Hidden Champion

David Arthur '04
October 1, 2003
David Arthur

Sporting a fire-engine-red, wing-collared shirt with his name stitched above the left breast, David Arthur looked more like a bowler than anything else. But this was April, and he had made it to the computer-programming equivalent of the Final Four. The Blue Devil was in the midst of a late comeback against a Swedish sensation. A close-up of his face--his eyes narrowing as if preparing for a tie-breaking foul shot--took over the video scoreboard as the match came down to the wire. Yet there was no Coach K, no blue face paint, no pep band--just this twenty-year-old Canadian with a pencil, a computer, and a receding hairline on top of one beautiful mind.

Arthur was on his way to capturing the championship in the TopCoder Collegiate Challenge--and was on his way to doing it in MIT's backyard. The title--its accompanying $50,000 check notwithstanding--was no sweat for Arthur, "a lucky break," he says. But his victory spotlights a Duke math team that is often overshadowed by competing groups from better-known computer-science programs at places like MIT, Caltech, and Stanford. "We're not quite at the level of the Duke men's basketball team or anything," Arthur says. "But there's good competition, and Duke puts forth good teams."

Coming out of Toronto, Arthur was the math department's blue-chip recruit: computer nerd at a private school by day; by night, champion in Math Olympiads and programming competitions everywhere from Hawaii to China. He was accepted by Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and MIT, but lured to the South by an A.B. Duke Scholarship and its benefits, including full tuition and a summer term at Oxford.

While the programming contests were another life for him in high school, TopCoder is one of only a few at the collegiate level. He prepped for the April tournament by competing online from his dorm room a few hours a week, computer keys crackling, the Beatles blaring. He blows through obstacles like unbalanced binary search trees, recursive node applications, and recurring robot obstacles--phrases from an arcane language he's been studying so long it's as if he's a native speaker. "Just like with everything, there's probably some sort of initial talent, but you're not going anywhere if you haven't had the practice as well."

At this point, Arthur acknowledges, the combination of practice and talent has helped raise his skill level so high that he sometimes finds himself struggling with easier programming problems. For the first of the three championship problems at TopCoder, he jumped out of the gates to code what an analyst on the TopCoder website called a "pretty simple problem," but found, when his test failed, that his basic approach was totally wrong.

It's a fault of "going over it too quickly in my mind," says Arthur, who recovered from the early stumble to defeat Jimmy M?rdell of Sweden's Ume? University.

"The problems themselves might seem strange, but they're just fun to do," he says. "They're like little puzzles and, you know, puzzles are kind of fun."