I recently got the chance to chat with Jacob Dubner (JD), EJ Eppinger (EE), Nathaniel Hull (NH), and Aidan Place (AP), recent graduates of Winchester Thurston and members of the team that finished T-4 in the Private/Charter division of the 2017 SSNCT and T-9 at the 2017 HSNCT. They ended the season ranked #1 in Pennsylvania.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
JW: How did you first get into playing quizbowl?
EE: Freshman year, we have this fun activity trip with a couple of seniors, and I was chaperoned by the legend Nat Brodsky. Somehow the subject of British monarchs came up, and apparently he was very impressed by my knowledge of British monarchs, which is very ironic because I know nothing about them. He said “you should do quizbowl!” so I showed up at the first quizbowl practice. Then I kind of invited the others.
NH: For me, after first trimester of sophomore year, I had just finished soccer season. Since my brother had done quizbowl the past year, I decided to try it, and after a while, I told Jacob how cool it was.
JD: Sometime winter of sophomore year is when I joined in.
AP: I joined in the beginning of my junior year, mainly because they did it.
JD: We were already friends with Jack Chaillet, who was the quizbowl captain and superstar, which also helped bring us in.
JW: You went from #10 in PA in the mid-season poll to #1 at the end of the year. What did you do to improve so quickly and prepare for nationals?
JD: Early on in the year, where there were teams beating us, it kind of gave us a reality check. I think before, we didn’t really do any specialization, everyone learned what they felt like learning. But then this year, we realized, “we’re really bad at fine arts, we’re really bad at science.”
AP: I think losing Jack Chaillet, who was a generalist and all-around player, made us realize where the gaps were.
EE: I definitely think that we learned how to play the games well enough that we had a higher probability of winning games that were close, even if they didn’t need to be.
NH: At HSNCT, I feel like every game was close, starting from the first round. By the end of it, we were ready, even against better teams, to just outbuzz them in buzzer races.
EE: And we had very few dumb negs. If we were able to keep it close, we had an advantage in that we were more disciplined, I guess.
NH: It helps having four people. You don’t have to rely on one person.
AP: One person can have a bad round, and other people can step up.
EE: It’s like, if I were a one man team, and I had a round with no buzzes, I’d be kind of screwed.
JW: At HSNCT, do you remember what you were thinking while you were playing on Sunday? Were you surprised to find yourselves still going in the playoffs?
NH: When we came up against Lehigh Valley, we were thinking his stats were so much better than ours, so it was going to be really hard.
AP: We were sort of shocked that we made it that far. It almost helped in a way, because we expected to lose those later rounds. We didn’t start panicking if we fell behind in points. It was like, keep calm and keep our heads in, and we just kept on going.
NH: It makes it even better once you win.
JD: I don’t know about anyone else, but for me, going into playoffs on the second day, my goal was top 50, but then we just kept going. Every extra round we went, it was like “oh, we’ve already gone further than we were supposed to go,” so just have fun and do your best.
NH: Once we were playing against higher seeds, it was like, just see what happens.
JW: Do you have any other good study tips or tips for team cohesion?
JD: Even for non-quizbowl stuff, we spend a lot of time together, so having a good group of friends, it’s not a burden when you have to go to quizbowl practice and hang out with these people.
NH: There’s less of a chance of tempers flaring in a match, or any issues like that. In terms of studying, I think you have to actually know the basic stuff before you learn the really hard hints for things.
EE: At least for most people, the first year you spend at quizbowl, you’re just learning the quizbowl canon. Or how the questions are written, understanding how they would word things.
NH: I think one of the reasons we did so well at nationals was because, especially EJ and Aidan, they just learn random things because it’s what they do for fun. [Jacob and I] handle the “quizbowl” knowledge, they handle the other stuff.
AP: [EJ and I] were able to fill in with random powers. There’s always going to be unpredictable power hints that you’re never going to find if you’re only studying “quizbowl” stuff.
NH: Also, some of it’s just assessing the risk of negging, and where you think the other team will buzz.
EE: Especially against some poorer teams, you’re motivated to not neg at all and wait until you’re 100% sure. But then at nationals, you’re like “I was going to buzz, but they beat me to it” on every question.
JD: We were kind of lulled into a sense of confidence and conservatism by local tournaments. There were a lot of good, competitive western PA teams like the Alagars, Allderdice, Norwin, Shady Side, but most don’t go to nationals. We got used to being able to wait until we were really sure to buzz, and I think we realized at small school nationals that maybe that didn’t work as well, especially against these really good teams.
EE: Against the teams that are better than you, you know you have to be aggressive.
JW: You guys mentioned the differences between SSNCT and HSNCT and how you played there. In your opinion, which was more fun?
AP: There’s so many teams there, the hotel’s gigantic. It’s such an event.
NH: Basically, small schools nationals was good practice. SSNCT was fun, but HSNCT was more fun.
AP: And also we brought more people to HSNCT. We brought Jack Chaillet, our former captain, so it was just a better experience.
JD: At small school nationals, you still see questions that you would see at a local tournament, whereas at HSNCT, you get to see a lot more of that stuff like “I’ve never heard a question on this before,” so it’s just the freshness of it all.
EE: At HSNCT, there are entire questions on things that would be clues in easier questions.
JW: From the past season, is there any specific victory you’re especially proud of?
JD: The Darien one.
All: And the Lehigh Valley game.
NH: We won by a decent margin, too.
EE: I think all of us had a good round that round.
NH: And I think because Lehigh Valley was the first round, we woke up and found out we were playing Alex Schmidt—
AP: We didn’t really know how far we were going to go, we didn’t expect to go all that far, so it was one of the most satisfying unexpected victories. We were like “ok, we can actually go somewhere with this.”
JD: Jack Chaillet wasn’t in the room for that match, so as we were leaving the room, we walked out there and the surprised look on his face, a face of wonder, it was pretty awesome.
JW: Do you have any memorable team moments or favorite stories you’d like to share?
AP: We took a van to History Bowl, a ways outside the city. We brought Jack Chaillet with us and accidentally left him at the place where the tournament was. He went to the bathroom and we didn’t realize he was gone, so we just drove off without him. We were at least three miles down the road before we realized. And we didn’t actually turn around because we had forgotten him, we turned around because our coach who just retired at the end of the season, Mr. Hallas, forgot his backpack at the tournament place. As we were on our way back, we realized that we had actually also forgotten Jack. He’s there in the parking lot, wondering where we were.
NH: Another story—in the last round of small school nationals, I negged on the Philippines, saying Italy. I heard “bunga bunga party” instead of Bongbong Marcos. In honor of my neg—
AP: We named our SSNCT trophy after the question we thought lost us the tournament.
JD: Our SSNCT trophy is named Bongbong Marcos and our HSNCT trophy is called Ferdinand Marcos, after his father… I guess overall, the best thing about quizbowl, better than any individual story, just the overall experience of doing something with your friends—it’s been a lot of fun. These people, I spend 90% of my time with, even when we’re not doing quizbowl stuff. I think just getting to do something with them was a lot of fun.
JW: Lastly, do you guys intend to continue playing and/or being involved with quizbowl in the future?
AP: In September, I’m staffing a tournament in western Pennsylvania.
EE: Once you’re done with high school quizbowl, you can apply to write questions for NAQT—
NH: And I think some of us are trying that.
JD: My days as a competitor, I think, are over, but it’d be fun to staff some tournaments and write some questions. Maybe some recreational quizbowl, here and there.
EE: I definitely think I would go to staff tournaments at CMU.
NH: Yeah, we’re all going to be involved in some way.
JW: Alright, thanks! Do you have anything else you want to add?
EE: Just a shout-out to David Hallas.
JD: One of the little things—at nationals, whenever the other teams would call timeouts, their coaches would jump up, start giving this really intense pep talk.
NH: We would call our own timeouts whenever we felt like it.
AP: (laughing) He would meander up to the table with his coffee in his hand and be like “well, you guys are doing pretty well.”
NH: But this coming year, he’s going to be replaced by Dr. Josh Andy.
JD: So yeah, shout-out to David Hallas and our incoming coach, Dr. Andy. I think he’s going to be the one to pass on the quizbowl legacy. At our school, we had, way back, Nat Brodsky, who was the old quizbowl legend, then he passed it on to Jack Chaillet, and then Jack Chaillet passed it on to us. And hopefully we’ll pass it on to someone else.
Thanks to Jacob, EJ, Nathaniel, and Aidan for participating in this interview!