I won my first match in LearnedLeague last night.
Now I have to explain to the rest of you what that means.
LearnedLeague is an online trivia league, populated by more than 1200 players from all over the globe. (The preponderance of the League resides in North America, but there are a surprising number of folks on other continents.) Among the membership, you’ll find college quiz bowl stars, pub quiz mavens, crossword puzzle fanatics, and — not surprisingly — quite a few of my fellow Jeopardy! champions, including the nonpareil Ken Jennings.
Admission to LearnedLeague is by invitation only, so you have to be referred by a current member in order to join. However, previously posted questions are openly accessible on the League’s website, so anyone can challenge themselves by playing along. I scoured the archives diligently for months before I scored my invitation. (Speaking of which, my sincere thanks to Paul Paquet, proprietor of the Trivia Hall of Fame, for referring me into LL.)
Players compete in one-on-one matches each weekday over a 25-game season. (The current season is the League’s 56th –LL56 in League nomenclature. Four seasons are conducted each year, roughly once per calendar quarter.) For each match, six questions spanning a broad variety of topics are posted. Each player has 24 hours to access the questions and upload answers, with a strict honor-system understanding that the player will use only the knowledge residing inside his or her noggin — no reference materials or web searching permitted. The somewhat relaxed time element can be either a blessing or a curse. You have plenty of opportunity to mull over the questions and dredge up that obscure factoid lurking in the deepest recesses of your brain. You also have ample chance to overthink, and talk yourself out of a perfectly valid response.
Modeled after international soccer leagues, LearnedLeague divides its participants into ranked brackets called Rundles. Each Rundle contains an even number of players, between 24 and 32 (most commonly, 26). The Rundles are stacked by player performance, with the League’s top 26 players assembled in the Championship Rundle. The next-best players compete in one of several A-level Rundles; there are also B, C, D, and E-level Rundles. All first-time players such as myself are assigned to R (for Rookie) Rundles. This helps ensure that participants compete against others who are at a similar skill level. (To illustrate how essential that is, consider that the most recent winner of Championship Rundle scored 98.7% correct during the season.) The ultimate goal is to win enough matches to advance to a higher level Rundle for the following season (called Promotion), or at least to avoid being demoted to a lower Rundle (called Relegation).
What differentiates LearnedLeague from any other trivia competition I’ve encountered is the element of defense. In addition to answering the day’s six questions, each player must assign point values to those questions, from which her or his opponent’s score will be calculated. You assign three points to the question you believe your opponent is least likely to answer correctly, making it the highest-valued. The two questions you think are next in descending order of difficulty, you assign two points each; the next two, one point each. The question you believe will be the easiest for your opponent gets a value of zero, meaning that even if the other player gets it right, they don’t add any points for doing so. A perfect score on all six questions is nine points (3+2+2+1+1+0).
Likewise, your opponent will assign values to the questions based on what he or she thinks will be most or least difficult for you. You have no way of knowing when you submit your answers what point values have been attached to each. That information is only revealed at the conclusion of the 24-hour match period. So, unlike Jeopardy!, where a $200 answer is always $200, and a $2000 answer always nets you $2000 (unless it’s a Daily Double), answering any of the six questions correctly in a LearnedLeague match might earn you three points, two points, or one point, or it might earn you no points at all, depending on how your opponent assessed the values.
This makes defense critically important to winning a match. It’s entirely possible — in fact, it happens frequently — that you might answer more questions correctly than your opponent does, and still lose the match. Let’s say you get four answers right. Your competitor has preassigned those four items values of 2, 1, 1, and 0 points. That makes your total score 4 — or as it’s represented in LearnedLeague standings, 4(4) with game points preceding the parentheses, and the number of correct answers within the parentheses. Suppose your opponent only answers two questions correctly, but you’ve assigned those questions values of 3 and 2. Your opponent’s score is 5(2). Because only the game points determine the winner and loser of the match, your competitor snatches the victory — even though you came up with twice as many correct responses.
As you can see, the more you know about the person you’re playing against, and the parameters of her or his knowledge base, the more effectively you can assign points on defense. To facilitate this, the LearnedLeague site compiles detailed statistics about every player, so you can see at a glance how well he or she has performed in various categories. For those of us playing in our first League season, there’s not much information yet to go on. But this profile data becomes more useful the longer a player continues in the League, as his or her strengths and weaknesses become clearer.
(Did I mention that every LLama — that’s insider-speak for a LearnedLeague member — has his or her own flag? That’s mine at the top of this post. Having my own flag is wicked cool.)
I was first introduced to LearnedLeague at the inaugural Trivia Championships of North America (TCONA) in 2011. LearnedLeague at TCONA is played in a modified live format — instead of Rundles, the field is divided into eight-player tables, and the matches are played at a rapid pace, allowing players only four minutes to record their answers and assign defense points. The first round consists of seven matches, so everyone at a given table has one match against each tablemate. The winner of each table advances to the next round of play, an elimination round in which only the winners of each individual match continue. Ultimately, the two players left standing face off for the title.
At TCONA ’11, I won my table (despite the fact that I was new to the game and didn’t understand the scoring system all that well — which is an ego-preserving way of saying that I didn’t understand it at all) and found myself in the quarterfinals alongside Jeopardy! legends Ken Jennings and Jerome Vered. I lost my first elimination match (not to either Ken or Jerome, not that that’s any consolation), but felt vindicated to be in such lofty company. This past year, I finished second at a table that included another Jeopardy! veteran and LLama, Dr. Shane Whitlock.
So what’s a LearnedLeague match like? I’m glad you asked. Here’s how my first match of LL56 went down.
Question 1: Geography — France is divided into 27 régions, which are divided into 101 départements, which are further divided into 342 districts known by what term?
I stewed over this one for a while, because I knew that I had heard this somewhere (possibly, on Jeopardy!) very recently. I couldn’t dredge it up, though. Instead, I answered “cantons,” which was the only French administrative division that popped into my head. The correct answer is ARRONDISSEMENTS. My opponent got this question right, but unfortunately for him, I’d assigned it a value of zero. Which, as it turned out, was the best move — statistically, this was the easiest question of the match (meaning that, Leaguewide, more players answered this question correctly than any other question). Just not for non-Francophile me.
Question 2: Literature — Thanks to his famous literary depiction, who is the best known king to have ruled the ancient Sumerian city of Uruk (outpacing Lugalbanda, Enmerkar, and Dumuzid, among others)? Often on Jeopardy!, keeping the category in mind helps you focus on the correct response. The fact that this question was classified as Literature rather than History pointed me quickly to the right answer: GILGAMESH. He’s the only Sumerian king I could think of who’s also a famous literary character. (And a Marvel Comics superhero, not that that’s germane to the question.) Had this been designated a History question, I might well have struggled between Gilgamesh and Sargon (thereby exhausting the names of Sumerian kings I know). My esteemed opponent gave me two points for this correct reply; he answered incorrectly. [EDIT: As noted in the comments below by fellow LLama Bill Penrose, the categories don’t appear until the answers are revealed. I clearly sussed this out from the reference to “famous literary depiction” in the original clue. Seriously, I should not write from memory about something I did at 1 a.m. 36 hours ago. — Uncle Swan.]
Question 3: Film — The seminal 1984 comedy film Stranger Than Paradise was the first major work from what acclaimed independent filmmaker? As an actor and former film critic, I’m embarrassed to admit that I missed this. I put down “Spike Jonze” as my response; the correct answer, of course, is JIM JARMUSCH, which I remembered the instant I saw the answer key. Ah, well. My opponent earned himself two points for his accurate response.
Question 4: Games/Sport — The items in this photograph are used primarily (and quite importantly) in what sport? It pays to watch television. Just one week earlier, the Pirate Queen and I had watched a Season Three episode of Downton Abbey that depicted a CRICKET match. The second I saw this photograph, I recognized these wooden pegs as the little crosspieces that rest atop the posts of a cricket wicket. That lightning bolt of recognition garnered me three points, while my opponent guessed incorrectly. Thank you, Julian Fellowes.
Question 5: The largest vein in the human body, which returns deoxygenated blood from the lower part of the body into the heart, is known specifically as what (three words)? I’m not a doctor, but I know how to play one. I worked in the healthcare industry for nearly a dozen years, about half of which I spent in a job that required me to review copious numbers of medical records. So I actually know a considerable amount about anatomy and medical terminology. I was surprised that this question was the stumper of the match day — only 27% of the League got this one correct. I’m guessing that a lot of people put down “superior vena cava,” thinking that “superior” meant “largest.” In fact, the correct response is INFERIOR VENA CAVA — inferior because it enters the heart from the bottom, while the superior vena cava enters from the top. It’s tricky. (I’ll bet Shane Whitlock aced this one. Had I been playing him in this match, I would have valued this at zero.) I earned two points for the right answer, which my opponent did not come up with.
Question 6: Flaming Pie, Run Devil Run, Driving Rain, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, Memory Almost Full, and Kisses on the Bottom are the six most recent rock studio albums (and, strictly speaking, numbers 10-15 overall) released by what solo artist? The only one of these album titles that rang any bells at all was Memory Almost Full, but that little tickle did not lead me to PAUL MCCARTNEY. Instead, I took a wild flailing guess and said “Captain Beefheart,” who was also fond of bizarre album titles — his discography includes such works as Bat Chain Puller, Trout Mask Replica, and Ice Cream for Crow. My esteemed opponent appears to be no more fond of Macca’s later works than am I, because he missed this one too.
If you run the numbers, my final score for this match was 7(3) — I earned seven match points (2+3+2) with my three correct responses. My opponent scored 4(3) — he also got three correct answers, but picked up only four match points for them (0+2+2). Thus, even though we each answered the same number right, I won the match on points… which illustrates why defense is so important to LearnedLeague success. (My defensive “prowess” on this initial Match Day can be chalked up to sheer beginner’s luck.)
I’ll drop in periodic updates as my LearnedLeague experience progresses. And if you’re a fellow LLama (the official nickname for League members), perhaps we’ll cross swords on some future match day. I’m in Rundle R Central, and my Player Name is RankinsM. You’ll recognize me by my flag.