Kicking off a series of articles on tips for improving your quiz knowledge, Alex Hardwick, current Oxford PhD student and a 2019-20 University Challenge contestant, offers his perspective on how to get better at quizbowl in nine (not always easy) steps.
When you start quizzing seriously — trying out for University Challenge, turning up to buzzer practices, even entering your first quizbowl tournament — it can feel deeply intimidating. You know stuff; you find the literary works of Jeanette Winterson, the scientific discoveries of Rosalind Franklin and/or the plot development of The Simpsons fascinating — but it feels as though someone else buzzes with the answer before the question is even speaking a language you understand. In many ways, for me, it still feels that way. There’s a vast amount of knowledge, spanning topics you never even dreamed existed, and the quizzers who’ve been doing this for a while seem to know… well, almost all of it.
I’ve been doing this quite seriously — going to buzzer practices at the Oxford University Quiz Society, and working in my own time to try to improve — for eight months at the time of writing of this article. I remember how it feels when you think that you don’t know much, you have no idea where to even start, and it seems that all the scarily good quizzers are simply unbeatable.
But they can be beaten. And, while eight months won’t turn you one of the country’s top student quizzers, it’s certainly enough to start holding your own in seriously high-calibre tournaments, winning matches against good teams and being the first person in the whole world to get a tossup on the First Battle of Bull Run. If your interests lie outside quizbowl itself, eight months could be enough (with a sprinkling of luck, magic and a strong diverse team) not only to get you onto University Challenge1, but to give a really good account of yourself on the show.
The advice below is taken from the ways I’ve been trying to improve over the last few months.
Before you read
Remember: quizzing should be fun! As such, you should focus on topics which you find interesting and enjoyable. If you find yourself getting horrifically bored studying every geographical feature in Ecuador, you’re doing it wrong. The wonderful thing about quizbowl is that you are always in a team, so you don’t need to know things about every academic discipline. Having really deep knowledge of only African history might be just as valuable — and get as many points — as knowing a scattering of things across literature, history, sciences and music. This means you’re free to focus on areas you like.
Also, this guide is not prescriptive. Doing even just one or two of these steps, consistently and often, will turn you into an excellent quizzer who can make a serious impact on most novice, regular or even open quizbowl tournaments you enter. Don’t feel like you have to do everything on this list to stand a chance.
Finally, nobody becomes a magical generalist who knows everything about everything in a day (or even a year). I’d advise focusing on specific areas — literature, geography, medical biology, whatever interests you personally.
Taking your first steps
I began by watching past episodes of University Challenge (optionally: practise on YouTube by buzzing with the spacebar). When an answer or a fact comes up that you don’t know, write it down. Later: search Wikipedia and learn about those things. This is particularly handy for learning certain quiz-facts which come up often and will frequently get you buzzes (examples include Whistler suing the art critic Ruskin for libel; a scrabble game in The Handmaid’s Tale; vitamin B12 containing a cobalt atom in the middle of a corrin ring). University Challenge questions, which normally contain one or two clues (much shorter than typical quizbowl questions), not only give you a place to start learning topics, but are a rich source of such facts.
Go to your university quiz society’s buzzer practice. OUQS holds weekly buzzer practices, and lots of other universities are starting quiz societies with buzzer practices (if your university doesn’t have a quiz society, you could always start one yourself…. These are a great way to make friends, hone your buzzer technique (it’s one thing to learn about Margaret Atwood’s novels, but recalling the title Oryx and Crake under time pressure is difficult; buzzer practice helps with that!) and meet fun people who do have interests beyond the regional flags of Spain…
I’d treat buzzer practices the same way as you treat a University Challenge episode: make sure you write down answerlines that you haven’t heard of. Later that evening/week/month (yes, I procrastinate frequently), go Wikipedia-hunting and learn about it. If you feel overwhelmed, filter by discipline: start by writing down all the literature answerlines, or all the history, or all the fine arts… There’s so much information out there, but it’s okay: nobody starts by becoming a star generalist.
Do you feel like you know absolutely nothing about, e.g., British history, and you’d like to at least know vaguely what happens in each period, the order of the monarchs and some things they did? Find an entry-level reference work — I’m currently reading a fairly old OUP History of Britain and Ireland. Wikipedia articles such as History of Britain also give you a good overview. These are often quite basic, but great for developing a general “background” knowledge of vaguely what happens when. This gives you a mental framework, into which you can later slot specific facts. Background knowledge also gives you the crucial ability to make educated guesses. Many bonus questions have been answered using reasoning such as: “Well, I don’t know which British monarch faced Wyatt’s Rebellion, but this sounds a bit like the Tudor period, and the question mentioned Protestantism, and I know that Mary I was pretty unpopular with the Protestants…”
Simply knowing the dates of George III’s reign won’t get you early buzzes in quizbowl — the questions focus on depth, and knowing the most basic factual information will probably only allow you to buzz at the very end. However, buzzes towards the end of tossups are still important, and this basic general knowledge will allow you to access lots of bonus questions you couldn’t access before (in addition, University Challenge questions often prize entry-level factual information more than the longer quizbowl tossups).
So, go browse your local library or bookshop! Many reference guides exist for broad periods of history and other topics, especially visual art history (with pictures!). In addition, while you’re reading for a broad survey, do note down niche facts you find interesting. An encyclopedia might have a cool sidebar about the Gordon Riots on the general George III page — this could be a first-line clue at a quizbowl tournament near you.
We should talk about Sporcle and list-learning. Sporcle online quizzes are excellent for developing passive background knowledge — in particular, quizzes such as “name the literary work from the first line” are great, because first lines of literary works often come up as late clues. However, at this stage, I don’t recommend memorising lists. Quizbowl doesn’t reward list-learning. It doesn’t ask “who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993?” — instead, they’ll talk about specific works which that Nobel Laureate wrote.
University Challenge questions sometimes reward list-learning (although this is still comparatively limited, and their questions are increasingly creative: you’ll do better by learning about an author than by learning that an author exists). If you find yourself on a UC team, preparing for the application process (or better still, preparing for the show itself after a successful interview!) it is a good idea to make sure your team covers stock lists. The Earth’s geological periods, the periodic table elements and maybe even the Nobel Prize winners by year are useful bases to cover, and could well get points.
I like to surf down the daily Wikipedia “did you know” and “on this day” articles. I’ll read the first paragraph of each, and I’ll go deeper/follow links within the article if I find it interesting. This is a very nice “little and often” way you can expand your general knowledge into some very eclectic areas.
More advanced things
So, you’ve watched University Challenge episodes, done some quizbowl buzzer practice, leafed through an art history reference guide, stared at the Arnolfini Wedding and wondered why both figures look like Vladimir Putin. What next?
By this point, you’re pretty well placed to get involved in quizbowl tournaments, especially at the novice level — you definitely know more than you think you do. Novice tournaments are great for people at such level — trying out quiz and consciously learning for the first time. But what if you’re really ambitious, and want to rake in more buzzes — especially in the first few lines of a tossup? In that case, you should do a deep dive into specific areas of quiz knowledge.
Some background might be useful here. In each set of quizbowl questions, there is a consistent distribution, which guarantees fair-ish representation for every academic (and some non-academic) subject. In a 20 question packet, there is usually one question on British literature, one on European history, one on visual fine arts, one on classical music… I recommend picking a specific area of the subject distribution. For the last few months, I’ve been working on drama: Athol Fugard, Lorraine Hansberry, Aphra Behn, Ibsen, Ionesco, Brecht, etc. I read their Wikipedia pages, read plot summaries of their most important works, and make bullet-point notes of key plot points and characters. Alternatively, you could focus on Romantic-era Classical music, or Russian literature, or French history.
So, you love Russian literature and want to get more tossups on it. This is where you’ll encounter “the canon” — in each topic, there is core material which comes up often in quiz tournaments at all levels. Tactically, you’ll want to start with the canon, and branch out from there. But how do you know what the canon is? You can guess it partly from who’s a Big Name in that discipline. Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy are both important, so you should absolutely engage with classics like Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, Anna Karenina and War and Peace (either read them or learn the plots and main characters). But you’ll also get a better idea of which authors and texts are canonical by going to quiz practice and writing answerlines, and — more advanced — by mining the Collegiate Quizbowl Packet Archive for more ideas. This will give you an idea of canonical authors/texts which you wouldn’t necessarily guess — Gogol’s short story The Overcoat, for example.
If you enjoy a certain area, you can start working to get buzzes earlier in the tossup by reading the more obscure things they wrote. A tossup on Chekhov might well start with clues from Ivanov before it starts talking about The Cherry Orchard. Reading the third- or fourth- most important work by a certain author is no substitute for engaging with their absolute classic works — but I’d recommend dipping into those obscure short stories.
What about areas other than literature? Again, the best way to start picking up points is to engage with the key canonical works. If you like classical music: listen to pieces of music which you find beautiful, and which come up a lot in quizbowl (Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony…). With composers or pieces that you enjoy, do some reading — biographical details about composers, any strange or unusual instrumentation their pieces use. Then dip into their lesser-known works (read about and listen to parts of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty as well as Swan Lake) or other composers of the same period (Rimsky-Korsakov).
The take-home message here is to go deeper into areas you find interesting, while ideally focusing on concise, easier-to-assimilate media. Find a good podcast or a YouTube video on Elizabeth I, or Hildegard of Bingen, rather than slogging through the latest heavy academic work on them. Above all, quizbowl is wonderfully diverse and will take your interests into areas you never even knew existed. Let it carry you, discover fascinating new areas and bore all your friends by telling them about breakaway states in Africa over dinner.
Your practice attendance and reading of past questions has revealed that Chekhov comes up a lot in tournaments. You’ve read The Cherry Orchard and also dipped into other works like Uncle Vanya. Is there an easy way to go even deeper, without reading literally everything Chekhov wrote?
Yes! You can directly look up the clues often used in questions about Chekhov in quizbowl tournaments. Your best friend here is QuizDB. You can use this to search the archive of past Quizbowl questions by answerline, such as “Chekhov” or “The Seagull”. Note that different tournaments have questions at different difficulty levels: a difficult open-tournament question about, say, Christopher Marlowe might not mention “the face that launched a thousand ships” until the penultimate line, whereas a generally easier college tournament such as ACF Fall would probably give that clue earlier. Noting down some of those past clues will also get you tossups.
None of this is easy. It takes a long time to get a handle on the canon of any discipline in quiz. There are Classics questions that I miss, even though I’m doing a PhD in Ancient Greek literature. I still get beaten to questions on Euripides, even though I’ve read all of Euripides’ works, some multiple times.
But that’s partly why quiz is fun: even the best quizzers can’t quite lock down their pet disciplines, and the opposite is true at beginner level. Do a little bit of work - a few of the steps I suggest above, little and often - and you’ll be surprised by how quickly you start getting points on a variety of topics, even in a room with “better” quizzers on topics that are supposedly “theirs”. It could be an incredible early buzz on Kazuo Ishiguro because, avoiding all his best-known works, you decided to read the heart-stoppingly beautiful short stories in his Nocturnes. It could be a buzz on Lloyd George because you happened to read about the Coupon Election in an encyclopedia, and wrote it down in the corner of a notebook somewhere. Or maybe you’ll sneak a science buzz, despite knowing no science, because (in a sleepy room at lunchtime) you’re vaguely aware that when you heat sand quite a lot you get glass.
By that point, you’ll already be holding your own in strong tournaments. And by that point, you’ll be hooked. :)