Qblitz Articles

The Role of Luck in the September 2020 Challenge
Oct 14, 2020

Etymologists can tell you that the word luck entered the English language to explain why the wrong person won a game. "It's not that my opponent is better, they just had better luck." Whether the outcome of any given match was primary a result of skill or luck is a favorite question for speculation.

Quizbowl is not immune to such questions. In fact, some of the most active discussions in the quizbowl community are attempts to answer them. However, there often is no way to tackle the question with hard data. The discourse is almost necessarily driven by anecdotes, and in the end, the best answer we can offer is to wait for the next tournament to see how things shake out.

That all changes with Qblitz. When Qblitz runs a tournament, it collects far more data on how players and teams perform than a traditional quizbowl stats sheet does. And using that information, we can give solid, objective, predictive analysis of this type of matchup.

Take, for example, the top two teams at Qblitz's most recent tournament, the September Challenge. The overall champion was Carmel High School from Indiana. Carmel went undefeated against the field and took the title. In second place was Auburn High School from Rockford, Illinois. Auburn's only loss was a close one at the hands of Carmel. But Auburn actually outscored Carmel over the course of the tournament. Could it be the case that Auburn was actually the stronger team, but that Carmel "got lucky" in their head-to-head match?

There's no need to speculate -- we have the data. Based on their performances at the tournament, both teams earned ratings in all 11 question categories. Carmel held the advantage in math questions, with the ratings predicting that Carmel would win about 60 percent of all math questions against Auburn. Carmel held similar advantages in religion, mythology, and philosophy. The two teams were nearly neck-and-neck in fine arts and pop culture. But Auburn held the lead in all the other categories: history, science, literature, geography, and social science. And since Auburn held the advantage in a larger proportion of the categories, it's reasonable to suspect they might be favored to win the game.

But again, we don't need to rely on suspicions when we have statistics. Using the data we had about how likely each team was to win each question, we simulated thousands of matches between the two teams. In those matches, Auburn's winning percentage was 72.5. Those simulations are represented in the diagram below. Each red dot corresponds to an Auburn win, and the blue ones are for Carmel.

So did Carmel get lucky to win the tournament? In a sense, yes. But at the same time, maybe not. Some people will tell you that luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. Carmel High School, and Auburn for that matter, came in well-prepared for the tournament and performed incredibly. What we can say for sure, though, is that the match-up between these two highly capable teams is going to be exciting to watch this season.