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

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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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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.”