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Writing Great Trivia Questions


Writing Great Questions

Cornerstone question clinic

Writing good trivia questions is a lot harder than it sounds.

A lot of people think they can do it, only to be greeted with waves of complaints from irate players. And trivia fanatics can get quite irate.

The main skill you need is writing skill. Good writers can add excitement to questions. That's why ... ahem ... many people hire us.

But there are a number of tricks that even good writers don't realize, and this page looks at specific questions and fixes them so that they are great questions.

  • Using solid sources and careful wording
  • Making dull questions fun
  • Doubling up your questions for greater accuracy and more fun
  • Matching your questions to your audience
  • Keeping your questions up to date
  • Using multiple choice questions
  • Keeping your opinions out of your questions
  • Avoiding trick questions

For us, the perfect trivia question gets one of these responses:

  • I know this!
  • I used to know this, but let’s see if I can remember it now.
  • I don’t know this, but I think I can figure it out.
  • I didn’t know that, but that sure is interesting.
  • I didn’t know that, but you know … I really should have known it.

1) Using solid sources

After Lake Superior, what is the second largest of the Great Lakes?

You'd think this would be cast in stone. But the folks at Who Wants to be a Millionaire discovered otherwise. A doctoral student named David Hornea was gunning for $64,000 when he was asked this. He replied, "Lake Huron." The show said it was Lake Michigan. Thanks for playing, David.

Turns out they're both right. Michigan is the second largest by volume, while Huron is the second largest by surface area.

A nightmare for any quizmaster is getting an answer out of left field that is not only right, but that makes everybody else wrong whom you'd marked right. Sometimes this is due to bad sources (and all sources have mistakes, even the venerable Encyclopaedia Britannica) but sometimes it is to due to imprecision in the wording. Using a professional trivia writer means you're using somebody who knows enough to smoke out problems like this.

Consider the problems with geography superlatives.

  • The world's longest river? Well, which river is longest depends on how you count. Because the Amazon has several mouths, the Guinness Book of World Records recognizes both the Nile and the Amazon as the correct answer to this question. (This comes up in our interview with quiz show writer Rick Rosner.)
     
  • Mount Everest may be the highest mountain, but strictly speaking, it's not the tallest mountain. Mauna Kea rises 33,476 feet from the floor of the Pacific Ocean, but only rises 13,796 feet above sea level. I've even seen claims for other mountains, particularly Ecuador's Chimborazo, based on the distance of the summit from the centre of the Earth, rather than from the base, or for Mauna Kea, when you include undersea height.
     
  • You may think you're bright for knowing that the tallest building in the world isn't the Sears Tower anymore. But it's not the Petronas Towers, either. That's the tallest skyscraper. The tallest freestanding structure in the world is the CN Tower in Toronto, which is about 350 feet taller than the Malaysian tower.

These distinctions matter and it pays to be sticky about what seem to be ridiculous hair-splitting. If a source qualifies something to what seems like a ridiculous degree, make note of why it does so. Until 2004, Van Gogh's portrait of Dr. Gachet had fetched the highest price at auction, but that didn't make it the most valuable painting. (Imagine what the Mona Lisa could fetch!)

WHAT'S A COUNTRY?

Recently, I was judging a trivia contest, which asked, "Aside from the United States, name one of the three countries closest to Canada?" Someone rang in and said "Greenland." The answers listed were "Russia, Denmark (Greenland) and France (St. Pierre and Miquelon)."

So ... was she right? A lot of the problem is in the definition of "country." Not all countries are independent. Scotland and Wales are considered countries, for example. Greenland does have home rule and does have a unique culture. Does that make it a country? The CIA, BBC and Worldinformation.com have online "country profiles" on Greenland, so I'd be inclined to say that it is.

On the other hand, "Denmark" is clearly the wrong answer. Denmark is nowhere near Canada. Most sources list Denmark's area as about 40,000 sq km, which clearly excludes Greenland's 2,175,600 sq km. Happily, this one question didn't affect the game, but it goes to show the perils of questions using geographical terms!

More wording issues

Another pitfall, by the way, is assuming that a fact running one way works in reverse, too. For example, in Encarta we read: "On March 10, 1970, a bill was passed by the U.S. Senate prohibiting cigarette advertising on television. The law became effective in January 1972." Can I ask this?

What product was banned from TV advertising as of January 1972?

No, I can't. That same bill may also have banned gun ads, condom ads, law-firm ads and so on. Read your source twice and read it carefully to get a sense of what the source is excluding or including.

Many sports records, for example, exclude playoff numbers or alternative professional leagues. (Be especially careful about questions regarding people's nationalities. In Eastern Europe, for example, people can be born in what is now Hungary without ever having been Hungarian.)

Word choice and proper grammar

I have run an editing and writing company, and I've even co-written a book on grammar, but I find word choice a perpetual problem, especially when writing questions to exclude all other possible answers. Sometimes, though, questions can be precise, but written badly.

In 1975 Hamid succeeded this man assassinated by a nephew as king of Saudi Arabia.

Huh? This convoluted sentence appeared in the Jeopardy calendar, which I presume was pulled from the TV show. See if you can read it aloud and figure it out quickly. I'm still not sure what it means!

Naturally enough, given the importance of the words you use, you have to make sure your sources for those words are solid.

What is the only man-made object visible to naked eye if you're standing on the moon?

Avoiding urban myths

A lot of poorly written reference books will tell you that this is the Great Wall of China. A lot of reference books are wrong. There are no man-made objects visible from the moon. In fact, if you think about it, the Great Wall is a long ribbon of stone. From space, it would have a hair-like appearance, at best, and would be impossible to pick out. I rant on about this at some length.

Beware of so-called facts from newspaper articles, TV shows or, worst of all, fact books. These books will include pages of single-sentence facts, none of which are in any sort of context at all. These people never have to face a room of angry know-it-alls! I use these sources sparingly, or as filler, or I add in weasel words like "as the story goes" or "reputedly." If there is even a paragraph of supporting info, you are on much more trustworthy ground.

Over time, you develop a knack for smoking out the dubious sources. After good writing skills, being able to tell good sources from bad ones is the most important trivia-writing skill of all!

Interestingly, there are whole categories of facts that are suspect. One of these is quotations. All sorts of quotations have been mangled over time, and this includes items in Bartlett's. (For more on this, see Ralph Keyes and his book Nice Guys Finish Seventh.)

In addition, be wary of oddball phobias, collectives of animals or "unusual" words. Many of these have been created out of fancy or whim, and some of them seem to exist almost exclusively as the answer to trivia questions. The aglet is the tip of your shoelace. Crows gather in murders. Triskaidekaphobia is the fear of the number 13.

Cornerstone trivia lesson #1: Use solid sources and watch your wording, particularly if it opens up multiple possible answers. [Back to top]

2) Making dull questions fun

What is the state bird of New Mexico?

For us, the perfect trivia question gets one of these responses:

  • I know this!

  • I used to know this, but let’s see if I can remember it now.

  • I don’t know this, but I think I can figure it out.

  • I didn’t know that, but that sure is interesting.

  • I didn’t know that, but you know … I really should have known it.

The ultimate rule is that questions must be fun. Nothing is more tiresome than some bozo who has 50 questions asking about the state bird in each of the 50 states. Or 70 odd questions about each year's Best Picture Oscar. Or 90 questions about each year's World Series winner. You get the idea.

Granted, not every question can be a show-stopper, but a little smart writing can turn a dull question into a great question.

So how do we fix the dull question about state birds? Try this.

Wile E. Coyote ought to be careful in New Mexico. What's the state bird there?

Yes, it gives away the answer (the roadrunner), but it also makes the question a lot more fun, and that's what counts.

There are several ways you can write fun questions:

  • Make them easy: People enjoy getting questions right more than they enjoy getting them wrong.
     
  • Write what you know (and what you know people know): Some people do trivia by opening a book and just translating everything they see into question format. That's bad if you don't know what you're talking about; it leads to lots of meaninglessly hard, error-filled questions. But it's worse if you know exactly what you're talking about, because what seems easy to you may be hard to everyone else.
     
  • Use interesting facts: You'll come across facts that will amaze and fascinate you. Use these. The Secret Service was originally created to fight counterfeiting, not to protect the president. That's good trivia material.
     
  • Include the "you" perspective: Make the player part of the question. Instead of "What does gerontology study?" try "When will you be of most interest to a gerontologist?"
     
  • Use humour: A little bit of attitude, a spoof answer choice or two, it keeps people in the game. Poke a little fun at the Backstreet Boys or at George W. Bush. But avoid making fun of demographic groups, including gays and lesbians, born-again Christians, the mentally ill, the disabled, Southerners, hillbillies, atheists, religious minorities, national and ethnic groups, Newfoundlanders and so forth.

Use your imagination and your full writing skill to create interesting question. Here is what using a thesaurus did for a dull question about the Jolly Green Giant.

What mirthful verdant colossus was created in the 1920s by the Minnesota Valley Canning Company?

Hard-core players dislike questions that can be guessed at or that can be easily worked out. But personally, I like questions with fun, oddball facts that are nevertheless easy enough for players to work out for themselves. I think players like pulling answers out of their heads to what seem to be hard questions, and that's especially the case for weaker players, who can be intimidated by a room full of trivia fiends. You've kept them engaged.

When trivia is too trivial

On the other hand, what are your odds of figuring out this question?

In 1989, a fairground in Wisconsin set a record for the world's largest hamburger. How big was it?

I know this sounds funny, almost like saying that certain things are too trivial for trivia, but you have to ask yourself how likely anybody is to have this information rattling around in their brains. I call these "Guinness questions" because they are usually drawn from the Guinness Book of World Records (a book on a steady decline, by the way). I use them only as tie-breakers.

There is also a secondary problem with our hamburger question, by the way. What does "big" mean? Do you want pounds or kilograms? Do you mean weight, volume or length? If you're going to insist on this kind of question, be specific about what kind of answer you want.

If I absolutely loved this item, here is how I would use it.

Not even McDonald's is this big. What 5,520-pound gastronomic monstrosity emerged at the Outagamie County Fairgrounds in Wisconsin in 1989?

This uses a technique called "doubling up," which links an interesting fact to a hint that makes the question both easier and more accurate. We did that in our roadrunner question, too. And that takes us to the next lesson.

Cornerstone trivia lesson #2: Make questions fun! [Back to top]

3) Doubling up your questions for greater accuracy and more fun

For what movie did Paul Newman win his first and only Oscar?

There are two problems with this question. First, it's a shade on the dull side. That's not bad, though. Not all questions can be home-runs. We'll get to the second problem shortly, but let's jazz this up a bit first.

Paul Newman's only Oscar was for a role he'd first played 25 years earlier. Name the movie that finally won him an Oscar.

This is better, because it adds an interesting factoid to the question. That can be really important for the more academic categories. The new question is a bit longer, of course, but the extra spin is worthwhile, not only because it jazzes the question up, but because it gives players a bit of a hint.

I call this technique "doubling up" and it has saved my bacon plenty of times, because it means that any answer must meet two criteria instead of one. If your question is more ambiguous than you realize, that can help. And unless you're an expert in every category about which you ask questions, you're going to be tripped up sooner or later by technicalities, which brings me to our second problem.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awards all sorts of consolation prizes, particularly to performers who never manage to win the big prize. Newman, for example, won an honorary Oscar, and he won it just one year before he won a Best Actor Oscar for The Color of Money. Since that first Oscar recognized his entire body of work, some players could have answered our original question by saying "All of them."

However, by doubling up you can fall back on what I call the "best possible answer" defence. Even if a technicality muddies part of the question, any answer has to apply to both parts of the question. Newman may have won an honorary Oscar, but that isn't the best answer to the first part of the question.

Nevertheless, let's fix the question while we're here.

Paul Newman's only competitive Oscar was for a role he'd first played 25 years earlier. Name the movie that finally won him an Oscar.

Doubling up is also a good way of using what would otherwise be an impossibly hard question. Instead of asking the very hard "In 1897, legislators in what state considered setting the value of pi at exactly 3?" or the very dull "What is the capital of Indiana?" try something like this ...

Legislators in Indiana's capital city once considered setting the value of pi at exactly 3. Where is Indiana would these legislators have met?

The answer: Indianapolis (and yes, I did check to that the capital hadn't been somewhere else in 1897). Now we have a fun question that is well within people's reach.

Cornerstone trivia lesson #3: Double up your questions when you can. Disguise dull questions with interesting facts. [Back to top]

4) Matching your questions to your audience

According to the title of a 1988 album, what does it take to hold back the rap group Public Enemy?

Actually, this is a pretty good question. Especially if you're black or part of the so-called Generation X. But it's going to mystify everybody else.

Mystifying people is bad. I find that people like to get between two thirds and three quarters of the questions. However, trivia writers have a bad habit of writing questions that entertain or challenge them, instead of their audiences.

There is a tendency to underestimate the difficulty of the material you're writing questions about, because you are learning more about it as you go. Pretend that people are much dumber than you are. So, don't be afraid of easy questions. Feel free to add gentle hints or even multiple choice options.

A colleague who runs the Toronto Trivia League once told me: "It's easy to write bad hard questions, but hard to write good easy ones." That's probably the best bit of advice I could ever give anybody.

How do you know if a question is easy? Find out who your audience is. Baby boomers can tell you who played Rob Petrie's wife, but have no idea who Buffy the Vampire Slayer is. East Indians and Britons can identify world cricket champs, while Americans aren't even sure what cricket is.

Making hard questions fun

Even a hard question, though, can be fun if you learn something. Did you know Microsoft was the answer to this question?

What software company got its start on Route 66 at Albuquerque's Sundowner Motel, which it shared with hookers and drug dealers?

If the occasional tough question is well-written and gets a laugh, that's fine by me, even if nobody gets it. And especially if, to coin a phrase from Arsenio Hall, it's a thing that makes you go hmmm.

On the other hand, would you honestly care that "silver" is the answer to this question, which was actually asked during NTN's Showdown game?

This element's boiling point is over 2000 Degrees centigrade and its atomic number is 47.

"Plot point" questions and cultural literacy

How many people did the shark kill in the first Jaws movie?

If you never saw the movie, you won't have the slightest idea. The question, you see, revolves around a plot point. The worst plot-point questions are the ones designed by science fiction fans, who assume that everyone shares their rabid attention to Star Trek or Lord of the Rings minutia. But if you know your audience has lots of SF fans, then plot point questions become okay again.

Mind you, some plot points are so famous that most people should get them, even without seeing the movie, reading the book or hearing the song.

In what book does a pig named Napoleon create a society where all animals are created equal, but where some are more equal than others?

Even if you've never read Animal Farm, you've probably heard the quote. Good trivia writers have an intuitive sense for what people are likely to know or not know.

Something's entry into the realm of cultural literacy doesn't mean that the question will be easy, either. In a recent pub game, all of my players assumed that "Go ahead, make my day," comes from Dirty Harry, when it actually comes from a sequel called Sudden Impact.

By doubling up, you can use even the most obscure plot point questions. Or you can simply drop clues. Consider this revision of the above question.

How many people did the shark kill in the first Jaws movie? (We'll accept any answer within 20% of the correct one.)

By saying that I'd accept any answer within 20% of the right one, I had tipped off the players that the right answer had to be divisible by five. So the answer is either 5, 10, 15 or some other multiple. Yes, you're testing player intelligence rather than trivia mastery, but it sure is fun. (In this case, the answer is "5," which is quite low by today's bloodfest standards.)

By the way, it takes a nation of millions to hold back Public Enemy.

Cornerstone trivia lesson #4: Shape the questions for general cultural literacy and for your specific audience. [Back to top]

5) Keeping your questions up to date

Who is the only person in both the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock Hall of Fame?

The answer used to be Johnny Cash. But recently, Elvis became the second person in both places. The word only, as we learned from Mr. Newman above, is a red flag that calls down the trivia gods to play malicious practical jokes on you.

This is easy to fix, though.

Who was the first person inducted into both the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock Hall of Fame?

You lose some of the "wow" here, but there isn't much you can do about it.

So, while you're vetting your sources for accuracy, keep on eye out for how old they are. In fact, dates pose a whole host of problems.

  • The Oscars that somebody wins in 1982 was actually for work released the year before. Many awards work this way.
     
  • Car model years are not the years in which they are released.
     
  • Books are not always written in the years in which they are published.
     
  • Things are not always invented in the year they are patented.
     
  • "Informal history," particularly the history of corporations, is often not compiled until years later, when records are lost and memories vague.
     
  • Some sources will state that the date for something is when it was begun, while others will use the end date.

Some dates are so famous and assured, you can safely use them: 1066 was the Battle of Hastings, 1867 was Canadian Confederation, 1776 was the Declaration of Independence, 1947 marked India's independence and so forth.

But even if you think the date is solid, it may well be wrong. It is just shocking how often a date will vary from source to source, even if the sources themselves are rock solid. The further back in history you go, the worse the problem gets.

The other place where this becomes a big problem is in sports questions. I prefer to say, "Who set a record by ...," unless I'm fairly sure that I'll hear about it if the record changes.

Death by grammar

There is also a related problem, and this one is a function of English grammar. Consider this.

By what name is Edson Arantes do Nascimento better known?

Here is the problem. As long as Pelé is alive, the right verb is "is." But when he dies the question has to become "By what name was ..." Some players will look for verb tense as a clue to your question. The best way around this is to shift the question so that it becomes past tense.

What pseudonym did Edson Arantes do Nascimento adopt?

Nevertheless, a small proportion of your questions will always be overtaken by events. No matter how hard you try, some questions will always take you by surprise. Consider this.

The Queen Mary doesn't sail and the Spruce Goose doesn't fly. Since neither is going anywhere, where are they now?

I loved this question. It had a fun factor, it was doubled up, and it had a certain rhythm. It's also wrong. It turns out that even though Howard Hughes's old plane doesn't fly, you can put it on a truck, and in 1992 a corporation bought the plane and moved it from Long Beach to Oregon. The problem was that my source was printed in the early 1990s, before the move. Here's how I fixed it.

The Queen Mary doesn't sail and the Spruce Goose doesn't fly. And until 1992, both of them were stuck in the same place. Where?

The best way to avoid getting bushwhacked is to keep up with newspapers and magazines. I especially try to follow science news, as new findings are always wrecking my questions.

Cornerstone trivia lesson #5: Be wary of questions with expiry dates. [Back to top]

6) Using multiple choice questions

Which lasted longer, the Korean War, or the TV series MASH?

Some people object to this question because, basically, it's an either/or question. Even if you have no idea, you have a 50:50 chance of getting it.

In one sense, though, this is a radical example of "doubling up," because you have restricted the range of possible answers. Likewise, if you ask, "Which of the Fab Four Beatles fabulously got married first?" then you know the answer will be George, Paul, John or Ringo.

This may not be a bad thing, as the following severely open-ended question shows.

Connect the movie Rosemary's Baby and the Beatles.

The quizmaster offered this as the answer. " was directed by Roman Polanski who was married to Sharon Tate. In 1969, she was murdered (pregnant at that time too) by Charles Manson and his followers, who titled their death spree 'Helter Skelter' after the 1968 Beatles song."

There is another answer, though, and in my mind it is a better and more direct answer. The exterior shots of were filmed at the Dakota, the very apartment building where John Lennon lived and was shot in 1980. Had the game been competitive, I certainly would have fought for my answer, even if the QM didn't know that the movie was filmed at the Dakota. Could have been messy ...

Amazingly, I've seen some quizmasters reject perfectly plausible alternative answers because they weren't "what I had in mind," as though it were a telepathy test instead of a trivia quiz.

Multiple choice and limited liability

In fact, if there is anything serious riding on the answers to your questions, such as a major prize, I strongly recommend using multiple choice as a way of preventing disputes. (You may want to seek legal advice in any event, as some sorts of contests are illegal or carefully regulated in some jurisdictions.)

With multiple choice answers, there is less risk involved in having to adjudicate whether an unexpected answer is synonomous with the one you have, and less room for fighting over whether a close answer is too "wrong" to be acceptable. It also limits the possibility that players can exploit ambiguities in your wording.

But if you use multiple choice, make sure the other options are not only wrong, but incontestably so.

What word, originally a Byzantine political title, is still used by high-ranking clerics in the Greek Orthodox Church? Despot, Tyrant, Dictator, Overlord
The answer is "Despot" but originally I had "Patriarch" as one of the wrong answers. Despite the noble doubling up, "Patriarch" would also have been correct.

Multiple answers

Sometimes, even questions that seem closed can pose problems.

The second president of the United States was also the first to move into the White House. Who was he?

This is a great question. The problem is the answer. If I say just "Adams," then do I mean John Adams, or his son John Quincy Adams?

In fact, there were two presidents named Adams, two named Harrison, two named Roosevelt, and now there are two named George Bush. But saying "We want the full name" tips your hand. Nobody needs to add "James" to Madison or Monroe, after all.

You can ask for full names all the time, and some quizmasters do, but this gets into problems, too.

  • The full name of boxer Joe Louis was Joseph Louis Barrow.
     
  • What about titles? If the answer is Cardinal Richelieu, you have to allow for Armand Jean Du Plessis, his real name. Do you then need the Sir in Sir Elton John? What about foreign titles, military ranks and professional accreditations?
     
  • Is Queen Elizabeth good enough, or do you want Queen Elizabeth II? (And at that, she is technically just QEII in England, not in Scotland.)
     
  • If the answer is Marilyn Monroe, then do you want her stage name or her birth name (and there is a lot of dispute on the latter point, too.)
     
  • If the quizmaster wants "first and last name," what do I do when the answer is Martin Brian Mulroney, a Canadian prime minister who used his middle name?
     
  • If the quizmaster wants "the most common parts of the full name" then what do I do if I know the answer is FDR? Must I know that the middle name is Delano?
     
  • How correct should the spelling be? I would accept Eisenhauer for Eisenhower, but I wouldn't accept Sally Fields for Sally Field.

Incidentally, it is the mark of an amateur quizmaster to give half points for "Reagan" instead of "Ronald Reagan" or "Picasso" instead of "Pablo Picasso." Astonishingly, I've seen both happen, and in neither case were players warned.

You can see what a hornet's nest names can become. It happens with countries, too. You shouldn't accept England if the answer is Great Britain, but do you have to write "the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland"? Is Russia an acceptable substitute for the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics?

The easiest solution here is to have a house rule that all presidents must be identified in full, to such a degree that they cannot be confused with somebody else. (The same applies to race car drivers and baseball players, as you get families and dynasties there, too.) Likewise, monarchs need their Roman numerals.

At the pub game I run, we get around this by making the dodgy questions multiple choice.

Of John Adams, John Quincy Adams or James Madison, who was the first president to live in the White House?

This, of course, gets us into the question of guessing, which annoys hard-core trivia types. Better this than the consequences, I say.

Cornerstone trivia lesson #6: Use multiple choice if the stakes are high. [Back to top]

7) Keeping your opinions out of your questions

Who is the biggest Australian rock icon?

Michael Hutchence? That guy from INXS!? Says who?

Well, says the Guinness Book of World Records. And that's good enough, right?

No, it's not. Among my many complaints about recent editions of Guinness is that it has dropped records that were useful in favour of records that are A) not quantifiable, B) value judgments and C) stupid.

Any question that assumes everybody has the same taste or opinion is a bad question. That's true even if the opinion is almost universally held, unless the question clearly allows for no other possibilities.

On August 31, 1997, the most beloved member of the British royal family died in a horrible car crash. Who was she?

I thought Diana was dumb as a post and a publicity whore, to boot, but by the same token, she's clearly the answer to the question.

Along similar lines, if your questions have a political tone, avoid using your questions as a soapbox. The "facts" supporting or opposing capital punishment, for example, may be more in dispute than you think they are. Even polling data can be manipulated. Columnists and pundits are not good sources.

On the other hand, a question about which countries use capital punishment the most will be an interesting question. The difference is between objective fact and subjective interpretation. Don't evangelize us with your trivia questions. I especially loathe questions that require me to buy into your opinions.

What degenerate sexual practice did the star of the TV show Ellen admit to on the cover of Time magazine?

objecting to questions in my online game.

Cornerstone trivia lesson #7: Don't let your opinions colour your questions, especially if they are not quantifiable. [Back to top]

< 8) Avoiding trick questions

According to Jewish dietary law, when can you eat a cheeseburger?

I had been asked to edit questions for a game involving 2000 ardent trivia fans, and this was one of the questions. It made me pretty nervous, especially since the answer was supposedly "never."  I suggested changing it to ask whether a Jew can eat a cheeseburger, as opposed to when. But the question's author was adamant that the audience loved trick questions. So it stayed in.

I had also agreed to act as a judge. That means I was on hand when the question and answer were read. And it turns out that, in fact, a Jew is permitted to break any law if it will save a life, so as soon as the answer came up, I was surrounded by upset Jews.

The man (himself a Jew) who wrote the question scoffed at people coming up with what he saw as a loophole, but the question was plainly asking people to find loopholes, since most people know that mixing meat and dairy is forbidden to Jews.

This is why you should never, ever use trick questions. Once you do this, players start paying close attention to the questions, looking for trapdoors. And if you have a wobbly question, the players will howl. Worse still, players could start picking at questions so that "never," "nobody" and "nothing" becomes the answer more often than you would like.

The other problem that will emerge is that you can be blindsided. Here is an example.

A popular candy bar is called Baby Ruth. Who is this bar named for?

All sorts of trivia books will crow that the Baby Ruth was not named for Babe Ruth, but for Ruth Cleveland, daughter of US President Grover Cleveland. But ... really ... the bar was introduced in the 1920s, at the height of the Babe's commercial appeal, after the manufacturers had failed to sign Ruth directly, and we're supposed to believe that the bar just happens to be named for the obscure offspring of a mediocre president who had been out of office for decades?

With either answer, either Ruth Cleveland or Babe Ruth, you risk having players wondering if this is a trick question and, if so, how much you know about the subject.

A religious aversion to trick questions gives you a more forgiving crowd, and allows you to fall back on the "pick the best possible answer" defence.

Here's an example of how player empathy can save your skin. In a pub game I run, I asked ...

It's called the impregnable quadrilateral. And no wonder. Only one golfer has won the Grand Slam in a single season. And then, at age 28, he retired. Who was he?

One player insisted the answer was "nobody" because the term "grand slam" wasn't used until years after Bobby Jones managed the feat, and because the components of the Grand Slam have changed. Happily, the question was doubled up ("at age 28, he retired"), and player goodwill got me through.

Tricky questions vs. trick questions

There is a difference, by the way, between trick questions and tricky questions (what our East Indian friends call a googly).

As we leave from Earth, I order our navigator to set a course for the nearest star. Where are we going?

We're going, of course, to the Sun. To me, this is fair. The Sun is in fact a star, even though many players will outsmart themselves and start thinking about stars in Centaurus. (Here's another favourite, especially since it tripped me up when I was given it: "What is the white part of most raw eggs?" No, smarty-pants, albumen isn't white until it's cooked; the white part of a raw egg is the shell.)

Cornerstone trivia lesson #8: NO TRICK QUESTIONS! [Back to top]