Mind Games

Lily G Bellow

When the Harvard Quiz Bowl team was winning national championships in the mid-1990s, its leader, an English graduate student named Jeffrey G. Johnson, was the stuff of legends. It was rumored that he had read 10,000 books, and that watching him take in a volume was like witnessing somebody leaf through a magazine.

By contrast, Harvard’s current up-and-coming star, a skinny 6 foot 4 inch freshman called Dallas R. Simons, is calibrated to deflect such self-aggrandizing talk. The former captain of a Martin Luther King High School team that finished second in the nation his junior year, the soft-spoken Nashville native consistently ducks self-promotion.

When I ask Simons about winning a college tournament at Vanderbilt while still in high school, he dwells on the limited size of the field. When I ask why he neglected to tell me that he recently finished first in a scrimmage between the freshmen from MIT and Harvard, he smiles and says nothing. His Straus dorm room is a shrine to the understated.

Reaching across his desk, Simons points to a small model of the buffoonish cartoon character Homer Simpson. “Homer’s there just to remind me to keep it real,” he says.

“I thought that’s why Tupac was there,” says roommate Ronald D. Serko '12 from across the room.

“No, Tupac’s there to keep me from saying something whack,” Simons answers.

The only way to get a real idea of Simons’ talent, without pawing through his high school records, is to see him with a buzzer in his hand—or to listen to others who have.

“I first saw him [as a high schooler] at the Harvard Fall Tournament, and it was already apparent that as a high school player, he was absolutely dominant,” notes the Harvard team’s de facto coach Dennis Loo, a self-described “professional gambler and physics tutor” who played for Virgina Tech in the late-1990s.

Serko says he’s had a few glimpses of what his roommate is capable of.

“Just walking back from dinner tonight, we were talking about the difference between trivia knowledge and Quiz Bowl knowledge,” he says, “and Dallas observed that trivia knowledge is knowing who the 29th president is, Quiz Bowl knowledge is knowing what the 29th president did.”

Serko says that he was able to name William Howard Taft as the 29th president (though in reality, the non-Quiz Bowler names the 27th.) He was also able to recall that Taft was a rather large man. But it was up to Simons to relate that Taft had fired Gifford Pinchot. And authorized the passage of the Payne-Aldrich tariff.

At this point, I’ve already seen Simons in action. I don’t bat an eyelash.

TOSS-UP ONE

I first witnessed the Harvard team at practice in mid-September, in a small classroom above Annenberg. The buzz of eager freshmen going about their dinner resonates on the stairs as I make my way up.

Inside, around a long rectangular table, sit several Quiz Bowl luminaries: Kyle Haddad-Fonda ’09, the former president of the club; Meryl Federman ’11, who last summer won $75,000 on Jeopardy!; and Adam N. Hallowell ’09 and John D. Lesieutre ’09, both of whom were on the Harvard team that won a national championship last spring. The fourth member of that team, Julia Schlozman ’09 is absent.

The current standing of the Harvard team—ranked anywhere between fourth and tenth in the nation—owes much to the efforts of Haddad-Fonda, who arrived in Cambridge representing one-third of possibly the greatest recruiting class any college has ever had in Quiz Bowl (the Class of 2009 included the captains of the top three high school teams in the nation). By his sophomore year, Haddad-Fonda had taken the reins and arranged for the initial staging of the Harvard Fall Tournament, a high school event that last year drew 32 teams and countless potential recruits.

The club’s current president, Andrew Watkins ’11, has brought to Harvard an even more bullish style. Where the enterprising Haddad-Fonda is soft-spoken and retiring, Watkins is forceful and assertive. Rarely sleeping more than three hours a night and regularly taking runs that stretch as far as seven or eight miles, the new president has channeled his energy into an ambitious plan to supplement the Harvard Fall Tournament with two others this year. But this same energy also tends to manifest itself in less desirable ways.

“Andy, I would say, plays differently than I do,” Haddad-Fonda says. “He takes it very seriously, he beats himself up physically while he plays, and he gets quite angry when things don’t go well. That works for him most of the time. That’s not how I play.”

TOSS-UP TWO

The Early Fall Tournament—‘EFT’ on more casual reference, ‘EFTIII’ for those in the know—is an event staged and written by the Brown University Quiz Bowl team. For the handful of Harvard quiz bowlers quietly gathering in the pre-dawn gloom to make the trip to Providence, a Brown tournament translates superficially to mean nothing more than an early weekend wake-up. And, in fact, to the bystander who knows nothing about the trajectory of the Quiz Bowl season, or the ins and outs of tournament play, or the great Jerry Vinokurov, (a physics graduate student who anchors Brown’s team and will be helping to administer the tournament), the earliness of the hour is perhaps the most notable thing about this motley T-stop meeting.

But today is not any ordinary day—it marks the unofficial beginning of the Quiz Bowl season. The large digital clock atop the Cambridge Savings Bank reads 6:14.

The early hour takes its toll. Simons, while present and awake, has had only a few hours of sleep after attending a birthday party the previous night. Another player, Dennis L. Sun ’10, oversleeps, and never makes it to the T-stop. Watkins, the president and main proponent of the 6:15 departure, arrives at 6:25 after over-sleeping. Bruce Arthur, a second-year student at Harvard Law School, makes his entrance a few minutes later, wearing his signature Chicago White Sox cap.

The team’s only graduate student—he took his bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago in three years—Arthur is fond of concocting scenarios to attract top Quiz Bowlers to Harvard. While at EFT, he mentions that Eric Mukherjee, a senior at Brown commonly regarded as one of the best in the country on chemistry and biology questions, is considering Harvard Medical School.

“We’ll see if that happens,” says Haddad-Fonda, skeptically. “That’s sort of Bruce’s dream team; he’s piecing it together in his head. None of these people have actually applied to Harvard, let alone been accepted.”

But for now, Arthur’s mind is on the pending competition. “Adam, what do you know about nitrogen fixation?” he asks, after the Harvard team has piled onto the T. “Because I have a feeling it’s going to come up in this tournament.”

Later, while downing a bag of Vitamin C Hall’s drops in an effort to steel his immune system against his early wakeup, he explains: “It’s a little tradition that I have of trying to guess the questions, and I haven’t been right since 2006, so I guess I’m due.”

Arthur’s prognostication in this particular case has much to do with a veteran’s knowledge of what's before him—nitrogen fixation is not seen as being a particularly tricky topic. This is largely because in Quiz Bowl circles, EFT, and many of the fall tournaments like it, are seen as ways, early in the season, to help acclimate new teams to the rhythms of the game. The questions, by these elite standards, are believed to be quite simple.

Precisely because of the tournament’s standing, though, Harvard has been able to approach the competition with a flexibility that won’t be possible later in the year. Watkins has registered five teams: Harvard A, which consists of himself, Schlozman, and Bruce Arthur—all top players—and Harvard B, C, D, and E, on which the players have been parceled out more or less randomly. Lineups are not yet a matter of primary concern.

Neither, it appears, are the prizes: winners of the Early Fall Tournament have been promised used books—a prize that is at once an indicator of the financial state of quiz bowl, and the sort of raw, quirky intellectualism that soaks the sport. According to Ana Enriquez—who in the past has been lucky enough to receive such consequential, gently-used texts as a biography of former First Lady Bess Truman—particular “prizes” have been known to make reappearances, when tournament hosts have re-circulated the less desirable volumes from their winnings.

The commuter train holding the dozen members of the Harvard team arrives in Providence around 8 a.m.—hours before any books will be awarded. By five to nine, most of the competitors from the 24 teams that will be playing in EFT are scattered throughout the auditorium of Pierce Engineering Laboratory, within sight of Brown’s iconic Science Library, which, as Watkins enthusiastically informs the team, has 14 floors—one for each level on the pH scale.

In his first away tournament as president, Watkins, despite his evident enthusiasm, is suffering a few jitters—discovering, for instance, that the check necessary to pay Harvard’s registration fee has been left behind: a fact that necessitates some quick deal-cutting with the EFT authorities. “I am successfully fucking things up left and right,” Watkins shares.

Schlozman has her own feelings on Watkins’ performance. “When I was running the operation, we tried to run a fairly above-the board outfit,” she states sternly. “Running Quiz Bowl and playing Quiz Bowl are two different things. [Watkins] was also awoken at 6:17. I always tried to be on time.”

Each of the three eight-team brackets in the tournament will be playing round-robin matches—one against each of the other teams in their division. The teams will then be seeded and re-bracketed for more round robins, with each team playing a total of at least 12 matches before the day is out.

Thinking my reporting will be enhanced by a little firsthand experience, Watkins has placed me on the Harvard B team, together with Simons, Enriquez, and Umang Shukla ’11. Shukla has, by his own admission, not attended any team practices this year, and appears, like his teammates, to be fairly laid back about the prospect of competition.

Our opponent in the first match is Brandeis, a young team, with an even less button-downed approach to gameplay than Harvard B. The primary culprit is one Brandeis freshman, sporting skateboarding shoes, a stubble on his chin, and a black shirt with Technicolor stripes. He is fond of supplementing his answers with emotional commentary: “So this is, like…superconductivity,” he says after an early buzz. “Oh, it’s not,” he groans, anticipating the negative response of the moderator, while bringing his knees up towards his body in what qualifies as a small tantrum. Fifteen minutes later, more of the same: “Fucking, fuck, Stephen Dedalus,” comes the response from the Brandeis side of the room. “Actually, I think his name was just Stephen Dedalus,” Shukla quietly notes. “But whatevs.”

It’s worth noting that, despite Shukla’s occasional comments, neither he nor our two other teammates appear surprised at the scene playing out on the other side of the room. This is a sport, after all, in which people speak in highly boastful terms of their ability to memorize textbooks, where most of the trash-talking between players occurs in an online message board, and where some have advocated buzzer exercises as a way to increase buzzing speed ("to the layman, this is called chronic masturbation," one of this method's more outspoken opponents informs me.) 

It says something that Harvard, a team coached by a man who plays poker for a living and presided over by a president who is quickly building a reputation for inflicting bodily harm upon himself at tournaments, is considered to be one of the more socially-gifted on the circuit.

“Hallowell said we have a pretty normal team, which is…” Simons trails off. “It’s in comparison to some of the other people on the circuit. You’ll be shocked.”

And indeed I am.

But nothing I see matches the accounts of one Charles Meigs, a 5 foot 3 inch wisp of a man who has won Quiz Bowl national championships at both UCLA and University of Maryland, and who—despite currently residing in Syria—has managed to maintain one of the most significant presences in the game.

Before I ever witnessed a tournament, I had already heard stories about Meigs’ on-again, off-again habits, his fondness for swearing and throwing himself to the ground during competition, not to mention the apparent ease with which he once drank himself through a tournament. Schlozman maintains that it was only when the beer ran out that the 107 lb. Meigs’ game started faltering. Even Simons, fresh off the high-school circuit, has a Meigs story: he recalls showing up at a tournament held on the Ides of March, only to find Meigs, who is in his 20’s, moderating while wearing an oriental sword and belt. The tournament’s name, it turned out, was “Bring Your Own Dagger.”

Eccentric as he may be, Meigs has a ready response for those who seek to pigeon-hole quiz bowlers. “Quiz Bowlers can arguably be described as dorks, geeks, nerds, what have you, but there are some of us who are reasonably social, affable people, and Quiz Bowl can really fundamentally help in dealing with people,” he writes in an e-mail. “All the furries, Japanimation fans, people who dress up like wizards and play stupid card games, I see that as being a lesser arena in the world of nerds.”

For better or for worse, Meigs has a history of involvement with the Harvard team. “He has a much bigger presence in our club than you would expect from someone who is now in Syria,” Haddad-Fonda says. In one notable instance, Meigs, (who, in a representative signoff in one of his e-mails, identified his title as “Awesome Dude and Sex Machine, Maryland Academic Quiz Team”), showed up at one of Bruce Arthur’s law school classes wearing an Arab head scarf, and proceeded to cause a massive disruption:

“I went to the lectern all the while shouting in Arabic (about my girlfriend who was ostensibly supposed to be in the class, but was loose and in New York, and how I was going to venge-screw a bunch of BU students, although nobody understood that...),” Meigs writes. “This caused a bit of an uproar, the professor wasn’t so happy.”

Meigs is also the one who has played the biggest role in perpetuating Haddad-Fonda’s reputation for being, as Bruce Arthur puts it, the “Miss. Manners of Quiz Bowl.” After reading an April e-mail from Haddad-Fonda to the Harvard team that set out eight strict rules for conduct and proclaimed that Harvard’s “most important goal for this semester is to re-dedicate ourselves to treating our teammates and our opponents with respect,” Meigs responded with a ruthless parody. The work proves to be a unique blend of intellectualism and crude humor, studded with words from several different languages, and including nuggets such as advice on how to properly throw an undesirable bonus question: “We will first announce that we will score as many points as the percentage of chance that any member of the losing team will have sexual intercourse in the next 25 years.”

With Meigs thousands of miles away, sportsmanship doesn't appear to be much of an issue for Harvard B. Simons, in his understated manner, has taken control of the Brandeis match. The rest of the team is largely quiet. Most college Quiz Bowl matches, including EFT, follow Academic Competition Federation rules—a format in which questions are delivered in “packets” of 20 questions—or toss-ups—each followed by a 3-part bonus. The moderator of a match will read a toss-up, awarding 10 points to the first team to buzz in with the correct answer. The team that answers a toss-up is then given the opportunity to answer the corresponding 3-part bonus, with 10 points awarded for each part answered correctly.

About 20 minutes into the match, with Simons ably handling the bulk of the toss-ups, Shukla realizes that if he leans back in his chair, it extends backwards for increased comfort. He looks at me and raises his eyebrow in an expression of pleasant surprise. Simons gets another question right. Twenty minutes later, the match is over. Harvard B wins 450-150. The team has answered correctly 13 of the 20 tossups. Simons, by my count, has accounted for 11.

On the second toss-up of Harvard B’s second match, I announce my presence, buzzing in with “B.F. Skinner.” The rush is considerable. I wrestled a bit in high school, and I know the thrill of bearing down on a kid’s neck until he submits while the three parents in the stands eat corn dogs and talk to each other. This was comparable. And I did it sitting down and wearing pants that weren’t tight around my crotch.

My contribution is validated—“good buzz,” Shukla remarks, giving me the Quiz Bowl equivalent of “nice shot.” Secure in my contribution, I sit back, and let Simons handle the bonus. But the ever-modest Tennessean has a habit of verifying his correct answers on bonuses even with teammates who are utterly flabbergasted by who took the presidency of Brazil in 1930. Long story short: Harvard B over UPenn 355-130.

Match three begins. Against a joint team of Princeton and Cornell Quiz Bowlers, Simons misses a question about Shostakovich, and begins, in a low voice to apologize profusely to the rest of Harvard B. In the Quiz Bowl world, missing a question, or “negging,” can be particularly costly. The normal penalties are clear enough: a deduction of five points from the team’s score, and a chance for the other team to answer the question. But beyond that, negging has highly consequential implications for team morale. One teammate’s incorrect response means that the rest of the team is denied the ability to answer. And chaos can ensue.

“When someone negs in another person’s area of expertise, that gets ugly.” Schlozman says, taking a deep breath. “There have been close matches where somebody has negged in another person’s territory. People get really angry.” Answering incorrectly is not simply a matter of losing points; it can be tantamount to disrespect: trespassing where one has no business.

Simons squeezes in another apology. I wonder idly who Shostakovich is. In the meantime, Harvard defeats Cornell-Princeton 295-145. I swagger a little bit on the way out. Wins follow over MIT and another Princeton team. Harvard B is 5-0 going into the lunch-break.

TOSS-UP THREE

Though there is remarkably little physical activity involved, Quiz Bowl is surprisingly exhausting. Matches typically take between 30 and 45 minutes, and the sheer cognitive effort required to absorb questions—typically long, and delivered at top speed—is taxing. This is where it helps to have a team with disparate specialties. Schlozman, an art history expert, admits to zoning out during science and math questions, or approximately four out of every 20 toss-ups, leaving them to her teammates so that she can save her energy for the humanities.

By mid-afternoon, teams are being re-bracketed. Harvard B, with a record of 6-1, has made the six-team winner’s bracket. So have Harvard A, D, and E, in what becomes a grouping comprised of three Harvard and two Dartmouth teams.

Watkins, the ever-animated president, has sustained an injury—blood drips down a knuckle on his buzzer hand, which he has smashed into a concrete wall after losing to Harvard D.

Schlozman provides commentary: “I asked him whether he wanted to clean it, he said he didn’t; the moderator asked him if he wanted to clean it up, he said he didn’t; the other team asked if he wanted to clean it up, he said he didn’t. So he said he was fine to play, but we all found the blood gushing from his buzzer hand just a tad bit distracting.”

“This helps me focus,” Watkins insists. “I’ll take care of it later.”

Word travels fast in the Quiz Bowl community, and a story in which the Harvard president punches a wall is exactly the kind of material that makes the gossip mill thrive. It’s an episode that won’t long escape the all-seeing eye of Meigs, who gleefully relates his own version of the event in an e-mail sent a few days later:

“The current president, as you may know, punched a wall at a recent tournament and shouted, ‘I deserve to bleed’ like he’s doggone Turner from Turner and Hooch and some Salvadorian drug dealer just fatally wounded Hooch and Turner could have stopped it.”

TOSS-UP FOUR

There are sports that are more physically invasive than Quiz Bowl—competitions where one man’s ability to lay another flat on his back is a palpable symbol of domination. But for the Quiz Bowler, the brain is the most important domain, and during the hour or so at EFT where I watch Dallas Simons steal the soul of the entire Dartmouth Quiz Bowl program, it’s clear how thoroughly this domain can be violated.

As far as intensity goes, Dartmouth A and Dartmouth B are at the high end of the spectrum. I took in the sight of Dartmouth A: three competitors decked out in green, one of whom keeps unsmiling, intense score with a fountain pen in a green notebook, unironically wears a distinguished ring on his buzzer hand, and appears to be something of a master of musical arcana. The fourth member of the team is a different story: sporting a black T-shirt and mustache, he bends forward, eyes down, after each toss-up. The only time I see him make a major movement is when he gets an answer, at which point he shares awkward fist bumps with his teammates and then retires into his...state.

Towards the end of our match, Dartmouth starts to unravel. Simons gets hot and nails five of the last eight toss-ups. One of the green-clad players, after negging, clasps his face in distress. “Don’t worry about it,” the ring-wearer mumbles unconvincingly after a long pause, documenting the damage with his fountain pen. Simons manages one-third of the bonus. “Sorry,” the hapless neg-culprit whispers again, visibly distressed. This time, his teammate is silent.

Something has awoken in Simons. The next opponent is Dartmouth B. the freshman starts by reeling off eight of the first nine toss-ups. At this point, it’s 5:55 p.m., we’ve been at EFT for over nine hours, and the strain is showing. But Simons nails four of the next six. He answers questions in such a low voice, and so quickly, that I’m not catching most of what he says. But it's clear that this is a tour-de-force.

The final toss-up arrives without a single correct response from the Dartmouth side. Simons, in a gesture of sportsmanship, quietly refrains from buzzing in, giving Dartmouth a chance to finish with a positive score. But the destruction is complete.

“No, no. Stop. Stop. Stop,” come the disgusted orders of one Dartmouth player, as his teammates offer up weak congratulations. When all is said and done, Simons has notched 14 of 20 toss-ups: an epic performance. The score is 505-5, although out of deference to ego, it is not read aloud.

“I’ve not seen this happen on the collegiate level,” Shukla says afterwards of Simons’ performance. “I’ve never seen it happen like that, especially not against a team like Dartmouth B.”

For Harvard B, the fireworks are largely over after the Dartmouth match. Facing off against their Harvard A counterparts (Watkins, Schlozmann, and Arthur), the team is felled 355 to 200. It’s clear right off the bat that the As' style of play is markedly different. Watkins, after nailing an early science toss up, berates himself for not buzzing earlier. And Schlozman is on another level entirely. When the B team misses on all three parts of a bonus, she states the answer after each third. “I would have thirtied on that,” she concludes, exasperated. “I wasn’t even listening, I’m too tired,” she later remarks, slapping herself.

The only area where the A team appears to be weak is popular culture—they whiff on a couple of bonuses about CW shows, failing to come up with “Beverly Hills 90210” and “One Tree Hill.” I consider making a Schlozman-like pronouncement about the 20 points I have just missed out on earning.

When the day ends, Harvard A is in the finals. The championship round is a rematch of last year’s National Academic Quiz Tournament championships: a match in which three current Dartmouth players and Schlozman appeared. And history repeats itself, with Arthur, Schlozman, and Watkins again defeating Dartmouth to win the title.

Harvard’s other teams end up finishing in third, fourth, and sixth place. Simons is named the tournament’s top individual performer: his prize is a used book—a worn copy of “Four English Comedies,” with a sticker advertising its most recent sale price: 25 cents. On the way to the Providence train station, he calls an old high-school friend, also a Quiz Bowler, to tell him the news. I don’t hear him mention the award.

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