I said before that I was all out of question-writing advice. That’s still true. And I did miss the Basement Bowl, which was a bummer. (Though the trip to Estes Park was very nice.) But the trivia fire is not extinguished! Far from it. I’ve got my tickets and hotel squared away for TCONA, and I’m midway through my rookie season in the Learned League, thanks to a friendly invitation. (Mixed results thus far — I’m 9-8-1, currently ranked 16th in a field of 34.)
So I’ve come up with more to say, but this time from the player’s perspective. Here are some of my rules of thumb as a trivia player. As with all advice, your mileage may vary.
I see this mistake happen at all levels, from friendly games of Trivial Pursuit to contestants competing on Jeopardy!, where it can have a devastating effect. And heaven knows I’ve been guilty of it myself plenty of times — all the more reason it’s worth keeping in mind. Simply put, you should seek to provide the minimum amount of information necessary for your answer to be considered correct, based on the game’s format.
The most common example: if the answer is a name, and the game’s rules say that the last name is sufficient, do not provide the first name. Oh sure, most of the time it won’t cause you a problem. You know that the guy who wore number 23 for the Bulls was Michael Jordan and not, say, Herman Jordan. But if you are in the habit of providing first names when only last names are required, at some point, that habit will eventually bite you. I guarantee it. Your brain will mix up similar names, or swap two famous people with the same last name, and when that happens, you’ll have just missed a question that you did not need to miss. Far better, then, to be in the opposite habit — provide only last names for all name-based answers. If more specificity is required, you’ll have the chance to provide it. (Unless, of course, the game’s rules say otherwise, in which case, fairly warned be thee, says I.)
Hubris in general is dangerous in the trivia world. Not as dangerous as it is in questions of who to marry and who to kill, of course, but still… dangerous. It’s so easy, when you feel confident, to want to show off just a little. Take for instance this Learned League question from a few days ago:
Several generations of college students learned their grammar from the uninformed bossiness of _____ and _____, and the result is a nation of educated people who know they feel vaguely anxious and insecure whenever they write “however” or “than me” or “was” or “which,” but can’t tell you why. This quote comes from a recent critical analysis of a book first published broadly in 1959. Name either the work being reviewed, or both of the names redacted from the quote.
When I read this, I didn’t know the answer for sure, but the one that made the most sense to me, given the other data in the question, was “Strunk and White.” I felt about 85% certain that this was the right answer. If I was thinking of the right book, I was dead certain about the names of the authors, and about 95% certain that the book in question was called The Elements Of Style. And I came very close to answering the question with “Strunk and White (The Elements Of Style).” But then I got a tiny little bell ringing in my ear. The question asked for either the authors or the title. How dumb would I feel if I was misremembering the title, and got the question wrong despite knowing enough to get it right? So I simply answered “Strunk and White.” As it turned out, I was right about both, but I felt pleased that I’d exercised the correct discipline in answering.
FIRST THOUGHT BEST THOUGHT
It’s probably reaching to call this one “advice.” It’s more of a personal preference. From time to time, I’ll hear a question, and an answer will pop into my head, but without much accompanying certainty about its correctness. So I’ll start to doubt myself, and think of another answer that seems plausible, but about which I’m equally unsure. So now I’m faced with a choice: do I go with my first guess, or my second guess?
My teammate George Doro recently wrote, “I’ve given up on having a rule of thumb about going with my first instinct. I estimate my success rate is in the neighborhood of 50% when it comes to deciding to keep my first answer or going with another.” For me, I’m not so sure that the split is quite so even — I think my first answer is correct slightly more often than my revised answer — but there are certainly plenty of times when the first answer is wrong and the second answer is right. However, in this situation, my preference is to go with my first answer, for two reasons.
The first is psychological. Naturally, in this situation it’s annoying to choose the wrong guess and gratifying to choose the right one. However, for me, the annoyance I feel is greater when I’ve wrongly abandoned my first answer for a self-doubting second, as opposed to the other way round. Correspondingly, it’s even more satisfying for me to get a question right when I’ve stuck with my initial instinct than when I’ve gone back on it. Second-guessing myself doesn’t feel good, and it’s irksome to do it and be wrong about it. So in the interest of maximizing my personal mood state, I prefer to take my first choice.
There’s another, deeper reason, though. It has to do with part of what I find so pleasurable and satisfying about trivia, which could be an essay in itself. (And, let’s face it, probably will be at some point.) So brace yourselves, because it’s about to get a little philosophical up in here.
Trivia, like music and dreams, engages the unconscious. It has a meditative, zen quality, in that if you can get your ego out of the way, it’s possible to achieve a flow state in which you can find answers you didn’t know you knew. This is far, far from easy. Much more often, at least for me, I find myself reaching for things I know that I know, but unable to retrieve them. But I am constantly seeking that state. When I’m in it, that answer popping into my head is very likely to be the right one, because I’ve unblocked the channel between the deep reserves of the brain and the surface world of moment-to-moment experience. (Ego, distraction, and self-consciousness are almost always the blocks.)
That’s one of the reasons I love answering toss-up questions, especially pyramid-style toss-up questions. Often, at some point in listening to the question, the answer will appear before me, and all I need to do is let it out. Yes, there is the risk that I’ve got it wrong and will incur a 5-point penalty and block my team from answering, but more often, allowing that answer through is the right thing to do. So I try to cultivate in myself the ability to reach that flow state, and therefore I prefer to allow that first instinctive answer to take precedence, rather than override it with second thoughts.
Of course, when I think of a second answer and it feels much more instinctively right than the first answer I thought of, all bets are off.
WORK THE FORMAT
Different games call for different strategies, and sometimes being acquainted with that strategy can make the difference between winning or losing, or between a high score and a middling score. For instance, there are games on Sporcle that call for a bunch of names (last name sufficient), which don’t have to be entered in order. Take, for instance, a quiz about naming Supreme Court justices. Obviously, the first thing to do in one of these is to name the ones you actually know. Nobody’s ever going to guess “Sotomayor” or “Rehnquist” just blindly stabbing.
But once you’ve run out of knowledge, and there’s still time on the clock, start working through the list of common last names in your head. Fun fact — according to the 1990 census, the top 15 most common last names in America are these: Smith, Johnson, Williams, Jones, Brown, Davis, Miller, Wilson, Moore, Taylor, Anderson, Thomas, Jackson, White, Harris. Working through this list in the Supreme Court Justices quiz yields 9 hits out of 15 (which works out to 6 correct answers, since they’re grouped by first letter.) Learned League even has a term for success with this technique: “Lucky Johnson”, defined as “Giving a very general answer as a guess on a question, and getting it right. ‘Johnson’ is derived from the practice of giving the same common last name (e.g. Johnson) for every unknown person-related answer, and discovering an occasion where the name is correct.”
Another example of working the format sometimes comes up in a Geeks Who Drink game. Generally, the third round is a 50-50 format, meaning that there are only two right answers. This can be true or false, but it can also be plenty of other things — one I remember was all South Park questions in which the answer was either “Timmy” or “Jimmy.” When your team has a clue on the answers, of course you should put down the answers you think are correct. However, when you do NOT have a clue, as sometimes happens, it is to your advantage to write the same answer for every question. If you wildly guess at Timmy or Jimmy when you’ve never watched a South Park episode in your life, you could easily end up with zero questions correct. However, if you put down Timmy for every single answer, you’re inevitably going to get at least 3 or 4 points.
PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE
I said earlier that trivia is like music in that it engages the unconscious. Well, another way it’s like music is that practice is essential to becoming a virtuoso. There are plenty of ways to get that practice in. It’s probably clear at this point that Sporcle has become one of my favorites. Another is watching Jeopardy, or Millionaire, or any other trivia-oriented contest. And of course, actually playing trivia games is a great way to practice, but that opportunity may not always be available, especially if your leisure time is constricted like mine is.
I find that when I’ve been practicing my trivia mind exercises, a great cross-pollination starts to occur, like tapping into a zeitgeist. Suddenly Jeopardy starts asking the same questions I just answered on Sporcle yesterday, and the Learned League is rehashing topics that just came up at the Basement Bowl.
Of course, the greatest method of practice I’ve ever found is to write questions. When you’ve written a question about something, you’re much more likely to remember it than any other way of acquainting yourself with it, including answering questions about it. There’s an amazing confidence that comes along with getting asked a question that you yourself have written to ask someone else. Which I suppose brings me round to the beginning of this series. I want to be a good trivia player, and a good trivia writer, and I find that these practices nurture each other, twining into a braid that’s much stronger than either would be by itself.