September 15, 2012

My experience at the 2012 Team Trivia National Championship, and how we came _this close_ to winning $10,000

From May 2012 through August 2012, my family and I had earned, through a number of solid performances (including a number of wins) playing Team Trivia, a berth in the 2012 Team Trivia National Championship, held on the afternoon of August 18, 2012, with a top prize of $10,000. We could include up to six people in our team, and did we ever: we had a strong team, one with a chance to take the championship, but having played in games like this my whole life, I knew that you never know.

Teams were told at the outset that, with a prize pool of more than $21,000 at stake, the questions would be harder than usual. Great, I thought (seriously). I like hard questions, as would my teammates, and that would hopefully improve our chances to win.

Our team ("Pops and Mommers") assembled at Burke's Public House on Broadway, just before the start of the match. In the first half, we didn't fare very well -- we only got three of the first nine questions in the first half correct, though we were "in the ballpark" on three other questions (Steve Kerr, Ronald Reagan, Mad Men's maypole) but our point wagering was sensibly maxed for the questions we knew and we finished with 15 points. Our saving grace in the first half was that we nearly swept the halftime question on famous bands' first #1 hits (getting 4 out of 5 possible for 8 points total) and we nearly swept a bonus first-half question on celebrities' real names (getting 14 points out of 15 possible, the most of any team, only missing Chris Angel). Despite our lackluster first half, we fared far better than I thought or hoped: The top score nationally at the time was 38 points, our halftime score was 35 points, first place in Chicago and third place in the country.

Then the second half, where the point values were doubled. There we fared better -- we got five of nine second-half questions correct (Angus, Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing, the World Wildlife Fund, "silent", and Oingo Boingo). We had a respectful performance in the second-half bonus question on countries with the world's tallest mountains which included a gotcha that wrong answered would have point values deducted (we responded with six answers, getting five right and one wrong, net plus-eight points). However, we were beside ourselves when in the category Games, we responded with "20" rather than the correct "24" to the question "How many points are on a backgammon board?", losing the chance to earn another six points.

Even so, we were able to build our point total to 65 points, putting us both first in Chicago and first in the whole country, with a four point over the second-place team. Hot diggity -- if we can get the final question correct and wager enough, we would win the national championship and $10,000. But if we were wrong, we would lose whatever we would wager.

When I surveyed the list of questions thus far, I noted aloud "You know, there hasn't been a movie question yet." The final question was: "Name two of the five movies which were nominated for all of the following: the 2012 Academy Award for Best Picture, the 2012 Golden Globe for Best Picture, and the 2012 Critics Choice Movie Award for Drama".

In short order, we were able to figure out a number of contending films: The Artist, The Help, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Descendants, Hugo, Moneyball, Warhorse. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was out. The Artist, which swept the Oscars but which was a comedy, was out. The Descendants was in -- nominated for a lot, critically acclaimed, and a drama. So of the remaining films, which should we pick. At that point, we heard:

"The Tree of Life?"

This resonated with us. Terence Malick routinely gets nominated for awards, and his movie even won the freaking Palme d'Or at Cannes. Plus, time was running out -- we had to make a choice and so we did: The Arist, and The Tree of Life, for 17 points (which we determined to give us an unreachable 82 points and the championship).

Shortly after we had submitted our final answer, the list of correct films was announced:

The Descendants
The Help

Ouch. Heartbreaking. Not only did we miss the correct answer, we chose the only incorrect answer in a set where any other answer we could have chosen would have been correct. Instead of 82 points, a national championship, and $10,000, we finished with 48 points and fourth place in Chicago, resulting in a $75 gift certificate to Burke's Public House which we spent that day on a lot of food. We walked home, morose, shocked, vowing to come back next year. Why not? After all, we showed we could compete and come as close as anyone could to winning the championship without actually winning the championship.