Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Reflections on This Year's Mahaquizzer and the Wide World of Quiz that Lies Beyond

"Doing" the Mahaquizzer 2007
Every year I download the most excellent Mahaquizzer question paper PDFs from the KQA website and read and answer (of course, I am compelled to ... it is my lot in life to fill in blank quiz competition papers) the questions in my own slightly scatterbrain manner, and under dodgy exam conditions. The questions yield just the right kind of information whilst holding back the vital keywords that will give it all away (well, in most cases) and I don't mind the far-larger-than usual stream of highly explanatory words that fill alternating butternut grey or white question spaces every so often. It's all knowledge and is therefore all good. Never have I felt the need to sigh in yawny boredom at the questions, no matter if their breezeblock form make British ones look like insignificant ranks of anorexic earthworms.

The setters have taken care to ensure that many of the answers (i.e. the names, the places, the objects, etc) are already lodged in our brains because they are the kind of answers observed and mentally filed away through interaction with real-life, taking notice of, an all-encompassing media, and, of course good, solid reading. No point in obscurity. The trick is to make the participant strain their grey matter and hopeful go "Ah! Got it!" when those answers materialise as if by magic. Gasp shock and horror for Brits, but lateral thinking and real brain strain rather than reflex word-spouting is required.

This year, as usual, I skipped any India specific questions (e.g. Bollywood and Indian companies) instantly because I know I can completely sack them off, take a mildly painful hit on them and still survive and thrive sufficiently on the questions falling in the realm of my remaining, admittedly Western-biased world knowledge. And so having done a 40-minute, instant answer sweep of the paper, (so often the root cause of my post-tourney wave of mild disappointment) as I always do in tournaments, losing points carelessly as I go on account of not reading the questions but only the words that begin with capital letters, I think I got 76 out of 150. Not bad, but I could have done better. Then again, absolutely everyone who does a quiz could have done better. Our minds are imperfect machines always vulnerable to bad decision-making and illogical idiocy. Only sometimes I think I can help it, if I actually read through my answers methodically, and yes, maybe even read the bloody question in full. The predictable upshot is that impatience overwhelms me. and, quite frankly, my apparently degrading brain has not been in tip top condition these past few weeks as my circadian rhythms aren't being very rhythmical at the moment. They should really be called circadian cacophonies. Circadian crack-ups. Circadian clusterf... clusterflubs (yes, that's it).

Also, you can't trust a paper that has been self-marked and done whilst reclining in bed like a lazy sod (which I am at times ... most times, but not right now, for I write and write! Hooray) at 3am in the morning, saying to myself that I don't really want to watch The IT Crowd second series run so far YET AGAIN (hey, the piss-take anti-piracy ad is so funny I nearly split my gut in half ... twice"). No. I had the choice of taxing the brain instead. So I did.

Love Those Questions
The setters did a fine job. Kudos to them. The amount of research that went into this year's Mahaquizzer, not to mention the inspiration that sparks the search for its contents, is impressive in the extreme. I love the way you have to read between the lines and link the minor clues together, and the way it makes you think of time scales, locations, tantalising background detail and all sorts of ostensibly irrelevant (at first) areas of knowledge in order to find something that seems so blindingly obvious once you have scribbled your answer in self-congratulatory triumph that you wondered why you didn't get it in the time it takes Asafa Powell to run the 100m in Rieti. But that's the genius of the questions: they're designed to take you up the garden path for quite some time and then deliver an incredible feeling of elation through your self-inspired revelation.

And what I found what was even more impressive was the wide geographical spread of the questions, bearing in mind that this was a national quiz aimed at an Indian audience, for instance, questions (and warning ***MAJOR ANSWER SPOILERS*** if you want to do the quiz, which I would strongly recommend you do) on Albion's own company De Havilland, People magazine, Ed Wood, the University Boat Race, MTV Unplugged, John Updike poetry, the nursery rhyme Jack be nimble, Mr Bean and Candid Camera to name but a few. Imagine us taking equivalent questions in such proportions from India. We would be worse than rubbish! We would be plumbing the depths in shame. And to think this is a nation of one billion. Imagine how insular they could be if they wanted to. Even more admiration is due for their global outlook.

The Difference
It just shows up the relative shallowness of the quizzes we do in this fair land (it is fair now, thank goodness, Autumn has brought us a lovely echo of summer from, erm, about the year 2003). We like the questions short, sweet and sharp. British quizzers want you to get to the point as fast as possible.

Naturally, many of the questions in the Mahaquizzer can be reduced to one or two lines, but where is the fun in combine harvesting all of them so impatiently? Where is the erudition and intellectual-flexing decent quiz-folk overseas seem to crave? In comparison we look like superficial and aggressive bastards who use short and pithy facts as ammunition in getting one over the opposition, rather than displaying and absorbing knowledge capable of expanding the mind's horizons. So Brits usually forget about the meaningful educational aspects. I used to be like that, I may have a little bit of the fella who liked it that way still poking around in my brain, but now I am going all foreign: the Belgian-Indian way, if you will. I don't mind big questions, though writing starters does get you used to it. I don't mind the seemingly extraneous detail, possibly because it is nearly always very interesting in itself.

And now, thanks to the IQA, us Brits been blessed with the chance to get our teeth into the foreign, Pantagruel-like body of GK, the scales having fallen from our eyes thanks to often bruising interaction and confrontation with the mighty quiz nation that be Belgium. Contact with the Estonians and Finns and our non-Flemish Europeans' finest has also revealed much about what international competition is all about.

The problem, however, is that the one-line question and one-word answer thing is so deeply ingrained in our psyches thanks to decades of pub quizzes and TV quiz shows that that will be what quizzing is and will always be for the vast majority of British trivia acolytes. A grave pity indeed. Our individualistic, perhaps even solipsistic quiz culture has left us with no other choice than to become all-rounders; we can't hide in teams where our specialised subjects may be praised to high heaven. We almost always have to do it on our own, thus precluding us from serious quiz-related study of the subjects we truly love (I could get so lost in literature).

While people overseas revel in deep knowledge, our "First Contact" with the world of quiz has changed quite a few of us into world knowledge pursuers. I have become a different quizzer for sure. The appeal of domestic, parochial quizzing has diminished considerably when faced with the alternative of facing all the factalicious riches the entire world has to offer. So you dump the old material, say "sod off" to Pub Quiz Book Volumes 1-6 and grip Wikipedia to your heart and face like some kind of giant reverse-leach. You buy all sorts of strange reference guides and giant books on such subjects as the Olympics (who would have thunk it? Now I own three of them), World music and word histories (I am loving my Cassell at the mo), all to help open up other hitherto undiscovered areas of the trivia-world.

Short Cuts
And you might think this odd when I say it, but in my opinion we are using our old Ayn Rand type of approach to quiz knowledge acquisition and total me-me-me victory hunger to increasingly better effect in international championships. We seem to get more questions right because we learn the facts we think will come up in that superficial way: just the matching pairs of words, e.g. Joshua Bell = violinist, Rialto Bridge = Antonio Da Ponte, 1st PC = Altair 8800, 19th century Persian dynasty = Qajar, Invoked papal infallibility = Pius IX, sodium bicarbonate process = Ernest Solvay, first used ether = Crawford T Long, The Lonely Crowd = David Riesman, Versailles Gardens = Le Notre ... and so on. One side triggers the other and vice versa.

At the most basic level of knowledge acquisition (no matter how easy or esoteric), that's all you really need. The phrasal partners. Words shaved and excised to the extent that they almost become nonsensical. No deep-drill reading and no context (and that's perhaps why naming exact years is such a weakness of mine; I'm all about names). Just the right words utilised in the same old ways, as in the bloody fast covering the ground with thousands of one-line questions method. Looking at it this way makes me feel slightly ashamed to tell the truth, but I believe there is a point in you trivial education when you have sucked up and retained so much GK that you have trained your brain to work in ever more efficient and pleasing ways. You feel as if you have increased your IQ and the ability to make connections and deductions, as well as reason. Which is nice.

My brain feels fitter than it ever has when I've subjected it to long study sessions (ugh, study isn't really the right word, but it will do ... I've noticed sessions too ... man, I'm not even cool enough to be a geek). It is a cumulative and mightily beneficial process that finally does invite you to get stuck into the real, thick knowledge that our foreign counterparts have invested themselves in from the start of their involvement in quizzing. This brain training and the urge to up it many notches keeps us from falling into boredom - for I am in a perpetual struggle with boredom - with the inanity of the chestnut staples that come up time and time again, each instance eliciting an even bigger groan than before. You lay the flimsy but all-encompassing foundation and seek to build on it to keep yourself satisfied. The enthusiastic ones, blinded by their love of knowledge, seek to construct fantastic erections upon your groundwork (yes, I wrote that silly sentence just to use the word "erections", but wassamatta with wanting to lighten up this thinky-piece once every paragraph or so?).

Learning Lessons
While there was once a time when we had no real idea about how to live in this new, much expanded environment, we Brits are far better focussed because we now know what we are up against and the necessary effort we have to put in to match up to the opposition. I've left behind the kind of stuff I was cramming into my head when I was in my late teens. It just seems so irrelevant now.

Perhaps it also shows why the scores of quizzers from around the world, in the WQC for instance, suffer in comparison to our own. Because they love the knowledge, the learning and the autodidact nature of it all and they go in deep, while we Brits read quiz companions and are immersed in a quiz culture geared towards brevity, but one that at least furnishes us with many an answer. The paradigm changed and a few of us saw the need to evolve. And evolved we have.

Getting acclimatised to the globalisation of the quiz world (there was a time when I looked at Belgian quizzes and thought they may as well have been written in Martian so ruddy difficult and impenetrable they were) has been the problem over the past few years, but I feel we are getting the hang of it and an ever sweeter smell of success will come our way, growing exponentially like Tribbles and Biblical locust swarms and such and such. Our traditional all-rounder ways, in which we reduce our weaknesses in every single subject with every tournament, (yes, even) pub quiz and hour or two of reading, have become a huge strength (unless I am talking about myself again; I shouldn't be so presumptuous about everyone else and use "WE BRITS", it is a tad rude and condescending ... seems I have all the makings of a newspaper columnist).

We Skim, They Really Dig, We Pale In Comparison
And yet, I still look at ACF packets (just downloaded the 2007 Regionals ... yikes)" and am astounded at the depth of knowledge competitors need to accrue to barely cope, let alone shine like grandmasters of quiz, in such a scholarly trivia environment. This is one arena in which the British method will never truly prosper. Reading the toss-ups I am usually struck mute until the penultimate or last clues, if that. Astonishingly detailed (though far less whimsical, artful and, honestly speaking, interesting than the kind proferred in Indian quizzes) and utterly brutal questions abound, which might not even yield a correct answer from any quizzer I have ever played against in this country. Something I think is both brilliant and terrifying.

I am, however, speaking from an alien perspective, having never played them live or watched ACF in action at the highest level. Being immersed in such an academic quiz circuit for a few years would probably inure myself to the brutality and instigate the need for some serious study to get up to scratch (and I most certainly would if I found myself in such an environment) and think it child's play. Though you also have to keep in mind that it is team quizzing, where the subject specialists really come into their own and contribute for the good of the collective (so British individualism takes a bit of a battering). It's just that the degree of culture shock is astounding and demonstrates my developing belief that while the serious American college bowl player desires the big picture and the grand design, we Brits like pithy, amusing details, albeit in a bewilderingly trivial array of subjects. The American may want to talk about your career aspirations and political views, while we want to ask them where they got that really cool t-shirt from and if there is a decent pub in the local vicinity that is showing the football tonight. I'm talking in a completely stereotypical fashion of course, based on the questions we choose to subject ourselves to on a regular basis. There are Brits who adore the serious stuff and those across the Atlantic who choose to keep it light and love nothing more than the type of mixed subject matter Jeopardy! deals in. But there is an obvious and fundamental difference between the two most serious quiz cultures each country adheres to.

Maybe, our own quizzing and other countries (witness Thai winners of the English-language Scrabble world championships) will take the truly hardcore way in the future, yet I seriously doubt it. We modest Brits will always want to keep quiz on a moderately serious yet fun and social level and wouldn't want to repel potential recruits, and therefore the potential stars of the future, with seemingly impossible standards.

That's not forgetting that divergence of opinion regarding style, content and organisation increases in any growing pastime, and some of the dissatisfied inevitably break away and do things the way they want. Obviously, it has already happened because sometimes you can't please half the people in your own quiz team half the time, let alone an entire nation of quiz addicts. As a pastime, the very nature of general knowledge, with its all encompassing approach to subject matter and wildly varying formats, precludes the chance of there ever being a single, united organisation competing in perfect harmony. So we must go our own ways. Such is life.

But at least I and a few others have had no problem shifting our horizons drastically with regards to the advent of IQA events and done so happily, having been bitten by another species of bug - a different kind of bug to the one that got us interested in this weird kaboodle in the first place; a far more grandiose one perhaps that bears no relation to the pub quizzing we grounded ourselves in - and flung ourselves wholeheartedly into a world of globalised quizzing, where local breweries and British car makes have been consigned to irrelevance. Things have changed forever and, in my view, for the best.

Back to India
Lovely obsession. Lovely distraction. These are the kind of things that make me ponder quiz adventures beyond our borders. In the case of the Indian subcontinent thousands of miles beyond the British shoreline. I have actually considered making a holiday trip to India to coincide with the quiz and have a go at the Mahaquizzer in the exam conditions, though naturally I would do in an unofficial capacity as a kind of election observer. Naturally, I would also discuss the meaning of quiz with some shockingly and admirably obsessed trivia devotees. Just like me. Or, perhaps, we could think far more ambitiously and organise a Test series against the Indian national team (if one exists, though it wouldn't take too long to pull one together would it?), in the Belgian/European team style or maybe even the University Challenge format added in too for good measure and a good dose of buzzerquiz excitement. A Ryder Cup-style weekend of trivia-holic combat for The Pataudi Quiz Trophy involving best-of-five series played out by A and B teams, perhaps?

It's an enticing, achievable dream and I'm sure everyone would love to see it come to fruition; er, so long as air fares and lodgings don't cost too much and people can get time off work and commitments, and cope with everything else a trip to such a highly contrasting climate to our own has to throw at us. I suppose some sponsorship could be stumped up by some generous angel. But we have all the time in the world, as George Lazenby's James Bond said to his newly dead wife Tracy. Yes, a bad but perhaps pertinent example come to think of it. If we plan now, the richer and more abundant opportunities stretch out beyond us. I just hope some cross-quiz-culture exchange will happen in the near future. Such a huge shared interest suggests that friendships would be easily and swiftly forged. And as the Beach Boys didn't quite sang: Wouldn't that be nice?

Just one more thing: To the KQA, a job well done sirs! Keep up the fine work! It is much appreciated.


Blogger hasta said...

nice article. it might help you to know that you might have won at the national level had you participated because the national winner had 71 points. anyways great to know about your interest in quizzing and India.
- hastagiri

9:23 PM  

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