Not your average bowl-game: Practicing and competing with the Academic Team

| Senior Cadenza Editor

Quiz Bowl Results

Saturday, Feb. 5

Division 1
1. Wash. U. (A) (qualified for Nationals)
2. Missouri S&T (A)
3. Truman State (A)
4. Missouri (A)

Division 2
1. Wash. U. (B) (qualified for Nationals)
2. Missouri (B), Harding
4. Wash. U. (C)

Had I entered the practice room at a different time, I wouldn’t have felt so lost. But—as I would soon learn—I wasn’t born with the necessary timing to keep up with the Washington University Academic Team (WUAT), the University’s in-house Quiz bowl squad. When I opened the door, I was greeted by a loud ringing noise—sophomore Charles Hang had just buzzed in.

“It’s um, like, Kyoto,” he said.

“Ten points,” said senior Peter Glaser, who was moderating the round. I sat at the end of the conference table and started to introduce myself to a couple of people, but the round was almost over, so there wasn’t time for an in-depth conversation.

The next toss-up began: “The Ancient Iranian prophet…”

I whipped out my notebook and tried in vain to keep up. Looking back at my scribbled notes, I see that I managed to write down, “The Ancient Iranian prophet blah blah word blah for ten points name that (incomprehensible cursive).”

“Um, frickin’ elliptical,” answered fourth-year graduate student Gordon Arsenoff.

Wait, that doesn’t make sense. Two minutes in, and I’d already zoned out for a question. And as I worried about the logistics of covering the WUAT practice, I missed another one.

“This is frackin’ ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream,’” said Arsenoff.

Arsenoff slapped himself. He seemed intense. In fact, everything seemed intense. I threw my notepad aside and started recording the practice with my phone.

As I learned, WUAT was practicing for NAQT Region 11 SCT in Springfield, Mo., which stands for the National Academic Quiz Tournaments’ Sectional Championship Tournament in Region 11. This region more or less covers Missouri and its immediately surrounding states. Wash. U. was sending one team into the Division One bracket and two teams into Division Two. If the team came in first place, they’d qualify for nationals in Chicago.

In the tournament, known as a Quiz bowl, two teams of up to four members play two rounds per bout; each round lasts exactly ten minutes and four seconds. First come the toss-ups. The first individual to buzz in has two seconds to answer the question for his or her team. Two seconds of silence counts as a wrong answer, which is why many of the answers are preceded by fluff like, “That would be…” and, “This is frackin’.…” Toss-up questions are long and winding. They start with the hardest clue and progressively work their way to the easier hints. For example, a question might begin, “A teenager from this state invented a device that could penetrate underground rock formations…” and end, “…and its capital is Santa Fe” (as you all know, the answer is New Mexico and a bit of a headache).

If you can buzz in early, you get 15 points. You get 10 points for buzzing in later. Get it wrong, and your team loses five points. If you get the toss-up right, then your team gets to participate in three bonus questions, worth 10 points each, with no penalty for wrong answers.

As I finally wrapped my mind around the game’s basic rules, it became clear that WUAT had two ringers. There was Arsenoff, obviously, with his furrowed brow and matter-of-frack manner of speaking. Then there was Hang, a sophomore, relatively new to the team. He’d also just joined ROTC and was wearing his camo to practice, which incidentally made him stand out more. For fairness’ sake, they were put on opposing teams. Between the two of them, they answered nearly all of the questions. Hang wasn’t so hard on himself when he got one wrong, but it was clear that neither of them liked to be incorrect.

In between rounds, Glaser suggested that I participate in a round at NAQT for the story. I wondered if I was qualified.

“I’m assuming you’re a senior undergraduate, or at the very least, you’re in your fourth year or fewer here,” Arsenoff said.

“Yes,” I responded.

“Then you’re qualified.” I still felt that I had to protest. Sure, I was technically qualified, but I wasn’t sure I had the mental capabilities to keep up with the questions—to start with—and then answer them if I was even able to make it that far.

Most importantly, there was the matter of seriousness, of which I had none; the team seemed to live off it. I couldn’t imagine participating in the formality of this practice, and I only imagined that it intensified in the real tournament. Every answer was succinct, judicious and rapid, a perfect little package of academic knowledge. And of course I missed another question while my mind raced.

“It’s Keynes,” Hang answered.

My ride to Springfield left at 5 a.m. I slept through my alarm but was relieved and surprised to learn that most everyone else in the car had too. In fact, none of them had been to Wednesday’s practice. I asked junior Mohit Iyyer and senior Tianhui Shen how they drilled for sectionals, and they both started laughing.

“We haven’t been to practice since high school,” Iyyer said. “I just go to tournaments.”

I tried to connect his answer to my preconception that Quiz bowlers were a serious bunch. Maybe he didn’t go to practice because he worked better alone. Maybe he didn’t need practice; he was that good. But in truth, the case was that quiz bowl and WUAT didn’t define his life. It was just something he enjoyed doing. Suddenly the atmosphere felt much looser, and we had no choice but to sing “Don’t Stop Believin’” on the way down.

WUAT’s Division One team faced the Missouri University of Science and Technology in the first round, and it was a rout, possibly because Wash. U.’s four-man team was going against Missouri S&T’s one-man team.

Each team member had his own way of solving questions. Shen rested his hand thoughtfully on his cheek. Senior John Ahlfield almost always appeared to be sleeping, except when he’d buzz in to prove he wasn’t. Iyyer often deferred to Arsenoff, even when he knew the answer.

“I think it’s Cain,” mumbled Iyyer.

“If you have an answer, then say it,” Arsenoff said.

“It’s Cain,” Iyyer declared.

Arsenoff was their leader, their “captain,” as the proctor liked to call him. But despite the rigid format, WUAT always looked looser than the other teams. More willing to goof off, more likely to tell the proctor to “go away” when they didn’t know the answer.

And they wouldn’t stop winning, either. The first game wasn’t a fluke. They were up 140-20 against Missouri S&T when they missed a question on David Bowie.

“Am I the only one who grew up in the ’80s?” asked the proctor, throwing up his hands.

“I remember the music video—it was weird,” Ahlfield said.

“I’m old enough to remember it, but out of touch enough to not know it,” Arsenoff said.

Two bouts later, WUAT faced Pittsburgh State University. Naturally, Arsenoff buzzed in for most of the questions, while Pitt State sat petrified. On the other side of the room, WUAT’s members were swaying in their chairs, whispering to each other between questions, giggling when The Onion was referenced. One question managed to stump Arsenoff, so even he gave a joke answer:

“Well there are like, five Welsh last names, so I’m just going to name one. Hughes.”

“No, it’s Stanley,” the proctor responded.

Before the tournament, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to keep up, but at the tournament, the game slowed down. They weren’t uptight at all. Ahlfield tapped at his Nintendo DS while “spectating” a Division Two game.

What it all meant was that when Glaser ducked out of his D2 game to “take a nap,” I wasn’t nervous at all to fill in for him. Things weren’t as serious as I had made them out to be. I held the buzzer steadily in my hand, graciously letting my teammates field the questions on opera history and chemical bonds. Then the proctor gave me a chance. The bonus round was about Kevin Smith.

“This director of ‘Gone Baby Gone,’ guest-starred as a character and as himself in Smith’s ‘Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.’”

The answer came to me before the question was over. I knew who had directed “Gone Baby Gone.” I looked at my teammates, who sat dumbstruck. It dawned on me that I was their only hope.

“I know this,” I whispered.

“Say it!”

I turned to the proctor and declared, “That would be Ben Affleck.”

“Ten points,” he said. Obviously, my ten points made all the difference in a game we were winning by 300. I pumped my fist, and the other team (Wash. U.’s other D2 team) laughed.

At the end of the day, WUAT came in first in both divisions, securing two spots to nationals. Ultimately, though, the greatest victory wasn’t the fact that they’d systematically destroyed the other teams. The best times came when WUAT was just goofing off, belting Journey in the car or ordering a chicken-fried steak on the road.

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