New Essays on Quizbowl Understanding

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New Essays on Quizbowl Understanding is a ranking posted in 2009 of the top 20 currently active quizbowl players. The identity of Theophilius and Philalethe is still unknown. Its title and the pseudonyms of the writers are derived from Leibniz's New Essays on Human Understanding

The List

1. Seth Teitler, Chicago

Philalethe: I had the hardest time with this decision, but in the end, my pal Theophilius convinced me to go with the man who’s won the championships most recently. Since moving to Chicago, Seth has been a primary scorer on a team that finished second and third at ACF Nationals before cranking out a three-peat from 2007-2009. His ICT record is similarly illustrious, including a second and third place finish in 2005 and 2006, followed by a near back-to-back-to-back that was only spoiled by the 2008 Maryland’s win. Let’s just clarify that a bit: Since 2007, Seth’s teams have lost one national tournament. He also won an ICT and a Nationals at Berkeley. No one can rival his achievements in quizbowl’s high modern era, and he’s making a run at quizbowl’s greatest champion, Andrew Yaphe.

Theophilius: I actually wrote the entire above thing after I convinced my man P to allow Seth in the top spot. It is nearly impossible to choose between him and Andrew Yaphe, the most decorated quizbowl player in history who tops everyone’s best-ever list. Seth’s recent triumphs over Andrew, combined with his status as perhaps the best modern science player and mastery of the rest of the canon, give him the slight nod.

2. Andrew Yaphe, Stanford

P: Not as active as he once was, but dominant as ever. No one would blink if you called him the best player of the early 90s, late 90/early 00s, and true modern eras. Dominates literature, philosophy, music, art, and history. Performance on questions outside the normal canon in those areas shows that his quizbowl knowledge is just the tip of the iceberg. Not always strategic, but simply overwhelms you with his knowledge of the humanities and sneaky buzzes in other areas. It’s not really fair to only write this much about Andrew Yaphe, so let me just remind you that despite serving as head editor a handful of times during his peak, he’s won more ACF Nationals than Brendan Byrne, Shantanu Jha, and Andrew Hart have played, combined. The bottom line: the best ever, and arguably still the best.

T: Now that I’ve convinced P to vote for Seth, I feel guilty about writing something about Andrew. He’s still quite possibly the best player in quizbowl and undoubtedly its greatest champion. What more can you say?

3. Jerry Vinokurov, Brown

P: Gets tossups in all areas. Perhaps the best player on physical sciences, but also an amazing literature and history player who is capable of high-level buzzes on any given question. More strategic than you might expect. One of the rare players who can be an even contributor on a superteam and a buzzing maniac when surrounded by more limited specialists. Luck has conspired to ruin some of his best title chances, but he’s a player whose team will always be in the hunt, because he’s one of the rare true number one players in quizbowl.

T: Yeah, he gets his tossups against anyone, and other people’s tossups, too.

4. Brendan Byrne, Minnesota

P: The hardest studier in quizbowl has made himself into the player with the broadest knowledge base in the game. Have him on your team and you’re all but guaranteed the best bonus conversion in the field. Surprisingly for a player often associated with list knowledge, he seems to get many of his tossups on feel and strategy instead of straight-up word association. His true beastliness is sometimes masked by the fact that he has a wealth of talent surrounding him. In order to win a championship, he’ll need to get a true lockdown category and show up in the bigger games. Still, he seems guaranteed to lead a team to the promised land if he does some kind of postgrad work, and Minnesota has a fighting chance next year.

T: Few players rob you of your categories with regularity, but Brendan Byrne is one of them. He might not have a lockdown category, but he certainly can steal yours if you’re not careful. If you haven’t seen him play high-level questions recently, you’re missing some of the most virtuosic performances in quizbowl memory; he’ll go from acing nigh-impossible tossups in physics to first-lining social science tossups to pulling ridiculous third bonus parts in all categories. He’s approaching the omega point faster than anyone right now.

5. Mike Sorice, Illinois

P: Another long-suffering physicist, Sorice is battling Jerry for the title of most deserving of a championship. Mike is one of the best players at physics, math, music, and painting, in addition to general prowess in all categories. Maybe more than any other player, Mike is capable of leading shorthanded teams to success. He has had success integrating his game to play with other elite players at opens, recent struggles at Chicago Open aside. He’s also one of the most feared players at NAQT. Sorice is capable of beating any team with any supporting cast, and even in their down years, Illinois is feared at Nationals and ICT.

T: You wouldn’t necessarily expect Sorice to kill you on fine arts, but he’s one of the very best players at both painting and music. He’s basically capable of getting any question against any opponent, which makes him feared by everyone. His teams have the unfortunate tendency to chalk up unexpected losses as well as amazing upset victories, but with Trygve Meade’s ascent and Ike Jose’s matriculation, we could witness a long-awaited national championship delivered to Urbana-Champaigne in 2009-10.

6. Eric Mukherjee, Penn

P: The previous five players are true, undisputed, undeniable number one players capable of leading any team to a high finish at a national championship. Both Theophilius and I don’t know if Eric Mukherjee is that kind of player, but his first year at Penn will answer a lot of questions. Regardless, there’s no doubt that he’s worth of a top six spot.

T: What can you say about Eric? He’s the best biology and chemistry player to ever play the game. His knowledge of the other major science categories probably makes him the best science player ever. He’s not a one-trick pony either; he can make high-level buzzes in mythology, literature, and other important areas. Can he translate that into making Penn a contender? It remains to be seen. But even if he is consumed by the rigors of med and grad school, Eric has mastered the hardest category in all of quizbowl as an undergrad who started playing the game late. That’s impressive.

7. Shantanu Jha, Chicago

P: An improving player who doesn’t have the knowledge base of the above players, but plays the game well.

T: Capable of quality buzzing at any level in any category, but doesn’t have the true lockdown status or bonus conversion capabilities of the above players. My colleague underrates Shantanu’s ability to play the game of quizbowl; he’s tremendous at being the first player in when multiple people know it, buzzing before he knows the answer, or making the right inferences. Couple that with the knowledge base you know he’s building, and we could have the best player in quizbowl in the making.

8. Andrew Hart, Minnesota

P: Might have the knowledge base of a number one already, but plays more like a number two at this point. Scored about half of the points on a team that made a tough first bracket at ACF Nats 07 and won the undergrad title. Not a good NAQT player and not very good at the game part of quizbowl in general. If he moves on from Minnesota, he’s going to have to improve that side of his game in order to break into the upper echelon, but let’s remember that he is a late comer to the game and didn’t really get started until his sophomore year in college. In that context, he has as much potential as anyone.

T: So which player is the real Andrew Hart? The one who outplayed Mike Sorice at Sun n’ Fun and ran rampant over CO Lit, or the one that could barely make a dent in the top forty scorers at CO and disappeared at ICT and ACF Nats? We know that he can buzz on any question against any player; he gets as many startling tossups in top players’ specialty areas as anyone, even in crucial games. Why doesn’t he do it more often? One round he looks like a #1 player who can make great buzzes in all categories and can carry a team, and the next he disappears. Good editor, though.

9. Selene Koo, Chicago

P: Selene is arguably the best chemistry and biology specialist in quizbowl history, and has been a top contributor on many of Chicago’s recent championship runs. She’s going to get her tossups as well as a bunch of unexpected generalist buzzes that will win games against elite teams. Her knowledge base isn’t as thorough as the above players’, but she’s the kind of player that wins championships in the right capacity.

T: Selene is supremely knowledgeable in her specialty areas, and one of the best team players in the game. That equals winner.

10. Chris Ray, Maryland

P: Gets some tossups, negs some tossups. He’s okay.

T: For all the grief that Chris Ray gets, he is one of the best players in quizbowl at playing the game and getting tossups strategically against really good teams. He is a very good history player who also has strong generalist knowledge across the board. But he’s not really a number one player or a number two player because he seems to defy the conventions of the typical winning teams. That’s not to say that he can’t play for a winner or lead a winner, because he has shown great improvement ever since cutting his teeth as a lateral thinking freshman fresh off of an HSNCT championship.

11. Auroni Gupta

P: We’re going to surprise you on this one, but both T and I are convinced that putting Auroni at the first spot out of the top ten is the right call. The dude is a fantastic player in a bunch of minor categories, many of them related to his well-documented love of Asia. He doesn’t lock down a single category that comes up in every packet, but he will get tossups in every packet because he has pockets of very deep knowledge in nearly every category. Just look at his performances at superhard tournaments for proof. If the top ten are quizbowl’s #1s, Auroni is a #1 in the making. To get there, he needs to lock down a category and keep putting in the work.

T: My esteemed colleague and myself are ready to shock the world with this pick. Auroni has broad and deep knowledge of a few smaller categories, but what sets him apart from the rest of the pack is his ability to answer questions at all levels in all categories, even science. He’s probably going to be doomed to lower first-bracket finishes unless UCSD produces some solid specialists, though.

12. Ted Gioia

P: Ted is sometimes a bit overrated because he is the highest-profile player on one of the most well-balanced teams out there. Harvard A is the only team to make the four-true-specialists model work, and Ted is a big part of that, because he is a fantastic player in literature and the arts, which together comprise a good third of the distribution. His performances without a bevy of players who perfectly complement his knowledge have been up and down. He can be prone to negging and disappearing in games, but he is one of the best specialists in the game, and is the kind of player who can be a championship component with the right supporting cast. Until Harvard gets a truly elite generalist, either via player movement or the development of Ted or Dallas Simons, they won’t win a title.

T: Ted is a fantastic player at his categories, and pretty uninspiring outside of them. He is one of the best specialists around, but I value all-around ability a little more than most, and quizbowl is increasingly being won by teams with three or four upper-level generalists. Still, he will impress you in nearly every game. In terms of active players, you can make an argument that he is the second-best literature player behind Andrew, though Jerry, Seth, and Andrew (H.) have legit candidacies as well.

13. Dwight Wynne

P: A bit overrated in polls lately, but he is a fine player and editor who is capable of dazzling matches against good teams. He would be a great secondary generalist on a championship-caliber team. You get the feeling that his best categories, especially in science, are things that are somewhat minimized in the distribution, like statistics and neuroscience, but he’s still got a nice knowledge base and good instincts.

T: My part of the circuit doesn’t intersect with Dwight’s very often, but I was impressed with his buzzes at 2008 ACF Nationals and certainly respect his ability to pile up points against decent competition. Whether he can be a piece of a championship puzzle remains to be seen, but with his science knowledge I give him a chance.

14. Dallas Simons

P: Combines elite knowledge of geography and ancient history with solid generalist aptitude. Time will tell if he can develop into the all-around threat that Harvard needs to take it to the next level.

T: He is impressive at all levels, and even capable of letting Christian Flow get some pity tossups. He has a lot of room to grow, and if he can get a foothold in upper-level lit or science, he’s got a chance to be great.

15. Rob Carson

P: The times I’ve watched and played against Rob, I haven’t come away immediately impressed. Tossups in areas that you would assume he would lock down based on reputation often go to his teammates or the opposition. But when I looked at my notes, he still manages to put up quality buzzes. Minnesota is a team of four generalists with areas of concentration, and Rob is no exception. He doesn’t have as many killer buzzes as his teammates, but his ability on upper level questions can’t be questioned, and like his teammates, a lot of his skill is masked by the fact that Minnesota’s players encroach on each others’ categories with regularity because they all believe they can get any question in any category.

T: One of the first times I played Rob was at Regionals, and I thought he was a typical elite-ish high schooler who would have a hard time transitioning. I was wrong. He’s a very, very good upper level generalist. If he stays in academia for a while, Rob can be the #1 player on a championship team if he wants to.

16. Bruce Arthur

P: Bruce has some of the deepest knowledge in his categories, and spearheading multiple history and RMP subject tournaments has only added to that depth. Harvard is fearsome to any team if they get a packet that Bruce can gobble up.

T: Near and dear to my heart are players who excel at the hardest events. Bruce has shown the ability to do that, and he is also a major contributor on one of the best collegiate teams out there.

17. Paul Gauthier

P: Paul has insane deep knowledge in his areas, but despite his low neg totals he can make bad buzzes at crucial times. He’s one of those players whose knowledge base doesn’t quite intersect with what quizbowl tests for, but hits lots of home runs for his team, which is why Chicago B had several upset wins last year.

T: Paul is underrated. As I said, I prefer generalists to specialists, but sometimes deep knowledge has to be recognized.

18. Trevor Davis

P: Trevor is a lower-level monster whose success has started to translate to great buzzes on hard questions against top-level competition. Watch out for him on ancient history and all philosophy, and don’t be surprised when he gets tossups across the board. Still learning how to play the game, but legit #1 potential is there.

T: I don’t get to see Trevor that often, but when I do, I’m always impressed at how far he’s come. He still takes aggressive playing to the extreme when playing without elite teammates, but he’s very good at subsuming the urge to buzz when playing a complementary role, something that I can respect, because it’s hard to do.

19. Charlie Dees

P: One gets the feeling that Dees could be a lot better if his life stabilized a bit. Regardless, he is a fine generalist at the regular level of play who has moments of brilliance at the upper levels. He has a chance to get a lot better.

T: Dees gets here because his resume at regular tournaments is impressive. To vault higher, he’ll need to prove that he can get it done at Nationals and above. He’s not that far away.

20. Paul Drube

P: I don’t get to see him often, but he has great instincts and solid generalist knowledge, especially in science and geography. He’s more to be feared at NAQT, but he can give anyone a ride if he gets hot. But he’s liable to encounter cold stretches and neg a lot when he gets behind. On talent and results, he’s probably a top fifteen player, but I knocked him a bit for not showing up to much.

T: I have seen him a little bit, and he’s got good knowledge. Needs to come to more things though.