I stared at the question on my computer screen for what must have been, cumulatively, hours. It read:
Alice Paul, Millicent Fawcett, and Emily Wilding Davison are among the people that could be described by a term which was first used condescendingly by journalist Charles Hands in London’s Daily Mail but has since taken a positive connotation, and today is mostly obsolete, used only in a historical sense. What is that term?
None of these names were familiar to me, but that didn’t come as a great shock, since I suffer from a bad case of American Historical Solipsism. Nor was my ignorance an obstacle to finding the correct answer—within the first week of playing Learned League, the best trivia game on the Internet, I had learned that deduction could take me past the limits of immediate knowledge.
First, my brain went to art. I had recently finished a book about the impressionist painters in France, in which I learned that their group name had also been coined by a sneering journalist, only to be stripped of its negative connotation and become standard with time—much to the painters’ initial dismay.
But what artistic movement could this be? Surely I’d know their names if they were writers or painters. And it had to be significant that they were all women, right? Thorsten A. Integrity, the pseudonymous league founder and commissioner, always laces his questions with clues for the careful reader—some obvious, some barely perceptible. Before long, my mind had moved on to social movements, and the word “abolitionist” rang out. Could the word have been used condescendingly? Sure. Is it mostly historical today? Yes.
And yet…that didn’t resolve the gender issue. By noon—it was Friday, and my brain was sluggish—I finally realized that, duh, these women had clearly fought for the right to vote in England. Which brought me to the obvious answer of…
It wasn’t there.
The word was on the tip of my tongue, seen and read a thousand times before, but now it was eluding me, shrinking into the dark recesses of my brain with a coyness that soon became infuriating. Hours passed. I took a walk. I returned home and cooked dinner. I concentrated, forgot, and then concentrated some more. And at some point that night, while I was otherwise distracted, the a-ha moment finally came: Women’s suffrage. They were suffragettes!
I basked in the afterglow of a successful cerebral hunt. Not for the first time, the agonizing search for a Learned League answer recalled an article I had read in the New Yorker years ago. In it, the author described what I had just endured:
The insight process, as sketched by Jung-Beeman and Kounios, is a delicate mental balancing act. At first, the brain lavishes the scarce resource of attention on a single problem. But, once the brain is sufficiently focussed, the cortex needs to relax in order to seek out the more remote association in the right hemisphere, which will provide the insight. “The relaxation phase is crucial,” Jung-Beeman said. “That’s why so many insights happen during warm showers.”
Learned League, more than a simple online trivia competition, is the study of a human brain—your own. What I haven’t mentioned yet is that while I was fighting for “suffragette,” I gave short shrift to an easy question in the sports category—without really thinking, I decided that Oakland had the second-oldest MLB and NFL stadium in current use, when, with a moment’s focus, I would have realized it was Chicago.
Those were two of six questions on Match Day 7, in the 70th Learned League season. Today, a couple years later, I’m in the midst of the 85th season. In the current format—Mr. Integrity, whose real name is Shayne Bushfield, started the 20-person league in a New York City law firm in the ‘90s—a season lasts 25 days, and the league now boasts more than 18,000 participants. Each player is placed into a “rundle” of around 26 players, and each match day pits two players from the same rundle in a head-to-head battle. Along with answering the six questions, a player must engage in defensive tactics by assigning point values (3, 2, 2, 1, 1, and 0) based on how she thinks the opponent will fare. In this process, the player is aided by cursory personal information about the opponent (gender and location), and a bevy of statistical data on past performance, including a breakdown by 18 categories. If you face me, for instance, you’ll want to assign the full three points to any food/drink question, a category in which—despite being a hefty enough man that I should have accrued some culinary knowledge concomitantly with the weight—I am a malnourished 33-137 in my career.
A victory is worth two points, a draw worth one, and based on the results of a full season, a player can be promoted or relegated to a new rundle. The questions are hard—I answer at about a 38% clip, which puts me squarely in Rundle E, the cellar, with a few peeks into Rundle D here and there. Rundle A is populated by trivia-famous players like Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter (though, as far as I can tell, no James Holzhauer), along with countless other past champions of shows like Jeopardy and Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Elsewhere, you can find players like Dan Okrent (New York Times public editor, and inventor of Rotisserie league baseball), Pulitzer-Prize winning writer Anna Quindlen, and How I Met Your Mother creator Carter Bays.
The league functions on an invite-only basis, but it’s hardly exclusive—invitations aren’t hard to come by if you’re really looking. And yes, the whole thing works on the honor system. Cheating via Google will get you banned, and will also spoil the fun.
And it is fun—Learned League requires knowledge, strategy and discipline in equal measure. It will force you to reckon with the strange processes of your own brain, and form uneasy alliances with the synaptic shadowlands. You’ll hunt for memories, seek out epiphanies, and agonize over educated guesses. Frustration and revelation await, in unequal measure, at the mecca of Internet trivia.
Shane Ryan is a writer and editor. You can find more of his writing and podcasting at Apocalypse Sports, and follow him on Twitter here.