When the Harvard quiz bowl team won its second straight Division I championship in 2011, Andrew Watkins’s play was otherworldly.
Known previously for science expertise, the senior closed a glittering tournament run in Chicago by buzzing in correctly on a Thailand history question, sealing a final-round win over the University of Minnesota.
If his performance seemed too good to be true, organizers say, it was. Watkins exploited a weakness in the National Academic Quiz Tournaments computer server to peek at the opening words of questions before competing, a move that caused quiz organizers this week to vacate Harvard championships not only from 2011 but also from 2009 and 2010.
That came just a month after a similar penalty was imposed on MIT for tournament cheating by a current student, a scandal that roiled the close-knit, intensely competitive realm of college quiz bowl but was missed by the wider world.
The Harvard scandal, though, sent waves across Twitter and the Internet on Friday, within hours of the school’s first NCAA Tournament win in basketball, and following an investigation into cheating on a take-home exam last spring.
“Maybe it’s the Harvard cheating scandal and the Harvard 14-3 [seed] upset in the NCAA Tournament, but it’s like the perfect storm” for quiz-bowl attention, said Andrew Hart, a leader on the newly crowned 2011 Minnesota team. He fielded no interviews at the time but was suddenly beating them back on Friday.
Hart and others were at once celebrating ex post facto titles, defending the wider integrity of the academic sport — defamed by what they called a few rogue actors — and dispelling myths about quiz bowl, which has longer and more involved questions than bar trivia or “Jeopardy!”
“It’s not a big glorified game show that a bunch of nerds take way too seriously,” said Hart, now a law student.
There are dashes of sports and pop culture, but the competitors on the four-person teams mostly field questions drawn from academic subjects spanning the curriculum.
They are well-rounded, naturally curious students who train year-round, making up in camaraderie and pride what they lack in athletic scholarships, said Matt Weiner, founder and now informal coach of the Virginia Commonwealth University team, retroactively deemed 2011 undergrad champion. Harvard’s undergrad-only squad with Watkins had pulled the rare double feat of winning that championship and also the crown for Division I, open to graduate students.
“This is the first [time] a winner of a tournament of this magnitude has been changed because of uncovered cheating,” said Weiner. “What was [Watkins] trying to gain? What was the purpose of doing this?”
Watkins, who graduated in 2011, could not be reached Friday but issued a statement through the quiz organizers admitting that he accessed parts of questions but saying he acted alone and did not use what he saw to his advantage.
“I hold my teammates from all three years to be champions today exactly as they were yesterday,” he wrote. “I hope that they will consider themselves in the same light, even if my indiscretions mean that the record books cannot.”
National Academic Quiz Tournaments hosts a series of sectional qualifiers and a national championship that serves as one of the two main titles in quiz bowl, along with the Academic Competition Federation tournament.
As a company, National Academic also provides question sets for middle school and high school tournaments and for in-season contests that college teams host. Nearly 200 current and former players, such as Watkins, work as freelance question writers and editors, done not by e-mail but by logging into the company’s system, said R. Robert Hentzel, president of the organization.
They were not supposed to be able to access questions for their own competition level, but the scandal exposed “embarrassing” vulnerabilities in the recesses of the online database that should have been reported to the company first, not milked for advantage, Hentzel said.
He said the problems came to light after an MIT competitor, Joshua Alman, made a leap akin to a .200 hitter in baseball suddenly raising his average to .500. That led to a tip about the server problems, which Hentzel said the company worked to address while also tracing the online footprints of those who were simultaneously players and question-writers.
National Academic Quiz Tournaments said Alman, MIT’s team president, had accessed “topics” pages — not whole questions, but keywords tipping off someone about what to study — scores of times in the weeks leading up to last year’s sectionals and the nationals, stopping after each event. (Watkins had viewed the first 40 characters of questions, in separate databases.)
Because Alman was still competing, the quiz organizer banned him for life while also vacating MIT’s 2012 undergraduate title. He and Watkins were also barred from working as contractors again.
In a statement to the Globe Friday, Alman said he did not cheat. “NAQT’s accusations are false and based purely on circumstantial evidence,” he said. “I competed in good faith, but I will have nothing further to do with them after the way they treated me.”
MIT’s acting team president, Stephen Eltinge, said by e-mail that Alman was a dedicated team member but unexceptional competitor, before inexplicably becoming a superstar during last year’s postseason.
“[He] answered very few questions incorrectly, which was surprising — even the best players mess up on occasion. Statistically speaking, his performance was many, many standard deviations above the average,” Eltinge said.
He said he hopes the MIT team can now “move beyond his shadow.”
At Harvard, quiz bowl vice president Stephen Liu, a freshman on the Watkins-led 2011 championship team, said no one suspected Watkins at the time but his performance had been curious in retrospect.
“I’m less disappointed about my national title being taken away and more angry at having to deal with the fallout of this,” Liu said.