The object of quiz bowl is for very smart young people to show that they are very knowledgeable very quickly.
The best way to prepare for quiz bowl, it turns out, is for a dozen of those very smart high schoolers to sit in a classroom answering questions that unspool with almost painful slowness.
The team from Detroit Catholic Central High of Novi set off for Atlanta on Thursday to defend its National Academic Quiz Tournaments (NAQT) title, the fifth for the Shamrocks in a difficult and fiercely competitive battle of accumulated facts.
The last practice was Wednesday afternoon in co-coach Chris Gismondi's classroom, No. 122, where there are so many bowl-shaped trophies for Michigan championships that they're stacked atop one another in two levels.
His partner in the eliciting of arcane but valuable knowledge, Ben Herman, sat next to him in what was essentially the base of a U. Along each upright sat five students at blue desks, each with a buzzer in hand. Two freshmen, privileged but somewhat fringe participants in the varsity room, sat without buzzers at desks behind the row that included a quiz bowl rock star.
That's a term Herman uses. "You see these Top 10 teams at the tournament, they're like rock stars," he said, with heads swiveling as they pass and crowds of other competitors studying their games.
Another comparison, at least at Catholic Central, might be football heroes. The coaches were wearing 2022 championship rings the size of small pizzas. The school celebrated the victory with an assembly, a banner raised to the gymnasium ceiling and, best of all, a day off for the entire student body.
It was a refreshing celebration of general knowledge at a point when some loud national voices are trumpeting limits and ignorance.
"The public perception is that we're a school of athletes," said admissions director Jake Marmul, standing in front of a hallway quiz bowl display that tracks back to the 1980s. "You come inside the school, and this is the largest wall for any of our teams here."
The rock star's picture is on it with his teammates from last year. He'd brought his ring, but it was tucked in its box in his pocket.
A Betty White connection
Will Carstens, of Brighton, is the only returnee from a team that won three straight games at nationals on the final question. A senior, he had more correct answers at practice Wednesday than his next two teammates combined.
That's an absolute, not an estimate; the coaches keep score, which is how they know who to place on which of the six four-man teams the all-boys school will choose from its roster of 30 quiz bowlers for local events.
Carstens, 18, responded in a voice so soft that it was sometimes difficult to make out what he had divined from memory, context clues or heaven knows where. "Japan." "Strauss." "Snapchat." "Belarus." "Carabinieri."
The coaches alternated loudly reading the questions, which were all toss-ups. Toss-ups are open to each of the two teams in a match, and a correct answer earns the exclusive right to confer on a three-part bonus question.
The format is based on a radio and then television program called "College Bowl" that went off the air in 1970. Its most famous host was Allen Ludden, who was married to Betty White, who died at 99 on Dec. 31 and who is more likely to come up on "Jeopardy!" than in quiz bowl, where the presence of pop culture is minimal.
Carstens watches "Jeopardy!" every weeknight with his family. "My parents give me a run for my money," he said, which is a polite way of acknowledging that he's the champion of his living room.
He joined the quiz bowl program as a freshman and quickly made the travel squad. "I've loved it since the first day I tried it," he said — the competition, the camaraderie, the pressure.
"I like testing myself," he said, and if most of us get through life just fine without knowing that Henrik Ibsen regretfully wrote an alternate ending to "A Doll's House" to placate German tastes, it's still interesting and useful information, a telling detail about both the country and the playwright.
As the motto said on a statue at a far less prestigious institution than C.C. — Faber College in "Animal House" — "Knowledge is good."
Long question, short answer
Herman, 43, is a bushy-bearded history teacher from the Class of '98. He remembers listening through a classroom wall as quiz team founder and enduring legend Howard Weinberg hollered and kicked chairs.
Gismondi, 40, is an even bushier-bearded English teacher from the Class of '00. His great regret from his student days is that he never joined the quiz team.
They've been the coaches since 2012-13, and Herman wears their success on the sleeve of his blue sweater: There's a list by year of the school's 26 state championships, including 11 straight through 2022.
The questions they asked Wednesday had all been posed in previous NAQT events. What follows here isn't one of them, because it turns out the NAQT is highly protective of its material. But it's the same style and comes from a different quiz bowl organization known as PACE.
"This modern-day country gave a state funeral to British suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst," it begins. "In the 1970s, a 'wasted bullet' tax was charged to relatives of people killed in this country's Red Terror who wanted to retrieve dead bodies. This country was invaded by another country's Siad Barre in the Ogaden War. A political party based in this country's north staged a 1991 coup and lost a more recent conflict where the regional capital of ..."
The question doesn't end there, but up to that cutoff, a correct answer earns a bonus of five points. An incorrect answer means a five-point deduction.
"Mekelle was captured," it continues. "During the military dictatorship of this country by the Derg, many of its people died in a 1980s famine. In this country, the TPLF has fought for the liberation of Tigray."
The famine and Tigray are more obvious clues, likely seized upon by sharp students had the question not already been answered. Finally, it becomes obvious: "For 10 points, name this country that was ruled by Emperor Haile Selassie from its capital of Addis Ababa."
If Herman didn't grasp before he became coach that those signs pointed to Ethiopia, he does now.
"People ask me all the time, 'How do you know that?' " he said. "I've been doing this 12 years. I should have picked up a few things."
More than 300 schools, and 1 rival
The adult most famously associated with quiz bowling is probably Ken Jennings, now a "Jeopardy!" host after racking up 74 wins on the show. He competed in college, while Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg played in high school. Some middle schools also dive in.
Michigan has 100 or so high schools involved, Gismondi said. In downtown Atlanta, 302 teams were scheduled to begin tussling Saturday for an impressively gaudy 6-foot-tall trophy, most recently bright red with brass-colored accents.
Two of the qualifying teams were from Catholic Central. Another was the second-ranked team in the country, from archrival Detroit Country Day.
Carstens and his three sophomore teammates arrived ranked 24th. Each has a specialty and at least one sub-specialty: History and fine arts for Carstens, with "geography a little bit," fine arts and philosophy/social sciences for Canton's Ben Yancey, science and religion for Brighton's Jacob Barta, and literature and fine arts for Howell's Nick Murray.
All acquitted themselves nicely and seemed calm at the final practice. The coaches also appeared relaxed, but they expected that to change once the competition started.
They log the results of each match on Twitter at @DCCAcademicTeam. The tweets probably won't discuss the leaders' deportment.
"We're a little intense," conceded Herman, an offensive tackle and captain on the Shamrocks' 1997 state champion football team. "Sometimes other teams don't like that."
They can't help themselves, he said. They're products of an era in Detroit in which the starting center for the Pistons later owned a cardboard box company, a forward famously wore a wedding dress, and the defense-first team developed the "Jordan Rules" that essentially involved pounding on Chicago Bulls star Michael Jordan at every opportunity.
The Pistons' nickname during that span, highlighted by NBA titles in 1988-89 and 1989-90, was ...
Yes. The Bad Boys. Ten points for you.
Neal Rubin passed the "Jeopardy!" qualification test a few decades ago, but was not selected for the program, which he tries not to take personally. Reach him at NARubin@freepress.com, or via Twitter at @nealrubin_fp.
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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Catholic Central quiz bowl team competes for national title