The Super Bowl of the Mind

Is quiz bowl the ultimate test of smarts or an overblown game of Trivial Pursuit?

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

On April 21, I traveled to College Park, Md., to learn about this competition. The modern form of this activity is played nationwide at ACF and NAQT tournaments. Slate contributor Ken Jennings credits this pastime with helping him prepare for his record Jeopardy! run. In this contest, two teams attempt to answer questions structured like this paragraph. For 10 points, name this academically rigorous challenge that is played using buzzers.

The answer: quiz bowl.

To its devotees, quiz bowl is less a trivia contest than an arms race. On one side are the keepers of the game, who calibrate their questions to reward true knowledge. On the other are the contestants, who pore over old tests in search of ways to beat the system. This back and forth between the shortcut eliminators and the shortcut seekers has made the game fun and challenging for aficionados. At the same time, it has likely warded off newcomers, those who prefer an occasional round of pub trivia to heated, internecine debates about what constitutes real knowledge.

Many quiz bowlers may not like to admit it, but their game’s origins trace back to College Bowl. A radio program from 1953 to 1955, then a television staple from 1959 to 1970, the game show pitted college teams against each other in battles of the brain. The show’s most famous moment came in March 1966, when four women from Agnes Scott College took down mighty, all-male Princeton.

Back then, the questions were short and simple. This was the final toss-up in the Agnes Scott-Princeton game: “Lavoisier laid the basis for the formulation of the law of the conservation of matter. For 10 points, who is said to have formulated the law of conservation of mass and energy.” Betty Butler buzzed in and correctly answered “Einstein.”

For an organization that touted its product as “the Varsity Sport of the Mind,” the College Bowl Company did a poor job rewarding its combatants. In addition to the high entry fees at College Bowl-run tournaments, players were subjected to inexperienced moderators and lame questions. In his book Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs, Ken Jennings chronicled the participants’ gradual disillusionment:

College Bowl’s questions, players grumbled to one another … lacked clues, gauged difficulty poorly, and weren’t sufficiently academic. One much derided bonus awarded a team 25 points for identifying, after a list of superfluous clues, a “curved yellow fruit” (the banana it turned out). Questions were occasionally used from past events. Worst of all, the questions sometimes came with tricks built in to discourage the best players from buzzing in too quickly.

Annoyed quiz bowlers eventually took the game into their own hands. By the mid-1990s, two purveyors of “good quiz bowl” had emerged, National Academic Quiz Tournaments and the Academic Competition Federation. NAQT is the game’s most popular format, but is less demanding than ACF. The latter’s collegiate championship, ACF Nationals, is considered the academic year’s toughest event.

Held two weeks ago at the University of Maryland, the ACF’s annual quiz bowl finale took place in the basement of an academic building. There was a Bring Your Own Buzzers policy, and the most valuable prize was a $40 plastic trophy. For most of the weekend, it sat next to a case of Pepsi.

Pageantry means little to today’s elite quiz bowlers, who are focused on little else besides winning. I watched one player repeatedly sigh, slam his hand down, and shout “Yes!” every time an opponent answered a question correctly, as if to say, “I knew that, too.” At one point, University of Minnesota wiz Andrew Hart casually told me he was the 22nd-ranked quiz bowler of all time. When I asked Ohio State’s Jacob Durst why he plays the game, he smiled and said, “Humanities 3 doesn’t cut it anymore.”

This is a group that enjoys being tested. Consider this sample toss-up question from ACF Nationals:

This state is home to Notch Peak, considered the second steepest cliff in the United States. Unusual rock formations may be viewed at this state’s Goblin Valley state park. This state’s Uinta mountain range is home to its tallest mountain, the 13,528-foot tall King’s Peak. One national park in this state is famous for its collection of “hoodoos,” or totem-pole shaped rocks. Another national park in this state is home to landforms like Dark Angel and Balanced Rock, as well as namesake features called “Landscape,” “Delicate,” and “Double.” In addition to Bryce Canyon and Arches National Park, this state is home to a large city whose attractions include the Seagull Monument and the Tabernacle, both found in Temple Square. For 10 points, name this U.S. state home to Salt Lake City.

Quiz bowl questions are constructed like a pyramid: The hardest clues come first, and the hints gradually decrease in difficulty. Moderator Jerry Vinokurov was getting close to the “giveaway” clue—everyone knows Salt Lake City is in Utah—when Yale’s Kevin Koai buzzed in with the right answer after hearing the magic words “Bryce Canyon.” (Some tournaments award extra points for answering a question early. That’s called “powering.” There’s no powering at ACF Nationals.) That correct response earned 10 points for Yale’s four-man team and a three-part bonus question about the history of South Africa. If Koai had initially answered “Colorado,” he would’ve lost five points for his team and “negged” out his teammates, who’d no longer be permitted to buzz. At that point, the opposing team usually waits for the moderator to finish reading the question before buzzing in. In such a case, answering before the moderator finishes is referred to as “vulturing” and is considered poor etiquette.

At ACF Nationals, I saw no such violations of decorum. I was told there might be chair-throwing, but it never happened on my watch. I did catch a player swearing to himself and laughing at what he thought was a bear of a question. In response, Vinokurov smiled and said, “This is ACF Nationals, dude.”

Quiz bowl questions are designed to give the best-prepared player the best chance of answering correctly. “The key is that quiz bowl is fundamentally different than trivia,” ACF Nationals head editor Jonathan Magin explains in an email. Trivia questions are, well, trivial—cool, odd, quirky facts. Quiz bowl questions, Magin says, are academic and meticulously constructed. He enjoys trivia, but he believes it has no place in quiz bowl. It “would be off-putting,” he says, “like practicing your whole life to hit a major-league fastball and suddenly having to hit a Wiffle ball.”

Quiz bowl’s anti-trivia bent can be seen most clearly in the questions that aren’t asked. You will not hear a pop culture or sports question at ACF Nationals, a fact that contributed to my guessing around 0.01 percent of the correct answers over the entire weekend. One of the few questions I did get right was about the Bret Easton Ellis novel Less Than Zero. The only reason I knew it was because I saw the movie.

Hardcore players refer to pop-culture questions as “trash.” The absence of trash, organizers claim, is borne out of practicality. Since there is no widely accepted pop-culture canon, it’s impossible for players to adequately prepare for trash questions. In quiz bowl, where preparation is valorized above all else, this is unacceptable. “My problem with trash is when someone wins or loses on something about [Twilight:] Eclipse,” says Julie Gittings, the retired coach of longtime quiz bowl power State College (Penn.) Area High. “Nobody’s happy about that.”

Outside the realm of Team Edward and Team Jacob, it’s still not easy to define what constitutes quiz-bowl-worthy knowledge. Even when you stick to literature, mythology, philosophy, science, and the arts, there’s a fine line between what’s trivial and what’s important. In the forums, the debate over where that line falls rages daily. In early April, someone posted a 1,800-word screed calling for the inclusion of certain American directors, even if their work has recently devolved. “Ridley Scott illustrates this phenomenon very well,” the poster wrote. “Whereas Robin Hood and Body of Lies certainly have no place … his early films like Alien, a work of enormous influence much commented upon in Marxist and psychoanalytic critiques, undoubtedly belongs in the arts distribution.”

The fight isn’t limited to the canon’s lighter subjects. A 2006 thread titled “Underwhelmed” features a scathing critique of one tournament’s poorly structured toss-ups on nickel and selenium. “I don’t like clues on weights of isotopes,” the poster wrote. “I suppose they help narrow down on a region of the periodic table, but if there’s going to be an element toss-up, I’d much rather hear clues about the real-world significance of that element or its isotopes.”

This complaint might sound esoteric, but it gets to the core of the quiz bowl ethos. “‘Real knowledge’ is fetishized,” said Harvard senior Ted Gioia, whose father Dana, a poet, was a clue in an ACF Nationals question. Players aspire to true expertise in a particular area of study. But if you want to win, you also need “quiz-bowl knowledge”—the less high-minded information that helps you buzz in faster than everyone else.

Quiz bowl’s animating tension can be seen in the person of Edwidge Danticat. In 2007, the Haitian-American author was nominated for a National Book Award for her memoir Brother, I’m Dying. Danticat’s work began to be studied with greater frequency in academia, and as a consequence, questions about her writing started popping up in quiz bowl. Danticat’s newfound popularity led players to read more Danticat. Studying recent question packets, which are available on the Internet, also made it easy for players to recognize Danticat questions. The exponential increase in quiz-bowl-wide Danticat knowledge forced question writers to come up with more obscure Danticat fodder. The result was questions like this:

A black butterfly signifies death in this author’s “Children of the Sea,” which appears in a collection along with stories about Grace’s mother cooking bone soup and Guy jumping from a hot air balloon, “Caroline’s Wedding,” and “A Wall of Fire Rising.” In this author’s best-known short story, the narrator recalls the legacy of Seline, who had an unfortunate encounter with a cane after her miscarriages prompt her to respond to Rose. That story ends with the revelation that Rose is a rotting baby corpse as Therese awaits arrest in the titular location. Louise, Tante Atie, Joseph, and Brigitte help another character deal with Martine’s suicide and the revelation that Sophie was fathered by a Tonton Macoute rapist in this author’s most famous novel. The author of “Between the Pool and the Gardenias” and Krik? Krak! For 10 points, identify this author of Breath, Eyes, Memory, a female Haitian-American author.

In this case, the game’s persistent cycle of renewal and revision went too far, rendering an author’s small oeuvre more important in quiz bowl than in reality. At that point, Edwidge Danticat had been over-mined. It was time to move on.

Magin, the head editor of ACF Nationals, compares the push and pull of quiz bowl question-writing to the “Red Queen’s Hypothesis.” In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, the Red Queen tells Alice that it “takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” Quiz bowl, Magin says, “can sometimes be a race to know harder and harder clues about something kind of peripheral.” To outsiders, the fact that “they don’t know which obscurata they need to memorize” is a huge barrier to entry. And for question writers, there’s always the risk of falling down trivia’s rabbit hole. The more obscure the reference—Magin cites Herman Melville’s novel Mardi—the more likely a quiz bowler will know the correct answer on account of rote memorization rather than true scholarship.

In quiz bowl, triviality is a weed. Try to kill it, and it just pops up somewhere else. No matter how high-minded its subject matter, the game’s elemental material—clues, buzzers, and academic all-stars armed with study guides—ensures that testing for “real knowledge” is impossible. If you want real knowledge, ask for a 10-page essay. If you want a Super Bowl for smart people, you have to resign yourself to the fact that they’ll figure out how to win without reading every word Melville ever wrote.

No matter how hard you try, stumping a great quiz bowl team isn’t easy. In the final match at ACF Nationals, just one of the 20 toss-up questions wasn’t answered correctly. (It was about Friedmann equations.) The game was a nail biter. Yale built a 190-65 lead at halftime before the University of Virginia stormed back to tie it at 210 on toss-up 18. The game turned on the 19th question:

In a perspective error, this painting’s right-most figure is portrayed with a right hand larger than his left hand, even though his left hand is much closer to the viewer. A still life in this painting includes a bowl of overripe and defective fruit which threatens to fall off the edge of a table …

Though there were 94 words left in this decision question, Yale senior John Lawrence buzzed in. His answer: The Supper at Emmaus. Correct. Ten points for Yale. After victory was assured for the Ivy Leaguers, I asked Lawrence about his great buzz. He said The Supper at Emmaus was just one of a couple hundred paintings he’d studied online as the tournament approached. I believed him.

Yale's championship-winning team. From left to right: John Lawrence, Matt Jackson, Kevin Koai, and Ashvin Srivatsa.
Yale’s championship-winning team. From left to right: John Lawrence, Matt Jackson, Kevin Koai, and Ashvin Srivatsa.

Photo courtesy Amy Jackson.

After the final game, the tournament’s all-stars were called up on stage. Instead of trophies, each player got a paperback. The University of Illinois’ Ike Jose, the top scorer in the preliminary rounds, snagged a used copy of Jeffrey H. Richards’ Early American Drama. For a quiz bowler, this was the perfect gift. “Trophies,” Jose said, “just take up space.”