Month: May 2015

Philadelphia Area Pre-Nats Preview

The following are predictions for each of the Philadelphia-area quizbowl teams that are attending one of the two national championship quizbowl tournaments, the 2015 NAQT HSNCT in Chicago and the 2015 PACE NSC in Reston, VA (for reasons on why the tournament known as the National Academic Championship does not qualify as a national championship anymore, see here).

We are pleased to see so many Philadelphia-area teams taking the time to attend nationals this year and want to encourage more to do so in future years. These predictions are intended solely for fun and bulletin board material to encourage greater interest in the game of quizbowl in the Philadelphia area and increased studying by the participants.

Each of the two national tournaments has a different format. The 272 teams at the HSNCT play 10 games in the preliminary rounds on Saturday; teams with a winning record after the prelims play double-elimination playoffs on Sunday (teams that finish at 6-4 start in the loser’s bracket so it’s single-elimination for them). Teams at the NSC are grouped in a number of seeded preliminary pools and then proceed in a series of rebracketings that eventually rank all 96 teams. For HSNCT, we will give the predicted record of the teams on Saturday (and Sunday if they are predicted to make it) and for NSC we will give the predicted final rank (plus or minus some error).

“Berwyn”

This team played only Great Valley’s tournament and qualified for NSC off of that. We have little idea how they will do based on a lack of data, but what data we do have suggest a lower-half finish. 3rd place on an A set is nice, but the questions at the NSC are so much more difficult that it’s hard to make a prediction of how they scale up. They seem a bit of a one man team, which might hurt them in terms of preparing. It is good to see that they’re planning on attending, but there’s just not enough of a record to really compare them to other teams very well and the difficulty jump may be shocking.

Prediction (NSC): ~80th?

Cedar Crest

Cedar Crest qualified for HSNCT by the virtue of their 3rd place finish in the Lancaster-Lebanon league and will try to improve on last year’s 3-7 finish. We’re glad to see them making the trek to Chicago, but it’s tough to see them improving too much. They had some flashes of promise, such as averaging over 18.6 points per bonus at Blue Hen, so there’s talent to work with here (though that A team actually finished below their B team there thanks to some odd results and schedules). However, most of their local play was on A-Sets and thus they have little experience on nationals-caliber questions (note that both the HSNCT and the NSC are significantly tougher than pretty much all high school tournaments during the regular year). Inconsistent lineups at invitationals may also negatively impact whatever lineup they go with for nationals. We think they will acquit themselves well and build for the future, but don’t see the playoffs as a realistic goal this time out.

Prediction (HSNCT): 4-6

Delaware Valley

Similar to Berwyn, we have very little information on Delaware Valley. They placed 4th at a New Jersey tournament, but only put up ~16 PPB on an IS set which seems odd since they had 18+ PPB at their only other pyramidal tournament appearance back in November. This suggests that they may be one of those teams better at tossups than bonuses. They did beat some solid teams at the November tournament including Ithaca (NY). We’re very glad to see them attending HSNCT this year (and would love to see more NE PA teams in general!), but they might have benefited from playing more of the regional tournaments throughout the year to build up a stronger knowledge base.

Prediction (HSNCT): 4-6

Emmaus

Emmaus will make their nationals debut at HSNCT. They’ve had a fantastic season for their first year on pyramidal questions, with two tournament victories (Henderson and Eastern PA State Champs) and many other 2nd-4th place finishes in our area. Ryan Bilger has been the heart and soul of the team and has done most of the heavy lifting. The problem with one man teams is inconsistency, especially at higher levels of difficulty and against the best competition. If Ryan has a bad round, Emmaus is in trouble; while his teammates contribute none yet seem capable of carrying the team up to a victory in a close match. However, he has shown extensive real knowledge in his areas (History, Fine Art, some Literature) and similarly could go on a tear to beat a top-50 team on the right packet. What will his teammates contribute? They’ve shown some clutch buzzes in matches we’ve read for them, particularly Omar Ahmed on science, but they’ll need to have studied up to help make Emmaus a more balanced and dangerous team. Either way, Emmaus should have an exciting HSNCT and could easily notch an upset or lose to in a head-scratcher any given round. The playoffs are a good possibility, but a run deep into Sunday is very unlikely.

Prediction (HSNCT): 7-5 (6-4 Saturday, 1-1 Sunday)

Manhiem Township A

Seasoned veterans of multiple previous national tournaments, Manheim A will be playing both HSNCT and NSC. We see them as a high-floor, low-ceiling team. Between Jake Deerin and Ahan Patel, they have very solid core players who will not let questions go dead and will keep bonus conversion solid in all subjects. Piotr Crittenden and Eric Zhuang will provide ample backup, though there’s a question of how deep their science knowledge in particular may be. However, they lack a real “home run” threat to get consistently deep powers and take tossups off the top teams in the country. Conversely, Manheim does have the benefit of being a team that plays smart and rarely makes bad negs, so they could make a neg-happy team pay dearly.

Prediction: 6-5 (6-4 on Sat, 0-1 on Sun) at HSNCT, ~55th place at NSC

Manheim Township B

Manheim Township’s B team is shockingly similar to the A team in terms of strengths and weaknesses. They are similarly good at bonuses, cover the distribution of topics well without having an area of true expertise, and keep the negs to a minimum. They will probably not make the playoffs like their A team, but should preform very ably and gain good experience for next season.

Prediction: 5-5 at HSNCT, ~80th place at NSC

PALCS

PALCS is going to NSC, but that’s one of the few concrete things we know about this talented yet mysterious team. It seems that they split their teams based on age of the players instead of skill and thus the B team consistently outperformed the A team across the season. PALCS never made it higher than 3rd at a tournament, but got better as the season went on and shows a lot of young promise. Gianni Mangielli, their best player, only has played sporadically. How PALCS finishes will be largely dependent on who is in the lineup when the tournament comes around. Big upsets are unlikely but they will win some games.

Prediction (NSC): ~70th Place

Souderton

Souderton appeared on the local pyramidal circuit mid-season with a bang, notching a grail in their third-ever pyramidal match.  We’re exited to see what they can do now that they’ve had some practice and are hopefully building on their real knowledge with packet-reading and quizbowl knowledge. A two-man team for the bulk of their points, the Alexes (Kozitzky and Cross) have some good, deep knowledge in certain subjects, particularly history. Souderton may still be a bit raw and inexperienced compared to other teams, but will win a decent number of matches and look poised to become a rising power in the region for next season.

Prediction (NSC): ~65th Place

Wilmington Charter A

Charter A seeks a third national title for their school this season and will play both national tournaments. We don’t see them seriously contending for the gold this year, but they will almost certainly finish the highest of all Philadelphia-area teams. We like Varun Wadha’s geography expertise to propel them far at HSNCT in particular. Rohan Narayan and Shrayus Sortur will add elite buzzes in their categories of Science and Literature. Mohan Malhotra is a bit more of a generalist who can provide more-than-adequate backup. One concern for them though is buzzer discipline; Charter A negs too much even at lower levels of difficulty and is almost certainly going to lose a game or two at nationals thanks to being too aggressive on the buzzer. We like their chance to make a deep playoff run at HSNCT, but a top-10 finish may be out of reach.

Prediction: T-13th at HSNCT, ~20th place at NSC

Wilmington Charter B

This B team is a lot like the other B team playing from our area, with more of a focus on building for future years rather than contending for the playoffs. They will only play HSNCT this year. Charter B doesn’t have any super weapons but are consistently solid and seem to cover the broad categories fairly well. The lineup going to HSNCT has never played as a whole this season, so they may not quite have the team chemistry that might help them fill out all the niches. Playoffs are unlikely, but they may show some flashes of promise.

Prediction (HSNCT): 5-5

Wilmington Charter C

This team is mostly younger players being thrown to the lions for experience at HSNCT. We like that moxie and think that these players will finish well in the future. But not next weekend.

Prediction (HSNCT): 3-7

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GPQB Interviews: Missy Doll

Today we metaphorically sit down with Missy Doll, GPQB’s coach of the year, for a discussion of coaching. Missy has been co-coach of the Manheim Township program since 2009, overseeing their transition to pyramidal quizbowl. She has also helped reform the Lancaster- Lebanon quizbowl league to using exclusively good NAQT questions instead of house written speed checks, bringing excellent quality product to hundreds of students in the Lancaster area.

1) How did you first get involved with coaching Quizbowl?

Six years ago, the coach of our quiz bowl team wanted to step down.  He wanted to train his replacement, so he asked Chris Manning and I to do it.  We both said no at first, but we decided to do it together.  We were co-assistant coaches for a year before taking over the team.  Manheim Township has had a quiz bowl team since at least the late ‘80’s.  Last year the father of one of our players also played for Manheim Township when he was in high school.

2) Manheim Township has an extraordinary record of constant contention within the Lancaster Lebanon League (4 of the last 6 titles). How do you work to stay one step ahead of the other teams in your area?

We practice a lot.  We have practice twice a week, and we compete in as many tournaments as we can. When students miss practices, they write questions instead.  They are still doing something to improve as a quiz bowl player during that time.  This year alone, we have had 19 different competitions.  While the questions are different, you will learn something at one tournament that helps you answer a question at another. We also have amazing students that spend the time studying on their own.  Our team is whatever our students put into it.

3) Township consistently has one of the largest squads in the Philadelphia area, bringing D and E teams to tons of invitationals. How do you recruit?

Actually, you have to try-out to be a member of Manheim Township Quiz Bowl.  There’s a limit to the number of students that we can manage.  We’re limited to the number of students that can fit in our school vans to attend competitions, and that is our only means of transportation. We are even driving two vans to Chicago for HSNCT again this year.

We hold try-outs on the first Friday of the school year, and we rely on our students to help advertise.  So far, they have done a great job bringing in their friends that are also good quiz bowl players. If you make it fun, students will come. With that being said, I don’t support having try-outs if you can avoid it.  It adds a constraint to the team, but our district requires an activity fee for quiz bowl.  Everyone that competes on our team has paid $120 to the school to be eligible to play.

4) Manheim Township has always had several solid players sharing points at one time as opposed to the “superman” model of team. Do you think this has helped you over the seasons?

You can study one topic in depth, but you can’t cover every subject as well.  I highly recommend that strategy for new teams.  Even when we have had one player that overshadows the others, the team would still be a top bracket team without that one person.  That takes the pressure off that individual.  If they have a bad game, others will step-up.

I try to emphasize that individual awards don’t matter though. A team will be much stronger with four balanced, equally scoring players then with one dominant player. Individually scoring awards don’t reward that.  I personally wish individual scoring awards didn’t exist, but they are a staple of quiz bowl tournaments.

5) What’s the greatest challenge facing you as a coach in today’s game? Greatest reward?

The greatest challenge right now is funding.  When I started coaching, we received enough money to fund every tournament we wanted to attend.  If I put it in the budget, I got it.  Today, I am paying for a lot of things out of my own pocket.  I have purchased 2 ½ buzzer systems myself.  We are constantly fundraising to be able to pay for everything that we do.

The greatest reward is getting to work with this great group of students.  You won’t find a better group then quiz bowlers.

6) What’s the most memorable match your Manheim Township teams have been involved in?

Our most memorable matches have been on our local tv show, Brain Busters.  The show caters to close matches because the question distribution varies, and the questions include a lot of buzzer races. You never know what will happen.

At this point, I think the most memorable match would be last year’s finale.  We were behind by 75 points, but our team didn’t give up.  At the end of the round, Jake buzzed in with the answer of “A Streetcar Named Desire”. Their reaction was priceless.  The next day we drove to Chicago for HSNCT, so that was a much more enjoyable van ride!
We were at a rest stop in the middle of Ohio when someone came up to Matthew and congratulated him on the win the night before.  It was a nice way to end our season.

Thanks to Missy for taking time to answer our questions!

Pennsylvania Academic Competition State Championship Wrap-Up

Note: This post was written in the immediate aftermath of the 2015 Pennsylvania State Academic Competition in April 2015. Since then, the Chester County IU, which runs the tournament, has suggested that it will be making some changes to the 2016 edition of PSAC that may include better questions, though the exact details are still not clear. We have edited and updated this post as of 2/21/2016 to mention these developments and to make a few cosmetic changes to the article, such as changing “PAAC” to “PSAC” to better reflect its name.

The 2015 Pennsylvania State Academic Competition (PSAC) were held today in the state capital at Harrisburg, PA, and live-broadcast to the public on PCN-TV. While ostensibly the state championship for quizbowl in Pennsylvania, the authors of GPQB found the tournament to be riddled with issues and not at all a positive portrayal of academic competition. The biggest problems stemmed from the questions used; the questions were, to put it kindly, atrocious.

Many of these problems afflict other examples of bad quizbowl around the country. But as the statewide academic competition for Pennsylvania, PSAC’s issues are especially egregious since they cast education in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in a negative light.

Quizbowl should be an opportunity for students to demonstrate real, significant knowledge of a wide range of topics by quickly recalling important pieces of accurate factual information. The questions should be written to clearly differentiate teams by various levels of significant knowledge on these important academic topics. The questions used in PSAC, however, utterly fail to do this and the tournament itself has a wide range of additional issues as well. In no particular order, the problems we observed included:

  • Misleading and Unclear Questions

The vast majority of the questions at PAAC consisted of questions where the players were forced to “mindread” what the question was going to ask. Instead of making each question a competition between the players to demonstrate their knowledge of the subject matter, the questions rewarded luck, guessing, and having previously heard the same questions before (see below) over actual knowledge.

Many questions went on for multiple sentences without asking for a specific answer. Others, however, would quickly ask for something in the first line. Players were forced to play a game of chicken with the question–would it ask about X? Or Y? Should the player buzz in now and hope that the question is going where they thought? This isn’t fair or fun to the players–instead, it often punished students who knew more about the topics and were misled by a confusing or deliberately swerving question.

The swerves at PSAC were especially bad–there were often massive changes in the topic of the question from sentence to sentence, forcing players to blindly guess where the question was going rather than demonstrate knowledge. A typical question would go: “Facts 1 and 2. Facts 3 and 4. Random editorial comment. How does Fact 2 relate to ANSWER?” This led to most of the questions baiting players into blindly buzzing without being sure of what was even being asked for and certainly not a fair way to distinguish levels of knowledge between teams. Good quizbowl questions make sure to specify exactly what’s being asked for at the start of the question so that teams compete on knowledge, not on figuring out what the question writer was thinking.

  •  Verbatim Question Repeats 

There is no place in an academic competition for verbatim repeats of the exact same question from round to round or from tournament to tournament. You can have multiple questions on the same answer line from tournament to tournament, but the questions themselves should be new each time with different clues and not the exact same text. Such verbatim repeats reward rote memorization and do not reward actual knowledge of the subject.

Not surprisingly, verbatim repeats are verboten in most pyramidal quizbowl formats. Alas, based on multiple reports from previous PSAC participants, PSAC used a number of verbatim question repeats. Questions on topics such as “Paul McCartney” were correctly answered by GPQB author Ben Herman when he played this tournament in 2011. Not only is this a bad idea for the reasons outlined above, but it also unfairly advantages teams from Chester County, who have a higher likelihood of having heard many of the questions used in PSAC while other teams have not. Given that the two Chester County teams made it to the finals, such a conflict of interest looks untoward at least and makes claims of a level competition field ring hollow.

  • Incorrect Factual Information in Questions and Answers

In addition to their stale nature, many of the questions used at PSAC appeared to contain blatant factual errors. Among the more egregious examples from this event:

  • Juan Carlos I was a King of Spain and not a “dictator” as described
  • 1001 Nights is the correct title for the work of literature asked for in a question. This answer, however, was rejected and a different team received points for “1001 Arabian Nights”
  • Crepuscular (adj.)- Being active around twilight or dawn. PSAC stated that the word Crepuscular meant active at night, clearly not the same.
  • Bicuspid Valve is a perfectly acceptable answer for the type of valve in the heart being asked in a question, which the Judges did not take.
  • The Progressive Party and Bull Moose Party are the same thing; if anything Progressive is more correct as the Bull Moose was a nickname derived from its candidate, Theodore Roosevelt. However, only Bull Moose was considered an acceptable answer.

These are but a few of the examples of factual errors today. Unfortunately for the competitors, there was no way for participants or coaches to effectively appeal when these incorrectly written questions cost them points. An especially bad example that proves the rule was when “Easter Rising” was not initially accepted because somehow the question wanted the incorrect “Easter Uprising.” This was bad enough that someone actually got that changed before the match was over in the only example we saw of accountability for a bad question. Based on conversations with former PSAC competitors, this exact same question–with the incorrect answer line!–had come up before and still hadn’t been corrected when re-used in the tournament.

The lack of fact-checking, refusal to take many acceptable alternate answers (such as “Dred Scott” for “Dred Scott v. Sanford”), and inability of teams to protest despite having correct information makes for a frustrating and unfair experience for players, coaches, and parents. Good quizbowl has clearly outlined correctness guidelines that focus on rewarding players for demonstrating correct knowledge (via prompts and ways of writing the question to clearly specify what is needed) rather than having to guess what the question writer wanted.

  • Unclear rules and procedures

It was interesting that the state championship ended up having a format unfamiliar to most teams–as evidenced by repeated reminders in the early rounds of what the rules were–and especially the tiebreak format, which seemed unfamiliar even to the experienced (and quite good, given the horrid material he had to work with) moderator. The tiebreak used at PSAC dragged on forever and involved some bizarre spelling bee-style format the nobody seemed to understand and ended up having a ton of history questions, which gave an unfair advantage to the team with a better history specialist. There are much better ways to resolve a tiebreak and most good quizbowl formats use a variety of questions from different categories to do so.

Furthermore, the whole structure of the tournament–including 3 teams playing each other at once in matches–is very odd, especially as the way to qualify for the playoffs consisted of total score rather than just wins. Taking the top teams by total score into the playoff can hurt good teams that get drawn together in the earlier rounds by taking away opportunities for those teams to earn more points while giving a distinct advantage to teams that end up against weaker opponents in the preliminary matches. It was also unclear if there was a balanced draw in the first place based on previous performances or if teams were simply placed together in random configurations.

  • Uneven Question Difficulty

While there appeared to be some attempt to have a standardized question category distribution, the difficulty between questions varied wildly, from extremely hard answers to extremely easy ones with no way for teams to get a handle on what might come up next. This was especially bad during the “fanfare” directed rounds when some teams got a set of easy questions while others got extremely hard ones. At least when the questions are given out as tossups to both teams, each team has an equal shot at the question to some extent. When given during a directed round though such as in the fanfares, such questions can result in a dramatic advantage for one team over another that’s entirely orthogonal to real knowledge and based solely on getting lucky.

  • Slowness and Ponderousness

The tournament only guaranteed each team two matches with two other teams at a time. Most good quizbowl tournaments can fit 10+ matches with even longer questions into the same time period that PSAC took to run a handful of rounds. While having the matches in the state capitol building is nice–and it makes sense to do playoffs and finals as well as some prelim matches in those rooms–teams should have the opportunity to compete against more opponents and have more opportunities to demonstrate their hard-earned knowledge than just two relatively short matches.

Conclusion: Pennsylvania can do so much better than PSAC 

The most frustrating aspect of PSAC is that these problems are easily rectifiable. There already exist reputable question providers that can write good pyramidal questions with fair distributions across subject areas and exceptional factual accuracy. There already exist intuitive rules and procedures for grouping teams, running matches, and doing playoffs in a fair way that gives every team a more-equal shot to compete based on knowledge rather than luck of the draw. None of the ponderousness and slowness involved in PSAC needs to happen.

While the teams that eventually made it to the PSAC final–West Chester East, Dowingtown East, and Emmaus–were all at the very least good teams, it’s questionable whether or not these three are actually the best in the state of PA and if the competition fairly led to them being in the final. It’s especially curious that a team that failed to finish higher than 5th at a good quizbowl tournament this year would be considered the state champion by any fair measure, but Dowingtown East ended up with the $2,000 check.

What would a better PSAC look like? How can that be made to happen next year so that future generations aren’t condemned to continue to play on terrible questions in an unfair format? We’ll cover that in a future post.

The GPQB Staff