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.

The quiz bowl community is a close-knit group that consists of just a few thousand people.
In the aftermath of the quiz bowl cheating scandal, three consecutive national titles won by Harvard have been vacated

Photo by Darren McCollester/Newsmakers

Three weeks ago, North America’s pre-eminent quiz bowl organization announced it had discovered scofflaws in its midst. In a blog post, National Academic Quiz Tournaments revealed that four players—MIT’s Joshua Alman, Harvard’s Andy Watkins, Michigan’s Scot Putzig, and a Delaware high schooler—had improperly accessed Web pages containing tournament questions. Though NAQT reported there was “neither direct nor statistical evidence that [three of the players] took advantage of their prior access in game situations,” their behavior still went “against competitors’ expectations of fair play.” (NAQT believes there is statistical evidence that MIT’s Alman used ill-gotten information to improve his tournament performance. He denies the charge, saying in an email, “When I competed in tournaments, I was hearing the questions for the very first time. I did not cheat.”) As a consequence of their actions, all of the players’ schools were stripped of their tournament victories.

Multiple major news outlets pounced as soon as the quiz bowl scandal hit the Web. Predictably, all of the stories focused on Andy Watkins and Harvard, which was forced to vacate the national championships it won in 2009, 2010, and 2011—the quiz bowl equivalent of the 2004 USC football team losing its BCS title. “For me, it’s just amusing at this point how the only time quiz bowl can ever get coverage is the typical ‘Harvard sucks’ or ‘Harvard’s corrupt’ kind of story,” says Ted Gioia, one of Watkins’ Harvard quiz bowl teammates.

But Watkins wasn’t just the media’s main target—the quiz bowl community has focused its rage on him as well. After all, neither Putzig nor Alman did as much damage as Watkins, who helped his team win multiple now-tainted championships. (Putzig did not respond to requests to comment.) Quiz bowler Jarret Greene, a student at Ohio State, puts it simply: “He accomplished the most from his cheating, and therefore his actions hurt quiz bowl the most.”

In the end, this scandal reveals less about Harvard than it does about a particular Harvard student and the culture of quiz bowl itself. As I wrote in an article for Slate last year, “quiz bowl is less a trivia contest than an arms race.” NAQT designs its questions to favor only the most prepared, intellectually curious scholastic standouts. The players, meanwhile, scrutinize old tests, looking for giveaways that will help them buzz in first. Watkins used a tactic familiar to every quiz bowler—searching for shortcuts—and took it beyond the bounds of fair play. Now, he’s a pariah in the high-level quiz bowl community, a close-knit group that consists of just a few thousand people.

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Watkins wasn’t just a quiz bowl player—he also wrote questions. This kind of crossover is common in the quiz bowl circuit, which relies on intricate, paragraph-long tossups that outsiders typically aren’t able to produce. As a quiz bowl writer, Watkins had access to insiders-only sections of the NAQT website, and he used that access to view the first 40 characters of questions asked at three Intercollegiate Championship Tournaments that his Harvard team won. In an email, NAQT President R. Robert Hentzel says the company’s investigation wasn’t able to determine exactly how many questions Watkins accessed but that “he certainly had an opportunity to see snippets of the majority of them.” In the wake of the allegations, Watkins resigned from NAQT. He’s now banned from writing for or participating in any of the organization’s future events.

In a statement posted on NAQT’s website, Watkins proclaimed his innocence:

“I regret my breaches of question security. I am gratified that NAQT acknowledges that there is neither direct nor statistical evidence that I took advantage of my access; though I know everyone will make their own judgments, I did compete in good faith. My memories of my four ICTs in particular, and my time with the Harvard team in general, are my fondest memories of quiz bowl and some of the fondest of my time as an undergraduate. It is unfortunate, if understandable that, despite the aforementioned lack of direct or statistical evidence, NAQT finds it best to vacate Harvard's wins and championships. I hold my teammates from all three years to be champions today exactly as they were yesterday. I hope that they will consider themselves in the same light, even if my indiscretions mean that the record books cannot.

“My immaturity damaged my much-prized relationship with NAQT and cast undue doubt on three remarkable accomplishments by three Harvard teams. It will surprise no one that my mental health as an undergraduate was always on the wrong side of "unstable," but that does not excuse my actions, nor does it ameliorate the damage done. I apologize to my teammates, to NAQT, and to the community for how my actions sullied three amazing years of competition.”

Did Watkins take advantage of his access? In an interview, he insisted, as he did in that statement to NAQT, that he never cheated in tournaments. “The act of loading that Web page was a tiny little transgressive thrill,” he told me. “And if there was motive, I think that’s what it was.” Watkins, who’s now a graduate student at New York University, says that if he were more mature at the time, he might have told NAQT that he knowingly exploited a flaw in the security of its website. “I think that if anything I had an unfortunate tendency to avoid difficult conversations and hope that the result wouldn’t be a worse one,” he says. “And I think that’s something I have long since grown out of.”

Despite Watkins’ protestations and NAQT’s pronouncement that there is “neither direct nor statistical evidence” of cheating, the former Harvard player doesn’t have many defenders in the quiz bowl world. Andrew Hart, whose University of Minnesota team was retroactively awarded the 2009 and 2011 ICT titles on account of the Watkins affair, puts it bluntly: “There’s no real gray area. It’s just cheating.”