Trivia pursuit: LearnedLeague's fight for a true test of knowledge in a world of Google quick fixes

At a time when general knowledge is being replaced by Google, and in an age when it’s never been easier to cheat, invitation-only online quiz LearnedLeague is fighting back. Adam B Kushner discovers why honesty is a winning policy

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Shayne Bushfield hunkers over a printout, labelling black geometric figures. He races through two-dozen states, naming each correctly, until one finally brings him up short: “Is this Wyoming or Colorado?” he asks. Still, he is the first person on 22 teams, here for a boisterous trivia night at Kate’s Pub in Seattle, to finish the questionnaire.

Stragglers squeeze into every last seat in the house. Bushfield and I have invited friends to play on our five-person team, and although he tries to manage expectations – “I consume almost no trivia,” he warns us – he gallops nearly flawlessly through six surveys covering geography, hyphenated company names, Christmas facts and more. That Monday night last month, the other chumps never had a chance. Team Bushfield won everyone else’s ante, and we walked out with the prize pot.

Admittedly, it wasn’t a fair fight. Bushfield is the one-man impresario behind c, a booming, invitation-only underground trivia competition that I joined two years ago.

We – all 2,451 of us – play in month-long round robins, testing ourselves and each other against Bushfield’s prompts: “London, England; Villers-sur-Mer, France; Castellon de la Plana, Spain; Stidia, Algeria; and Tema, Ghana, are among cities that share what particular distinction?”

The community of nerds that Bushfield has built is obsessive, devoted and competitive. LearnedLeague is expanding rapidly at a time when, thanks to Google, the imperative to memorise arcana has finally gone. There is no need to know the kind of information LearnedLeague tests. “There’s also no need to be able to throw a wad of paper into a wastebasket 20 feet away,” Bushfield says, but “it feels awesome when it goes in – in a totally meaningless but still fulfilling way.” The comparison is apt; there are truly few sensations so gratifying as knowing the correct answer to a LearnedLeague stumper.

Here’s how it works: each weekday, during a month-long season, strangers face each other across six questions designed to remind them how little they know: “Who was the main commander of the victorious forces in the series of military campaigns which was known contemporaneously as Bello Gallico?”

But Bushfield designed an intricate website and a twist to make the 17-year-old LearnedLeague special and strategic. In addition to playing offence (by trying to guess the right answer), contestants also play defence by assigning points – 0 through to 3 – which their opponent will win by answering that question correctly. A winning approach awards your opponent 0 for an easy question and 3 for the most obscure one. (Every number, from 0 to 3, has to be assigned, so you can’t zero someone out entirely.)

Yet what’s easy for me is not necessarily easy for you. So Bushfield, who was until recently a program manager at Microsoft, built an insane database to give players an idea of what their challengers might know. Already, I can see the last name, city of residence and alma mater of my opponent. But I can also access every question he – yes, 77 per cent are male – has answered on every subject, along with records of his performance by category. If he tends to ace questions about American history but whiff those about pop music, I’ll assign a 0 for the history item (Which US state’s flag references an unrecognised sovereign state that held no real authoritative power, and existed for less than a month in mid-1846?) and a 3 for the bubble-gum item (Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox were the members of what Grammy-winning duo, popular in the 1980s?).

“It’s nerdism on a number of levels,” says Okrent, a LearnedLeague member. The goal is to close a season at the top of your division, because the top finishers rise to a more challenging group for the following season. The winners from the uppermost divisions (the ranks of which I will never be genius enough to join) compete for the title of LearnedLeague champion; having begun last month, some of these matches are held live at a trivia convention in Las Vegas.

To guard against frauds, Bushfield developed LearnedLeague as a kind of honour cult. Even though the answers to the online game are always a keystroke away, initiates must promise each day that they didn’t cheat, and they may be referred only by current members who vouch for their fidelity – on pain of forfeiting their membership if their recruits disobey. Bushfield administers LearnedLeague using the pseudonym Thorsten A Integrity (“Teutonic efficiency mixed with trustworthiness,” he told me, explaining how he invented the persona as a lark). Current players I interviewed were shocked to hear him named and described as a human.

When Bushfield was seven, he became obsessed with memorising certain facts, says Tonyia Downs, his mother. Growing up in a suburb outside Indianapolis, he noticed that his extended clan loved Trivial Pursuit. “In his spare time, unbeknown to me or anyone, he memorised answers,” she recalls. “It got to the point where no one would play with him any more.”

Bushfield also loved maps, which covered his bedroom walls. When he was eight, his teacher at Hendricks Elementary School noticed that he knew every state and every capital, normally the province of children four years older. So she challenged an entire class of 12-year-olds to name all the capitals on the map painted on the playground asphalt – and invited a local newspaper reporter to watch. Bushfield “flawlessly” recounted them all, according to the resulting story (accompanied by an image of him grasping his hands like Dr Evil), but only four of the older children could.

Later, in a  secondary school Spanish class, Bushfield’s teacher accused him of cheating when he knew the location of every city she pointed to on a large map of Mexico. “He was one of those people born with a brain that could absorb and remember stuff,” Downs says. His high-school quiz team won the state championship during his final year.

These instincts served Bushfield well in 1995, when, just out of college, he worked as a paralegal in New York. There, he says, he and the other paralegals needed ways to fill their downtime. “I sent a little trivia game based on Name That Tune to people in the office,” recalls Chris Fettweis, who is a political scientist at Tulane University in New Orleans and joined LearnedLeague in its infancy. Bushfield began submitting his own questions, and, by 1997, he was writing all of them, every day.

He left for business school at Columbia, and when he needed HTML to manage some programmers during a summer internship at Pfizer, he decided to teach himself the language by building LearnedLeague. The first season online had some 20 competitors, mostly former paralegal co-workers, and launched in 2000. The design has remained fundamentally the same: an unadorned interface that eventually masked immense sabermetric sophistication.

For years, Bushfield ran LearnedLeague as a hobby, rushing home to grade participants each night, and devising questions at the library in his free time. (He dons headphones to blast a heavy-metal band such as Dream Theater, begins with a reference book, looks for a good fact, and writes the question around it, spending up to 30 minutes on each one.) “I wanted this all to look professional – to look like it’s done by a team of pros, instead of just one guy,” he says.

The game was growing, but with more players every year, LearnedLeague’s four annual seasons began to consume Bushfield’s life. By 2008, he had moved to Washington state with his wife, Amy, an actress, and their two young children to become a project manager at Microsoft. But the growing league was encroaching on his job, too. He asked himself: what if I could do it full-time?

So in 2012, Bushfield began an experiment. LearnedLeague, which then boasted 1,026 members and had always been free, would require a once-a-year, pay-what-you-want contribution. He expected attrition, but only 153 members defected. And while some players gave the minimum recommended $25 (£15), many others gave more. “I always give the maximum $100, the highest [recommended level] he has,” Okrent says. “Is it worth that to me every year? There’s no question – oh, my God, yes!”

Then something unexpected happened. Once Bushfield had assigned a value to membership, it grew by 117 per cent in the following 18 months – enough that, this spring, Bushfield felt comfortable leaving Microsoft to devote himself full-time to trivia. “I’m pretty damn lucky to be able to do this,” he says, but it’s a big change for a man with an MBA. “I find it extremely difficult to explain the league to people, especially now that it’s my career. It sounds so absurd! I never bring it up at a party, and I still talk about myself as recently retired from Microsoft… I don’t know anybody else who does what I do, so it doesn’t feel 100 per cent right.”

Bushfield declined to provide LearnedLeague revenue figures for the record, but a review of the numbers suggests that, if LearnedLeague continues to grow at its current rate, he’ll be making a very comfortable living within the next two years, and quite a bit more down the line.

Still, the new business strategy is somewhat at odds with LearnedLeague’s ethos, a fact Bushfield is painfully aware of. “One of the most important things to me is cultivating the culture,” he says. On-site message boards overflow with players discussing the day’s questions, sharing ideas and good-naturedly trash-talking each other. Everyone uses their real surnames. Bushfield worries about how an influx of unvouched-for players would contend. So he will uphold the referral rules even as he aims to expand: a current member may invite only one new person per season.

Trivia can be addictive. QuizUp, the social smartphone app, has been out for less than a year, and it already has 24 million users, who spend an average of 30 minutes a day playing the game, according to the company. LearnedLeague takes less time to complete – about five minutes a day – but acts as the same kind of mental floss. “It’s very ritualistic, almost like praying or meditating,” says Bays, another member of LearnedLeague. “It’s always there to take you into a different part of your brain for a few minutes. When you have a high-stress job, that kind of brief escape is crucial.”

Every morning when LearnedLeague is in season – it started again this week – escape looks like an email from “Thorsten A Integrity” asking me questions such as: “A musical  march known as a screamer, such as those written by famous screamer composer Karl L King, is most closely associated with what type  of event?”

When these queries arrive in my inbox – and in the inbox of a multiplying horde around the world – Bushfield isn’t just asking us to conjure arcana. He’s asking us why it feels so good to pluck information from our brains instead of our smartphones; what we get out of recalling a nearly forgotten fact from that college survey of ancient Mesopotamia or that television show we watched after our parents had gone to bed; and why a community of like-minded obsessives, connected through inelegant HTML tables and a check-box honour code, feels so much like home.

Those, at least, are questions I can answer.

© The Washington Post

5 Questions for nerds

No conferring…

1. London, England; Villers-sur-Mer, France; Castellon de la Plana, Spain; Stidia, Algeria; and Tema, Ghana, are among cities that share what particular distinction?

2. Who was the main commander of the victorious forces in the series of  military campaigns which was known contemporaneously as Bello Gallico?

3. Which US state’s flag references an unrecognised sovereign state that held no real authoritative power, and existed for less than a month in mid-1846?

4. Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox were the members of what Grammy-winning duo, popular in the 1980s?

5. A musical march known as a screamer, such as those written by famous screamer composer Karl L King, is most closely associated with what type of event?

Answers

1. They’re on the prime meridian.

2. Julius Caesar

3. California

4. Eurythmics

5. Circus

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