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Interview with Raj Dhuwalia

Today I (Tore Heliks Van Dahl) are talking to the US quizzer Raj Dhuwalia, who placed 5th in the 2016 Quiz Olympiad, and became the best US quizzer. He has kindly answered a bunch of emailed questions from us about himself and the US quiz circuit, and here are questions and answers.

First of all, tell us a little about yourself, who are you, where do you live, what do you do, how old are you?

I’m Raj Dhuwalia, age 44, and I live in Los Angeles. I work as a tutor; I mostly help high school students (age 13-18) with math and science. I also work part-time for a company called College Bowl. We run a competition called the Honda Campus All-Star Challenge (HCASC), an academic quiz competition for students from African American colleges (or HBCUs – historically black colleges and universities).

When did you first start quizzing?

I played a few quizbowl matches in high school, around age 15, but only a few.

…and when did you start to take it serious?

In my second year of college … that was at Broward Community College in Ft Lauderdale when I was 17. I played for the school’s “Brain Bowl” team for 2 years. The basic format was like that of University Challenge: teams of 4 players with buzzers in hand, with the ability to interrupt questions. That was my first exposure to all sorts of literature and art and such things. Content was strictly academic – no questions about things like food or sports or “lifestyle.” We had a good team – we won the state community college title in dominant fashion in both years. I was pretty strong in most fields. I prepared by memorizing a bunch of lists out of the World Almanac and other such books, since there was no easy-to-use internet back then. I didn’t know how to pronounce anything – I thought “Goethe” rhymed with “both” and that Joan Miro was a woman!

After a gap of a few years, I played in quiz competitions for Florida Atlantic University and the University of Florida from 2000-04. Same basic format, but with much longer and more difficult questions. That involved much more preparation. Collegiate quizbowl competition in the US is heavy on academics, so I’ve still got a strong base in areas like science, history, and literature.

So my strengths are different from those of most international quizzers. I spent years playing in formats with difficult, academically oriented science questions but very few questions on food and lifestyle. And of course this was in the US, so our canon was much heavier on US-centric material.

What kind of quiz events do you normally participate in? Regular pub quizzes, or any other organized events? Are they mostly in your home town, or do you also travel to any regional events (other than TCONA, see below)?

Since 2004, the only thing I really do in person is the occasional pub quiz at O’Brien’s in Santa Monica. I play in the WQC annually, and I play at TCONA each August. Everything else I do is online – Sporcle quizzes, QuizUp, etc.

How often do you attend a quiz event?

Infrequently. Aside from playing in events, I help run tournaments through HCASC, so I’m traveling to Virginia in early February for one tournament and to Torrance, CA, for our national tournament in April. I haven’t even been to a pub quiz since October.

What are your favorite subjects?

In international quizzing, I like them all about equally. I learn a great deal from international quizzing; it’s still somewhat of an unfamiliar canon for me, so I pick up new things every time I play. I was just now reading about Thonet chairs, since I missed a question on them at the Quiz Olympiad.

And what are the least favourite ones?

In international quizzing, I do wish the science was more academic and a little less “trivial” in the pejorative sense. And though I’ve gotten better, the lifestyle questions are still a weakness for me. But I don’t know that I really have a least favorite amongst the major categories.

Have you participated in any TV quiz competitions, and if so, how did you do?

I’ve done a few. My most successful was the US version of The Chase in 2013; I competed against Mark Labbett in that one, and I was able to win a lot of money, $125,000. I was on Jeopardy! in 2002, and I won 1 episode and $23,200. I was on a show called “Who’s Still Standing” some years ago, but I didn’t win. And I was on a US show called “500 Questions” in 2016, but I never had a chance to actually win anything.

The Quiz Olympiad in November was the first official Championships where the Amerericans competed with the rest of the world. It seems a lot of people were highly anticipating what the US team would be able to do in the Olympics, can you say a little about what your expectations were?

I thought we’d do a little better. But I was underprepared. I was very busy with work in October, and I missed a couple of current events questions that I would have gotten with more time to study. Even with those points, we still would have been well out of medal contention.

It was also hard to know what to expect; this was my first international quiz competition aside from the WQC, and I didn’t know how easy or obscure the material was likely to be. The material seemed more analogous to a WQC from 6-7 years than to recent ones.

I assume you as a team didn’t expect to beat the either English team or the Belgian, but perhaps aiming for a medal? In that regard, you perhaps underperformed, were you very disappointed?

I hoped we might compete for 3rd. I was a little disappointed that we didn’t do a little better, but it was just one of those events where nothing seems to work out right. I’m sure everyone has experienced that. We had a terrible first round, getting 3 out of 12, I think, so we were always trying to catch up. Every binary guess seemed to come out wrong. Any US-centric content felt like it was either easy enough for every team to get or hard enough that we didn’t get it either, so we got no advantage from it. The 11-hour time change didn’t help, but I don’t think it was a big factor. Just one of those days. I was happy we recovered to briefly get back to eighth place!

How was it decided who should be on the US first team? A qualifier, a team captain who picked it, or how did that happen?

No qualifier, just a selection from among those who were able to make it. I don’t know who made the selection – probably Paul Bailey or Ken Jennings – but the choice seemed like a good one. Among those present, we had Ken plus our 3 top WQC scorers. In retrospect, they might have been better off putting Tim Polley or Tanay Kothari in my place! Our under-30 team was fantastic!

Did you miss any key players that could have strengthened the team, who couldn’t attend?

Offhand, Steve Perry is the only one I can think of. Or maybe Patrick Friel, but he’s in China. Given the nature of the questions in the team competition, I don’t think many Americans would have helped out much with that material. It’s hard to remember a few months back, but the team competition questions reminded me more of WQC events from 5+ years ago than recent ones. But I was thrilled that we had such a strong pool of players – it was a substantial commitment of time and money to get from the US to Athens, to be honest. I thought we might have 6 or 7 Americans total, not 16.

Did you have any idea about the level you would be faced with in the Olympiad, both of the competition and the difficulty?

Not really. I figured it’d be strong, with a lot of strong quizzers who often play together as a team.

Were you aware of any non-US quizzers beforehand, that also attended the Olympiad? If so, whom did you know of, and why?

Sure – I’ve seen the names of various folks, and a few like Lars Andre Gundersen and Anne Hegerty have come over to the states to play at TCONA. I mostly know people via quiz results, Facebook posts, or LL or 2020 standings. It was fun to put faces to names. Everybody (in my experience) was very nice, and that was great. It was neat to meet top quizzers like Kevin Ashman and Pat Gibson, both of whom were very nice fellows – I knew nothing about either one except for quiz results.

Yes, Kevin and Pat are, in addition to being first rate quizzers, both decent people, and they are excellent quizzing role models and fine quiz ambassadors!

You yourself placed 5th in the individual competition, were you pleased with that result?

Yes, I was shocked. That was certainly my highlight of the event. I’m most pleased that I got almost all the points I could have; I made one terribly dumb mistake (on Haile Selassie’s birth name) and lost maybe another point or two, but otherwise I got every point I had a chance to get. On stage, I only missed one question I should have gotten. I threw away more points on a single page of the History subject quiz than I did on 120 questions in the individual quiz.

The stage portion of the Individual Quiz was great fun. I finally got the American advantage I was hoping for! An author like Frank Norris is well known in the states but not elsewhere, I’m guessing. There were 3 US-centric questions aimed at me alone (I got 2; I needed another 10 seconds on the D-League question). And I may have been the only one to get that awesome Futurama question. I felt like I snuck into 5th place ahead of more deserving quizzers, but I’m perfectly okay with that. :)

Side note: y’all need to watch Futurama!! That is one of our finest cultural exports.

So I was thrilled with the 5th place finish. I don’t think I’ll top that. I learned long ago that I’m best off if I study things I’m interested in. I’m interested in a lot of things, but if I get to the stage of forcing myself memorize giant lists of comic book characters or Turks of increasing obscurity, I’m going to get burned out. And frankly, now that the ugliest of ugly Americans has assumed the presidency of my country, I have too much else on my mind.

Any olympic competition you particularly liked?

The Pairs competition was excellent; I teamed with Ken Jennings in that one, and I found it easier to work in a 2-person team than a 4-person team. The individual competition was great fun. I enjoyed all the subject quizzes. I do wish I could have played the Sports subject quiz, since I was probably the strongest American on international sport, but I couldn’t skip History. I loved the head-to-head Knockout quiz; once it got organized, that was really neat. (Hey, you won that, Tore — nice work!)

Thanks! :D Any aspect that you did not enjoy as much?

I can’t think of anything. Lack of cheap coffee supply, perhaps. I was exhausted during the Club Team quiz, and coffee might have helped!

Also, the event was immediately followed by a bloviating ignoramus winning the presidency of my country. If the organizers could keep that from happening next time, I’d appreciate it.

Could you tell us a little about how the US contingent felt about the Olympiads, the competitions, the questions, the location, the concept?

I’m guessing most of us had the same general view on it. It was a great idea, and we didn’t really know what to expect. The location was great, the questions were challenging, and the event as a whole was excellent. And that trip to the Acropolis was amazing – that really could not have been any better.

I’m thinking about my answer to the previous question. I’m really glad that the Quiz Olympiad happened when it did, before that election. I was proud to wear that Team USA shirt. It’s a wonderful memory of a time before the darkness. I loved meeting so many great people from different countries. As an American, I’m astonished at how well some people can do quizzes in a second language. So many nice people. It’s just a really nice memory to have. It feels like a lost world to me now.

Would you have liked to see an annual or bi-annual World Quiz Games or something, were people travelled to quiz events like in the olympiads?

Yes? I don’t know. It’s got to be tough for the IQA folks to organize such a big event, and it was a challenge to get there. If there were another World event in 2017, I would try to go, but it’s hard to carve out the time. It’s taken me almost a month just to get around to answering these questions! But I’ll try to get to the EQC if I can.

Is there a US ranking system for quizzers? If so, where can we find it? If not, other than yourself, who are regarded as the top players in USA?

No ranking system. Top players would depend on a lot on the format. You see how different LL is from the likes of 2020 or WQC, and academic quizbowl is a whole other thing. There’s a lot of variety in US pub quizzes, and there’s no particular organization or rankings, etc.

Could you tell us a little about the TCONA? How long does it last, what kind of competitions are there, for teams, individually and for pairs?

Official events run from Friday to Sunday, with most events on Friday and Saturday. There are some core events that appear every year, and there are others which come and go. There’s always a 4-player team quiz event, a big Learned League Open event, an individual quiz at the start, Paul Paquet’s Smartypants event, etc. Other events may be held based on whoever’s there and wants to host their particular game. Here’s a list of likely 2017 events: http://qnatrivia.com/trivia-championships-of-north-america/ . This year, there’s a pun competition, an escape room, some sort of karaoke thing, the incredible not-a-race, last quizzer standing, etc – all of these are just events that some people like to run and that have become popular enough to bring back.

Typically there’s a Pub Quiz Lounge, a room with continuous quizzes in various formats from pub quiz companies across the US. In recent years, the game show guys have been doing a 24-hr game show marathon, where they play simulated game shows with some pretty fantastic graphics. There may be subject quizzes on music or sports or whatever else. Before and after the main TCONA events, there are often several Jeopardy simulators used for mock games as well. … I don’t think my answer is clarifying anything. There’s a wide variety of events, and often several are going on at the same time. There’s no one big Individual quiz like there was at the Quiz Olympiad.

The TCONA – The Trivia Championships Of North America – is familiar to many quizzers, but not to all. Do you attend that and if so, how have you performed? (any results page seems hard to find other than on Facebook, which seems rather incomplete: https://www.facebook.com/groups/TCONA/files/)

I’ve been to every TCONA. I’ve done okay but not great. Lots of 5th place finishes.

The TCONA seems a bit of a jumble, with competitions like Dodgeball quizzing (where you answers questions while trying to avoid being hit) and other fun events. Any thoughts on that? I mean, it’s somewhat unfamiliar to us, as our national championships are mostly serious, «elite» events, and highly prestigious. Personally I think it could be a plus for us having some more unofficial, «fun» events, so I’d like to hear what the general opinions in the US on such contests are.

It is a jumble. But it’s a lot of fun in that respect. You get to play a lot of different formats you’d never see otherwise. And you can pick and choose what to play – usually there’s at least one interesting event going on. The Quiz Olympiad had a few oddball events like the Speed Quiz and the Knockout Quiz; if you had a lot more events in that vein but fewer of the traditional core events, that’s kind of what TCONA is like.

I think TCONA is a bit unclear on what it wants to be. I think it aims to be a very egalitarian event, bringing in hundreds or thousands of casual trivia fans who like to play at their weekly pub quiz and want to do more. On the other hand, the regular attendees tend to be a core of top American players, and it’s the only event that brings together the top quizzers from across the states. I think TCONA wants to hit both targets, being a North American championship while also being fun for casual quiz fans. That’s tough to do – Learned League does a great job of it, and some pub quizzes do, but it’s tough.

Is there one or two TCONA competitions that are regarded as MOST prestigious?

I don’t know. The Learned League Open and the quizbowl competition, perhaps? I’m not sure.

The events at TCONA seems to be different from what we’re used to in Europe. There seem to be no «straight» individual contest, with 100+ questions each worth 1 point. Instead there seems to be formats with 10 points for each correct, and -5 for each wrong. How does this work, and is there no straight format where you are not punished for being wrong?

The +10 & -5 scoring is only in quizbowl, I think. In a quizbowl match, a tossup question is read for both teams; any of the 8 players can buzz as soon as they think they know it. If a player on Team A buzzes and gets it right, Team A gets 10 points and gets to try a bonus question. If the Team A player buzzed before the end of the question and got it wrong, Team A would lose 5 points, and Team B would have a chance at the question. If the Team A player buzzed after the tossup was finished, no penalty.

In most other events, there’s no penalty for a wrong answer. For example, the opening quiz has 100 questions, and you get one point for every correct answer. Most of the pub quiz events are scored the same way. But I think a big Individual quiz is something that’s missing at TCONA.

USA has a long tradition with Quiz Bowls in College or High School, are there any venues other than TCONA for serious, high level quizzing, like a community, a live regional or country-wide league?

I don’t know. Aside from quizbowl events, there are some national pub quiz championships, like the annual Geek Bowl (March 4 this year) associated with Geeks Who Drink. But I don’t think we have anything like those GP events in the UK, a recurring series with standings and all that. We’re very spread out, and it’s hard to coordinate regular meetings. Even with the city of Los Angeles, it’s a 45-minute drive down to where I play my pub quiz. Some people do the Hot 100 on a regular basis, but I don’t know of anything else analogous to the BQA’s quiz events.

What are your aims and goals for the quizzing future? Will you continue to participate in the WQC and the next Olympiad (which possible may be hosted in the US).

I’ll stay involved in international quizzing. I learn a lot, and I enjoy it. I don’t have any specific goals except to do better where I can. And cut down on dumb mistakes.

I participate in quizzing mostly because I learn a lot. I want to gain more knowledge, see more viewpoints, develop a new understanding of the world. I’ve learned about thousands of things that I never would have known otherwise. Someday maybe that’ll cease to be the case; if I find that I’m not really expanding my fundamental knowledge any more, or if I’m stagnating, or if I simply cease to care, then I’ll drop out. But until then, I look forward to the next quiz.

Lastly, I think it could be fun for our team to play the US team, on Skype, which I think the British and the US team have done before. Would that be interesting for you? It would perhaps also be possible to do that with several other teams, all in different locations on Skype, with local proctors.

Sounds fun. I’m in.

Thanks for talking with us!

Questions written by Tore Heliks Van Dahl