Now that the dust has settled

November 28, 2011 in Quizzes

Guest blog from Mike

Though John’s covered our participation in the European Quizzing Championships in Brussels thoroughly (and then some), I thought it might be of interest to share our observations on different quizzing styles/cultures and what have you. It was a fairly different kettle of fish there, to be honest. I was glad to find a Wiki entry on Belgian Quizzing to refresh my memory somewhat this morning.

First up, the venues. Irish pub quizzes are as they say on the tin. They traditionally start at 8-for-9pm Irish time, and often run on quiet nights (football-free, usually) to bring a crowd that might otherwise stay at home. Since the longer a quiz goes on the more drinks that are served, we’ve experienced quizzes run at glacial pace, with unnecessarily long breaks. But I digress. Drink is intrinsic to the experience, in short. You can choose not to drink, or else get nominated as the designated driver, but  a pint or two certainly helps the night go by. Although Belgian beer is quite delicious, their quiz scene is typically focused around school halls or other indoor sports venues – dry venues, in other words. Every Saturday afternoon, we were told, were the norm, with quiz results monitored and competitors ranked (check out John’s Audioboo from the venue for more). A 500-team ranking ladder suggests a highly-organised sport, rather than the ramshackle ‘let’s hold a fundraiser… how about a quiz?’ tradition here.

The questions consequently owe a lot to the venue and to the crowd who attend. I spoke to Chris Lemahieu, head honcho of the event in Bruges, about what he considered the core differences between the oft-cited Belgian-style and British/Irish table quiz traditions. He cited (paraphrasing here, any errors are entirely mine) the difference between trivia and knowledge. Take, for instance, a question on naming a famous painter. The first is based on how it may have been posed at the EQC. The second is more table quiz style.

  1. He died aged only 37 in Auvers-sur-Oise, France, having sold only one painting in his lifetime. In the words of art critic Sue Hubbard: “At the beginning of the twentieth century, he gave the Expressionists a new painterly language that enabled them to go beyond surface appearance and penetrate deeper essential truths.” This painting, right, is said to be his magnum opus.
  2.  Which Dutch/impressionist painter cut off his left ear, wrapped it in newspaper and handed it to a prostitute named Rachel, asking her to “keep this object carefully”?

It’s Van Gogh obviously, with my favorite, Starry Night. Ok, they’re simplistic efforts (the 2nd would more likely go along the lines of “Which Dutch painter, famous for chopping off his ear, painted Sunflowers?”), but the point is that pub quiz questions tend to be shorter, what/where/when/who format questions that can be read aloud in an environment where background chatter etc may make long questions unclear. In Bruges, all questions were either written down on a sheet (solo/duo format) or else read aloud with the full text of the question on a PowerPoint slide. Questions could contain 50-100 words!

Back to the substance. Trivia, as defined as ‘Details, considerations, or pieces of information of little importance or value’ are the cornerstone of pub quizzes. Any frequent pub quizzer could give you half a dozen nuggets on Van Gogh without ever having seen his work, or any appreciation as to his significance in the art world. As Chris was kind enough to say, that doesn’t make UK/Ire quizzes any less valid, just different. He stressed that Belgian quizzes were based on knowledge – a Belgian quizzer might not be able to tell you what year Van Gogh was born, but he could recognise his paintings. Which is the greater feat, I’ll leave for you. Obviously, 100-word questions don’t lend themselves well to TV gameshows, but John, Dave and I very much enjoyed the challenge of drawing on vague memories of secondary education, assembling a decent answer from tangential information we’d picked up and some good old-fashioned guesswork. One the areas that I personally saw the greater merit in these questions was with one of my frequent bugbears: name the year. There’s no reward in being a digit out, nor any greater punishment for being a century too early/late. What is that testing, really, other than someone’s speed in surreptitiously opening Wikipedia on their iPhone under the table and getting an immediate convenient info box?

Which brings me to a final point: smartphones and the pub quiz. Obviously, there was no cheating in the EQC, but, let’s face it, we see no shortage of smartphone use in pub quizzes. Some mightn’t care – “it’s only a bit of fun” etc – but readers of this blog obviously know which side of the argument we’re on. Where’s the achievement in cheating? However, if there are cash prizes up for grabs and no monitoring in pubs whose layouts cater for easy smartphone use, then it’s hardly surprising. In that case, challenge the cheaters! Make questions longer and less Google-able. Use projectors/audio/video clips. Distribute sheets with pictures if you need to. And look at doing something more interesting with your 10-question round like:

  • Two answers per question. Eg. in the movie quiz, we were asked to identify a movie based on a snippet of dialogue or a screenshot. Then a secondary question, already written on the answer sheet, asked us to name the director.
  • Link rounds: every answer begins with a certain letter, or is also a part of the body or an animal…
  • Acrostic round: The first or last letters of the correct answers in this round form an acrostic. Done properly, you can also place the answers in a crossword.

Anyway, I’ve rambled enough. To quote John briefly, from his interesting post on a record-setting low-scoring quiz, “…is there a flaw in the way most Irish table quizzes are created? Do question setters, perhaps, consider their potential crowd and then design a quiz to suit them more than to really test them?…  To take it further, is there a vernacular in the Irish table quiz world? Could the spectrum of knowledge tested at table quizzes be considered a ‘specialist subject‘ in-and-of itself? This is a disquieting notion.”  Our experience at the EQC was eye-opening. I wouldn’t like to replace the pub quizzes we know and love with questions on Polish harpsichordists, but I think there’s a lot of room for improvement. Rather than pander to the crowd, especially in larger-scale, higher-quality quizzes, why not really challenge them? Rather than retreading tired old ‘quiz knowledge’ as if it were a specialist subject in itself, why not reintroduce themed rounds if it separates parrots from those who actually have a wide breadth of knowledge? I gather ourselves and the British teams were in the minority when it came to team construction: Belgians, Germans and Norwegians espoused their theory to me that four specialists were better than four all-rounders like ourselves, but I wonder?

In any event, it’s nearly December and pub quizzes are likely to enter into hibernation – at least outside the quizzing mecca of Mayo! – until the New Year. Until I’m on my high horse again…

5 responses to Now that the dust has settled

  1. Excellent article Mike.

    Wow, I don’t think I’ve ever been cited before… 🙂

  2. I definitely think that table quizzes in Ireland are oft written with the likely participants in mind… more obviously at fundraising quizzes (somewhat understandably) but in local pub quizzes you will nearly always find questions local to the town in which the quiz takes place. It would be interesting to see the euros in Ireland… and how the ‘dry’ quizzing nations perform after a rake of pints with every round littered with people roaring ‘witty’ non answers at the stage. You could equate it to links golf and non links golf… the truly great golfers can hold their own in both.

  3. Nice article. Thanks.

    Smart phones are a disaster in pub quizzes. Don’t know why quizmasters do not put a basket/pint glass in middle of every table requesting mobile phones to be deposited there before a quiz starts. The alternative to this is to adopt the Bruges approach of less google friendly questions.

    Great website by the way, John. Love the Thursday night show too.


    • Thanks Mark!

      Personally I think someone should invent the phone reception-o-blocker – a device that would reduce network coverage to the level I ‘enjoy’ in my house. That would sort out the cheaters…

  4. Fully agree with this blog, not only do these quizzes tend to be written with a specific audience in mind, but I recall when I was attending college, the Equestrian Club asked me to help in making up quiz questions for an event and that I was to make it very “horsie-minded”. So I put in a few horsie questions, one of which was, “On which horse did Cian O’Connor win a gold medal at the Athens Olympics in 2004, before being subsequently stripped of the title due to the horse failing a drugs test?”. Okay, this is not the easiest question but I thought that it was a suitable choice of question for the occasion, but I was told that nobody would ever get this right in a million years so they cast it aside!! This would have been around 2006 so the debacle of the failed drugs test would have been fairly fresh in people’s heads as it seemed to linger on for quite sometime after the Olympics. The answer of course was Waterford Crystal. There were plenty of others that they flagged up as being impossible whereas in reality these questions were very very “gettable”. In short, if the organisers weren’t aware of the answer then it was a terrible choice of question. So I took a backseat and during the quiz (which I didn’t organise) I just sat there with many a sigh as I heard some of the questions they came up with…some were ridiculously easy and others just downright boring….of course they thought they did a great job but it was awful! Some of the questions just showed how little general knowledge they had themselves as they thought their questions would be more challenging but instead were often of the type were pen immediately hits the paper as soon as you hear it. Never again I thought……

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