Practice Questions

Or questionable practices


Many clubs are starting up their meetings this time of year. While early meetings will sort out fees, a tournament schedule, and other administrative tasks, the majority of the time will be spent practicing on questions.

Clubs can have different attitudes toward practice questions. Some clubs meet quite infrequently and get enough playtime through the welcome package provided by SchoolReach. Some clubs limit buzzer time in favour of studying or writing material. Many, however, quickly burn through the supplied questions in a few practices.

Firstly, it is worth considering not using the introductory package (of roughly 12 packs) during practice. When I was in high school, we saved them for arranged matches between other local clubs; we’d taxi over for an afternoon against another school and play 3 or 4 of the packs. I’m sure other schools do this as well, and if you don’t, you may want to find a fellow school that would also agree to not use the introductory package intramurally in exchange for mini-tournaments.

Once the welcome package is exhausted, most teams resort to old SchoolReach questions. Unfortunately, this method works because of a history of repeated questions and topics. The potential repetition also favours established teams with a large archive and hinders any new teams trying to move up the ranks. A diet of old questions with careful attention to “pet” topics is probably good enough to get past regionals.

Even a decent SchoolReach archive can be depleted, especially for players in their fourth year of practices. Digging up questions more than a decade old tends not to be very useful, both because of the lost relevancy of current event topics and because writing trends change over time. Most good teams know about this, but for new practice material, go to the quizbowl packet archive. Even if you can’t figure out the quizbowl format, you can get away with reading all the question types on the buzzer. The archive covers the spectrum from middle school novice sets to university national championships, so take the time to find something right for your level. A high school team starting up for the year is recommended to try the SCOP sets or the Ladue sets. Like with old Reach questions, be careful about the relevancy of questions before 2008 or so. With over 400 tournaments each containing roughly 10 packs, the quizbowl archive provides more than enough material for a high school team.

Of course, there is also the option to create your own material. Some clubs see value in writing questions as a way to practice: not only does it require you to look up information, but you must also find out what information about a topic is important for clues and how relevant that topic is for a question. A question that simply asks “who was born on [date]?” is useless to a player; the writer must find facts that will give a player a reasonable opportunity to buzz. Practice writing doesn’t need to actually end up played at the buzzer, though a few schools put that effort to use as independent tournaments, especially south of the border.

Hopefully I have provided some options for getting your practice material started up for the year. Please don’t ask me about old SchoolReach questions, because I don’t have any and they are not supposed to be distributed.

Finally, an early reminder that the UTS tournament is happening on the weekend of October 27. I intend to go for staffing and reporting updates, and I hope to see many teams there. Get practicing!

Assigned Questions

Time to put you on the spot

I’d like to take a brief look at assigned questions in SchoolReach. This will be my second review of a specialized question, following my post on shootouts.

Assigned questions are a set of eight questions directed individually to each player in the match. Assigned questions began in Top of the Form and were brought over to Reach for the Top upon its establishment (team scrambles and who-am-I questions are the other specialized formats imported from the UK show). Assigned questions have had some variation over the years in how they played – they always begin with a question directed to one player for full value of points, but incorrect responses could lead to the question being dead, an option for a corresponding player on the opposing team to reply for full or half value, or rarely an option to open the question to buzzing. In modern SchoolReach, assigned questions are posed individually in seating order with an opportunity for the facing opponent player to pick up on incorrect answers, with all correct responses being worth 10 points.

Assigned questions represent a little less than 10% of gameplay. They are found in most packs, and usually occur in round 1. Assigned questions are not often the topic of post-game banter and highlights, even though it is the question format with the most points available to a team. I imagine it gets overlooked because each player only needs to listen for two questions, it’s hard to control play for a full 80 points, and round 1 can get overshadowed by impactful buzzes late in the game. Assigned questions are still worth looking at – certainly more than shootouts…

As a person that dabbled in writing a variety of assigned questions, I can say that they are potentially the laziest to write, or the most difficult. There are sequences out there that clearly required no effort to write, for example, picking eight world capitals or eight song titles and providing an introduction of “given a thing, name the thing it is connected to”. Unfortunately, those sequences give very little consideration to equality for each player; in a set of eight with Norse gods as answers, one player will be lucky enough on a default guess of “Thor” (not to mention the potential imbalance of a whole team getting easier parts than the other side). Another issue is that assigned questions are usually in a single subject (history, sports, literature, etc). Modern top teams are not built to have every player dipping their toes in each subject, but rather with players specializing in a few subjects. If a sequence has harder questions, it could all go dead except for the single player on each team that knows the topic (art questions can be particularly prone to this). Getting equality and accessibility in a single subject is actually a challenge to pull off, and was an exercise in frustration for me when I followed my distribution grid and saw that it was time for an assigned question on sports or social science!

Good assigned questions will be a hurdle as overall question quality improves in SchoolReach. I found them to be the most draining type to write, especially compared to a who-am-I or scramble that former quizbowl writers would find comfortable. It may be time to consider alternate ways to use an assigned format. The shootout is one, but perhaps there is room to incorporate assigned parts into relays or lists. For example, have a relay on a subject that starts with easy answers that the weak players in the subject can buzz on (and then step aside), leaving the remaining hard answers for the specialists. Or take a cue from Top of the Form: if you don’t earn your assigned part, your team can first buzz and bail you out for half value before it goes to the opposite side. Assigned questions should still play a role in SchoolReach as a way to reward teams that diversify from just a single monolithic player, but we may need some creativity to keep it fair.

I’ll offer a strategic hint for the current format of assigned questions. If player seating order is not a significant factor for your team, have the most generalized player sit fourth. This person might not necessarily be the top player, but is someone who could get a tiny bit of everything. By sitting fourth, the generalist will be able to eliminate answers that already came up in the phase, narrowing down the potential options for the question they will hear at the end. This is particularly useful for answer spaces that come from a somewhat limited list, such as Shakespearean plays, provinces, religions, or parts of a cell. But then again, take it with a grain of salt, as it would really only affect one question out of a game of more than eighty.

I will be off for the rest of the summer. I will return after Labour Day with a preview of the upcoming year, so feel free to bring any insights.

Old scores and finals

Please point out my inaccuracies.

Thanks to Sinan for giving some updated scores regarding his tenure with Woburn from 2004 to 2006. There are updates to the 2004, 2005, and 2006 Ontario provincial pages and some national final scores.

Woburn’s 510-470 national final victory over UTS in 2006 marks the highest known losing score. Perhaps unsurprisingly, UTS’ long domination of Reach also has them with the second-highest known losing score (415 in 2008) and a tie for third-highest (410 in 2017).

Sinan also recalled, but can’t confirm, a 630-410 final between St. George’s and Leaside in 2004. If this was to be confirmed, it would be both the highest winning and highest combined final scores, surpassing both held by the 600-410 final between Frontenac and Saunders in 1999.

Edit: The 2004 final has been confirmed as 610-410 and now takes those known records.

I did a bit more spelunking, and here are my known national final scores (pre-1985 comes from CBC archive summaries):

  • 1974: Gonzaga 300, O’Leary 270
  • 1975: Queen Elizabeth 455, Gordon Bell 285
  • 1976: Central Peel 305, O’Leary 290 (finding O’Leary in yet another nationals is really discrediting the Canadian Encyclopedia‘s claim of fellow Alberta team Lorne Jenken having 6 consecutive nationals in the 1970s!)
  • 1977: Glenlawn 340, Dryden 315 (a news article about Glenlawn claimed they earned a “record” 535 points, but perhaps the reporter mistook a prelim score)
  • 1978: Vincent Massey 300, Dryden 255
  • 1979: Banting Memorial 310, Dryden 270
  • 1981: Cobequid 265, BC representative 205 (lowest known winning score)
  • 1983: Roland Michener 360, Lorne Jenken 195
  • 1984: Deloraine 315, Moncton 280
  • 1992: Saunders 380, Ancaster 300
  • 1998: Gloucester 440, Kingston 380
  • 1999: Frontenac 600, Saunders 410
  • 2000: Merivale 310, Ridley College 210
  • 2004: St. George’s 610, Leaside 410
  • 2006: Woburn 510, UTS 470
  • 2007: London Central 365, KVHS 300
  • 2008: Lisgar 420, UTS 415 (closest final)
  • 2009: London Central 470, KVHS 310
  • 2010: KVHS 330, Cobequid 290
  • 2011: KVHS 380, Centennial CVI 360
  • 2012: UTS 420, London Central 250
  • 2013: UTS 540, Bellerose 190
  • 2014: Martingrove 390, London Central 290
  • 2015: Lisgar 380, KVHS 280
  • 2016: KVHS 440, Eric Hamber 330
  • 2017: Lisgar 460, UTS 410
  • 2018: UTS 520, London Central 280

I’m not sure how to incorporate this in the database, since most of the old scores are the only known score from the event. I have them saved for myself, and I will probably refer to them in factoids.

Quick updates


Here are some quick updates for the week:

Kennebecasis Valley HS continued their lengthy run of success on the New Brunswick circuit, with their senior team sweeping the field to victory at the Nackawic leg of their regional tournaments. Fredericton HS came second, while KVHS also won in the junior division.

From a few weeks ago, Royal St. George’s College comfortably won the southern Ontario site of History Bowl. Their closest margin of victory was 70 points, and they swept the field of “Central Richmond Hill”, Westmount, and Chaminade. A member of RSGC also won the individual History Bee at that event. Ottawa’s site will be next on the agenda on March 3.

If anyone was curious about the recordings from Lisgar’s Reach tournament, they won’t be released until at least after Westmount uses the questions. The questions may possibly be used elsewhere as well.

The 1979 National Final

Back when J.R. wasn’t shot yet.

This week, I’m trying something a little different. Thanks to people that have saved old tapes, some Reach for the Top games are available online. Today, I’ll give commentary on the 1979 National Final game.

The 1979 national tournament took place in Montréal and was broadcast by CBC. Bill Guest was the host, and Paul Russell was one of the judges.

The 1979 Final pitted the northern Ontario champion, Dryden HS, against the southern Ontario champion, Banting Memorial HS. Dryden HS, from Dryden, is no stranger to the final – the team and their (I assume) captain Brad lost the 1977 and 1978 finals. They’d be eager to break that “slump”, and got to the final by defeating Lorne Jenken (AB) in the quarters and Cobequid (NS) in the semis (both Reach champs). Banting, from Alliston, is less experienced on the national stage, but benefited from a weaker draw that only saw Gonzaga (NL) as a real threat. The database page for the 1979 tournament is here.

Note: video of this match was uploaded by 1978 champion Dino Zincone here, but beware that it is a Flash video with a bloated file size and might not be safe for all browsers.

1979 National Final start
Northern Ontario (Dryden) against Southern Ontario (Banting Memorial)

Questions 1-8 are assigned to one player at a time (with no bounceback to the other team). The Russian literature category leads to a lot of Pushkin guesses, and teams end it tied 20-20.

Team scrambles were slightly different then. The scramble was worth 5 points, and there are four questions exclusive to the winning team. Brad made an anticipatory buzz during “what is the capital of…” and correctly assumed the reader would continue with “…Ethiopia”. Their exclusive questions were much more difficult, but they got 20 of the 40 points about Eritrean independence and the Ogaden War. 45-20 Dryden.

The next four questions were audio samples of artists up for Junos that year. Banting swept it to take the lead. Brad responded by 40-ing the “What am I” about polo. 85-60 Dryden.

Banting tidies up on questions about medical terms, then Eric casually answers “asbestos” for a team scramble (no mention of health effects…). By question 28, the score is 125-85 Banting.

Four visual questions about 20th century art goes mostly dead, including one to identify the artist when the signature is in view…

Bible, Marc Chagall, Verve 33-34
I wonder who created this?

Another batch of eight assigned questions. This set, about anagramming phrases into names, is also done differently: the first players of each team compete on the buzzer to answer two questions, followed by the next two players, and so on. Brad nails both of his and helps get Dryden back to a 115-145 score at the ad break.

Banting has the edge on the snappers after the break, but Jim (Dryden) solves math sequences and Brad almost sweeps a set of questions on Montréal’s bridges. Banting is barely holding on to a 195-185 lead.

Brad knows local bridges and tightens the score.

A list question is next. It takes an interesting twist from the modern version. There are many more answers available, but the first person to buzz earns just 5 points per answer. A player from the second team can then buzz to earn 10 points for any remaining answers. Might make for some odd tactics – do you let a weaker team go first and hope they only answer 2 or 3, or do you rush in and try to exhaust the list for fewer points? Anyway, neither happened here for this list of the nine muses: Brad gets one for 5 points, and Paul gets one for 10 points. What a letdown.

The deflation may have shifted “momentum” in Banting’s favour. They make quick work of a team scramble about kinetic energy to give themselves a nice cushion for the endgame. Brad picks up 30 points between the classical music and religious books categories, but they enter the final snapper round with a Banting lead of 250-220.

Brad destroys the buzzer during the snappers. Figuratively, of course: there is no doubt that his buzzer was still functional at the end of the game. Brad buzzed in first in all but one of the 16 snappers… and only got five. Meanwhile, Banting collectively earned six snappers while buzzing in second each time. Final score, Banting Memorial 310, Dryden 270. Banting is the 1979 Reach for the Top national champion.

1979 Final score
That face when you’ve lost three straight finals…

Analysis of this game comes down to one thing: Brad’s buzzing. Brad’s trigger-happy finger probably cost the game; over the course of the match, Banting picked up 185 points by buzzing second to Brad. That’s more than half their score! Dryden’s team was incorrect 39 of their 64 buzzes, though some of it was guessing at the end of the question. Banting, meanwhile, was much more calm on the buzzer (20 incorrect of 52) and didn’t let Dryden pick up any points from second buzzes. A little more discipline probably could have swung three questions (and the title) Dryden’s way. I though Dryden should have had picked up more experience from their past tournaments, but instead we see the heartbreak of losing three straight finals. Neither team really impressed me with their knowledge base: Brad’s pickups on Ethiopian wars and Montréal roadworks were good, but both teams left a lot of questions dead that probably would have been taken by stronger teams from earlier in the decade. Based on scores, Cobequid was possibly the strongest team in the field, but I haven’t been able to see the match where Dryden eliminated them.

Both finalists disappeared from the national scene after this match. Banting played a bit into the SchoolReach era, but no longer competes. Dryden ending up losing northern Ontario titles to Roland Michener and Renfrew over the rest of the CBC era, and isolation from any major urban centres probably stopped them from subscribing to SchoolReach. Among other teams in the tournament, Gonzaga, Lorne Jenken, and Oak Bay had all won titles before, while Cobequid would go on to win two years later (and also in 2005).

I hope this was an interesting look at “old” Reach. I will probably do this again, considering the decent number of games out there and the time to fill in the offseason.