My Week With America’s Smartest* People

Illustration: Stefanie Augustine

In the designated game room at the Nugget Casino Resort in Sparks, Nevada, which was open 24 hours a day during this year’s Mensa Annual Gathering, I sat at a table with a woman named Kimberly Bakke, a 30-year-old purple-haired pastry chef and teacher from Las Vegas. Bakke is basically Mensa royalty. A 1996 Orange County Register article about her admission to the high-IQ club revealed that she was conceived at a Mensa convention, and she hasn’t missed one since; she became a member when she was three. “I have a big brain,” she told the Register reporter, who noted that her IQ was 143, about 50 points higher than the average among people of all ages. Bakke was hanging out with Christopher Whalen, a 35-year-old defense contractor from Omaha, Nebraska, who was admitted to the club in 2016. They met in a Mensa Gen-Y Facebook group shortly after, and became fast friends, texting each other every day. The 2022 Annual Gathering (AG, as Mensans call it) was Whalen’s first and marked the first time the pair met IRL.

The room was fluorescently lit, and featured brown checkered carpeting adorned with big orange and tan swirls. The scent of cafeteria food permeated the air with undertones of stale cigarettes. Every single game ever invented was seemingly available to play, stacked neatly and organized alphabetically along the walls of the room — basics like Scrabble and Settlers of Catan, branded fare like Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle, and dozens, if not hundreds, that I’d never heard of: Logan Stones, Instructures, Galaxy Trucker, and a simple card game called Set which Bakke and Whalen taught me how to play (and which I am now addicted to).

About 1,100 Mensans journeyed to the Reno area for this year’s convention, people old and young, conservative and progressive, rich and not so rich, cashiers, scientists, community activists, conspiracy theorists, BDSM enthusiasts, and straitlaced monogamists. They came because they think they are smart, they care deeply about a certain type of intelligence, and they feel most at home in a crowd of other high-IQ individuals.

This is home for Bakke. It’s an organization she grew up in, where she’s made lifelong friendships. “Going to an AG, going to any Mensa event, it fills up my cup,” she said. “Like, this is what gets me through the rest of the year … A lot of us here have some flavor of neurodiversity, and it’s just really nice to be around people who get you.”

You might have some preconceived notions about Mensa. Maybe you think it’s full of super-geniuses and/or hopeless nerds and/or elitists who haven’t earned that status. Perhaps you were put off by the group after listening to comedian Jamie Loftus’s podcast about her year as a Mensa member, in which she delved into the organization’s right-wing undercurrent and the online harassment she faced while writing about it.

“There is no overstating what community can do for someone who, as many members described to me, feel like misfits in their everyday lives and want to belong somewhere,” Loftus said on the podcast, My Year in Mensa. “A society with murky goals whose selling point is superiority is not a healthy place to find it.”

Mensa does have a nasty origin story. It was co-founded by Roland Berrill in England in 1946, an Australian who was a proponent of phrenology (as well as astrology, palmistry, and dianetics). The organization’s other founder, Lancelot Ware, thought intelligence tests were a better way of measuring brain power, and, per the Irish Times, was “influenced by the work of Sir Cyril Burt, who had concluded that intelligence might have a racial basis.”

The leadership of the organization today does not appear to maintain the same racist ideas about intelligence as Berrill and Ware. Mensa International’s website contends, “Mensa is a round-table society where ethnicity, color, creed, national origin, age, politics, educational and social background are all completely irrelevant … Mensa takes no stand on politics, religion or social issues.”

Despite its history and Loftus’s conclusions, I did not get the sense that Mensa is an unhealthy place to find community. Many of its members think of themselves as outsiders and feel like Mensa is a place where they can be themselves and connect with people who understand and appreciate them. It’s a place where they can find other folks who love to play Set or who have encyclopedic knowledge of minute Disney trivia. This isn’t to say that there aren’t toxic subsections of Mensa, because there are, but that’s true of any group that runs tens of thousands of members deep. And in an era when the internet and the pandemic have scrambled our sense of community and alienation reigns supreme, that’s no small thing.

Tabby Vos, a member of the board of directors who works at a Silicon Valley software company, joined Mensa as a teenager. A prodigy who graduated high school at 13, she was an 18-year-old law-school student when she passed the test. “It was hard for me growing up in school being five years younger than everybody,” she said. “I knew my place in the world. I was just younger than everybody.”

Mostly, she joined because she wanted to find a boyfriend. “I was too young for the people I was in college and law school with, and the guys I was dating were not getting my jokes,” Vos said. (A recurring sentiment among Mensa members I interviewed was that the organization provided an abundant supply of people who understood their brand of humor, something they hadn’t come across in their everyday lives.) Vos quickly learned that most of her fellow Mensans were “45 and up,” but it nevertheless was a place where she met some of her best friends.

“We started an under-40 group in Detroit because there weren’t very many of us. We called it Under the Hill. One of the very first parties I went to, this Über-genius had turned a drill into a dildo, and he called it his ‘drilldo.’ He was not perverted at all. He was just so proud of his engineering acumen,” she told me, lowering her voice before saying “dildo.” “There was nothing weird or creepy about it. It was just like, this guy built something and wanted to show it off — the nerdiest person you can imagine. The heart and the ingenuity, I was tickled.” She had finally found her people.

French psychologist Alfred Binet invented the IQ test in 1904 to identify which children were struggling in school so they could receive extra tutoring. As oncologist and writer Siddhartha Mukherjee explained in an episode of Radiolab, Binet didn’t want IQ to be the defining measure of anyone’s existence, labeling that practice “brutal pessimism.”

Despite Binet’s good intentions, IQ tests were framed for decades as an indicator of a person’s immutable intelligence. They’ve progressively fallen out of fashion, in part because, as a piece from the Conversation put it, the test has been historically used to promote “questionable and sometimes racially-motivated beliefs about what different groups of people are capable of” — and because research conducted in the last 20 years suggests that “the ‘cultural specificity’ of intelligence makes IQ tests biased towards the environments in which they were developed — namely white, Western society.”

A 2012 study of over 100,000 people concluded that someone’s score on an IQ test does not accurately predict their cognitive abilities. “When we looked at the data, the bottom line is the whole concept of IQ — or of you having a higher IQ than me — is a myth,” said Dr. Adrian Owen, the study’s lead researcher. “There is no such thing as a single measure of IQ or a measure of general intelligence.”

Mensa is old-school in this sense. As an organization, it appears to subscribe to the notion that one’s intelligence is fixed. You’re only allowed to take the admissions test — which features multiple choice questions that test your basic math knowledge, pattern recognition skills, and ability to define eighth grade level words — once; if you fail, that’s it. But high bar aside, Mensa’s members seemed to be, on average, as dumb as the general populace. As most people understand, intelligence is not only about how good you are at the skills that the Mensa admissions exam and the IQ test measure, but also self-awareness, intellectual curiosity, empathy and emotional cognizance.

When I attended an event at which Mensa members debated “the pros and cons on both sides of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine,” I got a taste of the right-wing strain that Loftus chronicled on her podcast. The participants, all of whom looked to be over 50, spoke the same language of conspiracy and ignorance. An older fellow wearing an American-flag shirt made the following claims: Putin is secretly funding the Sierra Club, the United States “funded the research at the Wuhan institute that created this COVID” and Russia isn’t actively trying to kill civilians (this one was met with a net negative reaction from the rest of the room).

“I wouldn’t want to sound stupid at a Mensa convention,” said Susan Young, a charismatic and pretty older blonde, sitting in the corner of the room, before telling her peers that Russia is, in fact, only bombing bioweapons labs in Ukraine. Sitting next to her beefy non-Mensan husband, she expressed concern about the “corruption of the deep state.” The moment she learned that six organizations own all of the media, she said, was “groundbreaking” and “life-shattering.” She’s grateful that the internet exists so she can do her own research, and she recommended her Mensa peers use the search engine DuckDuckGo to evade Google’s “censors.”

Young, a motivational speaker who bills herself as a “positive impact and change expert,” was more than glad to talk to me about her Mensa journey. (I, perhaps needlessly, assured her that I was writing this piece for an independent media company.)

It began in 2008 when her first husband died from alcoholism. “I was in such trauma from everything that happened, my brain wasn’t working. I couldn’t put two thoughts together and I couldn’t stay on task and focus,” she said. She sought help from a psychiatrist who had her take a two-hour-long “fancy test,” which is how she learned that she has an abnormally high IQ.

Five years later, Young was attending a motivational-speaking conference, and her assigned roommate happened to be a Mensan and recommended she join. She sent in the results from the test she took at the psychiatrist’s office and was admitted. “When I found out I was qualified, I cried for a whole day, because nobody ever told me I was gifted,” Young said. “It’s hilarious I found out that I would be qualified for Mensa because, after overcoming horrific adversity and trauma, I got a test.”

This was Young’s first AG — she made the trip from her home in northwestern Florida because visiting Lake Tahoe, only an hour drive away from the Nugget Resort Casino, was on her “bucket list” — and she was having a great time. She’d immediately started making new friends and had decided to attend the Russia-Ukraine debate because she “wanted to hear the perspective from brilliant people who aren’t relying on mainstream press to get their opinions.”

Anyone who reads tabloids knows that stars are just like us! For better and worse, Mensans are too.

“There’s a George Carlin quote I like: ‘Picture how dumb the average person is and remember that half of the population is dumber,’” Whalen, sporting a black V-neck T-shirt, closely cropped dark hair, and subtly stretched lobes, told me after we finished our game of Set. “I can’t say that everybody I’ve met in Mensa is intelligent. But everybody in Mensa at least values intelligence. So to find people around our age who are at least interested in learning and being smarter, or at least being analytical, that’s nice to be a part of, because I don’t find it a lot among the general populace.”

Whalen and I first met at the polyamory special-interest group, or SIG in Mensa parlance. He sat near the middle of the room with the other millennials, while the older Mensans occupied the sides. On his name tag were blue stickers, code for “I’m available.” By putting four there, he was hoping to signify that he was extremely DTF. When I asked him if his stickers led to any Mensa hookups, he smiled and said, “Hooo yeah.”

“We started with an RPG group, and now I have four partners and I don’t know what the hell I’m doing,” said one of the younger Mensans at the poly-SIG, who wore a red velvet cape and masquerade mask, as everybody took turns introducing themselves. “I hope you all might be able to answer some questions.”

“I think I might’ve been born poly like I was born libertarian,” an elderly woman who had cornrows and wore a t-shirt with the word NERDY said. “If anybody knows about Ayn Rand, she was poly.”

Lise Waring, a Mensan in her early 60s with a sweet round face and long white hair, said that her gateway into polyamory was Robert Heinlein’s libertarian science-fiction novel, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. When her husband proposed to her 40 years ago, she said yes on the condition that they would be polyamorous, though she didn’t have the word for it back then.

Waring told me that intelligence is very important to her when it comes to attraction. “If I have to explain my puns to you, I’m not going to give you the time of day,” she said, in a familiar refrain. She splits her time between New York and Texas. For many years, up until his death, the president of her Mensa chapter in Texas was her main partner outside of her husband.

Jason Seiler is a 45-year-old security professional at Boeing who leads the Disney Nerd SIG. “Mensa is the home I never knew I had,” he told me. “Imagine if you studied German, and you went over and you lived in Germany for ten years. And then you went into an expat bar where they all spoke English, and suddenly you go like, ‘Okay, now I can think the way I’ve always thought and not have to pretend or translate my thoughts from my native tongue into something else to be understood.’ That’s what Mensa is for me.”

And, of course, the high-IQ crowd gets his humor. Seiler gave an example of a joke he rarely tells among his civilian friends but that apparently kills with Mensans: “Schrödinger is driving on the highway and he’s speeding, and a cop stops him and searches his car, and says, ‘Did you know you have a dead cat in your trunk?’ He says, ‘Well I do now.’”

I gave him a smile of recognition, to acknowledge that I understood the joke, at which point he asked me why I’m not in Mensa. I offered some bullshit answer about how I don’t like taking tests. Nonetheless, he predicted I would be a member within two years.

The truth was, I couldn’t quite articulate why I wouldn’t want to join. I certainly had a nice time at the convention. (“I’ve never seen you do this much reporting,” my fiancé said after I informed him I had to spend yet another day there.) The environment reminded me that I take pleasure in a lot of the same nerdy shit Mensans live for: logic games, trivia, and other sorts of puzzles. It was fun learning Set and later, competing in the Wordle tournament.

But I didn’t quite feel like I had found my people. I have never in my life struggled to find smart friends who get my jokes, and my intelligence (or, per my haters, my lack thereof) isn’t something that makes me feel alienated from my peers. It’s not to say that being brainy isn’t important to me — I’m glad I’m engaged to someone who I think is brilliant and likes to play all the stupid little games that I do — but high IQ is not in the top ten or 20 or 100 qualities I look for in a friend or community. I want to be around part of a group of people who are empathetic and funny and intellectually curious and have weird interests. A lot of people I met fit that bill. And I’m happy for all the Mensans who have found a home in their exclusive club and that their IQ has provided them with a way to understand themselves and their place in the world.

But if my time at the Mensa Annual Gathering taught me anything, it’s that being “smart” and doing well on tests have virtually nothing to do with each other.

My Week With America’s Smartest* People