My guest today, Victoria Groce, is likely the world’s greatest trivia quizzer. The very mention of her name sends waves of panic through her competitors. She’s not as high profile as past Jeopardy! champion and Jeopardy! host, Ken Jennings. But like Ken, she’s parlayed trivia greatness into her own T.V. gig on A.B.C.’s The Chase.
GROCE: As far as I’m concerned, I have the best job in trivia.
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Welcome to People I (Mostly) Admire, with Steve Levitt.
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How does someone become world class at trivia? Or maybe a better question is, why would someone want to become world class at trivia? And how can knitting be used as a form of intimidation? Hopefully, I can get Victoria Groce, “The Queen” of trivia, to answer those questions and many more.
LEVITT: You certainly have had remarkable success in trivia competitions the last few years. In the World Quizzing Championship, you finished third and seventh. In the LearnedLeague Championship, which is the biggest U.S.-based trivia league with over 25,000 competitors, you were one of only two people who finished in the top 10, three years in a row. So, I suspect there are some people out there who are blown away by these achievements. And I suspect there’s a much larger group saying to themselves, “I didn’t even realize there’s a subculture of adults who are obsessed with competitive trivia.”
GROCE: There’s a knitting writer I like who once described herself as being, “a very big name in some very small rooms.” I think that’s an excellent description of this community.
LEVITT: So, like any hyper-competitive activity, there’s a standard path to becoming elite. From a very early age, you devote yourself intensively and single-mindedly to the activity. So, you did Quiz Bowl in high school, and then also competed in College Bowl at the University of Georgia, but I’ve looked at your statistics and I’ve got to say, you weren’t really that good in college, is that a fair —
GROCE: I was fine. It’s fair to say that I was probably in the top quartile of players nationally by the time I graduated.
LEVITT: It’s not just that, but then you walked away from trivia completely.
GROCE: I did.
LEVITT: What kept you busy in your twenties?
GROCE: So, I had my daughter when I was 23, and I actually spent most of my twenties really quite ill. I have chronic migraine, and it’s varied from being an annoyance to being pretty debilitating through most of my adult life. In fact, I would be probably doing something very different right now if I hadn’t been very sick through most of the late 2010s.
LEVITT: In what way, like how so?
GROCE: When my daughter started school, so around like 2008, 2009, I was able to go back to work. I initially, intended to become a genetic counselor around that time. And I started volunteering and I started taking science classes and I realized, I really enjoyed the science piece of it. So, I was intending to pursue a Ph.D. in either virology or immunology. I wanted to do vaccine development for emerging viral diseases. But in 2015, my migraine prophylaxis basically completely failed. And I was in this position where I really couldn’t do bench science. I had days where I had to take sick days off work because I couldn’t manage the 15-minute walk from the parking to my office. I had started dipping my toes back into trivia a couple years prior to that. I had time and I had space and I had not a lot of ability to do much of anything else. So, I gradually started just doing more and more.
LEVITT: So, the way you got back into trivia was through this thing called the LearnedLeague, right?
GROCE: Yes. I joined LearnedLeague around early 2010s. I got an invitation from an old Quiz Bowl friend, and Learnedeague is a socially-networked trivia league in the sense that somebody who is already in the league has to vouch for you. And every morning you get six questions and they’re going to be on a variety of topics and you’re going to be playing one opponent. So, you answer your questions and then you make a guess, basically at how difficult is this particular opponent I’m playing going to find this set of questions? And then you basically assign defense. You’re going to give them more points on the questions. You think that they will get wrong. You’re going to give them zero or small number of points on the questions you think they will get correct. And like you might look and say, “O.K., this person I’m playing is great at literature, and this might be a fairly tough literature question, but I think they’ll know it.” So, basically it’s a head-to-head league, 25 days a season, and then there’s standing,s and that’s basically how that works.
LEVITT: I’m also in the LearnedLeague and I would describe it as a devilishly clever structure, because there’s a wide range of skills in this league, but it’s organized on the same structure as the premier soccer leagues, where there’s an, A level, a B level, a C level, a D level and E level. And if you do well at the C level, then you are promoted up to the B level. And if you do poorly at the C level, you’re demoted down to the D level. So, you’re always playing against people who are like you. So, just to put into perspective how amazing your rise to the top is, I collected some data from the LearnedLeague. The best players in the LearnedLeague get about 90 percent of the questions right. The average player in the LearnedLeague gets about 50 percent of the questions. So, when you started in the LearnedLeague, you averaged about 57 percent correct. So, you were slightly better than average, yeah, but far, far, far from the elite. You were in the B league and the C league, not even in the A league. O.K. So, that was only seven or eight years ago. Now, you get about 90 percent right in the LearnedLeague. So, what in the world happened in between?
GROCE: So, what happened was about 3.5 million reviews on a popular spaced-repetition flashcard system, along with a whole lot of just playing trivia and exposing myself to things.
LEVITT: Tell me what that’s all about, because that sounds like that’s a key to what you’ve been doing.
GROCE: I think so. So, spaced repetition, this is, basically, psychological principle that was, I’m going to say pioneered, by a German psychologist named Hermann Ebbinghaus. He plotted what he called “forgetting curves.” And there is a curve that you can predictably see how a new piece of knowledge would decay over time. So, like if somebody tells you a phone number and you try to remember it, you can probably remember it for 30 seconds, a minute, long enough to take the call. If somebody asks you, “Hey, what was that phone number?” at the end of the day, you’re not going to remember it. Our brains just have a way of letting go of information that is extraneous. So, he found that if you reinforce this information by being exposed to it over a period of time, your brain remembers it for longer and longer on each exposure. And to me, it seems like there’s fairly intuitive, sensible, evolutionary reasons why that might be true. If your brain sees something in its environment frequently, it probably makes sense to treat it as important and something that is worth knowing about, learning about — something that might be important for survival. So, the principle of spaced repetition is basically, you want to learn a piece of information, you see it more frequently to reinforce it until it works its way into your long-term memory, and then you see it much less frequently after that. So, if I am trying to learn the author of a book, and I make a flashcard on it, I will see that flashcard twice in the first day that I’m learning it. Then I’ll see it again the next day. And then I’ll see it again, like two days later. And then I’ll see it again, maybe five days later and eventually, like I have cards that I’m not going to see again for a period of about six years.
LEVITT: So, essentially, you’re saying flashcards were the secret to your success in trivia. How many flashcards are in your inventory?
GROCE: I think, at the moment, I have approximately 160,000. And I am very vigilant about not adding information that I already know. So, if I add something it’s something that I’ve deemed worth learning. And something that I hope I don’t already have.
LEVITT: So, the spaced repetition is one factor, but the active learning is a second piece to it, right? The fact that you’ve got it on a flashcard and you have to answer it — there’s also some empirical evidence that really increases retention rates as well.
GROCE: Yeah. It’s called a rehearsal. Basically, the act of recalling something with intention. The fact that you were actively prompting your brain to recall it. Because there’s basically three steps, right? you’re encoding the information, you’re retaining the information, and then you’re recalling the information. So, when you go from the process of make a flashcard, to learn a flashcard, you’re basically doing all three pieces of the process of building a memory.
LEVITT: So, what do you put on the flashcard?
GROCE: There’s a lot of intuition, I would say, with that process. And what I mean by that is I am using pattern recognition from all of the competitions that I play. The anatomy of a trivia question is that you have a hook, and you have a pin. And sometimes those are the same thing, but the hook is, why would anybody care about this? Why would anybody want to answer it? And the pin is, what is the thing that makes this question have uniquely one and only one correct answer? So, like, there was a question in the World Quizzing Championship about a boxer nicknamed “The Greatest” and, I think gave you his birth name and the fact that he was named Sports Illustrated’s “Sportsman of the Century”. So, the fact that he’s nicknamed The Greatest is an example of something that would be like a hook in trivia writing. It’s something that a lot of people know about Muhammad Ali, but it’s not “pinned,” as we would say in the community, which means that there may well be other boxers, maybe Olympic boxers, maybe people in other countries, who are also nicknamed The Greatest. And if that’s your question, you might have more than one valid answer. But when you say, “Oh, and he was also born Cassius Clay,” or you might say, “Oh, he also won the world heavyweight title in this particular year.” There’s only one person who meets all those criteria. So, every question has a hook and a pin, and the writer is going to be thinking about, what’s going to make this question interesting, and what’s going to make this question fair and playable? Going back to your question about what pieces of a list of information would I want to add to my flashcards? I’m going to be thinking of it from the perspective of, do I think any of this would make a good hook or a good pin? And if not, then I don’t care to add it.
LEVITT: So, you have 160,000 flashcards, if you were to be quizzed on those today, how many right answers would you give on those 160,000 flashcards?
GROCE: My expectation would be approximately 144,000. So, I would hope to get about 90 percent correct.
LEVITT: O.K., so I’m just trying to think about the magnitude of this, because there are 525,600 minutes in a year. And I know that from the musical Rent, and you have 160,000 things you need to know. So, you clearly cannot be spending very much time per year on any one of them. So, in a typical day, how much time do you spend with your flashcard deck?
GROCE: When I am actively adding new material in, I’m working with 250 new pieces of material a day. That whole process will take two to four hours. It is a pretty immense amount of time. The joke in my household is that mom does her full-time job and then mom goes and does her full-time job.
You’re listening to People I (Mostly) Admire with Steve Levitt and his conversation with Victoria Groce. After this short break, they’ll return to talk about why Victoria is “The Queen” of television game shows.
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LEVEY: Hey Steve, so previously on the show, you have talked about the two weeks you spent in China, when you were adopting your daughter, Amanda. It was an incredibly special bonding time for you two. And because you’ve told this story, our listener Gerardo wrote in about paternity leave. He’s going to be taking paternity leave soon, and he wants to know if you have any advice around what a good amount of time to take is or what he should be doing with his newborn.
LEVITT: Well, I will say from my own experiences with Amanda part of what made it so special was that my expectations were so low. So, I went to China thinking this is going to be two of the worst weeks of my life. And I thought it was going to be so bad that I just committed that I would do nothing else. No work, no email, no thinking about anything other than surviving these two weeks. And much to my surprise, that intense focus turned out to be what created this magical bond. I was present. And I said this on the episode that I did with my daughters. After two weeks with Amanda, I had a bond with her that was stronger than any bond I had ever had with any other human being in my entire life. So, why do I think it worked out so well? It wasn’t just that I spent all my time with her. It was that I wanted to spend all my time with her. I had scratched off every other thing. And I didn’t feel any other pulls. I was able to be a hundred-percent present. Which I’ve tried to replicate that in parenting later. And it’s not so easy because I’ll say, “Oh, I’m just going to be with my kids for this afternoon.” But the whole time I’m with them, I’m always thinking, “Damn, I kind of wish I were on my email right now.” And I can’t fight that desire. So, I’ve been horribly unsuccessful at freeing my mind from the desire to do something else. So, it’s not enough not to do something else. I think you also have to really not want to do anything else. And that, Gerardo, will be the biggest challenge.
LEVEY: Steve, I’ve heard you talk a few times about how incredible those two weeks with Amanda were. It’s interesting that you haven’t tried to emulate that mindfulness more often in your daily life.
LEVITT: It’s a really interesting point, Morgan, because I do have such a romantic view of this time with Amanda, and yet I don’t try to replicate it. Why is that? One reason is that. I did once try to replicate it when I adopted my second daughter, Sophie from China. I had this idea that it would be just like when I got Amanda, I would’ve two weeks, it would be the most wonderful time in my life. And it was hell because Sophie and I did not click. Sophie only cried for two weeks. It turned out to be hard work. But it’s rattling me a little bit because it does seem so obvious that if that was such a good experience, I should be working hard to replicate it. But I don’t think about it that way. I’m really going to put some thought into that, and I think you’re right. I think my life needs a little bit of reshaping and I’ve got to figure out how to do that.
LEVEY: So, Gerardo’s company has recently increased its paternity leave policy. Do you think he should take the maximum amount of time off or do you think a shorter amount of time is more beneficial?
LEVITT: I would say take the maximum. Now, that doesn’t mean that entire time you’ll be 100 percent focused on the baby. But I think the more chances people can take to get away from work and to focus on other things. It’s so cliche to say it, but there’s no one who on the deathbed says, “Oh God, I wish I had worked more weeks.” And there are plenty of people who say, “I wish I had a better relationship with my child.” And what’s the only downside? Maybe people at work will think you’re not so serious about work, but ah, to me, that doesn’t seem like such a big problem.
LEVEY: Well, Gerardo congratulations and good luck with the paternity leave. If you have a question for us, our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s email@example.com. Steve and I read every email that’s sent, and we look forward to reading yours.
LEVITT: It’s interesting, Morgan, that Gerardo asked a really innocent question but that question, plus your follow up — it’s really got me thinking. I hadn’t expected this conversation to have such an impact on the way that I’m thinking about the world. So, thank you for that, Gerardo, and you as well, Morgan.
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In the second half of my conversation with Victoria Groce, I want to go over some of the actual questions from this year’s World Quiz Championships and hear what it’s been like for a self-proclaimed nerd to suddenly become a T.V. celebrity.
LEVITT: So, I wanted to talk about some of the actual questions that were asked in the 2022 World Quizzing Championship, just to give the listeners a better sense of the kinds of questions you are trying to answer. Just for a bit of background, the World Quizzing Championship consists of 240 questions with two hours to answer. And this year 1,662 people competed and the median score out of 240 questions was 64 correct answers. That’s barely more than one-quarter answers correct. Even though you’d certainly think that anyone who bothers to show up for the World Quizzing Championship thinks they’re a pretty serious quizzer.
GROCE: And the winning score was 183. So, basically, if you get 75 percent of this quiz, you’re second place in the world this year.
LEVITT: So, you got 172 questions right, 72 percent correct. And the drop off is pretty steep. The number 100 finisher only got about half the questions right. So, I’ve looked at the test and at least for Americans, I think the easiest question was the following: “What is the seven-letter name of the signature burger that can be ordered in every Burger King? It consists of flame-grilled beef, tomatoes, lettuce, mayonnaise, ketchup, pickles, white onions, and a sesame seed bun.” So, I assume that question didn’t give you much of a challenge.
GROCE: Well, I am celiac, so I haven’t eaten at a Burger King in a very long time, but I did manage to find my way to that answer. The Whopper, home of the Whopper.
LEVITT: O.K. So, on the other hand, there are many questions that, at least to me, seemed very difficult. Here’s one from the science portion of the test. “What name derived from the Greek for ‘I rub,’ is given to the science that includes the study of friction and lubrication?” Did you get that one?
GROCE: I got that one right and I did not get that right from a flashcard. This is called tribology.
LEVITT: Which I literally have never heard of in my entire life. I mean, I’ve been around science my whole life. I’ve never heard the word.
GROCE: So, the reason that I got it is because I work at a biomaterials journal. My job is matchmaking submitted papers with people around the world who can review them. So, tribology is something that comes up in my work. It is really important if you’re designing an artificial knee or like a hip implant. You need to know how your implant is going to act under load. So, people will do either animal studies or simulated studies that look at tribology and I guarantee you, I have invited some tribologists to work on papers. so that was how I got that one — pure chance, really.
LEVITT: Here’s another question that was absolutely easy for me, but that I’m guessing might have been hard for you. “Which French economist, author of Capital in the 21st Century, claims that increasing wealth inequality is a feature of capitalism and suggests steeply, progressive capital taxes and a cap on the possible total wealth of a person in order to get the capital distribution back to a normal level?” Did you know that one?
GROCE: I have not read this yet, but it is absolutely on my list. And I’ve heard about this quite a few times. I knew it was Thomas Piketty.
LEVITT: O.K., so that was in your flashcards, or you just knew that from life?
GROCE: I would be surprised if I didn’t make a flashcard on it when I first heard about it, but that book was everywhere. And my husband is very interested in economics, so it might have made its way into our house at some point?
LEVITT: So, what makes that question easy for me is that Thomas Piketty was one of my teachers at M.I.T.
LEVITT: So, I had an inside track, and it was easy, but that was too easy for you. Let me see if I can find a hard one. O.K. How about this one? This one I thought was hard for an American, but I’ve misjudged your talent so far. O.K. So, here’s the question: “Playing for Bangalore against Pune in the I.P.L. in April 2013, who set a new record for the fastest century in professional cricket by reaching 100 off 30 balls?” Did that one stump you?
GROCE: Oh, yes, absolutely.
LEVITT: So, the answer to that question, by the way, was Chris Gale, who of all things is a Jamaican cricket player. What’s interesting about that question is, were it a question about American baseball, you and I probably would’ve gotten it right, but it’s about Indian cricket, and so there are Indian quizzers you thought, “Oh my God, that was the easiest question ever.” That was the Whopper question.
GROCE: Frankly, there should be. If it purports to be a world championship, there should be questions that equally advantage and equally disadvantage people from all over the world.
LEVITT: Are there any questions that you remember that you got right that even to you were a surprise and a joy?
GROCE: Oh, O.K. There was a group of people, mostly people who finished in the top 10 to 20 who did a little crowdsourced spreadsheet to see who got which of all the questions on the test. And for that sample, I think a majority of the questions either had 10 or 11 of us getting it correct. But the two that I had that nobody else in that group had were the Danish author Olga Ravn, who was a finalist for the international Booker recently with her novel The Employees.
LEVITT: And you knew that from your flashcards?
GROCE: I had made a point of flashcarding it, but if there is one subject that I could plausibly be called world elite on, it probably is contemporary literature. And the other one was the Chadian filmmaker Mahamat Haroun. So, those were, by the numbers, probably the two I got that were the hardest worldwide.
LEVITT: And how in the world have you heard about this Chadian filmmaker?
GROCE: There’s this quiz league run out of Ukraine run by a fellow named Vadim Bondar. It’s called K.F.L. It’s fantastic. But it has very much had a kind of fight club for the world’s biggest nerds. I would say that most of the people who were playing when I first got involved in it are people who would finish in the top 50 to 70 of the World Quizzing Championships. And he goes everywhere. So, I missed a question on a movie from Egypt. It was pretty clear from the question that whatever this thing was that I missed, it was pretty seminal. And if I’m missing something that feels like it should be very important, then I usually am going to dig and try to learn more. So, I was reading more about African film and came across a list of landmarks of African cinema that people should see. And, yeah, I went ahead and carded them, and that’s how I got that one.
LEVITT: So, it’s interesting because most people would say, “So I got this list of African films that you should see. And I watched them all.” But no, that’s not you, you don’t watch any of them. You just memorize it you’ve probably seen very little African cinema, but you could name every important film that has ever been produced in Africa. I’m guessing there’s generally not a lot of money to be made as an elite quizzer. Do any of your tournaments have prize money?
GROCE: Yeah, occasionally. Geek Bowl does. It’s basically considered the largest pub trivia competition in the country.
LEVITT: What does the winning team get in the Geek Bowl?
GROCE: So, it’s a team of six. And the last one, I think the prize was $14,000.
LEVITT: Do you have any endorsements?
GROCE: You know, thus far, no. And you would think that book publishers or flashcard software could make a killing getting top quizzers to endorse them. But, thus far, no.
LEVITT: O.K. So, being a contestant on game shows is one way to earn money. Jeopardy! in particular. But, you made the mistake of going on Jeopardy! way too early in your career. Is that true? Can you describe your Jeopardy! experience?
GROCE: Oh, I mean, that’s a hard thing to say, in terms of, did I do it too early? I was on maternity leave when I auditioned.
LEVITT: So, you were young.
GROCE: 23 or 34.
LEVITT: So, you’re 23, 24 years old. And you auditioned for Jeopardy!. So, what happened?
GROCE: At that time, you showed up in a big conference center, you took a 50-question test. If you passed the test, they had you play a mock game and then they might call you. I actually did the test with a migraine. So, I literally could not see my paper that I was answering on. I was trying to like, look through the periphery of my vision to see like, where’s the line I should be writing on for this question? But yeah, somebody gave me some Advil and everything ended up working out fine.
LEVITT: How did it go on Jeopardy! for you?
GROCE: So, I defeated, a 19-day champion, which was the second longest streak to that point on Jeopardy! David Madden, fantastic player. Yes. I remember chugging a Red Bbull right before my first game, and then chugging some chamomile tea before my second game to try to calm myself down. I was too aggressive on my second game. I think I got more questions correct than both my opponents combined, and missed a whole ton also. I just — buzz on everything. And then missed Final Jeopardy and lost. So, I mean, basically that’s how that shook down.
LEVITT: And so, that’s your Jeopardy! career. Now, I just imagine if you were to go on Jeopardy! now, you would be essentially unbeatable. Don’t you agree?
GROCE: Um — I would have the potential, certainly. The thing that stops me from saying, “Oh yeah. I would just beat everybody,” is that I know people who would be considered pretty hyper-elite players who went on Jeopardy! and won zero or one games. And the reason is you can’t be great on Jeopardy! without being a great player, but you can lose on Jeopardy! and still be a great player. There’s aspects of luck. Especially getting the hang of the buzzer timing. It’s hard for me to say that anybody, no matter how much they know, is a guaranteed big winner at Jeopardy!
LEVITT: I had both Ken Jennings and Mayim Bialik on this before they became hosts of Jeopardy! And I have to say hosting that show is probably the biggest boondoggle in the trivial world. Don’t you think? Getting paid big money to read questions and be worshiped by millions of Jeopardy! fans. That’s really a good job to have. So, you obviously aren’t the host of Jeopardy! but you did somehow manage to land, maybe the second biggest boondoggle, the second-best job in the trivia world, which is starting this season, you are what is known as one of the chasers on the primetime, A.B.C. T.V. show, The Chase.
GROCE: And it is the best job in the trivia world. I will say that I would much rather have my job than actually hosting anything whatsoever.
LEVITT: O.K., first, can you just describe the show, The Chase, for those who haven’t seen it?
GROCE: Yeah. So, the way The Chase works is you have three contestants. They’re brought together for the first time on the day of filming and then each of the three people on this team is asked 60 seconds of rapid fire questions, and they have to answer as many correct as they can within that 60 seconds. However many they get, that kind of sets an anchor for how much money they’re playing for. And then they have to compete against one of the chasers head-to-head. And the chaser starts some number of steps behind them, and both the chaser and the contestants are asked multiple choice questions. If the contestant gets it right, they move further, they move basically closer to safety. So, you think along the lens of a game board. So, they’re moving one space closer to home. If we, as the chasers, get the question correct, we move one step closer to where the contestant is on the board. If we catch them, they’re out of the game completely. This repeats for all three of the contestants and then comes the part of the game called the final chase, which is basically whatever contestants made it back, as a team, they are competing for the collective money they earned to be split equally. They’re asked two minutes of rapid-fire questions. They get as many as they can — that’ll set a number, generally 20 is a very good, very high number. Usually people get somewhere into the teens. Then they ask us, as the chasers, another set of rapid-fire questions over two minutes. And our goal is to get more questions than the contestants do, with the added wrinkle that they get a head start depending on how many of them made it back. And if we miss any of our questions, the contestants have a chance to answer it. And if they do answer it, then we basically are pushed back one step away from them. So, our goal is to within two minutes, answer more questions than they do even accounting for the head start, and for them pushing us back.
LEVITT: It’s an interesting setup on the show because you are put in such an adversarial role fighting against the contestants, taking away their money. Does that feel strange at all?
GROCE: Yes, yes it does. My family will tell you — my husband and my daughter will tell you, that I am a great loser, but I don’t do it very often. I’m generally very good at figuring out winning strategies for things, and exploiting them. But at the same time, I keep things within the game. I’m not hyper-competitive about most aspects of my life. For me, it is simultaneously, I am doing the thing I do best. But you right. potentially people stand to win life changing amounts of money. And like, speaking as somebody who has had a lot of limitations on their employment for disability reasons, I understand that. Like, I really do. But I also recognize that people wouldn’t compete on the show if they didn’t know that was the deal and weren’t O.K. with it. And I don’t think it’s respectful to people to go easy on them.
LEVITT: I asked around among folks in the quizzing community what they thought about you.
GROCE: Oh, God.
LEVITT: Everyone, everyone says that you are roughly the best light quizzer on the planet. One of your competitors described playing against you as, “getting run over by the world’s nicest tank.” But yet, on The Chase, you’re a little edgy. You’re a little bit cocky. Your moniker on the show is The Queen. Is it fun to adopt that kind of persona on the show?
GROCE: I think that I am generally me, but more animated. I hope I don’t come off as cocky.
LEVITT: By cocky I mean playful, but confident, and out to destroy your opponents.
GROCE: Okay, I can live with that.
LEVITT: It’s like, you know, you’re better than they are. And it’s fun for you to flash that in front of them.
GROCE: I hope there is kindness to it. I really have no interest in making people feel bad when they compete against me. I am very cognizant that what they’re doing up there is difficult. It’s in a pressure situation, millions of people are going to see you do this. And I don’t feel like, “You know, I’m just going to destroy you. It’s going to be awesome.”
LEVITT: The show’s a lot of fun for people who haven’t seen it, and watching you on the show, it seems like you enjoy yourself so much. Is it fun?
GROCE: Yeah, I’m not acting. I am really loving every second of it. But in terms of wanting to be on T.V. or on stage my whole life, no, absolutely not. I haven’t even really tried out for very many things in terms of game shows. And part of that is due to the experience I had after I was on Jeopardy!, I actually got a death threat against my daughter.
LEVITT: Why was that?
GROCE: I have no idea why. I assume it’s just somebody being unhinged, but it definitely put me off the idea of trying to pursue being on television. I would basically have said that the costs and benefits would have to be very clear and very potentially high for me to consider it.
LEVITT: So, what was it about The Chase that convinced you that the benefits of T.V. were greater than the costs?
GROCE: I thought long and hard about it, and the fact that women who go on quiz shows tend to experience a fair amount of harassment — is this something I want to do? One of my good friends finally said, “Look, you’ll regret this for the rest of your life if you don’t. You’ve been working so hard over the last five to seven yeasr. If you say no to this, what have you been doing it for?” And the other thing was, I remember what it would’ve felt like for me as a kid to watch television and see somebody like me on there. I remembered seeing people like Robin Caroll on Jeopardy! and like, how enthused I was about that as a nerd kid. And that was one of the big things that made me really feel like, this is something that I not only want to do, but should do.
LEVITT: I will say you do an amazing job on that show of making nerds seem cool. I don’t know if this is nerdy per se, but I laugh out loud as I’ve watched you competing in super high-profile, online trivia events over Zoom. So, all of your competitors, always male, they look hopelessly grim and serious, and you have your knitting out, and casually knit throughout the entire competition. Even as questions are being asked, while these guys look like it is life and death hanging in the balance, you’re just knitting away, occasionally pausing. That must be so psychologically intimidating to your opponents.
GROCE: I genuinely do not get why. So, I do one of two things and the second one is perhaps even more of a kiss off, which is, if I’m not knitting, I’m usually giving myself a full-on manicure while I play. The reason that I started doing that was, is practical. Probably the easiest way that people can cheat in live online events is to have a second device and, reach your hands over, and Google something, and look at your second device. So, the convention is that you keep your hands in view at all times when there’s a question that’s been asked that somebody, and potentially you, could answer. You’re basically, a show of good faith that you can’t be doing something else that might involve looking up an answer. So, I am a knitter, so I was like, “Well, if I’m knitting, it’s very clear I’m not doing something else with my hands.”
LEVITT: So, this next ask is incredibly presumptuous, but would you ever consider taking on the role of coach and mentor to a 55-year-old economist, and podcaster? A currently mediocre quizzer, but one who has a strong desire to improve?
GROCE: Oh, if you have a strong desire to improve then absolutely. The first thing that I would ask if somebody were looking for coaching is what’s your goal? So, what is your goal?
LEVITT: I’d say my goal would be to be the best quizzer in the world over the age of 60 when I turned 60. So, I’d have five years to achieve that.
GROCE: Absolutely attainable. There are some people who are already really super excellent in that cohort. I would estimate that for me, it probably took about five to six years to go from starting to put some level of focus into it, to being somebody who would be considered in the conversation for world elite. If somebody were going in with the goal to be world class, I think five years is a pretty realistic amount of time.
LEVITT: So, I’m committed, but I do come with my baggage.
GROCE: Which is?
LEVITT: A 55-year-old brain is a big liability. So, is trying to be a professor and a podcaster and to raise seven kids. I definitely should have fewer kids. I have a five-year-old, a three-year-old, and a newborn.
GROCE: Hard to do with little kids. The method is basically, and this is for anybody, it’s figure out what precisely you want to get better at? And there’s either A, you want to get better at the canon of things that are asked in a particular competition. Or B, you want to just get general purpose, what you might call format-blind better at the activity. And by that what I mean is, there are people who focus almost exclusively on World Quizzing Championships. Generally every competition has what people in the community call a canon, which is basically just the idea of here are things that you’re expected to just have on lockdown if you’re competing in this competition. For any kind of international trivia, it’s basically expected that, “What’s the capital of any given country?” is going to be information that people just know. So, you know, something like, “What’s the capital of Rwanda?”
GROCE: No, that’s Malawi. Rwanda’s Kigali. So, basically, when I talk to people who are wanting to start flashcarding, I generally recommend that people start very modest, see how it fits into their life, and then work up. And I recommend that people start with somewhere between 15 and 30 cards a day, and then take a month, commit to a month, and then see how it feels. Do you resent spending the time doing it? Do you enjoy it? Do you find that it tickles a particular piece of your brain? For me it does. Like, I don’t think I could do what I do if I didn’t find the act of studying and learning things and, like, perceiving that something might come up to be pleasurable in a certain way, right? At this point, probably my biggest driver is not winning any particular competition. Like, I would love to win a world championship at some point. I’m certainly gunning for it. But right now, the primary motivation is I’m curious about what I can make my brain do. How much can I stuff into there?
LEVITT: Yeah, for me, with golf, which, for many years, I tried hard to become a professional golfer. Which obviously didn’t happen and predictably didn’t happen as well. But what I discovered along the way was that I enjoyed practicing golf far more than I actually enjoyed the playing of golf, which was a surprise to me.
GROCE: So, what piece of it did you like?
LEVITT: The comforting, repetition-y nature of standing on the driving range, doing the same thing over and over. And it was very hypnotic to me and very, very pleasurable, I found.
GROCE: Flashcards might be for you then.
When I was 13 years old, I was really good at trivia. Probably one of the best in the world in my age group. I had a natural talent, and my dad would spend hours each night quizzing me. But my interests changed. And I eventually told my dad I didn’t want to do our quiz sessions anymore. He got angry and he said, “Trivia is the one and only thing where you have the chance to be the best in the world.” It says a lot about the 14-year-old version of me that my reaction was to be incredulous. I really thought I could be the best in the world at whatever I put my mind to. And it says a lot about the way I was raised, that being the best in the world at something was considered a completely sensible and reasonable goal in our household. Well, my dad was certainly right in his prediction that I wouldn’t turn out to be the best in the world at anything else. I suspect, though, that he was hopelessly optimistic in thinking that if I devoted myself to trivia, I would have been the best. But there’s only one way to find out. So, I downloaded Anki, the flashcard app, and I’m going to get busy following Victoria’s advice and see where it leads me. I just somehow need to get my kids to sleep through the night. In two weeks, we’ll have a brand-new episode with effective altruist and philosopher Will MacAskill.
MACASKILL: I see effective altruism as a happy synergy between moral philosophy and economics. Economics is very good at analyzing optimality. So, you have a certain amount of resources, within the economics world, there’s a question of, like, how can you make that as efficient as possible, where perhaps the way you are measuring efficiency is in terms of total dollars generated. Moral philosophy is interested in this question of, well, what’s actually of value?
Until then, take care and thanks for listening.
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People I (Mostly) Admire is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, No Stupid Questions, and Freakonomics M.D. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. Morgan Levey is our producer and Jasmin Klinger is our engineer. Our staff also includes Neal Carruth, Gabriel Roth, Greg Rippin, Alina Kulman, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Zack Lapinski, Julie Kanfer, Eleanor Osborne, Jeremy Johnston, Ryan Kelley, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, Jacob Clemente, and Stephen Dubner. Our theme music was composed by Luis Guerra. To listen ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. We can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s email@example.com. Thanks for listening.
LEVITT: You didn’t bring your knitting along.
GROCE: I didn’t.
LEVITT: I had expected it.
- Victoria Groce, “The Queen” on the television game show The Chase.
- “Yuval Noah Harari Thinks Life Is Meaningless and Amazing,” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2022).
- “Amanda & Lily Levitt Share What It’s Like to be Steve’s Daughters,” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2021).
- “Ken Jennings on How a Midlife Crisis Led Him to Jeopardy! (Replay),” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2021).
- “Mayim Bialik on the Surprising Risks of Academia and Stability of Show Biz (Replay),” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2021).