How “Thorsten A. Integrity” Runs a Trivia Empire

Listen to this episode

S1: This ad free podcast is part of your slate plus membership.

S2: I ran across the definition of Anadrol. So the answer to this question is going to be an antidrug, right. And so which one is it going to be? It was written by Sonny Rollins. That’s pretty tough. Recorded by Miles Davis. You know, that brings in a little bit more people. But then the thing that really hooks you in is it’s named after a country in Africa. So now you’ve got something to work.

Advertisement

S3: Welcome back to working. I’m your host, Isaac Butler,

S1: and I’m your other host, June Thomas.

S3: So, June, hello now. Hello. Who the heck was that we heard at the top of the show.

S1: That was Shayne Bushfield. But as you’ll hear, I had a really hard time using that name, even though it’s his real name, because I’m more used to communicating with his alter ego, which is Thorsten a integrity, the identity that he adopts when he’s sending out information about LearnedLeague.

S3: All right. So for those of us who are not learned about the LearnedLeague, what is it?

S1: Well, it’s an online Trivia league. I won’t go into too many details because Shayne and I do get into some of that in the interview. But I guess the key feature is that it’s online. Doing things virtually is no big deal after the last 18 months or so, but that was almost always baked into LearnedLeague after a very early, very short in-person project, when Shayne set Trivia challenges for I think, a dozen or so coworkers during a boring summer job at a Manhattan law firm. He took his Trivia to the Web, and that has shaped it. So every weekday morning I get an email from THOST in Integrity telling me how I did the day before. And with a link to that day’s questions. And it’s part of my morning routine now. And as I was researching before the interview, I read that a lot of lawyers and a lot of librarians play LearnedLeague. But my own biases and networks mean that I tend to recognize other journalists. And my opponent this very morning was one Kosti, a man who went to school at UNCE. And that, of course, is our mutual friend and collaborator, Dan Coats. And I hear that a guy called Alarm R who went to Oberlin also plays, which is, of course, our buddy Reman.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S3: Amazing. And this week, we have a little extra something for our Slate plus subscribers, right?

S1: Yes, we do. I asked Shayne about any regrets he might have about the way he designed the league and this being America in the summer of 2021. I had to ask him who he thinks will be the next host of Jeopardy.

S3: Oh, that’s great. So so he’ll weigh in on the number one crisis facing our nation at this time. Well, you know, here’s my trivia question, listeners. Why would you want to miss that? And the answer is you wouldn’t. And if you subscribe to Slate plus, you don’t have to. It’s incredibly easy to subscribe to Slate. Plus, you’ll get exclusive members only content, zero ads on any Slate podcast, full access to articles on Slate dot com without hitting a paywall. Bonus episodes of shows like One Year and Big Mooed Little Mood with Daniel M. Lavery. And you’ll be supporting the work we do right here on working. It’s only one dollar for the first month to sign up. Go to sleep dot com slash working plus. All right, now let’s listen in on June Thomas as she quizes Thorstein a integrity.

Advertisement

S1: So who are you and what do you do?

S2: My name is Shayne Bushfield. But in many parts, I’m known better by my superheroic alter ego, thirst, integrity. Who is the commissioner of LearnedLeague, the world’s greatest online Trivia league?

S1: I have to tell you, Shayne, that I have done lots of interviews with actors who I know by many different names. But you are the person who I’ve had the hardest time calling by the real name. And I think it’s because I get like 100 emails from you every year as Thorstein a integrity. So that’s totally in my mind. And for the listeners who are not part of LearnedLeague and don’t know it’s law, why are you sending me all these emails?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: I’m sending you emails because you’re a member of the league. And so the emails are basically notifications and updates and information to tell you that the questions are available for you to answer. And the results of your last match are available to tell you how you did, whether you won, lost or tied.

S1: How many people play LearnedLeague?

S2: So there’s a season going on right now, right smack in the middle of it. And there are about twenty four thousand players, just about twenty four and a half thousand somewhere in that area.

S1: So I have to say, I’m always a bit surprised when I’m matched against a woman, because it feels like the majority of the players are men. What’s the actual breakdown?

Advertisement

S2: Yeah, so you’re right. The majority of players are men. The number of non male players is a little bit over 30 percent. Okay. It’s higher than it has been in the past. Hmm. So it has grown somewhat.

S1: And I believe you are actively trying to kind of rebalance or or balance the game’s demographics. Yes. Why? And how do you want to do that?

S2: Yeah. So I do have to say that my ability to do that is somewhat limited because of the way players join the league. So there’s no like casting basically, right? Yeah. If you’re referred by current player, you’re eligible to join. And so if you are a guy and you refer 40 of your best guy friends to join, well, that’s 40 guys and zero non guys. So there’s not a whole I can do. But there are a couple of things that I do do. One is just to encourage people to, ah, you know, be mindful of diversity, sort of put it in those terms. So when you’re referring like if you’re on the referral page, on the website, there’s just a little note there, says, hey, you know, think about maybe not referring all your guy friends. Yeah. You know, but I don’t want to go too far on that because, you know, if you’re playing and you’re having a great time and your brother says, hey, refer me, I don’t want you to say no, I’m only referring women. I mean, you know, I want everyone who wants to play and I would enjoy it to join. Yeah. Yeah. But I will say the main thing that I do is not really necessarily about recruiting and may have a secondary effect in terms of recruiting players and influencing the players that join. This is more about players that stay. And that’s the content. So I have total control over the content that LearnedLeague season’s content. You know, their players write the offseason stuff. And, you know, I’m fairly liberal on what I allow there. But for the LearnedLeague season content, which from my perspective is like the canon is like the main LearnedLeague content. I write all that. That might not be obvious. I write all those questions. So I’m very mindful of that content and how it’s consumed by the players and the fact that players feel like they’re a part of the content. So, yeah. Yeah. So, you know, it’s not just like you’re not just playing in the in a Trivia contest that’s tailored for white guys in their late 40s, which is what I am. Right. So, yeah. Yeah. Well, I do work hard with that.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: I know that one of the things that people often criticize Trivia for is the narrow range of references. So, for example, the fact that I speak French often helps me, you know, kind of guess it answers because there are kind of clues or just, you know, it’s in the cultural air that we breathe, whereas a Gujarati speaker, for example, might not get that kind of advantage. So how do you address things like that? Because that’s the kind of thing you’re talking about, right?

S2: Yeah. Sure. So it’s hard, you know, because when it comes down to it, this is a game, right? Yeah. So the number one goal of any game, and particularly this game, my number one goal is for it to be fun. So whatever other goals I have and whether I accomplish them or not, if the game’s not fun, then it’s not going to be a game for very long. Right. So that’s a constraint. And the reason why that’s a constraint is because. You can only ask questions that people know the answers to or structure them in the way that would be fun for them to answer. Yeah. So, you know, expanding the Trivia canon, so to speak, which is a goal of mine, is something that you can’t just like rush headlong toward because you’re going to run into problems with people like saying, well, this is interesting. But, you know, three percent of the players know the answer to that question. That’s going to start to get tiresome. Yeah. So there’s a way to kind of chip away at that, which is, you know, writing questions that. That are fun, that people have a shot at knowing that might stretch that boundary a little bit, and then you can maybe go beyond the boundary a little bit by pulling in information that kind of it will expand the horizons a bit while still kind of being tethered to what people know. Yeah. Yeah. You know what I mean by that? So I do, you know, exposing people to things that they wouldn’t know about. So they learn something in the question. And so it kind of expands the range of content without necessarily making like just super difficult questions.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: I have lots of questions about how you write questions. But before we get to them, I just want to ask a couple more questions about the league itself, because there are some things that distinguish it from other Trivia leagues. And even though online Trivia. The first thing that I’m thinking of is you must get a referral, which you mentioned earlier. Why?

S2: Well, so a couple of reasons. The main reason is just because of the fact that it’s just bone easy to look up answers. Right. Like this is an online Trivia league. You’re playing it on a website. The Web page where you’re answering the questions, you probably have a search bar in your browser right there where you could just type in one word and there’s your answer. Right. And that’s that’s a difficult thing. That’s really, really hard to to kind of overcome. So there are a few different things that we do to try to mitigate that. And one of them is the referral system. So in order to join, you have to be referred by someone and that someone is vouching for you. Hmm. Now, whether they’re qualified to vouch for you or whether they’re vouchering is, you know, appropriate. You know, that could be up for debate. But but they are vouching for you. So there’s someone on the hook for you that says this person would would enjoy this and they wouldn’t they wouldn’t cheat. They’re not going to forfeit all the time. So that’s the main reason. The other reason was and is still a reason, is just kind of controlling growth, because, you know, if it’s just open to the Internet, then one season we could double in size. And I think that would have a negative impact on kind of the structure and the culture of the league.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: And there’s more to LearnedLeague than just answering questions. There’s also defense. How does that work?

S2: Right. So, yeah, you’re right. So it’s not just going to the page and answering six questions. There’s a very important aspect of it that we call defense of what it is simply is you assign a point value to each question for your opponent. And so one thing to make clear, maybe hasn’t been made clear yet in our conversation here. When you’re playing LearnedLeague, you are playing twenty five matches and they are head to head matches against an opponent, you know, so you have a schedule of opponents over the twenty five matches this season. And so each day you have an opponent. So on each day you’re playing that one person and you’re assigning a point value for each of the six questions for your opponent. So there are nine points total possible. And so you assign one were three points to worth to two worth one point and one worth zero. So that gives you a little bit of strategic elbow room there, because you can assign a three pointer to your opponent if you do not think they’ll know the answer. And then after they get it wrong, they’ve missed out on three points. And then conversely, if there’s a question that, you know, they will get right, then you assign zero points. And so you’re not hurt by that. Yeah. So that’s. And so the way you win a match is by scoring more points, not by answering more questions correctly.

Advertisement

S3: We’ll be back with more of June’s conversation with Thorsten a integrity after this. Listeners, one of the things we’d love to do with this show is to help solve your creative problems, whether it’s a question about working with collaborators or finding a way to improvise really anything at all, please send them to us at working at Slate dot com or give us a ring at three 00 four nine three three w o r k. And if you’re enjoying this episode, don’t forget to subscribe to working wherever you get your podcasts. All right, let’s rejoin June’s conversation with Thorsten a integrity.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: Since this is a show about the creative process, there was so much to just get people who aren’t part of the league to understand. So what we’re going to get to the creative process, which is basically, I think, your your writing process here. Yeah. When you sit down to write some LearnedLeague questions, what’s the first thing you do?

Advertisement

S2: So I have these notepads that I that I have. I got him specially printed just because I don’t know, it’s almost a vanity thing, but they have a little actually. So, you know, if you could see that. OK, I got a clown ball on at the LearnedLeague logo.

S1: OK.

S2: So anyway, this is a perfect size to write a trivia question on

S1: how many questions do you write on there?

S2: One. This is one question about the size of my head, maybe.

S1: Yeah. And just I’m very sorry to know that we’re not doing this on video, by the way. Yeah, I

S2: know. This is a this is audio. So your listeners are going to miss out on something. But I’m going to show you some old questions. I just have to make sure there are questions we’ve already seen. These are all this season, so I’m going to hold them far back. So you can’t read. All right. But this is just a big stack of papers. Can you see?

S1: Oh, I can.

S2: Yeah. Yeah, this is good. This is a stack of probably about one hundred and sixty five sheets of paper. Wow. And on each one of them is a Trivia question that I’ve written. OK. So the way I do it kind of get to the nitty gritty of the process is I basically one way there are different ways. Some types of questions kind of require different ways of approaching them. But generally speaking, I’ll sit down in a chair. I have a chair in my office right next to me here with a lamp and everything. And I’ll sit down with with a pad of that paper and a book. And this isn’t a book that probably a normal person would particularly want to, like, read through. It’s more like an encyclopedia or a dictionary of science or, you know, I’m looking at my bookshelf, you know, geographical dictionary, Oxford Companion to Food. I just revealed one of my sources there. That’s OK. I got a million others. So I’ll just like have that book and I’ll just crack it open and I’ll just go through it and kind of just wait for something to kind of catch my eye. And what I’m looking for basically is a subject. Okay. And that subject is often an answer, but it doesn’t have to be the answer. And plus, I have to kind of chew on it anyway. But it’s a subject.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: So so what’s the first thing you write? Then you write down effectively. What’s going to be the answer? Is that the first thing that that you write down or or do you write them down in the form of a question?

S2: I write them in the form of a question. It’s a rough draft question. So so a lot of these pages you’ll see have lots of scratches and little arrows like the add this part, take out that part. But yeah, I basically start by kind of just like throwing down a question. And then I have the answer written at the top. And I think, how does that does that work? That, you know, it kind of just think about it, you know, from my experience. Is that is that too hard? Is that too easy? Is it interesting? Is it is it accurate? You know, am I getting it right from the information on the page? Is it. This is all in my head. I haven’t done any supporting research yet. I will. That comes later. But are there other ways that you can answer this question? Yeah, just things of that of that nature, just to kind of think about how the question can be structured. And then sometimes you flip it like, well, I’m asking the wrong thing. This should actually be the question. And the answer should be this part that I actually put in the question kind of just like chew on kind of like a cow, you know, and just kind of like work through it. And then eventually I’ll have like a draft question. Okay. And I’ve spent some time on it. I’ve spent maybe I got lucky and spent five minutes on it. Maybe I’ve spent forty five minutes on this one question. And I walked up the piece of paper and chuck it across the room because I just can’t get it. That happens, too. And that’s really frustrating. But yeah, so once I’ve got that sheet of paper, then I just slot it in the book and then I move on to like another random page and just start going through. And so after a while I’ll have a book with a bunch of sheets of paper in it, and then I’ll put that book over to the side and I’ll grab another book and I’ll kind of do that just until I run out of stamina or run out of time or have something else to do. Yeah. And then what’ll happen then? Unfortunately, I’ve cleaned it all up, but I have a I’ll have a stack of books, you know, like maybe five, ten, twenty books, whatever, with these sheets of paper in it. And that’s when we go to the computer. And so then I bring it over the computer, and then I have this sheet of paper with the book open to the page, and then I do some research. Okay. I think, OK, I’m not going to trust this book. I don’t care how trustworthy it is. Every single book that I own and every single book that you own and every single book that’s ever been written is filled with errors. So you got to look it all up. You got to find other sources. And plus, you got to find other information to make it more interesting. Like sometimes I’ll write the questions like this is the kind of a bare bones version of a question. I got to add some meat to this. And so that’s what I’ll look up and I’ll do that. And then I kind of craft it into a thing that works.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: So let’s talk about that. So because as you’ve said in various points, you know, you’re not just asking who’s the prime minister of Italy? Who cares? You are you’re kind of finding a sneaky way into it to give some examples from the. The week that we’re recording there was one that to me is a very good LearnedLeague question. So I’m very interested to know how you rate it. So said some of the better known Anna DROMEs words derived by reversing the spelling of another word include Oprah Winfrey’s media company, Harpo, a particular unit of electric conductance. Mo and what jazz standard composed in 1954 by Sonny Rollins. It was recorded separately by Miles Davis and Wes Montgomery and is named after a country in Africa. Now, there’s a lot there. I feel like that’s maybe a clue where you thought, I need to give a lot of sneaky ways in, because, you know, very few people, I imagine, will know the name of a you know, a Sonny Rollins just standard from 1954. Even though you’ve given a bunch of clues, but, you know, you’ve also provided a way to get out there. And I confess, I just guessed by reversing the name of the one country in Africa that I visited. How do you and I got it right? How do you how do you kind of rate that clue?

S2: OK, yeah, I, I like that question a lot that the that question does have a bit of a drawback that I try to avoid and that it’s very long. So I don’t I’m not particularly a fan of long questions

S1: that isn’t usually long,

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: but I wanted to do that for this question. I thought it needed it. So. So the way that questions started, if I recall, is that I ran across the definition of Anadrol. Aha. And I thought, OK, well, that’s interesting. And a drome. So there’s something I can do with that. And I thought, well, you know what? I don’t want to just define it. I want to help people kind of conceptualize what that is. So I need to give some examples of things that people have heard of. Yeah. Or maybe you haven’t heard of them, but you can you understand it so. So there are a lot of words in that first part of the question. But but now you know exactly what I’m talking about. What exactly what the answer is going to look like. Right. And so then in my looking up different and a dromes, I thought. The answer to this question is going to be an antidote, right? And so which one is is it going to be so? I’ve actually I I’ve already asked about the MO inmate show that I’ve so so I couldn’t use that again, although I probably wouldn’t have in this case, even if I could. Oprah Winfrey’s company is fairly well known, and that would be a good question. But I liked the one that I ended up with because it allowed me to give a different clue. Yeah. So so I. And that was at the very end. So the name of that song was it was written by Sonny Rollins. That’s pretty tough. I’m not sure how many people can just name a Sonny Rollins song. So I’m going to give you a little bit more on the music side recorded by Miles Davis. You know that that brings in a little bit more people. But then the thing that really hooks you in is it’s named after a country in Africa. So now you’ve got something to work on.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: Yeah. And the thing that also is essential. I’m not sure we’ve specified explicitly is that there should only be one possible answer. That’s a key thing that you’re shooting for. Another thing that you’re you’re thinking about when you’re coming up with clues is just making sure that you don’t have to potential correct answers. Right. So you’ve also cut off a lot of other potential answers by some of the things that you put in there.

S2: That’s exactly right. So that’s that’s a reason for when questions have a lot of words. That’s often the reason why. Yeah, yeah. Because I have to just make sure it’s very cleanly pinned to that one answer. And that probably is the hardest thing to do when you’re writing Trivia questions. And I also think it’s the hardest thing to do when you’re testing Trivia questions. You know, I have people who test these questions and give feedback and test and check and all that stuff. It’s fairly straightforward to fact check something like you say that this is the capital of this. I look it up, OK? Yes, it’s the capital. Oh, well, guess what? It actually has two capitals. Yeah. Well, I didn’t look that up. I just made sure that this was a capital. Right. So that’s that’s hard to test because you kind of got to turn it around. You got to look at it in reverse. So that’s that was a part of that, too. Like, you know, by asking about a Sonny Rollins song, there probably aren’t any other Sonny Rollins songs that he wrote that are anadromous. Yeah, but I don’t want to have to go and look at his whole catalog. Yeah. Because surely, like, don’t ever take anything for granted as soon as you make that assumption. He couldn’t possibly have named another song. Well, guess what? He did one other. I don’t know that, but I’m just saying it comes up a lot. Yeah. So so adding that like country in Africa part and also just makes it interesting, too. Oh, I have a feeling a lot of people have heard of that song because it’s fairly well known JOUS song, but they didn’t know. Oh, that’s actually Nigeria backwards.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: Got it. Well, OK, so another one from this week is, I think, an example of a question that’s about as straightforward as they get. But I think it was asked in a in an interesting way. So the question was, an individual named Naftali Bennett ascended to his current position on June 13th, 2021, succeeding Hoom. And, of course, the correct answer is Benjamin Netanyahu. But it’s more fun to get that answer that way rather than another much easier way you could have put it than like who was the Israeli prime minister on June 12th, 2021. Can you recall what you were how that question came about?

S2: Yeah. So that question came about. So that’s pretty much a straightforward current events question. Right. And so I’d like to have a few of those just to reward people who are kind of paying attention to the news. But that’s a two step question, which sometimes can kind of be a minefield because you said, oh, I know step one, here’s the answer. But it’s a two step question you have to recognize. I mean, the second step is much easier than the first, really. But but the key to that question really is recognizing the name Naftali Bennett, right? Yeah. Yeah, yeah. If you know who that is, the you know, the answer almost surely. Right. There’s not a lot of people that know Naftali Bennett but don’t know who he succeeded. Yeah. But that’s kind of the wrinkle to the question. I don’t want you to just know Israel. I don’t want you to just know Benjamin Netanyahu. I want you to be able to connect all those things together. Yeah. And only by doing all those things can you arrive at the right answer. So it’s more of like a garden path than a just a like a hit.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: I wonder, could you share a couple of questions that you were particularly proud of? Do you have any in mind?

S2: Well, let’s see. So one of the things that I we talked about earlier about kind of like the cannon. Right. And and like there is kind of a such a thing, like there’s all different sorts of Trivia competitions. And so the cannon is pretty broad, but there still is kind of a set of questions that you really see more than others. And so I enjoy questions that kind of step outside that that canon, if you will. And they often tend to reveal themselves in LearnedLeague in the sense that they are questions that the general population would do just as well, or if not better than the LearnedLeague population, for example, on this question. Was inspired by I think this was a segment unlike Jay Leno on The Tonight Show and Jay Leno was hosting where he or somebody would go out. But I have a vague memory of it, so I’m not going to describe it correctly. But they would go out into like some public plaza and ask people, like, really simple questions and they’d get it wrong. Just to kind of make fun of how dumb people are as kind of a mean sketch. Really? Yeah. Yeah. Well, I was inspired by something similar to that. It might have been a YouTube video or something similarly mean spirited, really. But I remember them and it was a guy who was asking these two teenage girls, like who was president before Donald Trump or something like something really simple. And they didn’t know it, you know? Ha, ha, ha, ha. Yeah. And then but then they he showed them a photo of these two young women. And can you name these two young women? They instantly. Yeah. Yeah. Dixie and Charlie Jamelia. Right. So so I thought, oh, that’s a good that’s a good Trivia question, because that’s like like in some segments of the population, that is could not be more pervasive. Right. That’s it for those two girls in that video. That’s the easiest question. That was stupidly easy. Right. But for for LearnedLeague, it’s not. Yeah. And so so that was that’s fun to kind of ask questions that like you’re not going to see this. I mean, I’m not saying you’ll never see it.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

S2: Competitions, there’s all sorts of stuff. And they’re all great. But. But I just like that because it’s kind of like a taste of something different.

S1: Yeah. You know, I’m I promise you, I’m not one of these people who remembers how I did. I couldn’t even tell you. You know, it leaves my head the minute I hit submit. But I remember just like not even knowing what on earth that was like, I was just clueless about that question. I certainly did not get it right because I had no context. But so, yeah, that really makes sense to me, whereas that is something a gigantic percentage of the population would think was the most obvious thing in the world. Right?

S2: Right. Yeah. So that’s so that’s one type of question that I that I like. We’re kind of producing. Another one is the type of question that and this is this is a little bit ego involved in this and also delusion, but about a question where like I write it, I’ve put it together. And I think, you know what? I don’t think this question is ever been asked. Well, I don’t think anyone has ever formed this kind of question. You know, like, yeah, maybe a recent example would be something like. Well, it was a question yesterday where I gave three terms, foreign terms for dishes that were basically essentially meatloaf. Yeah. And so like these these three dishes could be translated to the name of what artist? And that actually probably has been asked before. But but I like that. Like, oh, this is kind of a fun twist on this or another one. Here’s another one. This is kind of a this is a different angle, which is a question that like is really, really easy if you get what’s being asked. Mm hmm. But you have to get what’s being asked. Yeah. And that’s kind of a not I’m trying to come up with a novel way of asking it. And so there is a question about the key phrase was mustachioed Salana and. I mean, that’s all you really need to know and the question to know the answer, because a Salata. Well, there are different slaloms, but a potato. Is one Salata some. So it’s Mr. Potato Head. Yeah. So that’s just kind of a way to kind of craft to come in from the reverse angle of Mr. Potato Head.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: Yeah. And again, I swear, I don’t think I remember questions from one day to the next. But as you’re given these questions, I’m like, yeah, I didn’t get that one either. And when you ask the Shayne Bushfield, thank you so much for sharing the secrets of LearnedLeague.

S2: Yeah, I had a great time. Thanks for asking me on. I really enjoyed it.

S3: June, that was a great interview, I learned so much from that, but before we get to talking about, I guess, the substance of it, I have to ask your LearnedLeague player, this is your first time talking to its host and founder. Was he what you thought he’d be like? What is your relationship to him as a player of the game?

S1: So yes and no. As far as your question about whether he was as I thought he would be. Yes. In that he was a really fun guy to chat with. He brings a lot of work and fun to his questions, and that shone through. And he was also pretty careful with his answers, just as he is with his questions. And he seemed like a very happy guy. I’m projecting, of course, I don’t know him in real life, but he set up a good business in a field that he’s super into. In many ways, he’s living the creative person’s dream. And judging from his enthusiasm, he seems to be enjoying himself. There’s only one thing that surprised me, though, in his emails. He is incredibly formal. He’s my only regular emailer who always addresses me as PMS Thomas. But on Zoom, he had the friendly demeanor that you’d expect from a Midwesterner who’s been transplanted to the Pacific Northwest. So he’s not as formalises in his emails.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S3: He wasn’t in a top hat and tails.

S1: No one. No, no monocle.

S3: I mean, it’s interesting to think about the personality of a quizmaster and how that shapes the Trivia itself. Right? Like I used to play that game. You don’t know Jack, which is super snarky and I think now lives on as a kind of app thing that you can do at parties. Or, of course, we think of Alex Trebek, who had this kind of steady, avuncular wisdom that was laced through with a bit of Canadian frostiness. And I don’t know that we think of Trivia as a personal art form, but it sounds like Shane’s work is very personal. Most of it’s just him.

S1: Yeah, that was really surprising to me because there are a lot of questions he has written, literally thousands of them at this point. And given that this is a pretty successful business, I should note that after your rookie season, which is on the house, you have to pay to play. And the basic fee is thirty dollars a year. Though I understand that many people choose to pay more. So obviously he could pay people to write questions, but he clearly really enjoys it. And having well crafted questions is also clearly very important to him.

S3: And boy, does he work hard at that craft. I mean, I was whoa. I was surprised by how much work goes into the job, I guess, because he’s sort of a one person show. Right. But it’s it’s reads books. Then they become notes, then they become drafts. Then he has fact checkers. It’s actually not that different from writing a book, I guess.

S1: Oh, that’s such a good point of comparison. And now I’m kind of envious that he begins with the answer and works backwards so he knows where he’s going. I met you. I am just starting to research a book, and I’m already worried that I will get so lost in these little fascinating side journeys that I’m taking. I just like worried that I’ll never come back. But he always has a place to go back to.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S3: Yeah, totally. I mean, I’ll warn you, June, there are parts of my book that are like I read an entire dissertation and got one paragraph. Oh, so, you know, it’s going to happen. It’s going to happen. You’re just going to have to make a piece of it, I guess. I mean, I feel like another way in which his job isn’t that different from what we think of as traditional, quote, art, unquote, is his relationship to difficulty. You know, anything you make creatively for an audience, you’re you think at some point about how difficult it is for your audience to get or to understand. And and sometimes difficulty is a good thing. Sometimes it’s an important part of the process, because that little bit of work that people have to do can be actually pleasurable.

S1: Yeah. It’s all about, you know, providing the right product to your audience. And before I talk to him, I’d read that his goal was for about 50 percent of contestants to get each question right, which of course, means about 50 percent get it wrong. And I didn’t really understand why. But now I get how difficulty plays into contestants enjoyment of the game if the questions are too hard. That’s just a bummer. But if they’re too easy, every game would just end in a draw with everyone getting maximum points. And one of the things that we didn’t really get into was the fact that the LearnedLeague works like European soccer. Like at the end of every season, a certain number of players get promoted to a higher league or higher rundell and a certain number get relegated to the next one down. And it really feels good when you find your Rundell, where you’re up against people with a kind of similar level of Trivia knowledge, where you’re not always just being slaughtered every day or you’re not too comfortably, you know, leading the pack. But in the top leagues, there’s very little difference between players. The Trivia upset. Civs know all the answers because they spend their whole lives poring over reference books, just like Shayne, Thorsten does. And so there really isn’t an easy solution to that problem. So I’m glad to be in my very decent but not at the very top Rundell.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S3: Right. I mean, it also sounds like part of this process is to defeat Google. Right. Because if you think about it, if you’re doing it at home, you know, you can go in search online to find the answer. But for example, when you were reading that one about the Sonny Rollins tune that Miles Davis had done. I mean, Google’s not going to really help you with.

S1: Well, but that is something that’s very important. And we have to really stress that every day. You’re absolutely on, Your Honor. It’s only on your honor. But you cannot cheat every day. You when you kind of submit your entries, you say, I didn’t cheat today. There are only two rules of LearnedLeague is that you won’t cheat and you won’t forfeit. Now, I have forfeited because some times I’ve just had stuff going on are some days I’ve just forgotten, like I’ve got no excuse. But you can’t cheat, so it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter how easy it is to Google. You can’t Google.

S3: I’m also curious about what you made of his answer about diversity, because I thought you brought up an interesting point. Diversity isn’t just about making sure that, you know, their referrals aren’t all says that white men. Right. It’s also about the kinds of questions he asks, as in any creative endeavor. Diversity is also a question of content.

S1: Oh, my God. Yes, that was fascinating. And here I actually have to give a shout out to Dan Coats again. He’s mentioned twice in this show. No, don’t encourage him. I know. And he because he invited me to the league and when he told me about it, he did not explicitly say, I don’t want to just keep referring this white guys. But I have since realized that that he was probably doing his bit to like reorder the league’s demographic. So good work done. But I have certainly noticed that some of the questions were doing what Shayne very nicely called stretching the Trivia canon. On the day we’re taping this, there was a question about a Cardassian, and that is another part of stretching that feels important. And it also enrages me because once again, I got that question wrong.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S3: Did you answer it like Todd Kardashian or something? Because you have no idea what the names are.

S1: Yeah, more or less. More or less.

S3: So, June, I got to ask, you’re clearly a dedicated Trivia Maister. I used to do pub Trivia a little bit when I lived in Minneapolis. It was actually Pizza Rio Trivia. It was in a pizzeria, but where all the waiters dressed up like superheroes. That’s a story for another day. Sure is. I take it you are far more serious about this than I ever was. You do a daily. Right. What is it that makes Trivia so special for you? What is the particular joy of playing it, even when, as you readily admit, you frequently don’t know the answer?

S1: I know I’m definitely not much of a Trivia person. I don’t watch Jeopardy or any other TV quiz shows, although actually I do when I’m in England. For some reason, I’ve never, ever been a regular pub quiz or bar Trivia or certainly not Pizzeria Trivia person. Though I have subbed in from time to time, but I’ve probably done that kind of thing fewer than five times in my life. But I do enjoy LearnedLeague. And actually, in this very specific case, there’s a social aspect to it. I’m in a select channel with some people who play, and it’s just kind of fun to have a no like not even low stakes, but no stakes thing to just make small talk about, like to whine about tricky questions or missed answers or annoying opponents whose defensive strategy is just offensive. But I just want to stress that we do have a strict rule about how you can’t talk about questions until the next day. But I mean, I just think this is the general this sweet spot, right. Like I am not the expert on anything except perhaps dentistry. I you know, I just know a bit about a lot of things, and that’s actually pretty good for Trivia. You must have been pretty good at the pizzeria Trivia. Right.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S3: Can I tell you the the my shining achievement, a pizza, your Trivia? Yeah. So there was one time where we had to they gave us the tagline and we had to figure out the movie. Mm hmm. And the tagline was something like. It was the weekend. They didn’t play golf. That’s the tagline. Hmm. And we’re all staring at each other. And I just said, I don’t know, fuck it. Just write Deliverance. And it was Deliverance. Oh, we got it right. We were the only team that got it right. And I don’t know how that happened. It was like so that felt amazing. But the other thing that feels amazing, I feel like it’s when there’s some sort of, you know, maybe more peculiar little bit of something that you’re not expecting to come up as a question that comes up. So, for example, I’m sure if it’s a dentistry question, you’re like, how many people my Rundell know about dentistry or you’ve traveled extensively in Japan many, many times. I’m sure if if something comes up like that, it’s like a little dopamine burst, right.

S1: Well, you know, the worst is when they they ask about English things, just because if you from there, they’re generally easy peasy lemon squeezy. But that’s the thing. Like you feel the pain, you feel the pain of the ones you missed. I don’t remember any questions that I got. Right. But I remember all the ones. Well, many of the ones that I stupidly messed up. I got a dentistry question wrong. And it was a super basic one. I, like I said, and a dentist when the answer was periodontist. And needless to say, I have both of those specialists in my life. And I just seen the periodontist like the day before or something, and it was just headed. So just because, you know, it doesn’t mean you always get it right. I do think like. But you’re right, though, that there are certain I’m I’m really not a Trivia maven, but like I did have a pretty classical education, you know, with five years of Latin and various foreign languages. I know absolutely nothing about science, because in in Britain, we specialize early. But like that’s what that was built for.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S3: Right. But it does go back to that thing of, you know, just in every creative pursuit, you know, it’s healthy to think about the canon and how you are stretching it and how you are challenging it. I happen I happen to be someone who doesn’t think we should, like, do away with all canons necessarily. Right. But we do you know, we need to stretch them. We need to diversify them. We need to challenge the rules for getting for getting into them. Right. You know, these are socially constructed things and we decide to socially construct some new shit.

S1: Amen. And it’s very important. And I give great praise to Shayne Thorsten for really putting in some time there. They’re amazing.

S3: Well, we hope you’ve enjoyed the show. If you have remember to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, then you’ll never miss an episode. And now let me tell you one last time how awesome a slate plus membership is. Slate plus members get benefits like zero ads on any Slate podcast, full access to all the articles on Slate dot com. Bonus episodes of shows like Slow Burn and Big Mooed Little Move. But I also hope you might like to support the work we do right here on working. It’s only one dollar for the first month. To learn more, go to Slate dot com slash working class.

S1: Thank you so much to this week’s guest, Shayne Bushfield, a.k.a. Thorstein Air Integrity. And thanks, as always, to our splendid producer, Cameron Drewes. We’ll be back next week with Isaac’s interview with Morgan Rose, the music supervisor for Space Jam A New Legacy. Until then, get back to work. Sleepless listeners, you’re the best. Thank you for supporting our work. And here are some questions that I asked Shayne just for you. Are there paths you’ve taken with LearnedLeague that you have regretted, for example? There are 18 categories of questions that you keep track of, you know, to kind of see how people have done. Have those 18 categories changed? Do you wish that you’d chosen different categories to say anything like that?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: Well, for the categories I’ve I’ve thought about that in the past, how I would do it differently if I were doing it over again. I remember when I created those. So originally there were 20 minutes ago. And so I’ve gotten rid of two, but I got rid of them fairly early. I think the categories were created. It was a single digit season, so that’s how long ago it was. And it wasn’t that long that we had 20 categories, but two of the categories were technology and opera. And both of those, like I kind of realized fairly quickly, you know, there’s not enough for these to be their own categories. So I think I merged technology into science. All the ones that had been categorized as technology and opera, of course, went into classical music. And so doing it over again, there’s no chance I would do it exactly the same. But on the other hand. To be honest, it’s not super important. Yeah. Like it’s just it’s just the fact that there are categories is what’s important, because they’re never going to be precise. You know, like I said before, some of them fit in more than one. A lot of them a lot of people probably think our miscategorized. But, you know, you get enough data in that kind of gets all smoothed out. Hmm. You know, a lot of the regrets that I might have around LearnedLeague are more technical than like structural. And when I say technical, I mean strictly like website stuff. Mm hmm. And that’s really just because a lot of the stuff I’ve created, the LearnedLeague website, I didn’t really know what I was doing when I did it. And I know more now. Yeah. Yeah. Which isn’t to say that I know what I’m doing now, but I know more. So I could have done things better had I known at the beginning. But now it’s way too late to do that.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: OK, last question. Do you watch Jeopardy? Do you have a view on the recent host mess? Who would you like to host the show?

S2: OK, so. So the answer to your first question is that, no, I actually don’t watch. Oh, wow. I haven’t seen I that’s not anything against. No, not for any means. No, Jeopardy. So let’s just put it out there. The Jeopardy is the most important Trivia property that exists in this country. Without a doubt. So everyone who has a job in Trivia like I do, which is a ton of us, but there are we are a huge amount of debt and gratitude we owe to Jeopardy. So my not watching the show is by no means any reflection of my opinion of the show. It’s superimportant. So so to your second question, that question. That’s a really interesting question. It’s like a super hot topic of conversation in the Trivia world, even outside the Trivia world. It’s fascinating to kind of observe how this has gone down and frankly, kind of depressing, because what I say, you know, like this is this is the crown jewel of Trivia. And like these people are making it up, you know, and like it’s hard to watch. It’s painful. Yeah, but who should be the next host? My answer to that is, unfortunately, totally, totally biased, because one of the candidates is like actually a fairly close friend of mine. And I. So I would love to see him get the job. And that would just make me very happy to see him get the job. Totally nonobjective opinion. So.

S1: And is that

S2: right? It’s Ken.

S1: Ken Jennings.

S2: Yeah. Plus he’s, you know, super qualified.

S1: Absolutely.

S2: And like everyone knows him.

S1: Yeah. Yeah.

S2: I just I think he’s a natural fit. And I don’t know why they’ve taken so long to name him the permanent host. But that’s not my decision to make.

S1: All right, Slate plus listeners. That’s the end of this week’s show. See you next week.

S2: So.