The Isha Home School (IHS) Academic Games Nationals team put up a bronze medal-winning performance in their third appearance at the Academic Games League of America’s (AGLOA) National Tournament, known simply as Nationals, which took place this year in Wheeling, West Virginia, USA from 28 April – 1 May. This year, over 1000 students competed at Nationals for the coveted “thinker,” a model of Rodin’s sculpture which is the trophy presented to Nationals finalists. This marks the first time a team outside of the US has placed in the top three, taking a “thinker” from US soil.

Pictured from left: Maya Sirivelu, Shrilekha Mudunuri, Praajita Ranade, Aditi Iyer, Viveka Ramakrishnan, Tejasvi Venkat, Shyama (Kaavya) Muthuganesan, Swami Jataja (coach)

What is Academic Games (AG)?

AG is a group of games covering various academic subjects. The IHS team competed in five of the games: Equations (mathematics), On Sets (set theory), WFF (logic), “Linguishtiks” or LING (grammar and vocabulary), and Presidents (social studies).

In Equations, one of the players will set a goal or a target value, for example, seven (7). Then all players have to come up with a mathematical expression equal to the goal such as 4+3. AG players learn to develop much more sophisticated and creative expressions such as log 5 (6! √ 5 ^ 7!) or 3 – (2i)2. Players take turns placing more restrictions on the expression until one player challenges another player that a solution is not possible. Many players describe the game as a mathematical chess match.

LING, On Sets and WFF follow a similar format according to their subject while in Presidents, players receive points for identifying the US president given a set of three questions.

The Team – “Made in India”

The IHS team adopted “Made in India” as their name, named after Prime Minister Modi’s initiative. The team comprised of five students in Class VI, Aditi Iyer, Maya Sirivelu, Praajita Ranade, Shrilekha Mudunuri, and Viveka Ramakrishnan, and was joined by one student in Class V, Tejasvi Venkat, and another in Class IX, Shyama (Kaavya) Muthuganesan, playing as individuals forming an all-girl contingent.

In each game of Nationals, teams are divided into divisions. Teams in each division go through four rounds of matches amongst themselves. The winning team (with the most number of points) advances to the playoffs or finals, along with winners from other divisions.

The Team’s Performance

The IHS team’s third place finish came in LING, shocking many that a team from India placed in English grammar against US opponents. The team prevented one of the strongest teams in the US from reaching the finals along the way. Additionally, a strong performance in Equations earned them an honourable mention, with Maya receiving an individual award for going undefeated in WFF and Viveka receiving an award for going undefeated in LING and leading the team into the playoffs before the finals.

Handicapped Without a Warm Up

Other teams had the opportunity to play against one another in the lead up to Nationals, since they were all in the US. The IHS team missed out on this and was at a severe disadvantage. Playing other students allows players to match their skills against others, identify which strategies work and which don’t, and overcome anxiety before big matches.

To characterize this achievement, most students who compete in AG never make it to the Nationals. Just qualifying for Nationals is an achievement in itself. The Nationals host the best students in the US, many of whom go on to some of the top colleges in the US, like MIT, Stanford, and Ivy League schools. Moreover, the competition at Nationals is so intense that the difference between making the playoffs and returning empty-handed is a matter of a few points – which translates into a few seconds’ hesitation or a premature move.

Coming from India, walking into Nationals without any previous match experience, and fighting from behind to reach the finals is an amazing achievement.

A Tenacious Underdog

Their trip to the finals was no cakewalk. Late into the Nationals, it appeared that the girls would be returning empty-handed. A tenacious start in their strongest two games was met with a series of setbacks as the team was edged out of the playoffs in both WFF and On Sets by five points each. Adding to the heartbreak, Maya was eliminated from a perfect score contention in On Sets by a single point and Viveka by two.

An uninspiring start in the opening rounds of the remaining games signalled that the chance of any success was bleak. The girls, however, would not be denied. Redoubling their efforts, the team rallied in the final two rounds to secure a trip to the playoffs in LING. At the end of the first playoff, the IHS team was tied with one of the toughest teams in the US. A head-to-head, sudden-death match would now decide which of the two would make it into the finals.

Demonstrating their mettle, the IHS LING team swept their way into the finals, tying one match and winning the other four outright. Their third place finish in the Nationals final not only earned them a “thinker” but also galvanized a similar rally in Equations which, while falling short of the finals, earned the team an honourable mention award.

What the Coach Says

When asked if he was surprised by the performance, the team coach, Swami Jataja, former player and nationally certified judge, commented, “I always knew we had a strong team with solid techniques and sound strategies. Playing the whole year without facing any competition, however, is a difficult challenge to surmount. The only uncertainty I had is how these girls would face that challenge. They showed everyone that they came to dance.”

When asked what the performance means for the team and for IHS, he added, “This group of girls has demonstrated not that they can compete against the best in the US but that they are among the best. It demonstrates that IHS is capable of producing the best talent in the world.”

Quotes from the Players

“Holding my thinker [trophy] made the three years of training totally worth it.” – Praajita

“I was surprised that an all-girls team was the first IHS team to make it to the finals.” – Maya

“We shocked everyone making it to finals in the English grammar game. Many of our opponents didn’t think we spoke English.” – Aditi