We Asked Only Connect's Question Master How to Win a Pub Quiz

By James O Malley on at

Do you know your Dhaka from your Dakar? Or which band had the most Top 10 singles in the 1990s? Then you might just be a quizzer.

Everyone likes a good pub quiz, right? When you think about it, they’re quite a weird form of competition. To get good at football, you can practice kicking a ball. To get good at cooking, you can spend hours in the kitchen. But how the hell can you master general knowledge? By definition, it is such a broad subject, how can you ever hope to improve?

But it turns out that it is in fact possible to train yourself to be a better quizzer. To find out how, I spoke to Jack Waley-Cohen, who runs a company called QuizQuizQuiz, a company that specialises in setting questions and hosting quizzes.

Jack is, as you might expect, a formidable quizzer in his own right too, having previously won The Weakest Link, Countdown and a myriad of other shows. After making it to the grand finale of Only Connect in 2008, in 2014 he became the show’s official question writer.

He was kind enough to chat with me, so I put two sets of questions to him over two rounds. The first, to figure out how we can be just as good at quizzing as he is, is below. And check back on Giz UK tomorrow for Round 2, when we ask him how to be a good question master, and how to put together a good quiz.

Round 1: Winning Quizzes

So, how can we train ourselves to be good at quizzing? Before heading down to the local pub quiz, should we put on our headphones, fire up The Eye of the Tiger and get training?

Essentially, Jack tells me, the answer is yes.

“There's an element of getting very good just by doing lots of quizzes,” he explains. “That makes you better at quizzes not just because you see questions again, but also because you get into the habit of remembering stuff and seeing things and thinking ‘ooh, I'll remember that’.”

Quizzing, once you get into it, can get rather hardcore. Have you ever wondered what serial quizzers, the sorts of people who appear on multiple game shows like Egghead Kevin Ashman and The Chase's Mark Labbett might get up to during their spare time? It turns out that there are professional quiz leagues on a “grand prix” circuit, where contestants will enter themselves and compete without the need for TV cameras to capture the moment. Jack tells me that some quizzers will even participate in quizzing like an exam, working in silence filling in a question sheet, in order to challenge themselves.

“It's not just doing serious quizzes, but if you go to a pub quiz every week you will get better at quizzes because you'll get more used to thinking about things.”

The trick, it seems - though it sounds a little odd - is to learn how to remember stuff.

“The big issue these days is that you're so used to being at your computer or your phone. If someone asks you something, you don't think ‘I'll try and remember that’, you just look it up. [Quizzing] keeps your brain in gear for actually remembering stuff that's lurking deep inside.”

Surprisingly, he reckons that the majority of good quizzers don’t tend to “list learn” (though he thinks that some must do).

“It's not about sitting down with a list of chemical elements or US states... I mean, you can do that to make sure you've got those bases covered, but the best people would really just read a lot and absorb a lot and take an interest in things.”

But you still have to be smart, right? One of the differences between a general knowledge quiz and, say, an exam, is that you can study for an exam – you can read all of the materials you need. But general knowledge is… very general. So is there a correlation between quizzing success and academic success?

“I think they’re broadly different skill sets. I mean the academic success is not really necessarily fact-based. There's a lot of applying of knowledge to be a good academic.”

But sometimes, the distinction between the two isn’t so broad, and Jack thinks Only Connect demonstrates this well due to the type of questions it poses, where contestants must deduce connections from a disparate set of clues. “Occasionally you see some outstanding quizzers on the show who don't do very well because they're not used to applying the knowledge,” he says.

Okay, so we know that it is possible to train yourself. But pub quizzing is a team sport – you might be dedicated, but are your friends? What if – god forbid – they go to the pub not to test their wits in a battle of trivia, but to enjoy the company of other humans? Does that mean it is time to cut them loose? Should you tell your old pal that they’re no longer welcome, because you want someone who actually knows something about sport instead?

I suggested to Jack that diversity of age, interests and background might be useful, but he doesn’t think there’s much a science to it, noting the success of, say, teams of four scientists or four humanities students on University Challenge. “I think you'd always rather go for a diverse team but there's not a science, it's not the be-all and end-all,” Jack says. So no need to kick anyone off of your team just yet.

I used this point in the interview to proudly boast about my greatest pub quiz moment: in a tie-break with another team, we both had to guess a quantity, with the closest guessing winning taking the prize money. I let the other team guess first – and I then guessed one digit lower, essentially boxing out the other team. It was a glorious win, even if it did make me a jammy bastard. And this made me wonder: are there any other tricks like this? Is there anything else that quizzers can do to get themselves an edge, short of knowing the right answers?

Jack had a couple of tips. First, make sure that when the question is asked, you analyse it properly. A well-constructed quiz question will contain embedded hints to the answer, he says, with each word counting.

"Why have they said ‘British’, not ‘English’? Does that mean that I should think of Scottish, Welsh or Irish cities? Why did they say ‘person’ rather than ‘woman’ or ‘man’? Does that mean that when talking about a footballer it is possibly referring to a woman rather than a male?”, he explains. “If they've given you a year, why have they given you the year? Is that helpful?”

The other tip he gives is what he calls the “wicket keeper” concept.

“In cricket if you're a wicket keeper, even if it looks like the batsman's going to hit [the ball], you've got to assume it's coming to you, because if you dont think its coming to you, when it does you won't be ready for it.”

So in quizzing terms, this means that even if a question starts of sounding like it won’t be something you know the answer to, you should make sure that you listen carefully anyway, in case there is an extra angle that helps you get it.

Of course, in reality many pub quizzes are not set with the level of detail, clarity or professionalism that he produces, so some questions could be framed badly by an inexperienced quizmaster. Still, it's worth listening carefully just in case.

So there you have it - it is possible to get good at quizzing. The only annoying thing? Sadly, like most things in life, it requires a little hard work – but now having read this you’re perhaps better equipped to go into battle. See you at the King’s Head at 8, yeah?

Tune in tomorrow for Part 2 when we’ll be looking at how to make a good quiz. You can find out more about what Jack does on his own website, or on QuizQuizQuiz.