mighty fine trivia by James Callan

Category: commentary

Eulogy for a Quiz Night: Thoughts on the end of trivia at the Old Pequliar

“Question one: What’s the longest river in Japan?”

It was May 23, 2006, when I looked out on a bar mostly full of strangers and asked them all that question. And then I repeated it, because that’s what quizmasters do.

It was my first-ever time hosting trivia, and after that I was hooked. Trivia Caught

I was surprised, although I shouldn’t have been. Yes, hosting was (ugh) performing in public, speaking in front of a bunch of people. I was awkward and introverted, with the Myers-Briggs score to back it up.

I started the evening as a fill-in host for a friend, and finished the evening desperately wanting to do it again — and with a list of ideas for how next time would be better. Because if you haven’t noticed, or were too kind to think it, that first question was not very good. Too obscure, too dull. (But not just plain cruel, like question 8: “What road, completed in 1986, connects Pakistan with China, passing over the Khunjerab Pass at its highest point?” I can’t remember the answer to that and I just looked at it.)

Being a quizmaster appeals to the part of me that loves being an insider. I like to know how things work, even more than I like figuring them out. I want to know how magic tricks work. I read spoilers.

Quizmastering was perfect. I had all the answers, because I wrote the questions. Playing trivia is fun, and I wouldn’t give it up — in part because playing the quiz makes you a better host. But writing trivia questions is a blast. Learning to do it well is a pain in the ass, because it turns out that writing good trivia is not about showing off how much you know. (When you do it really well, you delight people by revealing to them how much they know. Tough to pull off, but the best.)

If I had to host quizzes so I could write them, it was worth it.

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Ron Rosenbaum hates sudokists and cruciverbalists

Proving yet again that it’s the petty annoyances that inspire three-page web articles, Ron Rosenbaum takes on fans of crossword and sudoku puzzles in Slate today. He unloads both barrels, reloads, unloads again, then splashes some rubbing alcohol on the wounds for good measure. But of course it’s hyperbolic, and therefore funny. Ha.

You’d have to pay me to get me to spend 15 minutes on a sudoku puzzle, and the only crosswords that hold my attention for long are cryptic crosswords. Even those are a once-in-a-blue-moon distraction. But I’m still taken aback at the depth of Rosenbaum’s satirically masked vitriol:

I know that I’m a partisan divider, but to me it seems that puzzle people are fleeing from real puzzles—fleeing the complexity, the fear of the unknown, fleeing from the messiness of life that cannot be contained in a box, fleeing to an illusion of mastery and control. They’re control freaks seeking control of something worthless: “I can fill in a bunch of boxes with letters!”

Zing. Happily, he exempts trivia fans from his scorn, because of the social aspect:

(By the way, I don’t include games like Scrabble or charades on my list of trivial pursuits. Nor Trivial Pursuit. Some of these are loved by people not for the intellectual self-abuse they offer but for the social interaction—you know, the fun with other humans!—that can be generated by the competition. These games, and others like them, are not as isolating and reductive as word and number puzzles done in solitary.)

Whew. On the other hand, he does pinpoint one of my least favorite aspects of puzzle culture: the proclamations of intellectual superiority. You do have to be smart to play trivia — or do a crossword, or probably even sudoku (lord knows it’s beyond my patience). But it’s not a sign of genius.

In fact, if anything, it’s a sign that you pay attention to what you read (and watch, and do), and have a decent memory, by happenstance or training. And if you want people to talk to you at parties rather than flee your fact-spewing presence, you’ve got to keep your sense of humility.

Girls just want to have fun, don’t want to show off brains.

The other day, I got around to listening to This American Life‘s “Quiz Show” episode. In round III, Robin Epstein talks about writing questions for the show Plugged In  on the Oxygen network. As the TAL description says, “Robin had hoped that the show could serve as a role model for young women, showing smart teen girls answering tough questions. But in the end, it sort of did the opposite.”

Let’s leave aside the dubious idea that a TV quiz show is going to give smart young women self esteem. (“I Was a Teenage Ken Jennings,” anyone?) After listening to the segment, I had two major reactions:

1) It’s really annoying when people assume that “ability to answer trivia questions” is the same as being smart. There’s a correlation, of course — Jennings strikes me as a pretty smart guy — but Einstein or Shakespeare could fail Millionaire on the first question and still qualify as Pretty Smart Guys themselves.

2)  It’s interesting that Epstein decided that teen girls just aren’t that smart, when the other possible explanation is that she just wasn’t that good at writing good game show questions. The examples given on the show don’t have many internal clues or alternate ways for people to figure out the answer: they’re either you know it or you don’t. Rather than changing the kind of questions from “What failed presidential candidate lost the use of his right arm in WWII?” to “How many cute boys’ signatures can you get on your arm in 15 seconds”, it might have been better to add some hints. “What failed presidential candidate, who shares a name with a pineapple canning company, lost the use of his right arm in WWII?”

The most annoying trivia question.

“Who was the first American in space?”

I encountered this question years ago at the George & Dragon. And it remains the most annoying trivia question I’ve ever been asked, as a player.

Why? Because the answer was “John Glenn.”

Unfortunately for the quiz host, John Glenn was the first American to orbit the earth. Alan Shepard was the first American in space, as just about any reference material you consult will be happy to tell you.

When the host said “John Glenn,” protests exploded like strikes in a bowling alley. But she insisted she was right.

Of course, that’s the quiz host’s preogative. When I host at the Old Pequliar, one of the rules is that, for the purposes of the quiz, I know what I’m talking about, and there will be no arguments. It’s a rule I inherited and decided to keep, because lord knows I don’t want to get into cite-fests in the middle of a quiz.

Because of that, though, I make sure I get my facts right. I double-check answers. I cite a source in the question, if necessary. And I anticipate common objections for when someone does want to quibble so that I can provide a more detailed explanation.

The John Glenn question was asked years ago, at this point, and I’ve bored many people talking about it. Some point out that anyone else who said Shepard got it wrong, too. True enough. But all those teams that said John Glenn? They earned an undeserved point. And I’m sure more than one team gave the correct incorrect answer.

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