M-m-m-my TCONA! [Days 2 and 3]

On day 2 of TCONA, the first trivia event was scheduled at 8:30am, but it was the Quiz Bowl Seeding Test, which I co-wrote. So I wouldn’t be taking it, which was all for the best, since I’d had a late night. I left my sister asleep in our room and toddled on down to the conference room around 9:45, as the test was breaking up.

The next event was “Learned League Live!”, hosted by Shayne Bushfield, or rather his alter ego, Commissioner Thorsten A. Integrity. If you’re not familiar with Learned League, it requires a bit of explanation. The game is played over the Internet, six questions per day in a variety of categories, and with varying levels of challenge. The twist is that each 6-question match places you head-to-head against another player. You must not only answer the questions, but also play defense against the other player by assigning a point value to each question — a zero, two ones, two twos, and a three. The points are how much the other player will score upon answering the question right. Consequently, you’re required to both assess the difficulty of each question and also guess your opponent’s chances at getting it right, depending on his or her skills in the category. And LL provides zillions of stats, so you can make this analysis just as painstaking as you like.

When I first heard about the game, it sounded a bit overwhelming, intimidating, and time-consuming. I stayed away for a while, and then even after I was ready to join, I had to wait to be invited by a trivia buddy. Now that I’m in it, I love it. The questions are excellent, the format is fun, and the whole thing is quite addictive. The live version of it was a lot of fun too. The group was seated at a bunch of tables, 8 people to a table. Each player was assigned a number and given a packet of questions. Then we faced off in a series of 7 four-minute matches — you’d turn the page to reveal the questions, scribble down your answers and assign points to them, then the Commissioner would read off the answers. You’d compare notes with your opponent to learn your scores, and figure out who won the match. Here’s a sample set of questions, along with the point values I gave them and whether I got them right or wrong:

  1. Name the three yellow properties in the standard American version of the board game Monopoly. (1 point, wrong)
  2. This 1942 Aaron Copland ballet tells the story of a young woman, accomplished in all the skills of a cowpoke, who hopes to attract the attentions of the head wrangler on a ranch; commensurate with the pre-feminist tradition of the day, he is unimpressed by her skill but succumbs to her charms when she trades her cowboy duds for a dress and shows a more “womanly” side at the ranch dance. (3 points, wrong)
  3. Among other things, this film is known for G, A, F, (octave lower) F, C. (0, right)
  4. The holiest city of Zoroastrianism, Rhaga, is today known as Rey, a suburb of what western Asian city? (2, wrong)
  5. What is the mode in this number series? 1,2,2,3,3,4,4,4,5,5,5,5,13,17,17 (2, right)
  6. This word can be used generally to apply to any appendix or supplement, but when used as a legal term refers specifically to an amendment to a will. (1, right)

It was a whole lot of fun. I ended up with a record of 3-2-2, which is pretty comparable to how I tend to perform in online LL (I ended my first season 13-11-1, and I’m 18-15-3 overall.) That meant that I didn’t advance to the championship round which was held later that day. My teammate (and tablemate, and the guy who actually invited me to LL) George Doro did, though, and ended up taking the silver medal overall! (Did I mention that TCONA gave out actual medals to event winning individuals and teams? It was pretty cool.)

After lunch was one of my favorite parts of the entire event: a panel featuring Ken Jennings, Bob Harris, and Ed Toutant, talking about Jennings’ match (with Brad Rutter, who bailed on TCONA in the 11th hour) against IBM’s Watson computer. This, as you may know, was an event that I found fascinating, so a live panel on it with Jennings himself was catnip for me. Even better, it turns out that Toutant, in addition to being rich and famous (well, game-show famous), spent his career as an IBM engineer, and served as a consultant to the team that built Watson. He observed the computer’s behavior in its middle stages, and wrote a report that provided his insights as both a software designer and a game-show expert. After that, he played against Watson in its final practice matches before it went in front of the cameras. Toutant’s report is available online at edtoutant.blogspot.com. I particularly enjoyed his entry on gamesmanship, which not only has very insightful tips about Jeopardy! strategy, but finally explains why Watson chose such bizarre dollar amounts for its Daily Double wagers!

The panel explained that there are four strategic elements in Jeopardy:

  1. Daily Double wagering
  2. Picking a square
  3. Buzzing or not
  4. Final Jeopardy wagering

Watson was programmed to take advantage of all these strategic elements to the best of its ability. It picked squares to maximize its chances of finding a Daily Double — these generally occur in the harder clues (the bottom 3 clues of each row), and I was fascinated to discover that according to the unbelievably comprehensive J! Archive, the first column on the board has by far the highest percentage of Daily Doubles found. Watson based its buzz on its confidence level — a delay was intentionally built in on answers where Watson was less confident. And the reason why it wagered such peculiar numbers for Daily Doubles was basically to increase its chances of screwing up an opponent’s mental math. As Toutant wrote, “One of the most challenging parts of Jeopardy! for many players is the need to do quick math in their head under pressure, especially when making a bet. It is always easier for humans to do math that involves only round numbers. Unlike humans, Watson can’t get flustered and forget to carry the one during addition. So Watson should exploit his inherent math superiority by never using a round number on a Daily Double wager… This may give viewers the impression that Watson’s thinking is very precise, but the real motivation is to make the math more difficult for his opponents when they have to make a wager.”

Another great aspect of this panel, and of TCONA in general, was the opportunity to spend some time with Jennings. I wasn’t watching Jeopardy during his run, so he isn’t an icon to me at quite the level he is to some people, but he’s still the closest thing the trivia world to has a rock star. How cool it is, then, that he is down to earth, funny, and personable. In a roomful of trivia nerds, social skills stand out, and Jennings excels in this arena. Interestingly, he didn’t dominate every competition. He held his own, but was beaten in some events. I ended up convinced that his knowledge is very strong, but what made him so hard to beat in Jeopardy was his extraordinary touch on the buzzer — he’s just about peerless in this physical aspect of trivia. Well, unless he’s competing against a computer. Jennings’ own account of TCONA is here.

After the panel were the quiz bowl matches. If you’re not familiar with the quiz bowl format, I explain it here. I think it is still my favorite trivia format. It combines individual challenge (in the toss-ups) with team synergy (in the bonuses), and it encourages that zen trivia flow state that I love. This time, unfortunately, the fates were not with my team. The six-person Anti-Social network added a couple of friends and split into two four-person teams. In addition to that, our team took on an extra person, a Las Vegas native who had shown up solo at TCONA and was seeking a team to join with. He was knowledgeable, but a bit eager, and not terribly accustomed to the format, so there was a bit of a breaking-in period there. Unfortunately, once that period was over, we only had a couple of games left. We played five games in a round-robin format, and ended up doing well in the later ones, but it wasn’t enough to advance us to the finals. On the plus side, I got to spend some time with Dave Gatch, who wasn’t participating in TCONA as a player, but who came out to Vegas to serve as a reader for the quiz bowl portion. (Dave and his mom come to Vegas a lot, so apparently it wasn’t a big sacrifice.)

After flaming out in the quiz bowl, that was pretty much it for my trivia day — the only other events that day were playoffs for which I hadn’t qualified. So that meant that my sister and I got to hit the town! We took the monorail to the Bellagio, saw the fountains, gambled a bit. She took me to a fancy dinner at a wonderful restaurant called Olives, where we had so much delicious food. Once again, we wandered around gambling and hanging out. I taught her a bit more about video poker and she taught me a bit more about slots. At the end, we headed back to Bill’s room for a little more pseudo-Jeopardy, then gambled into the night. It was a great, great time, and a great close to a second day of Vegas and trivia.

Day 3 was playoffs and championships, and I wasn’t much involved. I stuck around to watch the quiz bowl finals, but for some inexplicable reason they chose to repeat a set of qusetions for the semi-finals — not a lot of fun to sit and watch the same questions asked twice. So I bowed out at some point and went to a final buffet lunch with my sister before she caught her plane for home. I still had one more night at the hotel — I had tickets to see The Beatles’ LOVE (Cirque Du Soleil show) at the Mirage that night. I decided after hearing the album that I had to make a pilgrimage to see the show, so there was no question that if I was in Las Vegas, I’d be going.

And I’m so, so glad I did, but that experience deserves a post all its own. For now, let’s revisit those Learned League questions:

  1. Name the three yellow properties in the standard American version of the board game Monopoly. Atlantic Avenue, Ventnor Avenue, Marvin Gardens
  2. This 1942 Aaron Copland ballet tells the story of a young woman, accomplished in all the skills of a cowpoke, who hopes to attract the attentions of the head wrangler on a ranch; commensurate with the pre-feminist tradition of the day, he is unimpressed by her skill but succumbs to her charms when she trades her cowboy duds for a dress and shows a more “womanly” side at the ranch dance. Rodeo (You’ve probably heard its most famous song, Hoe-Down).
  3. Among other things, this film is known for G, A, F, (octave lower) F, C. Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (This.)
  4. The holiest city of Zoroastrianism, Rhaga, is today known as Rey, a suburb of what western Asian city? Tehran
  5. What is the mode in this number series? 1,2,2,3,3,4,4,4,5,5,5,5,13,17,17 5 (Mode means the number occurring most often.)
  6. This word can be used generally to apply to any appendix or supplement, but when used as a legal term refers specifically to an amendment to a will. codicil

I ended up tying my opponent in this match, with a score of 5 points each.

M-m-m-my TCONA! [Day 1]

If you tend to read what I write here, you’ll know that this has been quite a trivia year for me. The most recent highlight is that I played in another pub quiz tournament with the Anti-Social Network (renamed The A-OK’s for this event), i.e. the same team that won The Geek Bowl. And we won again! This time the purse was $1000. It is astonishing, weird, and wonderful to be part of such a high-performing group.

The highlight before that, though, was the Trivia Championships Of North America, or TCONA. This event is poorly named, according to me — it sounds like it’s going to be some kind of culmination of a long season of North American trivia contests, when in fact it’s more of a triviapalooza, a big convention of trivia hobbyists who get together to compete in and/or watch a variety of events. The “championships” of anything else is not something that just anybody can buy a ticket to, show up, and participate in the competition, but TCONA was open to anybody who cared to pay the ($100) admission fee and get themselves to Las Vegas, where the event was held.

Economic times are a little tight in my family right now, so I would not have been one of those people, but for two things. First, organizer Paul Bailey reached out to us Anti-Socialites and offered to waive the admission fee if we’d provide some material for the weekend: a 100-question seeding test for the quiz bowl tournament event. Secondly, also because of the Geek Bowl, I had some winnings set aside, to be used for a special occasion. I decided that TCONA was just such an occasion, and booked my ticket. However, I still tried to cut corners, which is how I found myself getting up at 3:30am on July 8th, preparing for a 6am flight to Las Vegas.

I got myself on the plane without incident (unlike my last airplane adventure), and by 9am I was in Vegas. (This delay brought to me by a layover in Phoenix, another cost-cutting measure.) I’d never actually been to Vegas before. It is a strange, funny place. One of the first things I noticed is that it is totally the land of women-as-things. I mean, every place in America is at least a little bit like that, but Vegas is really like that, in little things like magazines and bus advertisements, and in big things like enormous billboards. Or this — pretty much the first sight that greeted me when I walked into my hotel, the MGM Grand, was an enormous bank of screens, all projecting one massive image: a long line of women, framed against a black background. Then, the women turned around, and revealed the backs of their outfits, completely black from head to toe, blending into the background, all except for their asses, which were left perfectly bare. Picture it — as I walked in the door, my greeting committee consisted of an extensive queue of disembodied asses, hanging in the air and twitching tartly back and forth, with military precision.

Anyway. The hotel staff was very nice about letting me check into a room early so I could get a nap before the trivia festivities began that afternoon, and they also gave me an extra key for my awesome sister Jenny, who was flying out from L.A. later that night to join me for Vegas partying. I headed up to the room for a much-needed nap, and afterwards explored the hotel, so that I could figure out the lay of the land. Trrish gave me some excellent advice about Vegas, which is that everything is much further away than it looks like it’s going to be. That is so, so true of the MGM Grand. I swear I did about 45 minutes of walking each day, just within the hotel! It’s like a huge hotel combined with a huge casino, a huge mall, a huge conference complex, and another huge hotel. Finally, I scoped out where the events would be held, though it was all barricaded because nobody was ready yet. After I snagged some lunch, I returned and got my nametag, program, and cute little swag bag.

Prior to the TCONA kickoff, my Colorado trivia colleague Bill Schantz hosted some mock-Jeopardy games in his room. Bill wrote a cracking J-simulator, and I went on a long Jeopardy-question-writing jag last year, so I was one of people who provided material for this unofficial event. Thus, around 3:30 on that day (more like 3:45 once I’d figured out I was at the wrong room and took the 10-minute hike to the right one) I got to do a very enjoyable trivia warmup, both as a reader and as a player. My “The Onion Rates The 2010 NFL” category was a hit. (Sample question: “After giving up 50 sacks in 2009,” this team‘s “offensive line appears to have forgiven Aaron Rodgers for whatever he did.”)

I did do a little gambling. I’m not a fan of slots — they feel more like just rolling a die than actually playing a game. And I don’t have nearly the skill, interest, or bankroll required to play table games. But I do enjoy video poker, and I’ve had a little practice at it too — Colorado has a few mountain towns in which gambling is legal, and I’ve been there enough times to learn the basic video poker ropes. My mom had given me some casino mad money — thanks Mom! — and I sat down at a poker machine and spent a very enjoyable 90 minutes turning $5 into $50! That was as lucky as I was ever going to get that weekend — turns out I’m much better at turning $10 or $20 into $0, though I have a reasonably good time on the way there.

Finally I sauntered down to the main event room — basically a big conference room with tables and chairs set out — around 5:30. Lots of trivia compadres were there, and it was fun to catch up with them. At 6pm, the first event began: a solo “kickoff quiz.” This was a pen-and-paper test, one of my least favorite trivia formats, at least when I’m not by myself. Also, I found it ridiculously hard. The gimmick was that all the answers consisted of a two-letter abbreviation for a US state, US territory, or Canadian province. Given the “North American” theme of TCONA, this made some sense, though obviously Mexico and Central America were conspicuous by their absence. Mr. Bailey explained that this was because nobody from those countries was attending this time, though he’d love to recruit anybody who’s interested. You can see the quiz here. (It is a bit annoying to read because it is “intentionally presented as an image, and with disruptive background to deter OCR,” per Mr. Bailey. I’m not sure why the copyright anxiety, but whatever.) Answer key is here.

After the kickoff quiz was an event called “Smarty Pants,” hosted by Paul Paquet. The deal with this game is that it sets up two opposing teams of four players each. Three members of each team are famous game show winners or trivia “celebrities” in some way. Players in this edition included Ken Jennings, Ed Toutant, Kevin Olmstead, and Bob Harris. All the “civilians” in the room got handed a card with a number on it, and then Paul picked random numbers for people to come and play on the all-star teams. I wasn’t one of those picked, but I had fun watching, and found the questions pretty interesting and clever.

The next event was a “pub quiz mash-up.” Representatives from four different pub quiz companies — Geeks Who Drink, King Trivia, TriviaNYC, and the aforementioned Paquet — brought a couple rounds of trivia each, and took turns quizzing a roomful of teams, 11 in all, with one extra made up of the quizmasters. Moreover, the teams themselves were randomly selected, with an eye toward geographical distribution. Each was captained by some kind of trivia celeb, so as to ensure that no one team marshaled an unreasonable amount of firepower, and they were constructed to ensure that each would have someone from outside the USA, someone from the west coast, someone from Colorado, etc.

The selection process for these teams was painful — rather than having the teams assigned beforehand, they were constructed on the fly, which meant about 45 minutes of tedious “Okay, please come to the front if you came here from California. Hm, only 8. Okay, California, Oregon, or Washington, please come to the front. Can everybody hear me?”, etc. However, once the teams were settled and the questions began, this was one of the most fun events of the weekend. I was on a team captained by Jerome Vered, called “Veredable Smorgasbord.”

Everybody on the team was extremely nice, and nobody was overly uptight about scores and answers, which was great, since nothing kills a good time at trivia like the guy who takes the whole thing too seriously and gets emotional about things going wrong. The questions were a lot of fun too. One group just did category questions, like “There are 11 NFL teams whose helmet graphics include some kind of writing or lettering. Name 10 of them.”, and “There are 10 people who are in the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame both as a solo artist and as a member of a group. Name them.”

My favorite round was presented by Geeks Who Drink, an audio “before and after” round in which two different songs were played blending into each other, and the answer was a blend of the two titles, hinging on the common word. Examples: Tori Amos & The Beatles “Precious Things We Said Today”; Guns ‘n’ Roses & John Mellencamp “November Rain On The Scarecrow”; and Wu-Tang Clan and M.I.A. “C.R.E.A.M.I.A.” Probably this was my favorite round because Adam Villani and I teamed up to kick ass on it, and brought our team back from the doldrums to a solid middle-of-the-pack showing.

Somewhere around the middle of the pub quiz, Jenny (my sister) showed up, and watched from a back table. After it was over, she and I headed out to explore the strangeness of Vegas. We ate a little, gambled a little, and walked a lot. She was looking specifically for a slot game she loves called Invaders From The Planet Moolah, which has a fun cascading reel effect, a bit like Bejeweled. We finally found it at Excalibur, but occupied, so we stalked the person playing until she left. By which I mean, we casually hung around playing neighboring machines, until finally she split, and we pounced on the moolah!

In true Vegas fashion, we suddenly realized it was like 3:00 in the morning, and headed back to go to sleep. Thus ended Day 1 of the Vegas trivia adventure. More to come, but for now, the answers to some lingering questions.

NFL Teams with lettering/writing on their helmets

  1. Baltimore Ravens (a raven’s head with a “B” inscribed)
  2. Chicago Bears (The letter “C”)
  3. Green Bay Packers (A big “G”)
  4. Kansas City Chiefs (A “KC” inside an arrowhead)
  5. Miami Dolphins (The jumping dolphin is wearing a little helmet with the letter “M” on it)
  6. New York Giants (A stylized “NY”)
  7. New York Jets (The word “Jets” with an outline of “NY” in the background)
  8. Oakland Raiders (The word “Raiders” at the top of the shield icon)
  9. Pittsburgh Steelers (The word “Steelers” by the logo)
  10. San Francisco 49ers (The letters “SF”)
  11. Tennessee Titans (A comet bearing a “T”)

People in the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame both as a solo artist and as a member of a group

  1. Jeff Beck [The Yardbirds]
  2. Eric Clapton [The Yardbirds and Cream]
  3. George Harrison [The Beatles]
  4. Michael Jackson [The Jackson 5]
  5. John Lennon [The Beatles]
  6. Curtis Mayfield [The Impressions]
  7. Paul McCartney [The Beatles]
  8. Clyde McPhatter [The Drifters]
  9. Paul Simon [Simon & Garfunkel]
  10. Neil Young [Buffalo Springfield]

Good Answers addendum

I had a very fun and slightly uncanny trivia experience last week, which reminded me of one more principle I forgot to include in the trivia players advice post:


Now, naturally this advice does not apply to trivia games whose format penalizes wrong answers. In Jeopardy!, for instance, I would never advise someone to guess every time, since getting a question wrong costs you the dollar amount of the question. However, there are plenty of formats in which wrong answers incur no penalty, and in those games, I make it my policy to guess even when I have absolutely no idea of the answer. Learned League is such a format, and last week it posed this question to me:

What was the name of cartoon mouse Speedy Gonzales’ country cousin, described as “the slowest mouse in all Mexico”?

I have a vague memory of seeing a cartoon that featured this slow mouse, and I mean very vague. I’m sure I haven’t seen it for at least 30 years. If it were a Jeopardy! question, I would surely not buzz in. But in Learned League, getting a question wrong doesn’t hurt you in any way, so I tried to piece together an answer. I figured that this mouse would probably have a name that is parallel to Speedy Gonzales, but opposite. So instead of Speedy, he’d be something like “Pokey.” And although he’s Speedy’s cousin, I guessed that he wouldn’t be named Gonzales, but rather some other common Hispanic name with a similar rhythm, something like “Rodriguez.” So the answer I submitted was: Pokey Rodriguez.

The actual answer: SLOWPOKE RODRIGUEZ

This totally blew me away. I could not believe that my wild, out-of-the-blue answer came so close to the actual, correct answer. It felt like a combination of tapping the unconscious (like I talked about in the previous post), solid logic, and pure blind luck. I was thrilled. Now, this story has a less than satisfying ending — the commissioner decided that “Pokey” was different enough from “Slowpoke” to constitute a wrong answer. However, it totally confirmed my policy of always venturing a guess, because you just never know when you’ll strike gold.

This is a story I’ve told before, but I have a strong early memory of competing in the trivia bowl and venturing a guess on this toss-up:

HOST: “Who has the record for most guest appearances on The Love Boat?”
ME: [After a long pause in which it becomes clear that nobody is going to attempt this.] BUZZ. “Uh… Charo?”
HOST: “Yes, it is Charo!”

That is the moment that cemented my love for the wild guess.

Good Answers

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.


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.


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.


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.

Good Questions, part 4

Sad to say, I just found out I’ll miss the next Basement Bowl, due to vacation. Drat! On the plus side, I’m scheming to attend the Trivia Championships of North America, a weekend-long trivia explosion scheduled for Las Vegas in July. In any case, it’s time for one more installment of this series. Previous posts have focused more on the philosophical aspects of question construction, but in this one, I’ll get a little more technical — more about the craft than the art, as it were. I think I’m about out of gas after this, so let’s call it the season finale and get rolling.


Good Questions, part 3

I had another great trivia day last Saturday, this time a “Clubhouse Bowl” — just like a Basement Bowl, except held in a guy’s apartment clubhouse rather than a basement. There were trivia bowl-style games along with a bunch of Jeopardy! games run on a magic Jeopardy! simulator created by one of the gang. There was even “Trivia Battleship” — a wild cross of quiz-bowl questions with the classic strategy game. Correctly answered toss-ups would earn one shot against the other team, while bonuses could earn up to four more shots. Very fun.

Predictably, the whole thing primed me to whip up another episode in this series. Since I am apparently an endless font of opinions about good practices for trivia question-writing, let’s get started:


If you’re a Ghostbuster, crossing the streams is a bad thing. If you’re a trivia question writer, crossing the streams, by which I mean mixing the broad categories to find interesting hybrids, can be a very good thing indeed. There are plenty of sports questions, and plenty of movie questions, but how about sports movie questions? How about athletes who played bit parts in movies? How about movie-related nicknames given by Chris Berman to various athletes? The intersections between trivia categories can be fertile ground for some appealing questions, and can allow people who are normally weak in a category to kick ass in unexpected ways.

A great example of this came up at the recent Clubhouse Bowl. Dave Gatch handed out a sheet of movie stills, and asked us to tell him what song was playing during that point in the movie. Sound tough? Take a look at these examples (not the ones he used) and see if you can’t do exactly that:





Combining two categories (in this case movies and music) opens up new avenues of fun, activates players’ brains in new ways, and gives your game a feeling of greater unity.


I am no good at sports questions. Whenever I hear a sports toss-up begin, my hand relaxes on the buzzer, and I know there is very little chance that I will have anything to contribute. I start looking over at our team’s sports guy (yeah, it’s nearly always a guy) with hope and gratitude. I know the basics, but I just do not follow sports enough to know much beyond that.

Nevertheless, I include sports questions in all my regular (i.e. non-specialized) trivia games. Why? Writing sports questions helps improve me, both as a writer and as a player. Writing questions that are outside my comfort zone forces me to research things I don’t already know, some of which I may even remember later on down the line. This research also turns up unexpected gems of information which are quirky enough both to make a great question and to make the piece of information it concerns memorable enough to stick with me. Like, for example, did you know that Guy LaFleur, all-time leading scorer for the Montreal Canadiens (hockey team), recorded a disco album?

Incidentally, I do the same thing on Sporcle, a great site for trivia quizzes. I like to take Sporcle quizzes in areas where I’m strong, like music, movies, and literature. But I also like to take them in my weaker areas, like geography, history, and sports. Generally, I like to take a new random quiz, and then retake an old quiz. I pick which one to retake by sorting the list of quizzes I’ve taken, and identifying the one with the lowest percentage of right answers. Consequently, I’ve taken the NHL all-time team leaders quiz about 10 times so far, and my best score is 26 out of 120. That’s a huge improvement on my first score, though, which was 8 out of 120. And now I can tell you about a bunch of hockey players I’d never heard of before I started in on that quiz. (Which is how I learned the weird fact above.)

Another way to stretch is to try broadening your knowledge of areas in which you’re already strong. For instance, I love movies, and I know some Oscar trivia, but there is so much more for me to learn, and the Academy Awards are a very common trivia topic. So I write Oscar questions in areas I don’t know well, both to challenge players and to make me a better player and writer. (Just as an aside, if you want to improve as a trivia player, be on the lookout for creative ways to strengthen your knowledge. For instance, Windows 7 has a feature which lets you rotate through a set of images for desktop wallpaper, changing automatically at an interval you select. So I went out and snagged an image of every Best Picture winner, dropped them all into a folder, and have the wallpaper machine circulating among them. Now when I use my computer, I also get a little help remembering which movies have won the Best Picture Oscar.)


Something that makes trivia games great fun is their ability to point you to wonderful corners of culture that you never knew existed. I’ve been introduced to lots of great movies, music, TV, and other stuff via trivia, and I try to do the same for others. It’s great fun to write questions on topics you feel passionate about. At the same time, at least for me, that’s too narrow a field. I’m a white guy who grew up in the 80’s, and I have an endless well of questions I could write about cultural artifacts I got attached to in my time. But while I want my games to be fun for me, I also want them to be fun for people other than me. Consequently, I try to include questions about areas of culture that don’t mean as much to me, sometimes even things I actively dislike. As I sometimes point out, inclusion does not imply endorsement. I suppose this might seem like a restatement of the “stretch” point, but there’s a slightly different intention behind it. I try to spread the love among all different kinds of knowledge not just to make myself a better player, but to remember to include a diverse variety of topics so that my games are fun for a wide variety of people.

Okay, that’s all for now. How about those movie songs?

1. “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen plays during that scene from Wayne’s World.

2. The Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody” is the music behind that scene from Ghost.

3. Any boy who grew up in the 80s (see, I told you that was my wheelhouse) is likely to remember The Cars’ “Moving In Stereo” as the soundtrack to Judge Reinhold’s fantasy sequence about Phoebe Cates in Fast Times At Ridgemont High.

4. Before Tom Cruise was famous for being crazy, he was famous for dancing around to Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock & Roll” in Risky Business.

Good Questions, part 2

As promised/threatened, here’s another installment of “Paul’s Random Thoughts About Trivia Questions.” Carrying on with question-writing principles:


In my last post, I spent some time harping on the fact that trivia games are supposed to be fun. Your job as trivia question writer is to provide an enjoyable experience to your players, and humor is a crucial tool for that job. On its most basic level, it can liven up a somewhat bland question, like this bonus from the 2005 TRASH regionals:

Given clues, name the subjects of the following celebrity biographies, all of whom share a favorite hobby, for ten points each.
1. A Paper Life details her adventures with her allegedly abusive actor father, with ex-husband John McEnroe and with heroin.
2. Don’t Try This At Home, his chronicle of the year he decided to turn his house into a crack den, details his struggles with bandmates, his record label and heroin.
3. Scar Tissue recounts his life from toddlerhood and his drug dealer dad’s felonius additions to his mashed bananas, through forming a band with best friend Hillel Slovak, to his long standing affairs with Ione Skye, Sinead O’Connor and sweet, sweet heroin.

This question boils down to, “Name the celebrities based on the titles of their autobiographies and maybe some clues about their connections to other famous people,” which is just fine, but when you tie them together by their heroin addictions, dryly understate that as “all of whom share a favorite hobby”, and hurl a fastball zinger punchline at the end like “long-standing affairs with Ione Skye, Sinead O’Connor, and sweet, sweet heroin,” a run-of-the-mill question turns into one of the best ones in the game. (Though in my opinion the second part needs another clue or two.)

The other thing that the humor in that question does is to tone down a fairly dour topic. There’s a bit in the crosswords documentary Wordplay in which puzzle creator Merl Reagle explains that there are some words that you don’t see in crossword puzzles, even though they might be very useful cruciform words, just because their content is too distasteful. He calls this “the Sunday morning breakfast test”: “They’ve waited all week for this. They’re sitting there relaxing…and here comes RECTAL? I don’t think so.” Trivia games allow a wider latitude, especially when written for an informal event like a Basement Bowl, but still, you don’t want to offend, disgust, or annoy your audience. So when you find that question that you just have to write but whose subject matter is a little questionable, a little humor smooths the way.

Something about being in a Billy Wilder movie frequently makes people want to kill themselves. Fortunately, they rarely succeed. I’ll give you an actor and a suicide method, you tell me the Billy Wilder-directed movie, for five points each, 40 points for all 7:
1. Audrey Hepburn, carbon monoxide poisoning
2. Shirley MacLaine, an overdose of sleeping pills
3. Gloria Swanson, slashed wrists
4. Ray Milland, handgun
5. Marthe Keller, jumping in front of a train
6. Carol Burnette, jumping off a building
7. Jack Lemmon, hanging

That’s a question I wrote for the Basement Bowl a couple of years ago. I’d just come off a Wilder-watching jag and was amazed at the number of suicide attempts in his movies. It was great trivia fodder, except that quizzing about suicide after suicide is kind of heavy. Thus, I lead with a joke to lighten it up.

Perhaps the best reason to joke liberally is to relieve the tension that can sometimes build in trivia competitions. Relaxed players not only have more fun, I think they play better too.


Trivia games can and should be more than memory and speed tests. Yes, of course, those two skills (in varying proportions, depending on the format) constitute the backbone of a trivia game, but crucial to the art is creating opportunities to connect recall with thought. One of my favorite recent examples of this was invented (as far as I know) by Bill Schantz:

I’ll give you the year and the first letter of each word in its title, you name the 80’s pop song, for 10 points each:
1. (1983) E.B.Y.T.
2. (1983) O.T.L.T.A.
3. (1984) W.M.U.B.Y.G.G.
4. (1984) O.N.I.B.

You may have awesome recall of 80’s songs, but that by itself won’t get you very far with this question. Instead, you have to use part of your brain to generate plausible strings of words based on a breadcrumb trail of letters, while another part of your brain tries to connect those words to song titles that you know from that era. Even better is when you hear the letters, feel a moment of instantaneous synthesis, and just know what the answer is. Hitting this answer is even more satisfying than the average trivia pull, because of the additional solving effort necessary. Of course, in any kind of timed competition, it’s imperative to balance the time constraints (and attendant pressure) against puzzle elements in your questions. If they require too much thought, they’ll bog the game down.

Puzzle questions like this make regular appearances on Jeopardy!, and that show’s writers are particularly good at coming up with clever new ways to keep contestants on their toes. Generally the twist is in the nature of the category. Some recent examples, courtesy of the J! Archive:

Clue: Riesling, Syrah
[A fairly gentle example, in which the puzzle is to figure out how the category is working. The first clue in any Jeopardy! game is usually easier than its successors, but in a category like this, there’s generally a pointedly clear indicator in that first clue.]

Clue: In Romania they say “da”, in Japan, “hai”, & in Panama, this
[Here’s the flip side — a clue that can be answered on its own, but the category narrows down the set of possible answers. Jeopardy! does this all the time with its “quotation mark” categories, in which some piece of the category is in quotes, meaning that correct answers must start with or contain the quoted string of letters. A clueful category like this, though, is much more fun to discover.]

Category: GOD SPELL
Clue: Vulcan is the Roman equivalent of this Greek fire god (10 letters)
[There’s no puzzle element to this one — Alex makes clear at the beginning that contestants will have to spell their answers. It’s notable, though, because it exercises a different sort of recall than the average trivia question.]

Clue: Of presidential surnames
[This is an example of a question in which contestants must recall a set of data and then do some kind of processing on it. And because of the high-pressure nature of Jeopardy!, they must do it very quickly, leading to the sort of intuitive pulls that supply the pleasure of answering this style of question.]

Category: OF ORDER
Clue: U.S. cities, from west to east: Newport News, Milwaukee, New Orleans
[In this one, they provide the set of data, but the answer is still the result of some processing on the part of the contestant.]

This could go on and on, and does, but I trust the point is made. Finding new angles from which to challenge the player is a great way to increase the fun of the game.


Another surefire way to make your game more fun is to write questions that step outside the typical text format and engage some of your players’ senses. This is one of my favorite things to do, and consequently my Basement Bowl games have been littered with visual clues:

Logo design is an art, and sometimes it takes a few tries to get it right. Given the defunct logo, tell me the NFL team it represents for five points each.
4 different old-time logos for NFL teams

I find images via Google Image Search, copy and paste them into a Word document, resize as necessary, then print out a couple of copies on the color printer. I hand these out to players before I read the clue. A couple of things I’ve learned: make two copies (since in the Basement Bowl missed bonus answers can transfer over to the other team), and make the pictures large enough that they can be seen in a dimly lit basement.

Then there’s the audio. I’m a huge fan of the audio. For instance, I’ve written a couple of all-audio games of one-hit wonders, another one of mellow gold tunes, and another couple of all female artists. Thanks to the wonders of digital audio and the fabulous Audacity, it’s extremely easy to create mp3 song clips and burn them onto a CD. I bring my nifty mini-boombox to the basement, and play the game as all tossups, no teams. Each person has a buzzer, and they score points by buzzing in first to correctly identify a song, generally both the title and artist.

Sometimes I’ll even go a little more complicated. For instance, with my female artists game, I recognized that for a number of the clips, someone might be able to identify the artist even if they couldn’t name the song. So the rules were that if you buzzed in before the clip ended, you had to identify both the title and artist. Correct answers scored two points, with a bonus point for naming the singer in the case of groups (e.g. if I played The Pretenders you could get a bonus point for naming Chrissie Hynde.) If you buzzed in after the song was over, you could name the artist for one point.

One thing I learned for my second round of this type of game was to end the clip with a distinctive sound, like a ding. The first time, nobody was sure when the clip would be over, so there was some hesitation from people who didn’t want to get penalized for buzzing too early.

I’ve done audio toss-ups in regular games too, and not just music. There’s plenty of great fodder in movie clips, comedians, interviews, and miscellaneous distinctive sounds, such as the sound of Pac-Man dying. And there is further sensory fun to be had. I once wrote a bonus in which I handed out soda-pop flavored Jelly Bellies, and had players identify the soda from each one. I’ve had players get up and dance the Batusi. Another quizmaster had people do 4 different dances from A Charlie Brown Christmas, which I thought was brilliant.

The point is that you can add a lot of variety and excitement to your game by creatively extending your questions into nonverbal (or more-than-verbal) realms. Not only that, these kinds of questions can bring out hidden strengths in your players, allowing them to have more fun by kicking ass in new ways.

That’s enough for tonight. More installments to come. But never fear, I would never sign off without providing the long-awaited answers:

Sweet, sweet heroin:
1. A Paper Life: Tatum O’Neal
2. Don’t Try This At Home: Dave Navarro
3. Scar Tissue: Anthony Kiedis

Wilder suicides:
1. Audrey Hepburn, carbon monoxide poisoning: Sabrina
2. Shirley MacLaine, an overdose of sleeping pills: The Apartment
3. Gloria Swanson, slashed wrists: Sunset Boulevard
4. Ray Milland, handgun: The Lost Weekend
5. Marthe Keller, jumping in front of a train: Fedora
6. Carol Burnette, jumping off a building: The Front Page
7. Jack Lemmon, hanging: Buddy Buddy

80’s initial songs:
1. (1983) E.B.Y.T.: Every Breath You Take by The Police
2. (1983) O.T.L.T.A.: One Thing Leads To Another by The Fixx
3. (1984) W.M.U.B.Y.G.G. Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go by Wham!
4. (1984) O.N.I.B. One Night In Bangkok by Murray Head

Clue: Riesling, Syrah
Question: What are grapes?

Clue: In Romania they say “da”, in Japan, “hai”, & in Panama, this
Question: What is “si”? (Homophone with “C”)

Category: GOD SPELL
Clue: Vulcan is the Roman equivalent of this Greek fire god (10 letters)
Question: What is H-E-P-H-A-E-S-T-U-S?

Clue: Of presidential surnames
Question: What is Wilson

Category: OF ORDER
Clue: U.S. cities, from west to east: Newport News, Milwaukee, New Orleans
Question: What is New Orleans, Milwaukee, Newport News?

Olde-tyme NFL logos:
1. New York Giants
2. Buffalo Bills
3. Denver Broncos
4. Washington Redskins

Oh, and finally: Each heading in this edition is a cultural reference.
“Be more funny!” is a classic Simpsons gag.
“Cudgel thy brains” is from Hamlet by Wiliam Shakespeare
“Senses Working Overtime” is a song by XTC.