Training to be a quizzer

Eleven days before our daughter was born in September 2016, the wife and I attended the annual Family Quiz organised by the Karnataka Quiz Association. We ended up doing fairly well in the quiz, and placed third.

Unfortunately, despite the quiz having been described as “for teams of three and under from the same family”, we only got two book coupons as a prize. If they had given us three prizes instead, I could’ve claimed that our daughter won her first quiz even before she was born.

Two years and four months on, I’ve greatly disappointed my wife in terms of how much I’ve taught our daughter. According to some sort of an agreement we had come to ages back (maybe even before we were married), I was supposed to have taught our daughter calculus by now. As it happens, she can barely count to twenty, and still hasn’t fully got the concept of counting objects.

However, there are other areas of development where, despite me not putting any sort of effort whatsoever, she has done rather well in terms of her learning. I had written last month that she had proved adept at showing off her Quantum Physics for Babies in front of visitors. And before that she had shown promise by reading bus number boards.

Now, an anecdote from last night suggests she is already gearing up to be a quizzer.

Back in May, a friend and business associate gifted her this illustrated book of nursery rhymes (I don’t have the copy with me as I write this, but it was possibly this one). Since each page contains a full rhyme and maybe one or two illustrations, we don’t use the book too much – the daughter prefers books that have a higher picture-to-word ratio.

In fact, the fact that I’m not even sure what the book precisely looks like should tell you that we don’t use the book too often. Once in a while, my wife reads out poems from that just before bedtime, but I normally don’t read from it.

Anyways, last night as I was putting the daughter to bed, she picked out this book and asked me to read it to her before she fell asleep. And then she showed off her prowess as a quizzer.

Being two and a third years old, she can’t yet read (she knows the numbers and a few letters of the English and Kannada alphabets, but not much more). However, the way she was recognising the poems from the illustrations suggested that she was actually reading!

Guessing “Humpty Dumpty” by looking at an egghead sitting on a wall was rather easy. Some of the other poems she guessed correctly were, however, stuff I surely wouldn’t have  gotten from the illustrations. In fact, this included poems whose existence even I wasn’t aware of before I saw them in the book. I was so impressed that I didn’t really mind that she didn’t go to bed until it was eleven o’clock last night!

Now, this might be a false alarm. In the past she seems to have answered arithmetic questions correctly which later turned out to be a fluke. The sheer proportion of poems she got correct last night suggested this is not the case. The other doubt is that she might have seen the book elsewhere, and thus mugged up the picture-poem associations.

The way she was guessing, however, suggested to me that she was simply recognising the objects in the pictures and the actions they were exhibiting, and then working out the name of the poem from these figures and actions (obviously she knew it’s a book of rhymes, so the sample space was finite). And that is exactly how your mental process goes when you’re attempting a (good) quiz.

Now I don’t mind so much that she still has a long way to go before she can learn calculus.

The trouble with quizzers

Quizzers are fundamentally interesting people. At least they are supposed to be. They have above-average skills in connecting things, and “working out” answers to quiz questions. And the fact that they have attended so many quizzes means that they will know lots of “fundaes”. And have knowledge of lots of interesting “stories”.

Above-average skills in connecting stuff, and above average knowledge of the world and how it works should naturally make you more interesting than most people. And I’m sure most quizzers have the potential to be supremely interesting. But the sad fact is that in general conversation they seldom exhibit such interestingness.

The trouble with quizzers is that when you put a bunch of them together in a room, they naturally gravitate to discussing quizzes, and quizzers. Now, if they were to discuss specific questions and expand the discussion around the topic of interest to the question, it would still be interesting – for most quiz questions (of the Bangalore variety at least, not sure about Kolkata) have the potential to be great conversation seeds.

However, quizzers don’t discuss that. They instead discuss about how the quiz progressed in terms of relative standings – like they were discussing a horse race. They discuss stories around quizzes – which is more about the people involved in the quiz rather than the fundaes involved. They bitch about fellow-quizzers (this blogpost falls in that category, perhaps?) and talk about why this quizzer is an asshole and that quizzer is a copycat. And go into expositions on why a certain kind of quizzers are better than the other. You get the drift.

Now, from my (forced – I’d rather discuss fundaes with these guys than quizzers) participation in such bitching sessions, I understand that some of this lack of interestingness is strategic – quizzers don’t want to discuss fundaes because they are afraid that they might “give away” some of their hard-earned knowledge which might help a competitor in a subsequent quiz! One prominent quizzer who had once-upon-a-time been my regular teammate once apparently (I got this info from one such bitching session) set an entire quiz based on the last one week’s newspapers – the logic being he didn’t want to give away fundas that he might use to answer in a quiz sometime later!

Thinking about it, it’s not just quizzers who indulge in such behaviour. Such conversations are a staple at “tweetups” also, I’m told. People who know each other mainly through twitter get together, bitch about other people on twitter, and talk about what they’ve already tweeted (this is from hearsay). But then they can be forgiven for the median tweetup-attender is not anywhere as potentially interesting as the median quizzer!

Then again, it is known that a large number of “successful” quizzers are “database quizzers” – who rely on their prowess for mugging up entire fundaes which they can then spit out in a quiz, rather than actually knowing them and using them to work things out. Perhaps the fact that they talk inanities in general conversation is an attempt to cover up the fact that they’re actually uninteresting? And to not get found out that they’re database quizzers (database quizzing is “anti-big data” in that a lot of people do it but no one claims to do it!)?

From here on, any quizzer who in a group of quizzers talks more about quizzes and quizzers, rather than talking fundaes, is prime suspect in being a “database quizzer”. Hopefully this will be deterrent enough for non-database quizzers to show their interestingness!

Landmark mismanagement

Yesterday’s Landmark Quiz in Bangalore was a major waste of time. No, I’m not talking about the quality the quiz here – the prelims was among the better Landmark Quiz prelims I’ve sat through, and given that we just missed out on qualification for the finals (AJMd, as we say here in Bangalore) I didn’t sit through the finals though I was told the questions there too were pretty good.

I’m talking about the transaction costs of attending the quiz. The overall management of the event left much to be desired. First of all, we had to show up at the venue at 11:45 for a quiz that was supposed to start at 1:45 pm. Teams with confirmed seats were let in at around 12:30 and only around 1 o’clock were us “waitlisted” teams let in. There too, the organizers did a major show of letting in waitlisted teams, calling them in order and taking over half an hour to let everyone in.

The point is that even after all the waitlisted teams had been let in, there was plenty of room in the auditorium. This makes me wonder about the wisdom of waitlisting so many teams, and then making such a big show of letting people in. Given that the total turnout was much smaller than the hall capacity, things would have been much simpler if people had been simply left in, with volunteers only ensuring that the seating was efficient (without leaving gaps).

Before the quiz yesterday i started writing a blog post on how the quiz registration process was itself flawed, and gave incentive to people to register zombie teams because the option of registering a team came free. So while the hall had been theoretically filled up many days ago, most of these registrations were zombie registrations thus leading to a long wait list and thus calling people early. Given that the quiz doesn’t have an entry fee, I can’t currently think of a good way to price this option.

But reaching the venue early was not the only waste of time. The written prelims of the quiz finished around 3 pm, including calling out the correct answers. The results, however, weren’t announced till close to 6 o’clock. In the interim time period there was the finals for school students, but that still doesn’t explain why they had to wait until 6 o’clock to announce the results of the senior quiz.

The way I see it, it was sheer disrespect on the part of the organizers of the time of the participants. Yes, Landmark might be a much sought after quiz, rated among the best in the country. Yes, most people come there for the questions and not just to win – and so stay on to watch the finals even when they haven’t qualified (it is indeed commendable that Landmark quizzes have managed to be great spectator events while not dropping quality). Yes, many participants have traveled from other cities and so having traveled the cost of their time might be “cheap” – in that they have little else to do in the rest of the day.

Even taking into account all these, the wastage of 5 hours of each quizzer’s time (2 hours for early reporting; 3 hours gap between prelims and results announcement; 4 if you consider that watching the Junior finals wasn’t a waste of time) is not a done thing. Given the quiz’s unparalleled reputation it is unlikely that market forces are going to tell the organizers that they are wasting people’s time, but the message has to go through.

Sponsorship Cannibalism

Back in 2004 Shamanth, Bofi, Anshumani and I started the IIT Madras Open Quiz. In some ways it was a response to critics of IITM quizzing, who blamed our quizzes for being too long, too esoteric, too disorganized and the likes. It was also an effort to take IITM quizzing to a wider audience, for till then most quizzes that IITM hosted were limited to college participants only. An open quiz hosted by the institute, and organized professionally would go a long way in boosting the institute’s reputation in quizzing, we reasoned.

Shamanth had a way with the institute authorities and it wasn’t very difficult to convince them regarding the concept. We hit a roadblock, however, when we realized that organizing a “professionally organized” quiz was a big deal, and would cost a lot of money, which means we had to raise sponsorship. And this is where our troubles started.

The first bunch of people we approached to help with sponsorship were the Saarang (IITM Fest) sponsorship coordinators, who had so successfully raised tens of lakhs for the just-concluded Saarang. Raising the one lakh or so that we needed would be child’s play for them, we reasoned. However, it was not to be. While the coordinators themselves were quite polite and promised to help, we noticed that there was no effort in that direction. Later it transpired that the cultural secretaries and the core group (let’s call them the Cultural Committee for the purpose of this post)  had forbidden them from helping us out. Raising sponsorship for an additional event would cannibalize Saarang sponsorship, we were told.

When we needed volunteers to run the show, again we found that the Saarang “GA Coordinators” (GA = General Arrangements; these guys were brilliant at procuring and arranging for just about anything) had been forbidden from working with us. The Cultural Committee wanted to send out a strong signal that they did not encourage the institute holding any external “cultural” events that were outside of its domain. It was after much hostel-level bullying that we got one “GA guy” to do the arrangements for the quiz. As for the sponsorship, we tapped some institute budget, and the dean helped us out by tapping his contacts at TCS (for the next few years it was called the TCS IITM Open Quiz).

One reason the quiz flourished was that in the following couple of years, the organizers of the quiz had close links with the cultural committee – one of the quizmasters of the second and third editions of the quiz himself being a member of the said committee. This helped the quiz to get a “lucrative” date (October 2nd – national holidays are big days for quizzing in Chennai), and despite being organized by students, it became a much sought after event in South Indian quizzing circles. Trouble started again, however, after the link between the quizmasters and the cultural committee were broken.

The Cultural Committee once again started viewing this quiz as a threat to Saarang, and did their best to scuttle it. The quiz was moved around the calendar – thus losing its much-coveted October 2nd spot, and soon discontinued altogether. Despite significant protests from the external quizzing community and alumni, there was no sign of the quiz re-starting. Finally when the cultural committee accepted, it was under the condition that the quiz be a part of Saarang itself. After significant struggle, finally a bunch of enterprising volunteers organized the quiz this year after a long hiatus. It is not known how much support they received from the cultural people.

The point I’m trying to make is that when you have one lucrative product (in this case Saarang), it is in your interest to kill all products which could potentially be a competitor to this product, which explains the behaviour of the IITM Cultural Committee towards the Open Quiz. And it is the same point that explains why Test cricket in India is languishing, with bad scheduling (Tests against the West Indies started on Mondays), bad grounds, expensive tickets and the likes. The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) now has one marquee “product”, the Indian Premier League (IPL). The IPL is the biggest cash cow for the BCCI, and the board puts most of its efforts in generating sponsorship for that event. And as a side effect, it does its best to ensure that most of the premium sponsorship comes to the IPL, and thus the stepmotherly treatment of other “properties” including domestic cricket.

Last evening, I was wondering what it would take for the BCCI to make a big deal of the Ranji trophy, with national team members present, good television coverage and the kind of glamour we associate with the IPL. And then I realized this was wishful thinking, for the BCCI would never want to dilute the IPL brand. Have you heard of a tournament called the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy? It is the domestic inter-state T20 competition. A potential moneyspinner, you would think, if all national team members are available. But do you know that last year the final stages of this competition coincided with the World Cup? I’m not joking here.

I’m sure you can think of several other similar examples (Bennett Coleman and Company’s purchase and subsequent discontinuation of “Vijay Times” also comes to mind). And the one thing it implies is that it’s bad news for niches. For they will begin to be seen as competition for the “popular” brand which is probably owned by the same owners, and they will be discouraged.

 

Why I can never be a great lone wolf quizzer

I admit that of late one of the unifying themes of this blog has been “correlation”. So what does that have to do with quizzing? Thing is that while I absolutely enjoy qualitative logical reasoning (which is why I still quiz actively), there is very little in common in terms of areas of interest between me and a lot of other quizzers. Specifically, unlike most other good quizzers, I have absolutely no patience for reading fiction (or “literature”), watching movies or indulging in generic American “pop culture”.

Now, it is known that a quizmaster tends to be biased in favour of the topics that he himself is good at. For example, I’ve personally found that the questions I set have more than a “fair share” of questions with a background in Economics or European Football, and nothing related to fiction, or movies. So, given that most good quizzers are good at the topics I mentioned earlier (literature, movies, pop culture), it’s likely that most quizzes will have a healthy dose of these topics. And since I know little about them, and don’t have the required levels of interest to know more about them, it’s unlikely I’ll do well in an individual quiz. Essentially, I’m at so much of a disadvantage in these heavily represented topics that it’s very tough to make up the deficit in the remainder of the quiz.

On a related note, I wonder if fashionable-ness of topics is static or dymanic. I wonder, if twenty years down the line, we’ll still find quizzes being as heavily dominated by the subjects that are in fashion today, or if there will be a new set of subjects that will be in fashion. It’s hard to say because there is positive reinforcement that is at play here. If, for example, a certain set of subjects constitutes a large portions of questions today, today’s “good quizzers” will necessarily be those that are good at these subjects. And given that the pool of quizmasters is usually drawn out of the pool of “good quizzers”, you will have more quizzes that have a large proportion of these fashionable topics. And so forth.

Again, I’m assuming here that a lot of people (unlike certain Chennai quizzers) don’t prepare for quizzes, and that they don’t try to develop interest in certain topics for the sole purpose of being good at quizzes.

Quizzing for Aunties

Dear Random Relatives,

There was a reason that I earlier never told you about the quizzes that I was going for. It was because you would pepper me with utterly stupid and irrelevant and nonsensical questions which I’d usually never had the patience to answer. However, now that I have a wife who is significantly more social than me, and who tells you everything, I’m once again forced to handle those questions. So I’m putting the answers all here in the form of a post, which could serve as a sort of FAQ for the questions you ask, but the FAQ format will significantly constrain my writing so writing this in free form.

Ok, every quiz need not have a topic. That is some stupid thing that is drilled into you be these nonsensical TV quizzes. And when I tell you that, let me tell you that you’re insulting me by saying “oh, general knowledge, ah?”. Quizzing is not about “general knowledge”. It’s much more than that. It’s about thinking, about reasoning, about working out stuff and getting a kick out of it. The “general knowledge” that contributes to this process is not much. And by considering that it’s only because of “general knowledge” that one gets to participate in quizzes, you’re wrong.

Then, I know that your view of quizzes is formed by those shows you see on TV, like Kaun Banega Crorepati, or (in an earlier era) the random quizzes that would come on Doordarshan. It’s unlikely that too many of you would’ve watched the BBC quizzes (such as Mastermind or University Challenge) which came closer to “real quizzing” (in terms of quality of questions, though not in format) so I should perhaps excuse you for this thought. And while on that, let me tell you that not every quiz gets telecast on TV. And the likelihood of a quiz getting telecast on TV is NOT proportional to its quality. An inverse relation here may not be too far off the mark, though.

Next, I don’t mug “quiz books” or “general knowledge books”. Yes, I did at one point of time in life, when I was a little kid and my parents would force me to “prepare” for quizzes by reading such books. However, over the years I realized I wasn’t gaining much by reading those books, most of which had been written by people who could hardly be termed as quizzers (I, however, still “read” questions from actual quizzes. I faithfully buy the KQA yearbook each year, and have similarly purchased books containing questions that have actually been asked in quizzes that I think are of good quality).

Next, I guess you want your son to become a quizzer, right? I want to inform you that the Karnataka Quiz Association (or similar organizations in other cities such as BQC, QFI, BCQC, etc.) organize quizzes for school kids on a regular basis. Send your kids for those. For the quizzes in your school, try get quizmasters who also organize good quality senior-level quizzes rather than getting some teachers to put together some questions. And I don’t think your child gains anything by mugging up those “manorama year books” that you unfailingly purchase each year.

Now, having supplied these answers to you, may I request to check this link before you ask me nonsensical questions about quizzing?

Yours sincerely,

SKimpy

NED Open

Happened today in three places. Chennai went in the morning, Bombay early in the afternoon and here in Bangalore in the evening. As part of the introduction to the finls we had written “if you are satisfied with the questions kindly let us know. If not, write to us in civil language and we will look into it”. I would encourage you to use the comments thread on this post to do the same.

Some personal comments at the end of it:

  • It’s insanely tiring for a single quizmaster to do a quiz this long (72 questions + LVC in finals). I can hardly talk right now and was shouting myself hoarse towards the end of the quiz (and as if it wasn’t bad enough, there was a tiebreaker to be conducted)
  • 72 questions plus a LVC is way to long for finals. True to the nomenclature of the quiz, I noticed several teams and part of the audience put NED towards the end. That it was late in the evening did matter i think. But again thinking about it, isn’t it fair that people put NED at the NED quiz?
  • One art I need to become better at is in terms of dividing points between teams in cases of partial answers. But then the problem there is however you do it, some team is bound to crib
  • Given it was such a long quiz, I was quite low on energy towards the end so probably did a worse job of point distribution, funda explanation etc. than I could have done
  • One needs to recognize that the concept of the LVC has been designed with an intention to irritate, and so some teams are bound to get pissed with it. As long as the audience enjoys you are good
  • One mistake I did (and I did this several times) was to continue wiht a question even after one team had given a “good enough” answer, and then finally give points tothe team that had originally given the “good enough” answer. This both wasted time as well as pissed people off
  • At the end of the quiz i was feeling so damn tired that all I wanted to do wsa to go to Dewar’s wine shop on St Marks Road and buy myself a bottle of Amrut Fusion and finish it off. But then, NED happened.