PQB Interview: Wayzata’s RATRACE Champions

Over the last decade, Wayzata High School has become home to one of Minnesota’s strongest and deepest quiz bowl programs. Coached by Meaghan and Brian Decker, the program put multiple teams into the playoffs at the 2016 HSNCT and will bring six teams to this year’s tournament. In January 2017, Wayzata’s “A” team of Cara Fragomeni, Divya Goel, Tora Husar, and Alicia John won Minnesota’s annual RATRACE tournament. In doing so, they became the first all-female team in Minnesota’s NAQT era (and likely ever) to win a quiz bowl tournament. Play Quiz Bowl spoke with Cara and Tora about their success at the tournament, the Wayzata quiz bowl program, and their future ambitions.

Play Quiz Bowl – How were you introduced to quiz bowl, and what drew you to the game?

Tora Husar – I joined quiz bowl the summer before my sophomore year (last year) after I saw the team’s booth at Wayzata’s open house. I’ve always liked watching Jeopardy, so I thought it’d be fun to try. After coming to a couple of practices, I realized that I liked the idea of playing as both a team and as an individual, and I thought quiz bowl had a really welcoming atmosphere, which was especially fortunate because I had just transferred to Wayzata and was nervous about making friends.

Cara Fragomeni – All my friends were in quiz bowl during our freshman year, and they always talked about how fun the competitions were and how much “useless” knowledge they’ve picked up because of quiz bowl. I love trivia games and showing off my repertoire of random facts, so I joined the club sophomore year. I found amazing people, a challenging game, and tons of fun traditions and I haven’t looked back!

TH – Joining quiz bowl has probably been the best decision I’ve made in high school–I have made so many good friends and memories through quiz bowl, and I am very thankful for that. Right now some would say that I devote a little too much time to quiz bowl, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

PQB – What has been your favorite memory of your experiences with quiz bowl to date?

CFHSNCT in 2016 was probably the most fun tournament I’ve ever been to. My team was very supportive and we were really on top of our game, but it was even more amazing to watch Wayzata A finish up 13th overall and cheer them on along the way. The finals match that year was absolutely epic as well – I didn’t think there was any way that Hunter could come back after that first half, and it was super cool to watch them win that momentum back.

TH – It’s hard to pinpoint on just one day or experience that was the best, because going to practice and to tournaments almost never fails to be fun, and I think this is especially because a lot of people in quiz bowl aren’t afraid to be silly or funny. A really good example of this was at Run for the Roses earlier this year, where my friend and teammate Ashmita Sarma bought two dozen or so umbrella hats on Amazon and a bunch of players wore them around during and between rounds. The hats may have interfered a bit with circulation to the brain, but it was a lot of fun and I think it just brought our team together that much more. I also really enjoyed traveling to Boston to compete at the Harvard Fall Tournament last November.

PQB – The winning RATRACE team is the first all-girl team to win a tournament in Minnesota’s NAQT era, and quite possibly the first ever. What does that accomplishment mean to you and your teammates?

CF – When we went into RATRACE, I don’t think any of us were thinking about the fact that we had an all girls team. We knew we had the potential to do really well and everyone definitely came to play that day. Tora was absolutely on fire and we all worked really hard to keep our momentum and morale up. I know it’s been a dream of Ms. Decker’s to have an all girls team win a tournament, and I’m very proud to have been a part of that!

TH – Although there is a bit of a gender imbalance in quiz bowl as a whole, I don’t think that means that girls aren’t welcomed by the quiz bowl community or that girls aren’t motivated to work hard for quiz bowl, and I think our victory reflects that. I don’t think I’ve ever felt excluded or uncomfortable for being a girl who plays quiz bowl, and I think I speak for the whole team when I say that winning RATRACE as a team of girls didn’t feel out of place or out of the ordinary. I hope that our win will encourage more girls to give quiz bowl a try, because it might just turn out to be an amazing experience.

PQB – In general, how do you feel the opportunities quiz bowl provides to female players? What do you think it could do better?

TH – In terms of opportunities to have fun playing the game and playing competitively if one so chooses, I don’t think that quiz bowl has shunned girls, or any group for that matter. Quiz bowl has such a welcoming atmosphere and I don’t think that the gender imbalance in quiz bowl exists because girls are actively excluded or warded away from joining. My perspective on this might be a bit limited because I’ve only been a part of the quiz bowl world for about a year and a half, but I think that the sheer number of tournaments offered every weekend and the initiatives of outreach groups to get new schools involved in the game will lead to an increase in girls’ participation.

CF – I think quiz bowl in general does a really good job of providing a level playing field to every student, and I’ve never really felt like people treated me or my team differently because I’m a girl. Nobody ever assumes that the guy on the team is always the captain, which is very refreshing to see! Last year at Wayzata, three of our four captains were female, and I see the same trend reflected in other schools as well. Something that could be done better is to have a few more female moderators, but in general I think quiz bowl is a very non-gender specific sport, which is awesome!

PQB – After your victory at RATRACE, your team was featured on NAQT’s website, which noted that, among other things, Tora was fighting an illness. What kept you focused and motivated during the tournament?

TH – Since the tournament was set in the midst of flu season, I was a little under the weather and had a cold, but that didn’t stop me from loving every minute of the day, and I think a big part of that was being on a team with friends with whom I don’t usually get to play at tournaments. We really kept the energy going between rounds. It also helped that RATRACE consisted of very short tossups, so I didn’t get a lot of time to pause and feel groggy.

PQB – This academic year, you (Tora) also achieved a perfect ACT score. Do you feel that your experiences with quiz bowl helped you in the lead up to test (and if so, how)?

TH – I would actually say that the reverse was true. The reading prompts for standardized tests often include passages about the humanities, scientific concepts, and literature, and I’ve surprisingly learned a good deal of things that happen to come up in quiz bowl from standardized tests. I distinctly remember taking a practice test leading up to the ACT that included a passage from The Red and the Black, which prompted me to read the whole book (and enjoy it). I’ve also learned bits and pieces about schools of art and biology through standardized tests, so while I can’t say I’d enjoy taking the test more times, it does have its benefits. I do think that being accustomed to thinking fast under pressure in quiz bowl helped me take the test, since various sections have a pretty tight time limit, and I didn’t end up feeling rushed or stressed while taking the test.

PQB – Wayzata impressively qualified six teams for the HSNCT at RATRACE. To what do you attribute the program’s depth and success?

CF – In the three years that I’ve been in quiz bowl, the program at Wayzata has really grown in popularity. It used to be perceived as a “nerd sport” that people do so they can put it on college applications, but now I think everyone realizes that quiz bowl is a really supportive club where everyone can come together to learn and perform well at tournaments. It really feels like a family, and everyone wants to see each other succeed. I think it’s this mentality that helped us qualify so many teams, and I can’t wait for nationals with all my teammates!

PQB – In general, how has being a quiz bowl player helped you as a student?

CF – Quiz bowl has taught me valuable study skills and has helped me identify how I learn best. For example, our team has constructed memory palaces to remember Oscar Best Picture winners, made posters diagramming the taxonomy of animals and had presentations about board games likely to show up in quiz bowl. I think the variety of techniques we use to remember information has come in handy in my classwork, especially memorizing reactions in Organic Chemistry!

TH – Quiz bowl is at its core a game about knowing things, and to get better at it, one naturally has to learn more things. Quiz bowl has opened my eyes to subjects that I would have previously called boring and tedious, and for that I am really thankful. Without quiz bowl, my world view would have been much narrower, and I probably never would have gotten to appreciate the works of John Constable or JMW Turner, who have become my favorite painters, or to enjoy opera, something I otherwise wouldn’t have thought to learn about and experience. In short, quiz bowl has let me discover what my own interests are, and I think that is such an amazing thing.

PQB – What more do you hope to accomplish in your quiz bowl career?

CF – I’m super excited to go to HSNCT in May with all six of our teams and hope to finish higher than my team did last year. I’d like to play quiz bowl in college if the opportunity is available, but I think it would be even more fun to become a moderator and maybe read at next year’s nationals!

TH – It already feels a little bittersweet that I only have one year left to play high school quiz bowl, but I really hope to continue to improve as a player and to continue to have fun with my friends. It always feels good to buzz in on a topic you’re passionate about, to get questions with really obscure or funny clues, and to work together on bonus sets, and I hope that that continues. I plan on playing quiz bowl in college as well, and I’m sure college quiz bowl will be as much of a blast, but it will be hard to part ways with everyone on the team at Wayzata. So I suppose the greatest accomplishment I can hope for is to continue to enjoy doing what I am doing. Bringing home a trophy is always a bonus, but I cherish the friends and memories I’ve made over any prize.

PQB – What’s next for you outside of quiz bowl?

CF – I’m attending the Colorado School of Mines next year to study civil engineering, and hope to get in some rock climbing and skiing while I’m there too. Eventually I want to get my PhD and work for the Army Corps of Engineers, and hopefully stay involved with NAQT along the way!

 

PQB Interview: Matt Quinn

After a brief hiatus during the run-up to the completion and first competitions of ACRONYM X, we are back with a new interview! This time around, Play Quiz Bowl spoke with Matt Quinn, the former coach of Robbinsdale Armstrong High School and a key figure in the history of the ACRONYM tournament. We also spoke to Matt about his short history as a quiz bowl player and the effect it has had on him, his students, and the landscape of high school quiz bowl in Minnesota.

Play Quiz Bowl – How did you get involved in quiz bowl? In your view, how has the game changed for the better since those days?

Matt Quinn – I went to South High School in Minneapolis in the late 1980s, at that time the school had an excellent quiz bowl team, placing 2nd in the Minnesota High School Quiz Bowl League in 1989. I can’t say I was really involved with the program, or even officially a member; I went to some practices in 9th and 10th grade. The 1988-89 squad had my close friend Andy Honigman, my childhood friend Ben Weiss, and I believe it was rounded out by Gary Gutman and Dan Rafferty. Those guys were really good, and they narrowly lost the championship to Mounds Park Academy. My first experiences were being really wowed by how fast everyone else was, and feeling like I didn’t know anything, and that everyone was better than me. Quiz bowl can be quite humbling in that way.

I suppose quiz bowl has changed a lot since then, but at the time I didn’t think at all about things like question quality, different formats, pyramidal toss-ups, only in retrospect as a coach did I realize what improvements and developments had been made since then.

PQB – You became coach at Armstrong High School in 2000. What inspired you to become a coach?

MQ – As I applied for teaching jobs that summer, after a few interviews I found out that I would get asked “What do you coach?” The possibility of me as an athletic coach was pretty ridiculous, so instead I had prepared the answer “Quiz Bowl” for future interviews. It just so happened that students at Armstrong had been asking for a team to be formed the year before, but the administration had told them that a coach was needed to start a team. Because of that, I have quiz bowl to thank for my teaching job.

I genuinely did want to start a team though; it wasn’t just to get a job. When I started as a leader, that feeling of being an inferior player was something I kept in mind. I tried to assure new players that the first few practices were going to be tough, that it was only natural to feel overwhelmed by the information being thrown at them, and that given work and time they could improve. Dissuading students from the idea that they were not any good from their first practice performance was so important. One story I would relay to new players was that Jack Brandes, Armstrong’s all time high-scorer, got only one power and one regular toss up at his first tournament. This let them know that improvement was going to happen if they put in the work.

I’d also like to think that overall I made room for everyone who joined, and that members of our group could contribute to the organization in lots of ways besides scoring points, that everyone had something to offer. We had members that were just as crucial to our success through administration like making t-shirts, through moral support such as organizing social events and snack lists, or seeing us off for Nationals at the airport, and through recruitment, so many of our members joined because their friends told them how much fun it was. Sometimes when I talk about quiz bowl with people from the community at large, I can get a whiff of the attitude that “it’s really nice that you have a place for the kids who get cut by the football team.” Quiz bowl students don’t join because they can’t do athletics. They do it for its own merits and because it is cool in and of itself. Besides, some of our best players have also been members of the football team.

I’m also proud of how competitive we wound up being, and over time I got a lot better at teaching how to play the game, as opposed to just handing out study guides. Once NAQT came on the Minnesota scene in 2003, it opened my eyes as to how much goes into constructing a question, and how knowing that as a player makes you a lot better. It took a good 5 years of watching quiz bowl to be able teach people to play strategically. Of course there is no substitute for studying and knowing your material, but you can get some points by knowing when to anticipate imminent giveaway clues, knowing when to slow down or speed up, taking a pause to be certain before giving an answer, and having systems for working with teammates on bonus questions.

PQB – What are your fondest memories of coaching?

MQ – I’m tempted to answer this question by rattling off a list of accomplishments and victories, but what I will actually remember are the students and the time I got to spend with them. When I look at our player database, I see 200 plus names of remarkable young people that I got to be associated with for a few years. Along with playing lots of great quiz bowl, we had a lot of fun, and there are so many times when we laughed and celebrated. That time Andy almost got kicked off of public access television for saying that drunk driving was “cool.” The time my kids stole all of St. Anthony’s staplers and I had to get mad at them. That time Noah sneezed. David’s yellow Columbo frozen yogurt t-shirt. Everyone yelling “Coooooooney!” for the handsome and shy John Cooney. I’m sure each quiz bowl team has their own set of inside jokes and rituals that makes their team special, and that might seem like a distraction or a byproduct, but I think it is really important to making meaning out of your time together more than just winning.

I will also remember how many awesome people I met in the quiz bowl community. At the time I retired I had been coaching 16 years, and I believe was the longest consecutively serving coach in Minnesota. (Chris Lenius and Jamie Jurkovich started before me but both took time out in the middle). The coaches are all amazing people who give up lots of time for building and running their programs, I wish they could get formally recognized in some way. Additionally, getting to see the arrival of NAQT on the Minnesota scene first hand was really exciting. Robert Hentzel and Emily Pike have done so much to raise the standards for quiz bowl here, and they do a first rate job of running and overseeing the programs and tournaments. In short, the friendships that I have formed will be something that I always treasure.

PQB – You and your team made local news when the quiz bowl budget was unexpectedly slashed. How did the community response help keep the team afloat?

MQ – The Robbinsdale Area Schools had a referendum fail at the ballot box in November of 2007. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the quiz bowl program was in the first round of cuts, our activities director told me we had been axed the day after the election. It was fortunate that we had built up a solid base of alumni, community and parents after seven years in the game to get us through that rough spell. We got by on donations for a while, and without those we would have collapsed. Most notably from the business community, Val Doherty of the Doherty Employment group matched donations after reading about our plight. Norm Draper of the Star Tribune featured our program in an article about the cuts, and that attention helped bring support from the larger community.

PQB – You’re a key figure in the history of ACRONYM, a pop culture tournament now played nationally and produced by Play Quiz Bowl. How did the idea of house-writing pop culture questions come about?

MQ – I certainly can’t take credit for the idea, ACRONYM was preceded by EPIC in Minnesota, a tournament that ran in 2007 and 2008, started by the Eden Prairie program under coach Kirk Walton. I could be wrong about this, but I believe the first EPIC was written mostly by Kirk and his friends. The Armstrong team came in 2nd place at that one. In 2008, a lot of college players helped to write that tourney, I know Andrew Hart, Rob Carson and Gautam Kandlikar were all contributors. When Eden Prairie did not run it again in 2009, I filled the void that was left with the ACRONYM tournament in 2010. The first two ACRONYMs were actually run on NAQT questions and were standard invitational meets. For me, ACRONYM was always first and foremost a fundraiser, and seeing the demand for a pop culture tournament we filled it. The weird thing I can take credit for is having an acronym that spelled out ACRONYM (Armstrong’s Conceivably Regular Or Nearly Yearly Meet).

I’m proud of the four tournaments (III-VI) that I edited and put together. Armstrong players past and present always contributed questions, and without their input the set would have skewed a lot into older pop culture that I knew from the 80s and 90s. We asked about some creative if not easily gettable topics and I had fun slipping in clues about some of my personal favorite songs, books and baseball stories every year along the way. It could be a bit sloppy in execution and difficulty levels widely varied, but I got tons of great feedback from the players. I had a kid from my alma mater, South High School, come up to me at the end of one ACRONYM tournament and tell me “This is like my birthday and Christmas and the Super Bowl all in one day. Thank you for doing this” so that was pretty gratifying.

PQB – The Armstrong team has a new coach this year. What advice did you give him when he stepped into the new role, and what advice would you give to other new coaches?

MQ – When I had to retire from quiz bowl this year because my wife Sherri was diagnosed with breast cancer, I got to hand off the best group of sophomores (now juniors) that I have ever coached. We brought three 10th graders to Nationals last year, and had another eight on the team besides that. I had a chance at the beginning of the year to meet with some of the students and let them know that I was counting on them to lead the team, and to bring their knowledge to new members. So my advice to Phil Wiese (the new coach) was to count on his reliable core of returning members. I mean, 16 year olds have led empires and made revolutionary scientific discoveries, certainly they can step up to help run a quiz bowl team. Phil has done a great job making the program his own too though. Armstrong quiz bowl is in good hands. I sure miss it, and there is seldom a day that goes by that I don’t think about something I learned from being a quiz bowl coach or a fun memory from being involved with it.

PQB Interview: Steven Levitt

Steven D. Levitt is an award-winning economist and is the William B. Ogden Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago. Additionally, Steven is the co-author of the New York Times best seller Freakonomics, which bridged the gap between economics and popular culture and sold over 4 million copies. Since its release he has co-authored several followup books and presented multiple TED talks. In his earlier years, Steven played for the quiz bowl team at St. Paul Academy in Minnesota. Play Quiz Bowl spoke with Steven about his days as a player and the impact it left on him.

Play Quiz Bowl – How did you get involved in quiz bowl?

Steven Levitt -My sister Linda, who was five years older, was on the team.  So I would sit and listen while my dad quizzed her. I was a much more willing subject than she was, so then my dad quizzed me. I still remember how nervous I was taking the test to make the team in eighth grade. I think I scored the highest of anyone and they let me on the team!

PQB – Tell us a bit about your playing career – where did you play? What were some of your career highlights?

SL – I played for the quiz bowl team at Saint Paul Academy, and over those five years I competed, we had a good run!  We pretty much always won the state championship and did reasonably well at nationals.

PQB – In general, what was your favorite thing about playing quiz bowl?

SL – I loved the challenge of trying to answer questions quickly, when the question had barely begun. My teammates were so good that if I didn’t go quickly, I’d never get a chance to answer.

PQB – How has your experience with quiz bowl impacted your professional career, the writing of Freakonomics, or your other endeavors?

SL – I think that being really good at something sets you up to do well at something else later in life. But I also learned some valuable lessons.  For a long time, I thought I was “the best.”  I got a lot of positive attention for quiz bowl.  I was about four feet tall when I started, so they actually gave me phone books to sit on so my head was visible on the TV show.  It was a big part of my identity. But then I discovered, when we went to nationals, that there were people way better than me at quiz bowl (in particular there was one guy from Centralia, Missouri who was a phenom).  I had no choice but to accept that I really wasn’t very good.  Accepting that others are better is one of the best skills I ever learned.

PQB – A few years ago, you recorded an episode of the Freakonomics podcast with St. Paul Academy’s quiz bowl team and played against them. What was it like playing again, if only informally?

SL – Awful!  I couldn’t remember anything. It was humiliating!

PQB – In high school, you were coached by George Leiter, who went on to be a major influence on the Minnesota quiz bowl circuit (including as a moderator when this interviewer was playing in high school). What are your fondest memories of George?

SL – There are not enough good things to say about George Leiter. He is one of my favorite people on the planet.

PQB – What advice would you give to a new quiz bowl player who wants to get better?

SL -The new mnemonic tools for memorization are amazing. Learn about them! [Editor’s note: one such tool, Mnemosyne, is truly an excellent resource.]

PQB Interview: Emily Pike

As a quiz bowl player, Emily Pike led teams at DeKalb High School and at Minnesota’s Carleton College. With the latter, she was part of the 1999 NAQT Undergraduate Championship. While pursuing a medical degree, she appeared on two winning teams at the Chicago Open, one of quiz bowl’s most prestigious events. Today, she is a physician and Vice President of Operations for National Academic Quiz Tournaments. Play Quiz Bowl spoke with Emily about her playing career, how it helped her down the line, and how new players can find success.

Play Quiz Bowl – How did you get involved in quiz bowl?

Emily Pike – It’s fun to think back at how I got involved with this activity that has so powerfully shaped me personally and professionally.  I started playing quiz bowl in 7th grade after hearing on the daily announcements that there was a team starting up at my middle school.  I remember thinking that such a team sounded like exactly the sort of thing I’d love doing.  My coaches were the special ed teachers at our school, and we practiced by reading questions to each other out of some book of general knowledge questions.  One of my first quiz bowl matches was on a buzzer system where the buzzers were doorbells and there was no lock-out feature.

PQB – Tell us a bit about your playing career – where did you play? What were some of your career highlights?

EP – I played in middle school and high school in DeKalb, Illinois (Go Barbs!), and then I played for Carleton College with Eric Hillemann as my coach.  I cried after my last high school match because I thought I’d never get to play again.  I was so excited to find out after I arrived on campus that Carleton had a team and that I could continue competing.  Little did I know that I had one of the few active coaches left on the college circuit to help me grow as a player, as a question writer, and as an editor.

After Carleton, I went on to medical school at Loyola in Chicago.  There was no active team there, but I spent a lot of my free time (more than I anticipated having as a med student!) writing and then editing questions for NAQT.  They liked what I had to offer, and I became a member the following summer.
Specific memories of my quiz bowl career have largely faded, but the quiz bowl accomplishment of which I’m most proud is winning the NAQT Undergraduate National Championship in 1999.  My teammates and I set that as a goal for ourselves, developed a study strategy with Eric’s help, and worked really hard to win the title.  Two of my favorite quiz bowl memories are from that tournament:  one is that Rob Hentzel (now my husband) read the game against Iowa in which we clinched the championship, and the other is that Eric Bell gave me a huge hug as I started crying as the timer buzzed in our last match of the tournament.


PQB
– In general, what was your favorite thing about playing quiz bowl?

EP – I loved traveling and spending time with my teammates.  In college, we drove all over the place for events:  Kansas City, St. Louis, Ann Arbor, Chicago, plus cities closer to Northfield like Ames and Minneapolis.  We really got to know each other well in all those hours on the road.  We had silly rituals.  We were a chosen family for each other.

PQB – How did quiz bowl help you excel as a student?

EP – I’m not sure that it did. :)  I’m sure some of my college grades could have been improved by spending some of my quiz bowl time on studying for exams and writing better papers!

PQB – You’re one of two female players to have won the Chicago Open (an extremely difficult summer tournament for the game’s elite players) multiple times. What are your best memories of those events?

EP – I had no idea that I was only one of two with this honor, and, honestly, I don’t remember winning Chicago open more than once!  The main thing I remember about Chicago Open is loving Subash’s biology questions because I got lots of points for my team on them.

PQB – What skills that you gained or improved with quiz bowl has helped your career as a doctor?

When I was in medical school at Loyola, I realized that years of playing quiz bowl provided me with a huge web of facts in my brain.  This sticky web made it easier for other bits of information to get caught because I could make connections with other things I already knew.  I like to think that it gave me an advantage in memorizing all the ridiculously small details that medical students are expected to learn (which then get forgotten because they aren’t actually useful in real-life medical practice!).

Quiz bowl is also good mental training for processing information quickly to get to an answer, which is something I do a lot as an urgent care physician.

PQB – What advice would you give to a new quiz bowl player who wants to get better?

EP – In addition to playing lots of questions, I’d say choose a subject that you’re interested in, read multiple sources on that topic, and then write questions on it.  Lather.  Rinse.  Repeat.

PQB Interview: William Golden

William Golden is a high school quiz bowl player, who currently plays for James E. Taylor High School in Katy, Texas. After beginning his career in middle school, he has since found success on multiple stages. In 2014, his middle school team won NAQT’s Middle School National Championship Tournament, at which he was also the highest scoring player. William also appeared in the 2014 Jeopardy! Teen Tournament and, in his first appearance at NAQT’s high school national tournament, finished with a 10th-place scoring performance. In 2016, he joined the writing staff for Play Quiz Bowl’s upcoming ACRONYM X pop culture tournament. Play Quiz Bowl spoke with William about his experiences with the game thus far and what he still hopes to accomplish.

Play Quiz Bowl – How did you get involved in quiz bowl?

William Golden – I first discovered quiz bowl through the National History Bee (which I found out about from an advertisement of Pawn Stars during the Bee’s brief stint as an Al Roker-hosted primetime special.) In 7th grade, I convinced my parents and a teacher at my middle school to start a weekly after-school club. I got some of my friends and a few other of my classmates to start coming to practices, culminating in us winning MSNCT at the end of the year.

PQB – You’ve already had a pretty impressive career, including a scoring prize at the 2016 HSNCT. What are some of the contributing factors to your success thus far?

WG – My teammates, my parents, and my coach Mr. Harris have all inspired me to work hard and improve. I have never really had a certain studying technique, unlike some players I know who have a giant stack of flashcards filled with thousands of clues. If that’s how you study, that’s great. I’m just naturally curious and enjoy reading about a variety of topics.

PQB – You also had an impressive run in the Jeopardy! Teen Tournament a couple of years ago. What are your best memories of your experiences on the show?

WG
– My brief time on the show, while incredibly nerve-racking, was a lot of fun. All of the other contestants were awesome, and we kept in touch long after we taped the show. Having been on Jeopardy! helps me relax during high-pressure situations, such as in last year’s playoffs of HSNCT, because I know that nothing would be as high-stakes as when I was filming.

PQB – How does being a quiz bowl player help you as a student?

WG – Quiz bowl has helped me learn how to study effectively. Learning clues by scrolling through a packet is very similar to reading through a textbook and picking up important information. A lot of times, when I begin a new unit in class, I’ll realize I’ve already learned much of the information through quiz bowl.

PQB – You have a good amount of time left in your career. What else would you like to accomplish?

WG – I would like to give back to the quiz bowl community after all the enjoyment it has given me. I currently hold a few various quiz bowl writing jobs, and help moderate at middle school tournaments in my region. I definitely plan to continue my career and improve in college. As far as high school goes, raising enough money to able to go to both HSNCT and PACE is my priority, along with hopefully landing a top 5 finish in either nationals sometime in the next few years.

PQB – How has quiz bowl affected your life outside of the game? What skills has it given you that you’ve applied to other situations?

WG – I’ve made lots of great friends and people with common interests through quiz bowl. It’s also introduced me to great artworks, classical compositions, and books. Quiz bowl has made me a more culturally aware person, meaning I can take to many different people about a wide variety of subjects.

PQB – What advice would you give to a student who is interested in joining or forming a quiz bowl team?

WG – For forming a team, I’d Ask teachers who you think might be interested in quiz bowl to sponsor your club or become a coach. (A lot of people might say no at first. That’s okay! Someone will eventually take interest.) Then, find kids that seem intellectually curious, especially ones who like to learn outside of school.

For joining a team, At first, quiz bowl can seem overwhelming, with the rapid-fire speed at which questions are read and the answers, some of which may seem obscure at first, but keep attending practices and find a subject you are interested in learning. With dedication and a thirst for knowledge, you will contribute to your team more and more.

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.

PQB Interview: Graham Wilson

Political organizer Graham Wilson has worked on campaigns on nearly every level. From state legislatures to U.S. Senate races and even a presidential campaign, Graham has established himself as an expert in field operations for elections of any size. He is now the national field director for a campaign committee based in Washington, DC. Before getting into politics, Graham played quiz bowl. Play Quiz Bowl spoke with Graham about his experiences with the game and the impact it had on his education, friendships and more.

Play Quiz Bowl – How did you get involved in quiz bowl?

Graham Wilson – I started playing Quiz Bowl at the end of my sophmore (maybe junior) year of high school. One of my best friends had joined the team and encouraged me to do so.

PQB – Tell us a bit about your playing career. What were some of your career highlights?

GW – We competed in a number of tournaments across the state and in Nationals during my senior year. At the time, I had a very deep and narrow set of quiz bowl knowledge. If it was one of the couple topics I knew well, I’d be able to get the answer really quickly. In terms of competitions, my enduring memory is finishing just outside of where we should have been. Coming in third when we should have been top 2, coming in 4th when my team outscored the third place team but fell victim to a bad ruling of the judge. The most enduring quiz bowl memory I have is our team doing very well for most of a tournament and then having a correct answer ruled incorrect. It kept us out of a top 3 finish, and because they couldn’t give us trophies, they gave our team multiple cans of soda. I still have that can 15 years after the fact. Opening it now would probably be a bad idea.

PQB – You competed at a national championship tournament in 2001. What are your best memories of that experience?

GW – Oh, Nationals 2001. It was good to be a part of that tournament, but the best memories of that experience are all about spending time with my friends at the tournament. There was a late night Risk game that lead to a running joke for years after the fact. I think we finished around 70th, but it was all about the strengthening the friendships with teammates rather than the actual results.

PQB – In general, what was your favorite thing about playing quiz bowl?

GW – The highlights that really stand out from my time in Quiz Bowl were never about the actual competitions. We answered questions, sometimes I did well other times my teammates carried me. The best memories I have are always about the camaraderie. Making jokes, chatting, talking about life with your Quiz Bowl teammates. Some of the people who were my friends then are my closest friends now. 15 years later, my Quiz Bowl career is more about the friendships I made as a part of Quiz Bowl then the actual competition.

PQB – How did quiz bowl help you excel as a student?

GW – It’s two sided. On the one hand quiz bowl helped with remembering knowledge quickly, which is useful as a student. However being a student made me much better at quiz bowl. Actively learning about history, literature, science, mathematics etc in detail and retaining that information makes it much easier to buzz in early in a question and get the information correct. There’s a lot more that goes into being a good quiz bowl player than detailed knowledge, but it forms a great base that you can improve on.

PQB – Since your quiz bowl days ended, you’ve built a career in politics. Have any quiz bowl skills or facts helped in your professional endeavors?

GW – In politics, and really any professional setting where you talk with a lot of different people, knowledge retention of previous conversations is very useful. Quiz Bowl is about knowledge retention, rapidly being able to access that knowledge and learning the context clues to determine what piece of knowledge is the correct one to bring up. You can and should do all of those same things when talking with people, both in a personal and professional setting. The key is learning the context of these questions, not buzzing too early and missing the question being asked in quiz bowl is similar to choosing how to approach telling a candidate for office that they need to make a dramatic change in their strategy if they’re going to win their election.

PQB – What advice would you give to a new quiz bowl player who wants to get better?

GW – Study. Pick an area of knowledge that both interests you and you have a solid base of knowledge in. Develop that knowledge, and then expand into related areas. Also, learn your teammates knowledge. If you’re fine to good at mathematics, but one of your teammates is excellent you should give them the ability to use that knowledge and score points for your team.

PQB Interview: Randy Buehler

Randy Buehler is a former professional Magic: the Gathering player. His induction into Magic‘s Pro Tour Hall of Fame cemented his legacy as one of the game’s greatest players. Following his playing career, he joined Wizards of the Coast to help create and grow the game, and he eventually became Magic‘s head developer. He later served as the director of R&D at Wizards, as well as the Vice President of Digital Gaming. More recently, he has remained a leader in the Magic community as a tournament broadcaster and as the driving force behind the Vintage Super League, an online competition for the game’s top players.

Before his career in Magic, he was a successful quiz bowl player in both high school and college. During the latter of those, he started the ABC tournament at Vanderbilt, one of the longest-running tournaments in the country. Play Quiz Bowl spoke with Randy about his history with quiz bowl and how it helped pave the way for his future endeavors.

Play Quiz Bowl – How did you get involved in quiz bowl?

Randy Buehler – I started playing in 8th grade when the high school coach started trying to recruit new players for the next year’s season. I like competition and I like academics, so I jumped at the chance and played from then through grad school (which worked out to be about 12 years)

PQB – Tell us a bit about your playing career – where did you play? What were some of your career highlights?

RB – My high school team qualified for a Nationals tournament, which was pretty unheard of for a team from up in the mountains of East Tennessee. I went to Vanderbilt for undergrad, and we were decent. We were in a pretty tough CBI region, which we usually lost to Virginia, but we won Penn Bowl one year in the early 90’s and we were Top 10-ish at ACF Nationals. I went to Minnesota for grad school, which always won its CBI Regional, but I was never the best grad student so I contented myself with racking up stats for B and C teams at assorted tournaments. Plus I dragged the team to an ACF Nationals where it did well.

My real highlights, though, came from running the program at Vanderbilt. I started a high school tournament to raise money, and it quickly became quite huge. We also ran a tournament for other colleges, which pretty much everybody did, and we started up a “trash” tournament, which was just becoming a thing to do back then. Winning Penn Bowl was nice, as was flying to Stanford and placing in the top couple at their annual tournament, but the part I remember the most (and am the most proud of) was running the high school “ABC” tournament that we used to fund all those other trips.

PQB – You mentioned that you helped create Vanderbilt’s ABC tournament, which is still operating successfully today. What are your fondest memories of the early years of that event?

RB – Just how big it got, and how empowering it felt to create something like that from scratch. I especially remember checking the mail every day before ABC 1 and then especially before ABC 2. Our mailing list had like 800 high schools on it by ABC 2 and they just kept saying “yes”! I guess the year there was a blizzard during ABC was memorable too, but it’s really the discovery of how many people wanted to come (and then rising to the challenge of making it all a reality) that I look back on most often.

PQB – That’s great! What was your favorite thing about playing quiz bowl?

RB – I enjoy just about anything competitive, but I was never an athlete so this was as close to sports as I could get.

PQB – During your quiz bowl days, did you encounter any players who have gone on to make a name for themselves?

RB – I recognize names on Jeopardy from time to time (including Ken Jennings).

PQB – You’ve had remarkable success with Magic, as both a player and as a developer for the game. What skills from your quiz bowl days helped you in those endeavors?

RB – It’s a quite similar social scene: you have these friends that you mostly talk to through the internet, but then periodically you all descend upon some location for a tournament and compete against each other. In between you playtest and spend all the time you can trying to improve your chances of winning at the next big event.

It was actually my quiz bowl friends who first introduced me to Magic. We used to gather at Charlie Steinhice’s in-laws’ orchard for a tournament of sorts each summer (the Cider House Rules, of course). I saw folks playing what I now know was a multiplayer free-for-all game around the kitchen table in 1995, asked what it was, and by the end of the weekend they send me off to face the world with an all-commons deck made mostly out of Fallen Empires cards and 4th Edition cards. (The key “combo” was Pestilence plus Circle of Protection Black, and pro-black creatures.)

PQB – When working for Wizards of the Coast, did you ever find yourself making use of something you learned as a quiz bowl player – either an interesting fact, or some other aspect of the game?

RB – I definitely used the organizational skills, plus the organized play experience.

We’d like to thank Randy for his time and for his lasting effect on the game of quiz bowl. Stay tuned for our next feature in a couple of weeks!