Definitive Greatest Players List: Revisited

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Martin Faber Redivivus
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Definitive Greatest Players List: Revisited

Post by Martin Faber Redivivus »

Six years have passed since Martin Faber unveiled, for your "enjoyment and edification," a definitive ranking of the greatest quizbowl players ever. As the authors of that list drift away from active participation in the game, they wanted to revisit the rankings one final time and offer a renewed (but equally definitive!) perspective on the game's all-time greats. They have also been joined by S., who represents a somewhat younger generation of players.

This was to have been a trialogue, but alas, "real life" intervened to preclude Z. from offering a fresh commentary (though he did contribute to the numerical rankings). The principles according to which the rankings were produced are unchanged from the previous iteration of this list.

Tier One

1. Andrew Yaphe

A. Won a lot of tournaments.

Since I don't have more to say on this topic, I'll use this occasion to offer a general explanation of what, in my mind, separates the top players on this list from those who don't quite make the cut. Top-notch quizbowl players all possess several attributes, some of which are obvious, some not. Among the obvious attributes: They all have very wide knowledge bases, extremely quick (and accurate) recall, and a high degree of competitiveness. (These are all, basically, sine qua nons for being a top quizbowl player; if you don't have all of them, you either won't make it to the top, or you won't bother trying.) Here, however, I want to focus on one of the non-obvious attributes: namely, willpower. I'm not quite sure how to define "willpower," save to say, following Potter Stewart, that I know it when I see it (in myself or in an opponent). By it, I mean something like "fierce determination to win," or maybe "fierce determination not to be beaten."

Here's another way of putting the point. To have had a quizbowl career illustrious enough to figure in the top 15-20 players of all time means that you've played hundreds (more likely, thousands) of games, and have heard, written, and edited thousands (more likely, tens of thousands) of questions. Further, it means that you haven't just let that experience wash over you. Rather, you've retained enough to answer lots of questions yourself, making you a formidable opponent in any tournament. If you show up at a tournament without similar players (or a team good enough as a whole to give you a challenge), you're likely to steamroll the field. But at a nationals-level tournament, you're not going to be able to do that. Rather, you're going to have to go through a number of other top players if you want to win. (See, e.g., 2010 ACF nationals, where six teams were anchored by players in the top twenty of this ranking.) They've also played a ton of questions, know a ton of clues, and can buzz up a storm in their own right. So, how is it that one of those top teams manages to emerge victorious?

One theory, I suppose, is that it's just dumb luck. If you look at the stats for a nationals tournament, you will see that a number of the top teams played extremely close games against one another. From that, you may conclude that the often razor-thin margins of victory (frequently, a single tossup) mean that the difference between finishing first and finishing fifth at a well-stocked nationals is simply a matter of happenstance. (This, I take it, is basically the Westbrookian view.)

Another theory--perhaps obviously, the theory to which I subscribe--is that the difference is a difference in willpower. Some players simply want to win (or, again, want not to lose) more than others. Consider again the fact that many games between top teams at national tournaments come down to a single tossup. In almost every case, the team that loses one of those games will have had a chance to pick up those crucial points: someone will have guessed the answer to a tossup early, but will have sat on it; someone will have bungled a bonus they should have nailed; someone will have lost a buzzer race due to double-guessing himself. The teams that emerge from the gauntlet and win at nationals don't make those mistakes, or make them rarely; the teams that fall to fifth or sixth make them in abundance. "Willpower" is, in effect, my word for what the first teams have and what the latter teams lack. The further argument would be that the teams that have "willpower" have it because the dominant player on the team has it. I don't have an argument for why this should be the case; it is simply my observation (as someone who has played a hell of a lot of quizbowl) that most top teams adopt the personality of their dominant player, assuming they have one.

I'm aware that it might be argued that I'm falling into a post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy here, inasmuch as I seem to be saying "because these Tier One players won a bunch of national tournaments, they must be imbued with a type of willpower which the lower-ranked players--who have won fewer big-time tournaments--lack." My response would be that I've played against (and, save for Jeff, alongside) all of the players listed in Tier One, and I've competed against all of the Tier Two players. (Though I should note that I didn't see a number of the old-timers in their prime, playing at their equivalents of ICT or ACF nationals; it is of course possible that someone like Don or Jim exhibited exactly the kind of willpower that I'm attributing to the Tier One players here, and that, had I seen them at their best, I would have ranked them in the top five all-time.) The Tier One players are the ones I was, if not "afraid of," at least "seriously impressed by." They are the ones I felt I would have to raise my game to beat, and the ones who could raise their own games to compete with me, even if I was playing well.

S. I've always wondered--when did Andrew hit his peak as a player? It's hard to figure out, since he was dominant even before I started playing and he has remained dominant since then. Anyone who's played against Andrew will have a sense for his incredible competitive drive and, most likely, a first-hand appreciation for his ability to crush opponents single-handedly, but I don't think too many people consider how impressive it is that he was able to step away from the game for a while and then pick up right where he left off, twice: once at Chicago and once at Stanford. If you're still not impressed, perhaps this quote from his qbwiki entry will prove enlightening: "His recent role as NAQT editor has been a more complex phenomenon." I'm still not sure what that means.

2. Seth Teitler

A. Six years ago, I thought of Seth as a third-tier player who had "not yet risen to his highest level," and predicted that in five years he might be "among the top ten, if he continues to improve." Let's just say that he continued to improve. Between 2005 and 2007, Seth transformed himself from a very strong "science-plus" player into the most formidable player of his generation. His string of titles between 2007 and 2009 exemplify what I mean by "willpower," as Seth went from being someone who could disappear if the questions didn't break to his liking to someone who could only be beaten through a superior performance on his opponent's part. (Compare his 2006 ACF Nationals, where he couldn't lead his Chicago team to the finals against a very depleted field, to his remarkable 2008 ICT performance, where he willed an overmatched team to the finals and made a much-better-on-NAQT Maryland team work hard for its victory.) In the final stage of my playing career, he was the player I least wanted to face.

S. This ranking seems a bit high.

3. Ezequiel Berdichevsky

A. Modesty led him to be underrated in 2005, but he truly belongs in this tier. His run from 2001 to 2005 is, to my mind, only slightly less impressive than Seth's more recent stranglehold on titles. I say that Ezequiel's run was "slightly less impressive" because while Seth had some excellent teammates during that period, none was as strong as Adam Kemezis, who could take over games (particularly at NAQT) if Ezequiel was struggling. To continue harping on my "willpower" theme, consider Ezequiel's 2005 season, in which his Michigan teams overcame a Subash/Seth team at ACF and an Andrew/Seth team at ICT, victories that only came about due to Ezequiel's intense determination to prevail.

S. Definitely underrated in 2005, and I think underrated here as well--Zeke led the Michigan team that took down Chicago teams featuring Andrew and Seth, and Subash and Seth, in 2005. Has anyone else ever taken down a team with two Tier One players en route to a national title (let alone two such teams)? Zeke did it by working super hard at literature, visual fine arts, and probably a goodly amount of other humanities areas where I just don't remember his strength as clearly--anyway, Zeke got to a point where he could tussle with Andrew on the literature and, if I'm recalling correctly, usually grab the visual fine arts off of him. Crazy stuff; not so focused a studying effort (or as dramatic a result) as Subash's legendary studying binges, but I think actually more impressive in terms of sustained effort and sustained excellence.

Also, whenever the first quizbowl moderator robot is built, I hope it will have Zeke's voice and mannerisms.

4. Subash Maddipoti

A. The description of Subash as "mercurial" in our 2005 ranking still strikes me as accurate. Subash's 2000 and 2003 ICT performances are still remarkable, but in a longer perspective, they seem less astonishing. In particular, a bit of the shine has come off those performances with recognition of the fact that it was possible to "game" ICT in that era by prepping intensively on previous high-level NAQT questions, due to NAQT's ill-advised practice of letting writers produce runs of questions on a single topic (e.g., infamously, Meyerbeer's "L'Africaine") which would then be used in multiple high-level tournaments. I am in no way saying that Subash was just a better version of Sudheer Potru (the only other player to make a name for himself by doing the same kind of thing at ICT, before NAQT saw the error of its ways). Subash's performances at ACF tournaments between 2000 and 2005 would, of themselves, be enough to earn him a spot near the top of this list. But, after discounting his signature ICT performances, it's hard to say that his career was as impressive as those of the players ranked ahead of him.

S. Another hard-working quizbowler. Very strong on ACF, even better on NAQT. I think Subash was generally a bit stronger on history than Zeke and Andrew (and certainly Seth), and competitive on visual fine arts and pockets of literature, but Zeke and Andrew generally had the upper hand on humanities as a whole--except after one of Subash's studying binges. In case you haven't heard, at the 2003 ICT Subash pulled a studying-fuelled Conan and crushed his enemies, putting up ridiculous numbers and finishing off the bloodbath by demolishing a strong Berkeley team anchored by NAQT beast Jeff Hoppes. It sounds like his 2000 ICT studying run may have been similarly impressive, if he did in fact go from being the 4th on an Illinois team that had no real shot against Andrew's Chicago team to leading his Illinois team to the title--I'm just not familiar enough with the backstory there. I think Andrew is right that the old ICT performances are a bit less impressive after taking into account the nature of the tournament back then, but Subash's 2003 ICT is so far ahead of... hmm... well, maybe it's not actually that far ahead of Andrew's 1999 ACF Nationals. In any case, Subash put together two nationals performances for the ages, as well as several strong-but-not-quite-so-superhuman nationals performances.

5. Jeff Johnson

A. I stand by my prior assessment of his talents. Moreover, I now put him in the top tier, rather than John Sheahan or other players of earlier eras who figure in Tier Two, because I saw him play at his best and feel strongly that he exhibited the same force of will that the players ahead of him exhibited. To offer a historical comparison for younger readers: Jeff Johnson's Harvard teams were very much akin to Andrew's Stanford teams (i.e. "one player buzzing a lot across a range of humanities disciplines; three other players buzzing a little and chipping in science knowledge on bonuses"). By contrast, John Sheahan's Chicago teams were akin to recent Minnesota teams, with John in the Brendan role alongside three other very strong players who could buzz a lot.

S. Jeff tops a stretch of players I never saw play. I get the impression that Jeff didn't really work for his quizbowl excellence (rather, he didn't work at quizbowl; I guess at least some of his extensive reading counted as academic work); if that is the case, that is very impressive, but I wonder if he would have had more success if he'd done some more question writing/editing to supplement his fantastic knowledge base, a la Andrew. I also suspect that Jeff could still walk in cold, grab a buzzer and tear up most tournament fields despite all the canon expansion and "realification" of questions in the years since he last played. Man, that would be great.

Okay, I see Andrew made a similar suggestion in his comments on John Sheahan. I'm glad to see that my wild speculation is supported by qualified opinion, but I'm still holding out hope for empirical data.

Tier Two

6. John Sheahan

A. In retrospect, I think that Jeff was better than John. Both were, of course, dominant in their '90s heyday. I also think that if they had played a decade later, their talents would have allowed them to dominate on the much "realer" (to introduce that controversial term) questions of the current era.

S. In 2005, John was lauded for his "killer instinct," while Jeff was characterized as "perhaps more lackadaisical." Now Jeff has leapfrogged John to make it into the top tier, presumably at least partly for exemplifying "force of will." Without any first-hand experience of either player, I'm not really sure what to make of this. What is clear is that John made a habit of winning tournaments; I guess Jeff usually had less support, but at least at the 1997 ICT it looks like John was more in the "carrying his team almost single-handedly to the title" role.

7. Tom Waters

A. In retrospect, I feel certain that both Jeff and John were better players than Tom, who I would now describe as an exemplar of the kind of player who can become scarily good by amassing enormous quantities of clues, but who doesn't seem to have much of a feeling for the game, and thus isn't quite capable of translating his clue-horde into the highest levels of quizbowl dominance. Which is another way of saying that Tom was the Kelly McKenzie (or Brendan Byrne) of his day.

S. Another great player from before my time. It seems like it's been fashionable for a while now to bag on Tom a bit for racking up scoring titles against weaker opposition/on weaker questions but not making more of a splash at big events with stronger opponents. I think the criticism is generally justified, but from the stories I've heard Tom was a determined competitor, which suggests to me that if he'd played in the modern era he'd have gone through a period of adjustment (or, to borrow from Andrew, he would have taken a bit of time to catch up on hoarding clues) and then set about beating up opponents.

8. Don Windham

A. With Don, we arrive at the first player whom I am largely assessing by reputation rather than first-hand experience. I guess I played against him a few times at Tennessee Masters in the '90s, events about which I remember little save their smell.

S. I'm not really sure why Don has leapfrogged Jim Dendy since the 2005 edition of the list, but I have no objections--Don sounds like a giant among men.

9. Jerry Vinokurov

A. Perhaps the most meteoric rise in the rankings, from a controversial "honorable mention" feature six years ago to a top-ten slot today. Second only to Seth Teitler among players of their generation. And, while I'm bestowing plaudits, I'll note that I admire anyone who can go to a school and transform its quizbowl culture, shaping a vibrant program and leading it to high levels of national success. The foremost example of this phenomenon is surely Ezequiel's transformation of Michigan during his time there, but Jerry did something comparable at Brown, for which I give him a lot of credit.

S. Finally, we're back to players I've actually seen in competition. Jerry started off as one of those fearless players who racks up plenty of negs, but also plenty of great early buzzes (with the ratio shifting towards the latter as his knowledge base expanded), which made playing against him--or with him--simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying. Over the years he's modified his game a bit, learning to put on the brakes at least occasionally, as his playing circumstances have changed; that, plus his steady accumulation of deep knowledge in several areas, have vaulted him way ahead of his ranking in 2005. Anecdote time: Jerry pulled all three parts on a rough Sir Walter Scott bonus to give Berkeley's 2004 ACF Nationals team a 5-point victory over a stacked Chicago team of Andrew, Subash, Ed Cohn and Matt Reece; Chicago easily defeated Berkeley in the 2 finals matches immediately following, but Jerry's work gave his team a victory that I don't think anyone expected. A nice preview of where Jerry's work ethic would take him.

10. Adam Kemezis

A. I don't have much to add to the discussion of Adam in the 2005 rankings. His record and unflappable demeanor speak for themselves.

S. As far as I can tell, Adam was just really good at quizbowl without needing to put in work. Consistently excellent at NAQT and strong at ACF; also consistently dapper.

11. Matt Weiner

A. Another substantial rise in the rankings, though some might argue that he belongs in the top ten. I'm unwilling to advance him over anyone listed ahead of him, if only because his signature achievement as a player--all those Chicago Open wins--aren't so much testimonials to his personal dominance as to his success in enlisting excellent players to form super-teams with him. It could be argued that he had little to work with at VCU, but then again, it's not as if Brown was a quizbowl powerhouse when Jerry arrived there. It is perhaps needless to add that this is solely a ranking of the greatest players of all time, which means that we are not considering Matt in his other roles of writer, editor, tournament director, or quizbowl dogmatist and anathematizer.

S. Matt was already making his way up the ranks--despite playing with little or no support--when he graduated in 2006 and consequently stopped playing nationals. Since then he's continued to impress, with a string of Chicago Open wins, among other strong open tournament showings. As a non-student, he doesn't get to play too many tournaments these days, but when he does show up it feels like he hasn't really rusted at all--presumably his incredibly prolific writing and editing work helps with that. I don't know if he's going back to school at some point, but if he does and starts playing nationals again, it'll be very interesting to see what he can do.

12. Jim Dendy

A. The ire of outraged partisans of old-school Southeastern quizbowl has not, alas, led me to upwardly revise my estimate of Jim's talents, though it may have played some role in preventing me from dropping him into Tier Three. Score one for Seth Kendall, I guess.

S. I've got nothing here, but I'd be interested in hearing how, say, Seth Kendall and Chris Borglum would compare Jim and Kelly.

Tier Three

13. Kelly McKenzie

A. Now that I've thought of it, I like my notion of a line of players stretching from Tom to Kelly to Brendan. If Kelly had had the kind of supporting cast Brendan had, maybe he would have broken through and won a title. As it is, he didn't, so I can only offer the substantial consolation of slotting him at the top of the third tier.

S. I remember hearing about this Kelly McKenzie fellow who had suddenly made Kentucky a title contender and had started doing crazy stuff like beating Andrew Yaphe at singles tournaments (I think). I played against Kelly's Kentucky team at Auspicious Incident and 2003 ACF Nationals; he was very good, but unfortunately I don't remember much about the experience. Apparently he relished beating Chris Borglum to literature questions on works Chris had read and Kelly had not, then teasing Chris about it, which is delightful (sorry Chris). Unfortunately he retired after 2003 without having quite broken through to a national title. I can't help but think he came along just a few years too early.

14. Jeff Hoppes

A. In terms of numerical ranking, Jeff is almost unchanged from where we set him in 2005. A fantastic player in his areas, who is completely aware of his limitations and seems content to excel at geography and history while ignoring most other questions. I used to be skeptical of Jeff as a #1 player (though I always thought that if he was the second-best player on your team, you were in pretty great shape), but his cool performance in leading Berkeley to a 2006 ICT title dispelled my doubts.

S. A monster on NAQT, especially back-in-the-day NAQT with its larger geography quotas, and a very strong ACF player. I'm convinced Jeff could have continued racking up ICT titles if he'd chosen to continue competing, but I guess he decided to have mercy on the rest of us. I'm not entirely sure, but based on his recent performances at ACF Nationals and Chicago Open (and I guess also the Chicago Open history side event) I think Jeff may be even stronger as a history player now than he was during his 2004 and 2006 ICT title runs. His seeming ability to cause any tournament he plays to have more than the expected number of bird-related questions is also a plus.

15. R. Hentzel

A. Hasn't played (at all?) since the previous ranking, and thus hasn't risen in our esteem. In retrospect, perhaps a bit overrated last time around.

S. I don't really know anything about R.'s collegiate playing career at ISU, but the numbers and finishes look good. I believe it was one of the older players at UC Berkeley that dubbed him "a force of nature" after he moved out to the West Coast, and R. certainly did do an excellent job of leading "Silicon Age" teams with varying strength of support to impressive finishes at tournaments featuring the strong Stanford, Berkeley, Caltech, and UCLA teams that used to roam the land. No word yet on the complexity of his recent presidency of NAQT.

16. Mike Sorice

A. Vaulting from #43 to #16 we have Mike, who was unquestionably underrated last time. Ranking Mike is hard for me. On the one hand, I like him a lot as a person, and I greatly respect his commitment to the game. On the other hand, he is probably the most self-defeating of the top twenty players; his teams always know enough to be in the hunt for a title, but often seem to end up in fifth or sixth place, largely because they shoot themselves in the foot. A signature moment, for me, was the 2006 ICT final, when Mike's Illinois team built up a nice lead over Berkeley, only to watch it slip away through negs and their opponent's superior aplomb.

S. Like Jerry, a great player in the science + other stuff vein who has come super-close several times but has not quite been able to grab DI ICT/ACF Nationals titles in recent years. I think Mike is actually a stronger player than a number of people ahead of him on the list; when he's feeling it, he can take down pretty much anyone. Amusingly enough, Mike's approach to bowling is somewhat analogous to his approach to quizbowling: send the bowling ball careening down the lane as fast as possible with some attempt at aiming for the center--but never compromise on ball speed. If the first ball goes anywhere near the center pin, chalk up a strike. The downside, of course, is that Mike bowls just as hard when going for a relatively easy spare, resulting in occasional gutter balls. Presumably he'd be fantastic with bumpers; I'm not sure what the quizbowl equivalent would be.

17. Brendan Byrne

A. Our first complete newcomer to the rankings is Brendan, who may or may not even have been in college when the previous list was made. As I've now said repeatedly, he is the Tom or Kelly of his generation; unlike them, however, he had fantastic teammates, which was nearly enough to give him a title or two.

S. People used to refer jokingly to Brendan as a quizbowl-playing robot. The reality is that he worked really hard at improving by learning tons of clues from packets, and became so strong off those efforts that you could pretty much count on him to demolish even top teams if the packet had enough recycled content. Obviously there have been lots of quizbowl players who spent lots of time working to improve, and obviously lots of those players gleaned clues from old packets as part of their efforts; the thing about Brendan was that he didn't really seem to have any other component to his study routine--and he didn't seem to need anything else. On top of that, he didn't seem to enjoy what he studied as much as most hard-working quizbowlers I've seen; there were occasions where a question seemed to make him happy or a new clue seemed to grab his interest, but for the most part I got the impression that the work was really a means to an end for him, not a pleasure in and of itself. Presumably Kant would approve.

I remember seeing Brendan once, super-focused, trying to pull parts on some bonus that his teammates didn't know, becoming visibly distraught at the prospect of leaving some bonus points on the table--and this wasn't some "we're down by 25 points, we need to 30 this bonus to win" situation, either. Plenty of quizbowl players care a lot about winning, and goodness knows plenty of quizbowl players care a lot about their personal stats on tossups. Brendan had them all beat: at his height, he really cared about getting every single point out there, tossups and bonuses alike, and he maintained an incredible level of focus over whole tournaments to help meet that goal.

18. David Hamilton

A. Dave drops a bit in this ranking, simply because his playing prime was so short.

S. I never saw David play, but he was an excellent moderator at the 2004 ACF Nationals and seemed pleased to see someone get Bandura before "bobo doll." He also seemed distressed at the idea of a college student not knowing how to drive a car.

19. Eric Mukherjee

A. Our second newcomer is Eric, who has been impressive the few times I've seen him in recent years.

S. Yet another really good "science + other stuff" player, and the first to come from the bio/chem side of the science player spectrum (unless one of the higher-ranked older players who I don't know anything about was actually a bio/chem stud). As Andrew said, Jerry deserves a lot of credit for fostering a great club culture at Brown, but Eric also deserves a lot of credit for taking to heart Jerry's approach to the game and working super-hard. I remember seeing Eric at ACF Nationals 2007; at that point it was clear that he was not ready to make a big splash at ACF Nationals, but it was equally clear that he was having a great time, loved the competition, and was eager to put in the work necessary to take the next step. By the time ACF Nationals 2008 rolled around he had improved so much that Brown was very much in the running for the title. After taking his talents to Philadelphia, he showed in 2010 that he could be a legit #1 on a team in the running for a title; unfortunately he was unable to make it to either of the national tournaments in 2011. It'll be interesting to see what he does at nationals if he manages to extricate himself from the death grip of his MD/PhD program some time in the next few years.

Tier Four

20. Jason King

A. What more is there to say of Jason King? Save that "he is now atop our fourth tier, apparently."

S. I'd like to believe that Jason King rocked a Burger King crown at some tournament years before David Seal, but it probably never happened. I'd also like to believe that David Seal will one day replace Jason atop the fourth tier of greatest-ever players, but barring a sudden spike in the cryptozoology distribution it probably won't happen.

21. Ramesh Kannappan

A. In 2005 I assumed he was "overrated by fawning Marylanders." We still have him at the top of our fourth tier, though, so perhaps now he is overrated by, um, us. Steadily dropping in the ranks of "all-time greatest Indian quizbowl players," though.

S. Another player I never met. Does he merit a spot ahead of Vik Vaz? Ahead of the mysterious Khawan N. who disappeared after the 2007 ICT? Apparently.

22. Andrew Hart

A. A likable younger player who does well on the humanities and doesn't disappear in big games.

S. Andrew has built himself into a really solid player, by playing lots of quizbowl and making an effort to pick up stuff in a bunch of categories. He can now make solid buzzes on all sorts of stuff and is a threat to go off for lots of questions against pretty much anyone if the packet hits his sweet spots--which include odds and ends from around the science distribution. It'll be interesting to see how he does in the post-Brendan, post-Rob era.

23. Rob Carson

A. Wow, this list has become very Minnesota-centric all of a sudden. It appears that we are now saying that 75% of the 2010 Minnesota team were in the top 23 of all-time greats, making it perhaps the deepest national contender since 2005 (when Subash-, Ezequiel-, and Andrew-led teams stalked the land). I liked Rob as a cool-headed presence on those teams, and I also like him as a person, but I'm not sure I see him as being quite as talented as some of the players we've ranked him ahead of on this list.

S. Right after Andrew comes Rob, but the order here seems arbitrary to me: Andrew has consistently put up slightly better numbers at ACF Nationals, and Rob has consistently put up slightly better numbers at ICT. My opinion of Andrew and Rob rose a good bit this past year when they easily made the switch from being the 2/3 punch behind Brendan for a few years to leading Minnesota right back into the finals of both nationals. All the stuff I said about Andrew applies to Rob; they just have somewhat different areas of interest (although they also have plenty of overlap).

24. Dallas Simons

A. A very strong presence on the surprisingly successful Harvard teams of recent vintage. I've been impressed with his ability to answer tossups against top-notch competition (or, at least, against me).

S. Dallas gets the nod here ahead of Andy Watkins, who actually outscored Dallas on the Harvard teams that won ICT in 2010 and 2011--in part because Dallas's numbers at ACF Nationals are a good bit better than Andy's. Really fast, great depth in classics and he's clearly started branching out.

25. Susan Ferrari

A. Leapfrogging Ed Cohn (who headlined our somewhat dismal "Tier Five" back in the day) is Susan, who was only beginning to establish herself as a genuinely strong player in 2005. (Prior to that, she had the curious habit of seeming to neg intentionally and out of spite on the first lines of tossups, if the question was in one of her areas and she found the lead-in distasteful.) A strong contributor to several Chicago championship teams.

S. Susan is, presumably, one of the last players--probably the last, but I'm too lazy to check--to win the career triple crown of CBI, NAQT and ACF. Very strong on a swath of science, and expanded her game out to cover a fair amount of other stuff. Her teammates got to enjoy her early buzzes on all sorts of topics and her strategic use of post-buzz audibles ("it's that guy... with the face..."); everyone got to enjoy the baked goods.

26. Selene Koo

A. Hm, now we seem to be saying that 100% of the 2008 Chicago team was in the top 26 of all-time greats; perhaps I need to amend the comment I made in the Rob Carson entry? Based on her numerous titles, Selene presumably belongs in this tier, though I feel she is more a superlative niche player than a bona fide star in her own right.

To put it another way: If I already had 3/4 of a team set in place and was looking to draft a bio/chem/classical music player to round out my team, Selene would be my top choice. If, on the other hand, I was looking to draft a team from scratch, and I could only choose among the players we have ranked between 20-30, Selene would ... not be my top choice. (Though I'd still probably take her over Ramesh, if only because of my deep presentist bias.)

S. Selene snapped up 5 ACF Nationals and ICT titles in Chicago's 2007-2009 run; during that time she developed her game from being a strong 4th (just behind Susan at 2007 ACF Nationals) to a strong 3rd to a strong 2nd, then leading Chicago in 2011 to strong finishes at ICT and ACF Nationals. She worked hard and it paid off. Let that be a lesson to all you anklebiters.

27. Chris Ray

A. I felt that we should honor someone from the recent Maryland teams, if only to continue this list's tradition of proudly overrating that school's players. We went with Chris, on the basis of his improbably leading an overmatched team to a fourth-place finish at the 2010 ACF Nationals (ahead of, e.g., Jerry's Brown team and Mike's Illinois team).

S. I was going to express surprise that Chris got this spot ahead of Jonathan Magin, but in going back over tournament stats I discovered that Chris outscored Jonathan during Maryland's title run at the 2008 ICT. I guess Chris also merits getting this spot ahead of Charles Meigs (the leader of the 2008 ICT team) because Chris has continued leading Maryland teams to very respectable finishes. Strong on a wide range of humanities, capable of going on a tear and beating teams that are a good bit better on paper; also capable of negging his team out of a match against slightly weaker opponents, but he seems to have enough game awareness to modulate his recklessness to suit the situation, which is always nice to see. Having said all that, it seems pretty clear that Jonathan is currently a stronger player than Chris (and stronger than several people ranked higher up, as well); I imagine his stock will shoot up if he returns to school and plays some nationals.

28. Vik Vaz

A. I find that I cannot improve on the 2005 description of Vik, so I will merely quote it verbatim: "Playing with Subash, finished second at the Artaud, which is no doubt the finest performance ever by any all-Indian team. Also, Subash thought highly enough of Vik to have him flown in specially to the Artaud on a personal flight, which indicates the regard in which he is held by a top player."

S. Vik was also very strong on a lot of the humanities. While playing for Harvard he snagged a DII ICT title, then a DI undergrad title. His ICT comeback with UT-Austin after a couple years away from quizbowl didn't quite pan out. Vik was way better than me (and most--maybe all--of the players of my generation) as a freshman and still a good bit better than me at ICT as a senior; if he'd gone into a more quizbowl-friendly program after his undergraduate years, I think he would have landed a good bit higher on this list.

29. Matt Lafer

A. Holding steady is Matt Lafer. My estimation for him rose in 2006, when he was a strong #2 on my Chicago Open team. I don't know that he's done much in more recent years to earn a higher placement on this list. (E.g., I see that he was the third-leading scorer on the fourth-place team at the 2011 Chicago Open; that's not exactly the stuff of which an argument for placement in the top 30 of all time is made.)

S. Another player who worked hard and saw it pay off as he helped power the 2005 Michigan squad past Andrew and Subash at ICT and ACF Nationals.

I've teamed up with Matt for a couple open tournaments recently, and let me tell you, for a guy often described as "surly" he is a blast and a half to play with. He's hilarious and he still kills all sorts of crazy stuff, including some hard stuff that wandered its way into tough tournaments in the early 2000s and then didn't stick--I can't remember specific examples, which is really lame, but I swear it happened. Curse my feeble brain.

30. Mike Starsinic

A. A very solid '90s player, who continues to hold a place in our hearts.

S. I only saw Mike near the end of his playing days. I never got the impression that he studied a bunch or even played a lot of questions at that stage, but it didn't matter: he was a real threat on science, especially physics, and picked up a fair amount of other stuff, too. Mike's solid play and a somewhat bizarre playoff scheme led to Maryland leapfrogging Michigan at the 2003 ICT.
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Re: Definitive Greatest Players List: Revisited

Post by MLafer »

I'm honestly blown away that Jonathan Magin is not on this list. He'd certainly be in my top 15 if not top 10.
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Re: Definitive Greatest Players List: Revisited

Post by grapesmoker »

MLafer wrote:I'm honestly blown away that Jonathan Magin is not on this list. He'd certainly be in my top 15 if not top 10.
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Re: Definitive Greatest Players List: Revisited

Post by Sima Guang Hater »

This brought a smile to my face. Looks like I'll have to do some work to beat R. Hentzel though. Also Magin QFT etc.
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Re: Definitive Greatest Players List: Revisited

Post by grapesmoker »

I'll also put a plug in for Matt Lafer, who I think is underrated by this list by virtue of not having played for a school for a long time. Keep in mind that Matt would have made the 2006 ACF Nationals top bracket playing solo had he been eligible. Matt's played on a lot of good open teams which tends to depress individual showings of all members.
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Re: Definitive Greatest Players List: Revisited

Post by Magister Ludi »

I think this list overvalues performances at national tournaments (specifically ACF Natioanls 2010 which appears to be the last major tournament the compilers of this list attended) and ignore the recent trend of players defining their quizbowl careers through their individual performances in open tournaments. Accordingly, I would easily rank Matt Weiner's run of four straight CO wins and a close second this past year among the best all-time quizbowl runs precisely because the last three years he had solid but not amazing supporting casts and still willed his teams to victories against teams composed of all-time greats. Also, we don't have wait until "[Jonathan] returns to school and plays some nationals" to safely claim he is one of the ten best players of all time. (In fact, Jonathan may even be better at literature than Yaphe, but we may never know the answer to that question unless that much anticipated matchup ever materializes at some literature tournament.) I have no doubt that either Matt or Jonathan would destroy Tom Waters or Don Windham if they played on today's realer questions.
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Re: Definitive Greatest Players List: Revisited

Post by Cheynem »

I'd go with that Magin fellow, whom I assume was either not on the list due to an accident or because of some unspeakable grudge.

I obviously never saw a lot of people play. I've always found Gautam Kandlikar criminally underrated because by nature of his style of play and teammates he was usually the fourth scorer but a super strong fourth scorer. I really like Dallas Simons as a person, but think he is ranked a bit too high at this point in his career--in some ways it felt like it was a way of rewarding the Harvard two title run at ICT, but not giving a ranking to Andy Watkins because Dallas is the better all around player.

Of the generation of players I've seen play, I guess I will say this. I've only played a few goofy side events with Seth Teitler and feel comfortable saying he is one of the best teammates I've ever played with, who has brilliant instincts and is a pretty nice guy. Sorice (and to a lesser extent, Jerry) gets the self-destructive rap, and I think he can kind of play down to the level of weaker teams sometimes, but both Mike and Jerry are fantastic players who can grab buzzes in any category and fight their way into making any match competitive. I really think Sorice is a higher tier player--he's powered teams as by far the main scorer to very close national title finishes and I don't see a lot of players doing that. I will also plug Mike as someone who has taught me a lot about writing, even if this list doesn't concern itself with that.

A number of my teammates made this list--Their skills need no further elucidation, but I will definitely credit their abilities as teachers too. Brendan is not the greatest writer of questions, sure, even he will admit that, but he was good at sort of distilling what to remember. My team's victory over ASU, for instance, at the 2010 ICT was keyed by me buzzing on the "Meech Lake Accords," something Brendan taught me. I still get buzzes on "All My Sons" based on clues Andrew taught me. Such stories probably dumb to the outside reader, but they were invaluable moments for a player like me. I don't know a lot of people on this list personally, but it seems like most of the people on here have the abilities to teach and mentor players too. Someday it might prove illuminating to construct a "quizbowl coaching tree"--Berkeley produced Jerry, who produced Brown, who has produced Eric, who has reinvigorated Penn, not to mention the other people other Jerry's watch at Brown. That's a simplification but it's also true.
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Re: Definitive Greatest Players List: Revisited

Post by No Rules Westbrook »

I'll second Ted and state my usual argument by saying that these lists always overvalue "titles," which in my mind are meaningless stats in ranking players. More than that, they overvalue collegiate titles, and ignore the arena where the real power plays are these days (the real displays of best on best) - open tournaments, most prominently Chicago Open. They also systematically overvalue team performance over individual performance, which is just a function of the fact that they're biased toward titles won as a team.

That's just a way of saying that stats really shouldn't matter in ranking skills of players. As long as the question quality is high, to my mind, it makes no difference if you're performing on ACF Nationals, Minnesota Open, or some ridiculous side tournament that some douchebag like me had the juvenility to name after an offensive ethnic slur. My theoretical ranking of Seth Teitler or Chris Ray, let's say, comes only from having watched those players several times - and getting an idea of what they know, where they buzz, how often they're right, etc.

I'll only buy the willpower argument insofar as some players are more efficient, more surehanded, and more focused at playing this game than others. A short way of saying they fuck up less often, and so are more reliable, and less mercurial in the way they play - so they are more valuable to their respective teams in winning events. It's fine to take that into account - but it's silly to delude yourself into believing that some of the top players are more clutch, or have greater intestinal fortitude.

ASIDE: I can't help but wonder - was I the one who first coined the term "anklebiter"?
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Re: Definitive Greatest Players List: Revisited

Post by ValenciaQBowl »

I'd be interested in hearing how, say, Seth Kendall and Chris Borglum would compare Jim and Kelly.
Sure, I'll bite. Dendy was more dominant against late 80s and early 90s competition in the Southeast (which was pretty much the known QB world of the time) than Kelly was in the late 90s and early Oughts. But Kelly had the benefit of learning from the structures Jim helped build (like ACF) and was certainly a better question writer and player than Jim was, but that's because the game changed. This type of historical ranking exercise always rubs up against the problem of "evolution," for lack of a better word. I mean, Red Grange crushed his competition in the 1920s, but any elite HS running back today would be five times better, presumably. Similarly, some of the players who are in the high 20s in the list the Fabers produced could play solo and kill the old GA Tech teams of the late 80s, though it would be interesting if they had to actually play on CBI questions of that era!

In any case, I think the Fabers were right to include people like Waters, Dendy, and Windham on this list, as I played them all, and let me tell you, they could whip your ass back then. Though none would fare well on today's questions, as S. said, all three, especially Dendy, would work hard to be great in this era.
he relished beating Chris Borglum to literature questions on works Chris had read and Kelly had not, then teasing Chris about it, which is delightful (sorry Chris).
No apology necessary! It is indeed amusing that Kelly could do that, and instructive about the game and the aging process. When I was playing Kelly, it was as a mid-30s masters' player (ah, to be that young again), and it's hard to remember minor characters of novels one read 15 or more years ago. Kelly was happy to read summaries, and that worked for him. I look forward to seeing today's luminaries 20 years from now fumbling to pull the name of a novel from clues they recognize at the beginning of a toss-up, but which their aging brains balk at doing.

PS--I can't help but smugly note that the 2003 Chicago Open saw a team of Yaphe, Zeke, Paul Litvak, and Ben Heller lose a close final to a team of Kelly Mckenzie, Raj Dhuwalia, Seth Kendall, and myself. This was during the peak of the Fabers' powers, so I feel even better about being part of that (a tiny part, a coat-tail rider, even!), taking down two of the top three ever when they teamed up.
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Re: Definitive Greatest Players List: Revisited

Post by Martin Faber Redivivus »

Two observations:

(1) We are aware that other people, in creating a list such as this one, would rate performances at open tournaments more highly than we do. Obviously, we place a higher premium on performances at national championships.

(2) We are also aware that other people, were they to generate a list of "the top X players of all time," would construct it by imagining who would prevail in a hypothetical tournament pitting all the top players against one another on Chicago Open 2011 questions. (It usually isn't clear whether such an imaginary tournament would feature all the top players as they are today, no matter how many years have elapsed since they stopped playing; or those players as they were in their own primes; or those players as they were in their primes, and with the further imaginary benefit of a few years practicing intensively on contemporary questions.) Obviously, that is not the approach we have elected to take in generating our own list.
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Re: Definitive Greatest Players List: Revisited

Post by Leo Wolpert »

For some reason (which is anyone's easy guess), I remembered Zeke telling me about this list. So I looked and all I gotta say is Lafer is way underrated.
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Re: Definitive Greatest Players List: Revisited

Post by stevebahnaman »

ValenciaQBowl wrote: PS--I can't help but smugly note that the 2003 Chicago Open saw a team of Yaphe, Zeke, Paul Litvak, and Ben Heller lose a close final to a team of Kelly Mckenzie, Raj Dhuwalia, Seth Kendall, and myself. This was during the peak of the Fabers' powers, so I feel even better about being part of that (a tiny part, a coat-tail rider, even!), taking down two of the top three ever when they teamed up.
Raj Dhuwalia was one hell of a player. I thought he should have been on the first version in this list, but somewhere below #30. I like where this list stops because it seemed like the old 2005 one got a little more random as it went deeper.

And yeah, the whole "this player won a bunch of titles" is such a lousy metric. Figuring out who the Bernie Williams of quizbowl is has little bearing on actual playing ability.
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Re: Definitive Greatest Players List: Revisited

Post by Fond du lac operon »

In almost every case, the team that loses one of those games will have had a chance to pick up those crucial points: someone will have guessed the answer to a tossup early, but will have sat on it
So what you're saying is those teams that win, say, ICT by buzzing early on tossups they think they know have...


...the will to power?

(I'm so sorry. But it had to be done.)
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Re: Definitive Greatest Players List: Revisited

Post by jerrytsai »

I found this bulletin board through an article in the ezine Slate, published circa May 3, 2012.

I ran the Johns Hopkins College Bowl team from 1989 to 1992, and practiced with the Harvard College Bowl team in the year 1999-2000 and participated in a couple of tournaments with them. I saw some of the players you list play in person, sometimes several times. I would like to offer you my subjective opinion. At my best, I was never more than a mediocre player in quiz bowl, so it is difficult for me to compare luminaries. When a player kicks your and your team's collective a**es, you remember, but you can't always remember how severe the whuppin' was, only that you got whupped. So getting all that out the way, here's what I remember from the mid-Atlantic in the early 1990s and Harvard specifically for that one year.

1) Joon Pahk should be on your list. In my sole year attending Harvard College Bowl meetings/practices, Joon was the best overall player in a loaded room. Jeff Johnson, I believe, was working on a dissertation at that time and came by for the occasional practice. Vik Vaz was a freshman and demonstrated incredible talent, but at that time was a bit of a neg machine. (Sometimes his intuition led him astray.) David Farris, who I think later went to Stanford as a grad student, was also a very good player. At practices, Joon, generally, was a stronger player all of these three. In the couple of tourneys I attended, he was in the top two of all scorers each time. So, by transitive property, if Jeff Johnson and Vik Vaz are on your list, Joon Pahk also deserves mention. Over the last two years, he's also gone on a run in Jeopardy! (appeared on the ToC, losing only to the eventual champion, Roger Craig) and published several crossword puzzles. So he also has had an estimable "quiz bowl career."

2) In the early 90s, in College Bowl strictly (NAQT did not exist and ACF only got started in my last year at JHU), the teams from the University of Maryland and Penn State dominated the mid-Atlantic region. I have forgotten the names of Penn State's powerhouses, but probably the strongest player among them had the last name of... (I am vaguely recalling here)... Narayan. At Maryland, the two brickbats were John Nam and Ramesh Kannappan. I think Ramesh was a little bit better than John, but not by much. Around 1993, John would appear on Jeopardy!, winning one or two times I believe (could look at J! Archive, but am too lazy). I think Mr. Nam deserves at least an honorable mention on your list. I also remember him as an organizer of ACF tournaments and editor of ACF questions after he graduated from college, so he also gave back to the community.

JHU had some very good players during my time there, but I do not believe any of us from that time merit inclusion on your list. I do recall the futility of trying to beat Maryland, though. I succor my psychic wounds by telling myself that its undergraduate population was more than 10 times ours, and drew on a rich area tradition of high school quiz bowl competition that was driven in part by the local "It's Academic" TV show.
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Re: Definitive Greatest Players List: Revisited

Post by grapesmoker »

Joon Pahk was a very underrated player, possibly because in the internet era he played mostly on the West Coast during Berkeley's heyday. Still, he was a titan in his time, and the core of him, Raj Bhan, and Prasun Ray might have gone very far if the former two hadn't decided to leave Stanford. Speaking of Berkeley, David Farris went there, not Stanford, and won ICT in 2006.
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