Ken Jennings


November 13, 2007

Sorry for the lack of updates over the weekend while I was at the 2007 European Quiz Championships. It turns out Blackpool, England is the kind of city where it’s hard to get on-line. In fact, it’s the kind of place where, when you ask locals about Internet possibilities, they look at you with their ruddy brows furrowed and confusion thick in their soft, cow-like eyes as they try to wrap their brains around the very concept. “The Intern…et?”

The quizzing ran from Friday to Sunday in Blackpool’s seaside Savoy Hotel. Being November (i.e. not one of the two weeks in summer the temperature rises above 15° C and the British go to the sea), the town was quiet and the wind was cold. I mean an absolutely soul-crushing wind barreling in off the Irish Sea with the sound of a jet engine, unceasingly, for three days straight. The kind of wind that you can feel in your inner ear and that sends big heavy dog turds skittering under your feet as you walk along the seawall. I could feel the walls and floor of my hotel room shift with the strongest gusts, no lie.



Luckily, there wasn’t much need to go out of the hotel. The Europeans like their trivia in big aversion-therapy-style doses, with quiz contests of various kinds starting every morning and extending past midnight every night. It reminded me of the quiz bowl tournaments we used to go to in college, where you could play for two days straight, play until you were physically sick from it, play in a Denny’s booth into the wee hours every morning, and in the car or plane on the way home, someone would still say, hey, I have some packets from last year’s Iowa State tournament if anyone wants to run through ’em…

The hotel was deserted except for the quizzers and a small group of old folks getting together for ballroom dancing. At quiet moments in the quiz contests, you could hear Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Memory” in waltz time wafting into the conference rooms.


General impressions in no particular order:

  1. Our Euro-hosts could not have been nicer. I finally got to meet, face to face, a passel of message board posters and Tuesday Trivia subscribers, including but not limited to Pat Gibson, Chris Quinn, Tim Westcott, and Steven de Cuester. Several people told me how much they liked Brainiac, which I thought was very kind, given the Americo-centric nature of its narrative (especially the bits about Jeopardy!, which isn’t well-known across the Atlantic). Random House kindly chipped in a couple dozen copies of the new Brainiac paperback to give away as prizes. The attendees were overwhelmingly male (maybe 90-10, more severe than a lot of US quiz bowl events I’ve been to) and covered the whole age gamut, and the overall atmosphere was mellow and collegial and hands-across-the-sea, despite the lofty level of competition on display. Maybe US quiz bowl just needs a well-stocked cash bar in every game room.
  2. Nine European countries had national “A” teams competing, in addition to the other foursomes competing less formally (like Amerikaners Bob Harris, Dave Legler, Ed Toutant, and I). But the major powers aren’t the countries you might expect. Estonia and Monaco and Hungary were there; Spain and Germany weren’t. Apparently you can’t throw a waffle in Belgium without hitting a quiz league, but the game is virtually unknown in neighboring France. Norway and Finland both field excellent teams–Sweden not so much.
  3. Our little American foursome was out of its league in more ways than one. We were unfamiliar with the format, yes (international quiz is typically pencil and paper only, not buzzer-based) but the big learning curve was the questions themselves. Questions about soccer and EU politics and local flora and fauna provide a level playing field for the European teams, but don’t give clueless Americans much of a chance. And even for Europeans, the difficulty ranges somewhere between “extremely challenging” and “just absurd.” EQC players over the weekend were expected to know Belarussian table tennis players, Moroccan feminist essayists, Korean folk songs, Hungarian fencers, and Mauritanian film directors. But was there US material as well, you ask? Sure! Here’s the PowerPoint slide accompanying a question about “Father of American beekeeping” L. L. Langstroth. All American schoolchildren learn about him, right?
  4. Many questions were so absurd that Bob Harris coped by not thinking of them as questions at all. He liked them better as “found art” and said he’d like to see them in a gallery installation. Like “Name of Man and Hive? (2007)” above. You also have to imagine a heavily Belgian- or Estonian-accented voice reading off the questions into a buzzy wireless mike in a flat monotone. “In zis way, the honeycombs might be removed vit-out enraging the insects.” Performance art!
  5. Down-market British hotel food is just as good as you’re imagining. They put the “gray” back in “gravy” at the Savoy dining room.
  6. And how did we do? Not bad, for our first time. Full results are being posted on this British site, and you’ll see that the US got squished by the top players from virtually every European country but held up okay in the middle of the pack against the less elite European teams. I finished in the top ten of the invidividual competition (which had a cool format, by the way, shifting players from table to table every round depending on their scores, so that the best players eventually pushed upstream toward the coveted Top Table).

Will I make it back to next year’s tournament in Oslo? It’s certainly possible. There’s been some corporate and media interest in building up the contest into a prestigious international event, and I’d love to see a US team get corporate sponsorship. From the ranks of quiz show winners and especially elite college quiz bowl players or former players, I think you could build a US team that could hold its own, even against top teams.

And I have a whole year to study up on my beekeeping and Belarussian Ping-Pong.

Posted by Ken at 3:51 pm