Quiz bowl: Is it the ultimate test of smarts or an overblown game of Trivial Pursuit?

For 10 Points, Name This Academically Rigorous Challenge That Is Played Using Buzzers

For 10 Points, Name This Academically Rigorous Challenge That Is Played Using Buzzers

Arts, entertainment, and more.
May 3 2012 5:42 PM

The Super Bowl of the Mind

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

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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 HSquizbowl.org 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.”