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.”

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.”

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.”

“A lot of people disliked Andy for personal reasons,” says Arthur. “And obviously when someone you dislike for personal reasons actually turns out to be villainous, there's a little extra cake in it for you. You can say, I was right about this all the time. We love gloating about the downfall of people we personally dislike. The community can be caustic at times.”

The quiz bowl community has indeed been caustic. One poster on a quiz bowl message board pathetically called Watkins’ wife, a fellow quiz bowler, “a huge bitch.” Someone also slipped “is married to a cheater” into her Quizbowl Wiki page.

Other message board posters have blamed Watkins for deflating his teammates’ accomplishments and undermining quiz bowl’s mission. “I’ll bet part of the reason a lot of us play this game is because we like the feeling of being the smartest person in the room. It feels good!” Ohio State’s Jarret Greene wrote in a post. “And when we don’t feel like that after getting beaten, it’s a big blow to the ego. But instead of working like a [top player], you, cheater, decided to just gain access to the questions. Does this really feel good? I would think it leaves a mawing, empty feeling inside you. Quiz bowl is great because it will automatically reward you for hard work. By cheating you remove a massive thrill for the sake of your pathetic ego.”

Matt Weiner, a player, editor, and tournament director who’s the closest thing the game has to a commissioner, is another vocal Watkins detractor. In a scathing message board post on March 22, Weiner wrote that that the former Harvard player has “throw[n] into perpetual ambiguity the entire outcome of three tournaments involving hundreds of people spending in the high six figures all told in travel, housing, and registration costs.” Weiner ends with a flourish that’s as savage as it is over the top: “Everything you touch you destroy, and every activity and group you are involved with for the rest of your life will celebrate as passionately as quiz bowl has when you do it the similar favor of leaving it forever.”

Weiner, who has had several personal beefs with Watkins over the years, tells me he isn’t sure what moved the Harvard player to do what he did. Weiner says that most of the time, college quiz bowl malcontents who are “used to being the smartest person in the room” typically complain or quit. But sometimes, he says, they cheat. And then, he adds, “They get caught.”

Watkins isn’t surprised by the outrage. After all, he tells me in an email, “I’ve been persona non grata around quiz bowl for a little while,” a fact he attributes to several internecine disputes at various quiz bowl organizations. This all calls to mind Sayre’s law, which states that “in any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake.” There’s no reason for anyone to cheat at quiz bowl. There’s no money and very little glory on the line. As Bruce Arthur points out, the top prizes at tournaments are usually used paperbacks. “No one remembers who won the quiz bowl championships other than people in quiz bowl,” he says. “It’s not a place where you make your name.”

That is precisely why Arthur found the allegations against Watkins so bizarre. “He seemed to be into it because he wanted to learn things,” Arthur says. “He maybe wanted to push himself to the limit. I didn’t think he was the kind of guy who cared about titles.” Quiz bowlers celebrate their pastime as the most academically rigorous head-to-head competition in existence. If it were easy, there’d be no point. As one high school coach says of elite players: “They would not enjoy quiz bowl if it weren’t for the extreme challenge.”

Why is the quiz bowl community so angry? Because, in a small world that’s obsessed with the quest for “true knowledge,” sneaking a peek at the questions is the ultimate betrayal. The University of Minnesota’s Andrew Hart notes that cheating is “about the worst thing you can do in quiz bowl, but hey, there’s a whole big world outside of quiz bowl, and there’s a lot worse things you can do in [the outside world].”

The question-peeking loophole that Watkins exploited has since been closed. The game will move on. At the end of our conversation, Watkins made a point of apologizing to his teammates, who had their quiz bowl titles stripped through no fault of their own. “That’s been a bit of a hell for them that they didn’t bring on themselves,” Watkins says. “At least what I’m experiencing I did something to deserve.”

Alan Siegel is a writer in Washington, D.C. You can reach him at asiegel05@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter.