Remember the '90s?

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A Dim-Witted Saboteur
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Remember the '90s?

Post by A Dim-Witted Saboteur »

As a youth, I enjoy hearing stories about quiz bowl in the 1990s (and, to a lesser extent, the early 2000s) a lot. I can gather some things from reading QBWiki and old threads, but I think a thread specifically about it might be interesting and beneficial. If you were around in the 90s, what was playing QB then like? What was the community in general like? How did various circuits look different? Who were the major personalities/teams and what were they like?
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Re: Remember the '90s?

Post by Scipio »

Wow, how long do you have?

In 1993, when I started playing, CBI was the dominant format; far fewer teams played ACF (the Academic Competition FOUNDATION) than CBI. NAQT didn't exist; so, all (academic) tournaments were either

a) Official CBI (Regionals, Nationals)
b) Official ACF (Regionals, Nationals)
c) Invitational m(odelled on, modified)-CBI (questions written by teams, and played by CBI rules)
d) Invitational m-ACF (questions written by teams, and played by ACF rules).

[There were also Trash tournaments, which - in my limited experience - followed ACF rules, but obviously not its subject)

The differences between the two were differences of rule and differences of focus. CBI was timed, and therefore short questions were the rule. This was supposed to add "excitement", because you never knew how many questions you'd get to answer. Adding to the "excitement" was that you never knew what you were getting from "official" CBI; five trash questions in one packet? Spelling questions? Furthermore, bonuses varied in value (some bonuses were worth 20 points, some 25, some 30) and in number of parts; six-part list bonus for 30, maybe, or single answer for twenty. It was pretty grim stuff, but I was biased. I hated CBI from the jump, and played in a total of two official CBI tournaments. To be fair, m-CBI was better, often with with a set distribution Washington-St. Louis produced a good one (for the time), the Gateway Invitational.

ACF was untimed, twenty tossups, 30-point multi-part bonus (except for 30-20-10). It also focused near-exclusively on academic, and appeared to be harder, even if it wasn't always. m-ACF was pretty much the same.

Housewritten tournaments didn't exist. Neither did a web-based forum like this one (the organ of communication was the usenet message board). Packets were sometimes parcel-mailed on floppy disks.Tournaments would often stretch over two days. The powerful teams in ACF were Georgia Tech, Harvard, Tennessee, Chicago, and Maryland; later, Virginia became dominant. Virginia was also really good at CBI.

Good times; or, at the least, interesting ones.
Seth Lyons Kendall
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Re: Remember the '90s?

Post by Cheynem »

Yes, Chicago and Virginia being good...what a strange time.
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Re: Remember the '90s?

Post by Scipio »

I'm not sure how many people on this Forum were around back then, but from my perspective:

Quizbowl is very different now, though not unrecognizably so. The changes were also very slow in coming, so from year to year the difference wasn't too profound. Then again, I was more-or-less constantly involved with it from 1993-1999, and again from 2000-2007;the year I took off was jarring, and maybe it always was if you got off the treadmill, but while you were on it, quizbowl was pretty much the same one year from the next. I think the most revolutionary things in my career were the power tossup, of which I still don't approve (despite it being a part of the game for, like, what? Twenty years now?), and the spectacular rise of NAQT.

In the late 2000s, it was very fashionable to bag on the ACF of the 90s, but it was very much a work in progress. Questions were written using reference books - the internet had not become widespread yet, Google didn't exist (and hence Google scholar, etc.), and neither did Wikipedia - so they tended to be much more superficial. They were also largely biographical; literature tossups were about authors, history was about monarchs/politicians/generals; "science" was largely about scientists, as was really science history anyway. The exception tended to be chemistry, which was often about elements. In their naïveté, writers back then assumed that a good way to introduce those would be through name-origins, so if you knew Latin and Greek, you could feast on "science" questions you otherwise had no business answering. I ended up liking science history so much that I made it one of my Ph.D. examination fields, and I teach a class on it every fall.

It was a good time for someone like me to play the game; questions on classical history/literature/philosophy/mythology would sometimes come up once or twice a game, which artificially convinced me that I was good at quizbowl.
Seth Lyons Kendall
University of Memphis, 1993-1997
University of Kentucky, 1997-1999, 2000-2008
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Re: Remember the '90s?

Post by Stained Diviner »

I don't know much about the college side of things, but I'll try to address some high school stuff. Even with high school stuff, I'll focus on Illinois, since high school quizbowl was much more regional then than it is now.

I played a tiny bit of quizbowl in the 1980s--a high school tournament at Stevenson and an intramural college tournament that was probably run through CBI. The intramural tournament involved playing about one match a week and was single-elimination. I can't really speak to tournament quality at that time, since I didn't know the difference between a good tournament and a bad tournament.

Some of my high school students played at a summer tournament at the University of Wisconsin circa 1999 that I believe was the forerunner of the Chicago Open. I did not go with them, and they lost all their matches.

There were a few high school nationals back then. The NAC was widely respected, and one of the reasons Illinois teams did not go was that they figured they were not good enough, which to some extent was true. It took several years before Illinois got up the nerve to send a team to PAC, which also was respected. The Loyola Ultima started out as an invitation-only tournament featuring the top 8-9 Illinois teams playing under PAC rules, with three teams to a room. The ASCN TOC also did not get many Illinois teams even though it was run at Lake Forest College. I tried a few times to enter a team without paying for dorm rooms, which they refused to let me do even though I lived closer to the tournament than I do to my day job, so I never entered a team. (That tournament ended in dramatic fashion in 2006.)

During the first or second year of the PACE NSC, Illinois sent an All-Star Team. An agreement was made between Illinois and PACE that Team Illinois would not advance to the top pool. A lot of non-Illinois coaches complained about the arrangement, and it never happened again. Illinois entered the NSC to prepare for PAC, and the students on the team were instructed to only buzz in when they were certain of the answer because the penalty for negging at PAC was so severe.

When I started coaching, there were two big tournaments in the Chicagoland Area, at Homewood-Flossmoor and Richards. The tournaments would have over 40 teams. Everybody would play five morning matches in their pool, and there would then be single-elimination matches in the afternoon for the top eight or sixteen teams. Pretty much every tournament in Illinois during the 1990s followed that exact same format. Around the time I started, Fremd, Decatur MacArthur, and U of I started hosting high school tournaments. There were other tournaments held in various parts of the state, many of which started during the 1980s. The first tournament I coached at was the only high school tournament ever hosted by the University of Chicago. Decatur MacArthur ran the best tournaments in Illinois at the time.

For many tournament hosts, the questions were an afterthought. They just ordered questions from Answers Plus, QQQ, Patrick's Press. At Richards and Homewood-Flossmoor and sometimes Loyola, the coach/TD wrote all the questions. At Decatur MacArthur and sometimes UIUC, the students wrote the questions, and those questions were pyramidal, unlike the questions at other tournaments.

IHSA was entirely single-elimination without seeding. Masonics called itself double elimination, but it was actually single-elimination with a consolation bracket at both the Sectional and State level. There were usually fewer than 16 Sectionals, so wildcards were used to fill out the State bracket.

Each state had its own format and distribution. The big question vendors were national operations that sold their questions in a variety of state formats/distributions. Most Illinois teams were only willing to play tournaments in IHSA format. The typical tournament announcement would say that IHSA rules were in place except matching tops and automatic disqualification for having fewer than five players. IHSA passed the matching tops rule for the 1995-96 season for reasons that continue to evade any sense. When my team qualified for IHSA State in 1995, we received phone calls from several coaches stating, "I know your team usually just wears T-shirts and jeans normally, but you should dress up for State." It was the only tournament we ever dressed up for, as all the teams did. Then I found out a few months later that they changed the rules.

There were no real rules. The IHSA Rule Book did not exist, so going by IHSA rules meant following the IHSA Terms and Conditions, which did not really say all that much. Everybody disagreed as to whether protests were allowed and how they should be handled, which was a big deal because the questions were so bad. Bonuses rebounded. In Northeast Illinois, the moderator would announce which parts the first team got correct before asking the rebounding team for their answers. In Northwest Illinois, the moderator would just announce how many parts the first team got correct, so the rebounding team would give the answers to the parts that they thought the first team had missed.

Some tournaments had whimsical distributions. It was sometimes announced ahead of time that each round would have a question on The Simpsons or Monty Python. Sometimes teams were told to bring a tape player in addition to a buzzer system, and each round would have an audio bonus.

Answers Plus, which provided questions for IHSA and Masonics, was horrible. It was common for the math answers to be incorrect. One round had a tossup asking for the largest planet in the solar system and a bonus asking to name the gas giants. (This wasn't a pyramidal tossup on Jupiter--it was a question that just asked what the largest planet was.) One year each round had a question asking for the discriminant given a quadratic. Another year almost every round had a question asking for an MS-DOS command even though it was many years after everybody had moved on from MS-DOS. During the 1999 Masonic Final, there were several protests during the match. I got along well with the other coach (Nick Pitz of Moline), so the protests became a running joke as the match went on. When the match was over, somebody told me that the head of Answers Plus was in the room. I tried to shake his hand, but he left me hanging.

NIU hosted a tournament on Answers Plus questions each year. One time Answers Plus sent them the questions from Masonics from a few years earlier. Streator, which had practiced on the questions a few days earlier not knowing they were about to play on them, won that tournament handily.

A few days after my first child was born, I went to a tournament written by QQQ. A tossup started out, "This organ has nostrils..." I remember wishing that my daughter was there, because at the time that was about the only thing she knew.

It was very common to have bonuses that were "Given the titles of four books, name the author" or "Given the titles of four compositions, name the composer". The books or compositions were not connected in any way. Answers Plus once screwed up that format by asking "Given the constellation, name the star." Question writers avoided real literature questions as much as possible by replacing those questions with grammar/spelling questions or children's lit. At one tournament, the closest thing to a literature tossup I heard in the first five rounds was a tossup on "Jack Be Nimble".

Almanacs were used a lot by question writers and students studying for quizbowl. Almanacs often have lists of collective animal names and male/female names for various animals, so a large proportion of science questions were on those. If you did not know that a group of larks is an exaltation, then you weren't a serious team. Similarly, a lot of literature questions were on pen names. You would get a lot more points knowing who Eric Arthur Blair was than knowing who Snowball and Old Major were. A lot of teams knew that H. H. Munro and Saki were the same person but did not know anything else about him.

The best questions in Illinois during the 1990s were written by Triad, which was headed by a Decatur MacArthur alum who was a student at U of I. They were academic and pyramidal. Sometime around 2005 or so, I took out some Triad questions in practice and starting reading them to my team. After a handful of questions, they demanded that I stop. A bunch of tossups started out by saying where and when the answerline was born and what his dad did for a living. The tossup answers ranged greatly in difficulty from very straightforward to very difficult, and bonuses similarly had wide difficulty swings. Even though the questions were pyramidal, there were a lot of difficulty cliffs, especially by that time in quizbowl when people had learned a number of stock clues.
David Reinstein
PACE VP of Outreach, Head Writer and Editor for Scobol Solo and Masonics (Illinois), TD for New Trier Scobol Solo and New Trier Varsity, Writer for NAQT (2011-2017), IHSSBCA Board Member, IHSSBCA Chair (2004-2014), PACE Member, PACE President (2016-2018), New Trier Coach (1994-2011)
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Maxwell Sniffingwell
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Re: Remember the '90s?

Post by Maxwell Sniffingwell »

Deviant Insider wrote: Thu Mar 28, 2019 8:00 pmAt Richards and Homewood-Flossmoor and sometimes Loyola, the coach/TD wrote all the questions.
At Richards, by 2006, Chris Borglum wrote some of the questions. For Delta Burke.
And that's why the Richards tournament doesn't exist anymore.
Greg Peterson

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Re: Remember the '90s?

Post by ValenciaQBowl »

Hmm, I'm not sure how to read this comment, Greg. Is the implication that the vulgarity, scatology, and cruel japes at Republican politicians presented in Delta Burke packets destroyed the will of that high school to continue with a quiz bowl program? FWIW, I don't recall ever sharing the set with a high school named Richards.
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Maxwell Sniffingwell
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Re: Remember the '90s?

Post by Maxwell Sniffingwell »

Ah, well... you didn't. That's my point - the last year of the Richards tournament included a sizeable enough number of plagiarized Delta Burke questions that I noticed and pointed it out. And that's why it was the last year, I believe.
Greg Peterson

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Re: Remember the '90s?

Post by ValenciaQBowl »

Dang! I don't know that I ever heard that story (or if I did, I forgot). Thanks for the clarification.
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Re: Remember the '90s?

Post by Captain Sinico »

As, shockingly, one of the youngest posters on this thread (I played high school '98-'00, or possibly '99-'00 – bit foggy on when my very first games were), the thing I most remember about the '90s being different from today was that there was little or no criticism of questions. At absolute minimum, 95% of questions I played at this time were not suitable quizbowl and many of them were terrible even for their day, but we just never complained. If we lost a lead-in buzzer race, or the question was an outright hose, we were salty that we'd lost, and it never occurred to us to blame the question. I suppose we just didn't know enough to care; questions were just like that and magically showed up, as far as we were concerned. Possibly we were abnormally disconnected, but I don't think so – I feel like this was a typical high school player perspective.

The one exception to this was when questions were outright wrong. As David notes, protests/appeals could sometimes be lodged, but the rules were a real whipsaw! I personally saw basically similar protests result in outcomes as diverse as "ejected from game for making any peep" to "moderator leads Socratic discussion of question; he and the teams' math players decamp to a side-board to do some working out and laugh at how stupid the writer must have been". I think, most of the time even if you were pretty sure a question was just outright wrong, you just took it.

Another thing I'll mention, and I think a big reason for the lack of disgust at the awful questions and random rules, is that the amount of exposure to the game was just so much less. In fact, I'd say it was almost negligible compared to what even moderately involved players today see. Never mind that there were no quizbowl forums or Discord – there basically was nothing quizbowl outside of practice and games, other than talking about quizbowl with your quizbowl friends. I think this is what led me to write my first questions: I simply needed to do something quizbowl related because I hadn't had enough that week, and there was literally nothing else to do! (I think they were all about Latin acronyms.)

Maybe "nothing" is slightly unfair: occasionally, our coach would give us various things to try and learn from. These seemed to be basically study aids for various classes – if there was anything quizbowl specialized, it wasn't in common circulation or known to me. I remember getting some kind of homebrew mimeograph of geologic time that I never could quite crack – probably still costing me points today. I was vaguely aware that he must have some stash of old questions somewhere. Still, the idea that you'd have a giant archive of old questions or chat robots that would help you study would have struck us as highly implausible.
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Re: Remember the '90s?

Post by Captain Sinico »

One other thing that occurs to my foggy recollection: buzzers in the '90s were a trip. There were so many different ones! Homemade ones were fairly common, but even the company-produced models were so much more diverse and wacky than what you're likely to see today. Let me tell you stories of three of them.

I remember thinking our system was pretty boss. It consisted mainly of these big black trough-looking deals probably about 1'x6"x6". You'd place these things hollow-side down and there were big light discs on the top, like a tuna can but a little bigger, 2 to a trough. These looked for all the world like miniaturized light bars from cop cars – they were even red and blue! I think it made a pretty high-pitched noise and was probably a Zeecraft or knockoff, since it had those black rubber hand grips with red buttons characteristic of Zeecraft, as far as I recall. I have no idea how you cleared this thing or how you got 5-a-side. I've never seen one before or since – I think even we'd stopped using it by my senior year and gotten something more normal.

Another system that was definitely a Zeecraft we, in fact, played on at the aforementioned Richards tournament. This thing was wireless! You played with a little plastic box that looked like a keychain car alarm fob. You pressed the button and a random time later the box told, I think, the moderator who'd buzzed with some kind of designator (probably alphanumeric, like on "The Gordian Knot"). That was the weirdest buzzer to play on. You couldn't handle it like any other buzzer you've ever seen, and the delay between you pressing the button and the box indicating was substantial and random, in my memory easily about 2" or average. I recall our losing handily despite nearly sweeping the mid-round super bonus requiring us to complete the names of 20 classic rock acts. (Big Brother and ___________________ was one we missed.)

Finally, a cross-town rival school had a system that looked like a grapevine. It had these little pucks about the size of a hockey puck, with suction cups on the bottom and a black button on top. This thing put on a light show when you plugged it in and I remember it playing all kinds of sounds. I think it might have even propagated the lights down the row when someone buzzed so, like, if player 4 buzzed, it would light up 1, then 2, then 3, and then 4 and stop. What a weird system! We only saw it once because we only saw this rival school at IHSA Regionals – I guess they were in a different league, or maybe not very active.
Mike Sorice
Coach, Centennial High School of Champaign, IL (2014-2020) & Team Illinois (2016-2018)
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