My EXCLUSIVE interview with quiz champion Yogesh Raut – Part 1

Yogesh Raut on the set of ‘Jeopardy!’ with ‘Jeopardy!’ host Ken Jennings.

When it comes to quizzing credentials, surely it’s hard to beat Yogesh Raut. He holds three Masters Degrees in three disciplines. He’s been a quiz show enthusiast and expert for decades, writing and competing in pub trivia, Scholastic Bowl state championships, collegiate quiz bowl, the Trivia Championships of North America, the World Quizzing Championships, and more. He’s done it all. He produces the podcast Recreational Thinking, he runs the blog The Wronger Box, which is a cornucopia of fascinating facts, regularly updated, and he made news in January this year following his run on what is probably America’s favourite TV quiz show – Jeopardy!


SH: Yogesh Raut, Welcome to!

YR: Thank you.

SH: When were you first bitten by the quiz bug? Or what initially piqued your interest in the world of quizzing?

YR: I told a story to local media about how when my brother was two grades ahead of me in school, he started playing Scholastic Bowl. I wasn’t eligible. I was at a different school, different grades, but my father put me in the front row of his matches with a clipboard and a notepad and told me to just write down all the answers I knew. And after two straight years of doing that, I finally got to middle school myself and got to play and in my first game, I answered the first seven questions correctly, and the coach of the opposing team called a timeout to try to break my rhythm. But then when we came back, I got the eighth one.

I think it’s a good metaphor for after multiple decades of trying to get on Jeopardy, and of honing my skills in many, many, many different formats across many years, and proving what I was capable of, whether it was in Quiz Bowl, whether it was the World Quizzing Championship, the Quizzing World Cup, Connections Online Quiz League, all of these things… finally getting a chance to do it in front of an audience, rather than just having my own private little notepad where I’m like, “Look! I knew all that!”

I thought that was a very good metaphor. It seems people were offended by it. And I don’t really understand why. Other than that they just don’t want to accept that the role of Jeopardy within the quizzing ecosystem is, for elite quizzers, NOT the Olympics, the testing ground; it’s not the thing that determines how good they are. I now realise that there’s a fairly large contingent of people who don’t want to accept that Jeopardy isn’t the Olympics. And they don’t like the attitude of “Well, I proved myself in the Olympics – now I’m coming on this reality show and hoping to make some money.”

SH: Right, right. So, Jeopardy is a mainstream and very popular show, but the world of quizzing is a lot more than just that. Is that the idea?

YR: Yeah. I mean, there’s a community of people who are in the world of quizzing to various degrees, but once people get into it, they get into it. And then there’s a community of people who only know about Jeopardy and think that’s the entirety of it. And there’s very different attitudes between those two circles.

SH: Yes. Sorry, just backtracking for a moment… when you were a youngster in that first attempt – you were a teenager, I guess? 13, 14?

YR: I would have been 11 or so.

SH: Oh, right. Where did the knowledge come from? Are you a voracious reader? Do you study encyclopedias? How do you get it all in there?

YR: Yeah, so the question I get asked is ‘What got you into quizzing?’, which is, by definition, a competitive activity. And yes, I guess it is about competing and succeeding, but the more I think about it, the more I feel that maybe that’s the kind of thing that people twist into their own narrative. Right? If people want to see me as hyper-competitive, if they want to see me as a person who cares about winning, who enjoys the feeling of other people losing, who is abrasive and rude toward other competitors, then it’s justified to discriminate against him. And it all comes back to the idea that the fact that I am very good at quizzing must mean that I really, really want to win. And that I really, really want other people to lose.

SH: Mm. That’s just their assumption.

YR: Right. And as you said, underlying being good at quizzing is caring about a lot of things, it’s caring about the world, it’s about listening, and it’s about really prioritising learning. And the thing is that there aren’t too many outlets that people who are oriented like that have, other than quizzing, which is a competition. There isn’t really a choice about how one does it. And yes, like many people, once I’ve decided I’m passionate about something, I want to be excellent in it, and the way you determine your level of excellence is by entering competitions.

SH: Yeah, that’s how it’s measured.

YR: Exactly, right. And when you win, someone loses. That is true. You know, in sixth grade, I won my school Geography Bee. And there was a reporter from the local newspaper there. And at the end it was just me and one other boy on the stage, and I won. The final things they asked me were three questions, and I got all three correct. And I think he didn’t get any of them correct. And he started crying on the stage. And his mother came up from the audience to comfort him. And the reporter had a photographer with him, and the photographer took multiple photographs: they took photographs of me smiling, they took photographs of me shaking hands with him, with his tears dry, and both of us smiling and all that… but the one they put on the front page of the feature section was of his mother on stage holding him and me just sitting there awkwardly –

SH: Oh dear.

YR: – as a 10-year-old kid, not knowing what to do. And on some level, I guess I “caused” that … but really I didn’t cause it.

SH: Oh, that’s unfortunate. It’s unfortunate to expose you to that as a young, impressionable person because that colours your view of how things are reported. That’s not good.

YR: Yeah, right. And of course, at school the next day, everyone was like, “You made a fifth grader cry!” And there are many things that immature kids in my position could have done to lord it over the person I beat, and I did none of them. All I did was just answer the questions that were asked to me as correctly as I could. And it was not my goal to make someone else suffer, it wasn’t my goal to humiliate anyone. And when it happened, I was just stuck there. And I didn’t know…

SH: Yeah, you don’t have much life experience, you don’t know how to handle it.

YR: Right. But people want to project onto me this idea that I’m ‘the killer’, that I’m the one who really wants to humiliate people. And whatever aggressive feelings they have toward me, they tell themselves, “Oh, I just want to see him humbled, that’s all.”

SH: Right.

YR: When in fact, I don’t know that I’ve really done anything in need of humbling. But I want to answer directly the question you asked, which is, where did this love of learning come from? My background is in behavioural science, so I can say there are some children who have what the psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman called “hungry-mindedness”; they just really want to engage with the world around them and to know everything about it. It’s not really clear where that comes from; maybe some portion of it is genetic. Certainly, when I talk about there being a genetic basis for quizzing, which is a subject people like to talk about a lot, a lot of people will say “Oh, they just have superior memories.” I will say – both as an elite quizzer and as a behavioural scientist – that is complete hogwash. I would also say that it’s hogwash often deployed in a racist fashion.

SH: Oh, really?

YR: Yes. And we’ll talk about that more as we go through your questions. But when I say that there might be some innate component to it, I mean the curiosity, the desire to engage with the world. And then on top of that, there’s other things – again, completely unrelated to memory. My background being in social psychology, I’m very drawn to the need people have to make sense of the world. And oftentimes, the way that happens is through a narrative; we need to construct narratives about how the world works. And the way we do that is through learning, right? And – especially if we want to hold on to those narratives, and we want to tell other people about them – we need proper nouns to fill in. So yeah, you learn all of the nouns you need. But in general, even as a small child, on some level you want to know what your world is and you want to find your place in it. You want to know: Where am I? What is the country I’m in? What are the states? Where did I come from? What was the history of it?, and all that. But these things I think all get multiplied when you are someone who is not necessarily accepted by the society around you. I grew up in central Illinois, I grew up in a very, very white environment, a very Christian environment. I went to Christian schools also. No one had a name that resembled mine, no one knew how to pronounce my name. My last name even has a phoneme that most Americans can’t say or hear…

SH: What’s that?

YR: The “tuh”. “Raut-tuh”, at the end of it… But yeah, I looked different, I had a different skin colour, a different way of speaking, carrying myself, a different home life, different cultural traits and so on. And when you are an outsider, you look for ways to connect with other people and to show you fit in. I told the local Vancouver media something that seemed to rub a lot of people the wrong way for no good reason. I told them the first public demonstrations of my knowledge – that were set up by my father – involved demonstrating that I knew: 1) The states and capitals (50 US states and their capitals) and 2) The Presidents; the order, their parties, what years they were in office, and some basic facts about them. And I don’t think my father had consciously set this out as a motive. But certainly I look back on it, and I’m like, ‘Oh, this is a man who came to the US from another country who looked and sounded different from everyone. And now he’s showing the world that his son knows America.’ And yes, I do think that there was, just as an immigrant who set off from society, (even though I personally was born and grew up in the US), I was still always, set off, as coming from an immigrant background, immigrant culture. And then there was the fact that on the playground, you didn’t have the same reference points as your peers. Their parents let them watch all kinds of TV and music –

SH: Oh right, I see. The pop culture…

YR: Right, yeah. In fifth grade, I was on the bus and there was some discussion about music going on. I very vividly remember one of my schoolmates saying to me, “Do you even know what REM is?” And I responded, “Of course I do. It’s a phase of sleep; Rapid Eye Movement”. And the entire bus laughed.

SH: Oh dear.

YR: Yeah. And you come through that and you say, ‘Oh, well, the way to engage with the world around me is to learn what other people care about, and find out about it’. And though there was no Wikipedia, I had a set of physical encyclopedias that I would pull off the shelf. It didn’t have hyperlinks, but there was a little ‘related article’ section, and I would just say, ‘Oh, they start with B, C, and D down here, so I’ll pull down B, C and D…’ But with pop culture, you didn’t have that. So I would read every Thursday, my local newspaper’s ‘Arts and Entertainment’ supplement, I would read the review of every movie, I would read the TV Guide, the TV Week, and all of the listings. And since I didn’t know what any of these things were, I would imagine what they must be. And how do things stick in your memory? No one has magic memory superpowers. But when you process things, when you process them imaginatively, when you tell a story about them, you start to see…

If you don’t know who Tom Hanks is, one day, you say, “Oh, he’s in this movie that’s got four stars, and then he’s in this movie that has four stars”. And you’re like, “Oh, he must be an important person”. And then, if you happen to see a magazine that has an article about Tom Hanks, you read it and you’re like, “Oh, okay, now I know why people care about him, what his image is” and all that. And it sticks because it feels relevant and important.


And that’s where we’ll leave our chat for today. We’ll see you back here next Tuesday for the next instalment, but until then, a quick reminder that you can find Yogesh’s fascinating blog The Wronger Box right HERE, and his podcast Recreational Thinking is right HERE.  

See you next week!

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