How Collegiate Quizbowl Works

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How Collegiate Quizbowl Works: A Guide for New Players


This guide is designed as an introduction to quizbowl as it is played on the collegiate and levels. If you are completely new to the game, you should look at the article on quizbowl to familiarize yourself with the game before returning to this guide.

This guide will not define several of the terms it uses. Please either click the hyperlink to the article on that term, or use the Quizbowl basics and Quizbowl lingo categories as a glossary.

A Few Basics

This section is devoted to the basics, or what you should know before you start playing quizbowl at the collegiate level.


Unlike whatever you may have played in high school, collegiate quizbowl involves two teams of up to four players competing in tossup/bonus format. Attempts are currently being made to post video of a match on YouTube. Once a match has been posted, a link to that match will be available in this article. If you're completely new to quizbowl or the tossup/bonus format, you should go see that video to get an idea of what quizbowl looks like before reading the rest of this article.

The Circuit

The first thing that you must recognize, as a new player, is the existence of the circuit. Broadly speaking, this consists of all collegiate clubs who regularly attend weekend quizbowl tournaments. Look at the page on the circuit and find which area of the circuit you are in. This will be the area in which the majority of the tournaments you attend will be held.

The Clubs

If you want to play quizbowl, you're most likely going to have to join a club. A quizbowl club is responsible for organizing practices, running tournaments, and coordinating attendance at tournaments, as well as several administrative responsibilities. Head over to the Maize Pages and see if your school has a club already in existence. If it is there, you should try to contact the player(s)/coach(es) listed under "Team Contact(s)"

If you don't see your school in the Maize Pages Directory, or you fail to get a response from the Team Contact, or the club has been affected by trash capture, you should look at the (soon-to-be-created) article How to start a collegiate quizbowl club.


Almost all communication is currently done via the Internet. The primary place for national discussion of quizbowl is the forums. In addition, players from around the country frequent the quizbowl IRC channel. Most clubs and some areas of the circuit also have their own e-mail mailing lists.

Your best source of information will be the forums, in particular the Collegiate Announcements and Results and Collegiate Discussion sub-forums. You should try to make sure that someone in your club is checking these areas on at least a weekly basis, so that your club is up-to-date on the latest happenings on the circuit. If you have a question about any aspect of collegiate quizbowl after reading this guide, you are encouraged to register for the forums and post your question in the Collegiate Discussion section, but please read the forum rules before posting.

The Formats

There are four major formats played in collegiate quizbowl: ACF, NAQT, mACF, and trash.


ACF, or the Academic Competition Federation, is a loosely centralized organization that provides high-quality academic tournaments. It is played on untimed packets of 20 tosssups and 20 bonuses. Starting in 2009, ACF produces four sets each year:

ACF Fall is a novice-difficulty tournament, and typically runs on the first or second weekend in November.
ACF Winter is an intermediate-difficulty tournament, and typically takes place around Martin Luther King Jr. weekend in January.
ACF Regionals is a regular-difficulty tournament, and typically takes place in February. With the addition of ACF Winter to ACF's official tournament schedule, ACF Regionals will take place later than it has in past years.
ACF Nationals is a national-difficulty tournament, and typically takes place in April. With NAQT ICT, it is considered one of the two major national championships.

The first thing that you need to know about ACF is that it is NOT IMPOSSIBLE, despite what some people in your club might think.


NAQT, or National Academic Quiz Tournaments, is an incorporated organization that provides questions for high school and collegiate play as well as various quizbowl television shows. NAQT is played in two nine-minute halves on up to 26 tossups and 26 bonuses. NAQT produces two sets each year:

NAQT Sectional Championship Tournament is a regular-difficulty tournament, and typically runs on the second weekend in February. NAQT Intercollegiate Championship Tournament is a national-difficulty tournament, and typically takes place on the first or second weekend in April. With ACF Nationals, it is considered one of the two major national championships.

Notable quirks of the NAQT format include powers and a higher emphasis on current events, geography, and popular culture. NAQT also includes a separate "Division II" for novice players at both of its collegiate tournaments.


mACF is a derivative of ACF (the "m" stands for "modified") format, and is the main format for most unaffiliated invitational tournaments. Most clubs have a "flagship" mACF tournament, for instance TIT at Maryland, Michigan MLK at Michigan, and Cardinal Classic at Stanford.

mACF rules are almost identical to ACF rules. Before the ACF rules were modified in 2008, the major difference between ACF and mACF was that in most mACF tournaments, the answer to each bonus part was read after the bonus part was answered, while in official ACF tournaments, the answer to each bonus part was read only after the entire bonus had been completed. Now that ACF has revised its rules, the main difference between mACF rules and ACF rules are the eligibility requirements, in that official ACF tournaments have specific eligibility restrictions while mACF tournaments have host-specific eligibility restrictions.


Trash consists of questions entirely dealing with popular culture. Currently, trash tournaments are often played in conjunction with an affiliated academic tournament on the Sunday after the Saturday tournament. Notable trash tournaments include Ann B. Davis, typically played the day after Michigan MLK, and the variously-named Chicago Open Trash Tournament, which occurs the day after Chicago Open.

Trash should not be confused with TRASH, an organization the produces two sets of trash questions each year:

TRASH Regionals is a regular-difficulty tournament, typically held in November.
TRASHionals is a national-difficulty tournament, typically held in April.

The Tournaments

With the exception of Thanksgiving weekend, winter break, and the summer, there is some tournament happening somewhere almost every Saturday.

The following is a non-exhaustive list of tournaments that have a venerable tradition of being high-quality events and continue to attract many quizbowl luminaries as writers, editors, and players. In other words, if your club has a budget of infinity dollars, these are the tournaments you should definitely attempt to attend at least once in your quizbowl career. While some of these tournaments are only held at one location, most of them will have mirrors in your area of the circuit if you are not within reasonable driving distance of the tournament. Still, for some of these tournaments the main attraction is the field itself, and you should attempt to make the original tournament if possible.


The fall season lasts roughly from September to the beginning of winter break in December.


The Early Fall Tournament (EFT) typically takes place on the last weekend of September or first weekend in October. It is written by members of the Brown team, and has been praised for its high degree of accessibility for novices. EFT and its many mirrors are typically viewed as the kickoff to a new season of quizbowl.

ACF Fall

ACF Fall is the most accessible tournament of the year, continuing to attract many new teams every year. It typically takes place in early November at many regional sites.

Illinois Open

Illinois Open takes place in the fall season at Illinois, and is the first major "weekend of quizbowl". While being a high-quality tournament in and of itself, it also typically attracts several side events to entertain the field of top players that gathers here. Illinois Open's target difficulty is usually somewhere slightly above regular difficulty.


The winter season lasts from roughly January until March.

Michigan MLK

Michigan MLK typically takes place over Martin Luther King Jr. weekend at Michigan. In the future it may be replaced by ACF Winter. Its target difficulty is generally regular-difficulty or slightly above.

Terrapin Invitational Tournament

One of the oldest continually running tournaments, TIT takes place in either winter or fall at Maryland. Its target difficulty varies, but is typically around regular-difficulty.

Penn Bowl

Once thought of as the "third national championship", Penn Bowl is now only a standard regional mACF tournament, but though its prestige has decreased, it's still a must-attend for any team within driving distance of Penn.

Cardinal Classic

Cardinal Classic typically takes place at the end of January or beginning of February at Stanford, and is the major open tournament on the West Coast. In 2008, due to the presence of nearly every major championship contender as well as several other top players, it was considered a potential "nationals preview", and may continue to serve that purpose in the future. Its target difficulty is similar to Illinois Open and Michigan MLK.


NAQT SCT typically takes place the second weekend in February at one of several sectional sites. It usually attracts the largest audience of any regional quizbowl tournament.

ACF Regionals

ACF Regionals typically takes place a week or two after NAQT SCT at several regional sites. ACF Regionals is considered the standard-bearer for regular-difficulty tournaments, in other words, the difficulty of ACF Regionals determines the "regular" or "standard" difficulty until the next ACF Regionals.


The spring season consists of April and the beginning of May. It is dominated by the two major national tournaments.


Both of the major national tournaments take place in April. Starting in 2008, NAQT ICT is the first of these national tournaments, and is played over two days (Friday night and Saturday).

ACF Nationals

ACF Nationals has a deserved reputation as being the hardest national tournament, though in recent years the difficulty has been toned down to around that of NAQT ICT or slightly easier. It is played over a single day, though in the future it may be played over two days (Saturday and Sunday morning).


The summer season lasts from roughly mid-May to August.

Chicago Open

The crown jewel of mACF events and the pinnacle of the "weekend of quizbowl" concept, Chicago Open attracts players from all over the nation to its regular-to-national-difficulty mACF event, as well as a Sunday trash tournament and several subject tournaments.

Other Tournaments

This is a list of other notable tournaments which are either new in 2009 or do not have the same high-quality reputation, but if you have the budget you should try to make it to these tournaments as well at least once in your quizbowl career.

This Tournament Goes To 11

TTGT11 is a unique hybrid tournament run by the University of Iowa and mirrored in various places across the country. Each round consists of teams facing off on two themed packets, with the winner of each match getting a point and additional points being gained based on the score of each match.

Minnesota Open/Harvard Invitational

Both of these tournaments are new entries in the open tournament category, and have several side events planned, similar to the Illinois and Chicago Opens. Both of these look highly promising for 2009.

ACF Winter

A new entry in the ACF schedule, ACF Winter should nevertheless be the same high-quality tournament as the other three ACF events.

TRASH Regionals and TRASHionals

TRASHionals is the only national tournament for trash, and TRASH Regionals is its qualifying tournament. Many players who have retired from academic competition still come out to these tournaments.

Anything from Charlie Steinhice

Objectively speaking, these tournaments are known much more for their atmosphere than for the competition. You can attend one of the many tournaments at UTC if you want to share in the fun.

Other Tournaments, Part 2

In addition to the tournaments on this list, there are always other tournaments being run in all areas of the country. Check the forums or your area of the circuit's mailing list to become informed of all tournaments happening in your area.

Attending Tournaments

Eligibility Restrictions

If a tournament is not labeled "open", then it has eligibility restrictions. Here are some of the more notable eligibility restrictions:

For both TRASHionals and NAQT ICT, teams must originally have qualified via either hosting or performing sufficiently well at the regional tournament (TRASH Regionals and NAQT SCT, respectively), and receive and accept a bid to the tournament. There is no longer any such restriction for ACF Nationals.

For all official ACF and NAQT events, all team members must be enrolled at the same school. There are minor differences between ACF and NAQT on what constitutes "enrolled".

For NAQT events, a player may not participate in Division II if he or she has either (1) earned a bachelor's degree or equivalent, (2) played on a team that qualified for ICT in either division, (3) played on a team at ICT in either division, or (4) played at more than one sectional tournament in Division I.

For ACF Fall and other novice events, the gentlemen's agreement style of eligibility rules is in effect, in which players decide for themselves whether the tournament is right for them based on question difficulty and projected field strength.

Question Sources

Centralized Company

Both NAQT and TRASH provide questions for use at their tournaments.

House Written

Several tournaments feature questions entirely written by one or multiple hosting teams. The most prominent of these tournaments is EFT.

Packet Submission

For most tournaments, you will need to write a packet of questions. Discounts to the entry fee are typically given for questions submitted eight weeks and six weeks before the tournament, and additional penalty fees added for questions submitted less than four weeks before the tournament. New teams may operate on different schedules and are always encouraged to submit a packet regardless of whether one is necessary.

For more information on writing questions, please see the excellent treatise on How to Write Questions.

Tournament Formats

Almost all collegiate tournaments use a round-robin or bracketed-round-robin setup, with either an ACF-format final or NAQT-format final if sufficient packets and time are available. This means that you will almost certainly play teams at your knowledge level, while also typically playing teams both above and below that level.


Most clubs spend between three and six hours a week practicing quizbowl by dividing club members into arbitrary teams and playing old tournament packets. Currently, a movement is in place to store every tournament online for free. Two main depositories of free practice questions are the Stanford Packet Archive and the Collegiate Packet Archive.

External Links

For more information about the college game, you are encouraged to visit the following websites:



Packet Archives

Stanford Packet Archive
Collegiate Packet Archive
ACFDB (tossups only)

Communication forums
Yahoo! Quizbowl Group (now largely defunct)