Breaking News Bar
updated: 8/2/2012 4:42 PM

What IMSA quiz bowl champions had to know

Success - Article sent! close
  • Eric Ordoņez of Aurora, left, and Webster Guan of Lisle, recent graduates of the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora, were co-captains of the school's quiz bowl team, which won the state championship in 2011 and 2012 and placed fourth at a national competition in June.

      Eric Ordoņez of Aurora, left, and Webster Guan of Lisle, recent graduates of the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora, were co-captains of the school's quiz bowl team, which won the state championship in 2011 and 2012 and placed fourth at a national competition in June.
    Paul Michna | Staff Photographer

  • Eric Ordoņez of Aurora, left, and Webster Guan of Lisle.

      Eric Ordoņez of Aurora, left, and Webster Guan of Lisle.
    Paul Michna | Staff Photographer


Are you familiar with the 1920 play "R.U.R.," by Czech writer Karel Capek, which later marked actor Spencer Tracy's Broadway debut?

Have you ever heard of the mortal's son who won a wrestling match against Peleus during the games in honor of King Pelias?

Did you know that the Dirac equation produced a model of the electron consistent with relativity theory? (Do you even know what the Dirac equation is?)

While most people would scratch their heads at such obscure bits of information, Webster Guan, 18, of Lisle and Eric Ordoņez, 17, of Aurora made it their bread and butter with their passion for quiz bowl.

Eric and Webster, who just graduated from the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora, served as co-captains of the school's varsity quiz bowl team for the last two years. The team, which also included classmates Adam Kalinich and Nolan Maloney, was crowned state champion in 2011 and 2012, and placed fourth in the nation at the PACE (Partnership for Academic Competition Excellence) National Scholastics Championship in June.

It took hours and hours of study, research, memorization and investigation to learn about subjects ranging from history to music, the pair said. "We study-binged during the summer, especially," Webster said.

Juggling that with IMSA's rigorous academic schedule was no small feat, but both Webster and Eric said it was well worth it. "It was great to take it as far as we took it. It was really exciting," Eric said.

Their achievements might not necessarily elicit oohs and aahs from the general public, but being at the top in varsity quiz bowl is an impressive achievement, said IMSA quiz bowl coach and math instructor Noah Prince. Quiz bowl is not just about general knowledge, but about truly in-depth knowledge, Prince said.

"The difficult thing to appreciate in all of this is just how difficult the game is, and how much studying people are doing. When they came home from winning state title, their classmates didn't even seem to care. They were like, 'Oh, we won a competition,'" Prince said.

To be really good, for example, you can't just know which author wrote what books, but also the details of the plot and characters within each book, Prince said. "It forces people to really study culture," he said.

Webster, this past season's leading scorer, is the most well-versed in all subjects, while Eric, also very knowledgeable, was the group's spiritual leader, Prince said.

"Webster is the most driven player I've ever had. He hates losing and he loves it when he can pull off a big upset," Prince said. "When we really needed something, Eric was calm and collected and ready to turn the game around. Webster can get flustered, but Eric could pull things back together and go in the right direction."

While Webster gets most of the literature, philosophy and social science questions, Eric is the go-to guy for fine arts -- from music to painting and sculpture -- and history, the teens said.

Webster's greatest asset is his intellectual quickness, Eric said. "Intellectually he's very very smart, very very quick with memory association, very very quick to draw connections and conclusions," he said.

Eric is extremely driven, Webster said. "Eric is also really smart. When he gets into something, he gets really into it. The last week before the last quiz bowl tournament, we were going to go to Dr. Prince's house to practice, but Eric told me he was not going to come because we were too distracting. He went over the top that week in preparing hard for it."

Both grew up in the world of sciences; Eric's mother is a chemical engineer, his dad a physicist. Webster's parents are food scientists.

Rowena Torres-Ordoņez said her son Eric, though always responsible, never loses track of wanting to enjoy life to its fullest.

"The grades don't matter to him as much as, 'Did I get challenges or did I really learn from this?' He always took courses at IMSA that would challenge him. I used to tell him, 'You could have gotten better grades; can't you get straight As?' and he would say, 'Mom, I could get straight As, but I have to have a life.'"

Webster was always very competitive growing up, said his mother, Joyce Liao.

"He loves challenges, always liked anything with competition. Table tennis, volleyball, chess, he loves to be the winner," Liao said. "When he was little he came home and brought trophies, and we were surprised. We asked him 'Where did you learn that?' and he said he learned it by himself."

Both Eric and Webster enrolled in IMSA's "student inquiry and research programs" (SIR) their junior year, which entails collaborating with professionals such as educators, researchers and scholars on various projects outside the classroom.

During junior year, Eric did research on positron emission tomography -- a form of nuclear-based medical imaging -- at the radiology department of the University of Chicago, while Webster helped conduct cell research related to the possible development of colon cancer in mice at Northwestern University. Both teens, however, decided to forego SIR programs their senior year to focus on studying for and participating in quiz bowl competitions.

Both are very musical, too. Webster plays the piano and placed third in the Olympic division of the 2009 Geneva Swedish Days festival and in second place for the 2010 state qualifier competition. Eric, on the other hand, plays the violin and was chosen to play at the Merit School of Music's tuition-free conservatory; he was a violinist with the Merit Symphony Orchestra and with Merit's honors string trio, string quartet and piano quartet from 2008 to 2011.

Now, both teens are headed off to college. Eric will study chemical engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, while Webster is headed to the California Institute of Technology, where he said he'll likely study chemical engineering, too.

Their days of quiz bowl are now over, both Eric and Webster said, because it's not nearly as fun or competitive at the college level. Neither is entirely sure about future plans -- working for a company? earning a Ph.D. to go into academia? -- but both are certain they want to use their skills for something positive, they said.

As for all their quiz bowl trophies, they are especially proud to have represented their school so well, they said.

"IMSA had 10 state championships before (2001) and after that, they had really poor performances. They were a joke. But literally over one semester what Dr. Prince was able to do to with us, we were able to take IMSA from a joke to a focus of national discussion," Eric said.

• Elena Ferrarin wrote today's column. She and Kimberly Pohl always are looking for Suburban Standouts to profile. If you know of a young person whose story just wows you, please send a note including name, town, email and phone contacts for you and the nominee to or call our Standouts hotline at (847) 608-2733.

Article Comments ()
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.