Imagine standing behind a podium, prepared to answer questions ranging from presidential assassinations in Africa to obscure figures in Japanese mythology to a minuscule plot detail from a George Sand novel.
Then, at the moment of truth, you find you have to recall the inventor of kitty litter.
“Sometimes you just have to take your best guess,” said third-year Michael Arnold, president-elect of the University of Chicago Quiz Bowl team.
Quiz Bowl players find themselves in this situation year after year, competing against teams of trivia-minded college and graduate students from across the country. However, the U of C’s team has proven adept at the game, becoming one of the best in the nation.
This year, the University’s team swept both the Academic Competition Federation (ACF) and National Academic Quiz Tournaments (NAQT). The team has won the ACF championship three years running.
“We’ve had the most successful year in the history of the game,” Arnold said.
Biology graduate student Susan Ferrari, longstanding Quiz Bowl member and former vice president of the team, cited the first-year crop as a decisive factor in the University’s success this year, and hoped to continue the trend into the future. “We recruited a really great first year class. All of [our] Division II teams finished in the top 10,” she said.
Division II is the novice competition held at most tournaments, including ACF. It tends to be informal.
“We got the best freshman class in the history of Quiz Bowl,” first-year Shantanu Jha, one of the top-ranked freshman players in the nation, said.
Jha attributed the success of recruitment in part to the social rewards of Quiz Bowl. “If you want to be good at Quiz Bowl, you need to learn things outside of your immediate experience, and Quiz Bowl people are very interesting because of it,” he said.
Arnold said the team’s success was also a strong draw. “We’re the winningest sports team this University’s ever had,” Arnold said. “What other Chicago team wins a national championship three years in a row?”
The U of C team has dominated the Quiz Bowl circuit in recent years, winning five of the six available national championships in the past three years. This brings their national championship total to 18 since 1990, far and away the highest of any team in the country. “We’re Notre Dame, the Yankees, Microsoft—we’re pretty much the evil empire,” Arnold said.
“But we’re also the nicest evil empire,” Ferrari added.
Quiz Bowl tournaments consist of matches between teams of four players, the teams competing against each other one-on-one in a round robin or bracket format. A toss-up question is read to the competing teams; the first team to buzz in and correctly answer earns bonus questions that only their team can answer.
“The overall trend over the last 10 years has been a move towards questions that reward knowledge over speed, and I think that’s the way it should be,” Arnold said.
Arnold began competing in middle school in his home state of Colorado, where his chess coach introduced him to trivia competitions at local bars. “People just assumed I was with my dad,” Arnold said.
Jha competed in College Bowl tournaments in high school and cited the “dopamine rush” of tournaments as the reason he’s stuck with it. “I’m going to major in physics, but I really love literature. So to memorize poems and to be able to use that in Quiz Bowl, that’s a massive rush,” he said. “I used to play squash competitively, and this is a much bigger rush than that ever was.”
For its most talented players, much of the appeal of Quiz Bowl is off the stage. “It’s a pretty tight-knit community,” Arnold said.
Ferrari noted that at many tournaments, teams go to each other’s hotels to meet Quiz Bowlers from across the country. “You’re all friends; you see them again. The same teams go to tournaments year after year,” she said.
This closeness persists outside tournaments as well. “We call it Quizcest,” said Arnold, referring to the frequency of Quiz Bowl relationships. “In fact, Chicago’s 2005 A-team was composed of two couples who ended up getting married.”
“Every summer there’s a big open tournament here in Chicago which is kind of like Quiz Bowl prom,” said Ferrari, who herself is married to a fellow Bowler. “The Quiz Bowl community is tremendously incestuous.”
That’s not to say there aren’t harsh Quiz Bowl feuds. Arnold characterized Brown University’s Bowl team, which consistently places second to the U of C’s, as a perennial rival. “We’ve won the national championship at ACF against them three times, but we’re always number two in the polls. People always predict Brown to beat us, yet they never actually do,” he said.
Sometimes the grudges get personal: “Quiz Bowl journalism has garnered a reputation of its own in the community,” said Arnold. “For example, the Maryland team’s school newspaper called our best player ‘an evil archvillian’ [sic] instead of ‘villain,’ and now everyone calls him that,” he said, referring to astronomy graduate student Seth Teitler.
The social environment of the Quiz Bowl community is idiosyncratic, largely because of the types of people it attracts. Arnold noted a large gender imbalance as one symptom. “It’s the man cave,” he said of the Bowl circuit.
Ferrari pointed out, however, that Chicago consistently fields an impressive female lineup, “We’ve always had girls competing at the highest levels, which is rare. That’s a unique factor of Chicago’s teams,” she said.
In spite of the gender gap, however, Arnold sees Quiz Bowl as a more socially diverse community than many would think. “We have frat boys who play. Our president is a frat boy,” he said, referring to third-year David Seal, a brother at Delta Upsilon.
Players say the skill set and knowledge acquired at Quiz Bowl can be put to use outside the circuit. “Sometimes, when you get a question in Quiz Bowl, you’ll learn about a new critical perspective you didn’t learn in Hum or Sosc, like the division of labor in society. On the flip-side, having learned about those things in class can get you points in Quiz Bowl,” Jha said.
Arnold agreed, and even sees such information being useful outside academics, in the proper setting. “You have to go to the right cocktail parties,” he said.