“All of you need to get serious,” he says, using That Word again. “No giggling, no side conversations. You have a perfectly reasonable chance of winning today. You’ve got the brain power. That’s not the problem. But to win, you have to work as a team.”
The members of the A team settle into their chairs in Life Sciences 008, and for the first time ever, they’re nervous. Their proctor, a longtime coach for the New York City team, seems to delight in teasing the team. He gives the students the standard warning about handing in their cellphones and calculators and says he will not tolerate cheating. But he can’t resist getting in a jab, saying it wouldn’t matter anyway: “You’re not going to come close to New York City,” he says, only half-joking.
The A team’s 13 boys and two girls whip out their sharpened No. 2 pencils and get to work. The team rounds, which consist of 20 questions that must be answered as a group and a “power question” that is essentially a long proof, are critical, worth 100 out of a possible 300 points.
The 2012 power question, which the team has one hour to complete, is a doozy. It is three pages long and involves one robber and one or more cops. The basic idea is that a robber has held up a bank and retreated to a network of hideouts represented by a diagram. During the day, the robber remains in a hideout but moves to an adjacent one every night. The question is to determine whether, given a hideout map and a fixed number of cops, the cops can be sure of catching the robber within some time limit.
One boy is shaking his head: “This is hard, so horribly hard.” Other team members divide into groups of two or three and start brainstorming: “You’re dealing with time and location. …” “If you find the island he’s on, restrict him to that island. …” “For each segment, you need two weekdays. …”
With 20 minutes left, the easier parts of the proof have been answered, and almost everyone has given up on the rest. Except Sam. He’s pacing, clicking his pen over and over, in between scribbling answers. Andrew may be team captain, but it’s clear Sam’s in charge.
His thoughts are interrupted when he notices Charlie explaining the answer to an earlier part of the proof to a teammate. “Go work on another problem, Charlie, instead of talking about one you already did, okay?” he snaps, before returning to his pacing.
Charlie ignores him. Five minutes pass, and Sam interrupts again: “Charlie, is this important?”
Teammates look up from their desks and brace for a blowup fight, but after more than six years being friends and teammates, Charlie is used to this kind of argument during the heat of competition, so he just tells Sam, “That’s not helpful” and returns to his conversation.