How To Improve as a Player

Like nearly all activities in which score is kept, quiz bowl is fun to play on a casual, social level without investing significant time in improving one's ability. Nonetheless, it is a competitive endeavor, and no national championship has ever been won by a team, however intelligent and educated, that had just sat down to play for the very first time. Winning consistently at the highest level has only been brought about by diligent, directed preparations.

This article describes ten methods that players have successfully used to improve themselves and offers some links to resources that might be useful in pursuing them. These suggestions should be equally applicable to any level of play (middle school, high school, community college, college), though the actual material that one should study will vary.

  1. Competing. The most obvious (and most enjoyable) route to improvement as a player is actually competing in quiz bowl matches. In addition to simply hearing questions (and their answers!), there is no substitute for real tournaments when it comes to the non-knowledge-related parts of the game: working together on bonuses, developing the intuition to anticipate questions, shaking off the effects of a bad buzz, and simply hearing and processing clues in the rapid-fire way in which they are often delivered.

    Teams that are serious about getting better should compete as often as their schedule, chauffeurs, and budget allow; you can find NAQT tournaments on NAQT's schedule page, while others are listed on The Quizbowl Resource Center site.

    As a general rule, tournaments are interested in having everybody attend, particularly new schools. Usually nothing more needs to be done than e-mailing or calling the listed contact to say, "Washington High School wants to attend your tournament on January 28 with two teams; can you send me the necessary information?" Rarely is any sort of league membership or organizational affiliation required, and, if it is, it is usually prominently mentioned in the announcement for the event. Most tournaments are willing to take more than one team from a school and often discount teams beyond the first, so there's no need to artificially limit your institution to one team if you have lots of interested players. Sometimes tournaments will even allow players from different schools to play together (on teams ineligible for the title); if you have an "extra" player or two, ask if this would be allowed so that your own playing time or that of your teammates or students isn't reduced by being forced to alternate.

    If tournaments are scarce in your region, you can host your own or start a local league. NAQT can supply questions for such an event or, if you have a lot of time, you can write your own. NAQT is also more than willing to offer advice on planning your event and can provide contact lists for nearby schools to invite.

    In short, play as frequently as you can. This is most important for beginning players who need to develop a sense of "what comes up" and "when should I buzz." As players mature and begin attending harder tournaments, the value of more concentrated, knowledge-based preparation (i.e., "studying") rises, but in the beginning, there is nothing better than actual matches.

  2. Practicing. Real competition is better, but practice can fulfill some of the same objectives. If you have a choice of practice materials, you'll want to choose those that are similar to those at the competitions you will be entering and that are as hard as possible without being demoralizing; harder questions will expose you to more answers and more clues, which serve players better in the long run than packets in which nine-tenths of the bonus points are converted. For formats, like NAQT's, that feature both tossups and bonuses, it is important to resist the temptation to only play tossups if the true goal is improvement; bonuses contain the harder questions and the harder clues and there is a great deal of value in just knowing that a certain answer exists--oftentimes a difficult tossup can be answered at the end, on the giveaway clue, without knowing anything substantive about the subject. In addition, it is a truism that new topics enter the quiz bowl "canon" as bonus parts and eventually become tossup answers. Practicing on bonuses will introduce you to these topics earlier rather than later.

    NAQT does not recommend practicing with one-fact, Trivial-Pursuit-style questions if the goal is team improvement; these questions do not represent quiz bowl as played at the level of national competition and the impressive reaction speed that might be realized is simply not equal to the benefit that could be gained from practicing on pyramidal questions. Please note that NAQT has no opinion whatsoever on the value of things done for fun or in order to attract new players or as fundraisers; if you enjoy playing one-clue tossups or Trivial Pursuit, that's absolutely fine, but it will not serve to raise the level of your quiz bowl play to that required of national championship contenders.

    Most teams, however, don't have a real choice as to practice materials--they go so quickly that, quite soon, everything that is available has been played. If you need additional practice materials, here are some choices:

    • NAQT has individual sample packets available for download. These will only last you a game, but if you are just starting out, it is better than nothing.

    • NAQT also sells tournament sets from previous years as practice material. The invitational series sets will serve as excellent preparation for high school, community college, and young college teams. Experienced college teams will want to practice on the old Intercollegiate Fall Tournament sets or Sectional Championship Sets.

    • You will also want to acquire the sets used as tournaments you attend; most hosts will sell them to you afterwards, even if they haven't announced that they were going to do so in advance. You can buy the questions used at NAQT events for $25 after the tournament, which is cheaper than the $35 plus shipping that the set would cost if purchased over our website. This practice is also environmentally sound, since it reduces the amount of paper that the host has to throw out.

    • There are also free question sets available at the Stanford Archive and at the Quizbowl Packet Archive. As they come from authors and editors all over the country and were written with many styles and distributions in mind, the quality and difficulty is highly variable. Almost all of these sets are in the ubiquitous tossup-bonus format used at the college level. If you are interested in such things, play the sets in chronological order and watch the game's standards evolve toward those of the present day.

    Most national-caliber teams practice four to six hours per week with new questions whenever they can obtain them. Again, there is no obligation to work this hard to participate in and enjoy quiz bowl, but if you want to win at the national level, it will probably take that much commitment from yourself and your teammates.

  3. Writing Questions. Writing questions is a traditional and proven way of improving as a player; few things fix new facts in a way that is as likely to assist their recall during matches as actually framing questions that use them. That said, writing questions is very time-consuming (and writing competition-quality questions even more so); experienced players sometimes question its return per invested-hour when compared with other approaches.

    Sometimes question-writing can't be avoided; many invitational tournaments at the collegiate level (and a smaller number at the high school level) require that teams submit a packet, so it helps to have a store of pristine questions for your share of the packet or, at the very least, a developed sense of what resources you'll want to use and what will make for a good question.

    Question writing is most useful in your weakest areas as a player; those are the areas in which reading (or at least skimming) reference works, verifying facts, and thinking of ways to connect the subject to what you are already know are most valuable. It's easier to write questions in your fields of expertise, but doesn't produce as much improvement. It never hurts to write two or three questions on the same subject, just to cover the material and phrase the clues in different ways. Take careful note of interesting anecdotes or links to other subjects--these will also appeal to other people and will be chosen as lead-ins to their own questions on the topic. Also note the first things listed in encyclopedia articles; these will often be the facts that end up as giveaways.

    This document isn't a primer on question writing, but there are several such guides available on the Web. Not everything in those documents is accepted by modern players (or was accepted by their contemporaries), but, by and large, they are useful guides to producing questions. If at all possible, you'll want to get experienced players to review your questions, particularly if they are going to be read at a tournament.

    If you have trouble motivating yourself to write, you could try writing questions for practice (perhaps competing with teammates such that the writer of the fewest buys age-appropriate drinks for the others). As your writing matures, you could also start writing freelance packets for tournament playoffs (watch The Quizbowl Resource Center for advertisements) in exchange for practice questions or money and/or even writing for NAQT itself.

  4. Studying You Gotta Know Lists. Each month NAQT publishes a short article of topics that players "gotta know". For example, "You Gotta Know These Economists." These contain eight to twelve items that come up over and over again in quiz bowl, either because of their intrinsic importance (mostly) or their idiosyncratic appeal. A Division I collegiate team would be expected to know nearly everything on the lists from their giveaways. A high school team that knew everything on the lists would probably be in a position to do extremely well at nationals. There's obviously a lot more that gets asked about than what is in the articles, but measured in terms of points-earned-per-fact-learned, these are the subjects to start with.

  5. Reading. NAQT hopes that quiz bowl will introduce players to new ideas, books, disciplines, and interests, but concedes that that actually reading the novels, dramas, and (to a lesser extent) poems that come up is a very inefficient way to improve as a player (though it is very worthwhile for other reasons). That said, NAQT emphasizes plot-based literature questions (rather than title-author matching) and knowing the entire plot of a novel becomes increasingly important at higher levels of play (the HSNCT, college play in general); for better-known works, it is also true at the level of regular-season high school play. Teams would do well to have players who have collectively read everything on our list of most frequently asked works of literature; questions about these works will not hesitate to ask about characters, settings, plot points, and general themes, with the detail required increasing at each level of play. Conversely, for works that come up less often, knowing the author, the name of the major character, and the single most important plot element, will often garner for the full 30 points on a bonus.

    As you can probably guess, reading summaries of works of literature is often rewarded; NAQT recommends several such collections.

  6. Reference Works. Another good way to prepare is by reading reference works that go over wide swathes of history or learning; particularly good are those that purport to enumerate what everybody should have learned (or be in the process of learning) in high school. These would include The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy and An Incomplete Education. Similarly useful are works that link together developments and ideas from different disciplines (such as A Short History of Everything) or which are general histories of one kind of knowledge (like The Discoverers). These often derive much of their entertainment value from interesting facts and anecdotes about discoverers or discoveries and it is exactly those anecdotes that tend to find their way into questions. It's also true that there aren't so many of these books around--you are likely to read some that are also used as references by the people, whoever they may be, who are writing the questions for your next tournament.

    Clearly writers who use any of these popular sources should make doubly sure that their questions aren't merely summaries of the articles and don't duplicate any of the peculiar phrases found in them!

  7. Lists. The most stereotypical, most mocked, and least fun means of preparing for tournaments is studying lists of facts. There are many good topics: foreign capitals, Nobel Prize winners, geologic periods, European monarchs, Chinese dynasties, authors of novels, artists of paintings, nicknames of symphonies, vice presidents of presidents, and so forth. Even just a few practice games will suggest many other common linkages that could be put into tabular form and memorized.

    This is a powerful tool for those with the proper motivation, but it is best leavened with reading, question writing, and actual gameplay, because the time spent on the pure lists of facts will go much further with mental structures to which to attach them. Learning that Christopher Isherwood wrote Goodbye to Berlin will not stick in the mind nearly so well if you know nothing else about him. Conversely knowing something about Isherwood will make it easier to buzz on the words "wrote Goodbye" if the previous clues in the question suggest 1930s' Germany.

    NAQT sells frequency list study guides of the works of literature (1,401 titles), art (257 titles), and music (522 titles) that have come up most frequently since its very first packet set in November 1996. The lists include the title of the work, the creator, the genre of the work, and its year of creation. The lists are also available on a subscription basis so you can get updated ones each year at a fraction of the cost of the original.

    Don't be afraid to study lists if you think that your team has a shot at greatness; nearly all top-echelon players have done so at some point in their careers. Just don't allow lists to become the principal focus of your preparation.

  8. Notebooks. A technique that several players have used with great success is taking a pocket notebook to tournaments and practices. The idea is not to record every single unknown fact for later memorization, but to make a list of answers of which you have never, or only vaguely, heard. After the tournament, you should go through the notebook and look up basic information (an online encyclopedia article, perhaps) about each one so that you will at least know the giveaway clues if the answer comes up again. Even better would be the practice of writing a question or two about each new topic to cement the knowledge.

    This is more useful than it sounds because once a topic has come up in quiz bowl it is very likely to do so again. Players writing questions for invitational tournaments will tend to write about subjects that they know have been asked before; many are also intrigued by new topics and new ideas and the circulation of tournament questions as practice material ensures that many other players will have heard the same new question as you and been motivated to learn about it as well. And if they learn about it by writing questions, those questions will probably end up being submitted to a tournament.

    The overall difficulty of the collegiate circuit began to dramatically increase after 1993 when the widespread availability of the Internet made it easier to organize tournaments and purchase practice questions; as teams practiced on questions from all over the country, answers that had previously been considered new, or even impossibly difficult, became comparatively commonplace and teams accepted the growth of what was considered "askable" as a fact of the game. A similar phenomenon has taken place at the level of nationals-caliber high school teams.

    This is good in the sense that players are exposed to a great deal more information and have undoubtedly learned much to stay competitive, but it has also raised the bar for new players and new schools looking to get involved; in 1993 four well-read students from a variety of majors could form a team that expected to win some of its games at its first tournament. In 2003 it's unlikely that four inexperienced players could take even one match from varsity teams with two years' experience. Younger teams shouldn't despair, though; there are plenty of juniorbird tournaments and other events with them in mind and everybody improves with practice. Everything that you ever hear a question on, you will eventually hear another question on, so take the time to learn at least the basic facts behind every answer you encounter.

  9. Current Events. A significant element of NAQT play consists of questions about current events, with about 50% of the material pertaining to the United States and 50% to the rest of the world. You can prepare for these by subscribing to--and reading--just about any newspaper, news magazine, or Internet news site. Almost all such questions will be from the past 18 months, with most focusing on the previous six.

    NAQT emphasizes events of major importance--diplomatic initiatives, economic policies, elections, military actions, natural disasters, scientific discoveries, etc--and will ask relatively few questions about scandals or crimes. It shouldn't be hard to pick out the major news threads of the past several months and make notes of the people, places, groups, and ideas involved.

    At the very least, you'll want to be able to name the most recent Nobel Prize winners, the current cabinet, the presidents and/or prime ministers of major countries, recent Supreme Court decisions, and prominent senators and governors.

  10. Visual Art. Few high schools offer courses on art history and, while many colleges and universities do, not many quiz bowlers elect to make one part of their electives. Nonetheless, NAQT (and nearly every other group of question writers) believes the fine arts to be an important part of a well-rounded education and devote a significant, if small, quota to painting and sculpture.

    These questions are low-hanging fruit for players willing to expend some time preparing since there are relatively few works of visual art that come up with any regularity, in part because the lack of a standardized curriculum prevents detailed questions about harder works. Looking up those works would be an excellent way to have a good shot at the half-dozen-or-so painting and sculpture tossups per tournament. NAQT favors questions that describe the composition, detail, symbolism, and style of works of art (rather than just asking for their creators), so you'll want to make sure you can recognize the painting or sculpture from a description.

These are ten ideas that have worked for players in the past and which we recommend to teams interested in taking their game to the next level. We would be very interested in hearing from experienced players about other techniques that have helped them prepare for tournaments.