What Is Quizbowl?

An example of quizbowl practice at Arcadia High School. Orange juice not necessary.

Quizbowl is an academic competition in which two teams of students compete using buzzers to answer questions on academic subjects such as science, literature, history, and fine arts. This website focuses on the middle and high school quizbowl circuits in Southern California.

What are the rules of quizbowl?

A standard quizbowl match pits two teams of up to four players each against each other. Each player is given buzzer that can be used to “buzz in” when the player knows (or thinks they know) the answer to a question. A match consists of twenty (20) tossup and bonus questions. Tossups are read to both teams at once; the team that successfully answers a tossup is then read a bonus.

Tossups are paragraph-length questions that are read to both teams at once. Any player on either team has the opportunity to interrupt the moderator and answer by buzzing in. Each team has one chance to answer a tossup; if a player gives an incorrect answer, their entire team is locked out for the remainder of the tossup. The first team to interrupt the moderator with an incorrect answer is deducted 5 points; if a team has already given an incorrect answer, or if the tossup has been read to conclusion, an incorrect answer carries no penalty.

The team that correctly answers a tossup (the team “in possession”) is awarded 10 points (occasionally more, refer to “Powers” below) and is read a bonus question. Each bonus comprises three related questions, each a sentence long, and worth 10 points apiece. The team in possession is read each bonus part one at a time, and is given five seconds to confer with each other and give an answer. The opposing team may not answer the bonus, and buzzers are not used during bonuses. There are no penalties for incorrect bonus answers.

After a bonus question is completed, the next tossup is read, and this tossup-bonus cycle is repeated until all twenty questions have been read and, if necessary, any tiebreaker questions.

What does a quizbowl tournament look like?

A standard quizbowl tournament is held on a Saturday and lasts from 9:00 AM to mid-afternoon. Tournaments in Southern California usually attract twenty to thirty teams, and are divided into two phases – preliminary rounds and playoff rounds, with a lunch break in between. Teams are divided into multiple preliminary brackets of roughly equal strength and play a round robin of anywhere from four to seven rounds. Preliminary rounds usually end around noon (12:00 PM); teams then break for lunch while new playoff pools are drawn up based on performance in the preliminary rounds. Playoff matches typically begin at 1:00 PM. Teams with the best record are placed in the highest-seeded playoff pool and compete for the tournament championship, while other teams play competitive matches against each other in consolation pools. A tournament ends anywhere between 4:00 PM and 5:00 PM, with teams typically having played around 10 matches throughout the day.

Why quizbowl?

Quizbowl places an emphasis on developing both breadth and depth of factual knowledge across multiple academic subject areas. Students are encouraged to improve in subject areas they find most interesting, with the breadth coming from the differing interests of each of the four team members. There are no quotas, requirements, or prerequisites for interested students – anyone can join a team and participate!

Quizbowl is unique in that it simultaneously places a strong emphasis on the Western Canon (American and European literature, history, and culture), multicultural studies (literature, history, and culture of non-Western societies), and science (both natural and social). Students are exposed to culturally, historically, and scientifically important concepts, works, and individuals outside of the breadth of their schooling.

Quizbowl is one of the most cost-effective extracurricular programs available. High-quality practice questions are available for free at quizbowlpackets.com or HSAPQ, or available to purchase from NAQT. Interested teams can purchase a buzzer system for $200 to $500 dollars to help facilitate practices and qualify for tournament discounts. Tournament fees typically begin at $80 per team with significant discounts for bringing buzzer systems or staffers, being a new team, or travelling long distances to attend the tournament. It is possible for a single team to participate in an entire season of quizbowl for a budget of roughly $100 per person.

Many tournaments permit multiple teams from the same school to attend a single quizbowl tournament, and at schools with large programs, it is not unusual to see up to five teams attending a single tournament. Tournaments are generally scheduled to avoid other tournament dates, academic events, or SAT / ACT testing dates. Because there are roughly a dozen tournaments scheduled throughout the year, teams frequently pick and choose the tournaments they wish to attend.

What are NAQT, HSAPQ, and PACE?

National Academic Quiz Tournaments (NAQT) is a company that produces question sets and organizes the High School National Championship Tournament (HSNCT). NAQT produces five Invitational Series (IS) sets each year for use in regular high school tournaments, five Introductory Series (IS-A) sets each year for use in novice high school tournaments, and four Middle School Series (MS) sets each year for use in middle school tournaments. NAQT’s question sets generally have an emphasis on geography, current events, and popular culture.

High School Academic Pyramidal Questions (HSAPQ) is a company that organizes the National All-Star Academic Tournament (NASAT). HSAPQ has been inconsistent regarding the production of question sets, but has a novice set planned for the 2016-2017 season.

The Partnership for Academic Competition Excellence (PACE) is a non-profit organization that organizes the National Scholastic Championship (NSC). PACE does not produce any question sets for regular season tournament use, but rather certifies pre-existing tournaments as qualifiers for the NSC.

What are state and national championships?

There are three national championships each year: the HSNCT, the NSC, and the NASAT. Of these, the HSNCT is the most popular, attracting 272 teams in 2016, while the NSC is a smaller, more rigorous national tournament that attracted 96 teams in 2016. The NASAT is unique among national tournaments in that it is a very difficult all-star tournament with teams comprised of players from the each U.S. state, rather than from the same school.

To qualify for the HSNCT, teams must place in the top 15% of the field at any tournament that uses an NAQT IS or NAQT IS-A set. For example, at a tournament with twenty-four (24) teams, the top four (4) teams qualify for the HSNCT (24 * 15% = 3.6, rounded up = 4).

Each spring, NAQT sponsors two state championships in California – one in Northern California and one in Southern California. These state championships function identically to regular NAQT tournaments, but additionally award HSNCT qualification to the top-placing team without an HSNCT qualification, even if that team is outside of the top 15%.

Qualification for the NSC is similar – PACE offers regular-, gold-, and platinum-level certification to local tournaments, which respectively qualify the top 15%, 20%, or 25% of the field to the NSC.

NASAT qualification is rather different – instead of a qualification process, team members are individually selected by a committee of collegiate players and coaches from both Southern and Northern California.

What are pyramidal questions?

One of the unique aspects of quizbowl is the use of pyramidal questions. Pyramidal questions are paragraph-long and filled with many uniquely-identifying clues that are arranged in order from hardest to easiest. Consider this history tossup from a sample packet on NAQT’s website:


In 404 BC, all but 3,000 citizens of this polis had their arms confiscated. One struggle for control of it saw the death of the oligarch Critias at the Battle of Piraeus; after that 403 BC battle, Thrasybulus pardoned many of the Thirty Tyrants who ruled this city after it lost the Peloponnesian War. For 10 points – name this ancient Greek city-state whose democracy was temporarily ended by Spartan control.
ANSWER: Athens [or Athina]

This question contains around ten different clues about ancient Athens, approximately arranged from hardest to easiest. It makes it clear from the beginning the type of answer the question is looking for (“this polis”; “this city”). It begins with difficult – but not obscure or unimportant – information about Athens, and gradually lessens the difficulty until the mention of an “ancient Greek-city state” that implemented democracy and feuded with Sparta.

Compare that pyramidal tossup to this simple one-line question.

What ancient Greek city-state lost the Peloponnesian war to Sparta?

ANSWER: Athens [or Athina]

The pyramidal tossup rewards players who have a deeper understanding of ancient Greek history. The second one-line tossup does not – a player who knows about the Thirty Tyrants is given the same advantage as a player who just knows that Athens was a Greek city-state, and the question comes down to buzzer speed. The second question in fact baits players to buzz on “ancient Greek city-state” because Athens is simply the most famous, though a player with deeper knowledge may wait for more information to differentiate between, for instance, Athens, Sparta, and Thebes.

These links provide good arguments for and examples of pyramidal questions.

What do some quizbowl terminology and jargon mean?

Bouncebacks are used at the NSC but very few other tournaments. If the team in possession misses a bonus part, it is “bounced back” to the opposing team, who is given a chance to answer the bonus part for the full points. This process may be repeated for all three bonus parts; the opposing team may “steal” all three parts for the full 30 points.

Housewrites are question sets produced by individual organizations. This may be a high school, college, a nonprofit, or even an informal group of writers. Because housewrites can vary wildly in quality and difficulty, it is important for prospective tournament hosts to carefully judge any housewrites that they plan to use in tournaments.

A neg is short for “negative” and refers to an incorrect buzz that costs the player’s team 5 points.

Powers are used at NAQT and HSAPQ tournaments (except the NASAT) in addition to many housewrites. Tossup questions are “powermarked” up to a certain point that is not revealed to either team. If a question is answered correctly during the powermarked portion, the team is rewarded 15 points. Powermarks typically fall immediately before a significant drop in question difficulty. In the tossup below, the difficulty of the question drops significantly when the name of Brabantio, a major character, is read.

(Round 8 – HSAPQ Tournament 42)

In this play, a woman steals a handkerchief that is later discovered by Bianca, who chastises her lover. In this play, while celebrating in Cyprus, Montano is wounded by his subordinate, who is then demoted. In the first act, (*) Brabantio accuses the protagonist of witchcraft for seducing his daughter, who is smothered due to suspicions of her unfaithfulness with Cassio. Desdemona is murdered by the title character of this play, who is manipulated by Iago. For 10 points, name this Shakespeare play about “the Moor of Venice.”

ANSWER: Othello


A prompt is given if a team or player provides an answer that is too vague to determine its correctness. For example, if the correct answer is “Louis XIV” and a player answers “Louis,” they will be prompted to give more information – in this case, the regnal number. Moderators may prompt teams or players by saying “More information, please?” or “Please be more specific,” or sometimes even just “Prompt.” Below are some examples of common prompts.

ANSWER: Henry VIII [prompt on Henry]

ANSWER: Bill Clinton [prompt on Clinton]

ANSWER: requiem mass [prompt on mass]

ANSWER: David Lloyd George [prompt on partial answer]


Trash is an informal term given to questions on popular culture and other subjects that are not strictly academic.
Refer to this link for a more extensive list of quizbowl terminology.

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