College quizbowl is a game you don’t know, played by people you don’t know, who know lots of things you don’t know (sorry). I’m not talking about the high school game; if you’re like most people, you know the social implications that the words “high school quizbowl” supposedly carry. This is the college version, which you’ve likely never heard about other than maybe, maybe back in 2013 when it came out that a guy on Harvard’s team cheated at it. And although that was a big deal to me personally, it was long enough ago that you no longer care.
I want you to care. So we’re going to take a trip. It’s best if you follow behind me, like Dante trailing Virgil through the Inferno. The place we’re going—the shadowy underworld of a game designed to expose the ignorance of its players—is sort of like hell. But you wouldn’t know it from our infrequent press coverage, with ledes that usually take a cutesy question-and-answer approach: “Question: What’s the fast-paced game of buzzer speed and knowledge? Answer: quizbowl!” As far as portals to the underworld go, that one is essentially an escalator for cartoon cats.
No, Dante had it right: You need someone who knows, who’s been there, to take you. You need a Virgil. (And not the one who charges you $30 for a signed photo.) That’s me. I played for seven years—2006 to 2013, first as an undergrad, then as a law student—for the University of Minnesota, and ended up winning a national championship that Harvard infamously forfeited. I’ve experienced this hell firsthand: the Hans Memling version, not the Looney Tunes one. If that means something to you, you’re definitely ready to go. If not, don’t worry—just stay behind me.
First, the basics. Our season mirrors the academic year, starting in early September and continuing through March. Most of our tournaments are independent, regional events that crown a champion only for themselves, sort of like PGA Tour events. At a typical tournament, teams will play 10 to 15 matches against teams from around the area, so a tourney in Chicago might draw teams from Minneapolis, Ann Arbor, St. Louis, and Columbus, for example. The year culminates in early spring with our two national championships, which have slightly different formats.
A typical quizbowl match consists of 20 “tossup” questions on the core subjects of literature, history, science, painting, classical music, religion, mythology, philosophy, the social sciences, geography, and current events. Tossups are long: somewhere between six and 10 lines of specific information unambiguously referring to one answer (we call each piece of info a “clue”), arranged in order from obscure to straightforward. A tossup with the answer “Sigmund Freud,” for example, might start with a clue conveying a specific anecdote from one of Freud’s more obscure essays, and might end by telling you that it’s looking for the person who wrote The Interpretation of Dreams and created the concepts of ego, superego, and id; in between, there would be several clues describing specific Freudian concepts and works.
In any given game, two teams, consisting of between one and four members each (yes, you can conceivably take on a team of four people solo, which I’ve done myself, but we’ll get to that) attempt to be the first to answer tossups correctly. Any player can trigger the buzzer—which locks out all other competitors—at any time to interrupt the question and give an answer. Players can’t confer with their teammates on tossups; the mark of a good team is the ability to interrupt questions across a wide range of categories early on, during the difficult clues, and still answer correctly.
The reward for a correct tossup is 10 points and a bonus question, which contains three short prompts requiring three distinct but related answers. (Whereas a tossup might contain eight lines asking you to name Moby-Dick, a bonus part might straight-up ask, “In what novel by Herman Melville does Captain Ahab obsessively hunt a white whale?”) Bonuses probe knowledge of the same core subjects as tossups, but the bonus topic is independent from the tossup topic. (Converting a tossup on British literature and receiving a bonus on theoretical physics is a typical experience.) Up to 30 points—10 per part—are at stake in each bonus, and teammates work together to try to answer each part.
(You can download a full game round from one of our most difficult and prestigious tournaments, and see many examples of tossups and bonuses, here.)
The penalty for an incorrect interrupting buzz is a five-point deduction (a “neg”), after which the whole opposing team gets to hear the rest of the tossup (and receive a bonus, if one of them answers it correctly at the end, which they almost always do). You’re constantly weighing the reward of buzzing in first against the risk of negging and gift-wrapping the rest of the tossup—and the corresponding bonus—for the other team.
That’s all there is to the game, and it sounds pretty simple, but that simplicity is diabolical. A tossup never tries to deceive you. It doesn’t contain cutesy puns or inconsequential facts. It just tells you specific, unambiguous, important information about the answer, from difficult to easy, until someone knows what the answer is.
Which means the only thing standing between you and the correct answer is your own lack of knowledge. Checking each clue against the insufficient information in your brain is like walking into the kitchen, opening up the refrigerator again, and finding that there’s still nothing you want to eat in there. Even when you answer a tossup correctly, you can’t be satisfied, because you’re already onto the next question, and the answer is again tantalizingly beyond your reach. Here’s me doing some mid-tossup agonizing with two of my teammates (I’m on the left).
So who else enjoys this sort of thing?
Demographically, that’s a pretty easy question to answer. A majority of us are high achievers at Ivy, Ivy-peer, or large state universities. Many players are graduate or professional students; in quizbowl, unlike college sports, you’re eligible as long as you’re in any degree-granting program. A disproportionately high number of us are Jewish, Asian, or gay; those of us who aren’t, including me, are counterexamples to “Young’s Law,” which states that any player is at least one of the three. Although the gender balance of the game is trending in the right direction, at some tournaments, the ratio might still be 15 to one.
Despite our demographic similarities, our paths through academia and dilettantish interests vary wildly. We have M.D./Ph.D. candidates who dominate biology and chemistry, but also know everything about Norse mythology. We have nuclear physicists in training who love Mark Twain and Francis Poulenc. We have slacker savants who routinely beat grad students in their areas of expertise. And despite what you might think, most of us aren’t stereotypical nerds. If you’re a top quizbowl player, you probably haven’t listened to that much Weird Al since you were in seventh grade, you probably don’t have Doritos remnants on your clothing at this very moment, and you probably have lots of normal interests to supplement a handful of weird obsessions.
If you’re one of us, you can hop onto our IRC chatroom anytime and find a couple dozen veterans shooting the shit, scrimmaging on old question sets, or talking smack. After every tournament, you’ll probably take to our message board to dissect the questions and offer lengthy critiques to the writers and editors who produced them. You’ll likely split hotel rooms during tournaments, visit your buddies around the country when you travel for other reasons, and generally reap the benefits of having dozens of super-smart friends all over the place.
Despite the relative normality of most quizbowlers, a lot of our lore concerns players—often on the very fringes of the game—who were legendarily weird. One player during my time, renowned for embellishing every story to the greatest extent possible, told his teammates that he had a foot condition shared by only two other people in the world; that he would pore over four books at once, with all four laid out on a table, reading one page of each, then turning all four pages; that he had dated a French lingerie model and a Swedish hand model; and that he was one of the greatest ancient Middle Eastern calligraphers in the world. He told only one story that his teammates believed: that he needed no hair product because his scalp produced a naturally rich oil.
Another—who was so obsessed with appearing to be well-read that he once claimed to be “in the middle of” reading noted 50-line poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn”—was approached by a group of players who asked him if he’d read The Palm Frond by Thaddeus Nwajwa, the famous Nigerian author. “Of course,” he responded. Thaddeus Nwajwa was not real.
According to legend, a third player, when his girlfriend asked him during sex what he was thinking, replied, “OF ROME!”
When curious rivals Googled the online handle of another player—who wandered into the far outer rings of our circle and stayed just long enough to vehemently insist that biblically themed questions should be categorized as “pop culture”—they found that he (or someone else with the same distinctive username) had repeatedly tried to edit himself into his university’s “notable alumni” section on Wikipedia; posted a paragraphs-long screed about the superiority of Carl’s Jr.’s spicy ketchup to Hardee’s regular variety, replete with tales of driving across Missouri to acquire it; and commented extensively on the efficacy of a human pheromone blend known as “WAGG” (“What A Great Guy”).
But to the outsider, even those of us whose weirdness is not the stuff of legend must seem pretty strange. Some of us are ideological crusaders who advance our visions of the game’s future with religious zeal. Some of us fixate on statistics and rankings and our own place in the hierarchy. Some of us are convinced that other players or question writers have it out for them. Some of us are incorrigible jokesters—when the well-meaning (and pre-scandal) Harvard club president responded to his teammates’ breaches of in-game etiquette by circulating the somewhat heavy-handed Eight Rules of Harvard Quizbowl, the University of Maryland’s Charles Meigs responded on the Harvard listserv with a ruthless parody that included the suggestion that during a hypothetical match, Marylanders should announce their intent to score as many points on the next tossup question “as the percentage of chance that any member of the losing team will have sexual intercourse in the next 25 years,” then proceed to get zero points on purpose.
Individual quirks aside, we all share the same strange obsession with condensing the true greatness of the things that quizbowl asks about—the works of literature, art, and music themselves—into the most essential, bloodless, utilitarian form possible. It’s how we digest so much information and turn it into something useful in-game. I once heard the story of a competitor who, as a middle schooler, spent an exasperatingly boring class period watching the girl sitting next to him transform a candy wrapper into a tiny, intricate paper crane. At the end of the class, she joyfully presented it to him; he turned it over in his hand and ate it. “I’ll never forget the look of absolute horror on her face,” he told me. “The crane was beautiful, and it was impossible for me not to destroy it.” That’s really what we do: chew up everything amazing and worthwhile and beautiful about this world, just so we can spit it right back out.
The best active college quizbowl player is Matt Bollinger. After a meteoric rise to the top of the competitive D.C. high school circuit, he emerged as a dominant force as an undergrad at the University of Virginia, which he led to national titles in 2012 and 2014. After he enrolled in a one-year program to earn a Masters in Business at his alma mater, UVA followed a productive regular season with a win at one of our two 2015 national championships, bringing his total to four titles in five years. He’s in the middle in the pic above, flanked by teammates Evan Adams (left) and Tommy Casalaspi in 2014, the year they won the game’s three most prestigious tournaments.
Recently, Bollinger was reminiscing to me about his toughest match in high school, against his biggest rival. The turning point was a tossup on Sigmund Freud; he buzzed in and got it around the time he heard the phrase “oceanic feeling.” His rival, disgusted with himself for failing to buzz, said something like, “Of course it was Freud! I just thought it couldn’t be. I wish there was something that would just tell you when to guess!”
The moderator’s response: “Well, yeah, to buzz or not to buzz. Isn’t that all quizbowl is?”
The question is exactly right, and it’s not even a tautology. Unless your strategy is to buzz only when you’re 100 percent sure, knowing lots of things is only the first step. You also have to master your instincts to be aggressive or wait, to trust or distrust your gut, to lean on your teammates or take the initiative. It’s an impossible balancing act that leaves all of us, even masters of the game like Matt, second-guessing after every loss.
Most quizbowlers love sports, or at least share its competitive language, so it’s no surprise where Matt turns for an analogy. “You listen to spot-up shooters in basketball talk about their game, and they always talk about taking time to get into a rhythm with their shot,” he says. “In quizbowl, you have to get into a rhythm where you’re buzzing aggressively at the right times and holding back otherwise. But it’s difficult, because in our game, the court changes, too.”
Each tossup is a new battleground. And with subtle editorial differences, each tournament has its own feel—even the very best players need time to adjust. “Athletes tell themselves they’ll win because they’ve prepared and been there a million times, and I try to do the same,” Matt says. “But in those first few rounds, there’s the lurking suspicion that this tournament set is different, that maybe I haven’t exactly been there before.”
Eventually—hopefully after you get your bearings—you have to play one of the other really good teams. “In those big matches, when you get a question wrong, it stings,” Matt says. “You’ve lost your team points, you’ve locked out your teammates, and for the 20 seconds left as the moderator reads the remainder of the tossup, you have to sit back, in silence, deciding whether your buzz just lost your team the title.”
In times like that, it helps to have teammates who trust you. Matt describes how he and his teammates have studied, strategized, and even played board games together to prepare for big tournaments. But the true test of great teams is their reaction to adversity. Matt remembers a particular instance when his incorrect guess of “Ke$ha” on a pop-culture question jeopardized his team’s chances at a 2014 title. “My teammates Evan and Tommy were totally supportive; no groans, no visible frustration, some chuckles but no scoffs,” he says. “They gave me shit about my stupid, stupid move the rest of the day, and it kept things light.”
Teammates are crucial, because this game can be played well but never mastered. By stacking clues that all point uniquely to the same answer, each question is configured to remind you of how much better you could be, of how much you don’t know—even if you have the preposterous knowledge base of a four-time national champion. Your only defense against your vast ignorance is to find three other people whose collective wisdom fills some of the void.
Ke$ha never came up during my own road to a national championship, but things still got pretty weird.
As I mentioned, quizbowl actually has two national championship tournaments each year, both in early spring. The first, usually in late March or early April, is the Intercollegiate Championship Tournament (ICT), which is written and hosted by National Academic Quiz Tournaments (NAQT), the biggest company in the quizbowl world. That’s the championship my team won when Harvard was stripped of their title. The second, ACF Nationals, is thought of as the players’ championship. It’s edited by a group of students or recent graduates, the questions are longer and have fewer pop culture elements, and it’s generally seen as more “purist.” (This year, Bollinger’s University of Virginia squad won the ICT, and the University of Pennsylvania took Nationals.)
Although there are many regular-season tournaments throughout the year, these two championships are what we play for. Winning them requires a lot of skill, nearly as much luck, and great teammates. My own team’s best shot to win the ACF title came in 2010. Quizbowl is often dominated by graduate students, but all four of us on that year’s Minnesota squad—Brendan Byrne, Rob Carson, Gautam Kandlikar, and me—were undergrads. We had already hoisted the trophy as the top undergrad team at ICT a few weeks earlier; here’s us at the awards ceremony. (Left to right: Rob, Gautam, me, Brendan, and NAQT President R. Robert Hentzel.)
But we were aiming higher than top undergrad billing at ACF Nationals. Although many contenders are made up of players of different ages from around the country, all four of us had graduated from Minneapolis-area high schools in 2006 or 2007. And although conventional quizbowl wisdom holds that success at the highest levels of difficulty requires intense specialization, our strength was that each of us had the ability to compete for every question against any team. We were an unusual contender for the overall title, but we believed we could win.
In our way was a ridiculously stacked field. All-time greats Mike Sorice, Jerry Vinokurov, and Eric Mukherjee hoped to bring home their first titles. And all the challengers looked up at Stanford and Chicago, led respectively by the game’s two most accomplished players, Andrew Yaphe and Seth Teitler, both playing their final collegiate tournament.
Seth—an astrophysics Ph.D. who won eight titles in a playing career that spanned from 1999 to 2010—learned the game from the inside out. He carefully figured out its boundaries and, like a craftsman constructing a ship inside a bottle, perfected his own game within them. He’s like Tim Duncan: his game is technical, fundamentally sound, and efficient (his motto is “apply pressure”), though his stoic demeanor belies his fiery competitiveness. (But despite what you may have read on Spanish Wikipedia, he did not invent the bagel dog.)
Andrew also won eight titles (and forewent playing to serve as the central editor of many more national championship tournaments) in a long career as an English Ph.D. candidate and law student. But you don’t get the feeling that he plays quizbowl within its boundaries; instead, like the greatest of greats in all ventures, his talent seems to spill out of the confines of the game. If quizbowl has a Michael Jordan, it’s Andrew Yaphe. (For now, Matt Bollinger seems to be the consensus third-best player of all time, but he could easily ascend higher if he continues accumulating degrees and titles. Which makes him LeBron, I guess.)
When I say that Andrew and Seth are quizbowl’s greatest players, it means that they know so much about academic topics—literature, history, science, painting, classical music, religion, mythology, philosophy, the social sciences—and can recall it all at a moment’s notice, under stress, in competition, when the result of the entire tournament depends on it. It means they are calm and strategic and work well with teammates to get the right answers on bonuses.
But you really need to see them in action to understand how truly great they are; better yet, you need to play against them. The playoff phase of a national tournament pits all the best teams against each other in a round robin, with the top two teams emerging to play a final. After all the other games at 2010 Nationals shook out, we had to beat Seth’s Chicago squad for the chance to face Andrew’s Stanford team in the final. In other words: beat the Spurs for a shot at the Bulls.
I can’t do justice to the excitement of quizbowl, and I’m not convinced that any game recap can. I can’t tell you what it’s like sitting there, adrenaline pumping, craning your neck to hear every word of the tossup, sifting through that endless pile of facts in your head, waiting for that one clue you know, finger ready to trigger the buzzer, performing that impossible calculus—buzz or wait, buzz or wait—over and over, knowing that the team sitting across from you is Chicago, that’s Seth Teitler, this is his last tournament, you have to beat him, and you think you can, and that electrifies and terrifies you. It doesn’t translate.
We won. We faced Stanford in the final, in an auditorium, with the questions read by fellow quizbowl legend Zeke Berdichevsky (a former Michigan player, multiple-time champion, and the foremost rival of Yaphe during his early days). Most of our games take place in classrooms in front of zero spectators. But here, the words echoed around the crowded room. “Immanent Will.” That was a tossup on a Thomas Hardy poem, and there it went. Yaphe got it. That happened a lot at the beginning of the game, and suddenly we were down 195 to nothing. But we still believed, or at least we must have, because we started getting tossups. Then it seemed like we were getting every tossup. Then we were winning. Then the game ended, and we thought we’d won. But Stanford protested that one of the answers we had given was incorrect; after consulting various computer scientists on the distinguishing features of certain data structures, the tournament editors agreed and revoked thirty of our points, and we lost.
It was devastating. Everything was building to this. It was our last tournament together. We never stopped believing. We came back from that huge halftime deficit. This is the point in the story where we should win!
I guess I thought of everything in my life like that: a story with a plot, with its comfortable notions of beginning, middle, and end. It’s so simple, it’s hard not to think of everything that way. It’s how our brains work; it’s how the game works. But even though quizbowl requires condensing every aspect of human endeavor into a comfortable format, life doesn’t.
I set out to tell you what we play for. In one sense, we play for each question, each game, each tournament, and each title, like the one that slipped away in 2010. But completing a narrative arc is not what makes this game resonate so strongly with us. We also play for a feeling that’s outside of time: endless, seamless questions washing over us like water flowing over a dam, able to be cupped in the hand briefly but impossible to contain.
And then, in 2013, the whole Harvard fiasco came to light.
To summarize: Andy Watkins, a player on Harvard’s erstwhile 2010 and 2011 ICT-winning teams, used an internet loophole to gain access to the question sets before the competitions. He claimed that he never actually read the questions; he chalked up his multiple views of the webpage with the question content—always before the competitions he was playing, never after—to his need for a “tiny little transgressive thrill.”
I know the guy. I’ve met and competed against him many times. We’ve worked together; I edited two high-profile tournaments with him, as recently as a month before the news broke. He cheated. Even if he never looked at that question information—which makes no sense, but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt—he cheated. Accessing question content before a tournament, even if you’re just closing your eyes and basking in the transgressive thrill of it all, is cheating, just like stealing the answer key to the test is cheating, no matter what you do with it.
I was on the team that Harvard appeared to beat in the 2011 championship game. That year’s Minnesota team—Rob, Gautam, Mike Cheyne, and me—overcame the graduation of our best player (Brendan) from the heartbreak 2010 loss to challenge for titles. In retrospect, it should have been recognized at the time for dominating the tournament as few have. We lost only two games, both to Harvard, both by a very small margin; otherwise, we would have gone undefeated, a very rare feat.
Almost immediately after the tournament, rumors began to swirl that Watkins had somehow seen the questions. Some people said that his performance was too good to be believed; others knew of internet loopholes he might’ve exploited. I tried to ignore all the speculation. NAQT eventually conducted an investigation and announced that they’d cleared him of wrongdoing. I figured that was that. It wasn’t. In 2013, the company learned that a second potential exploit existed, checked its server logs, found the improper access, and announced that it was stripping Harvard of several tainted victories, and giving the 2011 title to us.
I first learned that I was a national champion from a Facebook post. Boom! Just like that, my career—our team, our whole program—was vindicated with a title, albeit nearly two years later. I read it, reread it, clicked over to the official announcement to confirm, and started jumping and yelling incomprehensibly. (It’s very likely that more than one “ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE!!!” was in there.) My roommate—a Russian architecture student—eventually came downstairs and asked, with real concern, “Is problem?” That’s how I found out about the biggest thing that’s ever hit quizbowl.
The timing—Harvard was the darling of the 2013 NCAA basketball tournament, and had just emerged from a major cheating scandal—was impeccable for us (and unfortunate for the cheater). I personally did a dozen interviews: the local papers, public radio, the Harvard Crimson, the Boston Globe. A local sports station had me on for most of a half-hour segment.
Within quizbowl, the aftershocks reverberated long after the media coverage ended. A thread sprung up on the quizbowl forums for the specific purpose of allowing people to say “fuck you” to the Harvard guy. People who hadn’t cared about the game in years started rehashing old debates in the comment threads of news articles. Old scars from previous scandals once again became open wounds. Words like “jackass” and “adultery” were flying around like pieces of space garbage in search of the nearest satellite. It was, in short, the most scandalous, awful, hilarious, thrilling, excellent time to be a quizbowler.
My teammates and I—newly minted 2011 champions finally getting a slice of the recognition we deserved—gleefully embarked on a victory tour to the 2013 NAQT championship, taking pictures of our first-place trophy in urinals, by woodpiles, on the road, and in a no-parking zone (the latter, obviously, for the tiny transgressive thrill).
But from an outsider’s perspective, tawdry thrills aside, does any of this really matter? Maybe you read the coverage of the cheating on Sidespin, the gist of which was that there’s no real reason to cheat at quizbowl. Aside from cheap trophies and dog-eared copies of Cat’s Cradle, there are no prizes. Championship teams might get short newspaper write-ups, but no one (except us and our moms) really takes note of who wins. Why cheat? Why care at all?
I think we quizbowlers all believe, deep down, that our game is worth something, even to those who don’t play it. We believe the masses would clamor to see Matt Jackson and Matt Bollinger and Ike Jose and Eric Mukherjee duke it out, if they only knew their skill. We believe that ordinary people could be converted to fans who would gather around to hear tales of the glory days of Zeke and Seth and Andrew, or gossip about quizbowl’s myriad fascinating characters who put the schlubs on Big Brother to shame. We believe that young children should grow up reading William Dean Howells novels under the sheets, dreaming of buzzing on the last tossup of an ACF Nationals final. We believe, in short, that this game that enthralls us as competitors could enthrall spectators as well. Quizbowl means so much to those who play it, to us, that we want it to mean the same to everyone else.
I want you to care about quizbowl, but not like you care about Jeopardy!, a game set up so you can play along. I want you to care about it like you care about basketball or golf, or even professional poker or those kids in the spelling bee: not because you’re pitting yourself against the competitors, but because those competitors are so damn good that you can’t help but respect their talent. I want you to understand the game and root for its champions and boo its villains and laugh at its characters and follow its epic narrative arcs. I may never convince you that this game, and who wins and loses it, should be worth something to you. But I’ll settle for convincing you how much it means to me.
In 2013, I played in my final championship tournament. Alone. I spent my entire career competing alongside all-time greats: Rob, Brendan, Gautam, and Mike. They’re all among the best all-around players of our generation, and possibly ever. We built a championship program together. Even after Brendan graduated in 2010, and Rob and Gautam followed in 2011, Mike and I (with clutch supporting play from some amazing teammates) strung together three Top 10 finishes. But Mike couldn’t make it to the ACF Nationals in 2013, and neither could anyone else from Minnesota.
My original plan was to join my former teammates on the sidelines; my only other option, playing solo, was within the rules but fairly unappealing. Nationals, with its long, purely academic questions, can be draining for any team. Playing alone, with no one to help you shoulder the load, is almost too much. Stare into the void of your own ignorance for too long, and it’ll stare back.
But this was the last time I’d be eligible to play, and I couldn’t miss it. I booked my ticket for JFK and made my way to Columbia University.
I stayed with my friend Michael, another quizbowler enjoying his last hurrah at Nationals, and all weekend long we exchanged our favorite anecdotes. The time Chris tried to drive the Arizona State team to Los Angeles for a tournament that was actually in the Bay Area, because he thought Berkeley was an L.A. suburb. The time we put Charles in the trunk and drove him to Quiznos. The time Marshall yelled at his teammates to GET ON THE ELEVATOR; they didn’t listen, but a terrified Indian family that had just exited the elevator rapidly complied. The time after a big high school tournament when my friend Jon was walking through the airport with a giant quizbowl trophy, and an old lady came up to me and asked what it was for, and I pointed to Jon and said, “See that guy over there? That’s the best male cheerleader in the United States.” The look on her face—first wonder, then disbelief, then disgust—still makes me laugh whenever I think about it.
The games started. Large quizbowl tournaments typically begin with pool play, which takes up an entire Saturday; that year, there were four prelim pools of nine teams each, seeded so that each pool was of comparable quality. The top three finishers in each pool—12 teams in all—would ascend to the championship-eligible playoff bracket for another round robin. Although I had no shot at a title playing solo, as a point of pride, I wanted to make that top bracket.
I’ll spare you the low-stakes drama: I did. I slogged through mentally draining, pressure-packed games against Columbia, Alabama, and NYU—clinching the top bracket in a tiebreaker against a four-person Alabama squad that by all rights should have beaten me—and I thought nothing could be more fatiguing than that. Then, on Sunday morning, I played the other top 11 teams solo.
A tired joke about my other favorite pseudo-intellectual competition—law school—is that it’s a pie-eating contest, and the prize is more pie. Quizbowl is like that, too. If you beat enough good teams to get into the top bracket, you have to play all the good teams. As a one-person squad, I was outgunned. I was out of contention before the game even started, and I knew it. Yet another of this game’s cruelties is that, if you’re good enough at it, you’re painfully aware of when you’ve got no shot to win. The best teams in the country—Yale, Virginia, Penn, Chicago—all took their turns drubbing me. Here’s me losing 460-20 to Yale.
After a while, all that high-level competing (and losing) takes its toll. At the tournament, I heard about an experienced player who had an amusing meltdown when he knew an answer but momentarily forgot the word for it (something every quizbowler fears). The word, the answer to a bonus prompt about the short stories of John Cheever and Raymond Carver, was gazebo. The player tried to confer with his teammates to get to the answer: He knew everything but the word itself. He described a gazebo. “It’s like a pagoda, he told his teammates.” He gesticulated. He yelled. “It’s open, it’s in a park, it’s got columns, and its roof is a hexagon!” His teammates stared back blankly, and the moderator called time and announced the answer. “HOW DO YOU NOT KNOW WHAT A FUCKING GAZEBO IS?” the player thundered.
The tournament got to me as well. My attention waned against the contending teams. I forgot the name of an author I’d read. (Jean Toomer.) I got unreasonably angry over a bad question that probably cost me a game. (It involved Ludwig Wittgenstein.) When it was all over, and I had won a single playoff game and placed twelfth, I found myself talking to Ryan Westbrook, a grizzled quizbowl vet who came within one question of winning ACF Nationals with Michigan in 2006. He asked me how it was playing solo. I told him, without much exaggeration, that I wanted to die. He knew what I meant. Clue after clue, bonus after bonus, the game breaks you down. It asks you to look inside yourself for answers, and you always come up short. You forget gazebo, fucking gazebo.
I once told a friend—I’d previously told her about the trophy in the airport—that maybe I should have picked male cheerleading instead of quizbowl. At least that way, I figured, I’d be totally ripped. “Your brain is ripped,” she said, and laughed at her own joke. And even though there’s something both hilarious and gross about that thought, it’s kind of true. All those mental connections joined together to form a mesh of threads around the knowledge I already had, like muscle fiber wrapping around bone.
But I wonder why I kept doing it. I hated many of the repetitive study techniques that the top players used, and rarely did them. I’ve always been really competitive, sure, but I’ve always had plenty of other outlets for that. And none of them break me down like quizbowl; none of them are half as hellish.
I played, I’m pretty sure, because I loved the game. Not just the matches against particular opponents, but the pure game, the one that pits you against each tossup and each bonus, you against perfection, the one you can never win. I loved it because it could fill up all the time that I never knew how to fill. Other people seem to know where they’re going and how they want to get there: what jobs they want, who they want to be with, where they want to live, what they want to do. For the longest time, I never did. So I played quizbowl. I played because, in my head, the questions merged into an endless stream with an identifiable cadence that I could lose myself in, like a runner lost in the rhythm of his own feet. I played because forever restarting an unconquerable task distracted me from thinking about what I really wanted and not knowing where to begin.
Now I’m done playing. When I think of quizbowl, the first thing I remember won’t be championships lost or won. It’ll be traveling along I-94 to Chicago, playing questions. It’s all one seamless memory now: driving through the night in our university van, tires thrumming on pavement and a laptop screen glowing in the rear-view mirror, passing familiar gas stations and burger joints, cities and exits. Someone was always reading: tossup, bonus, tossup, bonus. The pure game. My friends and I answered those questions until we were some of the greatest competitors the game had ever seen. We stopped countless times, mostly so Rob could empty his bladder of whatever vile new energy drink he’d found this time. But in this memory, the game never stops. There are no teams, no matches, no points—just endless questions and the open road.
Lead image by Jim Cooke. All photos provided by the author.