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Q: Who is Quiz Bowl?

April 14, 2010 at 8:26 am
By Chris Burke

The Carleton quizbowl club sent two teams (of four players each) to Chicago last weekend for one of the two national tournaments in which they will compete this spring. The results, though generally good—3rd place among undergrad-only teams for the A-team, 12th place in Division II for the B-team—aren’t really what I’m concerned with. I’m more interested in pointing out how quizbowl is one of the most seriously bizarre (but bizarre in an accessible/admirable way, at least for Carls) subcultures that you’ll find at Carleton.

I’m qualified to comment on this because I was/am a quizbowler myself. I was always sort of a hack, though—one foot in and one foot out of the culture—since I never did any quizbowl-specific studying, meaning I never pored through question archives or drilled myself on the fact lists that Eric Hillemann, the Carleton archivist, has created over the years (anyone who’s curious to see one can access them under Stu_orgs/QuizTeam on the Collab server). By comparison, consider that Garrett Ryan ’09, who was for three years one of the best quizbowl players in the country, passed every single fact sheet test with a score of 90% or higher at one point or another during his time at Carleton. There are around 140 fact sheets, with 40 facts per sheet, each fact being something that is deemed likely to come up in quizbowl competition. Very flash-card-like. So the translation is that, while still maintaining very, very good grades as a classics major (good enough to get into U. of Chicago grad school), Garrett memorized and successfully recalled somewhere in the neighborhood of 5500 facts, in 40-fact chunks, over four years. Another recent quizbowl graduate, Pat Hope ‘07, decided to prepare for nationals in the spring term of his senior year by memorizing every single Cabinet member in American history, ever. This was in addition to already knowing each chemical element by atomic number and symbol, each Pokemon by number, each constellation by alpha star, and God knows what else.

Granted, these two gentlemen, Pat and Garrett, were not the most socially well-adjusted individuals to ever grace the Carleton campus. Garrett was very quiet and generally devoted what few words he did utter to discussing the piranhas he kept in his dorm-room fish tank, while Pat claimed to have not eaten a vegetable in four years, had amassed a stack of empty Domino’s boxes that literally touched the ceiling of the first floor of Dixon House, and once pounded an entire can of Mountain Dew during the time it took Eric Hillemann to read out a quizbowl science question at practice. You may have guessed by now that he was also significantly overweight, a plight common to quizbowlers everywhere, judging by the tournaments I’ve been to. So these people were quirky in what may be called a somewhat unsavory way. But in this writer’s humble opinion, the social tendencies of the Carleton quizbowl team have tended toward the comfortable mainstream in recent years, to the point where you could get to know Charlie Rosenthal ’13 or Carsten Gehring ’12 quite well without ever guessing that they each spend several hours a week on the quizbowl Web forums or writing questions for tournaments (which they do). These guys, Andreas Stoehr, Austin Bell, Frank Firke—you see them every day in non-quizbowl contexts, but I guarantee if you were to step into quizbowl practice, your reaction (as it still sometimes is for me, even after four years of familiarity with the game) would be approximately, “HOLY F#)($*^ S*#&, how is it possible for people to know that much stuff???”

So, yeah … respect quizbowl. It's now 3:30 in the morning. Good night.

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