Quizbowl Team Stuns Competition

Do you know who Giles Corey is?  During the Salem Witch Trials, he was put to death by being crushed by stones for consorting with the Devil.  His last words were reported to be the repetition of the phrase: “More Weight.”

You may know this story, but the real question is: Could you catch the allusion if I told the story without using his name or the words “Salem,” “Witch,” “Trial,” or “Weight?”  Could you also buzz in before seven other stellar undergrads from California and answer correctly within two seconds?  Joe Sewell CM ’15 can, on a question that turns out to be about Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Corey Giles is only the hardest clue—a lead-in in quizbowl parlance.  Question writers try to structure questions so that approximately ten percent of players will know the answer during the lead-in.  Buzzing in during this section is worth five points extra and is known as a “power.”

Feb. 4 at the Quizbowl California Regional Competition, I watched as Joe buzzed in while the question reader was starting the first sentence of the question.  He answered without looking up and marked his score on his paper before hearing if he was correct.  The effect for the astute viewer was like watching Aaron Rodgers nail a fifty-yard skinny post to Greg Jennings. It was fast, precise, and totally demoralizing for the opposing team.  Joe finished in fourth place individually for the Undergraduate Division, leading the 5C team to a perfect record of 10-0, nabbing an auto bid for Nationals on March 31 in Chicago.

Quizbowl questions are based on a pyramidal structure.  After the lead-in, the questions get more explicit throughout and might end after several sentences with a phrase like: “Name this Nobel Laureate who wrote a novel about a century and another titled: Love in the Time of Cholera.”

Questions range from medieval history, economic theory, and international politics—Will Harrison’s CM ’14 specialties—to questions involving science, which are deftly handled by the team’s resident Mudder, Julia Steele HM ’14. 

“Claremont’s team is like North Carolina’s men’s basketball team [or Iona, for any of you readers looking to get started on your advanced scouting for March Madness sleepers]. They play at a ridiculously fast pace and take a lot of risks, and when the momentum starts swinging in their favor, they’re tough to slow down,” Kevin Leyden HM ’14 said.

Nearly 50 percent of the points on Saturday came in the form of powers.  Not only did the 5C team score just under 350 points per game, but our number of collective power buzzes rivaled that of the entire rest of the field.  

Aggression pays in Quizbowl.  Early buzzes rob the opposing team of even hazarding a guess.  The stakes are high: a missed buzz before the question has been fully read is negative five points, no one else on your team can attempt to answer, and the opposing team gets to wait until the end of the question to buzz in.  Joe’s stellar buzz earned the team a bonus on Hitchcock movies.  The team collaborated to rattle of The Third Man, Vertigo and Spellbound (the latter of which, Joe notes, was a collaboration with Salvador Dali).

The 5C team plays a dominant time-of-possession strategy, attempting to buzz early and rob their opponents of any potential bonus points while accumulating a comfortable lead. Think of Green Bay’s defense this year, playing the turn-over gamble game and running up huge leads—yet sometimes falling on their face.

The saving grace for the Quizbowl team is often that it is a 5C endeavor.

“Playing on a 5C team has been a great experience, much better than it would be if we… competed against each other. We all have different strengths.  If we played just as a Harvey Mudd team, I could definitely see us all attempting to own science while trying to patch voids in the other subjects,” Leyden said.  “We’d be a lot worse off.” 

By having this collaboration, the team dominates an academic-based competition over schools like Stanford, UC Berkeley, and Caltech.

Steele HM ’14 finished in sixth, and Harrison CM ’14 finished in fifth.  This is the second consecutive appearance for the four-year-old 5C team at Nationals.

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