I did Quiz Bowl throughout my time in high school, and looking back on it, it was a pretty positive thing to do! In this blog post, I want to make a list of some of the life lessons I have taken from Quiz Bowl.

If you know about Quiz Bowl, just skip to the next paragraph. For the uninitiated, Quiz Bowl is a team activity where students compete, typically on teams of four, to answer questions about the world. There are questions on physics, philosophy, mathematics, chemistry, literature, history, economics, videogames, and pretty much every subject. The format of the game is simple: the moderator reads a tossup and then players can “buzz in” (no talking during tossups). If they get it correct, they earn 10 or 15 points and secure a three question bonus set for their team, with each bonus question being worth 10 points. Talking between players is allowed during the bonus questions. If a player gets a tossup wrong, their whole team is locked out from buzzing during that tossup and they can lose 5 points. If you’re interested, you can find the full rules for the NAQT style here.

Team chemistry matters more than you’d think

I was kind of surprised to learn this because Quiz Bowl is an activity based on facts. You either know the answer or you don’t. But it turns out that for some reason, encouraging your teammates and having what we call “good team chemistry” helps a lot. My team has played against some teams that were much higher ranked than us (e.g. Hunter from New York City, Thomas Jefferson from Virginia, Mira Loma from California), and in many cases, if our spirit was higher, we could beat them even if we knew less.

I don’t know the exact mechanism by which this happens but I think it has to do with how emotions affect your calibration with the buzzer (which I’ll talk about next). If everyone on the team is happy and in a good mood, it seems that people hit the sweet spot in buzzer timing. They don’t wait to long to buzz when they know the answer, but they also don’t buzz to early and get the wrong answer. Any deviation from being in a good mood causes erratic buzzing which adds to a negative feedback loop of the players feeling worse and thus playing worse, ultimately leading to a loss. This is commonly known as “tilting.” Not being happy also probably makes your thoughts and reflexes slower, which could additionally explain the necessity of the team being happy during tossups.

I think another reason for team chemistry mattering is the necessity of communicating during bonuses: bonuses are where most of the points in Quiz Bowl are scored, and effective communication is necessary during bonuses. If a team is sad (or as a teammate of mine likes to call it — “has negative team chemistry”), they won’t communicate and will end up not getting many points on bonuses.

Luckily, my team has talked and thought a lot about the psychological aspect of Quiz Bowl, even thinking hard about seeming trivialities like in which order the players should sit, so we have one of the best team chemistries out of any team in the country (I claim). In fact, at small school nationals, in which we won the Traditional Public Schools division, parents would fairly often complement us on our team chemistry after a game was over — it just looked like we were having fun (and we were!).

Quiz Bowl trains your calibration

Questions can be answered at any point while they are being read, and it is advantageous to answer them sooner rather than later. This begs the question: when should you buzz?

Understanding the style of the questions will help you get why this is such a big problem (feel free to skip if you know what pyramidal questions mean): Quiz Bowl questions are pyramidal. This means that they start off quite hard and then get easier, and by the end, most people will be able to get them. Here’s an example

Patterns called boojums were first observed in a substance with this property. Heat transfer occurs in substances with this property analogously to pressure waves, a phenomenon known as second sound. A substance with this property exhibits the fountain effect due to the formation of (*) Rollin films that let it creep out of containers. Lev Landau developed a theory of this property, which is exhibited when helium-4 is cooled past its lambda point of 2.17 Kelvin. For 10 points, name this property in which a substance has zero viscosity, and flows with no resistance.

ANSWER: superfluidity [accept superfluids; accept superfluid behavior] from 2021 DART II Packet 5 Question 14

If you buzz while the moderator is reading the bolded text, you get 15 points; otherwise you get 10. There is a big incentive to buzz as early as possible.

But how early is too early? If you buzz before you know the answer, you’ll probably get it wrong and lose points. But if you wait too long, the other team will probably get the answer. Through Quiz Bowl, I’ve learned that the optimal time to buzz is a function of three factors: how right you think you are, how the game is going, and how good the other team is.

My team has different calibration strategies for different situations. If we’re down by a lot and it’s close to the end of the game, we are quite aggressive and buzz even if we are not totally sure we know the answer. On the other hand, if we are playing against an easier team or are up, we like to wait for a clue confirming our hypothesis before buzzing.

As I was writing this blog post, I looked up ‘quizbowl calibration’ to see if others had noticed that Quiz Bowl trains your calibration and found this very interesting paper where they make an AI Quiz Bowl Player. (For nerds: they train a buzzer models that takes in the softmax output of the classifier model and outputs whether to buzz or not.) Humans (or at least me) work pretty similarly. I usually have a hypothesis (or two) in my head while the question is being read and am constantly updating it on new information. When I feel confident enough (when my \(P(\text{being right}) \geq \operatorname{threshold}{(\text{points}_\text{us} - \text{points}_\text{them}}, \operatorname{HowGood(\text{them})})\)), I buzz. Otherwise, I wait.

Interestingly, the optimal strategy is actually not to get zero questions wrong. if you get zero questions wrong, it means that you were not buzzing aggressively enough. And my team is the perfect example of this: at SSNCT we got the most negs (or interrupts that were wrong) out of any team but still won.

As a result of my calibration training, I’ve learned that I’m often underconfident — I can usually pick up the answer from a few key words. But I also have learned some cases in which I am overconfident (such as subjects I don’t know well). This is mostly very illegible intuition, but I think it’s useful and probably applicable to daily life.

You can do deliberate practice and get much better than most teams

In Quiz Bowl, you can tell which teams have someone with incredible innate talent on them. They usually have one player that answers all the tossups and bonuses. While it’s cool to see, this is actually not that optimal. Because if that player tilts, there are no other players to buzz and they lose the game. That is why teams with one dominant player are known as ‘swingy.’

On the other hand, my team does not have a single dominant player (though some are better than others). We all have different specialties that we agreed on beforehand to study. For example, we agreed that I would study math, physics, and philosophy. I had a bunch of experience with the former two but not much experience with philosophy so I had to teach myself the Quiz Bowl philosophy canon.

I claim that the fact that we assigned each other different subjects to cover the whole category distribution and then actually studied them already put us at the 95th percentile. In Dan Luu’s article “95%-ile isn’t that good,” he argues that if you actually try to get good at something by doing deliberate practice, you can get good pretty fast.

This is what happened with my team. Some time in the winter of 2022-2023, we decided that we wanted to be a Good Quiz Bowl team. So we had semiregular meetings where we discussed our carding (Anki) strategy, category distribution, and other ways to deliberately practice Quiz Bowl. We also constantly revised our studying strategies to be more effective (reflection works!). Using this strategy, we went from a good but not great team to one of the best teams in the Tri-State area!

Most teams just study by doing practice questions once (or a few times) a week). This works, but it is horribly inefficient. Every player practices all questions, even though they only specialize in a subset of them. It does not use spaced repetition based on what you already know. There are a bunch of other reasons why this is a bad strategy (it’s better to do a little bit every day than a lot once a week, etc).

Through the process of using really effective studying habits, Quiz Bowl has taught me that with some deliberate practice and iterative reflection on that practice, you can actually get pretty good at a skill. I now know at a gut level that Dan’s thesis is true.

I hope you have enjoyed reading this! Besides all of the ‘lessons’ I’ve learned, Quiz Bowl has also just been really fun and I’ve met a bunch of cool people from other schools that I wouldn’t have met in other contexts through it.

For Quizbowlers: I highly recommend you write a post like this and put it somewhere! I’d love to know what you got out of your Quiz Bowl experience.

For non-Quizbowlers: Did you converge on any of these insights through some other activity? I’d imagine that some sports or activities like Model UN or Debate could teach similar lessons (but maybe not calibration).

Feel free to email me if you wrote a post like this or with a comment on this post and I’ll add it below! (Using email until install a comment system.)