PQB Interview: Andrew Hart

Andrew Hart played quiz bowl at Minnesota’s Chaska High School, and then as both an undergrad and graduate student at the University of Minnesota. As a collegiate player, he won multiple undergraduate championships. He and his team won the 2011 NAQT national championship, a title which was recognized following revelations that a player from the erstwhile winners, Harvard, had cheated. In the years since his retirement, Andrew has been recognized for his significant contributions to the game; he was named to a list of the 25 greatest players in ACF history, and was the recipient of the 2016 Carper Award, a lifetime achievement award presented by ACF.

After completing his law degree, Andrew worked as an attorney in Minneapolis and remained active in the local quiz bowl scene. He is now the chief editor for National Academic Quiz Tournaments, the world’s largest producer of high quality quiz bowl questions. Play Quiz Bowl spoke with Andrew about his experiences, his passion for the game, and his best advice for the game’s next generation of players.

Play Quiz Bowl – How did you get involved in quiz bowl?
Andrew Hart – I didn’t play quizbowl until eleventh grade, when I started because it seemed like the thing to do. I don’t recall exactly why I didn’t play earlier, but I immediately liked it, even if I wasn’t very good. Back then, we didn’t have many pyramidal, NAQT-style competitions in Minnesota, but our team always did well at them when we got the chance to play, owing much more to the talents of our other players than me. (Witness my 3-14-13 line at my one and only HSNCT, as a junior in 2005.) I started getting the hang of it though, and when I was a senior, I was a competent third scorer for a nationally competitive team.
The story of how you got involved is often less important than how you stayed involved. For me, those stories always come back to friendships; a friend kept bugging me until I went to my first practice, and trying to keep pace with my friends on the quizbowl team kept me invested in playing and improving throughout high school; two of my high school teammates, including Rob Carson, remain among my best friends. In college, my friendships with Rob, Gautam Kandlikar, Brendan Byrne, and Mike Cheyne were always the main thing keeping me involved and motivated to improve.
PQB – What was your favorite thing about playing quiz bowl?
AH – This might not fall within the realm of “playing,” but I’ve always gotten a lot of satisfaction out of writing a really good question, reading it to others, and seeing them enjoy it. In terms of actually competing, I like to answer questions and win. Not a very interesting answer, I’m afraid. I probably enjoy the generalist side of the game–trying to answer every question, rather than focusing on cultivating deep knowledge of specific areas–more than most, and it’s very satisfying to me to be able to play competently on a wide swath of difficulties and subjects.
PQB – Your national championship came by way of an unusual circumstance. How do you look back on that tournament, and the events that followed?
AH – I’ve always been pretty even-keeled about this. I’m obviously annoyed that our team wasn’t able to be recognized as the deserving (and undefeated) champions at the time. But what happened happened, and I’m just glad that the tournament organizers felt a responsibility take the allegations of cheating seriously, investigate them diligently, and make it right. The way I see it, given the now-unavoidable fact that someone did a bad thing, this was the best possible outcome, and so I look on that tournament fondly and am very proud that we came out on top. As a footnote, in a circuitous but very real way, the scandal actually started my writing career; I got to write an essay about quizbowl for Deadspin because the scandal became broadly infamous beyond even the world of quizbowl. Because writing has grown into something quite satisfying and meaningful to me, I’m grateful for that.
PQB – Since the end of your formal playing days, you’ve worked as a lawyer. How has your quiz bowl experience helped you in that field?
AH – If you’re involved in producing questions, quizbowl teaches you a lot about researching facts and writing concisely and carefully. These skills are directly applicable to legal writing, which is a lot of what you do as a lawyer. For a much more specific example, I run an annual quizbowl event on Minnesota legal history, called “Justice Jeopardy,” for the Minnesota Supreme Court Historical Society. The players are Minnesota legal celebrities, including sitting federal judges and justices on the state supreme court. The broad lesson is that quizbowl will give you niche skills that might lead to opportunities to meet important people in your chosen profession with whom you’d otherwise never connect.
PQB – You’ve also continued to contribute to the game as a leader of the community, as well as a writer, editor and much more. What keeps you so committed to improving the game?
AH – There are three main reasons why I continue to do quizbowl work. First, I simply like it; writing questions for people to play and enjoy is something I genuinely love, and seeing the game change for the better because of initiatives I’ve championed is also very rewarding. Second, as always, remaining involved in the game is as much about maintaining friendships as anything else, and whenever I work on a quizbowl project, I usually get to collaborate with some of my best friends. Third, this is perhaps cliche, but I want to give back to an activity that has given me a lot over the years.
PQB – What advice would you give to a student who is interested in joining or forming a quiz bowl team?
AH – When I first got to Minnesota, we had a team and a very favorable budget situation, which are advantages that many people looking to join or found teams don’t enjoy. But we weren’t the kind of team that I thought we could be; we didn’t aspire to compete with the best teams in the country, and in fact, we tended to avoid altogether tournaments where we could play teams like that. Becoming a nationally competitive team required something almost like refounding our program altogether. We did, and it taught me a few important lessons.
The first is that you can’t do these things alone; you need to have friends who share your passion for learning and competition, and get them to join with you. I could never have accomplished much at the university level, let alone had success on the national circuit, without people like Rob, Gautam, Brendan, and Mike sharing those goals.
The second is that you should never take for granted whatever institutions and processes are already in place, and you shouldn’t dismantle them unless there’s no other choice. When Rob and I arrived at Minnesota as freshmen, we were lucky to have the framework for a successful team, but it took a lot of restraint to work within the confines of the team structure while remaking the program as we wanted to. I confess that I was not always as restrained or patient as I could’ve been. But if we had been less patient and gone our own way, ignoring the advantages that we already had because they came along with some disadvantages, we wouldn’t have been nearly as successful. Had we dismissed out of hand people who enjoyed quizbowl but didn’t share our exact vision for the future of the program, we would’ve lost a lot of the people who, as it turned out, were integral in maintaining the team’s success. People can be challenging, and bureaucracies and institutions can be even more so, but if you keep at it and try to work with anyone who could possibly help you rather than pushing them away, it will help you in the long run.
Third, never expect that someone else will step up and do the hard and often tedious work of keeping a team going. It can be overwhelming as a college freshman or sophomore, let alone a high schooler, to navigate your school’s bureaucracy to found and fund a team, to recruit new players, to set practice times and make sure people attend, to plan the logistics of attending tournaments, and to budget the money in a way that keeps everything afloat. But no one is going to do that work for you. Keep at it. Plug away at the tedious tasks. If you’re joining an existing team, volunteer for leadership positions; it will give you more credibility when you propose changes that might encounter resistance. If you’re founding a team or radically remaking an existing one, you have to understand that it takes a lot of work, and you have to commit to doing as much of it as necessary.
Fourth and finally, if you’re doing the lonely work of founding a new team, you might feel isolated, but you’re not. There’s a whole national quizbowl circuit that you can turn to for help and expertise. Become a part of the quizbowl community. Make friends with people at other schools and ask them for help or advice when you need it. Volunteer to work for national quizbowl organizations; you’d be surprised at how easy it is to advance to positions of real importance on the national scale if you’re just willing to make the connections and do the work. These positions, and the friends I’ve made in the process of getting and holding them, paid off in a big way for the Minnesota team.
PQB – Somewhat similar to the above, what advice would you give to a new player who wants to get better?
AH – People just starting out often think that there must be some magic trick to improving. There isn’t. It’s like anything else. If you want to be fit, for instance, you generally need to build muscle and lose weight. Inevitably, that means doing something that burns calories and works your muscles. There isn’t necessarily any special way to do it, though. You can lift weights. You can run. You can swim. You can play basketball. You can shovel coal. The key is, regardless of the method you choose, you need to do it enough to make a meaningful difference.
Sticking with the analogy, the kind of fitness you want often determines the kind of exercise you need to do. If what you really want is to be good at basketball, it might not make much sense to focus on general weightlifting or cardio if you don’t know how to shoot and dribble. If all you want is an attractive physique, well, maybe your time is better spent doing cardio and lifting than it is playing basketball. You get the idea.
To know what to learn or how, you need to start with something more specific. For instance, although perhaps I couldn’t have articulated it at the time, from the moment I first picked up a buzzer, I understood what interested me about quizbowl: trying to compete for every tossup, no matter what the subject was, and being good enough at it that my teams always had a shot to win. Because I knew that this is what I wanted to do, and I soon found that I hated studying from cards or lists, I focused my energies on reading widely, developing my ability to write questions across all categories and difficulties, and playing a wide range of events and practice questions to keep my buzzer skills and my feel for potential answers sharp.
Other people have different goals. Perhaps you want to learn a specific subject so well that you can’t be beaten to questions on it. In that case, you’re probably best off studying questions in that specific area to learn what answers and clues come up, making flashcards or lists based on that information, and focusing your reading on books and articles that can give you a leg up against specialist competition. Maybe you just want to learn more about your favorite subjects and get a few questions along the way. In that case, survey the questions in your subjects to learn what comes up, and follow up on whatever interests you. Maybe you just want to win. If that’s the case, you’ll want to figure out your team’s strongest and weakest areas and use whatever methods of studying are the quickest and most effective for you to double down on your strengths or plug the holes.
The only way to improve is to learn, but it’s only once you’ve decided what your goals actually are that you’ll be able to start planning out what method of learning will work best for you.

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