The Super Bowl of the Mind
Is quiz bowl the ultimate test of smarts or an overblown game of Trivial Pursuit?
Illustration by Robert Neubecker
On April 21, I traveled to College Park, Md., to learn about this competition. The modern form of this activity is played nationwide at ACF and NAQT tournaments. Slate contributor Ken Jennings credits this pastime with helping him prepare for his record Jeopardy! run. In this contest, two teams attempt to answer questions structured like this paragraph. For 10 points, name this academically rigorous challenge that is played using buzzers.
The answer: quiz bowl.
To its devotees, quiz bowl is less a trivia contest than an arms race. On one side are the keepers of the game, who calibrate their questions to reward true knowledge. On the other are the contestants, who pore over old tests in search of ways to beat the system. This back and forth between the shortcut eliminators and the shortcut seekers has made the game fun and challenging for aficionados. At the same time, it has likely warded off newcomers, those who prefer an occasional round of pub trivia to heated, internecine debates about what constitutes real knowledge.
Many quiz bowlers may not like to admit it, but their game’s origins trace back to College Bowl. A radio program from 1953 to 1955, then a television staple from 1959 to 1970, the game show pitted college teams against each other in battles of the brain. The show’s most famous moment came in March 1966, when four women from Agnes Scott College took down mighty, all-male Princeton.
Back then, the questions were short and simple. This was the final toss-up in the Agnes Scott-Princeton game: “Lavoisier laid the basis for the formulation of the law of the conservation of matter. For 10 points, who is said to have formulated the law of conservation of mass and energy.” Betty Butler buzzed in and correctly answered “Einstein.”
For an organization that touted its product as “the Varsity Sport of the Mind,” the College Bowl Company did a poor job rewarding its combatants. In addition to the high entry fees at College Bowl-run tournaments, players were subjected to inexperienced moderators and lame questions. In his book Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs, Ken Jennings chronicled the participants’ gradual disillusionment:
College Bowl’s questions, players grumbled to one another … lacked clues, gauged difficulty poorly, and weren’t sufficiently academic. One much derided bonus awarded a team 25 points for identifying, after a list of superfluous clues, a “curved yellow fruit” (the banana it turned out). Questions were occasionally used from past events. Worst of all, the questions sometimes came with tricks built in to discourage the best players from buzzing in too quickly.
Annoyed quiz bowlers eventually took the game into their own hands. By the mid-1990s, two purveyors of “good quiz bowl” had emerged, National Academic Quiz Tournaments and the Academic Competition Federation. NAQT is the game’s most popular format, but is less demanding than ACF. The latter’s collegiate championship, ACF Nationals, is considered the academic year’s toughest event.
Held two weeks ago at the University of Maryland, the ACF’s annual quiz bowl finale took place in the basement of an academic building. There was a Bring Your Own Buzzers policy, and the most valuable prize was a $40 plastic trophy. For most of the weekend, it sat next to a case of Pepsi.