What Is Quiz Bowl?

Quiz bowl is an academic competition in which two teams of students compete to answer as many questions as possible on topics including literature, history, science, art, music, mythology, religion, philosophy, social science, geography, current events, and pop culture. This website focuses on the high school and middle school quiz bowl circuits in Northern California. You can find more information about the game in this series of articles provided by the Partnership for Academic Competition Excellence.

What is a game of quiz bowl like?

The rules that will be used at all NCQBA-certified competitions, with the exception of the HSAPQ Regional and State competitions, are the official guidelines of the Academic Competition Federation (the rules pertaining to gameplay can be found in Sections D-H).

A standard quiz bowl match pits two teams of up to four players each against each other. Each player holds a buzzer that can be used to “buzz in” when the player knows the answer to a question.

Matches consist of twenty tossup and bonus questions. Tossup questions are read to both teams; any player on either team has the opportunity to interrupt the moderator with an answer by buzzing in. If a player gives an incorrect answer, his or her team is deducted 5 points and barred from buzzing in during the remainder of the tossup. A team that correctly answers a tossup question (the team “in possession”) is awarded 10 points and is read a bonus question. Bonus questions consist of three parts, each worth 10 points; after each part is read, the team in possession is given five seconds to confer as a team and give a single answer. The opposing team may not answer the bonus question, and buzzers are not used during a bonus question.

After the bonus question is finished, the next tossup is read, repeating the tossup-bonus cycle until all twenty questions have been read and, if necessary, any tiebreaker questions.

What is a quiz bowl tournament like?

A standard quiz bowl tournament is held on a Saturday and begins at 9:00 AM. Tournaments in Northern California attract ten to thirty teams, who are seeded into brackets based on performance at past tournaments. Each team plays five to six preliminary matches in these brackets, depending on field size. Preliminary rounds usually end at noon (12:00 PM); teams then break for lunch while new playoff brackets are drawn up based on performance in the preliminary rounds. The teams with the best record in the highest-seeded playoff brackets then compete for the tournament championship.

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, in additional to five “Introductory Series” (IS-A) sets each year for use in novice tournaments. NAQT’s question sets have slightly higher proportions of questions on geography, current events, and popular culture.

High School Academic Pyramidal Questions (HSAPQ) is a company that produces question sets and organizes the National All-Star Academic Tournament (NASAT). As most of HSAPQ’s sets are used for either the History Bowl program or the Virginia High School League’s Scholastic Bowl program, there will only be one HSAPQ set available for high school tournaments in the 2013–2014 school year.

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

What are state and national championships?

Around March to April each year, NAQT sponsors two state championships in California–one in Northern California and one in Southern California. These state championships function identically to regular tournaments, with the exception that the first-place finishing team is guaranteed a spot at the HSNCT, regardless of HSNCT’s field cap.

There are three national championships each year: the HSNCT, the NSC, and the NASAT. Of these, the HSNCT is the most popular, attracting 256 teams in 2013. Teams can qualify for the HSNCT by placing in the top 15% of teams at a tournament using an NAQT IS or IS-A set; for example, to qualify for a national tournament at a tournament with 20 teams, a team would need to place in the top three (20 × 15% = 3). Teams can qualify for the NSC by placing in the top 15% of a PACE-certified tournament, the top 20% of gold-certified tournament, or the top 25% of a platinum-certified tournament. The NSC contains no questions on popular culture and is considered to be more rigorous than the HSNCT.

The NASAT is unique among national tournaments in that teams are composed of players from the same U.S. state, rather than the same school. Like the NSC, the NASAT contains no questions on popular culture. The NASAT is considered to be the most difficult national championship. Players can request to join this team by contacting an as-of-yet undecided individual.

What are pyramidal questions?

One of the main differentiating features of quiz bowl is the use of “pyramidal” tossup questions. This history question from the 2010 Fall Novice Tournament gives a specific example of how pyramidal questions are more fair, fun, and rewarding to teams.

(Round 1 – Fall Novice Tournament 2010)

A ship named for this man sank the HMS Hood and was hunted by the British Navy. Succeeded by Leo von Caprivi, this man proposed the Three Emperors’ League, declared war on Denmark over the province of Schleswig-Holstein, eliminated Catholic influence during the Kulturkampf, and edited a telegram to provoke the Franco-Prussian War. Serving during the rule of Wilhelm I was, for 10 points, what “Iron Chancellor” who led Prussia through the unification of Germany?

ANSWER: Otto von Bismarck


Note how the question begins with an interesting, specific clue that rewards students who know a lot about WWII naval battles (sink the Bismarck!). The question makes clear from the start what it’s looking for by using the phrase “this man.” The question then describes some of the things Bismarck did, going from more obscure (the Three Emperor’s League) to more well-known (Franco-Prussian War) to a “giveaway” with his nickname and finally the mention of Germany.

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

What German Chancellor was leader of Prussia during the Franco-Prussian War?

ANSWER: Otto von Bismarck


See the difference? The pyramidal question rewards students who know the historical importance of Otto von Bismarck. The other question does not. In fact, it baits players to buzz on “Chancellor” because “there’s only one German Chancellor, of course” (even though the pyramidal question, in fact, reveals that there were other men who held the Chancellorship!). A player who knew more than one German chancellor would logically wait for more revealing information, thus losing the buzzer race to a player who knew less information.

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

What are bonus questions?

It should be noted that bonus questions are not pyramidal–only tossup questions, which are open to both teams, abide by the pyramid structure. Instead, bonuses are a series of three questions (known as “bonus parts”) directed at the team whose player correctly answered the tossup, and teams can collaborate when answering them (it is highly recommended that the team allows the moderator to finish reading a bonus part before answering). For each bonus, there is one easy part, medium part, and hard part each, but NOT necessarily in that order. For instance, there may be a bonus that has as its order a hard, easy, and medium part. For more information about tossups and bonuses, see this Introduction to Quiz Bowl presentation.

What are bouncebacks, housewrites, negs, powers, prompts, and trash?

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.

Housewrites are question sets produced by individual organizations. This may be a high school, college, or other organization. Because housewrites can vary wildly in quality and difficulty, it is important for prospective customers 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 several other 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 fifteen points (in some formats, twenty) instead of ten. Powermarks generally fall in places at which the difficulty of a question drops significantly, as seen in this example question, in which the bolded part up to the (*) is powermarked.

(Round 1 – SCOP Novice Tournament 2011)

One work by this artist depicts a young man with a crown of roses sitting against a floral-patterned wall and holding a pipe. Another is tinted blue, and depicts a tattered man holding a guitar. In addition to (*) Boy with a Pipe and The Old Guitarist, this artist painted five prostitutes in a style inspired by African masks in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and painted the bombing of Guernica. For 10 points, name this Spanish cubist.

Answer: Pablo Ruiz y Picasso


A prompt is given if a 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,” he or she will be prompted to give more information.

Trash is a somewhat derogatory term given to questions on popular culture and other subjects that are not strictly academic.

Other lexicon

How can I start a team and get involved with quiz bowl?

If you want information on starting a team in Northern California and registering for NCQBA-certified tournaments, you can start by contacting jeff.hoppes@gmail.com. The New Team section of the hsquizbowl forums is especially useful for new teams and players facing specific challenges in starting a team. If you are a student or a parent, you should look to start a club endorsed and at least partially funded by your school, as you may want school funding as support for large outlays for trips to national tournaments.



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