Quiz Bowl: A Team Game Built Upon Individual Effort

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Laura Korotkin
Those unfamiliar with Quiz Bowl are often shocked to discover that it is extremely different from their expectations. The game has evolved far beyond its origins in the game shows of early television, and the questions are quite unlike the one-liners about random, bizarre things that one finds in classic board games or restaurant trivia nights.
Even the iconic Jeopardy! does not fully capture the essence of Quiz Bowl. Quiz Bowl is played by four-person teams, and the subject matter is chiefly academic, with just a smattering of pop culture and sports (which many Quiz Bowl players bluntly term “trash”). The questions are in “cycles” of one tossup and three bonuses; players ring in on tossups individually, and if the answer is correct, that player’s team confers on the three bonuses. The tossup is a paragraph in length, with progressively less difficult clues leading to an answer; the strategy is to deduce where the question is going and ring in as soon as one’s reasonably sure of the answer, with especially quick answers earning extra points.
Too often, new prospective players or parents come to me asking the wrong questions, such as “What books and lists does one need to study to be the BEST?” or “How does one get to sit in the captain’s chair?” There is no magic formula for either, and those who prioritize such questions often wind up not sticking with the program for very long.
Good players start by having a natural passion for two or three subject areas, but improving is not like studying for a unit test; it’s rather a gradual process of playing practice games, getting a feel for what clues tend to recur, gaining tournament experience (sometimes, by being defeated handily by veteran teams) and – as simple as this sounds – by learning from school coursework as the years go on. At DCDS, I am particularly fortunate to have colleagues who not only teach their subject matter thoroughly but also make it memorable; it would be quite a labor to list how many players have thanked individual teachers after answering clutch questions.
Becoming a team captain also depends on deliberate growth; it’s more the player who can manage personalities and decide between conflicting advice that’s the best choice, and not necessarily the top individual scorer. That said, though, the concept of team captaincy is actually on its way out. Over the last few years, tournament rules have changed from “captain’s answer” to “first directed answer” on bonuses, as the best teams across the country have developed such synergy that each player knows when to give an answer.
In general, putting together an effective team is a balancing act. Being a good Quiz Bowl player goes beyond being smart and learned; one must also have confidence, quick recall, an ability to think under pressure, and a willingness to take chances, not to mention developing the resolve to rebound from setbacks. Speed is usually the major factor in winning games; often, our fast buzzing soundly defeats teams of very smart players who would have known every answer had the tossups gone the full length.
Even so, on my best teams over the years, I’ve included at least one player who may not be the fastest or most assertive, but who has expertise in some areas that the others lack and makes vital contributions on the bonus questions; said player might buzz once per game, but that will be the question that wins it for us. This player’s worth to the team never shows up in individual statistics, and that’s a shame, especially considering how tournaments routinely recognize top individual scorers, and players sometimes get too wound up about this.
It’s at times like these that I remind players that the team score is the only statistic that really counts, and that competitive demonstration of one’s own skills always needs to be directed for the benefit of the team. As I state with the sign on my door, it’s not that there’s no “I” in “team”; our team is a group of “I”s working together properly.
Once my players have processed that, the most satisfying thing is to sit back and watch them play – I’m just along for the ride!
Mr. McNellen has been a Quiz Bowl coach for more than 25 years and has won numerous state championships. Read more about him here.
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