mighty fine trivia by James Callan

Category: quiz culture

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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What’s it like to write for Jeopardy!?

Ken Jennings interviewed Carlo Panno, who (in the ’80s) wrote questions for Jeopardy! Part 1 is fairly Jeopardy!-specific — what the process is like, the life cycle of a category. Part 2 pulls back the camera, adding more perspective on general question-writing issues.

Jennings asks Panno how he gauged the difficulty of questions, since (in theory) the clues on Jeopardy! get more difficult the more money they’re worth. “It’s from the gut, mostly,” replies Panno. “You use your instincts and your knowledge of your knowledge.”

It’s good to know even the guys in the big leagues have a hard time with that — it’s still difficult for me to predict how difficult players will find a round. Even the kind of players matters — I used popular and relatively easy rounds from the Old Pequliar at a recent private event, but since the private event players were generally less trivia-savvy, they found them all very difficult. Lesson learned. I hope.

What makes a great question, Jennings asks. “The leaner and more elegant, the better I liked them,” responds Panno. Solid gold advice for anyone writing, well, anything, but it’s excellent trivia writing advice.

And Panno is another voice in the chorus reminding quiz writers not to lose sight of what makes trivia quizzes fun:

I felt pretty good about getting all three contestants to get it wrong on my NBC DIDN’T CALL IT “SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE” FOR TWO YEARS BECAUSE OF A 18-WEEK “SNL” ON ABC STARRING HIM but it was called to my attention that everybody getting it wrong is a bad thing.

Bold emphasis mine. As I learned from experience, it’s a lot easier to write questions that stump everyone than to write questions that most players can get right. And players definitely prefer the latter.

Two observations about playing pub trivia

1) 19 times out of 20, if you hear a question and an answer pops into your brain, unbidden, un-thought-out, that’s the correct answer. Go with your gut.

2) The one time during a quiz that you reconsider that answer and come up with a more logical one to put in its place will not be the one time in 20 that your gut was wrong. You’ll change a right answer to a wrong one.

A lesson from Jeopardy!

As I mentioned on Seattlest, I passed the in-person Jeopardy! audition in Seattle a couple of weeks ago. Now I officially have about a 1 in 6 chance of appearing on the show in the next couple of years. I’m coming out ahead regardless — I won a Jeopardy! home game when bwouns from the Ken Jennings Message Board misremembered what year the show came back on the air.

One thing the Jeopardy! people said that stuck with me: The people on the show want you to win money. They’re not there as your adversary — your fellow contestants are your adversaries.

When I started writing quizzes, I had to learn that. In my first few quizzes, I deliberately included questions that I knew would be difficult, possibly even stumpers. At least one per round, sometimes two.

Why? I had in the back of my head that I was competing with the players. Somehow it was points for me if I stumped them.

It took reading some other people’s advice on writing questions — particularly Jennings in Brainiac, and the guys at the Trivia Hall of Fame.

Turns out it’s a lot more fun to host when you try to write questions that a lot of people can answer. I definitely still try to challenge players — a great question rewards lateral thinking. But stumping them isn’t that hard to do, and it’s not much fun when you’re on a team with a half-empty answer sheet.

I’m not there to beat the players. I’m there to give teams a good playing field where they can compete with each other.

Quiz: Crash

1) What artist, famed for splattering paint across canvases, was splattered across the pavement when he crashed his car in 1956?
2) “Crash” is the collective noun for what large land mammal found in Africa and Asia?
3) A beloved princess was killed in a car crash 25 years ago this month. Who was she?
4) In 2006, Crash won the Oscar for Best Picture instead of critical favorite Brokeback Mountain. Who won Best Director that same year?
5) Which current NBC drama stars a survivor of the car crash that killed Jayne Mansfield?
6) In 1993, the band Crash Test Dummies had a hit with what song that didn’t actually feature any vowels in its title?
7) What on-again, off-again Yankees manager was killed in a car crash on Christmas Day, 1989?
8) The original Crash Bandicoot was released in 1996 exclusively on what video game platform?
9) The first African-born person to win the Nobel Prize for Literature was killed in a car crash in France in 1960. Who was he?
10) “Crash into Me,” the biggest hit for the Dave Matthews Band, was released on what 1996 album?

Average score: 7.0

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