Confessions of a Quad-A trivia player
I spent last weekend at Sporclecon, in Washington, D.C. It’s hard for me to imagine that anyone would follow up reading that sentence with the question “What the hell is Sporclecon?” But then again, my social circle these days is largely limited to people who answer and write trivia questions as a hobby, a lifestyle, or, in a few isolated cases, for an actual living. That’s who was at Sporclecon, and I was there, too.
Sporcle is a rapid-fire quizzing website. It’s been around for quite a while but has caught some air since March of 2020, when governments ordered their citizens indoors. An explosion of online quizzing resulted. Geeks Who Drink moved out of the pubs and onto Twitch and Zoom. The Zoom-based Online Quiz League (or OQL to those of us in the know) expanded rapidly in the U.S. and the U.K., both in its team and “Pop Solos” formats. The membership for the daily email quiz game Learned League expanded so rapidly that it had to establish a lengthy waiting list.
And then there was Sporcle, whose trivia content now reaches to all quadrants of the known universe and beyond. If you want to spend your days doing Harry Potter, Divergent, or Shrek quizzes, Sporcle has you covered for days. People who are into geography or flags of the world will find a home there, as will lovers of Presidential trivia or the minutae of any organized sport. I tend to spend most of my Sporcle time futzing around matching the titles of classic books to their covers classic or naming the casts of 1980s TV shows, though if the time comes to study for a serious competition, I take my medicine and cram the periodic table or Asian history.
In the olden times, trivia people convened fairly often. There was something called Trivia Nationals, which I never attended but it was apparently quite a to-do. I played in numerous Geek Bowls, sponsored by Geeks Who Drink, over the years, and was shocked when I wandered into a hotel room in Las Vegas to find trivia obsessives playing mock rounds of Quiz Bowl and Jeopardy! as part of the overall celebration. Just below the surface of every TV game show you watch and every bar quiz you attend lurks a small but fervent subculture of people who know all the answers and will do what it takes to achieve complete world knowledge.
For the first time in several years, those people surfaced at Sporclecon. And I was there too.
Academic, my dear Watson
There was no question about attending. The need to compete lies deep within me, like a gas pain from eating too much pepperoni pizza too quickly. Also, one of the guys who I play with on my Online Quiz league team, Crash Test Smarties, works for Sporcle, so I was in the know. Also also, many people on my feed were going. And I still felt like I had something to prove after my crushing loss to James Holzhauer on The Chase earlier in the year. So off I went to the nation’s capitol to prove my worth.
They held Sporclecon at the Washington Hilton, which, as each one of the more than 600 attendees at the con could tell you, is where John Hinckley shot President Reagan. The deeper you went into their expertise, they could also tell you the year, the date, the time, and the exact location where the bullets penetrated. Regardless, doors opened on Friday at 6 pm. About 100 attendees, myself included, hovered around the doors to the conference area like knowledge vultures.
We wanted to get in there so we could take an Eliminator Qualifying Quiz before heading off to dinner. The “Eliminator” is something Sporcle made up to determine the best individual quizzers at the con, since most of the events were team-oriented. They divided the Eliminator into two divisions: Academic and Pop Culture. The pop category encompassed sports, TV, pop music, video games, the junkier and more entertaining end of the film spectrum, YouTube and TikTok, and other bits of information that you’d never pick up in school. “Academic” trivia is the hard stuff: literature, science, history, art, math, geography, classical music, Akira Kurosawa films, and so on.
Sporcle had set up numerous semi-janky Windows-based laptops at conference tables. Each one contained six random 25-question quizzes in both the Academic and Pop Culture categories. They randomized which one you got so people couldn’t share answers. First, we had to fill out, on paper, a “tiebreaker” question. Tiebreakers in trivia land usually involve math: Multiply the number of stories in the Burj Khalifa by the number of lines Romeo has in Romeo and Juliet and subtract how many pairs of George Washington’s false teeth are in the Smithsonian. Stuff like that.
I did both tiebreakers and then waded into Pop Culture, trying to drown out the hubbub around me. We had three minutes to answer 25 questions, no time to ponder. I spiked 22 out of 25, not knowing one video game answer and two YouTube answers. Somehow, I figured that wasn’t going to be good enough in this crowd.
Then I took the Academic quiz. To my surprise, once I typed in “spear” as the weapon on the flag of Kenya, I had answered all 25 questions correctly with 12 seconds to spare. I went off to eat Ethiopian food with guys I was playing in a team competition with on Sunday, secure in the knowledge that, even at the advanced age of 52, my trivia synapses could still spark.
When I woke up at 3:30 a.m. to check the standings of the Eliminator, I was shocked to see that I’d made the Academic finals but had missed the cut of Pop Culture. This was the opposite of what I’d expected because my brain is full of hot trash about baseball and sitcoms. But it was trivia equivalent of cashing in a poker tournament, so I went in the next day playing with house money, though playing for no actual money.
The Hilton was bustling by 10:30 a.m on the Saturday I arrived. In alcoves and breakout rooms, quizzes were happening. Pub quiz masters from around the country were asking questions and playing snippets of songs, and enthusiasts were answering questions on their phones, or excitedly discussing their coming Jeopardy! auditions the next day.
I went into a breakout room for my Academic Eliminator, the trivia equivalent of walking into an underground bar full of murderers. There were 32 of us. Based on the faces I recognized, I realized it would be a tough feat to make it to the round of 16. They passed out our answer sheets. We had just a few minutes to answer 15 questions. But first, we had to do another goddamn math tiebreaker. We flipped the sheets over.
I knew some of the answers. Actually, I knew nine of the answers and was able to guess a tenth. As for the rest, well, I tried. I incorrectly identified the Fujita Scale as ranking hurricanes (it is tornadoes), the zygomatic bone as the eardrum (it is the cheekbone) and the bloodless coup that installed William of Orange as The Wars of the Roses (it was the Glorious Revolution). I am not perfect! In fact, I was so imperfect that I had the worst score out of all 32 Academic Eliminator finalists. My opponent had an equally bad score, but he beat me on the tiebreaker. And thus I left, never to return. As someone said to me later, “at least you made it into the room”.
I went to Sporclecon to see friends, to play games, and to find out exactly where I stood, even though I basically already knew. In trivia, I’m the equivalent of a Quad-A player in baseball: good enough to play in the majors as a defensive substitute or a spot starter or a back-end bench player. I can get the trivia equivalent of a pinch double or a pitched scoreless inning from time to time; I can come in handy under the right circumstances. But I’m never going to be an All-Star, the best of the best.
If I ranked in the poker world where I rank in the trivia world, I would be very wealthy. But the opportunities to make real money in trivia are very rare. Instead, we answer questions as currency.
I staggered out of the Eliminator, defeated but not discouraged, and engaged with a Geography quiz ongoing in an alcove, hooking up with a group of random players, some of whom I knew and some of whom popped a marijuana edible while I watched with sweaty palms. Oh, how I miss quizzing while stoned, but I’m nearly five years sober and wasn’t about to blow that now just to get my kicks while naming the longest U.S. Interstate that doesn’t run East-West (It’s I-35). Besides, I had to be sober for Learned League Live.
Learned League Dead
There’s no better way to establish the true trivia pecking order than Learned League, the daily six-question email trivia quiz game, and there’s tougher form of Learned League than Learned League Live, which is a lot harder. For one, when you play regular LL, you get 24 hours to ponder answers on your phone or computer. Live is just that, live, and you only get a few minutes. And your opponent is sitting right next to you. And you have to do seven quizzes in a row.
Once again, I already pre-knew where I stood as I walked into the nest of vipers. I’m in a “Rundle A” of a Learned League sub-league, meaning the top division. But I usually finish somewhere in the middle of the pack. Once every few seasons, I finish second or third, which qualifies me for the Learned League championship, conducted over Zoom. This last championship, I made it past the first half cut, and then quickly tanked, finishing something like 310th out of more than 10,000 players. Pretty damn good! But not nearly the best.
Given that many of the people playing Learned League Live were the types of people who had beaten me in the first place (which is why they were at a trivia convention at all), I didn’t expect much better results. My good friend and frequent trivia teammate Allison, a D.C. resident, joined me for the 2:30 event. Alison is no trivia slouch. She won a game of Jeopardy! back in the day and does well at pub quizzes with her team. But upon walking into the conference room, she realized, as did I, that she was in deep shit.
“What is even happening?” she said.
Her confusion grew even greater when they gave us our table assignments. We split up and I found myself at a table with eight quizzers, including, much to my great dismay, Victoria Groce, who is the only female chaser on the American version of The Chase, and, more importantly, who people widely regard as the finest quiz mind in the entire world. At that point, I knew that my dreams of winning my Learned League table were completely dead, and that, really, I was just going to have to try to survive.
The people in charge of the quiz, who ran it quite well and efficiently given the chaos surrounding them, explained the scorekeeping rules, which are too complicated to relay here. Then they showed us a sample quiz. And then it was time to play our first match. I got a few questions right, but lost. Meanwhile, Allison texted me.
“I accidentally did the sample quiz instead of the actual quiz,” she said.
This was quite alarming, since the sample quiz contained questions like:
“The McDongle, Julia Bickle, Ron F. Kennedy, Brad Lee, and Nickelbacker Causeways all span what bay?” (She answered Plymouth, quite logically).
“Crowley, Croughley, Crauley, Emergencia, SikTh, Caribbean Spleen, Vodka’s Village, and Pork’s Bowling Hall are all bodegas that appear in what TV series that appeared in 1860?” (Her answer: Peaky Blinders).
Needless to say, Allison didn’t win, as she was accidentally taking an imaginary nonsense quiz. To make matters worse, her opponent was Roger Craig, widely considered one of the top 20 Jeopardy! players of all time. He was very gracious about the whole thing, and now they are friends.
Next, I played Victoria Groce herself, and had a fine game where I got four questions right. Unfortunately, she got all six questions right. I was just an inconvenient road-bump on her route to winning the Learned League Live championship, which she did. Then after that I lost my third game in a row.
Finally, I won one, against a woman who admitted she had severe dyslexia and couldn’t properly read any of the questions. That wasn’t exactly satisfying for me. Then I won another one, against a good trivia player named Brick. And then disaster struck.
I flipped the page of my question sheet and started to ponder the set. Victoria Groce, sitting right next to me, burned through her entire sheet in a minute, answering it faster than someone filling out a health screening form. In another room, people who were having more fun than us, or at least than me, were doing a music quiz. The sounds of ‘Uptown Funk’ filled the room. I was trying to remember the type of plant that Gregor Mendel used in his experiments.
Groce, in the meantime, was doing, while seated, all of Bruno Mars’s choreography from the Uptown Funk video. I don’t blame her. If I were the best in the world at something, anything, I, too, would dance for joy. “I’m just having such a great time!” she said. Well, I was not and I put down the answer “marijuana” (it is peas). It didn’t matter, though, because, as it turned out, I was doing the wrong answer sheet. So I scored zero and lost even though my opponent only got one question right.
I texted Allison and told her what had happened.
“Ahaha,” she wrote back. “We are thriving.”
At this point, I was feeling pretty pissed, but at least I’d already done the quiz that we were going to do next. But that didn’t matter because my opponent got all her questions right and beat me even though I got five out of six right. I finished Learned League Live with a 2-5 record. “Fucking typical,” I said, tearing up my answer sheet and storming away in a huff.
I met Allison on the way out.
“That was crazy,” she said. “But at least I won one of my matches.”
“I won two,” I said. “But one was against someone who couldn’t read.”
“Wow, that is pathetic,” I said.
Tell me about it. Someday, I vowed, perhaps even that very night, the spotlight would shine on me. It didn’t, of course, though not for lack of effort.
If you were a Jeopardy! fan, the ‘Battle of the Brains’ event at Sporclecon would have been your Disneyland. You couldn’t shake a table without a former contestant falling out. My team, which, over a couple of glasses of wine and a strong espresso at an Italian restaurant, we decided to call “Major Threat” in tribute to a classic D.C. punk band, contained six former contestants, which is a lot considering you could only have six players per team. We were competing for a top prize of $5000.
In addition to me and Allison, the team featured my good friend and frequent teammate Jared Hall, who won six games in 2013, Christine Whelchel, who won several games this year and flew directly to D.C. from taping the Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions in Los Angeles (she was tired), as well as Amanda Basta and Maggie Schrieter, two former contestants who did not win but were obviously very intelligent and also excellent company. This lineup would have guaranteed us a win at almost any bar trivia night in North America. My goal, given the absolute death march of competition in the room, and given the fact that I basically constructed the team through posts on the Sporclecon Facebook page, was to finish in the top 20 percent.
Over the years, I’ve played team trivia in Austin rock clubs, hockey arenas in Denver and Boston, Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas, and, mostly recently, before COVID stopped the scene in its tracks, at the Grand Ballroom in Chicago’s Navy Pier. But few venues were more attractive or appropriate than the International Ballroom at the Washington Hilton, a gorgeous setting where they hold the White House Correspondents’ Dinner every year.
I’ll end the suspense. Sporcle ran a good show with few technical glitches. The questions were challenging, but still fun. A band called Lawrence, a kind of Upper West Side indie funk outfit featuring a brother and sister, played a set and a musical round of trivia and were generally charming. We played pretty well, and were in the top 10 at the first intermission. But we didn’t win. We finished 24th out of 95 teams, pretty good, not great, but there were no arguments and we had a nice time.
Though we made a mistake mid-game by naming Sojourner Truth as the answer to a question instead of Harriet Tubman, Sporcle saved about 35 percent of the available points for the last two questions, and that’s where we blew a tire.
We actually did really well at the Name The Last 10 TV Shows (No Repeats) to win the Outstanding Comedy Emmy since 2004. I’d actually studied that material the day before while sitting in the Reading Room of the Library Of Congress, where I’d applied to become a reader. Why, you might ask, when you have the entirety of human knowledge at your disposal, would you study Emmy Comedy Winners? Well, on Saturday night, my instincts proved correct. I only missed The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and, out of indie snobbery, Everybody Loves Raymond. I refused to put down Parks and Recreation, often nominated, never winning, and definitely refused to list The Big Bang Theory, which was the highest-rated show but even Emmy voters didn’t like it.
But our real downfall was The Ten Most Populous State Capitols. Sporcle stopped the scoring at the point of the answer sheet where we got one wrong. We correctly named Phoenix, Atlanta, Denver, Boston, and Austin. But then we swerved away and didn’t put Oklahoma City and Columbus, even though people suggested them. We did have Indianapolis and Nashville but it was too late. The other one was Sacramento. If we’d nailed that question, we would have been very close. Instead, a team of absolute trivia savages won the game, beating several other teams of absolute trivia savages.
Waiting outside for my Uber after the game, I talked to a guy whose team had spiked the state capitals question. “I’ve done that quiz on Sporcle like 100 times,” he said. “There was no way I was going to miss it.”
And now I knew the secret to winning Battle of the Brains. Do every quiz on Sporcle 100 times. That could be arranged.
Clash of the Titans
It was after midnight when I got back to where I was staying, with my cousin Christopher (also a former Jeopardy! contestant). He and I talked while watching west coast college football. Then I stayed up grinding my teeth about the missed state capitals until 4 a.m. This was somewhat unfortunate, as I had more trivia starting at 10:30 on Sunday morning.
I loaded up my travel backpack, since I was flying out of Reagan right after the conference ended, and bivouacked to the Hilton. It was time to compete in BP Titans, a Quiz Bowl-style pop culture trivia competition. My team was comprised of frequent Book and Film Globe contributor Daniel Cohen, an absolute monster of trash trivia, and his friends Aaron and Bobby, who I hadn’t played with before but they also both proved to be equally monstrous.
This was buzzer territory, which I was very familiar with from my game-show experiences. Our team started off strong with a close victory over a good team, and a not-so-close victory over a not-so-good team, even though in the second game my brain turned to spaghetti and I couldn’t remember the name of the TV show Severance, which I’d watched all of, and called it “Separation”. That proved to be a non-fatal mistake, but in our third game, I fumbled the ball again when I got confused by a question and wanted to name the actresswho had played Megan Draper on Mad Men, when, in fact, the answer was just “Draper.” In any case, we were playing a team from the famous O’Brien’s Pub Quiz in Los Angeles, the best and toughest pub quiz in the country.
That team beat us in a fairly close game. Then we drew them again in the next round, the playoffs, and they beat us again, even though were were ahead with four rounds to go. But we fumbled a Quentin Tarantino question and I mistakenly answered “Julio Rodriguez” to a baseball question when the answer clearly was “Vladimir Guerrero Jr.”
Now the pressure was off and we were playing consolation games. One of our players bowed out because he had a Jeopardy! audition, and we subbed in a guy named Andrew, probably one of the top ten quizzers in America. We won our last two games easily, and I had some of my best gets of the day, snapping off “the Rockford Files” when all the reader said was “Noah Beery Jr.”, instantly knowing that Eileen Brennan played Mrs. Peacock in Clue, and, most impressively, to me at least, buzzing in with “Princess Diana” with the clue “in one movie featuring this character, she drives with her two children while singing ‘All I Need Is A Miracle.’
The other guys on the team played equally as well, if not better, and I ended my Sporclecon with a win and a strong feeling of Quad-A success.
One should say, about a convention based around their favorite hobby: I had a lot of fun and met some nice people. And that’s what I heard from a lot of attendees, though most of the people I heard that from were either people who won big, who had no chance of winning and therefore didn’t care, or who are well-adjusted and aren’t using competitive brain sports to try and plug holes from the patterns of obscure hurts and insecurities that have pained them since childhood.
I did have fun, Sporcle did a great job with the convention, and I did meet some very nice people. But, as usual, I didn’t win big, even though I had done perfectly well. In the words of Peter Griffin, that really grinds my gears.
I flew home, my brain dribbling out my ears, and read the second half of the novel ‘Heat 2’ in between intermittent death naps from my Southwest middle seat. My wife picked me up at the airport. She was in a fine mood, as we both have been since our nest emptied last month for what seems to be the final time. She drove me home, heated me up a bowl of homemade chili, and we watched House of the Dragon while our dogs crawled all over us. It was good to be back with the family.
Before going to bed, I booted up my desktop and did a couple of Sporcle quizzes. You know. Just to stay sharp.