Every week small groups meet in public houses to debate the eternal verities: such verities as ‘who won the 2012 FA Cup Final?’ and ‘where was Freddie Mercury born?’ Many pubs hold their own weekly quizzes to encourage custom, and from the more successful participants representative teams are drawn which then uphold the honour of their ‘local’ against teams from other hostelries. Usually no prizes are on offer in representative pub quiz leagues; members compete for honour alone, or the chance of winning a small trophy. Quiz team membership is open to all, although in practice most of those involved are middle-aged or elderly men. Women are not unknown but are very definitely in the minority. Young women are rare indeed, and this might be an area for feminists to tackle once all the other glass ceilings are broken. Each quiz league will have its own rules and regulations but a common thread involves team members attempting some answers unassisted, also having their scores reckoned up and revealed at the end. Consequently the opportunities for public humiliation, though not endless, are considerable. This rather naturally raises the question of how can you win pub quizzes?
The first essential is, rather naturally, the will to win. In fact you do encounter a few quiz team members who are perfectly happy to meet new people, enjoy the ambience, drink several pints of beer, and accept a personal score in low single figures. To do better you must really want to do better, and have a good memory and general knowledge. The point of this piece is that even with a good memory and general knowledge you can very easily be made to feel a total ignoramus, unless you follow some simple rules. I should add however that, whatever time and trouble you take, on some evenings ‘the force will not be with you’. When this happens it helps if you have what dating websites call a GSOH.
The first thing to remember is that pub quizzes are a team game and personal ambition must be subordinated to the public good. It is really helpful if you know what you know, in other words try to be certain that you have got an answer correct before making it public. You will irritate your team-mates, who know that Waterloo was fought in 1815, if you loudly insist, against all reason, that it occurred in 1066. Subsequently to claim plaintively that ‘you meant 1815’ is very little help if your assertion has seized team defeat from the jaws of victory. With experience you will come to appreciate that some topics reappear quite regularly in quizzes and it is sensible for each member to develop a special interest. I was originally picked to answer questions on science but these tend to to be few and far between. My sub-speciality is now Greek and Roman mythology. Greek gods appear quite regularly in quizzes and mythology has one huge advantage as a topic: there is never going to be any more. You can actually learn it all. The disadvantage of football and popular music, also common sources for questions, is that inexorably, year by year, there are ever increasing numbers of facts to be memorised.
There is unquestionably a ‘pub quiz universe’. By this I mean there are facts that appear regularly in competitions that you almost never encounter in the real world. I had a modestly successful medical career lasting 30 years during which time I never needed to know the number of bones in the foot (26) or whether the human small intestine is longer than a snooker table (it is). It is evident that pub quiz medicine is not real world medicine. In a similar way you will find yourself needing to know the ingredients of cocktails you will never drink (the Sidecar for example) and meals you will seldom eat. I answered questions about the constituents of Eggs Benedict so frequently that I thought I should finally eat some. You may pride yourself on a love for nature but in the quiz universe you will not encounter the cry of the curlew or whale music, but the number of an octopus’s hearts (3), a bee’s eyes (5) or a woodlouse’s legs (14). In this area it is particular disheartening to attempt an answer in an area where there is no agreement. Naturalists seem happy that the blue whale is the world’s largest creature but is the box jelly fish or the poison arrow frog the most venomous?
Quiz questions do not spring fully-formed from the head of the question master. The quizzes have to be set by somebody and if that somebody is totally lazy he or she will simply type ‘pub quiz questions’ into Google and go from there. Do the same. Compile your own bank of questions drawn from the web and I guarantee you will soon start meeting old friends. Setters with marginally more creativity will recycle questions, or occasionally entire quizzes, that have appeared before. It is a really good idea to record the questions that come up since you will certainly meet them again, although sometimes in a new overcoat.
This issue of recycled questions is particularly challenging if the answers are incorrect. In my quiz league we are occasionally asked on what day the Epsom Derby is run. The correct answer is, of course, Saturday, although the expected answer is Wednesday. The switch of day from Wednesday to Saturday occurred in 1995, and I imagine that the question has been recycled for twenty years without anybody checking. For reasons best known to themselves the episodes of ITV’s highly successful Downton Abbey have given the location county of Highclere Castle (the real Abbey) as Berkshire. Actually the building, designed by Sir Charles Barry, is a mile or two over the border in Hampshire. The incorrect answer has become immovable in our quiz league and twice I have been reduced to impotent fury (admittedly a state in which I frequently find myself anyway) by giving the correct county and being marked down. But then I play with northerners to whom the distinctions between Suffolk, Kent, Hampshire and Devon can be covered by the blanket description ‘not Yorkshire’.
Be that as it may to win at pub quizzes you will need to know all the Downton plot details. The author, the Earl’s title, the family name, the cook’s name, and the butler’s. It is as well to have at your finger tips the name of every Dr Who, every James Bond and the complete Trumpton fire brigade. Also the capitals of every UN state and all their currencies. I’ll start you off with Montenegro (Podgorica) and Albania (the lek). After these it’s up to you.
My final suggestions are firstly, be nice to members of your own team. Everybody has the occasional off-night, and no-one performs better for having their imperfections remorselessly exposed. Secondly, be generous in defeat, even if you have lost by a single disputed question after a closely fought match. It is pleasant to be accounted as ‘good sports’. Thirdly, be particularly careful to ensure that any new, younger, players that appear have a positive experience. It’s not easy breaking into a world where the oldest members starting quizzing with Methuselah’s mother. Follow these simple precepts and you will win even without winning.