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Trivia training

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Team builds on ‘Quiz Bowl canon’ to win at the buzzer

“The proctor clears his throat, then begins the question: “Round one: toss-up. One party of this name ran Jonathan Blanchard for president in 1884. Lesser known representatives of another party by this name are Bates Cooke and Benjamin…”

A firm press of the buzzer button interrupts the proctor mid-question, and Eastern languages and cultures graduate student Jenevive Andreas correctly answers, “Anti-Masonic Party.”

Though these sorts of questions might stump the general population, this example of American history trivia is just one of many subjects that pose little challenge to the members of the Stanford Quiz Bowl Club.

But what is Quiz Bowl? Contrary to popular belief, Quiz Bowl is not a club where members meet to take quizzes, grinning in delight as they analyze sample experiments for organic chemistry, the silence surrounding them broken only by the scratch of a pencil on a Scantron card.

Actually, Quiz Bowl is a trivia-based competition where a team earns points for buzzing in the correct answer to a “toss-up” question before the other team. Answering a toss-up correctly brings a team to a bonus round, where all the members of the team can collaborate before submitting a final answer.

The layout for tournaments is simple: four members of one team sit next to one another at a table. In front of each member are corded buzzers. Their opponents, facing them, sit at a table across from them ordered in the same fashion. The proctor, who is responsible for reading the questions and awarding points, is seated at his own table connecting the two teams.

Before the teams are ready to face off against one another, however, there is much practice and energy invested in preparation.

Often, Quiz Bowl tests obscure knowledge, which isn’t always easily acquired. In order to successfully answer such questions, Quiz Bowlers rely on what is known as the “Quiz Bowl canon.”

“The canon is the set of [subjects] that are widely asked about in Quiz Bowl,” said club member Bill Rowan ‘11. “Certain authors or artists, like Shakespeare or Monet, you know are part of the canon. Questions about these sorts of people are common.”

While most Quiz Bowlers take mental note of these recurring subjects, some of the most committed players actively study in preparation for tournaments.

“Some people I know have a bunch of questions at home and will actually read them and study them in their spare time,” Rowan said. “Another method [of studying] is if you get a question wrong, you’ll write it down on a sheet of paper, keeping a list of things to come back to later to study. Later, you’ll look it up on Wikipedia. Others just study the 50 authors that come up most often and their top five most popular books.”

In this way, many members broaden their knowledge about many different fields, whether through studying outside the club or simply competing in practice or tournaments.

“If nothing else, you’re exposed to many subjects you wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to,” said chemical engineering graduate student Joey Montoia. “Over time, you can integrate that knowledge into your cognitive map.”

Regardless of whether members choose to devote a lot of time to Quiz Bowl outside club meetings or are just interested in broadening their trivia knowledge, Quiz Bowl isn’t intended to cause stress. The laidback nature of the team and the relaxed social atmosphere of tournaments and practice are regarded by some members as the most valued aspect of the game.

“Quiz Bowl is much more chill than most clubs or any athletic sport,” Rowan said. “Even attendance for practice is optional, whether you play for interest and come out once in a while or are a competitive player and come to every practice.”

To accommodate the Stanford Quiz Bowlers’ varying motivation levels and personalities, there are four corresponding Quiz Bowl tournaments. North Academic Quiz Tournaments (NAQT) and Academic Competition Federation (ACF) tournaments are the most competitive, with qualifying rounds and playoffs held at Stanford, Berkeley and UC-Los Angeles. Teams competing in these matches vie for a spot at the national title tournament, which last year was held in Maryland.

Unlike most sports programs or some high-profile clubs, success for most schools’ Quiz Bowl teams varies from year to year because they tend not to recruit, and strong players all eventually graduate. But as undergraduate Quiz Bowlers move on to graduate school, there is a transfer of talent from the team they started on as undergrads to the team they end up on as grad students.

“Just as in professional sports there will be players who get traded from team to team,” Rowan said. “There are some really good players who will go to grad school, and in a sense they’ve traded to a different team because grad students are eligible to play.”

While these perpetual shakeups are a concern for top teams vying for national recognition, the intramural tournaments and the Freshmen Quiz League offer a casual niche for on-and-off players to get their trivia fix and are the most popular with players.

President of Stanford Quiz Bowl Club Alborz Behjnood ’13 recalled the role Freshman Quiz League played in shaping his memorable freshman year.

“For me, [Freshman Quiz League] was a great experience because I got to know people in my dorm who competed with me, and I got to meet people from different dorms, hang out, laugh and make fun of dumb answers we made,” Behjnood said. “It was a good experience both to get introduced to club members and other freshmen with similar interests, whether they came for fun or the competitive aspect or the social aspect.”