Monday, 10 September 2012

Chicago Open Report

Brendan tried out for Jeopardy last year. He knows the names of a lot of former congressmen and Renaissance painters and stuff.

I'm pretty obsessed with playing quizbowl and learning / remembering the things that would help you win at quizbowl, but a lot of people are still a lot better than me at this stuff. Last month I went on a road trip to play sort of a masters quizbowl tournament against very strong competition. I wrote most of this report in a kind of dazed week after my trip, when I had exams coming up.

Thursday Night

Ottawa and Chicago are far apart, man. I guess you can technically go from Ottawa to Chicago in a day, if you consider a day to be 24 hours, which I do since that's approximately how many hours I stay awake for in an average day. I meet Patrick at midnight to get on the overnight bus to Toronto, the driver tells us not to drink alcohol on the bus, and in the first four hours of my trip I completely kill the battery on my music player. I even brought a pillow to sleep on the bus, but I am tightly-wound and never relax, not even with pillows, while Patrick is pretty much a ten-toed sloth who falls asleep without turning his music off.

Kevin Smith screeches into my ears about driving the Batmobile or something until I get exhausted and listen to a BBC culture show about the Etruscans. I only remember like two things about the Etruscans even though I just heard about them, but that's fine because I only really need to know the basics to feel smart, and because Patrick and Jay are Rome-monsters who can buzz on anything about Rome anyway. I listen to Rita Dove speak on some other podcast for half an hour before my battery kicks it, and Rita Dove is cool because she's 2500 years closer to my time and she doesn't have a thick Scottish accent.

Off the bus we go to a 24-hour Subway, which is totally a thing now, and Patrick explains to me that the Penn campus is surrounded by armed guards so no one stumbles through and steals the Penn crown jewels. We stumble our way to the GO station and I notice for the first time that the people I travel with tend to carry half their weight in electronics.

Friday Morning

We catch a GO bus to Hamilton and I hand Patrick my quizbowl notebook, which he flips through listing out the near-misses Penn had on the answerlines he sees from ACF Nationals. If we knew in advance how many near-misses we'd get, none of us would ever play quizbowl. I basically only preserve my ego by deciding that I "deserved" the points on multiple situations per tournament in which I didn't earn the points. A woman asks us to maybe not talk so loudly on the 6AM bus to Hamilton.

We sit around in Hamilton for an hour before Jay comes to pick us up, since he hadn't been expecting us until much much later. Bus stations are all great places to get asked for change. Patrick buys a bunch of water since Jay doesn't have running water in his car. Jay shows up and drives us a ways. He is drinking an orange Monster drink which smells delicious.

We pick up Will in London, which is just scary for me, since my sense from Facebook is that Will is a younger smarter successful version of me. Obviously I know it's unhealthy to compare myself to everyone I ever meet, but my desperation for Will's approval remains severe at best. It also psyches me out if/when people don't talk much; Will and Patrick are clearly just not loudmouths but I can always find a way to interpret that as disapproval. I was honestly just relieved whenever people laughed at one of my jokes all weekend, which thank God they did, because I did not shut up with making jokes all weekend. I spent the whole weekend tired enough to be really amused by my own jokes.

Jay talks a lot about language, which is pretty cool because he knows some pretty cool things about language, but ends up going way over my head enough because Will is another actual linguist in the conversation. Jay also talks a lot about teaching, which is hilarious because Jay seems to view teaching as a direct competition between him and the students. It should never have surprised me to learn that Jay plays Reach for the Top against his students all the time.

I make fun of Jay a lot because he isn't a neurotic, which means both that he deserves to be ridiculed and that he seems to not mind being ridiculed. It's slowly revealed over the weekend that he does something like full-time teaching, a masters course, 20 hours at Value Village, quizbowl, karate, and constant video games in an average week, which is just respectable and which sort of earns him the right to talk shit about "lowlife drug addicts" as often as he does, which is often. Maybe if I had Jay's attitude I would be able to live Jay's intense driven life, but honestly it's my responsibility to pick myself up with any attitude I've got. I shouldn't keep thinking of it all as being out of reach.

In general, as far as I can glean from car talk, Jay is what I normally think of as the worst kind of Tory, someone who managed himself a foothold of privilege and now thinks the rest of the losers out there all deserve what they get. Jay is too nice a guy to start fights about politics when I press him about this stuff, and to some extent he is entitled to this worldview because he probably scraped himself a good life out of not much opportunity. Even now he is clearly going places but is still putting in hours at minimum wage, maybe because he's got the energy but also maybe because he's got the best possible attitude. I would never vote for Jay but I would hire him in an instant.

Through Michigan

Chicago, it turns out, is pretty far away from London, Ontario, although technically not as far as it is from Ottawa. We eat at “Moonraker restaurant” as we drive through the wilds of Michigan, and then we bust a tire on the highway and pull over. We are pretty much all superstars at keeping calm and carrying on, so we patiently sit around and Jay calls CAA/AAA. A state trooper shows up and asks if he can help, and I don't want to sound pro-police but apparently this guy really likes us. He changes the tire and arranges for us to drive over to his buddy's auto shop nearby. It's way too hot outdoors, but we get a new tire soon for cheap. Busting a tire went as well as it could have gone.

(Jay later discovered the new tire to be a ripoff and not legal for sale in Canada. Maybe forty dollars was a suspiciously low price for a tire after all.)

I manage to sleep two hours in the car through Indiana and stuff. I look at the schoolwork in my bag but don't kid myself that I'll be able to focus on it. I brought a couple chapters of accounting and a copy of House of Mirth with me on this trip, and the total of my reading was about 5 pages of House of Mirth spread out over three hours of "reading time," even though it's a pretty awesome book. It's no wonder I drink so much coffee.

We drive in through just some neighbourhood streets in south Chicago, the poor side of Chicago, and it looks a little rough in the sun. There are a lot of "street businesses" in south Chicago, which is to say, bucket-drumming, squeegees, and people standing in the street with homemade signs about their skill or product. (Also in America in general, there are a lot of people who wear signs or costumes to promote a business.) I don't think I'm resilient enough to do those jobs, so it's pretty lucky for me that I've never had to. Jay talks about being uncomfortable whenever we're in a rough neighbourhood, but I’m still always just surprised or depressed to see how bad things look out there.

The hotel.
Friday Evening

Our hotel looks a little crumbly from the outside, and I have to sign something at check-in saying I won't have any pool parties, so I get worried that I booked somewhere shady for everyone to stay for three nights. But the room is fine when we get there (thank God I remembered non-smoking) and mercifully the air conditioning is turned up so it seems like my cheapness isn’t leading to any problems. There are a lot of kids nearby running around in “Family Reunion 2012” t-shirts.

We walk around and have sushi. I keep fishing for a conversation about the pop music playing in the restaurant, since that's the only smalltalk in reach, but Patrick and Jay genuinely seem to not know these songs, and Will says Drake isn't very good, so clearly no one at my table is worthy of hearing my opinions.

We play some packets from an old Chicago Open in the hotel room, and I know some stuff because I've read the questions before, but Will knows most of the answers really early, even on his weak subjects. I know Will's good at quizbowl, but if he's any indication of the standard, the rest of us will be some of the worst players tomorrow. Highlights from these packets include a trash tossup on "anal sex" and a myth tossup on "bags," which tells us that Ivan of Russia won a magic bag by catching demons in his knapsack, which was totally not a magic bag.

Patrick and I sleep on the floor, because we are weirdos and it's just more comfortable than sharing beds. I can't get to sleep despite having not slept the night before. I wish I had brought a bigger pillow.

Saturday Morning

Crossing the UChicago campus.
We get up at 6AM and drive straight to the tournament site before breakfast. We get pulled over for turning right on a red, but the officer lets us go for being clueless foreigners. An hour before the tournament, the only people in the building are the two Cleveland guys, the amazing Max Schindler, and us, because those are the only rubes who would find it necessary to arrive an hour early and then stand around for an hour. I keep asking if we can run away and find breakfast, and people keep assuring me I'll miss something important if I do.

I am as nervous as all anything to be in a silent room full of quizbowl elite just standing around, but mostly I just haven't had breakfast and I'm getting a headache from coffee withdrawal. A lot of quizbowl players need haircuts, me included. Patrick looks up the conversion rate and I give the tournament director a cheque for something like CDN $131.56. Patrick's phone has a sweet background picture of the Rem Koolhaas CCTV building. Our team is called the Best Exotic Marigold Victory Bandits, which was my idea and which I still think was pretty funny, but I register as "McKendy et al" because I don't want to say it out loud.

Max Schindler seems like a decent, pleasant guy to sit around with. I've been told that he edited like two good tournaments and that he's the best 15-year-old in all of quizbowl, which makes him better than me/Jay/Patrick now and likely better than almost everyone by the time he hits college. I invited him to join our team because he sent friendly emails when he was looking for a free agent spot, and I found out later that he joined with us even though he had offers from some stronger teams. In theory it's tough to have a friendly peer relationship with a 15-year-old, but in practice the topic is always just quizbowl, which is common ground and which sort of does level us as peers. Plus Patrick and Jay could talk to him about Pokemon.

Round 1

We of course have a round one bye, which means I can finally run away and eat breakfast, but no one will come with me because they don't want to get lost or else they want to hear people play our packet (even though I did most of the writing and Patrick and Max have never seen the packet before). I pick a direction and walk in it for maybe six minutes hoping for food, find nothing, worry that round 1 is finishing, and take a different route back to the site, still not finding food. People had kept saying, It's a campus, there's gonna be coffeeshops everywhere on a campus, but this was not what I found. I stand around in the hall and hear a muffled version of people playing on some questions I wrote and a pretty audible version of people groaning at my questions and pounding on desks. I breakfast on NHBB-sponsored treats and fruit punch. Some of the rooms end and people come out into the hall sounding amused at my Buster Keaton tossup and my financial accounting bonus. I restrain myself from going around asking, Did they include this one? to everybody I see.

Round 2

Our nemesis.
We're playing this round against some Illinois guys who Jay and I have lost to before. The 4th tossup of my tournament has a glaring description of the Rem Koolhaas CCTV building from Patrick's background, but they are asking for what city it's in so the other team gets it. It turns out that Patrick didn't know it was a Rem Koolhaas building, while I didn't know if it was in Beijing or Shanghai, so we are basically two blind men grappling with different parts of an elephant. Patrick says he's seen that picture every day for six months.

Lucky for me there is a tossup on House of Mirth like a minute later. I am on like page 150 of the copy I left back in the hotel room, and I actually don't recognize the first few clues, maybe because they're from the back half of the book or maybe because I am on no coffee and not much sleep. I still manage to get the question for 10 points, so now I know I'm not going to be scoreless for all of Chicago Open. I also miss some art stuff I feel like I should have known (Ship of Fools, Max Beckmann) but grab a question on the Tower of Babel painting that used to be MY computer background.

Jay also pulls some serious boners in this round -- the other team negs an explorer, the question says something like "namesake bay near Canada," and then he takes the bait and says Hudson instead of Frobisher. He also gets beat to a tossup on numbers in different languages despite basically recognizing every clue, claiming the moderator mispronounced words in Ancient Egyptian and whatever other dead languages he speaks. He redeems himself with a non-knapsack-related power on "Ivan of Russia" and I get to 20 a trash bonus about some comedians on TV shows I watch.

We lose the round by a good margin but it's nice to know we're competent. Max also gets us a lot of points, confirming that he is in fact very good at quizbowl.

Round 3

Tezcatlipoca will turn you into
a dog if you don't watch yourself.
We play this against one of the few teams we expect to beat, since this is quizbowl and if people are good enough to win games at Chicago Open, probably we'd have heard about them a lot online. The first tossup on Manco Capac goes dead, since I'm the kind of guy who'll think Is this Manco Capac? and then just not guess anything. I summon the courage to later guess The Minutemen for Social Distortion and guess "George Sokol" for George Akerlof, though I pick up some cheap points for knowing easy clues about Parc Guell and "What Is Property?".

Max and Patrick get a bunch of tossups on stuff I've never heard of, and Patrick awesomely converts a tossup on turning into a dog into a bonus about turning into a pumpkin. A nice healthy win; we are spoiled to not be playing tougher opponents yet.

Round 4

This round is against some good team where there was not much pressure to do well. My only tossup is on something that the other team negs first, since I wait too long on a question that mentions McCoy Tyner and the musical Summertime, which of course ends up being on the song "My Favourite Things." The team still manages some points, and a crazy question on the French first-lady-turned-assassin Mme. Caillaux goes dead. Moderator Mike Sorice, reputed bad boy of quizbowl, insists to us all that Anne Bronte is the best Bronte. Teammates tell me they could have 30ed some insane bonuses the opponents got about theremin music and the nonfiction of Mario Vargas Llosa.

Round 5

Not the Bonnie and Clyde guy.
This round is against, pretty notably, Jerry Vinokurov and Jonathan Magin, who I think have both edited multiple nationals tournaments and who seem generally like sensible quizbowl authorities online. Jerry is famous in Canada for rewriting some year's VETO to stricter academic standards, which led to some pretty exciting flame wars back in the day.

These guys and their teammates smash us as expected, disdainfully powering a Richard Florida tossup and outracing me to Arms and the Man. My only buzz is a minus-five on a wild west bandit who sounded a lot like the Bonnie and Clyde guy but who turned out to be "Charles Starkweather." The teammates get heroic early buzzes on Caracalla and "The Minister's Black Veil" in our loss. Jerry and Magin still seem like nice guys.

Round 6

Our opponents are Saajid from Penn (Patrick's teammate) and some other guys. Saajid does an entertaining job of scoffing a lot at the word "thinker," and I think both teams play weak games this round. Looking back, I can count Pierrot le Fou, debt slavery, Oscar Kokoschka, Bouguereau, the Generation of 27, and Randall Jarrell's novel that I'd just been reading about as the many answers that should have been in my wheelhouse but that I didn't come close to getting. Patrick and Jay continue to impress me by knowing a lot of Roman stuff.

Round 7

At this point I feel pretty gross and I'm frustrated with how I've been playing, so I just decide to just skip the next round and look for coffee again. This sounds weird to everyone, but I haven't been playing well or feeling well, and I'd rather take a breather than get even worse or start freaking out or something. The teammates are fine just letting me do what I want, plus I'm convinced it will actually help them out if they lose me for a round and then get me back again in better shape.

I walk through the serious heat, find a Starbucks, and walk back drinking coffee in the serious heat. It all felt pretty good. The U of Chicago is in a nice shady neighbourhood, speaking literally.

I get back and it turns out the other guys won a pretty big upset and scored a ton of points in round 7. Nice! I wish I'd been in on it, but I still feel powerful to have a crew like this. It turned out that the opponents had been underperforming all morning; maybe they should just skip a round and go to Starbucks.

(Looking back at the packet for this round, I don't think I would have gotten much here. Other than obvious easy parts, all I really knew was a bonus about animal rights.)

Round 8

Left to right: Quizbowler, IBM Watson
thing, quizbowl enemy.
This is a nice comfortable round against the Cleveland guys and their teammates. There's a tossup on Frank Wedekind, who people know about because a girl from Glee was in a Frank Wedekind musical, and the other team gets it early but says the name wrong. I get those cheap points, and then I get more cheap points when the "IBM" tossup mentions Nazi collaboration and Thomas Watson early.

This ends up being my highest-scoring round all day, since I also know things about Remains of the Day and Dom Casmurro, and we end up with a clear win against what was likely a stronger team than us. The best part by far was Max and Patrick employing their powers of youth to 30 a bonus on "The Brave Little Tailor" somehow.


The tournament had a lot of free food thanks to NHBB/David Madden. David succeeded in generating my goodwill towards him and his company, though my goodwill might not be worth much to him since I'm not likely to write history questions in bulk or to fly down to the States to staff history tournaments. He can take solace maybe in the knowledge that his food probably prevented me from fainting between rounds and obliging him to call an ambulance.

Round 9

We play this one against some friendly people from Florida. They seem like a strong enough team to legitimately beat us, but they still break my heart by buzzing me out on Sonny Rollins (way early), Dublin (after "Phoenix Park Murders"), and King John (after some clue like, "It doesn't mention the Magna Carta"). I miss a bonus part on intentionality despite just having learned what that is, but I get the bonus part on Hecksher-Ohlin; somehow knowing a thing that gets asked in every tournament is enough to make me an econ specialist.

The actual moments of triumph in this round are buzzing on Marianne Moore's "Poetry" and 20ing a much-coveted music video bonus (knowing R Kelly and Broken Social Scene but missing the 30 on Gilda). I also found out that during the round I skipped, my team was able to answer "Velvet Underground" on a bonus only because Max has trained himself to remember that phrase for Andy Warhol questions. Quizbowl is weird.

We're now something like 3-5 in the tournament, which is pretty sweet since we've at least made sure we won't finish last already, but which also means we're running out of "winnable" matches and most of our remaining opponents are going to ruin us.

Round 10

Big characters
make the protest message
more visible.
We're against some hallowed quizbowl veterans and upstanding organizers in this round, including reformed grump Mike Sorice and some people who've been great about helping me run tournaments in the past. There are also some pretty sweet tossups in this round about solvable, the assassination of Yitzak Rabin, big-character posters, and the Challenger explosion.

Max gets an impressive buzz on Locksley Hall and I get good buzzes on Cloud Atlas and Hannah and Her Sisters, but there are a lot of lit bonus things I don't know and we take a healthy loss against some heavyweights.

Round 11

This one's against more quizbowl superstars; Seth Teitler and Selene Koo are famous for having played for Chicago forever and finally getting "disqualified" from college championships by scoring their PhDs, and today they are wearing matching Magnetic Fields t-shirts which basically makes them the world's greatest people. Matt Weiner, of course, is famous for editing constant tournaments and for setting a healthy tone of aggression on the quizbowl forums. They are also all famous for winning a lot.

This one is embarrassing and we almost get shut out; the opponents just have everything on earlier clues than we would -- the highlight is Selene somehow answering "Senegal" from the ingredients in the national dish of Senegal. Max and Patrick finally get us above zero on the third-last tossup with their knowledge of Cormac McCarthy and Ivanov, and then Max answers something like "grand champion" for "grand wizard" to miss the points but once again show he can hang with this competition.

Round 12

This one goes really well against the Dartmouth team. I think the two teams that went 1-15 on the day were both actually made of four players from the same school, so good for those teams for doing a trial by fire. If my team had gone 1-15, I'd probably mope a lot, and looking at the stats, we were probably lucky to scrape as many wins as we did. (Actually I'm always amazed at people's quizbowl-endurance, so that may reflect more on my own endurance than on long quizbowl tournaments.)

Anyway, Dartmouth intimidates and delights me on the second tossup when they recognize the phrase "Long Dong Silver" and buzz early to answer "Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings," but I get to show off later with Barchester Towers, Christian Marclay, Pirandello's Henry IV, and a Hilary Mantel bonus, and the teammates keep claiming points for things I've never heard of (though we all manage to blank on Jan Smuts). A nice comfortable win this time.

Round 13

The Disquieting Muses.
We're back to swimming with the sharks, and our opponents just know more than we do about things like Culture and Anarchy and The Disquieting Muses. I get some points for knowing the Marvell Mower poems, and then Jay gets some points when they lose the coin flip and buzz in with Hatfields on a tossup that's obviously about the McCoys. We miss a weird one about nitrous oxide at the end (after the question says "laughing gas") but mostly we are just outmatched.

Round 14

This team had the bright idea to call themselves the Dharma and Greg Bums, so I am really hoping to beat them -- though it is slowly dawning on me how dumb of a name I picked for my own team. Not only are all three of my teammates unaware that the phrase "Best Exotic Marigold" is in the title of a hit movie this summer, but whenever someone goes to fill in team names on the scoresheet, I sheepishly don't want to recite the whole name and just mumble "team 16" while Max shouts something like, "We're The Best Erotic Bandits That Ever Were!" What I assumed would be a total team-name victory over the Dharma and Greg Bums is turning out to be more like a draw.

They ended up with better stats than us, so we were lucky to get a win this round, probably because the questions were extra hard so half the tossups didn't get answered anyway. On some of the few things I've actually heard of in this round, I lose the races to Engels and The Passion of Joan of Arc. The D&G Bums neg with "Annoying Orange" for "Kate Upton," so I get greedy and buzz early to vulch the ten points. This is kind of a selfish grab for higher stats, but it prevents Jay from guessing Tyra Banks or Irritating Orange or something.

We screw up a lot of bonuses and the game ends tied 80-80, embarrassingly enough, so we play a tiebreak tossup which Max gets early with Cloud Messenger. He makes a very loud celebration of this victory but eventually acknowledges that he just buzzed in with the only Sanskrit poem he knows.

Round 15

By now it is about 9PM and people are still surviving on their 3PM lunches, so our opponents eat like two slices each of cold pizza while they play this round. Our three remaining matches are all near-certain losses, so I'm feeling a bit winded and relaxed. The five wins we got today are more than we expected.

It turns out that cold pizza makes you terrific at quizbowl, because they got something like four powers and eight 30s, winning 590-70 in what was surely the biggest blowout of the tournament. Once, again, Max is the only one of us who can actually beat the opponents to a tossup instead of hoping for a neg, scoring a well-earned 10 points on "finding the zeroes," which probably is the kind of math you can learn in grade 10 in St. Louis if you are smart enough.

Round 16

We're finally playing against Will's team this round, which is a little more fun than just getting destroyed by guys I don't know. We don't get many questions, but a lot of them sound pretty cool, including tossups on the epithet "the Fat," Edgar Allan Poe from clues about people saying how much he sucks, and a bonus on protest folk songs -- which means, weirdly enough, that I get to miss two Phil Ochs questions in one tournament.

Jay answers an astronomy tossup and earns me a bonus on Soviet film, which is maybe the thing in quizbowl that I know the most about. The easy parts turn out to just be "Eisenstein" and "2001: A Space Odyssey" and then the hard part is a Ukrainian director I've never heard of, so my great expertise goes to waste this time. I buzz in later on some familiar-sounding clues to guess "the time that Danish newspaper published those photos of Mohammed" before realizing that photos of Mohammed might be difficult to get a hold of. I finally put myself above zero for the round when I buzz in on Watts Towers, since the tossup is asking for something thirty feet tall that's made of 7-Up bottles and chicken wire.

Will has been insisting all day that his team isn't going to win the tournament, and with one round left, we find out that the pizza-eaters are on the verge of winning the tournament and saving us all from having to wait through a two-round final.

Round 17

I didn't take any notes on this round, so as usual I will ignore my team's performance and accomplishments to just comment on whatever points I earned in the loss.

I get my only power of the tournament here on Vile Bodies. I've seen the Stephen Fry movie of Vile Bodies, and I totally remember the scene where Peter O'Toole writes out cheque for 10,000 pounds and then signs it “Charlie Chaplin.” One power in 17 rounds is, like, below average at best, but I'll take what I can get. The fourth tossup of my tournament, after all, was missing power on the book I'd been reading last night, so I'm relieved for the stroke of round-17 luck that saves me from finishing with zero powers.

My other sweet plays this game include saying "Eloise to Abelard" instead of "Eloisa to Abelard," remembering the name of Kate Millett, and forgetting the name of the Paul Krugman book about economics in outer space.

Two tips on how to play a tournament

I like to shake my head or just say "no" when I don't know a bonus part, instead of trying to pull some long-shot answer. Maybe once or twice in a tournament random guesses will get the points, but mostly they'll just eat up time and extend the experience of not knowing a bonus. The margin of "random points" I can get from guessing answers that don't really fit just isn't worth exhausting myself or blocking out my teammates. I know that being too shy to try your guess is a problem, but if I actually don't have a guess on a bonus part, I'd much rather just learn the answer and keep things moving.

I even do this in practice now.
Another thing I tried for this tournament and really liked was writing down all the answers (or at least tossup answers plus bonus easy parts). Notes are a good reference to remember what you've learned or just for discussion of previous games, but I've started taking notes because I just need something to do with my hands. I find the silence of eight people staring into space really unnerving, even if they're listening to questions, so having something mechanical and slightly meaningful to do makes a huge difference. I don't keep score during games because I always get that wrong, but I expect I'll want to take notes in every tournament from now on. (I also have more sympathy than I used to for the people who play video games or read their phones in practice.)

Saturday Night

The pizza guys win, because they are the best team, and Will gets something like fifth in scoring, because Will is very good at quizbowl. We clap a lot for the editors, who did a very enormous job mostly just for our gratitude and for the adventure of doing an enormous job, and we all get to leave the building by ourselves instead of waiting to get kicked out by security.

We eat dinner at some place that's closing as we show up but insists they can take us, and I think I fawn over Will a bunch while Jay talks about working at a dojo. Jay's exercise regime is apparently martial arts plus video-arcade dance games, which is ridiculous but is probably better than my exercise regime or most people's. We all get to bed after midnight for side tournaments tomorrow.

The campus.
Sunday Morning

Since I planned but never actually promised to staff the history tournament on Sunday morning, I get to skip out on my plans and sleep in until like 11am. I go to the hotel business centre and use Internet Explorer to write an email home, then eat breakfast at McDonald's, because I want the cheapest possible food and coffee and because I secretly love McDonald's. I am a little more self-satisfied than I should be for my ability to navigate through numbered streets as I walk from the hotel to tournament site on the UChicago campus.

When I show up, there are maybe four rounds of history left and Jay and Patrick have won a lot of rounds against very good competition. Lucky for us all, side tournaments don't have bonuses so they run faster and friendlier. History is fun to listen to -- apparently Magin wants us all to go read things by Walter Winchell -- and my crew gets a lot of great buzzes and a lot of negs, so Chicago Open history is a rousing success. I wander around to lunch with Jay and Patrick while Will scrambles to get his lit tournament in order.

Wildly Experimental Literature Doubles

Will wrote, like, twelve packets of sweet literature questions. This is nice for everybody. I'm playing this tournament with Charles Hang, who from what I can tell is a good guy but who is still remembered in quizbowl for semi-legally playing in community college tournaments two years ago. Like Max, Charles is from St. Louis, so I wonder if St. Louis is stronger at quizbowl than Canada.

We are seeded last in our bracket, which I whine about for a few minutes but which will eventually be proven accurate. We're also given "Joe Hansen" as an extra player in an intended doubles tournament, so I make "friendly banter" by pestering people "Who's Joe Hansen?" for ten minutes until he shows up. Joe is among the worst-dressed people in the building, but he is actually eating fruits and vegetables at a quizbowl tournament so he deserves a lot of respect. Joe and Charles were both fun to sit around with.

WELD questions I got on things I've actually read:
Diary of a Madman
Things I've actually read.
Sara Teasdale
The Secret Sharer
Easter 1916
clouds (from A Little Cloud)
Margaret Laurence
Man and Superman
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
The Bone People

WELD questions I got about things I don't really know about:
Hubert Selby
Player Piano
A Visit From the Goon Squad
slam poetry
Nahum Tate's King Lear
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
Ars Poetica
The Bell Jar
Alison Bechdel
Carson McCullers
the Feast of Trimalchio (though I said it wrong)
The Hunting of the Snark
the English Patient

Charles and Joe have also read their share of actual literature and are able to buzz in about it, mostly on things I've never heard of, so with a few exceptions, all our games are pretty competitive and feel winnable. I lose some races to things I've actually read (most despairingly Hard Times, which gets taught a lot because it's a short Dickens novel but which still took effort to finish), but that's sort of just the cost of playing quizbowl. There's some version of the universe where I'm perfectly attuned to every word the moderator clicks out, but since I don't have that privilege – and the opponents don’t, either – I should probably just get better and learn more if I want to get points for everything.

We end up, weirdly enough, with a 1-8 record, with our one win coming against a team that made the finals. Haha, sorry we ruined your tournament with our awesome burst of lit knowledge (and our illegal three-man roster). Jay reads some scrimmage rounds during the final, and I end up getting almost nothing on the hard finals packets, which again would be totally embarrassing if I weren't occupied with writing down all the answers. Ike Jose remembers everything about literature and then apologizes a lot for not remembering my name. Sorice returns to form by offering to throw chairs at everyone and then paying his $5 WELD admission with a cheque.

Sunday Night

With all three tournaments finished for the weekend, we're free to have Jay drive us around some more, and since Jay doesn't believe in maps we get lost in some pretty rough neighbourhoods after dark. Jay even claims to have seen men wielding crowbars on a side-street. We eventually stumble into a Subway to eat dinner and talk about how great we are, driving around for an hour looking for food and then going to a restaurant they have in any gas station.

Jay details his love of online "freakout" videos, which is extensive, and Patrick fights with the Subway wifi connection to get stats for WELD posted. We sketch out plans for "Jay Misuk's Tournament of the Absurd" in which all the questions will be about things Jay made up. We fuss over looking at stats a bit -- our team and Will's team both did well wins but not well on points-per-bonus.

Monday Morning

Just some cool guys
havin' a road party.
We go for pancakes and I spray a lot of blueberries on my shirt and Jay gets us back on the highway to make wisecracks for twelve more hours. Inland Michigan is full strip clubs. Patrick checks his phone to find himself inundated with stats corrections from John Lawrence, who won both the main event Saturday and WELD on Sunday, and who would also win a quizbowl tournament about keeping accurate stats if that were ever a thing. After a couple hours, the car's engine cuts out and Jay pulls over, so it's standing around time, but by now we are seasoned pros at this from losing a tire on the way over. We sweat and sweat. Another state trooper comes by, but this guy's method of helping us is to sit in his car and then drive away after half an hour. A tow truck finally arrives and tows the car, taking all four of us stuffed in the cab of his truck.

Paw Paw

The mechanics are friendly and are wearing glasses, which gives me the brief hope that our four pairs of glasses won’t stick out so much. I make the mistake of tipping the guy who towed us and gave a lift, thereby revealing to the mechanics that we are wealthy foreigners. It's gonna take a day to get the part in to make the car work again, and we have no alternatives, so we guess we’re staying over. Time to start a new life in Paw Paw, Michigan for eighteen hours. We are ten minutes from where we broke down on the way over, so Jay dubs the area to be the Kalamazoo Triangle.

Jay's car getting towed.
Our mechanic drives us to the side of town with the hotels, which is pretty nice of him, and he takes the opportunity to tell us a story about narrowly avoiding a gang of nasty Detroit prostitutes. We go to a Super8 with the "key to the village" on a plaque by the front desk, because Paw Paw is too small to be a town and apparently because it has village walls. We get to our room and turn up the air conditioning and Jay starts screening YouTube videos of emotionally-troubled dudes getting pranked by their friends, most notably this guy who can't find his Mountain Dew. Patrick and I show him the man angry that the Eaton Centre is closed, which I insist has to be a lead-in at VETO next week.

We eat something at Arby's and the other guys play some geography packets while I soak my feet, which are in pretty terrible shape from travelling around and wearing shoes all weekend. I lie on the floor a bit and make coffee in the bathroom coffee maker that came with our hotel room, except by accident I use the decaf packet instead of the actual coffee packet. I would probably not be a good moderator at a coffee tournament.


Since we are stranded somewhere and need activities, I decide to go see The Dark Knight Rises, since I'll get caught up in conversations about it eventually, whether I see it or not. I sneak onto Patrick's computer to look up showtimes, but the movie theatre in Paw Paw is only showing Brave, since Paw Paw is basically a town from an era prior to Batman times. We figure we'll go see the bow-and-arrow girl instead, since every quizbowl trip gets the hero it deserves instead of the hero it needs.

Will says he's already seen Brave, so the founding members of the Best Exotic Marigold Victory Bandits wander off to Paw Paw's greatest and only movie theatre, which is of course full of squealing children, to punish us for being the kind of dorks who go see children's movies in a theatre. Patrick gets me to compete against Shazam at identifying the pre-show muzak, and Jay reveals a secret passion for old-time rock 'n' roll. I am not sure if I will ever understand him.

Brave is of course awesome, as the authorities all told us it would be. Discussing it later, someone pointed out that it was structured a lot like a Disney movie, but it was so much better than what it would have been if Disney proper had made it. Mostly I was just relieved that I didn't fall asleep.

Red's Root Beer

Walking back to the hotel, Jay says something interesting about the old-time movie theatre and general old-time cityscape of Paw Paw: he says that new trends in culture (and language) sprout up in dense urban areas and take years and years to get spread out everywhere else. This is why, for instance, Paw Paw doesn't have any sushi restaurants. I'm surprised I've never heard or even just realized this before.

We stop for dinner at Red's Root Beer, just because it looks like something they don't have in Ottawa, or in Hamilton or Chicago, or in modern times. Red's Root Beer is a food kiosk and two picnic tables and about fifty parking spaces, and in theory you're only supposed to use the picnic tables if you're not cool enough to have a car for them to serve your food to. To Jay's delight and my discomfort, the staff is a fleet of eighteen-year-old girls in denim shorts, plus the actual Red going around and telling everybody he’s Red.

Our waitress stands around with us for ten minutes, because either she is very friendly or she is paid to be very friendly or she is in total disbelief that Red's Root Beer is getting customers all the way from Canada. Jay regales her with the same story of getting flat tire / getting pulled over for turning right on red / getting lost in Chicago that he used on all our opponents Saturday, plus now with the epilogue of getting stranded in Paw Paw during repairs, to make sure our waitress knows that we are not in her village on purpose. It's pointed out that Patrick and I are from even further away than Jay's destination, so I declare that we're from some other country north of Canada. We're eventually introduced to Red with, "He's from Canada, and I don't even know where they're from."

We eat food. Patrick reveals that he has a customer loyalty card at a place that serves only cheese pretzels, and Jay makes the classic mistake of ordering root beer at Red's Root Beer. Doesn't he know root beer is terrible? Our waitress mentions that she has a boyfriend so we pay and leave.

Monday Night

$15.99. What a country.
We stop at a grocery store so we can all gawk at the weird products they don't serve where we come from. We finally get back to the hotel and Will is playing great hipster music so I try to read some House of Mirth while we all make fun of Jay some more. My parents are not too freaked out by my getting waylayed in a foreign country, so thanks guys, and thanks to my brother Chris for blazing a trail and lowering their safety standards. Finally sleep.

Tuesday Morning

Our alarm doesn't go off so we all wake up to the come-get-your-car phone call, which someone more alert than me answers on about the twelfth ring. The repair cost some money, which I decided we'd split four ways because Jay is doing us a favour to wreck his car to get us home safe, but which my parents now tell me Jay could have just paid for because he's the one who gets car repairs out of it. Oops. Jay claims the mechanics scoffed, "The smart guys were sleeping in while we fixed their car for them."

Who wouldn't trust this?
I finally make the normal coffee, to the extent which any coffee made in a bathroom is normal, and we start back to Canada. Jay plays the Planets and a Norton Anthology of Classical Music in the car and we talk about music a bit. Music seems pretty cool if someone is there to explain it to you -- or maybe it wasn't actually the music I liked, but the story of Wozzeck screaming at the moon and drowning himself through song. It takes me some time to convince everyone that my "ledger" splitting up the costs of the trip is not a ledger of the absurd and is actually a useful and informative document.

We finally drop Will off in London and get gas for the last time, and I get to fulfill a week-long promise by having an orange Monster drink, the most badass of all the Monster drinks. The can says it's for periods of intense physical exertion, and I exert myself by yammering at Jay to keep him alert while he drives. Jay says we're good company to have in a car, giving us some indication of the quality of people Jay normally allows in his car. He tells some pretty far-out stories about some of his exes.

We talk for a while about the best quizbowl players / teams in Canada and how they stand against American competition. Between Patrick, Will, Josh Alman, and stealth-Canadian Rafael Krichevsky, I'm pretty sure more than half our country's quizbowl talent has been brain-drained into American schools. At least we have captured Trevor Davis to come answer questions for the University of Sinan next year.

Tuesday Evening

Jay drops us at the station in Hamilton and we thank him a lot for getting us back to Canada safely, inadvertently revealing his name to a guy who asks him for change by name as he drives off. Bus stations are a great place to get asked for change. We get on the bus to Toronto and Patrick considers just staying in Toronto all week, since he's going back for VETO in three days anyway. I tell Patrick we should have just stayed in Paw Paw. A guy on the bus overhears us talking about Rite of Spring and shares a bunch of stories about studying music and going to jazz festivals. He asks what kids listen to today and I say Drake. Patrick blames Drake for the spread of YOLO.

For a while I get worried that our tickets to Ottawa won't work. The way Greyhound works is that you buy tickets for a certain day, such as Tuesday, and since I'd booked tickets for 12:30AM on Tuesday they'd still be usable if we only got to the station at 9PM on the same Tuesday. The scare was that "12:30AM" was printed right on our tickets, since I booked some non-refundable advance online deal, but this turned out not to be a problem and we were safe to go home.

Great place to drink milk.
I've met Patrick plenty of times before, but I didn't realize until this trip that he ever stuttered. I only stutter when I think my boss or my parents or someone is mad at me; I think Patrick stutters mostly in situations where it looks like I am getting us lost. The Toronto Greyhound station is literally a block from Yonge and Dundas, and due north from where our connecting bus drops us off, but I always do a lot of, "I wonder if maybe it's over here," without trying to actually look at a map or figure out if we're going in the right direction.

I have a tradition at the Toronto Greyhound station of going and buying a 1-litre thing of milk for dinner instead of a sandwich or anything. This is because if I'm ever waiting at the Toronto Greyhound station, I'm waiting to go home and I've probably been eating greasy restaurant food for the last few days. I don't claim not to live like an idiot, but I do at least have the discretion to go hide in a corner while I spend five minutes with my litre of milk.

We get on the bus to go home. I stay awake the whole time but that doesn't matter. Patrick's parents are great sports and give me a lift home at 3AM so I don't have to walk the six blocks from the bus station in Ottawa.


As of writing, I've now been home in Ottawa for four days, and it's taken maybe one of the four days to write up this report. The inspiration from trying out top-level quizbowl is, I think, to go actually read some books and learn some things. I've got a pile of accounting assignments to finish in a day or two, and they sound a little scary now, but they'll only take getting comfortable with, the kind of work I like once I get started.

I did really like going on an adventure, as snarky as I may have sounded in describing it. If I mentioned you in the spirit of gossip in this report, please at least know that I liked meeting and hanging out with you last weekend.

I don't know how much of this stuff I'll do going forward, but I think I'll try to keep at it, because I've got friends in it and because it is often a thrill. What would entail, I think, a healthy quizbowl career from this point is to abandon whatever lofty plans I had to study until I was best-in-Canada and to enjoy what answers I can get and what cool people I can sit around with -- and despite the vanity of blogging out every tossup I "almost got," I do think I have more perspective on this stuff than I did a year ago. The joy of trying out a hard tournament is getting an answer or two in round one and realizing you can sort of hang with these luminaries.

If it hasn't been implied, I'll thank everyone who was nice to me last weekend. I'll also thank the editors of the Chicago Open festivities, because people work hard to get these things done for the sake of Having Nice Things. Ryan Westbrook wrote a great post about what it was like to edit the tournament, and looking back at the stuff I submitted, he and his people did a great job of preserving the good parts and replacing the bad parts. I'll thank the U of O Trivia club and my small-time quizbowl friends at home for indulging my quizbowl habit and also for keeping it in check sometimes.

Keep it up out there.

46th-highest scorer, Chicago Open 2012

Brendan joined an accounting program at a college this fall. He still hasn't finished House of Mirth.


  1. Waterloo joked about writing a tournament of the absurd when we were putting together our VETO packet.

    Also, this was fun to read. I wish hard quizbowl didn't so often require crossing the border.

  2. Let's throw an image credit on here in retrospect -- a lot of the good ones are lifted from Jay's Facebook. --BM