Quiz-bowl kids

By CAITLIN E. CURRAN  |  January 8, 2009

"Pretty much every tournament is at its own discretion as to the level of statistics it keeps," says NAQT president and chief technical officer R. Robert Hentzel on the phone from Bloomington, Minnesota. "Some will just record who won, and some will record specific toss-ups." However, he says, "NAQT tends to have good statistics for its tournaments" — and by those standards — "Harvard is the reigning champion."

"The Harvard team is on an upswing in general," says sophomore Meryl Federman, in an e-mail. "Kyle Haddad-Fonda, our ex-president, essentially revived the team after many years of inactivity, so we've started accumulating some great talent in the past few years."

Senior Haddad-Fonda is still an active member of the team, though no longer it's leader. (He got word in November that he'll be one of 32 US students studying as Rhodes Scholars at Oxford next year.) The previous president, according to Watkins, "was a good player, but a terrible leader." Haddad-Fonda began the push and, Watkins notes, the team added several strong players in the past two years.

Know it alls
During lunch break at Harvard's December tournament, those players could be found at the back of a small auditorium on the first floor of Sever, scarfing slices of pepperoni pizza and swapping stories about auditioning for Jeopardy! "I auditioned for college Jeopardy!," says Julia Schlozman, a senior with cropped curls, who was wearing a black peacoat as protection against Sever Hall's drafty classrooms. "I'll hear back in March."

"You have to try out for Jeopardy! so many times," says Federman, whose long brown hair and fair skin make her somewhat resemble a Renaissance painting. She won $75,000 in 2007 when she was champion of the Jeopardy! Summer Games Teen Tournament.

Surprisingly, though, Federman says quiz bowl is more difficult than the popular TV-quiz show.

"Jeopardy! questions are broad but not terribly deep," she says later, in an e-mail. "Whereas in quiz bowl, people write questions on their specialty — they aren't writing these questions so that laymen should even have a hope of getting them. Often you really need to study a subject to get questions on it."

"The level of play and the quality of the top teams has continued to rise since 1992," says Hentzel. "It's really unbelievable. The quality of questions and quality of moderation is better today than ever — mostly it's because of ease of communication."

Hentzel recalls a time in the mid-'90s, when someone wrote the first quiz-bowl question ever about the Russian composer Mussorgsky. Most people had no idea who that was — Tchaikovsky was their go-to Russian composer — but quiz bowlers remembered that question, made notes to study up on Mussorgsky, and now the composer is a common part of the quiz-bowl canon.

"That sort of exposure to new questions all the time drives people to learn about new things," says Hentzel. Many quiz-bowl questions are available online after tournaments, and, with the easily accessed data provided by Wikipedia and Google, preparing for quiz-bowl tournaments is not necessarily easier, but certainly more feasible than in the pre-Internet days.

The Harvard team has certainly benefited from modern technologies — Wikipedia and Spark Notes top their list of must-have quiz-bowl prep tools during our lunchtime conversation — but they've also strengthened their game writing quiz-bowl questions, the result of hosting tournaments, which requires the host team to compose some of the puzzlers.

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