My Visit To Mensa
from the Spring 2007 issue

I have always wondered what goes on beyond the closed doors of a Mensa meeting. Are they using their combined intellectual powers for good or for evil? A newsletter for the local chapter indicated that their monthly get-togethers included lots of pizza parties and showings of Mystery Science Theater 3000. This dichotomy (pizza parties=good, science=evil) only piqued my curiosity further. I had to get in. I had to crash Mensa.

Chicago’s Mensa chapter meets in a Sheraton hotel a good 45 minutes outside the city, leading me to believe that if your I.Q. is high enough, you have your own car and don’t have to rely on public transportation. As it was, I caught a ride with my friends Alison, who is actually a card-carrying member of Mensa but had never been to a meeting, and John, who filled out his Mensa meeting guest nametag to read “Party Time!” With just a couple of exceptions, we were the youngest people out of the 100 or so attendees by probably a decade.

To qualify as a Mensan, I had hoped I could just provide a list of 49 people I was smarter than. As it turns out, I was required to either take a qualifying exam or provide prior evidence of being a genius. Prior evidence amounts to proving that you have at least an IQ of about 130 (the standards vary for different tests).

For fairly obvious reasons, I decided to take the test, a pair of 45-minute exams on a variety of subjects. To be invited to join, the candidate must score in the 98th percentile on at least one of the exams. My test was administered by Tom, a friendly, portly gentleman who breathed heavily as he explained how to fill in the bubbles. While we took the test, he passed the time reading a newsletter, apparently exclusive to the test administrator community, called Proctor to Proctor.

Believe it or not, the Mensa entrance exam is pretty hard. The hardest parts by far were the patterns, in which you had to examine drawings of, for example, a necktie, a tree, a comet, and a cheese grater, and pick out which item did not belong. I looked around the room at the others taking the test and thought, “Uh, that’d be me.” But the low point definitely came when Tom pointed out that I got one of the sample questions wrong. These are the first questions in a section, introducing you to the type of problem you’ll be answering and making sure you still know how to fill in the bubbles. I erased the mark with such ferocity that the test flew off the table and I had to get up to retrieve it.

Although I wouldn’t get my test results for two weeks, I was invited to stick around for the meeting to follow. None of the other three Mensa hopefuls stayed for the meeting. Even Tom said goodbye as he packed up his proctoring tools to leave. He arrived before the meeting to give the Mensa exam, and then left before the meeting started. As I saw it, the retired math teacher in him just really loved testing people, thus confirming the suspicions of schoolchildren everywhere.

So what happens at a Mensa meeting? Each monthly meeting features a lecture on a wide variety of topics, and this one featured an expert on Riverview, which was apparently a theme park and carnival on Chicago’s lakeshore. Since this park was now non-existent, and had been since roughly fifteen years before I was born, I spent the majority of the meeting with the handful of attendees who also decided to follow some other intellectual pursuit—namely, playing board games and drinking beer.

If I learned one thing from this experience, it was that Mensans love to play board games. This chapter had hundreds of games in its collection, the vast majority being games I had never heard of before. I got the impression, too, that these games were serious business. At one point, I overheard a woman approach someone and say, “I owe you, don’t I? Yeah, you have a nice little rump-kicking in Blokus coming.” (I know what you’re thinking, and, no, I don’t know what Blokus is, either.)

John was all set to take some geniuses’ money in Texas Hold-‘Em (he brought his own chips), but instead we spent most of the evening learning Carcassone, a strategy game that apparently has a big underground following. The game comes with lots of little tiles illustrated with an aerial view of segments of the Medieval French countryside that you draw and place on the table. You win points by completing castles and roads and such.

As nerdy as this game sounds, it is; at the time, all I could think was at least I wasn’t at the next table over, pretending to be a colonist trading in spices and bananas in a rousing game of Puerto Rico. Our game proved to be fairly engaging, however; a fact perhaps best evidenced by Alison at one point standing up from the table and crying, “Ha! I beat you! Sucks to be you!” (I could tell then that everyone was keeping tabs on us because they all made a point not to look.)

Generally speaking, I had overestimated the nerdiness of the Mensans. Make no mistake, these people are nerds. Overheard bits of conversation included a discussion of the ethical ramifications of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and one rather pompous fellow dressed in the tweed jacket of a college professor proclaiming, “Well, last night we Boggled until three in the morning.” But my preconceived notion had been much harsher. Before we got there, my friends and I tried to predict how many single, unshaven men we’d see in sweatpants and fanny packs.

As it turned out, there weren’t any, save for one fellow with a striking resemblance to Burgess Meredith. He wore a fanny pack in a professional capacity, as it was apparently his job to spend the whole evening trundling about taking pictures.

While Alison was standing in line waiting for a hot dog, he approached her to say, “You know, Catholics can’t use condiments.” As a practicing Catholic, she almost told him that she had never heard of that rule, unaware that this fellow was the resident punmaster of the group. (It’s a good thing, though, as I for one think that Catholics have enough to feel guilty about as is.)

In addition to their inclination to board games, Mensans enjoy the fine craftsmanship of a good pun. The relationship between a society of highly intelligent individuals and the love of puns remains one of the group’s greatest mysteries.

Punmastery notwithstanding, to their credit, no one was overeager to flaunt his intelligence. Everyone was fairly welcoming, even to John and myself, who had yet to be confirmed as geniuses and could have very well dragged the group down to our level. The one guy who seemed to have something to prove was Tweed Jacket, who interrupted someone else’s game of Scrabble to correct pronunciation. “It’s jig-a-byte, not gig-a-byte! Look in the dictionary! No one says guy-gant-ic!” By this logic, of course, the nickname for the Chicago chapter of Mensa (“ChiMe”) would be pronounced “shuh-meh.”

It was fairly late in the evening when, with the official meeting long since over, when some of the attendees starting to make their ways home. Not everyone—a lot of the members apparently get a room and make it an all-night affair. We decided it was about time we headed out, too. There was some talk among our new friends of a return visit, but it was fairly vague and full of the late-night enthusiasm for ideas that won’t be followed through on.

I learned a lot from my visit, not the least of which that Mensa meetings are fun. If you’re interested in joining, check out their website at But even if you don’t think you stand among the intellectual giants of our time, you might consider checking out a meeting anyway. I don’t know how it is for other chapters, but in Chicago non-members like me can attend almost any event, and for only a few dollars more than members paid, I got to help myself to a good spread of food and a wide selection of wine and beer.

I got my results in the mail about two weeks later. They didn’t tell me how I scored, just that I do not qualify for Mensa membership at this time. The letter was very forthcoming about alternative ways to meet the qualification requirements, but I think I’ll pass. I’m okay with not being a genius for now.

-Bryce Wissel

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