Quiz-bowl kids

Harvard rebuilds its team and answers some hard questions
By CAITLIN E. CURRAN  |  January 8, 2009

CRIMSON COMEBACK: After several less-than-stellar years, the Harvard Quiz Bowl team is back among the best in America. Above (from left to right), Meryl Federman, Adam Hallowell, and Mike Yashinsky await seedings for the playoff rounds at the Early Fall Tournament.

Andrew Watkins is having faulty-buzzer issues. He's seated at the front of a wood-paneled classroom in Harvard's Sever Hall trying to ask six eager quiz-bowl competitors questions about the US presidential election of 1904 — you know, the one when Theodore Roosevelt defeated Alton Brooks Parker. Each player grips a big red "I know that!" button, but the buzzer keeps sounding when nobody's pressing, interrupting the interrogation and breaking everybody's concentration. Watkins curses the set-up each time this happens, but despite the distractions, competition runs high during this 20-minute round of a day-long college quiz bowl tournament that Harvard hosted in early December.

The usual format for quiz-bowl tournaments involves two or more teams of up to four players, each competing in early rounds that define multiple play-off brackets for later in the day. During each round, a moderator reads 20 "toss-up" questions (in his or her best game-hosty voice), which can be answered by any player who buzzes in first. If the player answers a toss-up incorrectly, his or her team loses five points — this is called "negging" (as in "negative scoring"). If the player answers correctly, his or her team receives 10 points and has the opportunity to work together to answer three 10-point bonus questions — usually related to the same subject.

The American quiz-bowl phenomenon emerged in the late 1950s with the General Electric College Bowl, an annual tournament played in nationally televised weekly rounds. But it wasn't until the 1980s that colleges began to host their own tournaments. In 1996, former players and coaches founded National Academic Quiz Tournaments (NAQT), which now oversees quiz-bowl activity nationally. The well-known College Bowl suspended its contest activities in 2008. Quiz-bowl community activity now centers on the yearly NAQT tournament, which takes place each spring, and on tournaments hosted year-round by schools across the country. Schools can host and compete in as many or as few tournaments as they like, which makes "league statistics" something of a jumble. Determining the top quiz-bowl schools is a near impossibility.

Crimson rules!
Watkins, a tall, blond sophomore who speaks quickly and favors shot-glass-sized bottles of over-the-counter drug-store supplements like 7-Hour Energy Shot Fuel, is president of Harvard's 25-student Quiz Bowl team, which is in the process of recovering its reputation as an academic-quiz powerhouse.

In both 1998 and 2003, Harvard won the NAQT Intercollegiate Championship. The university had ranked within the top 15 quiz-bowl schools since the glorified intercollegiate trivia contests became popular in the early 1990s. But club activity (and victories) waned — by Harvard standards, at least — after '03, so students launched an effort to rebuild their program.

The team stepped up Harvard's involvement in the national quiz-bowl scene by hosting and entering more tournaments, and began practicing "officially" two nights a week (though unofficially, some team members practice five nights a week) in a small room on the third floor of Memorial Hall. This past year, they won the NAQT tournament again.

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