The challenge for the University of Kentucky team at the Wall Street Journal National Biz Quiz was to take a section of the vaunted New York newspaper for six weeks and memorize its contents — and then beat the University of North Carolina in sudden death to take the title. Piece of cake.
UK came out of the competition, held earlier this month at The Ohio State University in Columbus, with two titles.
Bert Smith, Ryan McFerran and Scott Deschamp won UK's first quick-recall team title, beating groups from 17 other business schools including Carnegie Mellon, Emory, Maryland, Michigan, Notre Dame and Purdue.
Also, Smith, a senior from Louisville with a double major in finance and economics, placed first individually on written questions. Representatives from UK had won individual titles twice.
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The quick-recall winners each received $500 gift certificates from Amazon.com. Smith received an additional $200 for winning the individual competition.
McFerran is a senior from Hebron with a double major in finance and economics, and Deschamp is a senior from Louisville with a double major in economics and chemical engineering.
The team worked on memorizing the daily contents of an assigned Wall Street Journal section —for example, the front section or Money and Investing — for about 11/2 hours a day and then met for two hours each Friday to plot competition strategy.
Coaching the team was Gordon Holbein, a senior lecturer in strategy and leadership at UK. The student alternate, Sean Bell, a senior from Louisville with majors in economics and Chinese language, served as an assistant coach.
Bell said he knew that this year's team would do well.
"They had enough intellectual firepower to win," he said.
The process involves not just reading the sections in depth but using memory strategies to pinpoint the types of material that might appeal to the quiz masters.
"A large part of it is trying to figure out what is quizzable material," Holbein said. "It could be minute detail. It could be a sophisticated concept."
A sample question: Who is the largest shareholder in Standard Chartered Bank? The answer: Terasek Holdings.
But the questions weren't just about international financiers, currencies and corporate structure. As regular readers of the Journal know, the newspaper covers far more weird and fashionable stuff than that.
One question was about capelets, the shorter, trendier version of the old-fashioned wraparound outerwear. Another was about cities where Fashion Week is held. (Drawing a blank? The answer is: New York, London, Paris and Milan, Italy.)
Nonetheless, "some of the finance questions were pretty in-depth," Deschamp said.
Did anyone succumb to the pressure of competition and have a brain lapse?
Sure, said Smith. Late in the contest, he said, "it got to the point where there were questions nobody knew."
But around the middle of the competition, Deschamp said, the UK team members found they were doing better than they had thought they would.
"Then we just go hot," he said. "I don't know what happened."
The quick-recall team won in sudden death over UNC.
After the win, Smith declared a one-week hiatus on reading The Wall Street Journal.
UK has competed in the Biz Quiz since 2008. Holbein said that on previous teams, there was one superstar and a cast of supporting players. This team was more balanced in its talent level, he said.
About 25 students tried out for the Biz Quiz squad this year, going through rounds of 50 rapid-response questions. The process yielded the team of three and one alternate.
Last year, McFerran was the alternate.
"It definitely helped, knowing which parts of the article to read," he said.
Holbein has promised the four-man group a meal at the restaurant of their choice in Lexington.
Because this isn't a quick-response question, they're still deciding.