Living Up to the Name

SporcleCon’s Battle of the Brains featured tough competition against trivia royalty

Published September 18, 2023

Glance around during a brisk walk to the bar at SporcleCon’s Battle of the Brains – held Sept. 9 at the Washington Hilton in D.C. – and you’ll get a great idea of who you’re competing against in their marquee quiz event. Most tables have at least one seat filled by a Jeopardy! alum. An unsettling number of teams boast Tournament of Champions-winning buzzsaws like Roger Craig or The Chase chaser Victoria Groce. It’s an intimidating room.

Fortunately, Buzzy Cohen – both a Jeopardy! star and a Chase chaser – took his talents off the floor and onto the stage as the host of 2023’s battle. He looked dapper all weekend, even while petting rescue dogs from Petey and Furends during Sunday morning’s dog-themed quiz and adoption event.

Buzzy confined his intro banter to pondering a new nickname, before digging right into the instructions for the quiz: six two-part rounds – each with a set of questions followed by a puzzle – and then a 15-question final round “gauntlet.” Naturally, the available points escalate throughout the contest.

Round One embraced the host city with four questions on people named Washington. Next, teams opened an envelope full of paint swatches with letters on them, and had to arrange them according to the companies that have trademarked each color. (It helped to know that original Post-it notes were not as bright yellow as they are these days.) Round Two started with answers that contain every standard English vowel exactly once (Chuck Mangione, Benazir Bhutto). The puzzle section was an especial highlight, as teams had to spell out the questions by piecing together the initials of celebrities and historical figures from photos. (Do you know what Werner Herzog looks like?)

The first part of Round Three gave teams a looped set, where the last three letters of each answer were the first three letters of the next one (Lesotho -> Thomas Hobbes -> Bessie Coleman -> Mandibles). Round Three’s puzzle involved shredded-up movie stills – Sporcle loves to physically chop stuff up in their puzzles. Every answer in the first half of Round Four had the initials D.C.; props to my aptly-initialed teammate, Derek Chaves, for carrying us through the “Y’allternative” puzzle, featuring countrified covers of ‘90s and ‘00s alt-punk songs. 

(We wouldn’t have had Derek at all if Sporcle hadn’t helped us randomly flesh out our team – a helpful option for folks who don’t happen to know Roger Craig.)

Rounds Five and Six delivered questions containing chemical elements and questions about orange things, respectively. The puzzle part of Round Five gave players a map to identify the grid square of the location in the question (St. Louis was tricky-ish). One of the biggest laughs of the night came from the Round Six puzzle section: The host asked a question and then drew a card with a letter on it that would start the correct answer. Question Three asked for the highest-grossing movie at the domestic box office with a one-word title starting with the letter O. Teams were puzzling it out before the host gave the year of release: 2023. Boom!

For the final, 15-question “gauntlet,” teams were given all of the categories up front, and had to wager how many questions they would answer correctly – with bonuses and penalties applied based on whether or not they covered it. After a lot of debate, my team, “Nerdiest Stop on the Eras Tour,” bet a conservative 10 to just finish respectably. We should’ve been more bullish, because we ended up with 13! (we finished out of the money)

At the end of it all, “Matthew’s Mom Has Got It Going On” took home the $2,500 grand prize, by a margin of just two points.

“We were honestly shocked we did so well,” said team member Steve Kaltenbaugh, previously a $250,000 winner on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?. “We were up by one going into the final question, with a five-way tie behind us. We just assumed someone would catch us, so we held our breath throughout the final standings reveal.”

From left: Matthew Frost, Brian Lipinski, Susan Frost, Hans von Walter, Steve Kaltenbaugh, Patrick McKinney. (photo: Jonpaul Henry Guinn)

Two teams took home big checks for second place, with a tie between “Wednesdays” and “Neutral MILF Hotel.” Just how close was it at the top? Three points behind first, there was a six-way tie for fourth. They can all give it another shot next August, when SporcleCon 2024 hits Detroit. 

Questionist editor Christopher Short contributed to this report.