20for20: David Reinstein

David Reinstein

David Reinstein is a teacher and former quiz bowl coach at New Trier High School in the north suburbs of Chicago. Having retired from coaching, he is now a writer for NAQT, the president of the Partnership for Academic Competition Excellence, and the Leibniz of power-matching.

How did you get involved with quiz bowl?
When I started teaching at New Trier High School in 1994, the activities director told me they needed a second coach and they couldn’t find anybody else to do it. He told me that the other coach didn’t drive, so the main qualification was being willing to drive a school van. I’ve been hooked since then, though I gave up coaching in 2011 so I could be more involved in writing questions.
I went to high school in Illinois just before the IHSA started its quiz bowl tournament. I played in one invitational when I was in high school, and I was pretty good at sports and computational math. We had one player who made us a good team by answering the humanities questions, and she later became a shaman in Peru and California.
How did you get involved with NAQT?
When NAQT started writing questions, there was a great tournament at Northwestern University that I always took my team to. In the early 2000s, my team was often better than other local teams because we practiced on NAQT questions while the other teams practiced on the non-pyramidal questions that were common at that time.
I occasionally wrote letters and made posts on HSQuizbowl talking about how NAQT could improve the power-matching at the HSNCT. At one point I asked Robert Hentzel if I could do it, and he said I could as long as I was able to fix any mistakes he found.
In 2011, I stopped coaching and became an NAQT writer.
Tell us more about power-matching.
I started using power matching for Scobol Solo in 2001, which was about the same time that NAQT started using it at the HSNCT. For the first few years, neither one of us knew that the other one was doing it. When I started doing it at Scobol Solo, I used tickets instead of cards. Each question packet had two tickets attached to it, one green and one blue [New Trier’s school colors]. At the end of the match, the moderator gave the green ticket to the winner and the blue ticket to the loser, and the tickets told people where to go for the next match. NAQT used cards from the beginning, which is a better system, so I copied them on that.
On a lot of the details, I thought I could do a better job than NAQT, and after I pestered them enough they let me do it. The details had to do with making sure that the strongest teams with a given record played the weakest teams with that record, and making repeat matches as unusual as possible. (A repeat match is a team playing the same opponent it already played.) At one point, I was writing the schedules for the HSNCT, MSNCT, and SSNCT.
There were some issues the first year I did it. The first time I made the schedule, I didn’t pay attention to whether or not teams got double byes—two rounds off in a row. It turns out that NAQT wants to avoid double byes, so I had to fix things. Also, we had some communication issues about how cards should correspond to initial seeds, causing some uneven matchups in some early rounds. Finally, the first year I only made sure that teams did not play opponents from their last two matches. When I looked at the results, I noticed that there were a number of matchups of teams that had played each other three rounds earlier, so in later years I figured out how to avoid those as much as possible.
The problem with me doing it is that it took me forever. I was into coding when I was a junior high and high school student, but that was on TRS-80s and Apple II+s. Because my coding skills are no longer relevant, I do everything one match at a time. I go through each match and decide who should play whom, keeping track of each team’s record and whom they could have played in their last four matches. (I figured out how to get Excel to tell me whom they could have played.) I then take each match and assign it to a room, making sure that teams aren’t traveling far if they don’t have a bye. The 2017 HSNCT had 1,520 matches on Saturday, so that’s a long process. The number was a little lower when I did it, but not much lower.
One problem with me taking so long was that NAQT could not change the field size a few weeks before the tournament if more teams signed up. Another problem was that it was just taking too much of my time. A couple of years ago, I had some conversations with NAQT member Matt Bruce so that he could write a code that took my job. This change benefits both NAQT and me.
You’re the president of PACE, the Partnership for Academic Competition Excellence. Tell us a bit about that organization.
Even though NAQT and PACE have some obvious similarities and share some of the same goals, they do their work separately. The two organizations respect each other, and I am far from the only PACE member who writes questions for NAQT. PACE members also edit and staff tournaments for NAQT. One of the things that contributes to PACE’s strength is our involvement in many tournaments and organizations throughout the country.
Similarly, NAQT does more than just write questions and run nationals. They have a great website with lots of great information, they do great outreach to expand the activity, and they do a good job communicating with the established quiz bowl community. If NAQT just wrote questions and ran nationals, that would be a big deal, but they also put the proverbial icing on that cake.
What do you remember about your first HSNCT?
New Trier attended its first HSNCT in 2005 and were pleased with both how the tournament was run and how well we did—we tied for 20th place out of 96 teams, which was very good considering Illinois’ reputation at the time. We were a local team, since the tournament was in Chicagoland that year, and our first match was against a team that had traveled 1,500 miles to get there. We expected them to be dedicated quiz bowlers who would walk over us, but instead of that we walked over them. When it was all said and done, we were thrilled to make it to Sunday.
What did you think back then about where the HSNCT is today?
At that time, it was exciting that the tournament got 96 teams from 20 states. We thought that was a lot at the time, but I guess it wasn’t.
A lot of things about the HSNCT have not changed all that much since its first or second year. I don’t know about the first year of HSNCT, but tossup-bonus format with nine-minute halves, and the card system with only some teams advancing to Sunday (which will now be Sunday afternoon), have been there pretty much since the beginning. The distribution has been tweaked a little bit, but the changes have been fairly small.
Where do you see the HSNCT evolving next?
Improvements in internet connectivity and the new format HSNCT is using this year both point in the same direction: NAQT will be able to get rid of cards and make pairings based on previous results. NAQT should eventually go to electronic scoresheets.
If I follow HSNCT from home ten years from now, I should be able to follow any team I want to by clicking on the team and getting full up-to-date results, including the score of the match they are currently playing. At the end of each round, a computer will figure out the next round of pairings by putting the strongest team with a given record against the weakest team with that record, the second-strongest against the second-weakest, etc. Teams will get a text message telling them where their next match is.
Twenty years from now, the questions will be written using artificial intelligence.
One hundred years from now, teams will travel from match to match using wrinkles in spacetime, and the best players will be human-droid hybrids.
What is your favorite thing to do at the HSNCT?
I don’t travel to out-of-town tournaments, so my experience is more boring than other people’s experiences. When I am at the tournament, I like hanging out with my quiz bowl friends when I get a break in the action, but it’s just an hour at most.
When I am at a tournament where I have written the schedule and/or a lot of the questions, it’s exciting to see it play out. Some things go as planned, and some things don’t. Sometimes I’ll read a bonus that I wrote, and a team will answer the hard part but miss the easy part. So it goes.
What are your favorite memories of quiz bowl?
There are a lot of great memories. It was very exciting when New Trier won the IHSA State Championship, the NAQT State Championship, and the Midwest Championship in 2007.
There are two matches against State College at the HSNCT that stand out. That 2007 team won 8 of its first 9 matches at the HSNCT, and the last match that day was the 1 card against the 2 card, that is, New Trier against State College A. Our one loss before that was by 5 points, and we blamed it on a generous power mark. Then against State College everything went wrong. State College was a great team, and they probably would have beaten us even if we played well, but we played badly and lost by 400 points. We said the name of the ship in Moby-Dick was the Peapod. We subbed in current NAQT member Jonah Greenthal at halftime, and his only contribution was answering “Craig Biggio” on a question about Jeff Bagwell.
Two years later, we played State College on Sunday. We were the 28-seed, and they were the 5-seed. Ben Cohen was our star player that year and had been pretty much the only one on the team answering questions all tournament. With very little time on the clock we were down 100 points, but we were able to force overtime by answering the last four tossups, with each student on the team getting one of them. The last of those was Steve Server answering a tossup on Butthead from Beavis and Butthead. After each team answered one of the first two overtime tossups, the last question started asking about a high-crime area in San Francisco. Steve Server got “Tenderloin” for power, later explaining that his parents often talked about walking through that neighborhood after their car broke down on their honeymoon. We lost our next two matches, but we walked out of that tournament with trophies and big smiles. State College ended up with a bigger trophy when it was all said and done, and that’s okay.
Do you have a favorite memory of a buzz or protest?
I didn’t go to the 2013 HSNCT in Atlanta, but I wrote a lot of the questions for it. There was a very close final that year. The moderator got to what he thought was the end of the match, and Ladue was ahead of LASA by 25 points. However, the moderator had only read 23 questions, and there was time still on the clock. After a few people huddled, they figured out that the moderator had skipped a tossup. It turned out that it was a current events question I had written on Zimbabwe. LASA A answered that tossup and got enough points on the bonus to win the national championship. That same year, the Illinois Masonic State Championship was decided on the final question, which I wrote, and the IHSA State Championship was decided on the final bonus, which I edited.
Do you have any advice to share with players? Or, what is the best advice you’ve ever given a player?
It’s difficult for me to give advice to players, since they are smarter than I am.
I coached from 1994 to 2011, and it was a different era. One piece of advice I gave many of my students was that they could improve the activity. I’m proud to say that several of my students took that advice, and as a result the activity is better. Some of them co-founded question-writing companies. Another one, Jonah Greenthal, does everything, and he does it all very well.
Current students are finding the activity in a better place, so their improvements of it are going to take longer to notice and be less dramatic. That being said, students can make this activity better in a lot of ways.
What advice do you have to share with coaches?
Coaching is often humbling work. Part of the job is giving good advice that gets ignored or misunderstood, and another part of the job is spending time getting your team good, and then they graduate and you have to start all over again. On the other hand, sometimes a great player shows up and makes you look good.
It’s important to remember that every student and every team is different. One year you might have a great literature player and some other willing players who need to study everything but lit. The next year you might have a bunch of science players, and you need to figure out some way to encourage them to branch out to other subjects. Also, some students are comfortable in social situations and some are not, and the coach needs to meet them where they are.
How about advice for the community at large?
Our community needs to talk more and do more about outreach.
Back in the 1990s, I hosted an IHSA sectional tournament, and the questions were horrible. New Trier beat a very strong Loyola team in a close match when we buzzed in quickly on a tossup which read, in its entirety, “Macadamia nuts are extensively grown in which U.S. state?” At that point I decided that outreach and publicity could wait, because quiz bowl needed to work on improving itself first. This is a pretty common experience.
Things have changed. Thanks to the hard work of a lot of good people, great question sets and great tournaments are widespread. However, a lot of teams are not participating, either because they are in a region where the quality is wanting, or because they are not aware of nearby tournaments or how good quiz bowl can be. We as a community need to do a better job communicating with those schools. PACE and NAQT are trying to do it, but there is only so much they can do, and local outreach is often more successful than national outreach.
As I said, we need to value that outreach more than we currently do. If anybody is willing to do more outreach, ask NAQT and PACE for support. Both organizations want to help those efforts. Who knows? It might be a project that NAQT and PACE can work together on.

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