Today’s interview is with Vishwa Shanmugam (VS), Rohan Vora, (RV), and Anish Gadgil (AG), three members of the Downingtown STEM Academy team that finished T-8 at the 2018 NAQT HSNCT and 18th at the 2018 PACE NSC. 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?
VS: Last year, we were contacted to play the Downingtown East Invitational. So we went there, did that, had a pretty good time, and then we discovered there were quizbowl forums. We signed up for Great Valley’s tournament the next month, and then Wissahickon, and ever since we’ve just played whatever we could. I had previously found NAQT’s website and Protobowl and stuff linked on our academic team study website, but we didn’t do anything with that—I had kind of assumed that NAQT was only for certain areas and our area just didn’t have anything.
RV: I remember we actually used to practice on NAQT pyramidal stuff, which wasn’t anything like the CCIU competition. It’s funny because every time we got to the bonuses packet we’d have no idea what to do, so we’d just skip those.
JW: What are the biggest differences between playing in your local academic competition and pyramidal quizbowl tournaments?
AG: Well, I think with the local format—they are speedchecks and there are three teams up against each other, so there isn’t really any cohesive strategy involved in playing them. There’s pretty much an element of randomness and luck. The biggest difference is that, flipping to pyramidal, you can actually begin to think critically about games, beyond just knowledge, about how to organize yourselves.
RV: And to take it in a bit of a different direction, I feel like through pyramidal, we were able to connect with many more people and make much more close friends, because pyramidal to me is more born out of passion for the game, and we basically just connect much more easily with the sort of people who are very much into this. You’d think the local competition would be more conducive to making friends, but we actually found that a lot of people were just playing that out of obligation.
VS: Yeah, and the quizbowl Facebook groups are all pretty active; people are really into that sort of stuff. Actual quizbowl tournaments are just more fun, like people are having more of a good time.
JW: How have you gotten involved in the quizbowl community and what is something you want people to know about it?
VS: The thing that people yell a lot about is insularity, but it’s also like, you can talk to people even if you’re not some 200 PPG star player. There’s definitely the [Illinois Quizbowl Memes] Facebook page, where you can just connect with random people, and the Quizpolling page, where there’s a lot of wholesome threads where you can just chill and talk to people.
AG: If you’re new to the community, and you’re maybe not like super duper good right off the bat, and you have a lot of inhibitions, it can be a little bit difficult—but people are nice and really approachable. Once you can get past that single barrier of inhibition when it comes to interacting with people in the community—I think that kinda just comes with time—then you’ll find it a lot easier to interact with the community at large.
RV: I’ve found that top players and very important community figures are a lot more approachable in quizbowl than in any other activity. Like, on the Pennsylvania Discord, for example, there could be some high schoolers just casually talking about Dragon Ball Z with Eric Mukherjee, who’s like this legendary player—you know, just stuff like that.
JW: What are some tips you would give to students in nonpyramidal local leagues who are interested in trying good quizbowl?
VS: Definitely check out what’s near you, and if there’s something near you, that’s always a great place to start.
AG: And if your program doesn’t already have a history of pyramidal quizbowl and you’re interested in doing that, try to incorporate more and more pyramidal elements in practices, try to encourage your memberships to grow larger, and push people towards going to tournaments and building a program that can support you throughout your pyramidal journey. Housekeeping in general is very important in addition to linking up with the community.
VS: It’s pretty easy to get your coaches to switch to practicing on pyramidal questions, because they’re often on similar material to nonpyramidal questions. And you can integrate it into your normal practice schedule.
RV: The great thing about pyramidal quizbowl is that it does rewards studying—and not only that, it’s worth studying for it. I personally found quizbowl much more enjoyable when I started studying for it, because I felt that my knowledge was being rewarded.
JW: How did you motivate yourselves to study so hard?*
VS: A lot of it was I realized I had started pyramidal in eleventh grade and I was like “wow, I have one year left of high school pyramidal quizbowl,” so I just spent a lot of my summer studying. I found that I really enjoyed reading packets—I’d find ways to read packets and look up stuff on Wikipedia on my laptop during school, as opposed to going home and having a rigorous three hour schedule or whatever.
AG: I would say that my experience is probably a little different from his, because on a personal level, I wasn’t really all that motivated to study until recently. The biggest thing for me was osmosis, because I was on a team that was gradually becoming more competitive and, being dragged into these upper echelons of quizbowl, I was being forced to scale up. In a weird way, the feeling of being left behind was a really big impetus to growing as a player.
RV: Through quizbowl, I ended up finding new interests, which helped me—that’s how I ended up studying, actually. Before quizbowl, I wasn’t somebody who was hugely into classical music, but since I acted as kind of an arts specialist for the team, I basically became a lot more into visual arts and compositional music and that sort of thing.
VS: I found I remembered that I really liked reading books, since I hadn’t done that for a few years before discovering quizbowl. I also tried to study in ways I enjoyed; I held off on the carding for a while, until I got to nats season, because carding isn’t something I can internally motivate myself to do.
JW: What was your study schedule like?*
VS: I really just didn’t have one. I read packets whenever I felt like it, I fell into random Wikipedia holes, and occasionally I picked up a book when I could motivate myself to. I don’t think you need a strict study schedule to be good, but if you’re one of the people who won’t study unless you have a schedule, maybe that helps.
AG: My motivation kinda fluctuated throughout the season, and unlike Rohan and Vishwa, I was a junior, so I had a lot of school-related deadlines close to nats season. So, as for me, as I couldn’t find time to make a regimented study schedule, so I incorporated studying in whatever ways I could. In general, I think that if you find something that’s conducive to your quizbowl personality and your schedule, there are many ways you can ensure consistent improvement.
RV: I’d read whenever I had time in school or at home, and if I was motivated to study I would read arts questions and arts content, and later if it came to my mind, I’d read into it more and look it up. I just tried to make quizbowl a part of my life, and that was my studying.
JW: What are your study tips for learning and remembering literature?*
VS: I think that it’s really worthwhile to read a lot of the short stuff. The time versus efficiency tradeoff on reading a summary of a poem versus reading the poem is kind of low. I definitely encourage you to read a lot of the stuff you can get through in one day—like, read a lot of plays and short stories. For remembering stuff, carding definitely helps if you’re a person like me that’s bad at character names or bad at obscure titles. But reading is the best way to get plot details, or using Sparknotes, or what have you.
JW: You played out of state quite a bit during the season—what do you think are the benefits of doing so?
RV: We got to go to this really nice Middle Eastern place in New Jersey, we don’t have that here.
AG: The biggest benefit for playing out of state is that certain tournaments become nexuses for highly competitive teams to go to. It’s very important to consider your team’s goals and motivations for doing so—if you are a team that is highly motivated to getting into higher levels of play, then it can be highly advantageous.
VS: I’ll go the less nerd response and say, it’s also just really fun to meet people outside your circuit. Like, it’s cool to see fresh faces, and some of my best friends are from adjacent circuits that don’t come to PA tournaments very often. If you do go out of circuit, you should bring snacks and give them to people and then they’ll be your friends.
JW: From the past season, is there any specific victory you’re especially proud of?
RV: There were a few games at the nationals and pre-nationals tournaments where all three of us had pretty significant scoring in a close game.
VS: Hunter was like that, I think we all got at least two buzzes against them and we won by a tossup at BEST.
AG: I think our game against BGA at HSNCT was somewhat similar.
VS: On a team level, beating TJ was a really nice achievement. It was a good experience to see us meshing together as a team and putting in the work to beat good teams.
JW: Do you have any memorable team moments or favorite stories you’d like to share?
RV: I don’t even know where to start. The three of us have so many memories of having political discussions, or making jokes, or car rides going to or from tournaments, or being at tournaments—there’s just so much silly stuff that’s happened over the years. In our match versus Hunter at BEST, they got an early lead on us and we were coming back. With just a few tossups to go, Chloe (from Hunter) called a timeout, and Vishwa and Anish and I went to the other side of the room. Vishwa’s leaning on this AC unit, and in the middle of discussing our strategy, Vishwa’s just like “hey I look really cool leaning on this radiator, don’t I?” and then we won the game. There’s so much really weird stuff going on like that. He didn’t even look that cool, but we won.
VS: The context was they were having this really serious discussion and I was like, wow, I want this to be a little more fun than that. Speaking of the car rides, we always listened to “Sofia” by Alvaro Soler.
AG: We don’t see eye to eye on a lot of things, but “Sofia” being a good song, that’s one commonality we have.
JW: Anish, what are your goals for next year’s STEM team?
AG: Rebuilding is going to prove to be a formidable challenge. But it’s not entirely bad; it’s sort of cliche but in many ways it is kind of a new beginning, and an opportunity for me to leave my mark and have us grow something at D-STEM. Results at nationals and whatnot are important and nice, and of course I’m not going to let that down, but I am going to try to focus on making quizbowl have a presence at our school amongst extracurriculars and turning D-STEM into a school that can consistently produce strong teams.
JW: Rohan and Vishwa, do you intend to continue playing and/or being involved with quizbowl in the future?
RV: I will continue to play quizbowl, and hopefully to do some outreach and some moderating; I do want to try to staff some Pennsylvania tournaments if I can. And I definitely want to be involved with New York City’s tournament circuit as well, to try and improve those to the standards we have in Pennsylvania.
VS: Same. A couple of Maryland people have talked to me about doing stuff with It’s Academic, which is like the local league version of Maryland’s nonpyramidal quizbowl. I’m also trying to help write and edit more stuff, so I’m writing for Terrapin this year and I’m editing for RMBAT. I’m also definitely going to play.
JW: Is there anything else you guys would like to add?
VS: I looked really cool leaning on that radiator. Don’t let Rohan lie to you about that.
AG: As a more serious statement, we’ve been playing for the better part of the last year and a half, and honestly I’ve had a blast. We’ve come together really close as a team and we’re forever indebted and in gratitude to the Pennsylvania circuit for making these things possible for us.
RV: I’m glad to have teamed with the two of you, and I don’t know if the same sort of chemistry could have happened with anyone else at STEM, or anyone else I know in quizbowl for that matter. I’m really happy with how our time as a quizbowl team has turned out, and I also do want to thank Pennsylvania quizbowl for helping to make us into a team that’s involved in quizbowl. And you guys can bet D-STEM quizbowl isn’t going anywhere; Downingtown STEM’s team is around here to stay. And I think that they’ll always be strong.
VS: Thanks, Franklin Mint! But really, big thanks to GPQB; we probably wouldn’t be playing quizbowl if we weren’t invited to Downingtown East’s tournament and if we didn’t find out about everything afterwards. It’s been a fun two years.
Thanks to Vishwa, Rohan, and Anish for participating in this interview!
*question submitted to our Instagram account