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The Academic Bowl Contest (ABC) hosted by Vanderbilt is one of the largest and longest-running high school invitational tournaments in the country. Throughout the 20 year history of ABC, there have been many thousands of competitors from more than 1,300 teams from 15 different states across the South and Midwest.


ABC was the brainchild of of the 1990-1991 Vanderbilt quiz bowl club. Team member Randy Buehler was the driving force behind the creation of the tournament. The idea was to host a contest for a large number of teams on the Vanderbilt campus as a fundraiser for the university club. The tournament format was engineered to leverage a number of advantages that Vanderbilt possessed, such as:

  • Nashville's central location in the southeast
  • Vanderbilt's prestige as a university
  • the organizational prowess of the team members at the time
  • abundant classrooms in a compact area on campus that allowed for easy movement of teams and officials between buildings as needed
  • a thriving culture of community service on campus that provided a large number of volunteers to help staff the tournament

The first ABC was run in the spring of 1991 for 40 teams. The tournament was so successful that the club decided to host the tournament twice each year and the second ABC followed in the fall of 1991. Both of the first two editions featured house-written questions. The questions at ABC were generally judged to be too difficult and teams' final scores were too low and the club felt their efforts could be better deployed on tasks other than question writing.

As a result of these problems, ABC III in the spring of 1992 (referred to as the "Bastard Child" of ABCs) purchased the question set from a vendor called "Triple Q". Quality and difficulty varied wildly from one question to the next. In addition, the vendor required the tournament to use an unfamiliar rulebook; among the quirks of the rules was the requirement that a team correctly answer two consecutively numbered tossup questions before earning a bonus. However, the rules also included a provision that if the team answering a bonus missed a part, the other team got a chance to answer. The "bounceback bonus" would become one of the most popular and enduring traditions at ABC, and it was still used as late as ABC XLI in Fall 2011.

The tournament really took off in the fall of 1992 with ABC IV. First, the club switched back to using house-written questions, carefully play-testing each round in practice to ensure the difficulty level was correct. Also, the 84 teams in competition witnessed the addition of a number of features and organizational elements that gave ABC its unique appeal. For the first time, the tournament began on Friday evening with four optional power-matched rounds. The Friday rounds allowed the organizers to efficiently sort the participating teams for Saturday morning's main event - six-team, seeded round-robin groups. The top teams from each group advanced to the 32-team single-elimination playoffs on Saturday afternoon to decide the overall champion.

After Buehler's graduation, Darrell Frye assumed most of the responsibilities for organizing the tournament each semester, with other club members filling in as needed during his occasional absences from school. The tournament continued to grow in prestige and popularity throughout the rest of the 1990's and regularly drew 80 to 120 teams each edition.

ABC has used various questions sets, in 2008 it used the Chitin Classic, and ABC XXXVI, XXXVII, and XXXVIII were all run on HSAPQ sets. ABC XL was a collaboration with VCU. ABC XLI was run on an IS set with modified NAQT untimed rules, rewritten to incorporate many traditional ABC rules (bouncebacks, three-part blitzing, etc.).

ABC XXV was held in the spring of 2003, and for the first time a team from Tennessee, Ezell-Harding won first place. Matt Keller was skilled at gathering teams and using many dozens of game rooms across buildings for the large number of teams he managed to draw in his years at Vanderbilt. However, after he left...

ABC XL was noted for its horrific logistics and poor planning, as well as overly optimistic tournament-directing decisions by the Vanderbilt team.

ABC XLI was a much more low-key affair. It featured NAQT questions and a 10-team round robin.

ABC XLII was held in spring 2013 on IS-124 with Farragut as champion.

ABC XLIII was held in spring 2014 on IS-134 with Ezell-Harding as champion.

ABC XLIV was held in the spring of 2015 on IS-144 with Hume-Fogg as champion. ABC XLV was canceled due to low turnout.

Competition format

The format ABC used to arrive at a champion was distinctive for its time (?-2011). Today, it is the standard double-elimination NAQT tournament in Tennessee which starts at 9 AM on Saturday and ends around 5 PM, but it didn't used to be that way. A number of the conventions and traditions at ABC were unique on the high school quiz bowl circuit or ahead of their time. Each tournament from ABC IV on was staged in three distinct phases. The three phases took place on Friday evening, Saturday morning, and Saturday afternoon.

Friday evening

The first phase was held on Friday evenings. The Friday evening phase was optional, but typically 80% of teams chose to participate. The teams would be separated in to 16-team pools. Each pool would play four power-matched rounds. The power matching was in the form of Swiss pairs. (The Swiss-pairs method was adapted from chess tournaments. Vanderbilt's application of the system was perfected by Randy Buehler, Andy Lipscomb, and Keith Hudson while in the back seat of a car riding to and from Wesselmania in 1992. They used a stopwatch to generate random numbers that simulated scores.) The power matching ensured that in each round a team always played another team with the same record. Typically, local schools with numerous teams would send or hold back their lowest-ranked teams on Friday to allow the organizers to ensure each pool had exactly 16 teams.

After the conclusion of play on Friday night, the organizers would gather to review the results and rank all the teams. For teams that didn't play on Friday evening, the organizers would estimate their level of ability based past results or reputation . The teams were then sorted in to six-team pools using the "S-curve" method:

  1. The top ranked team would be the #1 seed in Pool 1, the second ranked team would be the #1 seed in Pool 2, and so on until every pool had a #1 seed
  2. The highest remaining team would be the #2 seed in the highest numbered pool. Teams would be added added to pools in reverse order until every one had a #2 seed.
  3. This back-and-forth procedure would be repeated with #3, #4, etc seeds until there were no more teams to be seeded.

The pools were then examined individually to eliminate any obvious flaws in seeding and to ensure geographic balance in each pool. After the pools were finalized, a personalized schedule was created for each team, each room, and each pool captain.

Saturday morning

The second phase of the tournament was held on Saturday morning. Teams would compete in a round robin within their six-team pool. The small pools used by Vanderbilt had a number of practical and tactical advantages:

  • The round-robin could be completed with just five rounds of questions, three adjacent rooms, and three people.
  • The format was easily scalable for any number of teams from 12 to 144.
    • The only limiting factor was the number of rooms available on campus.
  • Even the slowest of readers wouldn't significantly delay the tournament.
    • If one pool finished more than one round earlier than another, the fast readers could parachute in to the delayed pool and complete it quickly.
  • An experienced club member could captain two or three pools at once without being overtaxed.
  • The various pools were segregated within different buildings across campus, so there was little chance that question security could be compromised.
  • The seeding process ensured that the top teams didn't have to compete against each other too early in the tournament.
  • The geographic balancing allowed teams to compete against schools they didn't typically meet throughout the rest of the year.

In order to conserve questions, on both Friday evening and Saturday morning, if a match finished with the scores tied, then three tossups worth one point each were read from an emergency packet to both teams. After the three tossups, if the scores were still even, the match would stand as a tie.

Saturday afternoon

After the conclusion of play on Saturday morning, the tournament would take a long break for lunch (typically 1.5-2 hours). The break would allow the organizers to meet to list and rank the best 32 teams. Teams finishing first in their pool were added to the list first. Then teams finishing second in their pool were added next. If necessary, the field was filled with the best third place teams. Seeds were then assigned according to a simple algorithm:

  1. A team with fewer losses was always seeded higher than a team with more losses. (Ties counted as a half loss.)
  2. Among teams with the same number of losses, a team with more points per game was always seeded higher than a team with fewer points per game.
  3. Among teams that couldn't be differentiated by 1 and 2 above, seeds were decided based on reputation or past performance.

After the seeds were assigned, the teams were bracketed and the brackets would be tweaked (if possible) to avoid rematches in the first and second rounds.

The tournament would culminate on Saturday afternoon with a single-elimination playoff. After five rounds of play, a champion would be crowned.


Year Overall Champion Overall Second Place Teams
I Results Missing Results Missing Results Missing
II Results Missing Results Missing Results Missing
III Results Missing Results Missing Results Missing
IV Results Missing Results Missing Results Missing
1993 V[1] Dorman Northside Results Missing
1994 VI Results Missing Results Missing Results Missing
1994 VII[2] Tates Creek White Station 72(ish)[3]
VIII Results Missing Results Missing Results Missing
IX Results Missing Results Missing Results Missing
X Results Missing Results Missing Results Missing
XI Results Missing Results Missing Results Missing
1996 XII Henry Ford II A James Island 91
1997 XIII Auburn A Henry Ford II A 89
1997 XIV Brookwood A Irmo 106
1998 XV Results Missing Edmond Santa Fe Results Missing
1998 XVI Dunbar A Dorman A 111
1999 XVII Walton A Dorman A 84
1999 XVIII Dorman A Walton A 84
1999 XIX James Island Liberty B 52
2000 XX Irmo Dunbar A 83
2001 XXI Edmond Memorial Results Missing 44
2001 XXII Dorman Results Missing Results Missing
2002 XXIII Results Missing Results Missing Results Missing
2002 XXIV Dorman A Walton A Results Missing
2003 XXV Ezell-Harding A Apollo A 34
2003 XXVI Dorman A Walton A 53
2004 XXVII Brookwood Detroit Country Day 43
2004 XXVIII Dorman A Brookwood 73
2005 XXIX Dorman A Detroit Catholic Central 44
2005 XXX duPont Manual A Walton A 62
2006 XXXI duPont Manual A Dorman A 31
2006 XXXII Dorman A North Kansas City 74
2007 XXXIII Central Gwinnett A Norcross 16
2007 XXXIV Dorman A North Kansas City 65
2008 XXXV Ezell-Harding Brindlee Mountain 31
2008 XXXVI Dorman A Chattahoochee 57
2009 XXXVII Hoover A Dunbar A 21
2009 XXXVIII Dorman A Dorman B 28+
2010 XXXIX Dunbar Hume-Fogg 14
2010 XL Johnson Central duPont Manual A 37
2011 XLI University School of Nashville Ezell-Harding 10
2013 XLII Farragut A Martin Luther King Jr. Magnet A 16
2014 XLIII Ezell-Harding A USN A 32
2015 XLIV Hume-Fogg A Gatton Academy 10

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