Meet Penn State’s Quiz Bowl Club
Kevin Deam takes his seat at the podium in 302 Sackett. He looks like a typical student, sporting a backwards blue Penn State ballcap, sweatpants, and a gray Philadelphia Eagles sweatshirt. While other students file in, he prepares his list of questions for tonight’s practice session.
After a long day of class and lecture, you’d think most students would be repulsed by the idea of more studying. You’d probably be right.
Then again, the members of the Penn State Quiz Bowl Club aren’t most students.
With a booming voice, Deam begins to rattle off question after question, not bothering to slow down for any reason — even to enunciate. The students sit at six desks piled in a half circle in front of the room, each seat holding a student and their buzzer. “The Judge,” a large, heavy briefcase holding the electronic buzzer system, rests on the table in front with cables spewing out in every direction like long black tentacles.
“The upper limit of this region is formed by the Loa River. A megaport to the east of this region is Mejillones. The Battle of Topater took place in this region near the cities of Iquique and Antofagasta, and this region…”
*Buzz* “Atacama Desert,” answered one student.
“Correct. Bonus round: These two regions were represented in the Pharaoh’s crown by the White Hedjet crown and the Red Deshret crown. For 10 points each, name these two regions, whose names refer to their positions along the Nile River.”
“Upper and Lower Egypt.”
“Correct. The Kingdoms of Kerma, Kush, and Meroe were located in this region in Southern Egypt and Sudan. The pharaohs of the 25th Dynasty were from this region.”
“Yes. When the Nubians adapted Egyptian culture, they also built these structures as tombs for their rulers.”
And so concludes question No. 5 of the Wednesday practice session for the Penn State Quiz Bowl Club.
“That was easy,” John Edward Slimak remarked from behind the row of desks. Slimak is president of the club, but everyone knows him as Eddie.
Easy? My head was still spinning. The dialogue above lasted roughly less than a minute and a half, as the questions and answers came one after the other in a dizzying display of knowledge. What exactly had I stumbled into on Wednesday night in 302 Sackett Building? Is this the secret location of the next Manhattan Project?
I was informed earlier that the questions would be from past high school quiz bowl competitions, so you can imagine my shame when I still didn’t know anything. Two lower level 20-question packets are practiced each week as part of “Warrior Wednesday.” There’s also “Tough Tuesday,” where the club practices a higher-level packet from past college competitions. And then there’s Thursday. Unfortunately, Thursday hasn’t been given a fun moniker.
“I’m trying to think of something like ‘Thoughtful Thursdays,’” Deam, the club’s secretary, pondered out loud.
The Quiz Bowl Club has been around since spring of 2008 when a club called “Knowledge Masters” was created by freshmen Adam Zydney and Walker Yeatman.
Zydney graduated with a degree in mathematics and computer science in 2011, and helped host high schoolers for NAQT PA State Championships as the club president during his undergraduate years. Today, he is a graduate teaching assistant in the math department, and is working on his Ph.D. in mathematics at Penn State, expected to be completed in 2016.
A graduate of State College Area High School, Yeatman competed on the “B” team when the school was ranked second in the country in Quiz Bowl, and his passion for trivia found its way onto Penn State’s campus.
A history major who has floated in and out of school, Yeatman is now 24 and still seeking his degree. Regardless of his enrollment status, he still maintains contact with the team, and will occasionally stop by evening practices.
“He’s our official, unofficial mascot,” Slimak said. “He’s still a wonderful Quiz Bowl player. Way better than any of us.”
For those unfamiliar with the Quiz Bowl rules, high school competitions are more like “Jeopardy!” with a grid on varying point values and the team assigned to pick a category. At the college level, a standard packet contains 20 “toss up” questions, with information presented in “reverse pyramid” style. In other words, the moderator starts by reading a vague description of the answer, and each following sentence adds more specific clues until one team guesses.
You can buzz in at anytime, but if you get it wrong while the question is still being read, your team loses five points and is not allowed to buzz in again for the remainder of the round. After a miss, common courtesy is to wait until the entire question is read to buzz in.
A “toss up” is worth 10 points, and some packets have “power,” which awards 15 points. “Power” is when you buzz in early and answer the question before a bigger clue is read. After each “toss up” is correctly guessed, the team receives three bonus questions, each worth 10 points.
Two organizations – The National Academic Quiz Tournaments (NAQT) and Partnership for Academic Competition Excellence (PACE) – are the benchmark for how packets are written and choosing what topics are distributed.
The three main topics are culture (classics, art, music, mythology), science (biology, chemistry, physics, social sciences, economics), and history (including geography). There’s also a fourth smaller category labeled as “trash,” which includes current events and pop culture.
Deam was even kind enough to draw me a handy Venn Diagram to explain.
The “trash” category is meant as a change of pace, and is good for a laugh. There have been questions about mythical creatures like Sasquatch and the Loch Ness monster in the past.
“I know we had a ‘Glee’ question once,” said Deam. “The guy that got it for our time got it really early, because he was a big fan. So it’s written in if the people who write the packets are big fans as well.”
Teams can be comprised of anywhere from one to four members. The club likes to stick to four members with diverse educations because there is often overlap between what somebody’s major is and what they’re knowledgeable of.
Deam said it’s great to have someone who’s a jack-of-all-trades to back people up, but knowing a specific area of study better than the competition is where to score the most points. Eddie is an expert in chemistry and physics. John, the treasurer, excels in history. Tom, the vice president, has an extensive knowledge of culture.
“If a question comes up about music time and composers, we’ll all just look at Tom and say, ‘Yo, the ball is in your court, man,'” Deam said. “And he’ll get it most of the time.”
Along with three weekly practice sessions, the club maintains a lobby in an online website that mimics exactly what a typical practice would be like for those looking to brush up on their trivia in certain topics.
In addition to practicing questions from past competitions, the club will also focus on learning strategies. Name association, pronunciation, and word association are all keys to recalling information quickly and effectively.
With name association, it’s less important to know the facts than to able to recall information quickly by matching a person with an idea.
“If they talk about a composer who started something off with a whip crack, you just know it’s [Maurice] Ravel,” Deam explained. “I have no idea who Ravel is, other than some Italian composer, but if I hear something started with a whip crack, I’m like, ‘Oooh, It’s Ravel.’”
Attendance is taken at every meeting, since it is one of the determining factors for deciding which members will travel to the next competition. Each of the 37 members are allowed to go to each competition, if they so choose. There are no dues, so travel costs are handled by the club’s involvement fund paid for by the university. The only way Penn State and other university Quiz Bowl teams acquire money is from fees accumulated by hosting tournaments.
The club hosted a high school level tournament last fall, and this upcoming spring, it plans on hosting something that mirrors the Minnesota undergraduate tournament, as well as another high school tournament.
It’s competed in two competitions so far this year, its first such action in two years.
“We’ve done very well for the condition the team was left in last year,” Deam said. “It was extremely disorganized, and we were very unsure of our financial situation heading into this year. Last year was kind of disappointing because we were unable to go to any tournaments.”
This year, it’s been a much different story.
“We’ve had a very good recruiting class, and we’ve got a lot more people to join and stay this year as opposed to last year,” Deam said. “We played against some really good teams, and for not going to an actual competition, we did pretty well.”
In the Penn Bowl hosted by the University of Pennsylvania earlier this semester, 27 teams from around the country competed in three brackets of nine. The “A” Team finished 4-4 and and fourth in its bracket, while the “B” Team finished 3-5 and seventh in its bracket. Both did fairly well in the playoffs, advancing at least one or two rounds.
“We didn’t advance very far, but we competed well against high caliber teams,” Deam said.
Competitions like the Penn Bowl are often held in buildings like Sackett — long hallways with classrooms just large enough to accommodate two teams. A “War Room” is set up in one classroom in the in the middle of the hallway, acting as the hub of the competition. Organizers from the host university gather information about scores, records, and power rankings to prepare for playoffs and hand out schedules. The packets, if located on computer files, are password-protected and kept inside.
Normally held on the weekends, tournaments are all-day events. They normally begin at 9 a.m., and depending on how far you go in playoffs, will usually conclude around 6 p.m.
For some of the new members, Quiz Bowl takes on different meanings. While the thrill of competition is no doubt one of the main attractions, some look at it as a great way to learn new information in a fun environment. Others simply enjoy the camaraderie.
“I like knowing trivia other people don’t know,” said Luke Carney, a sophomore majoring in IST. “I don’t want to say that so I seem better than other people, but…”
“So you can be more fun at parties,” Deam interjected flatly.
“Yeah, exactly,” Carney answered with a wry smile. “I’m very competitive, so competition interests me.”
In the end, no matter what your interests or motivations are, the members all agreed that buzzing in first and answering a question correctly is an undeniably great sensation.
“It doesn’t happen often,” Carney said, “but when it does, it’s a real euphoric feeling.”