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A: Quiz Bowl. Q: What Do Top Game Show Players Prize?

But Olmstead, Jennings and their fellow quiz bowlers are not merely expert at answering questions; they write them, as well.

Part of the price of admission to the quiz bowl tournaments of their youth was for each team to contribute a packet of roughly 100 clever questions. Nowadays, companies known as "question vendors" sell such packets to tournaments and trivia contests, with retired packets purchased by teams for practice.


After the wedding of fellow quiz bowlers, a late-night pickup game draws Maribeth Mason, Chris Nolte, Chad Kubicek and Tom Waters. (Ben Garvin For The Washington Post)

At the forefront of this cottage industry is National Academic Quiz Tournaments, which Robert Hentzel runs full time from his Minnesota rambler. Olmstead and Jennings belong to the 14-member board and are active both in crafting questions and editing those submitted by freelancers, who earn $1.65 a shot. Olmstead also coaches and advises college teams, and Jennings occasionally moderates tournaments NAQT organizes across the country. Some 300 colleges field serious teams, Hentzel estimates, and thousands of high schools compete on the junior level.

Weekend tournaments last for hours at a stretch, 89 questions per round at breakneck speed, with political science toppling into rock music, physics commingling with Russian literature, references to "Dr. Strangelove" segueing into beheadings in the Bible.

With NAQT not yet turning a profit, their work, Jennings said, "is mostly a labor of love for all concerned."

Truth be told, Jennings continued, he prefers creating questions to answering them, likening the quest for the perfect question to "a very restrictive art form, like haiku."

The shows that have become the de facto quiz bowl payroll respond to the presence of semipro ringers amid the unsuspecting ranks of housewives from Jersey and lawyers from St. Louis with bemusement, admiration or, in the case of "Jeopardy!" -- complete silence.

On "Millionaire," the quiz bowl tentacles reach behind the scenes as well, with quiz bowl contestants using one another as their phone-a-friend "lifelines," a strategy that paid off handsomely for Olmstead, among others.

Davies already is fantasizing about a match between Olmstead and Jennings, "like 'Alien vs. Predator.' "

Eric Hillemann, an archivist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., and the school's quiz team adviser, has served as a "Millionaire" lifeline five times for quiz bowlers, including Olmstead (who tipped his friend "a wall of bookcases in my living room"), and won $20,700 himself on "Jeopardy!" four years ago.

"These people have put together a wonderful show for all my friends to win money," Hillemann said. "Two weeks wouldn't go by that there wasn't someone I didn't know on."


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