Dr. Quizbowl, Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Trivia

I’m sitting in a Boeing 747 on the flight back from Washington DC to Seattle, Washington. For the past two days, I have participated in arguably the nerdiest convention possible for a high school student. Rather than spending this Memorial Day weekend enjoying the sun and freedom from standardized testing, I’ve chosen to spend it with 96 other brilliant teams from across the United States, buzzing and shouting and answering questions about the most obscure trivia possible.

The NSC, or the National Scholastic Championships, is a prestigious tournament held by PACE to allow for quiz bowling to become more popular throughout the US, to prepare high school students for collegiate quiz bowl (roughly 39582027% more difficult than our current level), and to support the love for learning throughout the US. Of course, the clear implicit goal for everyone is to simply win. For many students, their lives revolve around the gathering of knowledge and information, so a test to see how much information one can retain can be very extremely exciting. Teamwork and the spirit of competition is exemplified at this competition, as regular winners compete with newer members, and new people are exposed to this exciting world.

A quick rundown of Quiz Bowl for those unfamiliar: Two teams of 4 people compete to buzz in and answer questions correctly. It is a very simple concept, although the full rules are over 26 pages long! This is because concepts such as the correct pronunciation and identification of answers, the idea of what “bonuses” are, who can answer when, what “power” buzzes mean, and other obscure bylaws can completely change the way that the game is played. During Tossup questions, the teams of 4 people are treated as individuals, each given their own lockout buzzer to answer the question. The first person to buzz in is given a 5 second window to answer, but if s/he is incorrect, their entire team is prevented from answering. S/he is not allowed to consult with teammates during the tossups, but if the question is answered correctly, their entire team is given 3 consecutive Bonus questions, each worth the same value as a Tossup. Because the team is allowed to converse and discuss during Bonus questions, these questions tend to be more obscure and more difficult than regular tossups, and the hallmark of a strong team is the ability to get as many points as possible during these questions. A very important part of Quiz Bowl is that the questions are of the “pyramidal” variety, where the first sentence of each paragraph-long question will be the most difficult, while the last sentence will contain more general knowledge that everyone is expected to know. Therefore, the more in-depth one understands about a subject, the more likely that one could buzz in before the opponent and score points. Depending on the specific tournament, additional rules can be implemented: *Power can be called if a player buzzes before a certain point in the question, and will be rewarded additional points, Negative points can be called if a player buzzes in before the question is completed and the player answers incorrectly, and bounce-backs may be implemented to allow the opposing team to have a 2 second window to answer bonus questions only if the initial team failed to answer correctly.

Although it may seem confusing at first, the players who appear at the national tournament are old pros, trained through hundreds of hours at their local high schools and at closer local tournaments. The community that surrounds Quiz Bowl is very encouraging and hospitable towards new players, as the stated purpose is to foster the love of information for everyone.

Of course, it doesn’t always seem like that.

When first entering the competition hall, one might feel this vibe of tension that runs throughout the tournament. Just to have the opportunity to be at the National Tournament was hard fought and only earned after constant training; everyone is anxious to prove that their own knowledge, and that their own high school, is the best in the country. This competition keeps events entertaining but also stressful, as a single bad buzz can be the difference between advancing to the top brackets and being stuck in the middle. New players can be overwhelmed with all of the statistics published, and sitting at a table for 8 hours a day straining to listen to questions and associate words with knowledge is extremely tiring. In addition, adrenaline tends to course through you when you buzz and strain your brain to provide an accurate answer, a buzz that is at first exhilarating but can soon become exhausting after constant “buzzes”.

For me, the scariest parts of the tournament are the criticisms – received both from within the team as well as from for oneself. If you recall, the “lockout” rule, where the entire team is unable to answer after a single person buzzes, can cause tensions within the team if someone gets knowledge incorrect. By being rash or foolish, an individual could potentially handicap the entire team, and, if other teammates actually knew the answer, be admonished for depriving teammates of their opportunities. However, this fear of being incorrect is counterbalanced by the fear of the other team outbuzzing oneself! The pyramidal setup means that the longer that a player takes to answer, the more likely the opposing team catches a clue and buzzes in as well. That feeling, when one knows the correct answer but got beaten to the buzzer, is perhaps the single-most horrible feeling ever. Just by mere fractions of seconds, the opposing team is given the chance to get 40 more points, just because you weren’t confident enough!

So far, this post reads more like an encyclopedia than my words. I’ve probably used the words “players” “oneself” “s/he” and “you” in more incorrect grammatical contexts than the number of tossups I’ve missed (ouch). So let’s look at where I came from, shall we?

Washington State, as well as most of the West Coast, has predominantly been a region dominated by the Knowledge Bowl Competition, a competing group with the Quiz Bowl Competition. Besides an entirely different buzzing, scoring, question, and answering procedure, these competitions only occur twice: Once at the local level and once at the state level. Throughout the past decade, Interlake High School has emerged as a leader in knowledge bowl throughout Washington. I’ve been involved with this at our school since my freshmen year, and has since been on the 2013 State Qualifying Team, as well as being the captain for the 2014 team that took 4th Place at state. Fourth place! We proved that in the entire state of Washington, we came in 4th for knowledge that we know! If you don’t grasp how exciting that is for a kid who loves learning, then you certainly don’t know me well enough.

When Winston first proposed for us to learn more about Quiz Bowl at the University of Washington, I suppose I was apprehensive but excited. Would this be another opportunity for fun, competitive studying and a chance to show our skills to the world? Although the questions were more difficult, I knew that our team was up for the challenge. We participated in the Washington State Quiz Bowl Championship at the UW, and took 1st place.

Excited and charged up by these early successes, we decided to register for the National event. In doing so, we were committing our time and money to Washington DC and everything that PACE was. For me, it was a big challenge to persuade my parents to assist with the airline fees and sponsor me, so I wanted to prove that we were worth it. As a team, we worked on memorizing trivia and competing against each other when we had a chance; a arduous task as we were studying for our looong streak of AP/IB tests at the same time. But this was exciting! It was fun! It was the best of times.

Around this same time, I found out that my old school, Farragut High School in Farragut, Tennessee, was becoming prominent in National Quiz Bowl tournaments. It was through my good friend Kai that I gained motivation and resources to study for this prestigious event. Then, one fateful night, I organized an impromptu competition between Kai and my entire current team on protobowl.com, a wonderfully designed website that simulates real competition.

We were crushed.

I don’t have a screenshot of the actual competition, but it resulted in a huge 2700 point loss, in the neighborhood of 3000 points for Kai alone and around 300 for our four members combined.

It brought the grim reality of Quiz Bowl to us, as we realized how much willpower, determination, and studying influenced results. It wasn’t enough to just be knowledgeable in school. There were amazing teams at the national level that truly loved the sport. It was like a junior varsity star track runner suddenly thrown into a tournament of Olympic champions. Sadly, we didn’t stand a chance.

Even with this realization, our team was brave and wanted to march forwards. We studied harder, learned smarter, and did everything we could to prepare for it. On the eve of the tournament, sitting in a half-empty family restaurant in the DC suburbs where the tournament was held, we shared our ambitions. We’ve worked for this. We’ve sacrificed for this. We were excited and ready.

The morning of the competition wasn’t nearly as well as we had hoped for. We weren’t able to do nearly as well as we had hoped, only earning 1 win out of the 6 preliminary rounds, and only 2 wins out of the 5 bracketed playoff rounds. Clearly, our skill was not even close to the top players, who were averaging 400 points per game when we were barely breaking 200. The pressure increased, tensions rose, and stress was high. For sometime after our initial morning slaughtering, Quiz Bowl wasn’t very fun. It felt humiliating and disparaging.

But after a much needed lunch break, I think I came to the realization that perhaps winning isn’t really the goal for our team. We haven’t been in the same environment as many of these teams. We didn’t prepare as extensively, nor have we been trained as much. Our tournaments were in a different skill region. To you, perhaps these reasons sound like excuses of a losing team, but they are all true facts. We weren’t using these statements to excuse our poor performance; we were trying to justify the reasons why we weren’t as hot as we thought. Realizing our own shortcomings and failures, we avowed to work doubly hard for the next year because as tiring as all of this had been; it was something that we loved.

At this point, instead of fearing Quiz Bowl and the competition that it entailed, I began to learn to love the trivia. The facts and information that made this competition so exciting in the beginning came back to me and I appreciated everything around me. Sure, we weren’t as good as we wanted to be. Sure, there was a lot of work ahead. But to someone who loves these kinds of things, this wasn’t work, but an opportunity to learn more. Think about it: just the fact that we have so much “trivia” here to be tested on must be a testament to how wonderful culture has been towards creating things worth studying about. Isn’t that just so great?!

One more important detail to note: This tournament was especially meaningful to me because it was a chance for me to actually meet several friends I’ve made online through Quiz Bowl and other organizations. As I mentioned earlier, the SSP draws in students across the US who are passionate about learning, and naturally several of them are interested in Quiz Bowl as well. I was able to meet in person some of these kids that I’ve only talked to over Facebook before. I saw a friend from Texas, who I’ve never met before IRL but shared many of the same passions about education and learning with, and even got to have a mini reunion with friends from Tennessee that I’ve all but given up in seeing again due to the physical separation. Even more exciting was meeting friends who were still strangers; there were so many friendly and enthusiastic people here that I’m eager to see again at future competitions and to chat with online.

The fact that I’ve written ~2000 words on the subject is perhaps this is a testament to what I love and hope to accomplish in this field. I wouldn’t classify it as life changing, but this tournament has reshaped my perspective on the world. It’s taught me that knowledge is out there to be loved and appreciated, and that there is a huge community of students with common interests as me. In fact, there is a huge community of people better at this than myself! The spirit of friendly competition and the thirst for knowledge will carry me far, in both Quiz Bowl and in life.

*Edit: this competition is the NSC, not the NAQT… How embarrassing. I’ve been saying it wrong all weekend long!!

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