UMN quiz bowl team scores second place in ‘Super Bowl of the mind’

In a normal year, the University of Minnesota quiz bowl team would compete at the Intercollegiate Champion Tournament in Illinois. This year, team members competed in their bedrooms.


Courtesy of Joseph Kamman

A group photo of the University of Minnesota quiz bowl team

Nina Raemont, Arts and Entertainment Reporter

The University of Minnesota quiz bowl team would typically drive down to Rosemont, Illinois, to compete in the NAQT Intercollegiate Champion Tournament (ICT).

This year, the team members competed — and placed second — from their bedrooms.

The Minnesota B team scored second place in the Division II category, losing the first place title to Vanderbilt University on Saturday, April 10. The last time a Minnesota quiz bowl team came this close to victory was in 2019 when the A team placed fourth in the Division I category.

Members of the B team include Peyton Johnson, Ethan Ashbrook, Lucas Pham and the winner of the 2020 “Jeopardy! College Championship” Nibir Sarma.

The ICT, the premier quiz bowl tournament at the collegiate level, brings together some of the top-ranked schools in the country to compete in this “Jeopardy!”-style tournament where speed and intelligence are the names of the game.

Players compete in teams of four, answering various questions that cover anything from thermodynamics to pop culture. The quicker a question is answered, the more points the team scores.

To prepare, some students study up on topics like art history, chemistry and literature, while others spend their time making flashcards, reading religiously, memorizing old quiz bowl questions, watching “Jeopardy!” daily or scouring Wikipedia pages.

After last year’s competition was canceled due to COVID-19, the University quiz bowl team was ready to compete this year.

Leading up to the final rounds of the day, when the B team was inching closer and closer to victory, first-year student Ashbrook felt an odd mixture of “stress and non-stress.”

“I knew we were going into the finals and were so close to winning the whole thing, but at the same time it was still just me sitting in a study room all day, looking at everybody else through a laptop screen,” Ashbrook said.

On Saturday morning, third-year student Sarma woke up around 8 a.m., ate a Clif Bar, read his morning newsletters and hopped onto Zoom for the virtual quiz bowl competition. For the next 12 hours, Sarma competed with Ashbrook and other fellow B team players in 13 rounds, answering questions about polymers, Silk Sonic and more — and eventually placing second.

Sarma’s no stranger to answering tough questions on the spot. Last April, he won “Jeopardy! College Championship,” taking home a $100,000 grand prize. He’s also no stranger to the hard work, high pressure and tough competition required to excel in quiz bowl competitions.

“I know sitting in front of a computer all day can hardly be considered a sport, but it’s almost like an endurance of the attention span when you’re in front of a computer for that many hours and being asked to recall facts and trivia that are, of course, very difficult,” Sarma said.

Learning doesn’t end once the tournaments are over. Even if students aren’t pursuing a career in the quiz bowl topics they study, the knowledge gained through the quiz bowl exposes members to information they wouldn’t have learned otherwise. After learning about the visual arts for quiz bowl, president of the University’s quiz bowl team Tora Husar’s interest in the subject propelled her to pick up an art history minor.

“It’s enhanced my life outside of [my career path] … just by learning more about interesting books to read, or I can go to an art museum and know a little bit and enjoy it more,” Joe Kammann, treasurer of the team, said.

“Everyone’s super fun, driven to learn, really smart people and not just in one way either,” Sarma said. “People have all sorts of varied interests and stories and backgrounds, but the singular shared thing is everyone’s love of learning.”