PQB Interview: Rob Carson

In the last dozen years, Rob Carson has established himself as a positive force in the quiz bowl community. In addition to being one of the game’s greatest players (and a national champion alongside friend and teammate Andrew Hart), Rob has helped produce countless national tournaments as a writer, editor and staffer. His positive influence on the game is seen daily on the hsquizbowl.org forums, where he serves as an administrator. Play Quiz Bowl spoke with Rob about his experiences with the game, how it kept him going, and what new players can do to make their marks.

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

Rob Carson – I got hectored into playing Knowledge Bowl my sophomore year of high school and then quizbowl the year after. In retrospect I have no idea why I was so resistant to it (possibly due to the specific people doing much of the hectoring?) but I immediately took to it. I wish I’d been persuaded earlier!

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

RC – I played at Chaska High School, then all through my undergrad career at the University of Minnesota, then a year or two after graduation I played for a few years while taking classes part-time at Minneapolis Community and Technical College.

My high school and early college career took place during an important transitional period for quizbowl–in my senior year of high school, we could only make it to one national tournament for a variety of reasons, so we chose Chip Beall’s National Academic Championship, which was on its last legs of even minor relevance. We got second in the country, beating our longtime hometown rivals St. Thomas Academy in the semifinals and losing in typically fishy NAC fashion to a team from noted Chip stronghold Worcester County, NY, who benefited from a suspiciously perfect-for-their-strengths lightning round category.

As a college freshman, I was on the Minnesota team that won the second-to-last-ever CBI national championship, an equally deprecated format descended from the old College Bowl radio and TV shows. We beat a strong USC team in the finals, but forewent the tournament the next year in favor of ACF Nationals. That tournament was a highlight–our all-underclassman team won the first-ever official ACF Undergraduate national championship in an exciting match against Dartmouth. I fondly recall getting an early buzz on a tossup on Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s novel Some Prefer Nettles due to having literally selected it at random to read about in Masterplots the week before.

Other career highlights include the time Andrew Hart and I edited 90% of a tournament in a three-day fugue state (the first tournament we’d ever edited, no less), editing a bunch of other generally-well-received tournaments, winning Chicago Open in 2009, winning the CULT national pop culture championship in 2010, finishing an agonizingly close second place at ACF Nationals in 2010 and 2011, leading the 2013 ICT in scoring, and racking up various ICT trophies, including several Undergrad championships and, eventually, a DI title–but more on that later.

PQB – What was your favorite thing about playing quiz bowl?

RC – Oh my god, everything. I love the act playing the game itself, not just because it feeds my natural desire to show off facts that I know, but because it’s a great tool to reinforce memory and learning that I’d be doing anyway–I’d be reading books or Wikipedia articles for fun anyway, but I’ve developed a sense for retaining details thanks to quizbowl. Andrew Hart talked about this too, but taking a very generalist approach is a lot of fun for me–I like always being able to compete on basically any question.

I also really love the camaraderie I developed with my teammates, and by extension the friendships I’ve made with other quizbowlers from, really, all walks of life. Traveling was and is such a joy, whether it’s the thousandth drive down I-94 from Minneapolis to Chicago or a flight to a national tournament halfway across the country. So many of the most important relationships in my life–my significant other, Bernadette Spencer; many of my best friends, including Andrew Hart, Carsten Gehring, Mike Cheyne, Ike Jose, and so many others–originated in or were significantly cemented by quizbowl.

I think what I’m most grateful to quizbowl for, though, is that it was really a rock during some fairly personally difficult times in my life. Not to get too indulgent here, but I dealt with depression of varying but constant seriousness through much of college, and in its roles as both a social lifeline and something I just plain liked to do, quizbowl’s constant presence really helped me pull through.

PQB – Your national championship came by way of an unusual circumstance. How do you look back on that tournament, and the events that followed? [Editor’s note – this question was also asked to Andrew Hart, Rob’s teammate. For another perspective, read his interview.]

RC – Haha, it’s an odd experience in toto. I’ve talked about this with people before, but the weirdest thing was I didn’t feel particularly bad about how things ended during the tournament (the real crushing blow came a week or two later at ACF Nationals, after we got out-grinded in the finals by a Yale team led by a young Matt Jackson and it felt like I’d never be able to win a legit academic national championship). At ICT, though, I thought we’d basically played our best, confidently charging through our pre-Harvard matches, and were just a couple tossups short of pulling out both of our matches against Harvard, like we’d ran out of time rather than been solidly KOed. I personally thought I was basically at my peak of playing the game by feel, as exemplified by the tossup on South Sudan in the finals that I powered based on no particular knowledge, just an idea that South Sudan would absolutely be something NAQT would toss up and that that’s probably what it would sound like.

Anyway, we didn’t win, not least because one Andrew Watkins uncharacteristically nailed the history tossup that concluded the finals match. Andy tended to play his absolute best at ICTs, and while he was a writer and editor for NAQT, so were many other active collegiate quizbowlers. A few people had suggested something might be up on and off for a couple of years by that point, but no one paid it too much mind until NAQT finally carried out more thorough security audits in 2013 and revealed, among other things, that he’d been the dishonest bad-faith cheating jerk we now know him to be, and the rumormongers were 100% correct.

Getting suddenly handed the title two years after the fact was weird–it felt very nice to have our team’s skill and success confirmed by an official title, but it will always be a little hollow in that we didn’t get to experience any of the in-the-moment rush or enjoyment of winning. Irony-drenched celebratory condemnations on the anniversary of the cheating revelations are nice, but they’re kind of cold comfort compared to the lost experience of winning for “real”.

On the other hand, 2011 ICT was the tournament where I first-lined an opera tossup against John Lawrence and then leapt to my feet and taunted him about it, so I’ll always have that!

PQB – Since the end of your formal playing days, you’ve 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?

RC – The simple answer is a genuine love of the game and appreciation for everything it did for me. As I mentioned, it was the rock that helped me survive college, so at the base level I feel a little obligated to give back anything I can! But it’s more than that–I really enjoy everything about it. I will happily drag myself out of bed at 7am on a Saturday (or spend many hours traveling) to staff tournaments, I really enjoy writing questions, I love playing in opens. I think quizbowl has a ton of value as a supplement to a traditional educational path, since it rewards both specific depth of study and a more omnivorous freelance approach, and it exposes those involved in it to a ton of ideas and areas of learning that might otherwise be passed over or never noticed.

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

RC – I think the most direct effect is that writing and editing gives me a not-insignificant secondary income that allows me to work a regular job less than full time, and have the freedom to put in lots of time doing volunteer work for quizbowl! It’s also strengthened my memory for facts and details, which will really benefit a person in pretty much any job. Writing questions is a valuable exercise for learning how to communicate facts and ideas clearly and concisely, and can also really strengthen one’s research skills.

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

RC – The best thing I can tell you is to not be intimidated–which, of course, is often easier said than done, but there’s some very specific mental pitfalls you can work to avoid. The vast breadth of “stuff that gets asked about at quizbowl tournaments” can seem extremely daunting at first–I spent a lot of time my freshman year of college despairing that I would ever get anywhere with it–but it’s good to remember that you’re not being expected to know it all right away, or to ever know it all yourself. Quizbowl isn’t as arbitrary as some trivia games; by its very nature, ending tossup questions with easy or widely-known clues and including easy parts in each bonus gives a new player a place to start learning things.

A great first step is to just read a bunch of questions–to yourself, in practice, with your friends, wherever and whenever. This helps give you a sense of the things that are regularly asked about and thus provides a direction for further investigation (in addition, it gives you a pretty good sense of what you already know!). Then, find whatever interests you–of really any breadth, from a general subject like mythology or literature to whatever specific question topics pique your interest–and start reading. The biggest thing to remember about quizbowl is that it’s very possible to deliberately get better: anything you don’t know about is something that you can learn about, and it’ll probably come up again in the future!

Outside the specific area of playing the game, I think one of my favorite things about quizbowl is that it’s a very come-as-you-are activity. Specific situations may vary, unfortunately, but the quizbowl world is by and large very accepting, a general lack of overly strict dress codes or procedures being perhaps the most outwardly obvious example of that attitude. Enthusiasm, more than anything, is rewarded. Remember that there’s always room in quizbowl for people with any level of playing skill. It may seem intimidating, but the community will not exclude you for not being a good player! If all you ever want to do is play casually, that’s great and I welcome you; the same goes if you want to be the best player, and it also goes if you don’t really care about playing at all but like running tournaments or doing logistics or whatever else–quizbowl couldn’t exist without those people either.

PQB – Somewhat similar to the above, what advice would you give to a new player who wants to get better?

RC – The capsule advice I give lots of very new players in Minnesota who are specifically looking to get better at quizbowl is “read a lot of packets, then learn literature”. You can gain a lot of ground as a newbie by picking an area teams are often weak in, like literature or fine arts, and doing some very basic studying and memorization of things like creator-creation lists. Nailing down basic fact associations like this gives you a great foundation on which to build more detailed knowledge, and also changes unanswered tossups on things you’ve never heard of into, at least, tossups you can convert at the end.