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Three Code Their Way to Victory in Regional Programming Contest

By Ramy A. Arnaout
News Editor

Last month a team of three MIT students won this year's Northeast Regional Programming Championship, held in Oswego, N.Y. The contest is put on by the Associates for Computer Machinery.

The three team members - Emanuel V. Todorov G, Peter N. Ivanov '95, and Theodore G. Tonchev '96 - had five hours and one workstation to solve as many problems as they could out of a total of seven given, said Professor of Mathematics F. Thomson Leighton PhD '81, who coached the team.

For the second year in a row, the team, one of three to finish all seven problems, is heading to the final, international round of competition, in Nashville, Tenn. in March.

There, the two Northeast teams will face the 40 best teams from about 30 regional contests held around the world, Leighton said. The rules state that participants must be undergraduates or first- or second-year graduate students.

Questions ranged from how to file returned library books to monitoring wheelchair patients, said David B. Wilson G, who helped manage and train the team.

A second MIT team was barely edged out for the victory by the narrow margin of 20 minutes, and took second place out of a field of 45 teams from around the Northeast. A team from Harvard finished a distant third, nearly two hours behind the MIT teams.

Usually the top two teams in regional competition are guaranteed berths in the finals, but the contest rules limit each university to only one team. Thus, only the first-placed MIT team will go to the finals this year, Leighton said.

Participants pleased

"It was an experience," said Tichomir Tenev '96, who together with Ross Lippert G and and Brian Dean '98 comprised the second MIT team. "The questions were not very difficult. It was mostly a question of how efficient we were. There was also a very large proportion of luck."

Tenev's team actually led the competition until the last question. "That was [one] reason we were so sorry for losing," he said. "This was another place where the lack of experience shows up. We got stuck on the last question."

But the contest was still "a very close call," Ivanov said. "A 20-minute difference is a matter of chance. We were not better than the other team; we were luckier in choosing our strategy," he said.

"One of the most important skills tested in these contests, in addition to the obvious one - programming - is the questionably useful ability to work with relatively outdated [programs]," Ivanov said. "The worst limitation is the fact that a team of three has to use a single terminal. Actually, this is what makes these contests fun, and an actual team challenge except in the case where the team does poorly because of a poor strategy for sharing the unique workstation."

"The competition is a really good thing," Berger said. "It's exciting. It's not the Superbowl, of course, but it's fun to watch really smart college students excel at this kind of competition."

"We've been doing [this competition] for decades," Leighton said, although before last year, MIT had not had sent a team to the competition for many years, he said.

The winning team played a large part in MIT's return to competition, Leighton said. "They're the ones that got this thing going last year. They heard about this competition and wanted to do it."

"The other two members of the team and I gained a lot of our programming experience" as high-school students in Bulgaria, Tonchev said.

Last year, they were working for Assistant Professor of Mathematics Bonnie A. Berger PhD '90, Leighton said. "She agreed to be their coach, and they became a team," Leighton said.

This year, Berger and Leighton held MIT-wide tryouts for the team. Flyers advertising the contest were posted in Athena Computing Environment clusters campus-wide. "About 20 people spent all of one Saturday night coding," he said.