I grew up a compulsive swallower of general knowledge, facts, and trivia. I’d mainline the dictionary (Webster’s natch) to my kid sister’s bemusement. I’d won a single volume of the Golden Home and High School Encyclopedia in third grade1 and read it over and over.
And one day, a beige-grey box (called a “486”) helped turn this obsessive snack habit into full on gavage.
The 486 came with the Banner Blue Movie Guide, a movie database. It was a font of movie trivia, well before IMDb. You could sift by actor, director, release year, movie genre, awards, and even the critics’ star rating.
Trivia is the plural of trivium, Latin for “place where three roads meet” (tri plus via). It connotes something “public” or “commonplace.” In the 15th century, the term points to the first three “liberal arts”: grammar, logic, and rhetoric.
(Do you know what the other four are?)
quadrivium n. The four “liberal arts,” arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy.
As you might guess by my training, I’m reasonably good at trivia games. When I joined my high school trivia team (Reach For The Top), I was excused from every practice because I knew every answer. I led the team to the provincial finals where we lost only because Grace Cassidy audibly whispered a correct answer during competition play and I nobly surrendered the point to M.M. Robinson. (We lost by that point. This was my 9/11. I will never forget.)
As an adult, I’ve been a member of two pub trivia dynasties. If I guest on your trivia team, you will probably win. I am the Michael Jordan of knowing pointless shit.
Trivia is on my mind because my very good friend Richard has been a pub trivia host for years. In one of my life’s many ironies, I moved away from Toronto before this phase of Richard’s life began. Remarkably, I’ve only experienced Richard’s brand of trivia twice.
The first one was this year, on my fortieth birthday. Zoom trivia, filled with familiar faces, concluding with a surreal, pseudo-synchronized happy birthday that warmed my heart.
The second time was last week when Richard asked me a bunch of questions over the phone. My own private trivia! And if that wasn’t enough: Richard, it turns out, is a trivia auteur. The David Fincher of trivia. Exacting but not pretentious. Cerebral yet entertaining. As we navigated his questions, Richard also outlined Certaine Principles for Deſsigning Most Excellent Trivia, which I will share with you now.
Don’t ask a question that strictly relies on a memorized fact. ”In what city was Queen Victoria born?" is painful if you don’t know and boring even if you do. There’s no way to glean the answer.
Good questions are “talk-able.” They contain within them a means of sussing them out with your team. And opposing viewpoints make talk-able questions a double-edged sword! A good question is like a puzzle.
Because most folks can name a Japanese company, adding this detail gives players a narrower field of options. “Leave luck to heaven” is another clue. More likely a game maker than a car manufacturer. I guessed Nintendo, which turned out to be the right.
The “pure trivia” version looks like, “What is the English translation of Nintendo?” It isn’t that interesting.
Don’t only write questions for idea-hoarding psychos like myself. Richard is obsessively inclusive when he thinks of questions. When he found out a new player was an art history major, he added questions about antiquity, just for them. That’s bespoke as fuck. You don’t have to go that far, but variety makes a game accessible and fun.
It’s not an accident that a question about European monarchies is followed by a sports question and an entertainment question. If a question is outside your wheelhouse, Richard makes sure that a different one is just around the corner.
Asking people to baldly recall facts gets old, even for me. Thankfully, Richard is a five-hour Youtube spiral kind of guy. I think this is what leads to the Far Out Concepts in his games. Check this out:
Using Google N-gram Viewer, Richard tracked the popularity of three terms. Your job is to guess which line represents which topic. It’s a talk-able question that gives everyone a chance to answer. I’ve never seen a question like this in any other trivia game.
Richard once spent an entire Uber ride explaining peppercorns to me. Because Richard is a lawyer. And this lawyerness shows up in trivia questions that are unambiguous and designed to prevent objections or confusion.
Richard intentionally adds the qualifiers “English-language” and “based on word count.” A question like “What’s the longest book ever written?” would be easy to challenge, because it can be interpreted in different ways. Eliminate all confusion.
Help a player out, chief. Make questions multiple-choice, or have players sort items, or list items, or allow for answers that fall into a range. Richard is good about including lots of these in his games.
Even if you don’t have the faintest idea, you might luck your way into a few points.
The point of this post is to goad Richard into writing a coffee table book filled with the rest of his thoughts on pub trivia. I’m certain he has much more to say on the topic. (If you do that Richard, I’ll happily accept something between nothing and 15% of the proceeds.)
But even if he doesn’t write a book, I’ll still be more-than-happy experiencing the occasional one-player trivia hotline with my own personal host.
I earned the points to “buy” CIV-DEF in Mr. Hall’s weekly trivia contest.↩︎