Inside the Biggest Scandal in Quiz Bowl History

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April 9 2013 7:15 AM

Unfair Harvard

Inside the biggest scandal in quiz bowl history.

(Continued from Page 1)

In hindsight, some of Watkins’ tournament stats do look a bit suspicious. From 2009 through 2011, he never finished higher than 11th in the ICT’s individual standings (which are tallied after the preliminary rounds). But at the 2010 and 2011 ICTs in particular, he proved exceptionally adept at buzzing in early with the correct answer. (In NAQT, you’re awarded extra points for doing so. It’s called powering.) He also answered very few tossup questions incorrectly. (A wrong answer is called a neg, or more formally, an interruption.) In 2010—including playoff rounds—he notched 32 powers and just four negs. A year later, when Harvard became the first all-undergraduate team to win the overall Division 1 ICT title, Watkins amassed 30 powers and only a single neg.

In quiz bowl, that kind of stat line is rare. “It’s a general trade-off,” Watkins’ Harvard teammate Bruce Arthur explains. “If you buzz a lot, you neg a lot.” Tourneys often jokingly award a prize for the most negs. It usually goes to one of the top players. At the 2010 and 2011 ICTs, there was only one player—the University of Chicago’s Seth Teitler, an elite quiz bowler known for being cautious on the buzzer—who both finished ahead of Watkins in the individual standings and had a better overall power/neg ratio.

“I definitely can see what’s suspicious about a high [power/neg] ratio,” Watkins concedes. “I was in unusual circumstances.” In an email, he says that he “was on a team of very talented specialists. I never had to buzz unless I was extremely confident, basically.” Still, that doesn’t explain how he, a science specialist—Watkins is currently studying chemistry at NYU—nailed this 2011 ICT final-round history question:

“Duarte Fernandez was sent to establish relations with this nation, whose rulers included an ‘elephant prince.’ One polity in this nation developed the position of uparaja under Trailokanat and used a corvee system of nai and phrai before it fell to Alaungpaya. That Theravada polity defeated Minchit Sra under its ruler Naresuan the Great and began with Ramathibodi I. For 10 points—name this nation once home to the Ayutthaya kingdom, ruled by the Chakri Dynasty.”

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Answer: Thailand

“That was a scary, scary buzz,” he explains. “Minnesota’s biggest single subject advantage against us was probably history, so I was prepared to buzz aggressively in case I had a hint of an answer. I think I buzzed upon hearing a kingdom with the syllable ‘Thai’ in it; I know that at the very least the Ayutthaya were there. It was a calculated risk.”

A few weeks after Harvard’s ICT victory, the team went to the Academic Competition Federation Nationals—the year’s toughest event. This time out, at a tournament where Watkins couldn’t possibly have accessed the questions in advance, Harvard didn’t crack the top five. In the preliminary rounds, Watkins answered 13 tossup questions correctly and negged three times. (There’s no bonus for buzzing in early, aka powering, at ACF Nationals.) “This raised eyebrows because of how sharpshooting Andy was at ICT,” says Matt Weiner, a leading quiz bowl voice. Watkins acknowledges a drop in his own level of play but says that he’d always done better at NAQT tournaments than at ACF events, because “NAQT questions are more amenable to short-term studying.”

After fielding complaints from opposing players in 2010, NAQT looked into Watkins but found no evidence of wrongdoing. “We did not do as good a job as we could have [in that investigation],” Hentzel says now. While trying to figure out if the company’s system had been hacked, Hentzel says, NAQT failed to notice that Watkins had been accessing the college-level “questions by writer” page. Watkins didn’t need to break in; the page wasn’t properly protected. (Hentzel also says that he didn’t find Watkins’ 2011 tournament performance, in which he had 30 powers and one neg, anomalous enough to prompt a second investigation.)

Back in 2010, Arthur heard rumors that Watkins was cheating, but he figured his teammate had been cleared after seeing the results of NAQT’s initial investigation. “He wasn’t always the easiest guy to get along with, but I don’t think people thought he was nefarious,” says Arthur, who believes stripping Harvard of its titles was the correct move.

The anger directed toward Watkins by his fellow quiz bowlers does seem, in part, to be a product of personal animus. In a 2008 Harvard Crimson feature by Christian B. Flow, Watkins comes off as alarmingly intense and abrasive. He also seems—to use Watkins’ own wording from his statement to NAQT—a bit unstable. “Andy, I would say, plays differently than I do,” a teammate told Flow. “He takes it very seriously, he beats himself up physically while he plays, and he gets quite angry when things don’t go well.” In the story, Flow noted that the then-quiz-bowl club president rarely slept more than three hours a night. He also described how a tournament loss drove Watkins to punch a concrete wall, leaving his hand bloody. After throwing the haymaker, Watkins reportedly shouted, “I deserve to bleed.”