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Keeping their eyes on the bowl

In a quiz competition that rewards speed, accuracy, and depth, Harvard's got aces

Harvard's College Bowl team: Bruce Arthur, Andy Watkins, Julia Schlozman, Natalie Heer, Dennis Loo, Dennis Sun, Adam Hallowell, Kyle Haddad-Fonda, Ted Gioia, and Dallas Simons. Harvard's College Bowl team: Bruce Arthur, Andy Watkins, Julia Schlozman, Natalie Heer, Dennis Loo, Dennis Sun, Adam Hallowell, Kyle Haddad-Fonda, Ted Gioia, and Dallas Simons. (Erik Jacobs for The Boston Globe)
By Joseph P. Kahn
Globe Staff / February 17, 2009
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Good buzz.

It's a phrase frequently heard at collegiate Quiz Bowl tournaments like the one held recently at MIT, a regional tournament where teams attempted to qualify for this spring's national championships in Dallas. Powerhouse squads from Harvard, Brown, and Dartmouth led a 28-team field in an all-star brainiac competition played over 14 rounds and 10 mind-numbing hours.

In Quiz Bowl, an updated, more challenging version of television's now-defunct "College Bowl" game show, two teams of up to four players each answer questions - in rapid-fire fashion - testing broad areas of human knowledge.

If the game sounds easy, or like an egghead version of "Jeopardy," it's anything but. Since its subject matter might shift from cell cycles to Civil War battles to Billy Wilder films in less than a minute, Quiz Bowl not only rewards speed, accuracy, and concentration but educated guesswork and intellectual depth of field as well. Hence the phrase "good buzz," which normally refers to a player's lightning response to a particularly tough toss up question - but could also apply to the game itself, one that has seen a resurgence in popularity as a new generation of collegians take it to mind-boggling heights of proficiency.

Exhibit A: a Harvard team made up of seniors Adam Hallowell, Julia Schlozman, Kyle Haddad-Fonda, and John Lesieutre. Last April, the quartet won first-place honors in the all-undergraduate division of a national championship held by National Academic Quiz Tournaments, or NAQT, one of two organizations sponsoring major collegiate competitions (see sidebar). Three Harvard A-teamers are also former star high-school players, part of what Harvard Magazine recently referred to as "the greatest recruiting class in Quiz Bowl history."

At MIT two weekends ago, playing as a unit for only the first time this year, the A team picked up where it left off last spring, winning nine of its 11 preliminary-round matches. Tied with the Harvard B team - itself composed of three up-and-coming Quiz Bowl aces - Harvard A trailed only an unbeaten Brown squad heading into the finals. It then lost three straight matches, however, ending the day in a third-place tie.

If nothing else, Harvard's shaky finish demonstrated how deep the Quiz Bowl talent pool has become. In a game that can induce migraine headaches in casual observers and make quantum physics seem like child's play, merely being very good is seldom good enough. Luck comes into play, too, as do stamina, competitive momentum, and study skills worthy of a PhD candidate.

"Objectively, we knew Brown was much better," said Schlozman of the tournament, admitting to extreme fatigue during her last few matches. Giving Brown full credit, she added, "We weren't necessarily playing to win, though. The object was to qualify for the nationals and see how we do there."

Schlozman is a prime example of what it takes to become a top-notch quiz bowler. A medieval art history major, she grew up in Brookline and attended Milton Academy, arriving at Harvard having never played the high-school version of the game. Nerdy and proud of it, she heard about Quiz Bowl during freshman orientation and decided to try it.

"I wasn't very good at first," Schlozman says, "but I studied hard and got a lot better."

Like many serious players, she made a concerted effort to branch out beyond her academic specialty - i.e., art history - and become proficient in subjects such as literature and opera. Even so, she's among only a handful of women playing on a top-level team. During 13 rounds at last year's nationals, Schlozman faced not a single female competitor. Still, she says, Quiz Bowl has a strong collegial component to it, especially on a campus like Harvard, which not only values high achievers but has a track record of grooming and fielding strong QB teams.

"It's a great way to meet other people who are intellectually engaged," she says, "but don't take themselves too seriously."

Her teammates are just as impressive. Haddad-Fonda, who started an annual high-school Quiz Bowl tournament held on the Harvard campus, is a history major and Rhodes Scholar bound for Oxford University next fall. Hallowell, an economics major, has been accepted to law school at both the University of Chicago and Harvard. Lesieutre aims to pursue a graduate degree in mathematics.

Whatever your SAT scores were, theirs were, almost without question, better. A lot better.

Joining them on the Harvard depth chart - the Crimson entered five separate teams at an MIT tourney - are seasoned players like team captain Andrew Watkins; sophomores Ted Gioia and Meryl Federman, the latter a $75,000 "Jeopardy!" winner last year; and freshman Dallas Simons. Gioia, an English major and two-time high school all-star, chose Harvard over Yale partly because of its Quiz Bowl tradition. Novice players are encouraged to try out for the team, and most tournaments include a Division II bracket explicitly reserved for less experienced players. To even make a team as strong as Harvard's rookie squad, however, takes a commitment to studying and practicing the elements of the game.

At Harvard's twice-a-week practices, players use question packets from previous tournaments to hone their skills. For tournaments they are matched up to take full advantage of complementary strengths. Being a generalist is not very useful, players say, whereas mastering a few areas of knowledge, or even a few salient facts about, say, the plot point of a particular Trollope novel, can prove invaluable in match play.

As sophomore quiz bowler Michael Yashinsky puts it, "Your own deficiencies in knowledge will generally be filled out by other members. We each have our own special powers, sort of like the Planeteers on 'Captain Planet.' "

Founded in 1996 by former collegiate quiz players who considered "College Bowl" far too easy, NAQT now attracts more than 200 teams to its regional tournaments, according to NAQT president Robert Hentzel. Going back 10 years or so, Hentzel says, "There's been a real explosion in teams and tournaments as players have gotten dramatically better."

And Harvard is among the very best. Last week, the Crimson learned they'd qualified three teams for this year's national tournament - the most of any single school.

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.

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