This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
David versus Goliath. It’s a theme that comes up a lot this time of year. Usually it’s accompanied by screaming fans and blaring bands.
But on a recent Saturday at Friend Select quaker school in Center City, David wasn’t holding a slingshot or a basketball. Instead he was fiddling around with a Rubik’s Cube.
William Zhang, a senior at Carver High School of Engineering and Science in North Philadelphia, has an active mind. That’s why he’s memorized the capitals of Africa. That’s why he fills idle minutes by timing himself as he solves Rubik’s Cube combinations. And that’s why he stars on Carver’s Quizbowl team.
Quizbowl is an academic competition that pits school against school in a battle for trivia supremacy. It’s existed since 1996, but had almost no footprint in Philadelphia until a Penn PhD student–and part-time Quizbowl evangelist–named Chris Chiego started encouraging schools to establish teams about two years ago.
Last year Chiego helped organize the first ever city championship. Twelve teams from five schools showed up. On Saturday the second rumble for city supremacy featured 18 teams from ten different schools.
One of those school was Carver, a science and math magnet located near Temple University. Before the competition started I approached Carver’s team somewhat by chance. I needed someone to explain how Quizbowl worked and it seemed logical to approach the only team using flashcards to cram for the day’s competition.
Zhang and his teammates graciously explained the rules. They go something like this:
Teams of four compete in a quiz competition that combines speed with knowledge. Each round begins with a toss-up question that get progressively easier as it’s asked. Whichever player buzzes in first gets to guess the answer on his or her team’s behalf. If he or she gets the question right his or her team receives points and then gets exclusive access to a trio of bonus questions. If he or she is wrong, his or her team loses points. There are 20 rounds before final scores are tallied.
Or in other words: A bunch of really smart kids answer a bunch of really hard questions. Over and over again.
The Carver team told me that the prohibitive favorite at this year’s tournament was Friends Select, which was fielding four different teams. But they also told me with a sort of sarcastic confidence endemic to the highly intelligent that they were the second-best team. And if anyone was going to topple the mighty quartet of Friends Select squads, it was them.
"No mercy to anyone," Zhang said in his half-joking rendition of a battlefield cry "Yeah, we’re trying to win this thing."
Intrigued and amused I followed Carver to its first match-up and realized quickly the Carver kids weren’t kidding.
Quizbowl is a blur of buzzers and big words. And Carver was like a trivia tornado blowing through each team in their path.