Wide Angle

The Jeopardy! Minor Leagues

If you want your kid to answer a Daily Double someday, sign them up for quiz bowl now.

Ken Jennings, Matt Jackson, and Monica Thieu conferring at a round table. A TV screen in the background reads "TEAM KEN."
Team captain Ken Jennings with Matt Jackson and Monica Thieu, all of them quiz bowl players. Jeopardy!/YouTube

In March, 20-game Jeopardy! champ Julia Collins was invited back as one of the six captains in the two-week Jeopardy! “All-Star Games,” the quiz show’s first team tournament ever. As she met her fellow captains and competitors, all multiweek winners on the game show (including me), she was surprised how familiar everyone seemed to be with each other. Back in 2014, when she made her first appearance, “I didn’t know a single person who had ever been on the show,” Julia told me. But this time, she marveled, “everyone else seems to have known each other, either personally or by reputation, for decades.”

Why? They shared years of experience on Jeopardy’s secret farm team: quiz bowl. Of the 18 “All-Stars” in the tourney, all but Julia and two others had played the academic competition known as quiz bowl in high school or college. One particular quiz organization has employed many of those “All-Stars” in the post-collegiate years. Slate readers may recall that the Scripps National Spelling Bee is often won by a kid with years of practice on the Indian American local spelling bee circuit. In the same way, if you see someone winning big on Jeopardy, odds are they cut their teeth on the high school or college quiz bowl circuit.

The modern game of quiz bowl originated with College Bowl, a radio and TV hit of the 1950s and 1960s. On the General Electric–sponsored quiz show, two four-student teams from different colleges would face off answering questions on subjects with a distinctly fusty classroom vibe: Nathaniel Hawthorne, the periodic table, the War of the Austrian Succession. The show went off the air in 1970, but the format lived on for decades on college campuses as a geeky intramural and interscholastic extracurricular.

I captained the quiz bowl team at Brigham Young University in the late 1990s, and we would drive and fly around the country a weekend or two every month, playing (untelevised) quiz games in the basements of deserted campus humanities buildings late into the night. It wasn’t long before I started to see people I knew from the quiz bowl world appearing on TV, winning Jeopardy’s College Tournament or Ben Stein’s money on a regular basis. In 2001, a University of Michigan quiz bowler I knew named Kevin Olmstead won $2.18 million on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, becoming the biggest winner in American game show history up to that time. More than anything else, it was Kevin’s win that inspired me to try out for Jeopardy! myself a couple of years later.

Kevin was a founding member of National Academic Quiz Tournaments, an organization formed in 1996 by a handful of veteran quiz bowl players. NAQT has grown from a niche game to a huge player in the quiz-nerd space; last year, it held 979 events and attracted over 25,000 high school and college players. (Full disclosure: I’ve written and edited film, literature, and theology questions for NAQT almost since its founding, and was invited to become an official member in 2002.)

As a result, quiz bowl—and NAQT in particular—has become a de facto farm system for the brains you see on Jeopardy! every night. Over the past decade, 51 percent of Jeopardy’s Teen Tournament contestants and 46 percent of the College Championship players have been NAQT veterans. “We find many of our best younger players have participated in some form of quiz bowl type of competition,” confirms Jeopardy! producer Maggie Speak.

Last month’s tourney was a kind of coronation of quiz bowl’s influence on the show. Not only were 15 of the All-Stars ex–quiz bowlers, but two-thirds of “Team Brad” (which went on to win the tournament) were introduced by Alex Trebek as professional quiz bowlers. Larissa Kelly works full-time for NAQT, while her teammate David Madden is a former NAQT player and coach who founded his own quiz competition outfit, the National History Bee, in 2011.

Jeopardy, the top-rated quiz show in America for almost two decades, is obviously a higher-profile arena than quiz bowl—and, as David and Larissa and I can attest, it can be a lot more lucrative. The two games are hardly identical. Quiz bowl questions are full paragraphs stuffed with straightforward factual clues meticulously ordered from hard to easy, which rewards the player bold enough to buzz in on the tougher early material. (If you know, for example, that Grover Cleveland personally hanged two murderers during his term as a New York sheriff, you’ll be able to answer long before a player who is waiting to hear a giveaway phrase like “two nonconsecutive terms as U.S. president.”*) Jeopardy! clues, by contrast, are weird, short little haikus, laced with hints, puns, winks, and red herrings.

The quiz bowl canon of knowledge is so exhaustive that using it to prepare for Jeopardy! is like training with a medicine ball or a weighted bat. Your average Jeopardy! player takes the stage hoping to see categories and names that they know well, but strong quiz bowlers can be confident that they will have a shot at just about everything on the board. What’s more, they’ll have plenty of practice recalling those facts under pressure. In the All-Stars tourney, I drafted a player named Matt Jackson as much for his quiz bowl résumé as for his 12 Jeopardy! wins. Watching him hit Daily Doubles, I never had to worry about him not knowing what river drains Cambodia, or which element can be “fixed” in soil by planting legumes, because I knew that all quiz bowl people just know that stuff. (What are the Mekong River and nitrogen, respectively.) Larissa Kelly nailed a very hard clue about Franz Liszt’s Liebesträume because erudite subjects like classical music, which most Jeopardy! players dread, are the bread-and-butter of quiz bowl.

As Julia Collins found out, the nexus of quiz bowl and Jeopardy! makes for a tightly knit and even incestuous subculture. NAQT tournaments are staffed by so many Jeopardy! veterans that hotel security has shown up two years running to tamp down what Larissa Kelly described to me as “partly general rowdiness, and partly the loud buzzing noises from the mock Jeopardy! games.” At a recent NAQT nationals, a group of high schoolers was thrilled to spot 2013 Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions winner Colby Burnett and rushed over for a picture. They didn’t realize that the onlooker they drafted to take the photos was 2014 Tournament of Champions winner Ben Ingram.

R. Robert Hentzel, the president of NAQT, is uncomfortable with the idea, which he hears sometimes in quiz bowl, that the game’s mission is molding tomorrow’s Jeopardy! brains. “I didn’t want NAQT to be portrayed as just ‘practice for Jeopardy,’ ” he told me. “That crossed my line of self-respect. Quiz bowl players play because they love learning things, and love hanging out with others who do.”

Nevertheless, if you’re a stage mom or dad scheming to land your child a spot on Jeopardy! someday, quiz bowl might just be the magic bullet. 2017 Tournament of Champions winner Buzzy Cohen is starting early: He wants to coach a quiz bowl team at his daughter’s elementary school, and has already enlisted the aid of Julia Collins and Larissa Kelly. “I remember being a kid who was really into knowing stuff, and trivia,” he says. “As an adult, there’s bar trivia or game shows or whatever. But when you’re 11, there’s no outlet for that.” Quiz bowl: molding the Jeopardy! gladiators of tomorrow, one little brainiac at a time.

Correction, April 9, 2019: This article originally misidentified the state in which Grover Cleveland was sheriff. It was New York, not Pennsylvania. The author lost $200 and cedes control of the board.