Criticisms of Reach for the Top

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Reach for the Top (or simply Reach for short) is a popular Canadian format that is heavily criticized once people are exposed to good quizbowl, for similar reasons people criticize NAC. Unlike NAC, Reach for the Top has a monopoly in the country, and was the predominant format in Canada until the early 2000s when Ben Smith, Tamara Vardomskaya, and Lisgar began to play good quizbowl. All cited questions are verbatim from the 2012-2013 regional level competition unless stated.

The biggest concerns include:

  • Question quality - non-pyramidal, hoses, emphasis on trivia
  • Tournament structure and format - Single elimination playoffs, highest-scoring loser rule, expensive registration fees
  • Lack of central editing - repeats, uneven and trash-heavy distribution, different questions to each team of inconsistent difficulty
  • "Game show" set mentality, even though it was last televised in 2009.

Question Quality

An ideal Reach for the Top would be very similar to NAQT speed checks, however it is not.

Reach question focus primarily on trivia, with most clues being either biographical or based on dates.

Non-Pyramidal Clues

Reach for the Top has a question type called the 40-point (who/what/where/etc.) am I? which consists of four clues with decreasing point value, beginning with a opening question. If answered correctly on this question, that team gains 40 points. If neither team guesses correctly, the answer is not read, and a clue worth 30 points is read. This continues for two more questions (worth 20 and 10 points respectively), until, if no team is able to give the correct answer, the answer is read. This is similar to reading each clue of a four clue tossup in order, however these questions are usually problematic. These may be vague, e.g. "I am an institution located on Prince of Wales Drive in Ottawa" which leads to knowledgeable teams resorting to guess between a few answer choices. This specific question was repeated at the 2014 Ontario Provincials.

Often, the first clue would be the date of birth of a person or date of creation of an item, e.g. "I was born in 1982 in England, and grew up in Chapel Row at Bucklebury, a village near Newbury, Berkshire". Anti-pyramid questions of this type, even in the same clue, have been seen.

  • CLUE 1: I am a chemical element with the symbol Hg and the atomic number 80.
  • CLUE 2: I am the only metal that is liquid at standard conditions for temperature and pressure.
  • CLUE 3: I am also known as quicksilver or hydrargyrum.
  • CLUE 4: I was once commonly used in thermometers, but am now less often used due to my toxicity.

There will most likely be a buzzer race on the first clue, for 40 points. In a close game, this is an 80 point swing. In the same packet this question was used, a question stated "Name the current President of Mongolia", which was only worth the normal 10 points. Furthermore, the first clue itself is flawed, as more people are aware that mercury is Hg and would interrupt after that, than being able to get it off the second clue of having atomic number of 80. The first clue has also been extremely easy as seen in "CLUE: I was born Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger." or "CLUE 1: I am a painter born on March 30, 1853 in the Netherlands".

Guessing is encouraged in some clues that have only a few logical answers on the first clue, thus in a close game, the winner may be determined just by a coin flip where there's two logical answers, as seen in "CLUE A: I am named after a scientist whose first name is Christian", picking either Huygens' principle or Doppler effect, or "CLUE: I am an institution that was established in England sometime late in the 11th century." which is a guess between Oxford or Cambridge.

These questions are of such concern because of the huge point swing in such easy clues. When the clues are not too easy, they are very vague and/or trivial, such as date or location of birth.

Focus on Trivia

Many of the 40 point questions rely on biographical information. Because Reach for the Top games are usually close, this makes these 40 point questions very swingy in a high level game. Sinan Ulusoy, an alumnus of Woburn and player for Alberta, said that he got good at Reach by memorizing years of important events and famous people's birthdates.

Lack of Editing

There are often factual errors present. e.g. "A plural noun referring to any of various bacteria, especially a rod-shaped bacterium. Spell ‘bacillus’". The editing has improved significantly over the period between 2010-2013 due to numerous complaints from the quizbowl community.

Inconsistency with answer lines

Reach for the Top lacks a standard to accept alternate answers. In 2010, a packet listed the Chinese poet Li Bo (Cantonese) / Li Bai (Mandarin) using Cantonese, but later, was listed as Mandarin, without acceptable alternate answers. This led to some teams to be upset and complain. In 2013 there was a question with answer line Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj without indication of pronunciation or which name is given and which name is family. This causes the protest table at high level events to be at least 10 times as long as it is at HSNCT or PACE NSC. Some answer lines on names contain acceptable parts e.g. ANSWER: FERDINAND MAGELLAN (ACCEPT MAGELLAN) but most questions do not, although it is a convention that just the last name is acceptable. Some alternate answer lines are simply unreasonable e.g. CURIOSITY (accept MARS ROVER).

There is no standardized distribution of questions. As a result, each packet is highly variable in difficulty and subject. Most questions are either trash, general knowledge, or word puzzles.

Ontario Provincials

The biggest event that Reach for the Top holds is the provincial tournament in Ontario. Forty teams are split into five groups of eight such that the top ten teams (across all pools, W/L then PPG) make the playoffs. The tournament starts Saturday at noon followed by two exhibition games. There is a seven game round robin on Sunday and the top ten elimination playoff is on Monday.

Tournament Structure

The number of games at this event is vastly lower than that of regular state championships, especially since rounds are easily done in 25 minutes. The late Saturday start is so most teams can drive Saturday morning. The exhibition games are played so that the moderators (who are usually inexperienced coaches) get accustomed to the provincial format, and that some of the historically strong Jewish teams can attend religious services on Saturday. The mere seven rounds on Sunday, which ends at 3:00 lets most teams able to drive back the same day, and also gives leeway for the fifteen minute gap between rounds for protest resolution.

Protest Resolution

Due to a emphasis on points per game, not only in the 5-2 teams to get into the top ten, but also in the 7-0 and 6-1 teams to try to get optimal playoff seedings, every protest, regardless if it makes a difference in the game or not, is resolved. The captains of each team go to the control "room", which is located in the main foyer of the tournament site, and explain the protest to the two judges. There is one control room for forty teams, and given the low quality of some of the questions, this can lead to extensive protest lines. No explanation is given by the control room for whether or not a protest is upheld.

Playoff Format

  • 1-10, 2-9, 3-8, 4-7, 5-6. Winners are re-seeded the same way they are in the NHL playoffs, highest scoring loser given 6 seed
  • 1-6, 2-5, 3-4. Winners are seeded, highest scoring loser given 4th
  • semifinals
  • finals

When Reach for the Top was televised, the question packs would be different, thus the highest scoring loser place was not well defined. The highest scoring loser rule is problematic because different rooms hear a different amount of questions. A case involved Merivale in 2000 in which there were many technical difficulties which led to a packet not fully played, which resulted in Merivale losing such that the winning team had less points than the highest scoring loser. After losing television rights in 2009, the 2010 and 2011 playoffs were timed games such that not every team had the same chance to listen to all the questions if the reader was slow. From 2012 onwards, all first and second round games were played simultaneously. This elimination playoff format is criticized not only for being single elimination, but the highest scoring loser dynamics creates some sticky situations. If the top team is upset in the first or second round but maintains a high score, they are seeded the lowest seed, and if the second best team wins that round, they are forced to play their next round playoff game against the top team.

National Tournament

Reach for the Top Nationals annually conflicts with HSNCT to prevent good schools from going to both.


In the 2000s, the tournament has been from 12-14 teams, playing a round robin followed by top eight single elimination playoffs.

  • 2 BC
  • 2-3 Alberta
  • 0-1 Saskatchewan
  • 2 Manitoba
  • 2-3 Ontario
  • 1 Quebec
  • 1-2 New Brunswick
  • 1 Nova Scotia

There is no D-value to tell which team qualifies or not. The strongest teams have always come from Ontario, with a few teams in other provinces doing well at least once a year. In 2011, the top three Ontario teams finished second through fourth at Nationals. Quebec, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba have always done very poorly. Regardless, many good Ontario teams do not go to the National tournament because there are just not enough spots.

Playoff format

Each single elimination playoff and consolation playoff game is played one by one to ensure teams all have a chance to play on stage. This leads to the Sunday being only one or two games for each team, rather than playing in a tiered bracket playoffs where many more games can be played. The playoffs stretch from Sunday morning to mid-Monday, with Saturday being a full round robin.


  • At the 2011 Ontario Provincials, several people approached the editors demanding answers after hearing a question: "Why are hippo bites usually fatal?" during the playoff bracket of the Ottawa regionals. This inquiry was received with a shrug and ignored.
  • At Ontario Provincials in 2016, Reach appeared to have arranged the preliminary groups randomly instead of seeding the teams. This resulted in many teams that had made playoffs the previous year being put in one group. Another one featured two semifinalists from 2015, and some groups didn't include any teams that had had success in recent years. Reach made no changes to the schedule despite several protests, leading to multiple top teams losing their playoff spots to far weaker ones.