Tom Egan's Report on the 2005 NAC

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Tom Egan's Report on the 2005 NAC was a document composed by Illinois coach and official Tom Egan as an eyewitness account of part of the 2005 NAC in Chicago.

Background

As a regular observer/contributor at the hsquizbowl.org boards, Tom had been intrigued by the NAC as it had been repeatedly attacked by several notable people in the community. As a skeptic in general, he had wondered if this tournament was as bad as others had claimed it to be. Interviews of coaches who had actually attended the tournament (David Riley, being most notable) were inconclusive. With the 2005 NAC choosing Chicago as one of its sites, he decided to attend as an observer and write an account of what he saw; trying to do so from a perspective of a person interested in supporting good quizbowl, and not having formed a judgement about the NAC yet.

It was also the year Egan made the grand tour, attending all of the national tournaments. He was attending (and moderating) at the PACE NSC in Florida, then coaching Team Illinois at PAC. He was also keeping score for the first time at the NAQT HSNCT. He felt that the somewhat rare opportunity to visit all four tournaments in so short a time would give him the ability to accurately compare the tournaments from an impartial perspective.

Aside from spelling, grammar, and a few changes in word selection, the report was filed immediately after attending the NAC on June 10. This was done to preserve the essence and details of the experience, without being clouded by the passage of time.

The Report

Introduction and Format Description

This report is based on watching a total of four matches, and a brief interview with one coach whose team was entered in the tournament. All assertions are thus based upon a relatively limited number of observations, which must be noted by the reader.

The National Academic Championship (NAC) is run in a four quarter format, though each quarter’s possible points are not equal. There is no possibility for negative points, nor the possibility for bonus points (as in NAQT format):

I. 10 toss-ups, ten points each.
II. 10 toss-ups, with modified bonus. The toss-up winner hears a four part bonus, with each part, in theory, being more difficult than the previous part. The first part is worth five points, the second ten, the third fifteen, and the fourth twenty, for a potential total of 50 bonus points (or sixty points per question). The parts are asked one at a time. If the team in control fails to answer any part, that part immediately rebounds to the other team, and the bonus ends. Most bonuses which I witnessed did not ever see the 20 point question, and only one was swept by the team in control. Some of these questions are multi-clue, but some are also single clue questions.
III. 60-second round. The team behind chooses from four categories (one of which is always the “mystery” category), and has one minute to answer up to 10 questions on that topic (though sometimes the topic name is somewhat misleading). Any part that was read, but not answered correctly, rebounds to the other team. If a question was partially read when time expires, only the part that was read is read to the rebounding team, though at least in one case, only two words were sufficient (with the category) to determine the answer for the rebounding team). The process then repeats for the team that was leading at the beginning of the period, choosing from the three remaining categories.
IV. “Stump the Experts”. 10 toss-up questions of, theoretically more difficult format. These questions are almost all multi-clue, but not in anyway strictly pyramidal. Some open with only tangentially important information. Only a player with strong experience from this question writer (Questions Unlimited) would perhaps be able to consistently use this information as a “clue”.

Between matches, there is always music (a random(?) selection of three pieces), and between periods, the host (intentional use of the term here on my part) reminds the audience about the question source, the background of the judges, historic tournament points, etc. Some of these points are brought up every round, even though the crowd, coaches, and players have likely heard them several times already.

Rather than the host stating “correct” or “incorrect” the room is informed by the judge sounding a bell or buzzer, in addition to the host stating correct or incorrect, sometimes followed by commentary. An electronic horn signals the end of each period.

If a team sweeps all ten questions in the “60-second round”, the team earns a special prize of a pack of chocolate cigarettes. It is uncertain if this particular prize is unique for this year, or has been a carry over for previous years. No team earned the prize in the four matches I observed, though, in one room, the audience was reminded that they were down to their “last pack” because there had been so many sweeps the day before (Friday).

Only two matches took place at any one time. As some of you are familiar with the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Rosemont as the home of the NAQT tournament, the two rooms in use were Kennedy and LaGuardia. Kennedy is a medium sized meeting room, while LaGuardia is rather small. One team was not even able to be seated facing the audience, in order to accommodate large, underused audience seating. This is not the way NAQT sets up this room.

The buzzer systems were altered. the small light boxes had the front glass plate removed. In front of each light box was a piece of frosted glass, on which each player wrote their name, thus when a player activated their buzzer, their name, literally, lit up.

The first and fourth period each included a single music listening question, though only one of them was typically of the non-pop variety.

Specific Observations

For purposes of this report, I will refer to the events as occurring in “Kennedy” or “LaGuardia” each room had a reader (host) and judge who operated the musical selections, sound effects, and who confirmed certain answers. The judge and host may switch jobs, but I saw the same reader in each room twice.

The first match I observed was in Kennedy, between a team from Texas and from Vermont.

From the back of the room, one of the coaches was rather annoyingly air signaling to his team. Nothing was done by the host or judge. Perhaps this was permitted (or not explicitly banned by the rules), but it was distracting (in Illinois, it is considered rude). This was also the only coach to actually file a protest over an answer (which the coach was correct about, because the question writer misunderstood a current event, placing Indiana in the Central Time Zone, instead of understanding that Indiana simply started observing daylight savings time).

Notably, teams were weak in science and math. A simple physics problem (on rotation rate), and a molarity problem were missed. Only one math problem on probability was answered (after one team had answered incorrectly). On several questions which (in my opinion) should have been easily answerable, the teams were unable to answer, or gave incredibly poor answers (for example, answering “Pearl Harbor” on a fast buzz about the first use of kamikaze pilots). Overall, neither team appeared to be very impressive, especially given that this is supposed to be a national caliber tournament. In and of itself, this means nothing, In my opinion, there were teams of this caliber at NAQT, though I would guess the chances of randomly seeing two teams of this caliber playing each other at NAQT would be small.

While in general, the use of terminology was fine, one in particular referred to the quantum numbers as “quantum coefficients”. With my science background, I have never heard this reference, and felt that it could have impaired a team’s ability to answer quickly. The question implied that the question was being written by someone with no more than cursory knowledge of science.

As I stated in my introduction, the “Stump the Expert” questions were multi-clue, but certainly not pyramidal. One question referred to a recent vote in Oregon regarding the new state fruit. After two long sentences, the question is finally revealed to be “which fruit won?” While a completely trivial question, the structure of the question was also poor.

Throughout the match, the host twice made friendly comments toward the Texas team, referring to their PBS station after answering a question about public broadcasting. Twice in the match, particular questions came up that helped the Texas team (one question asked for the time zone of the town from where the team came from. A second question was about Roger Staubach). The host, in a rather rehearsed way, reminded the audience that the questions were written months in advance. This may have allayed concerns of some, but given that certain teams were specifically placed into particular rounds, and that the questions are not generally available to a wide audience, this did nothing to remove any potential accusations of favoritism.

The second round I watched was in LaGuardia, between a team from Massachusetts and West Virginia.

The host in this room had a distinct problem with pronunciation, at one time saying “free white”, instead of “free weight”. There were other missteps in pronunciation, which were, at the least, annoying.

A music question “What musical instrument does Woody Allen play?” was controversial in that the player rang in just before the recording began, but the recording played anyway. The host apologized for not stopping the recording on time, but still permitted the player to answer (and he did so correctly). I say that it was controversial, but no one in the room said anything.

At one point (paraphrasing the question), a question asked “While an airplane has a fixed wing, what name is given to the rotating wings on a helicopter?” The first team answered “blades”, which is a commonly referred to alternative. It was not accepted, and no protest was filed (the other team earned the toss-up with “rotor”). This shows a lack of experience on the part of the coach, or experience on the coach’s part which indicates that what should have been a perfectly obvious protest, would not be upheld. Worse, the host and judge should have known that this answer should have been at least promptable, unless there are either rules to prevent this (poor rule), or it was the prearranged intent to penalize teams who tend to ring in faster (poor moderating).

A question in literature asked for the type of bird referenced in a Keats ode, which none could answer, until an audio component playing a bird’s song was played. I found it somewhat amusing. That someone could identify the call of a nightingale, but seemed to be completely unfamiliar with a standard piece of British Literature.

At one point, the host misread a literature toss-up, and needed to replace, stating emphatically “I will find a replacement literature question.” The replacement asked the players to identify a component of the “Worlds Strongest Man” competition on ESPN. If I had been a coach, I would have found this wholly unacceptable.

One of the single worst questions asked in my years in quiz bowl was asked in this round: “Name the four former presidents not buried in the United States”. (for those not immediately sure what the question was asking, the answer was “Ford, Carter, Bush, and Clinton”). I was mortified and embarrassed as a member of the quiz bowl community that such a question would be asked at any level, especially in a tournament professing to be a national tournament. The whooping by the team who answered the question correctly was uncalled for, showed low class, and showed that they were certainly not used to conducting themselves in a tournament that, again, professes, to be a national championship. The team that did not answer the question looked utterly defeated. The situation was in no way helped by the snickering by the host and judge. It was not a question; it was a riddle and totally out of place. The behavior of the tournament officials was wholly unprofessional.

Another incident that was out of place was a question asking for the name which the Republican Party used in the election of 1864. When no team could answer “Union”, the host responded “Our Rich Fat-Cat Friends.....I’m a Democrat and proud of it”. Irrelevant of political affiliation, these comments were unnecessary, and would not have been any less offensive if the politics were reversed.

The third match I witnessed was also in LaGuardia, and was with the same host as in the second match I witnessed. This match did involve a team from down state Illinois.

One question asking for the title of a Jules Verne novel was given as “10,000 Leagues Under the Sea”. While I was grateful that it was not the Illinois team, I was saddened that this came from the eventual winning team.

Another question asked about a herb “whose name is the reverse of the author of The Stranger". Not one player could figure out "Camus" reversed to "sumac".

In the 60-second round, the two categories that were chosen were “The Wizard of Oz” (two questions earlier, the music question had been “Judy Garland”) and “Winnie the Pooh”. The other option was no better, and, again, I was mortified that this was the level of question being asked at a supposed national caliber high school varsity tournament. Surely, there could be some very legitimate questions asked about what many consider a culturally and historically important film, though only one of the nine questions heard constituted, in my opinion, anything but cursory knowledge of the film.

The most grossly unprofessional act that I witnessed was in this round. After a pop music question, the host joked about Whitney Houston, and then made a gesture that implied sucking on a crack pipe; further joking about Bobby Brown. It was utterly tasteless for someone who works with young students in a professional manner to make such jokes. Again, I was mortified, and noted that while most people were laughing, there were obviously some in the room who looked uncomfortable.

Also in this round, a question came up in the category of “Women”, which prompted a note from the host that “we have two women on the panel”. The comment was inane, and only drew attention to those two players for reasons dealing strictly with their gender, rather than their abilities as players.

The fourth match, back in Kennedy, also involved an Illinois team playing a “B” team; a match which the Illinois team won, and needed to win in order to stay alive (as the host twice reminded the room, this school was a “usual playoff qualifier”, and needed to “win their final three matches to advance”.

Two of the first five questions asked for the “state which sent Lieutenant Governor Quinn to Utah to apologize....” the question was immediately answered; “Illinois”. Two questions later, the teams were asked to identify the “city home to Bradley University and Caterpillar”. Again, the question went no further as the answer was “Peoria”. Again, the host read a seemingly rehearsed line about the questions being written “months in advance”.

Before the match began, the host introduced the teams as a “perennial playoff contender” and “only the fourth all-female team in tournament history”. After one of the periods, he stated that the Illinois school would “need to win their final three matches to qualify for the playoffs”, and that if they lose, they would “be on the losing end of the greatest comeback in tournament history”. After a quickly answered question by the Illinois team, the host noted “Good anticipation by the Illinois team”.

The host in each match, introduced his judge as the largest money winner on “Jeopardy!” history, defeating Ken Jennings. The final time noting “When he talks, people listen.”

One rather ironic point is that many of the non-Illinois participants talked a little too loudly during the match; prompting the Illinois coach to ask the host to remind the opposing coach that he should warn the audience after an answer was said too loudly from an adult in the audience while a question was still live. However, during a break in the game (between periods, when substitutions took place), the Illinois contingent tended to talk over the host’s usual banter, prompting loud “shh’s” from the rest of the audience. I found it amusing that it was apparently OK to talk during the match, but not between periods. It showed me that some in the audience were used to this being more like a play-along game show, during which you did not talk over the host, but obviously talked while the players were trying to answer.

Overall Analysis

My overall feeling as an observer, and as a coach who very much values working with young people, and giving them the best possible experience possible (best being defined here as challenging, fair, and fun), is as follows:

1. Compared to the other three national tournaments which I have witnessed (PAC, PACE, NAQT), this tournament, in my opinion, does not measure up as being on par with the other three. This assessment is based on:
A. Question quality being poor by comparison. I saw more “question problems” in four matches at this tournament than in the other three combined (and I have seen NAQT twice, for a combined total of some 16 rounds each, add in six rounds at Panasonic, and roughly ten at PACE).
B. Question coverage was notably poorer in this tournament, notably in math and science. In addition, the level of some questions were decidedly elementary school in level. Furthermore, some of the questions would not even qualify as a “question” at any level of quiz bowl that I am familiar with. Finally, there was an overall emphasis on trivia that is absent in PAC and PACE, and minimized in NAQT.
C. The weakest point to bring up here is the overall quality of the teams. While I only saw four matches, and only saw two teams with winning records, and only one team which I thought had the personnel to be considered a “national caliber” team, the percentage of teams that were decidedly not national caliber appeared to be rather high. This may be an overall problem at some national tournaments, as even at NAQT, there were some teams that were not of a national caliber (though in a 120+ team field, that leaves a great many exceptional teams).
2. I could not escape the feeling that this tournament was different in that the players and coaches were there to indulge tournament personnel, and not the other way around. In this regard, PACE (most especially), NAQT and PAC in its own ways place the players at the forefront in terms of considerations. I kept feeling that the tournament officials were the stars of the matches, and that the players were secondary. As an extension of this, there was an all too obvious “game show” atmosphere, right down to the bothersome sound effects and inane commentary from the hosts (I have used the term host, in reference to one tournament official referring to the teams as a “panel”. I felt this term was not meant in a derogatory way, but I could not help but feel offended .... as if the teams were more groups of “actors” instead of people who had invested a great deal of time, effort, and money to compete). Several times during the commentary, I was tempted to look around for a camera, as if we were being filmed for a show.
3. There have been accusations, documented and admitted to in some cases, of plagiarism. Obviously I cannot confirm this at this point in time regarding this tournament. What I can address are some of the accusations of favoritism which have been leveled at the tournament officials in the past. I did witness a few cases where one host in particular made comments that could be viewed as being favorable toward one team in particular, or somewhat intimidating toward another. Having seen this for myself, I am not fully convinced that favoritism and/or intimidation is intentional. Rather, I am convinced that this is due to a lack of reflection on the part of tournament officials as to how their actions can be perceived. This lack of thought, in order to make off the cuff “game show host-like commentary”, permeated the matches I saw. While I saw no overt favoritism, I felt that there were too many comments that could be misinterpreted. This even included the choice of “chocolate cigarettes” as a choice of “prize”. Of the literally thousands of choices that they could have made (similar to PACE’s kudos prize), they chose a prize that, at the very least, was politically incorrect, and at the worst, could be interpreted as lacking taste and common sense given the nature of the students participating.
4. There exists too much room for accusations of fraud to be made. Some of the 60-second questions were on very particular topics, that may have given one team a huge advantage in the course of the match. The “these questions are written months in advance speech” seemed to be rehearsed, meaning to me that accusations of favorable questions have been leveled with some degree of regularity. This could mean a fraud, though I am more likely to chalk it up to “thoughtless question selection”. As one example, the two, nearly back-to-back Illinois questions in a match involving Illinois: even if this were coincidence (which I believe it was), it is irresponsible to have an Illinois current events question and an Illinois geography question in the same match, even if there were no Illinois team involved. The same was true for two questions about Texas coincidentally coming up in a round involving a team from Texas. As is sometimes the case with fraud: it is not that the accused actually committed fraud, it IS that the accused placed themselves in a situation where it was too easy to make the accusation, and rather than change, they further sink their head into the noose waiting for someone to eventually pull it closed.

Positive Aspects of the NAC

1. The tournament establishes a strong sense of history and continuity, and thus helps give players and coaches the feeling of being a part of a continuing process. In this regard, they are better than NAQT and PAC. It is uncertain as to how much of a positive impact this has on their participation levels, but it is a lesson that the other formats could learn from.
2. The format (excluding the questions themselves) has some merit. Some of the bonus questions had a difficulty and academic relevance close to NAQT and PACE. While the current format of the 60 second round is open to accusations of fraud, it could be modified to provide more accountability and fairness. While not a strong aspect of the tournament, it at least is able to be fixed.

Conclusions

As a person concerned about the state and future of quiz bowl in Illinois, it is my personal opinion that the NAC is a tournament that I would not recommend to a team choosing to spend their money and time to compete in a national tournament, unless they were strictly interested in immersing themselves in what could be described as a “game show fantasy camp”, and that they were trying to intentionally avoid questions which were more academic in nature.

This must especially be the case where there exists other tournaments with substantially greater chance of challenge, and placing the actual student competition as the centerpiece of the competition. Certainly, PACE and NAQT do a great deal to make sure there is no ambiguity that the payers come first, and that the level of competition is central to what they do. PAC also placed the players as their highest priority, though with the obvious distractions of Central Florida so close, the care they place on competition is easy to overlook. These three tournaments outlast the NAC in terms of their overall professionalism, and commitment to questions of quality in both writing and content. In short: the other three show the greatest respect to the players while NAC seems to take liberties with the players who attend.

Perhaps I could sum my thoughts this way: even though I feel my team, in their strong years, could potentially do very well at this tournament, I would not take them to it and expose them to what goes on there.

Submitted, 10 June 2006 Thomas Egan