Anything but trivial

Katie Mather asks top quizmasters for their tips on the perfect trivia night


The weekly pub quiz is a national institution. Whether you’re playing for pints or the entry fee pot, there’s a comradely rivalry that exists in the hushed competition of a friendly quiz that doesn’t seem to exist elsewhere. This is the time for our retention of GCSE history and compulsive viewing of Attenborough documentaries to shine. Keep your athletic glories on football fields and skate parks. Here, around fold-away tables in sleepy function rooms or in the main bar of the local, biro in one hand, answer sheet in the other, is where we the nerds are kings.

Not able to visit our favourite pubs to get the quiz team gang together, groups of quizzers have been amending their approach, using video conference apps to test each other’s knowledge. I like to think that the makers of Zoom are continually baffled by how necessary they’ve become in our newly dystopian world, how something so buggy and corporate could have become so suddenly integral to our social lives. It gives me a lot to consider when I’m lying awake at odd hours of the night. 

That’s the thing about our situation: it’s boring. So online quizzes have become the ideal way to break up the monotony of an arbitrary working-from-home week, giving us things to look forward to and a chance to meet up, however distantly, with people we’d normally see all the time but perhaps don’t feel close enough to call or message directly. We’re making a lot of quizzes for ourselves too, to break up the awkwardness of videocalls and give us something to talk about when there is really, genuinely nothing else to discuss. But if we’re honest, they aren’t always as fun as we hope they’ll be, and when you’ve been pinning your empty week on it, that can be distressing. So how does a quizmaster make things more interesting? What can you do to make your quizzes fun and engaging and provide the escapism you so desperately need? I thought I’d better turn to the experts for some guidance.

Jay Flynn runs quizzes in pubs in his hometown of Darwen, East Lancashire, or at least he did when he could. When pubs closed around the country for lockdown, the space in his schedule normally reserved for quizzing widened, and he felt like doing something about it.

“Ours was very much a local quiz for local people,” Jay explains via Zoom: what else? “It happened every Thursday and when the pubs shut I thought, we need to keep our quiz going somehow. It’s my night out every week!”

So, encouraged by his mates and the local community, Jay set up a local quiz online, patching Facebook, YouTube and Twitter together to form an interactive virtual quiz that everyone could enter.

“I made it so that anyone could take part; I thought it would be fun to get more people from further afield involved,” he says. “I had no idea that it would become so popular.”

Jay’s Virtual Pub Quiz quickly expanded out of Darwen and into the wider world. It became a trending topic. It was on the news. Eight weeks later (at the time of writing this article), 150-180,000 people are taking part in it every single week. The quiz is free to enter, but participants can choose to donate to the quiz’s chosen charity if they like, which they do. So far Jay’s Virtual Pub Quiz has raised £172,000 for NHS charities, £200,000 for Alzheimer’s Research UK and is now raising money for homeless charity The Connection at St. Martins.

“People just liked the idea of joining in a global quiz. People are joining in as teams from around their own cul-de-sacs… We’ve got people joining in from New Zealand who are getting up in the early morning so they can play against their family back home in the UK.”

Create your own megaquiz

It’s a daunting task to create a quiz that works. While there are plenty of websites online that offer lists of pub quiz questions for the uninspired and the stuck, they’re usually filled with the same sort of trivia. Case in point: if I get asked what the largest internal organ in the body is one more time, I’m going to remove mine. 

Professional quizmaster Tommy McArdle aka. Tommy McTrivia, who usually runs the Effra Social quiz in Brixton, has moved his brain-twisting quiz online. Tommy’s quizzes offer their prize pots to charities like Shelter, Great Ormond Street, Code Your Future, Refuge and CALM, and he’s recently quizzed Scott Mills and Chris Stark on BBC Radio 5 Live. As you can imagine, he has a few essential tips to share.

“My online quiz is still pretty much the same format, and most of my regular pub teams are still taking part online,” he says, explaining why he thinks virtual quizzes don’t really need to be treated differently to real life ones. “I’m known for making fairly difficult quizzes; think somewhere between 15-1 and University Challenge. That’s what people enjoy about them.”

Jay agrees. “The hardest thing is putting the quizzes together and getting the difficulty right. My first virtual quiz started off way too easy, and over time it’s gradually gone up in difficulty, but it’s not too hard. You need to remember to make it fair for everyone.”

“Specialist subject rounds work really well as separate niche quizzes – I’ve done a Harry Potter one and a Game Of Thrones one, for example – but putting questions about niche subjects into a general knowledge quiz can throw people off. It’s not about knowledge then, because you’ve either seen the show, or you haven’t.”

“It’s the same with sports rounds. Not everybody has a lot of knowledge about football, for example, so think about who’s joining in your quiz before you create your rounds and questions.”

Tommy thinks the difficulty and creativity of the questions is key to creating a great quiz.

“Easy quizzes are boring,” he says. “I try to stop the same people from winning all the time, bring the smart alecs down a peg or two. I try to really encompass a broad spectrum of trivia and my own interests. If I see, hear or read anything interesting, I think “that’s going in the quiz”. Be creative and use your imagination.”

“Also, personalise it. Think about your mates and the people who’ll be taking part and what they’re interested in. Where are they from? What will they be happy to answer? Every question I set, I imagine teams discussing it. You want to create that level of engagement.”

Dealing with disputes

When a quiz is going well it’s like a fast-moving river, flowing from one question to the next, splashing over banter, sparkling. But what do the experts suggest when things get a little dammed with queries and disagreements?

“Don’t be afraid to make mistakes,” says Jay. “It’s not possible that you know everything. I always think it’s best to acknowledge and side-step disputed answers. If a team really wants a point enough to argue over it, just let them have the point for the sake of getting things moving again. It’s not worth the argument.”

Tommy has a different approach. “Make sure to start with that you phrase your questions clearly. We’ve got no time for pedants! Treat your disputing quizzers like you’re a stand-up comedian and they’re your hecklers. Have a laugh with it but make sure before you start that you’ve double-checked your answers.” Good point. If you’re going to be fielding disputes, you need to have solid facts to lean on.

“I don’t bother saying my answers are final anymore. Other answers sometimes come up, and often when a person believes they are right and you are wrong, it’s because they won a point for it in another quiz. The best thing to do is ask for a source (if it’s Wikipedia they can fuck off) and then decide whether you want to give them the point. At the end of it, it’s up to you. It’s your quiz.”

Jay’s final advice is simple, and so sincere it makes me smile.

“Be yourself! Don’t try to be a quiz show host,” he says, impersonating a cheesy quiz host for a moment. “If you’re a grumpy person, be grumpy. That’s what your friends who have joined your quiz want. They want to see you!”

Top tips for tremendous trivia tournaments

1. Get the level right. “Low scores equals low interaction,” says Jay.

2. Use your imagination. “Use variety and avoid generic pub quiz sites,” Tommy advises.

3. Write questions that interest you. “If you find it interesting, other people will too,” says Tommy.

4. Mix up your rounds — try using music, sounds, pictures, quotes and anagrams.

5. Keep niches broad. “Music, sports and film rounds can be unfair. Think about making a separate niche quiz if you have some great niche interest questions,” suggests Jay.

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