Hardly a trivial pursuit

Queen’s Trivia Club and the Grad Club embrace obscure knowledge and a love of competition

On Thursday nights at the Grad Club
Image supplied by: Supplied
On Thursday nights at the Grad Club

Which word derived from Arabic means “commander of the sea”? Who won a gold medal for Spain for cycling in the 1982 Olympics? What high-level computer language was named after a French mathematician and philosopher?

Questions like these have buzzers beeping and facts flying at the Queen’s Trivia Club’s meetings every Tuesday in Kingston Hall, where the group meets to brush up on competitive categories in preparation for tournaments.

A longstanding—albeit under-recognized—fixture of the University, the Trivia Team’s existence is suggestive of a larger trend that sees purveyors of factual tidbits both arcane and obscure finally getting their moment to shine.

A small but enthusiastic group, the club was founded in 1989 and re-established in 1994 after a latent period. The team, which has 10 to 12 students in any given year, has weekly 90-minute meetings. Queen’s Trivia Club participates in quiz bowls across the country thanks to funding from a $0.15 opt-outable AMS fee, which goes towards their away trips, entry fees, and the cost of their practice questions.

The team usually attends two or three competitions a year, staying within Ontario despite the prevalence of quiz bowls in other provinces and the United States. Often there are “mirror” tournaments held at different locations across the country. These are held on the same day, with the same questions asked of competitors at different locations.

The atmosphere at the Queen’s Trivia Club’s Tuesday night meeting is informal, with team members peppering their answers with other facts, jokes and friendly ribbing. The National Academic Quiz Tournaments (NAQT) is the official regulating body of interuniversity quiz bowl championships across North America, and the developer of the questions the team uses to practice for their competitions. Its existence is indicative of the popularity now enjoyed by a hobby once relegated to the realm of nerds and brainiacs.

Club president Colin Rauenzahn and vice-president Rebecca Cynader, both ArtSci ’10, have been buzzer-happy trivia enthusiasts since their first year at Queen’s, both having been exposed to the joys of quiz bowls prior to beginning university.

Cynader, a geography major, was inspired by her sister’s love of trivia, and Rauenzahn, who takes history, was an active member of his high school’s trivia team.

“[We] would go to tournaments and more people would be interested in whether we won than our athletics teams,” he said.

The club attracts members from diverse academic backgrounds, each with their own strengths—many of which line up with their academic interests and programs. Team members include participants from political studies, engineering and Life Sciences.

Cynader said winning competitions involves an important combination of knowledge and strategy.

“If we’re going to enter two teams, we need to sit down and ensure that we have our bases covered,” he said. Although everyone has a specific area in which they excel, sometimes there’s no explaining where someone’s knowledge comes from. “People get questions [right] for random reasons,” she said, adding, “I have a pretty good memory for certain things, [… and] I’ve definitely gotten better since the first year I did it.”

Rauenzahn agrees; when asked how they know the things they know, he is quick to dispel the notion that any members cram for the quiz. “I don’t know how we do it,” he said, adding that astuteness and curiosity are key components in a team member.

“Nobody does a lot of preparation, [but] there are some topics that come up a lot in tournaments and you pick that up after awhile.”

For both club heads, the trivia team is about far more than smarts.

“I don’t associate it so much with knowledge or academics. It’s a social thing, It’s about fun competition with friends,” Cynader said, adding that in years prior to her involvement with the club, they didn’t even keep score. “We’re probably the most laid-back trivia club in Canada, and we still do well,” Rauenzahn added.

Despite their casual attitude toward the more competitive aspects of quiz bowl competition, both members said they face stereotypes as members of the club. “What you would expect is that we’re all nerds with our nose in a book, [but] that’s not true,” Rauenzahn said. Cynader said the notion of quiz bowls as male-dominated hobby is one stereotype that has rung true, and one she hopes will continue to change in the future.

Rauenzahn said in a society increasingly isolated by technology, sharing knowledge has taken on a social aspect in addition to its informational dimension. “It’s not just about showcasing our knowledge. We don’t go to these tournaments to say ‘Look how smart we are.’ The club is pretty close, and it’s fun to compete [with your friends].” He agreed technology makes it easier to become exposed to new information, though.

“You’re on the Internet and you see something, and then later it will come up. Still, a lot of the things I know I know from class or reading books,” he said.

For many children of the late ’80s and early ’90s, trivia’s popularity began with Jeopardy.

Enthusiasts express nostalgia for that purveyor of campy blue-screened questions, Alex Trebek, citing the Daily Doubles of their youth as the inspiration behind their pursuit of obscure knowledge—Rauenzan and Cynader among them. The show, which began in 1964, currently averages nine million daily viewers and has been innovative in the glamorization of quiz culture, with a slew of celebrity and prominent political guests such as Buzz Aldrin, Drew Barrymore and Bill Clinton presenting clues or showing off their smarts for charity.

For those who aspire to see their signatures scrawled across Trebek’s blue screens there’s a place to practice a little closer to home: at a pub quiz, a tradition which can be traced to pub culture during the 1970s. The Grad Club has been holding its own version of the quiz game on Thursday nights for the past three years. It has become wildly popular, attracting everyone from students to Kingston locals. On my first visit to Trivia Night last week, the members of the Trivia Club, in their iteration as powerhouse trivia team the “XOXO Gossip Girls,” take top spot, winning free beer paraphernalia, a t-shirt and bragging rights. Runners up took home New Kids on the Block action figures.

Jessica Whiting is the Grad Club’s bar supervisor and the host of Thursday’s trivia nights. Whiting said she devises the questions and categories every week.

“Sometimes I’ll use Wikipedia, or I’ll search websites for information to make questions,” she said. “Usually the first of four rounds is general trivia, so that can be anything, and the second is a picture round with movie posters, maps, obscure objects, etc.—A few weeks ago there was a plant round that a lot of people were angry about but one team nailed it and were very happy. I think there was a botanist on the team—The third round usually has a specific category, so you can have fun with that, and then the fourth round is a music round.”

Whiting said the uniqueness of Trivia Night is a draw for many.

“I think it gives people something to do other than sitting around in a bar, drinking and staring at each other. Also it’s a challenge, and I think people like that.”

The Grad Club has had line ups out the door for the past three weeks of trivia.

Whiting said a few regular teams like “XOXO Gossip Girl” attend—and win—frequently.

“Definitely there are some notorious teams are always doing well and come back every single week. I get notes written to me on the bottom of the answer sheets—some are really nice and some are really mean—trying to sway me.”

With the growing prevalence of smartphones, answers to trivia questions are available at the touch of a button, but Whiting said looking up answers online is not a problem at the Grad Club.

“Teams are pretty good about policing each other—they kind of keep an eye on the table next to them. Everyone is playing in a spirit of trivia, we’re here to have a good time and we don’t want any jerks cheating off their iPhones.”

—With files from Monica Heisey

All final editorial decisions are made by the Editor(s)-in-Chief and/or the Managing Editor. Authors should not be contacted, targeted, or harassed under any circumstances. If you have any grievances with this article, please direct your comments to journal_editors@ams.queensu.ca.

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