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Picture of cruciferous zugzwang here

What follows is an e-mail written by Eric to incoming frosh. While some information may be outdated, the advice still holds true!

The first quiz bowl practice is tonight, and I want to try a little bit of coaching. This email is mostly for the frosh who will be adjusting to college quiz bowl, but it might be interesting to others as well.

Quick summary: Don't be discouraged if you get your butt kicked at practice! We want players of all levels of ability and all levels of commitment.

I was the best quiz bowl player in my high school, and I thought I was pretty hot stuff. But when I got to college I realized something: Everybody was the best player in their high school! And some of the people at practice were a lot older and better than me. Suddenly I wasn't such hot stuff. :-( But that didn't keep me from having tons of fun with quiz bowl and improving greatly as a player in the process.

So I think it's important to have the right expectations when starting out in the college game. That's what this email is about.

Some of the people you'll be playing against in open tournaments are much, much older than you (some grad students might even be 10 years older or more!). For perspective, imagine what you could do in a match against, say, an 8-year old. Yowza. Anyway, you shouldn't feel at all bad about losing to these dinosaurs. But if you beat them, it's a real accomplishment! (Personally, I'm thriled to get just one literatue tossup when I'm playing against Andrew Yaphe, for example.)

Stanford has some really good players, so even getting an occasional question at the varsity practice is impressive. And since not every school has a squad as strong as we do, there should be ample opportunities to win games at tournaments.

Also, many tournaments have eligibility restrictions (e.g., newer players only, undergrads only, or no more than one grad student per team) to give newer players a chance to be competitive right away. NAQT has a special division (Division II) for less-experienced players, and Stanford usually sends a team to compete for the Division II championship at nationals. Last year, our Div. II team tied for seventh. There's no reason we can't win the thing this year!

One thing that may not be apparent until we start reading harder questions later in the year is that buzzer speed matters less in college than in many high school formats. Speed still matters, but deeper knowledge will let you buzz in on an earlier clue. And many of the points scored in a match come from bonus questions on which there's no buzzing in. So we need people who know stuff (and are willing to learn more!), as well as people who are fast.

College questions are harder than high school questions. In high school, it was possible to be an expert in almost every area. Doing that in college is really hard! So we need an expert for each subject. Anyone who's willing to work can become a valuable member of a winning team. Basically, anything you want to learn will earn you points. Become an expert in one small area (poetry, ancient history, organic chemistry, current events, baseball, etc.) and you will earn points from it. Write questions on any topic and you'll earn points when those same clues come again. There are tons of ways to quickly ramp up your points-per-game and make a big difference for the team. Lots of matches are decided by only one or two questions.

When you play, you play with three teammates sitting beside you. So you don't have to know all the answers! In high school I had to carry my team; in college I had strong teammates for the first time. Once I got used to not being the one answering all the questions, having strong teammates was great!

Even collectively, your team doesn't have to know all the answers. The four of you together just have to know slightly more than the other team. If a match has 20 questions and you each get 3 of them, you'll win the match (unless your bonus conversion really, really sucks!).

All this is not to say that a new player can't play at the varsity level right from the start. It certainly can be done. In fact, at the new players' practice there is going to be somebody (I don't know who it is yet, but somebody) who will totally kick butt. But it would be a pity if only that person and a few other die-hards joined the club this year!

Anybody who wants to work at it can become a high-caliber player by the end of college. Think about what you knew four years ago, compared to what you know now.

Since there's usually no limit to the number of teams we can send to each tournament, there's rarely a need to "make the team." And if our goal is to bring as many teams as we can and have them place as high as we can, then we need everybody!

Also, we really need people to help out with running events, with recruiting, with building the local high school circuit, etc. These people need not be the best players!

I've noticed that it's very natural at practice (I'm guilty of this all the time) to be disappointed when somebody else gets a question that I thought I should get. Sometimes I even hope they get it wrong, so that I can pick it up. But pause a moment if you find yourself hoping that someone from your own school will get a question wrong. What we really should be thinking is "Damn. I'm sure glad so-and-so is on my team instead of at Berkeley!"

Last, quiz bowl is just a game. We want to win, of course. And we want to learn stuff and improve as players. But an important goal is to have fun! So we never make you attend tournaments or force you to study, or anything like that.

I guess the point of all this is 1) you shouldn't be intimidated by suddenly being around lots of strong college players and 2) regardless of how much time and effort you can commit to quiz bowl, we want you to come play with us!

Anyway, see you at practice!


BTW, I can't resist including this. If you *do* want to work to improve as a player, here's a big-ass list of suggestions on doing that!