Forget Mensa, this trivia club is even tougher to break into
For quizzing geeks, Learned League is the VIP room of the online world. There are daily questions, one-on-one battles, famous participants and points to win, but no prize money. A view from the inside.
For 10 points: What connects Game of Thrones showrunner David Benioff, Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings, Chernobyl screenwriter Craig Mazin, London journalist Samanth Subramanian, US politician Mick Mulvaney, musician Jackie Fox and Gurugram editor Anushree Kaushal?
It’s all right if you don’t know. That was a terrible quiz question. You couldn’t have worked out that they’re all members of Learned League, possibly the world’s most rarefied community of quizzers.
There are only 18,500 members worldwide — the high-IQ club Mensa, in comparison, has some 130,000. The founder goes by the pseudonym Thorsten A Integrity, and contestants call themselves LLamas.
The League has had 86 quizzing seasons since 1997. There’s no prize money, though you pay $30 a year to participate via email. But before that you must be a member, and membership is by invitation only. There are so many trivia buffs trying to get in, the Learned League sub-Reddit is full of people asking for invites.
If you’re any kind of trivia enthusiast, you’d heard of Learned League already. Samanth Subramanian, a member since 2015, and says he’d known of it from quizzer friends. “Occasionally, they’d ask if I wanted to join. But I wasn’t sure,” he says. “The commitment is not huge, but it is consistent. There’s a question every day of the season.”
Those questions are framed by Mr Integrity (real name Shayne Bushfield), a former lawyer who now handles the League full-time and draws from his library and public databases when crafting his clues. The quiz covers diverse subjects, Subramanian says. “There may be too many questions about Broadway musicals or old American TV shows for my liking, but everyone gets a good shot at it.”
And there’s the thrill of competing internationally within a closed group every day (See Box 1). Subramanian says he delights in spending 20 minutes of his workday making educated guesses. So when Anushree Kaushal, who edited books at Penguin until recently, reached out for an invitation, he didn’t hesitate. He knew she’d like it.
Kaushal has completed two seasons and is enjoying the old-school email format, putting clues together to arrive at an answer she didn’t know she knew. “Being part of the group doesn’t mean that you’re smarter, just that you’re serious enough to make the effort every day for several spells in a year,” she says.
Despite the global platform, there’s room for individual strengths. Kaushal’s are books, history and pop culture. She’s stumped by American sports. “The questions mention tournaments and I don’t even know which sport they’re talking about,” she says. “But as an Indian, you can answer questions about the Ramayana while Americans crack the baseball clues.”
Learned League has an honour code. Contestants must tick a box attesting that they haven’t trawled the Internet for answers. “Doing it for every match, you’re compelled to not cheat,” says Kaushal. “Anyway, it’s not like there’s a prize.” Or a penalty.
A few members have been expelled when caught googling for answers. Other contestants have found errors and clunky phrasing in the quiz questions. Subramanian says while he admires the League’s pay-to-play model, the online format is no replacement for quizzing offline with your team.
In the five years at the League, he hasn’t competed against anyone familiar. If you do break into the club and spot Subramanian, remember that he aces current-affairs questions. “With bygone rock music, I do quite miserably,” he says.
How it works
A season lasts 25 days. Season 86 was recently wrapped up.
Each player is assigned to a 26-member team called a rundle, within which you go one-on-one against all other members for the daily matches.
You attempt six general knowledge questions every day. Each is worth 0 to 3 points as assigned by your opponent. You get to assign points to your opponent’s questions too.
Players look at opponents’ gender, location and past performance and assign points aimed at weakening their score.
If you get your own answers right, and the 25 other opponents score badly in a season, you get promoted to a smarter rundle.
The smartest folks are in Rundle A – the club within the club. These include the Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings, and winners of other trivia shows.
At each match, you self-attest that you haven’t googled the answers. It’s an honour system, but if you’re found to be cheating, you’re banned.