Online Quiz League Is The Future Of Competitive Trivia
2:39 PM EDT on August 16, 2021
The Americans shouldn't even have been there.
The team was called 4 Out Of 5 Cats, and yes, they had Colby Burnett, the 2013 Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions winner, but to reach the top match of the Magnusson-Trebek Trophy, where they represented America against the reigning British juggernaut in a battle for the Online Quiz League championship, they had to go through Neutral Milf Hotel, and Neutral Milf Hotel—you'll have to read that name a lot, I'm afraid—is loaded to the gills with America's best quizzers.
To beat them in the regular season, and to earn the OQL-USA title, already felt if not quite flukey, at least fluke-adjacent. Everything had to be perfect that day, from the questions to the playing order to the opponent's blunders, and everything was perfect. Burnett went 7-for-8—a bit of mild revenge against his former Geek Bowl teammates that left him off their OQL superteam—but the emerging star from that match was a 25-year-old software engineer from Milwaukee named Dylan Minarik, who notched a perfect 8-for-8 full house. Even with that dream scenario, they barely eked out a two-point win.
And if they were lucky to capture the U.S. title, they really shouldn't have been keeping pace with Quiz Machine Kills Fascists, the defending overall OQL champions featuring comedian and British quiz TV star Paul Sinha. Quiz Machine had dusted Neutral Milf Hotel in the Transatlantic final the season before, and for the Americans, a second fluke in the same season felt like a bridge too far.
And yet: Dylan Minarik was at it again.
This seems like a good place to address what the hell any of the above means, or refers to, or is.
Trivia tends to force these explicative duties on those who care about it. The subculture can be so addicting, the personalities so compelling, and Online Quiz League itself such a dramatic format, that after you've immersed yourself in it for even a month, it becomes entirely too easy to forget that nobody else knows what this is. At least not yet. (It is admittedly a little strange that I have tumbled down this particular rabbit hole, despite OQL’s newness, the trivia scene’s tenuous-for-now foothold in broader American culture, and my own disgraceful lack of trivia chops. I blame a bad habit of making friends with much smarter people.)
So: The best place to start is 1959, in Liverpool, where the burgeoning pub quiz culture in the U.K., buoyed by the new phenomenon of televised quiz shows, demanded a satisfying team format with real stakes that could be exported from pub to pub. So began the Merseyside Quiz League, with teams like "British Railways," "Derby Arms," and "St. Robert Bellarmine's." The format they devised was ingenious in its simplicity, a simplicity which I will now put to the test as I attempt to describe it in three sentences:
Quiz league features two teams of four players each, with eight rounds of questions in which each player fields one question apiece, for 64 questions total. If a player answers the original question, his or her team earns two points, while if the player opts to pass, his or her teammates may answer for one point, and if nobody on the team answers correctly, the opponents can steal for a point. Matches tend to last about an hour, and the team with the most points after eight rounds wins.
The format caught on, spread throughout the Liverpool region until the MQL became the largest independent quiz league in the world, and a London chapter was formed in 1990.
The "quiz cultures" in the U.K. and U.S. are very different, which means that while this format is intimately familiar to British quizzers, even very passionate Americans might go a lifetime and never encounter it. The ambition of Jon Stitcher, the Liverpool-based former poker player who founded Online Quiz League in the U.K. last year, and Steve Bahnaman, who brought it to America, is that they'll encounter it more and more often going forward.
Stitcher, the 40-year-old chairman of the Wirral Quiz League outside Liverpool, started with more modest aims; he only wanted to give his friends a trivia outlet after the COVID-19 pandemic struck, and he thought the internet held the answer. He built a website, put out some feelers, and registered 28 teams for the first season. When it proved popular, he looked for someone to expand the format into America, and Bahnaman, a Raleigh-based librarian and an elite quizzer himself, emerged as the obvious candidate.
"There was only one American who expressed specific interest in joining the U.K. league," Bahnaman said, "and that was me."
Bahnaman had plenty of connections in the community—in the course of reporting this story, his name came up so often that I began to think of him as the glue guy of American trivia—and he put together a sample match on YouTube featuring a few well-known quizzers. His goal was to register 16 teams for the first American season; he got 54. He and Stitcher synced up their seasons, instituted a promotion/relegation system, and at the end of the first American season in January they held a Ryder Cup-style competition between the best U.K. and U.S. teams. They named it the Magnusson-Trebek Trophy in honor of Magnus Magnusson and Alex Trebek, the beloved quiz hosts of their respective countries.
The Americans won the first series of matches 8-3—it is a feature of our quiz culture is that while it's less widespread and much less of a social mainstay, those who take it seriously tend to be very, very good—but the British team Quiz Machine Kills Fascists defeated Neutral Milf Hotel in the battle of the two national champions, which doubled as the de facto OQL championship. For the second MTT, which featured 17 matches held simultaneously on May 9, Quiz Machine won the U.K. title again, but Colby Burnett's team 4 Out Of 5 Cats won the top American division to meet them in the final. Now, maybe, you have an inkling of what I was going on about at the start.
These are still early days for OQL, but already they've managed to do something that has proven very difficult in the past, which is to bring the best players from both countries into a single competition that appeals to all levels of quizzers. Already, after just a year, there are close to 2,000 players between the U.S. and the United Kingdom. If you hover around this scene long enough, you may start to agree with Dylan Minarik that quizzing could become the next esports. That's a lofty goal, and it requires a refined and efficient system—one that is easy for the layperson to understand, emphasizes team play while still highlighting the individual, is entertaining to watch, and facilitates easy competition between the world's best players. ("You remember James Holzhauer? How dominant he was?" says Troy Meyer, the top individual performer in OQL-USA Season 2, four-time LearnedLeague champion, recipient of multiple Jeopardy! snubs. "I know at least ten people who are better than him.")
OQL ticks every box.
Ask someone in the know to name the absolute best quizzer in America, and you'll get a few common answers. One is Steve Perry, an ER doctor who can't play in OQL due to his work and who came one question shy of winning Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? 20 years ago after his phone-a-friend couldn't google the answer fast enough. Another is Scott Blish, a part-time courier who was OQL-USA's best individual player in the first season by a single question, and lost it by a single question in the second. His rival in both cases was Meyer of Neutral Milf Hotel, who happens to be one of just three people, along with Blish and Perry, to ever have won the annual championship in LearnedLeague, a popular online competition.
Meyer, 37, owns a record company in Tampa and bears a resemblance to the director Wes Anderson. He grew up in Cleveland in a working-class family that he described as "not intellectual at all," but he loved Jeopardy!, which he saw as a window into an unknown and glamorous world. When his grandfather gave him a set of encyclopedias, he read them cover to cover and proceeded to annoy everyone around him with a steady stream of new facts. He had no trivia outlets in school, but when he watched Ken Jennings go on his Jeopardy! run in 2004, he had a sense that if he put in real effort, he could also play at that level. He left college early to pursue music, but that trivia dream stayed stuck fast in the back of his mind. Eventually, he found a like-minded group who wrote their own questions online and he began to get deeper into the scene; he met his wife on a Jeopardy! fan site.
Meyer's two great goals in trivia are to make Jeopardy!, which has thus far eluded him, and to win the World Quizzing Championship, a sit-down exam given annually on a vast array of international subjects. In 2020, he nearly pulled it off, finishing second to a quizzer from Singapore. In pursuit of these goals, he studies a rotation of 30 newspapers and magazines that he scans for headlines—everything from Reuters to Bon Appetit to niche outlets like the arts magazine HyperAllergic—puts the critical information on a spreadsheet that now has 400,000 entries, and makes a note card for each. To make sure the information actually sticks, he uses Anki, a flashcard program operating on a principle of "spaced repetition" that cues the brain to retain facts otherwise en route to the abyss. He spends 10 hours or more each week practicing, and that dedication is why, when I embarrassed him by asking if he was the best quizzer in America, he hemmed and hawed but couldn't honestly say "no."
His Neutral Milf Hotel teammate is Victoria Groce, a 40-year-old trivia late bloomer who states her ambitions more directly.
"At this point," she said, "I am overtly trying to become the best in the world."
Groce works as an editorial assistant at a scientific journal in Pittsburgh, and has a unique trajectory in the sense that while she was always a strong trivia player, she wasn't what anyone would consider elite. She made Jeopardy! in 2005 when her daughter was seven months old, took a red-eye into L.A., chugged an entire Red Bull in the green room, promptly beat a 19-day champion, and just as promptly lost her second match. After that, she spent years in the trivia wilderness before joining LearnedLeague, and it wasn't until 2014 that she began to wade into deeper, dorkier waters. She also discovered Anki, began devoting more time to study, and was soon being courted by better players on better teams. That fueled her ambition. She now spends around two hours each day trying to become the world's greatest.
By any measure, the project has been wildly successful. She finished third in last year's world quizzing championships, just behind Meyer, and not only finished fourth individually in the last season of OQL-USA, but also managed to finish fourth in OQL-UK (players can compete in both leagues), demonstrating an incredible display of balanced knowledge that even Blish and Meyer couldn’t match. Bahnaman counts her as one of the best in America, but Groce puts herself a tick below Meyer and Perry. Even if she's right, she's a marvel to her contemporaries for the way she's rapidly improved. If you're betting on who will be the world's best in five years, it's hard to pick anyone else.
The fact that she and Meyer play on the same OQL team is devastating for the competition, and it's no shock that they coasted to the U.S. title in season one. It is a shock that they finished second in season two, which relegated them to the second-line match at the Magnusson-Trebek Trophy. There, they faced a British team led by a world-class quizzer named Iain Thoms, whose humble demeanor—interrupted only by the occasional act of self-admonishment after a missed question ("You bloody pillock!")—belies the fact that he's one of the more decorated trivia stars in his country.
He's a former Quiz League of London individual champion, and last year, when the Quizzing World Cup final came down to Scotland and the U.S., he faced Steve Perry in an absurdly tense sudden-death overtime. They each answered questions about the Iguazu Falls, a Theodore Gericault painting, and the Brazilian stew Feijoada, but when asked to name the American queer theorist who authored the book Gender Trouble, Perry drew a blank at the critical moment. When Thoms turned his notepad over, he had the Cup-winning answer: Judith Butler. It was a true "How the hell did he know that?" moment, under the most intense pressure.
"The joke in trivia is that you play all these tournaments, you do all this stuff," Meyer told me, "and in the end, you lose to Iain Thoms."
Not this time, though. Thoms put in his usual strong performance, but Neutral Milf Hotel were on fire. The score was 24-11 at the end of the third round, and the match was essentially over. When Meyer and Groce are on their game, they're untouchable, and America had a routine win in the second-most important match.
Which brings us to the championship. Colby Burnett, no stranger to excelling under pressure, was having an uncharacteristically tough day. After hitting his first two questions, he went on a cold streak, missing his next four and giving up two steals in the process. In round five, he blew a question about a show featuring a girl who plays for her high school's male varsity basketball team. He guessed Hoops High, which was wrong, and the minute it went to the British, he threw up his hands, shot back in his seat, and yelled, "No! I know what it is now, dangit!" (It was Hang Time.)
That offended the sensibilities of Paul Sinha, who in a measured tone said, "Colby, I don't know you, but it's not fair that you caused that much noise."
"I'm sorry," he said. "I was emotional, sir."
That's what passes for conflict in the trivia world, but Burnett, now 37, wasn't fazed. His background is unique among the American trivia set—he's black, and grew up raised by a single mom in Chicago's Austin neighborhood, which, per Burnett, is "not the roughest neighborhood in Chicago, but it's not nice." It takes more than a stern word to rattle him.
Burnett didn't have many friends as a child, but he had a natural love of geography, and without the money to travel, his only way to experience the wider world was through books. "My brother received a set of New World Encyclopedias in 1987," he said. "My brother, however, was a juvenile delinquent, and he never read any of them. So they just found their way into my possession."
He spent his free time journeying down rabbit holes (he remembers reading the entry for "speedball" as a fourth grader), and that kindled his love of trivia. It was an odd passion, but his mother was more than okay with it. "Her mindset was, well, I could have a chubby, socially maladjusted kid who reads books and watches Star Trek," he said, "or he could be on those streets. Option one isn't perfect, but it's better than option two."
He went to high school in the suburbs, and as a self-described "out-of-shape, uncoordinated kid," the academic team was his natural outlet. There, he could express himself, make friends, and be very, very good at trivia.
By 2012, he was a teacher at his old high school, and was selected to play in the Jeopardy! Teacher's Tournament. He won the $100,000 prize, and a few months later, won the $250,000 Tournament of Champions. The money allowed him to buy his mother a new house. He kept on pushing, teaming up with Meyer, Groce, and others to win two Geek Bowl national championships. But when they split up for OQL, he was the odd man out. “Fine,” he thought, “I'll form my own team," and 4 Out Of 5 Cats was born.
Sinha, playing against Burnett, was also having a rough day. He averaged more than 6-of-8 answers each match during the season—third-best in the U.K. league, behind Thoms—but started out in the championship just 1-for-4. In moments of struggle like these, an undercurrent of anxiety runs through him. He was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 2019, and he lives in fear of cognitive decline.
"I know that anytime now, my skills will start to wane," he said. "I just don't know when that's going to be. No one would believe, looking at my stats, that I'm a man in existential crisis."
Sinha has made his career on his brain. Growing up in South London, the child of a doctor and a nurse, he was a self-described "facts hound" who would be delighted to get the Guinness book of world records for Christmas. He went to what he called "posh schools," became a doctor himself, and then made the leap into stand-up comedy. His life changed in 2007 when he got a chance to be on a team of comedians in a spin-off of the BBC show University Challenge.
"Because I had a medical degree, they assumed I'd be good at science," he said. "What they didn't realize is that I was desperate to be on any kind of television quiz show."
His team got battered, and a lutist—yes, a lutist—was condescending to him afterward at the bar. It hurt Sinha to know that in that room full of white, middle-class people from the same backgrounds, he knew less than all of them. He left the bar vowing to become better than them all, and in three years, he was. By 2010, he finished 31st in the world championships out of more than 1,000 players, and a year later, he landed his role on the popular quiz show The Chase.
Unlike other quizzers, Sinha can't "see" anything; no memory palaces for him, so he relies on byzantine mnemonic devices.
"I have some very odd things," he told me. "For instance, element 111 on the periodic table, one-one-one, is nicknamed 'Nelson' [as in Admiral Horatio Nelson] because he had one eye, one arm, and one penis. And if that was the case you'd probably need to get an x-ray, and who discovered x-rays? Wilhelm Rontgen. Element 111 is Roentgenium."
His husband Oliver Levy is another elite quizzer who also plays on his team—they have conversations like "Do you think it's worth knowing that a yak's milk is pink?"—and this relationship has added a cache of new knowledge that frequently comes in handy. Last season, the two of them led Quiz Machine Kills Fascists to a victory over Neutral Milf Hotel, and they made it look shockingly easy.
But now, in the title match, against a team that was supposed to be worse, things were getting complicated.
In the broader Magnusson-Trebek Trophy chase, featuring 17 transatlantic battles, the American teams were on their way to a second straight win, 9.5-7.5. As in the first go-round, it was now up to Quiz Machine Kills Fascists to prove that even if the Americans were better overall, the single best team was British.
They turned a halftime tie into a four-point lead with a perfect fifth round, and in round six, when Burnett incorrectly guessed that Hussain II was the current custodian of Christian and Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, Sinha stole it by correctly naming King Abdullah. By round's end, Sinha had a chance to put the match on ice, but failed to name the country associated with the domain .sx, which Charlie Fritz stole right back (Sint Maarten). In round 7, Dylan Minarik went into the trivia equivalent of beast mode, hitting his two-pointer, stealing Levy's, and saving Amanda Walker after a miss. Sinha salvaged the round by naming the Swedish band "First Aid Kit," which he knew solely because of his husband.
Entering the final round, Quiz Machine Kills Fascists held a 43-40 lead, and were on the verge of victory. With any miss likely fatal for the Americans, they desperately needed a break, and they got it when Oliver Levy missed one of the most difficult questions of the entire match, about a South African province called Northern Cape. The Americans couldn't steal, but the margin was down to one. Disaster seemed to loom next, when Minarik met a question he seemed not to know:
“What organ of the Soviet Communist Party presided over its day-to-day operations, while the Politburo was responsible for legislative affairs? The last five Soviet leaders all participated in this political organization.”
He was flailing, but he knew he had to guess—they needed every two-pointer—and he managed something that only the best quizzers are capable of when he pulled a word from his memory banks that at least had the chance to be right: Secretariat.
Correct. It came down to the final four questions.
Amanda Walker gave the Americans a one-point lead by naming Judi Dench as the older Iris Murdoch in Iris, which sent it over to Quiz Machine's third seat, Peter Ediss, who had been dreading what came next. Because questions are written in themed pairs, you can often anticipate the second question after hearing the first, and the reader had earlier asked for the surname of the American owner of the soccer club Manchester United (Glazer). Both Ediss and Sinha had suspected that the owner of Liverpool, also an American, would be next. The problem was that, somewhat amazingly, neither of them knew it. Ediss was forced to pass, and while Ned Pendleton picked it up for the Brits (Henry), it was only good for a point. This left the match tied at 46-46 with two questions left.
Charlie Fritz, the unsung hero for the Americans, was then asked to identify the periodic table element named after France. His voice shook, but he knew it cold: Gallium. Minarik pumped his fist; Burnett exhaled. With that two-pointer, the Americans had completed a perfect final round and miraculously earned themselves no worse than a tie. (There would be no tiebreaker.)
All eyes turned to Paul Sinha for the final question. Passing to a teammate was not an option; he needed two points just to salvage a draw and a shared title, and anything less meant a shocking loss.
"Go on Paul, you can do it," said Ediss*, an edge in his voice.
The reader waited for silence. "Cormac McCarthy took the title of his novel No Country for Old Men from a line in which W.B. Yeats poem?" he asked.
Sinha furrowed his brow. His palm went to his forehead. A look of deep uncertainty washed over his face. Players are given 15 seconds to answer, and second by second, the time ticked away. He stared off to the side, befuddled, as the Americans held their breath.
It was all an act. Not only did Sinha know the answer, but he had anticipated this exact question earlier in the match, after its themed pair about “The Second Coming,” another Yeats poem that inspired the title of Chinua Achebe's novel Things Fall Apart. Among his many gifts, though, is a keen sense of drama.
The palm left the forehead. He peeked up at the camera, began to speak, and closed his mouth again. Finally, with time almost up, he sensed his moment.
"Sailing to Byzantium," he said, just a quiver of uncertainty in his voice.
*UPDATE (8/27): The attribution of this quote has been changed from Ned Pendleton to Peter Ediss, who actually said it.