2009 Interview with Chip Beall

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Matt Laird, formerly of Loyola Academy attended the final phase of the 2009 NAC in Chicago, and conducted this interview with NAC frontman Chip Beall. Audio from the interview can be found here.

The Interview

Matt: So, one of my big questions that I was wondering about; compared to the other Nationals, is, why the three site system?

Chip: For the convenience of the participating teams. They might prefer a different weekend they might have conflicts. It might be more geographically desirable. Probably we wouldn’t have seen Academy of the Sacred Heart for example if we hadn’t had a New Orleans phase.

ML: Where’re they from?

CB: They’re from New Orleans.

ML: You were mentioning a couple of times during the competition that these questions had been used at all three phases.

CB: Yes.

ML: Are there any steps that you take to protect the questions in between the phases?

CB: What do you mean by “protect the questions”?

ML: Well, make sure that nobody is coming in and watching a phase before hand, or maybe recording them and handing them off to some team at a later time.

CB: No, we don’t allow games to be recorded.

ML: Your rules say you can pay a ten dollar fee if…

CB: …without paying the ten dollar fee.

ML: Have you ever had a team do that?

CB: I don’t think in the years we’ve been at two or more sites, since 1995, I don’t suspect that there’s been any hanky-panky. Theoretically there could be. We don’t have a $75,000 grand prize, and I just don’t expect that to happen.

ML: So it also goes without saying, between three sites, even if you use the same questions, that you guys write a ton of questions for this competition. I don’t even remember how many matches there were on each day. How many rounds did you guys do total?

CB: We had 37 timeslots for preliminaries, here.

ML: And each of those was a different set, right?

CB: Yeah. And then, on playoff day, we had ten timeslots.

ML: So that’s a lot of questions, there’s twenty-some odd questions per round, plus bonuses, plus lightning rounds…

CB: By the way, in the advanced rounds, the last four games, really, the last four timeslots of every day, are questions that none of the other sites have seen.

ML: I’d imagine that; because you have teams from both the other sites. That makes sense. So, like I was saying, you write a ton of questions, what are some of the inspirations that you use to write all these questions? That’s an awful lot of material.

CB: I end up using the internet more now than we used to; that’s made question writing a little bit easier, a little bit quicker; to find information on a reputable source, quickly. I can’t really speak to inspiration. By the time it’s done, I always seem to have enough science, enough math, enough history and literature…

ML: Is it you that does the majority of the question writing?

CB: I do most of the question writing.

ML: There are others though.

CB: Mmhmm.

ML: Nobody you’re willing to point out?

CB: Right.

ML: That’s fine. I understand that. Speaking more along the lines of your questions; you boast on your website that you focus on “significa rather than trivia.” What does that mean to you?

CB: What it means is that we do use pop culture, but we use it very sparingly.

ML: OK, and it’s only with relation to pop culture questions?

CB: Yeah… well, I don’t really understand the question.

ML: Well, “significa vs. trivia”; even in the realm of the academic, what constitutes something significant, a significa, vs. a trivia?

CB: Well, I guess you could start by reading the book “Cultural Literacy” by Hirsch. And you could say, you know, it’s a subjective thing, I suppose, what’s significant and what’s not, and I suppose that’s for the teams to judge, whether we’re, y’know, writing about things that don’t matter. I’d like, in every question, either, a team to get it right, or for them to shake their head and say, “I didn’t know that, that’s interesting.”

ML: So curiosity and…

CB: Yeah… I can’t define it right now, but I know it when I see it. A bit of information that’s just totally worthless; and why are you wasting people’s time with it. I hope we don’t waste people’s time with information. I know we don’t, uh, do as much “arcana” as our competitors.

ML: Meaning?

CB: Meaning, starting a pyramidal question with a sentence that well, for want of a better word, is trivia rather than significa; is arcane, is obscure… We come from a television background, we think that this should be a, y’know, a sport for an audience to watch, play along with. Just like Jeopardy!.

ML: OK, that’s interesting. I had a later question about your TV background... Do you miss it?

CB: Do I miss it? I miss giving the young people, the deserving young people, as much exposure as possible. I miss that part of it. For me, I had a fourteen year career in television; I’ve had my fifteen minutes. For me it doesn’t matter if I’m on TV or not.

ML: It’s about the kids…

CB: Now for “Uncle Ernie” [moderator Ernie Anderson] that may be a different story… (laughter)

ML: So before I came, I did some research on the internet about Questions Unlimited and the NAC itself, and I also spoke to one of your moderators, Jason Russell. He mentioned a few ethical improprieties that might have happened at your tournament in years past. Do you care to speak to that at all?

CB: Sure.

ML: OK, well, just in general, can you think of any off the top of your head that might be misconstrued as…

CB: No. I might be interested to hearing which specifics he had to…

ML: Well he didn’t mention any specifics but he said that he had seen some back when he was moderating years ago that had pushed him close to the edge, and he was boggled at some seemingly arbitrary decisions relating to protests and mystery categories that disappeared and whatnot. [NOTE: Jason Russell never actually mentioned any story relating to a mystery category disappearing, this was my misremembering this post on WoHSQB. Everything else is true, however. It can, in fact, be confirmed by him saying something similar here.]

CB: I haven’t the slightest idea what he’s talking about.

ML: OK. So there’s nothing else…

CB: Well, if you want to bring up any impropriety, then I suggest you mention specifics or this interview is at an end.

ML: I’m not trying to trap you or anything, honestly, I’m looking for what you’re trying to bring to this activity. I value everything you do, and…

CB: We’re trying to bring excitement, above all we’re trying to bring recognition to the outstanding teams… You know, Nationals was founded back in 1983 with one goal, and one goal only. We just wanted to have a tournament and crown the best academic team in America.

ML: Do you believe you’re doing that?

CB: I believe we are.

ML: So, you’re trying to crown the best team, what do you think your tournament offers to players themselves, since they are the number one priority?

CB: I think, and this is ultimately something the teams may agree or disagree with, something that you as an observer may agree or disagree with, but I’m convinced myself that we’re second to none in question quality. I think we’re second to none in the quality of our moderating staff.

ML: Who are some of the best teams that you’ve ever seen?

CB: Best team I ever saw was 2002 Irmo. Columbia, South Carolina. They had an average of 490 points per game, which nobody’s really come close to.

ML: What’s the total number possible?

CB: I don’t know.

ML: And… have you seen any other…

CB: I don’t know, number two in our 27 year history might be something like 437, or 434, I’m not sure. But 2002 Irmo was just so good. With Jonathan Hess as the captain and a good supporting cast and an outstanding coach in Hodges Lewis.

ML: Were they at the DC Phase?

CB: We haven’t seen Irmo since Hodges Lewis’ stroke. That is to say… six or seven years. As happens so often when an outstanding coach retires or otherwise steps down… y’know, often a team has trouble rebuilding. Correct me if I’m wrong, but Irmo has been a benefactor in South Carolina in a number of years.

ML: I’m not very familiar with the South Carolina circuit, but I don’t doubt it.

CB: Can I ask you a question?

ML: Sure.

CB: You have any idea why we haven’t seen Loyola since… in a number of years?

ML: Well, 2001 was the last year I know, that was my freshman year. I didn’t actually get to play, but I observed all the matches. I was really itching to play, I can tell you that. Then I know the money went dry. And we stopped coming after that. Since then, I know David [Loyola coach David Riley] has taken the team to the other Nationals since then. I think it started off as a matter of convenience; you guys weren’t in Chicago yet, but I can’t speak for him.

CB: Yeah, OK.

ML: One last question, I know it’s about an unsavory topic again, and I’m sorry to bring it up, but, besides favoritism and whatnot that I was mentioning earlier, do you care to speak about allegations of plagiarism that have happened in the past?

CB: Well, plagiarism is something that happened several years ago. I think Avery [Avery Enterprises President, Bryce Avery] was the guy that brought it to our attention. That some of his material that had appeared on the web on one of those archives had been lifted and used word for word in our materials; that’s absolutely right. But we’ve gotten rid of the person or persons who was doing that, and we have anti-plagiarism checking in the final round before we use the questions publicly.

ML: Would you care to talk about what that involves?

CB: (pause) I look at every question everyone submits me and I rewrite it.

ML: …you rewrite every question that’s submitted?

CB: Every question that someone submits me, I rewrite.

ML: So as to guarantee that it couldn’t end up being a final plagiarized product.

CB: Absolutely.

ML: Alright, I’d like to thank you for your time, and I’m sorry to end it on an unsavory note.

CB: That’s quite alright, yeah, we apologized to Mr. Avery, and y’know, and… we have things in place to prevent that. We can understand if people don’t want to believe that and want to… y’know…we’re… as you well know, we’re regularly reviled on the World of High School Quiz Bowl website.

ML: You are aware of them?

CB: Oh, I’m aware of them. I’m also aware that they’re run by one of our competitors, so I don’t pay any attention to it.

ML: PACE isn’t a for-profit entity, I know that... Are there any final thoughts that you’d just like to share?

CB: It’s nice to meet you and what are you doing now?

ML: I am currently am gainfully unemployed and I follow the quiz bowl circuit a lot; go to a lot of tournaments, and I was substitute teaching; just finished college last year.

CB: I’ll say one thing that I think I read on NAQT’s website… no, it was a message board of some kind. Mr. Hentzel [NAQT President, R. Robert Hentzel] said… someone was interviewing him, maybe it was you, or someone else, and I did appreciate one comment he made. He said we need to spend less time in the quiz bowl community criticizing our competition [the exact quote (dead link) from Fred Morlan’s blog/podcast is “It's particularly unseemly for members [of NAQT] to be publicly critical of business competitors.”], and I respect him for that. And we have very little to criticize about them or any of our other competitors.

ML: Alright, I’m glad you chose to take to take the time and… I appreciate it a lot.

CB: OK.