in the early 1980s: VE3PCA.

Many other contest teams around the world had a similar focus. If you were a DXer and also a serious competitor these were the contests you most cared about.

The rules are simple enough: everybody works everybody. QSO points are roughly proportional to QSO difficulty (country, continent, band), with multipliers being call sign prefix. For example, my prefix for a multiplier is VE3. Others would include W3, UA0, UA9, PY1, and so on. Obviously just by virtue of being in a country affords you a distinct call sign and therefore multiplier value. Larger countries with more hams have more prefix ranges assigned, allowing more equitable distribution of multiplier value. This means that a W1 or a WA2 can be as valuable as a G8 or a BY1.

What changed

In the 1990s in the wake of political changes amateur radio energies were fully unleashed in a wide swath across Europe and Asia. Lots of new super-stations sprouted up over the following decade. Elsewhere in the world rapid development in formerly third-world countries amateur populations rose and added new ranks to the global pool of contesters, and newly workable prefixes.

Just as many contesters flock to semi-rare and rare countries for CQ WW contests to become an attractive multiplier, and so boost their scores, something similar occurred in CQ WPX. Many countries' governments were persuaded that supporting radiosport was desirable. That they could do so by a simple and inexpensive administrative procedure was attractive. Thus the appearance across the world of "contest call signs".

Contest call signs, often only permitted during contests, were designed to be beneficial. Typically they are 1x1, 1x2 or 2x1 calls that are easier to copy and faster to send. This is good for them and for those contacting them. Examples include: G9W, LY2A, C4Z. There are countless others. These stations are in addition to the entrants using their usual call signs. Prefix multipliers proliferated.

Other countries, notably the US and later Russia, made the issuance of 1x2, 2x1 and 2x2 call signs routine for higher-class licensees or by application.

The result

Prefix diversity is exceptionally high today. It is so high that it is common in CQ WPX contests to have almost every QSO count for a prefix multiplier until well into the contest. The multiplier acquisition rate never does slow down that much throughout the weekend. In my case I logged 823 QSOs and 488 of those were multipliers. That's a phenomenal 59% of QSOs that were multipliers!

Among the top scorers a multiplier count over 1,500 is becoming common. Their multiplier to QSO ratios are still 20% to 25% despite working as many as 8,000 stations.

In my opinion multipliers in CQ WPX have become too easy. When everyone is a multiplier no one is a multiplier. To win in this contest you have only to focus on bulking up on QSOs. Taking time to find and work multipliers is not worth the time investment. The new strategy is to be as loud and fast as you can be. That creates long, deep runs to run up the QSO totals.

As I put it in my soapbox comments accompanying my entry for this weekend's contest:
My strategy was to ignore most of the world to focus on Europe and the US. Prefixes aplenty were there without chasing DX with weak propagation. Put another way, I solely focused on QSO total and let the multipliers take care of themselves.
It works as well for QRP as for the super-stations to focus on QSO-rich areas.

It doesn't require great intelligence to discover this strategy. This contest is widely understood to be one about high rates and dominating signals. While these are winning factors in any contest it is more true in CQ WPX. A modest station from a perfect location on an African shoreline is worth no more a VO1, and both will struggle to do well in this contest.

The proliferation of prefixes has perhaps done some damage to this contest by making it less valuable to be in a relatively-isolated global locale such as Japan or one with only modest amateur numbers such as South America. There is little downside in score potential by not bothering to turn the yagis in those directions.

I know that it reduces the contest's appeal to me, and it would seem many others in many less-populous regions who choose not to bother with it. Many would fervently disagree with my opinion. The fun and success they experience is not something I would want to dampen. However, as things stand I have more fun entering an ARRL DX contest than CQ WPX.

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