News & Politics

We’re a Geeky Bunch

It’s Academic is the world’s longest-running TV game show. For Washington high-school students, it’s more than a game.

Adam Newman spends the night before the big game dancing with friends at the prom. Yizhuo Chen works at a kiosk selling trinkets to tourists at Reagan National Airport. Chris Ray reads up on current events and goes to bed after midnight.

Eight hours later, they join six other teenagers at NBC’s studios in Northwest DC to tape a corny and cerebral quiz show that tests the brainiest and brightest from the area’s best high schools.

The studio is packed. Friends and family fill metal bleachers along the back wall. Coaches are off to the side, out of sight of the cameras.

Walter Johnson High School brought a band and cheerleaders. Gonzaga has boosters dressed in purple and white. A smaller contingent of parents and friends cheer on the boys from Richard Montgomery.

All the players are male. All but one lives in Montgomery County. They look tense as the crew tapes a promo for the championship game.

As usual, the show is beset by problems. Last week, officials couldn’t find one of the brown plastic signs that identify the teams. Today, they’re running 45 minutes behind because of audio problems. The players take the snafus in stride.

Most have been watching It’s Academic for years, and the show is like an old friend whose idiosyncrasies are reminiscent of the earliest days of television.

New York used to have a version of the show. So did Los Angeles. Clones are still on the air in Charlottesville, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Phoenix, and Cleveland.

In Washington, birthplace of the show, the backdrop of cheerleaders and marching bands hasn’t changed much since the show premiered in 1961. It is the world’s longest-running television game show.

Mac McGarry has been ringmaster since the beginning. Chuck Schumer and George Stephanopoulos competed under his watchful eye. So did authors Michael Chabon and Laura Lippman, astronaut Timothy Cramer, filmmaker Bruce Cohen, and newspaper publisher Donald Graham. Hillary Rodham Clinton was an alternate. Sandra Bullock was a cheerleader.

Nearly half a century later, the show is still taped in the studio that first brought Jim Henson’s Muppets to the world. The set is still threadbare, and the parents still beam.

The 45th season began in September 2005 with 81 area schools competing in the nine-month tournament. Once a week, McGarry oversaw the show as three teams of three players matched wits for 30 minutes. The students showed how bright they were and then disappeared, most during the first round. By last May, three of the country’s best teams survived and would compete for scholarship money and a silver trophy.

The teams wait in the station’s cafeteria before the game. Players from Richard Montgomery High huddle in the corner and plot strategy, while players from Walter Johnson and Gonzaga chat about old movies and obscure trivia.

They get a last-minute surprise when one of the producers, a former player, announces that McGarry is ill and, for the first time in decades, won’t be here for the taping. The producers scramble and arrange for Dave Zahren, a local weatherman who hosts the show’s Baltimore edition, to substitute.

The change concerns some players and parents. McGarry has achieved near-mythic status among the coaches and their charges. Competitors have come to expect his precise diction when asking questions. Some practice his cadence so that they can buzz in at the most opportune moment.

Even without McGarry, the teams engage in pregame rituals. They recite poetry, count in foreign languages, and use funny accents during microphone tests.

Zahren starts the game with a series of questions about women in government. Anyone can buzz in with the answer. The team wins ten points if he’s right and loses ten points if he’s wrong.

The players miss a few questions about obscure officeholders but then race through easy ones about celebrity politicians. Eventually, the team from Richard Montgomery gets buzzer happy.

“Since January 2005 she has been secretary . . . ,” Zahren says, reading the first words in a lengthy question when a buzzer sounds. He looks at the team from Richard Montgomery. They’re trying to conjure up something from the limited information they have been given.

“Spellings,” Ray says.

“Condoleezza Rice was the answer,” Zahren says. “That is the end of our opening round.”

Cheerleaders rush onto the floor as the show cuts away to commercials from the show’s primary sponsors, Giant Food and George Washington University.

Big magnet schools, elite private schools, and exceptional neighborhood schools produce the best teams. They have a committed coach and students who spend hours training. As a team, they study trivia. They read books. They memorize facts. They practice pressing the electronic buzzer. All in hope of ringing in first with the answers to questions that range from computational mathematics to Greek mythology to avant-garde art.

The best spend at least as much time studying on their own. Ray, the captain at Richard Montgomery High in Rockville, is unusually competitive. He enters dozens of tournaments during the school year. A few years ago, when he was captain of the all-state team and considered one of the nation’s best quiz bowlers, Ray quit the football team and went to trivia camp to become an even better player.

During a recent practice, his manner was more like a teacher. He spoke with authority to the other players and commanded a level of deference not normally given to an 18-year-old. Ray knows a little about everything. The breadth of his knowledge, and his confidence, make him stand out even among quiz bowlers.

The afternoon before the championship, he was considering a last-minute substitution because one of his teammates had not been performing as well as expected during practices.

“I’m all about winning,” he says. “I remember the first time I buzzed in. My heart was pounding. The rush was exhilarating. That feeling really hasn’t gone away.”

As with a number of top players, this competitive streak does not extend into the classroom. While he scored a 1510 out of 1600 on the SATs, his grade point average during four years of high school has been less than stellar.

“I think I’m more driven to succeed in It’s Academic than in school because of my competitive nature,” he says. He’s now at the University of Maryland, where he majors in history and international studies and plays quiz bowl on the collegelevel.

Ray opens the second round—during which each team gets a chance to answer five 20-point questions—with a string of correct answers. Walter Johnson High does the same, and both teams add 100 points to the scoreboard. Gonzaga comes close, but the players blow a question about Slobodan Milosevic.

The two teams from Montgomery County are neck and neck, with Walter Johnson at 220 and Richard Montgomery at 210. DC’s Gonzaga trails with 170 points.

Ray has no doubt that his team is going to win. Neither does Adam Newman, his longtime quiz-bowl adversary from Walter Johnson. This team, always a favorite, still smarts from its second-place finish to Richard Montgomery earlier in the year during the Quizmaster Challenge, a quiz show that pits Montgomery County schools against one another.

Newman answers with ease a series of questions about subjects that range from chemical symbols to military history while his mother, Heidi, the matriarch of what one player describes as a “clan of competitive knowledge,” sits on the edge of her seat.

Her son is an all-American teenager. At 17, he is athletic, intelligent, and handsome. He’s one of the best high-school tennis players in the state, scored 1370 on the SATs. In 2006, he’ll attend the University of Maryland.

He also has good genes. His father, Stephen, played on an It’s Academic team in high school and was a six-time winner on Jeopardy! His older brother, Eric, competed in quiz-bowl games during high school and college. Both sons have tried to follow their father’s lead and win a spot on Jeopardy! Once a year, the three Newmans try to go to New York City to audition for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

Watching Jeopardy! with them, it becomes clear that they are playing at a much higher level than the average viewer. Stephen knows about 90 percent of the answers, and his sons aren’t far behind.

Top players draw a distinction between the TV show—child’s play to some—and the more challenging quiz-bowl tournaments that take place around the country just about every weekend. But it’s clear that they relish the chance to appear on TV. The questions on It’s Academic are less complex and more predictable, but this is the competition that means the most to their classmates, teachers, and parents.

Preparation at competitive schools is intense. At Holton-Arms, a girls school in Bethesda that won the tournament a few years ago, players watch tapes of old shows and cycle through more than 10,000 practice questions their coach has accumulated. During a practice at Walter Johnson, the track coach explained that players should use their index finger instead of their thumb on the buzzer because it saves 2/100th of a second.

“For some of these kids, this is the only place in the entire school that they fit in,” says Daniel McKenna, an English teacher who coaches the team at Richard Montgomery High.

Two players whose team lost in the semifinals used to engage in an odd prematch ritual. They made a big show of folding an imaginary hachimaki, the traditional Japanese headband that symbolizes perseverance, and tying it around their heads before bowing to each other.

For exceptionally bright children, intellectual activities such as quiz-bowl games smooth the rocky road through adolescence by playing to their strengths without forcing them to conform to the expectations of classmates.

“We’re a geeky bunch,” says Ray, whose girlfriend of two years also played on the team.

“We get each other’s jokes,” says Gerry Greenbaum, who has spent decades as coach of the team at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Prince George’s County.

Yizhuo Chen stands in sharp contrast to the other players. When I asked Gonzaga’s three players what they were reading, one named an obscure book about avant-garde art, and another named the NPR guide to classical music. Chen mentioned Harry Potter.

Chen’s parents moved to the United States from China when he was a child. They work in the restaurant industry, his mother as a waitress and his father as a manager. He was able to afford Gonzaga because the school gave him a scholarship.

His parents didn’t force him to succeed. “I’ve been given freedom from the age of eight,” Chen says. “No curfew, no rules. I can do pretty much what I want, and I tend not to take advantage.”

He’s serious about his schooling: He earned a 4.0 grade point average in four years of high school and scored an 1170 on the SATs, which is above average but lower than his quiz-bowl competitors did.

He worked after school while many of his counterparts practiced. “I’m probably the weakest player here,” he says in the hallway outside the studio.

Chen isn’t nervous. He plans to play hard, but he doesn’t expect to win. Gonzaga is a long shot. The players’ coach didn’t expect them to make it past the semifinals.

Chen describes today’s game as “David versus two Goliaths.” He admits to being relieved that the season is almost over and that this will be his last time on television.

Walter Johnson has a 60-point lead over Richard Montgomery going into the final round, while Gonzaga trails by 120 points. But with questions now worth 20 or 30 points, it is still anyone’s game. All it takes is a series of correct—or incorrect—answers by one team for the standings to change.

Gonzaga takes charge with the first question.

“Surveying all 50 states, the highest per capita income is recorded in what nut­meg . . . ,” Zahren asks.

The captain of Gonzaga buzzes in. “Connecticut,” Michael Simms says.

But the Gonzaga team fades. It doesn’t answer another question.

Ray pulls Richard Montgomery to within 20 points of the lead, then Walter Johnson misses a question about the British royal family, which costs its team 30 points and the lead.

Anxious, Newman rings in too early on one of the next questions.

“Pongo pygmaeus,” Zahren says, reading the first words of a question. He is stopped by the buzzer. “Yes, Walter Johnson High School?” he asks.

Newman looks perplexed, but tries his best.

“Waiting for Godot by Beckett,” he says.

“That was the scientific name for the orangutan,” Zahren says over laughter from the audience. “Nice try.”

Team members get several questions right and two questions wrong as the clock counts down. Richard Montgomery answers four right and one wrong.

One question stumps everyone. No one bothers to buzz in when Zahren asks: “If a 60-watt light bulb burns for 200 hours, how many kilowatt hours of electricity are used?” (The answer is 12.)

A shrill sound interrupts the last question. The game is over. Richard Montgomery has won the championship.

Final score: Richard Montgomery 495, Walter Johnson 405, and Gonzaga 345.

Zahren asks the audience to “come on down” to congratulate the winners and console the losers. Some of the players are beaming; some are near tears. Newman, surrounded by his family, looks devastated. Ray feels a mixture of elation and relief. Chen doesn’t appear fazed. He is posing for a photo with a groupie on the cheerleading squad of another high school.

Epilogue: Two of the three top teams have fared just as well in this year’s It’s Academic tournament, with Walter Johnson and Richard Montgomery high schools making it to the semifinals. Gonzaga lost to Richard Montgomery in the playoffs in March.

The semifinals on April 28 will air on the first three Saturdays in June. The winners will face off in the championship game on May 19, which will air June 30 at 10 am on WRC Channel 4.