Saturday, April 09, 2011

A Quiz is Just a Quiz

An abridged version appears here.


The first time I realized that QED was not just an ordinary quiz team any more was at the national finals of the massively popular Landmark Quiz in 2009. The quizmaster, Chennai’s very own Navin Jayakumar, was calling the finalists on stage and the audience didn’t seem to care beyond some desultory clapping. That is, until QED were announced. Upon which a startlingly loud cheer rang through the Music Academy. Since when do the socially inept, stereotypically awkward, geeky, bookworm types have whistling, clapping fans in the galleries? This was new.

Everyone in the “quizzing circuit” knows about the rise and rise of QED. They started when they were students at PS Senior, cleverly (so they thought) borrowing their name from a familiar schoolroom trope. Version 1.0 first tasted success on the big stage when they won the Landmark Quiz. The vagaries of academics caused the team to split, and after trying out a few combinations, they settled into the current configuration in 2005 and appear to cruising ever since.

The team members know why their combination works so well. G. Swaminathan says, “Like any good team, it’s probably because we have such a varied and non-overlapping set of interests. And thankfully each of us seems to have more than one area that we care deeply about, which means we cover a broad range of subjects, to a fair degree of depth.”

V.V.Ramanan, Assistant Editor (Sports) at The Hindu and doyen of the Madras/Chennai quizzing circle, is the senior statesman and self-described dinosaur on the team. “I went to PS Senior myself, and when I was asked to join QED, it was great partly because it meant that we were still the ‘PS Possé’.” Ramanan is the quizmaster of the wildly popular Young World Quiz for schools. “Preparing for Young World helps me in QED, because I come across many things which are at a school level that are asked in open quizzes that end up stumping seasoned quizzers.”

There is no secret sauce behind their success. Writer and journalist Samanth Subramanian says, “We do read a lot as a matter of course. For example, in college I took courses in art history simply because I was so thrilled that I could. Because I had so much fun learning, it all stuck so much better. When we find something really ‘quiz type’ maybe we’ll spend an extra 5 minutes and navigate an extra couple of links, but not much beyond that. When we were going through a rough patch once we did try to ‘mug’ more systematically, but it was a drudge and we gave it up.”

Oddly enough, it appears as though the idiosyncrasies they bring to the stage may have a greater impact on their performance than any preparation! They have a vaastu configuration for how they arrange themselves; Samanth will wear an ancient baseball cap of dubious provenance rotated to a “just so” orientation; Ramanan used to sport “lucky” dark glasses. They listen very carefully to every question, but they also observe the reactions of their opponents, whose strengths and proclivities they know, to figure out bits and pieces of the answer when they are stumped.

Navin has seen the players and the team evolve over the decades, and sums it up with an apt metaphor. “The Venn diagram of their skills is just perfect. They individually ‘cover’ large independent areas of knowledge; at the same time they intersect to exactly the right extent which helps them work out answers and corroborate each other’s hunches. Secondly, their attitude helps. While other teams’ shoulders sag when they’re not doing well, QED somehow have the stamina to keep the intensity fully turned on throughout, and they don’t ever give up even if they are behind on score. It’s the sort of attitude that the Indian middle order displayed in the World Cup at 31 for 2! Finally, they seem to enjoy the quizzing, no matter what. This makes my life easier as a quizmaster, because quizzes are more fun for the participants and the audience when there is a little bit of banter between the people on stage, rather than a mechanical Q&A session. And I think their joie de vivre and sportsmanship are palpable and go down well with the audience who always love a sporting winner, which may explain the cheering.”

It’s an odd feeling, having to write about friends and on-and-off rivals. On the one hand there is the delicious thought that the day will come soon when QED’s memory banks will fire blanks, and maybe my team will have one menace less to worry about. On the other hand, inasmuch as quizzing can be a “performance art”, they do dish out regular virtuoso performances. And even if Samanth’s (“I’m the only single guy on the team.”) fond dreams that some day hordes of nubile quiz groupies will beat down the doors of his dressing room and drape themselves around him will hopefully never come to fruition, one hopes that this quiz team with a vocal “mass support base” will continue to entertain and challenge us in many more quizzes.

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