A number of students have asked if freshmen can be competitive in this contest. Absolutely! The challenge is purposely designed so that Advanced classes are not an overwhelming advantage.
Let me provide an example. What if the contest was to write the A.I. for a chess game. One team has 4 awesome programmers. But none of them have ever played chess and barely know the rules. The other team has 2 people, a freshman who’s total programming experience is one semester of Python and… a chess grandmaster. Who’s going to win?
The key to a winning A.I. is the strategic approach you come up with. With that said, better programmers will be able to code up the approach quicker. They will have time to then test and adjust it to improve it. So writing code quickly that does what you want – yes that’s important. But definitely secondary to coming up with a good strategic approach.
As to writing well-crafted code. Code that is faster than everyone else. Code you can be proud of. That does not matter at all. Premature optimization is one of the major sins of programming. And in this game premature is anytime during the contest.
One thing from our perspective as instructors: we really appreciated that the competition emphasized strategy and problem solving rather than simply coding. – Professor Joline Morrison, Univ. of Wisconsin
This is one of the reasons I think our competition is so good – it rewards programmers who can see the big picture and craft a quick solution that implements a solution. And that is what is really valuable in the real world.
Update: In the 2013 competition the 2nd place team was 5 freshmen from the University of Maryland.