The Montgomery County Math Team is one of a growing number of elite teams that are elevating math to a competitive sport in the United States.
Parents of these mathletes follow stats and rankings as closely as others do for basketball. Coaches complain that parents beg or argue with them to let their kids onto the team even when they fall short on qualifying scores. Competition is fierce: Top-ranked players begin training as young as sixth grade, attend summer math camps, and pay $100 an hour for private coaching.
The exploding popularity of high school math teams coincides with the emergence of the digital economy, one that at its core is powered by mathematics. In contrast to the oil, shipping and retail magnates of generations past, many of today’s wealthiest and most powerful executives built their empires on algorithms and probability in fields such as Internet software and hedge funds.
Bram Cohen, creator of BitTorrent — the successor to file-sharing service Napster that at one point grew to host a third of all Internet traffic — was a star on New York’s Stuyvesant High School math team. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg — who runs the social networking company with 900 million users — was part of the top-ranked Phillips Exeter Academy team in New Hampshire.
Sergey Brin, the Google co-founder estimated to be worth $18.7 billion, is arguably the most famous alumnus of the Montgomery County Math Team, which draws students from other parts of the state. As a student at Eleanor Roosevelt High School 22 years ago, he had a reputation for being a jokester. During one math competition, teammates recall, he hosed everyone with water guns. (Click here to read about other standout alumni.)
The current crop of seniors from the Montgomery team seem to be on similarly ambitious paths. They are heading to Yale, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, California Institute of Technology and other top schools. These are students not used to disappointing.
And so it’s a shock the evening of the last practice in May when coach Eric Walstein stands and frowns. His eyes move across the 100 or so students in front of him, pausing deliberately to stare at each of his five teams — A through D, with 15 members each, ranked in descending order of performance, plus a middle school team. He calls out the scores for the latest round.
“A team, you got 35.” Out of 50. This is bad. “You have to take this seriously,” his voice booms across the cafeteria.