Quiz whiz leaves no gap unturned
Pop-culture cramming pays off with victory

Mark Simon
Thursday, March 13, 2003
©2003 San Francisco Chronicle

Perhaps the single most stunning moment in the four-year history of Peninsula Quiz Kids came in last year's finals when Daniel Barclay correctly answered a question about Britney Spears.  Up to then, everyone assumed that Daniel -- a senior at Menlo-Atherton High School who reads historical atlases for enjoyment -- had no idea who Britney Spears might be.  Actually, he didn't. But, nervous about the finals, Daniel relented on his personal ban on pop culture and spent a few weeks reading the entertainment section of the newspaper.

"I just so happened to pick up a couple of useful facts," he said. "I've since forgotten them, so my integrity is intact."

If any individual can be said to have emerged as a star from Peninsula Quiz Kids, it would be Daniel, whose Menlo-Atherton team has won the 24-school tournament three years in a row.

Quiz Kids airs Friday and Saturday nights on Peninsula cable systems, part of Peninsula TV, a local network of government and public affairs broadcasting that reaches 250,000 households from Daly City to Santa Clara. The teams come from high schools from San Francisco to San Jose.  The Chronicle is a sponsor of Peninsula Quiz Kids.  In September, Quiz Kids goes regional, airing at noon Saturdays on KRON-TV and featuring teams from throughout the Bay Area.

Based on the old General Electric College Bowl, each match has three segments -- the collaboration round in which three-member teams can confer on their answers, a face-off in which a representative of each team answers questions in a selected category, and the lightning round in which the teams compete to answer the most questions.  The questions are about literature and language, science and technology, math, history, geography, fine and performing arts, current events and sports.

Daniel, who turns 18 on Tuesday has represented Menlo-Atherton all four years of the program's existence in the face-off round, taking geography as his category. Show producers say they can recall only a handful of questions he has missed in that time. Daniel has been ably assisted by thoroughly knowledgeable teammates who have filled his own gaps in sports, popular culture and literature.  But by virtue of his longevity on the show, his depth and breadth of knowledge and his facile recall skills, he has made a lasting impression.

"He obviously has a tremendous memory," said Gregg Whitnah, advanced calculus teacher at Menlo-Atherton and coach of the M-A team. "But you've got to have something to remember."

"He has a vast reservoir of knowledge, and it makes him a formidable opponent," said Wells Wadleigh, adviser to Crystal Springs Uplands School in Hillsborough. The past two years, Crystal Springs has lost to Menlo-Atherton in the finals.  "Last year, it was his knowledge not just of history and geography, but of popular culture," Wadleigh said. "That's what was stunning about last year. Britney Spears. Who'd a thunk?" "I knew that one," said Tyson Mao, a Crystal Springs team member and now a freshman at California Institute of Technology. "He beat me to the buzzer."

"Daniel is really quick," said Liz La Porte, producer of Peninsula Quiz Kids. "He's extremely fast."

He's also extremely smart. His mother says Daniel started reading when he was 14 months old. A National Advanced Placement Scholar and an Eagle Scout, he has been accepted at the University of Chicago, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Yale and Duke. He's waiting to hear from Harvard, Princeton and Penn.  He likes to spend his time reading nonfiction, having conversations with his friends or playing what he calls "mindless computer games." He never watches TV.

"From what I've heard, TV sort of occupies a lot of people's time, and it doesn't give them much in return," Daniel said.

In addition to being uncommonly smart, Daniel is slender, wears glasses and has a laconic speaking style -- a combination that would have almost guaranteed him a high school experience of unrelenting social misery.

"I think Quiz Kids saved the day for him," Whitnah said. "I think he has become so well known for Quiz Kids that the other students are in awe of him."

Daniel, careful to downplay his efforts and to praise his teammates, said he has enjoyed contributing to his school's reputation, and he has particularly enjoyed lunchtime practice sessions with his teammates.  But now, the finals are nearing, and the question is whether Menlo-Atherton, this year captained by Daniel, will complete a four-year sweep.  Burlingame High School is said to be very tough. Crystal Springs is back and strong as ever.

"We were within a question of beating them two years ago, so we think it's doable," said Crystal Springs coach Wadleigh. "He's not invincible."

He's not, Daniel said.

"I don't want to be seen as some strange, unstoppable force. I just want to be seen as someone who represented his school. Even if we do lose, I won't have any regrets."