Shayne Bushfield hunkers over a printout, labeling black geometric figures. He races through two dozen states, naming each correctly, until one finally brings him up short: “Is this Wyoming or Colorado?” he asks. Still, he is the first person on 22 teams here for a boisterous trivia night at Kate’s Pub to finish the questionnaire.
Stragglers squeeze into every last seat in the house. Bushfield and I have invited friends to play on our five-person team, and although he tries to manage expectations — “I consume almost no trivia, and I haven’t watched an episode of ‘Jeopardy!’ in 20 years,” he warns us — he gallops nearly flawlessly through six surveys covering U.S. geography, hyphenated company names, Christmas facts and more.
That Monday night in July, the other chumps never had a chance. Team Bushfield won everyone else’s ante, and we walked out with the $132 pot.
Admittedly, it wasn’t a fair fight. Bushfield is the one-man impresario behind LearnedLeague, a booming, invitation-only, underground trivia competition I joined two years ago. As the creator and host, he is more Alex Trebek than Ken Jennings — who, incidentally, has been a member for three years, along with other trivia fanatics like Carter Bays (co-creator of “How I Met Your Mother”), Daniel Okrent (a historian who invented Rotisserie Baseball and served as the first public editor of The New York Times) and the novelist Anna Quindlen.
They and 2,447 other people play in month-long round-robins, testing themselves and each other against Bushfield’s prompts: “London, England; Villers-sur-Mer, France; Castellón de la Plana, Spain; Stidia, Algeria; and Tema, Ghana, are among cities that share what particular distinction?” (The answers to all questions can be found at the bottom of the article.)
The community of nerds Bushfield has built is obsessive, devoted and competitive. The Washington metro area, naturally, is overrepresented among contenders, with nearly 9 percent, the second-highest city after New York. LearnedLeague is expanding rapidly at a time when, thanks to Google, the imperative to memorize arcana has finally gone. There is zero need to know the kind of information LearnedLeague tests. “There’s also no need to be able to throw a wad of paper into a wastebasket 20 feet away,” says Bushfield, but “it feels awesome when it goes in — in a totally meaningless but still fulfilling way.” The comparison is apt; there are truly few sensations so gratifying as knowing the correct answer to a LearnedLeague stumper.
Here's what it takes to join the LearnedLeague.
Here’s how it works: Each weekday during a month-long season, strangers face each other across six questions designed to remind them how little they know:“Who was the main commander of the victorious forces in the series of military campaigns which was known contemporaneously as Bello Gallico?”
But Bushfield designed an intricate Web site and a twist to make 17-year-old LearnedLeague special and strategic. In addition to playing offense (by trying to guess the right answer), contestants also play defense by assigning points — 0 through 3 — which their opponent will win by answering that question correctly. A winning approach awards your opponent 0 for an easy question and 3 for the most obscure one. (Every number, 0 through 3, has to be assigned, so you can’t zero someone out entirely.)
Yet what’s easy for me is not necessarily easy for you. So Bushfield, who was until recently a program manager at Microsoft, built an insane database to give players an idea of what their challengers might know. Already, I can see the last name, city of residence and alma mater of my opponent. But I can also access every question he — yes, 77 percent he — has answered on every subject, along with records of his performance by category. If he tends to ace questions about American history but whiff those about pop music, I’ll assign a 0 for the history item (Which U.S. state’s flag references an unrecognized sovereign state that held no real authoritative power, and existed for less than a month in mid-1846?) and a 3 for the bubble gum item (British musicians David Stewart and Annie Lennox were the members of what Grammy-winning duo, popular in the 1980s?).
“It’s nerdism on a number of levels,” says Okrent. The goal is to close a season at the top of your division, because the top finishers rise to a more challenging group for the following season. The winners from the uppermost divisions (whose ranks I will never be genius enough to join) compete for the title of LearnedLeague champion; beginning last month, some of these matches are held live at a trivia convention in Las Vegas.
To guard against frauds, Bushfield developed LearnedLeague as a kind of honor cult. Even though the answers to the online game are always a keystroke away, initiates must promise each day that they didn’t cheat, and they may be referred only by current members who vouch for their fidelity — on pain of forfeiting their membership if their recruits disobey. Bushfield administers LearnedLeague using the pseudonym Thorsten A. Integrity (“Teutonic efficiency mixed with trustworthiness,” he told me, explaining how he invented the persona on a lark). Current players I interviewed were shocked to hear him named and described as a human.
When Bushfied was 7, he became obsessed with memorizing certain facts, says Tonyia Downs, his mother. Growing up in a suburb outside Indianapolis, he noticed that his extended clan loved Trivial Pursuit. So “in his spare time, unbeknownst to me or anyone, he memorized answers,” she recalls. “It got to the point where no one would play with him anymore.”
Bushfield also loved maps, which covered his bedroom walls. In second grade at Hendricks Elementary School, his teacher noticed that he knew every state and every capital, normally the province of sixth-graders. So she challenged an entire class of 12-year-olds to name all the capitals on the map painted on the playground blacktop — and invited a local newspaper reporter to watch. Bushfield “flawlessly” recounted them all, according to the resulting story (accompanied by an image of him grasping his hands like Dr. Evil), but only four sixth-graders could.
Later, in a high school Spanish class, Bushfield’s teacher accused him of cheating when he knew the location of every city she pointed to on a large map of Mexico. “He was one of those people born with a brain that could absorb and remember stuff,” says Downs. His high school quiz-bowl team won the state championship during his senior year.
These instincts served Bushfield well in 1995, when, just out of Notre Dame, he worked as a paralegal in New York. There, he says, he and the other paralegals needed ways to fill their down time. “I sent a little trivia game based on ‘Name That Tune’ to people in the office,” recalls Chris Fettweis, who is a political scientist at Tulane and joined LearnedLeague in its infancy. Bushfield began submitting his own questions, and by 1997, he was writing all of them, every day.
He left for business school at Columbia, and when he needed HTML to manage some programmers during a summer internship at Pfizer, he decided to teach himself the language by building LearnedLeague. The first season online had some 20 competitors, mostly former paralegal co-workers, and launched in 2000. The design has remained fundamentally the same: an unadorned interface that eventually masked immense sabermetric sophistication.
For years, Bushfield ran LearnedLeague as a hobby, rushing home to grade participants each night, and devising questions at the public library in his free time. (He dons headphones to blast a heavy-metal band like Dream Theater, begins with a reference book, looks for a good fact, and writes the question around it, spending up to 30 minutes on each one.) “I wanted this all to look professional — to look like it’s done by a team of pros, instead of just one guy,” he says.
The game was growing, but with more players every year, LearnedLeague’s four annual seasons began to consume Bushfield’s life. By 2008, he had moved here with his wife, Amy, an actress, and their two young children to become a project manager at Microsoft. But the growing league was encroaching on his job, too. He asked himself: What if I could do it full time?
So in 2012, Bushfield began an experiment. LearnedLeague, which then boasted 1,026 members and had always been free, would require a once-a-year, pay-what-you-want contribution. He expected attrition, but only 153 members defected. And while some players gave the minimum recommended $25, many others gave more. “I always give the maximum $100, the highest [recommended level] he has,” says Okrent. “Is it worth that to me every year? There’s no question: Oh my God, yes!”
Then something unexpected happened. Once Bushfield had assigned a value to membership, it grew by 117 percent in the following 18 months — enough that, this spring, Bushfield felt comfortable leaving Microsoft to devote himself full time to trivia. “I’m pretty damn lucky to be able to do this,” he says, but it’s a big change for a man with an MBA. “I find it extremely difficult to explain the league to people, especially now that it’s my career. It sounds so absurd! I never bring it up at a party, and I still talk about myself as recently retired from Microsoft. . . . I don’t know anybody else who does what I do, so it doesn’t feel 100 percent right.”
Bushfield declined to provide LearnedLeague revenue figures for the record, but a review of the numbers suggests that, if LearnedLeague continues to grow at its current rate, he’ll be making a very comfortable living within the next two years, and quite a bit more down the line.
Still, the new business strategy is somewhat at odds with LearnedLeague’s ethos, a fact Bushfield is painfully aware of. “One of the most important things to me is cultivating the culture,” he says. On-site message boards overflow with players discussing the day’s questions, sharing ideas and good-naturedly trash-talking each other. Everyone uses their real surnames. Bushfield worries about how an influx of unvouched-for players would contend. (Today’s elite level of competition may explain how all-time “Jeopardy!” champ Jennings, who plays in the top division, could hold a 146-77-54 career record.) So Bushfield will uphold the referral rules even as he aims to expand: a current member may invite only one new person per season.
Trivia can be addictive. QuizUp, the social smartphone app, has been out for less than a year, and it already has 24 million users who spend an average of 30 minutesper day playing the game, according to the company. LearnedLeague takes less time to complete — about five minutes per day — but acts as the same kind of mental floss. “It’s very ritualistic, almost like praying or meditating,” says Bays. “It’s always there to take you into a different part of your brain for a few minutes. When you have a high-stress job, that kind of brief escape is crucial.”
Every morning when LearnedLeague is in season — it started again this week — escape looks like an e-mail from “Thorsten A. Integrity” asking me questions like this: “A musical march known as a screamer, such as those written by famous screamer composer Karl L. King, is most closely associated with what type of event?”
When these queries arrive in my inbox — and in the inbox of a multiplying horde around the world — Bushfield isn’t just asking us to conjure arcana. He’s asking us why it feels so good to pluck information from our brains instead of our smartphones; what we get out of recalling a nearly-forgotten fact from that college survey of ancient Mesopotamia or that TV show we watched after our parents had gone to bed; and why a community of like-minded obsessives, connected through inelegant HTML tables and a check-box honor code, feels so much like home.
Those, at least, are questions I can answer.
Key: They’re on the prime meridian; Julius Caesar; California; Eurythmics; circus.