At 3:06 a.m., on March 17, I received the following email from a man named Thorsten A. Integrity: “Mr. Baumann,” it began, “The results for LL84 Match Day 19 are now available. In that match, you lost to ThompsonR3, 4(4)-6(3). You are currently 16th in Rundle C Typhoon, with a record of 9-8-2.” The message goes on for a few lines before ending with the following admonition, printed in bright-red oversized type: “Don’t forfeit! Don’t cheat!”
This email, and the 100 or so like it I get every year, read like something out of a Robert A. Heinlein novel to the uninitiated. In fact, they’re my primary contact with a subscription-based, invitation-only online trivia site called LearnedLeague. In contrast to other online trivia ventures, LearnedLeague is shockingly low tech. The website, which was just redesigned for the coming season, has no videos or animations of any kind. It consists almost entirely of sans serif type on a white background and only became mobile-friendly with this season’s update—don’t even ask about an app. The only prize is a custom scarf, awarded to the overall champion each year since 2014. Twelve people have walked on the Moon; only three have won the Commissioner T.A. Integrity Scarf as LearnedLeague Champion.
And yet, I’m one of thousands of people who pay at least $30 annually for the privilege of participating. “In LearnedLeague 85, which starts on Wednesday, there are 18,562 players,” says LearnedLeague founder and commissioner Shayne Bushfield—the Clark Kent to Thorsten A. Integrity’s Superman. “Even saying that number out loud actually gives me a little bit of a chill.”
Bushfield might marvel at the size of his user base, but every LearnedLeague player on the planet could fit inside a hockey arena. LearnedLeague has been growing slowly and steadily since its founding in 1997, and what started as a shared hobby among friends has turned into a global community of tens of thousands. LearnedLeague will never draw a casual following of millions, like other online trivia games, but its relatively small following has proven far more passionate and durable.
Like most great online institutions, LearnedLeague was created because someone was bored at their white-collar job. In 1997, Bushfield founded the precursor to LearnedLeague while doing data entry for a law firm in New York. The firm’s major clients were tobacco companies fending off lawsuits from smokers, Bushfield says. The law firm would subpoena plaintiffs’ medical records, and Bushfield and his team would enter them into a database that lawyers could search to find ways to poke holes in plaintiffs’ stories.
“The job itself was super, super boring,” Bushfield says. “I just can’t even describe how boring it was because it was also soul-sucking. … So we assuaged our own guilt in a few different ways. One was by working a lot of hours but not working very hard.”
In order to kill time, Bushfield and his ambivalent and comically ill-supervised colleagues started playing games—Balderdash, Pictionary, and the like—before he developed the ongoing trivia contest that evolved into LearnedLeague.
The game’s official rules are laid out in an extensive 20-part compact on the LearnedLeague website, but the concept is simple enough. Each morning, Thorsten assigns thousands of online know-it-alls six open-ended general knowledge questions, and an opponent. The more questions a player answers correctly, the more points they earn. Score more points than your opponent, and you move up in your league’s standings. Each league—or “rundle” in LL parlance—acts as one level in a pyramid structure that promotes and relegates players based on performance, like in European soccer.
The twist is that while each question carries a specific point value, Thorsten doesn’t assign that value, nor does the player answering the question—their opponent does. Along with the daily slate of questions, players have access to their opponents’ all-time hit rate broken down by topic: Math, Language, Pop Music, and so on. This allows players to find out their opponents’ weaknesses and exploit them by placing higher point values on their worst topics.
Eventually Bushfield and his friends left the law firm, but they wanted to keep playing. And they would only let new players join if an existing player would vouch for them. Everyone played under their real name, which is still the case today, and anyone who signs up is expected to take the game seriously and play it honestly. This is the genesis of the league’s unofficial statement of faith: “Don’t forfeit. Don’t cheat.”
Bushfield says he catches people cheating every so often—in the interest of not giving away all his secrets, he won’t say exactly how—and violators are banned for life. So too are people who sign up to play but don’t actually show up to compete. Anyone who forfeits more than three times in a given season is subject to a lengthy ban, something my Ringer colleague Shaker Samman learned the hard way in 2017 when he signed up to play but kept forgetting. (Asked for comment on his suspension, Shaker responded: “This is typical gotcha journalism,” before confirming the substance of the story.)
What LearnedLeague lacks in bells and whistles, it makes up for in depth. Every question in the 84-season history of the game is catalogued, and each player has their own stats page comparable to Baseball-Reference, with game results and a correct answer percentage for each of the 18 categories. I have one, as do Jeopardy! legend Ken Jennings and Game of Thrones showrunner David Benioff, who was referred to the league by Chernobyl creator Craig Mazin. Last year, HuffPost revealed that then–White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney (or someone with his exact biography) was performing woefully in the game’s lowest division. Thus a nation was left to ponder the implications of a senior presidential advisor who scored 70 percent on American history questions, 25.8 percent on math, and just 21 percent on literature.
The detailed personal statistical breakdowns are the lifeblood of defense in LearnedLeague. For example: My career shooting percentage on questions in the “Games/Sport” category is .785, while in Art, it’s a Mulvanian .269. That information is readily available to my opponents when they assign point values to individual questions. It’s therefore possible to correctly answer more questions than one’s opponent but lose anyway. This is what happened the day before that March 17 email—I took four points from four correct answers, but my opponent took six points from three.
Those personal statistics can also be used to the player’s own advantage. I’ve spent 15 of my 18 seasons in Rundle C, the game’s middle tier, but several years ago I started cooking seriously. “Food” went from one of my weakest categories to one of my strongest before my stats could catch up, and the steady diet (so to speak) of easy maximum-point questions brought me to within a game of promotion to LearnedLeague’s top level.
“The defensive/competitive aspect became completely addictive,” says Ringer staff writer Alison Herman, who joined LearnedLeague this past season. “I’ve been ‘playing’ old seasons to pass the time, and it really doesn’t hit the same without the suspense or gamesmanship.”
LearnedLeague contestants—or LLamas—run the gamut from people who merely answer the questions each day and never visit the site to those who participate in or even author mini-leagues and one-day challenges during the offseason. Some LLamas might be more involved or passionate than others, but there are almost no dilettantes, cheats, or boors to ruin things for serious players. LearnedLeague is about love of the game, for people who love the game a lot.
Bushfield says he never expected LearnedLeague to grow into a full-time job, but in 2014, he was finally making enough from subscriptions that he quit a gig at Microsoft to run LearnedLeague full time. He says the workload ebbs and flows based on the calendar—this offseason’s website redesign was particularly time-consuming—but he spends as much as 60 hours a week maintaining the site, performing “customer service” and writing the questions.
The questions come mostly from what Bushfield calls “the most uninteresting bookshelf you can imagine,” a collection of some 400 books, mostly reference volumes, that he keeps in his office. He’ll often just open a book to a random page and find an interesting fact to base a question off of. Sometimes he has to put in a little extra work to overcome the limitations of his source material.
“I skip over a bunch of viable questions because I’ve already written five questions about Western Europe,” he says. “I can’t write any more, so I just keep looking, and that’s the case for music, movies, and every subject. There’s just such an overwhelming cultural bias that you have to overcome—and I’m not claiming that I’ve overcome it—but it is something that I put an effort into.”
Though Bushfield insists that the players are the heart and soul of LearnedLeague and not him, there’s a direct correlation between the effort he puts into the project and LLamas’ collective affection for the game. The trivia landscape encompasses all manner of outlets and communities, from bar trivia to Jeopardy! to Sporcle to the late, lamented HQ. But few, if any, serve a specific audience so effectively—and the enthusiasm Bushfield injects into LearnedLeague is not only rewarded but reflected by the players.
“From my perspective I totally get that it’s not for everyone. It’s not even for many people, but that’s on purpose,” Bushfield says. “I don’t have any intention of trying to broaden its appeal. I’m really comfortable in my very narrow field of expertise. My skill set is not that large, and I’m sticking right to it.”
LearnedLeague feels like a throwback to the simpler, more optimistic internet of 15 to 20 years ago, and not just because of its goldbricker origins or its no-frills web design. In the Web 2.0 days, communities sprung up organically around areas of shared interest—consider message boards or even the early days of Facebook, when it was just a site for college students to share pictures and meet new people.
But then a billion dollars became cooler than a million dollars, and what started as an insular and exclusive social networking platform became a superpower in its own right, tangled into the inner workings of publishing, commerce, and politics. And so much of what followed—Twitter, Uber, Grubhub—was built on the promise of rapid expansion of the user base above all other considerations.
Why do I love LearnedLeague so much? The same reason it’s still going strong after 20 years. It wasn’t built to grow, it was built to work.