If You Think Quizzing is for a Select Few, You’re Only Giving Up

One still needs a good memory to store and retrieve information during an Indian quiz but to call it a brute memory game is to unfairly brand every question as trivia.

A team puzzling over questions at the inaugural Serendib Quiz held in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Credit: Nalaka Gunawardene

A team puzzling over questions at the inaugural Serendib Quiz held in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Credit: Nalaka Gunawardene

When participating in a quiz in India, the most demeaning statement that a quizzer can unleash, while settling back in a chair, is to declare a question to be of the ‘either you know it or you don’t’ kind. By doing so, the participant has absolved herself of the responsibility (as viewed by a quizzer) to attempt such a question.

Every question in a quiz could possibly be dismissed as such – a simple fact that you either know or don’t. But a good question, a ‘funda’, gets defined by a multitude of elements including how interesting a majority of the participants find the question to be, how ‘workoutable’ the question is and how beautifully it has been worded to provide sufficient clues but not an inch more.

This is what distinguishes Indian quizzing from quizzing around the world, where participants bank more on knowledge and memory. As an example, I’ve embedded below a few questions that stayed in my mind long after the competitions in which they were asked ended, which illustrate how quizzing isn’t about brute memory. In fact, I would argue the exact opposite. Thanks to the sheer number of quizzes and an ever growing diverse pool of quiz-setters, there are more workoutable questions for quizzers to attempt these days.

One still needs a good memory to store and retrieve information during an Indian quiz but to reduce it to a brute memory game, as at least one commentator believes, is to give in too soon, to unfairly brand every question as trivia, to not push oneself to learn and become better.
Quizzing lies in a continuum – between a fact-based memory retrieval game and a puzzle involving logic and deduction. As a sport, it pushes you into a virtuous cycle of reading more, listening more, watching more, learning more and doing well in quizzing. Can’t one just keep learning by rote in order to win at some point of time in the future? Yes, but a good quiz will still need you to apply that knowledge. I won’t cry foul of those who memorise and do that alone. I, and most others, started out doing exactly that – countries, capitals, and so forth when in school – but it’s a conscious choice that quizzers take to move away from rote or at best, supplant it by getting into the virtuous cycle I mentioned earlier.

It’s difficult for an average individual with an unforgiving memory to succeed in Indian quizzing based on rote. But the same average individual can persevere, learn to read between the lines and work their way to a podium finish with a marginal yet steady increase in their knowledge base over the years. Indeed, it’s more fun and rewarding this way.

A common refrain which one hears is how high the bar is today for what passes off as general knowledge in a quiz setting. What was specialised knowledge a few decades back is common knowledge today. As experts in epistemology might tell you, this is true in a lot of fields of human endeavour but is more pronounced in learning and in the sport of quizzing.

This is why it’s difficult for most people to participate in their first quiz and come up trumps. This doesn’t mean that one can’t have fun, persevere and reap the benefits later as long as one’s definition of fun doesn’t involve winning and that alone. Save for the odd ‘lone wolf’ event, most quizzes held in India are for teams that have two to four participants; where teammates put their heads together, share ideas, dismiss guesses and choose an answer. A brute memory game wouldn’t require you to do any of that and would suck all the joy out of quizzing. Taken to the other extreme, if one is interested in deduction alone, one is better off sitting around a Cluedo board.

A friend and I set and conducted a history & geography quiz as a part of QFI Chennai’s annual quiz festival in 2015. When setting the 40-question written preliminaries, our goal was to ensure that everyone has heard of at the least 35, if not all 40, of the answers. This is precisely what a quiz master hopes for. It is easy to set difficult questions which would stump everyone. It was rewarding to see a bunch of school kids jumping up and down, answering questions leaving a lot of the regulars in the lurch. Prizes or not, the kids went home happy, possibly stopping en route at a library or a bookshop, to learn more, dive further deep into their area of interests and understand the world better – one funda at a time.

They could also go to Wikipedia, learn everything by rote but I bet you won’t find them in the same hall ten years down the line if that’s the only thing they do. Why? First, it is monotonous, and second, because there is no assurance that one will do well in Indian quizzing considering the vastness of topics out there and the fact that nobody in India is a professional quizzer unlike, for instance, people in the United Kingdom. Furthermore, in the earlier days, if you figured out which book the quiz master was using to set his or her quiz, you could have probably gamed the system. But as things stand now, that is impossible.

Taking pride in solving the puzzle

Speaking about people taking things home from quizzing, for quizzers who compete at the highest levels, it’s not just about pride in knowing something. I quiz fairly regularly and enjoy doing so. I might not be maniacal but if at any point in time I pump my fists, it’s always when I work something out. I’ve heard quizzers dismissing compliments since they knew the answer for a fact and hadn’t really worked it out.

Quizzing is definitely about participation – ask the countless attempting the Landmark Open Quiz year on year with no qualms about winning. They are thrilled to push themselves and their brains to come up with answers to twisted questions, a chance which most people, unfortunately, don’t get in their daily lives. They return the following year determined to guess more and do better than the previous year. There are multiple reasons why a participant will find a quiz rewarding – the least of which is to do with pride in knowing. You don’t need to put in years of research or be as passionate and rabid about quizzing as a competitive quizzer to have fun and enjoy quizzing. If you want to win, then it’s a different ball game.

Competitive quizzing is a sport and not just entertainment. One does need to put in time attending quizzes in order to do well. It’s not sufficient to remain inside a shell, that of daily life, to do well in quizzes. In the finals of a Landmark Quiz a few years back, well-known quizmaster Navin Jayakumar asked a question about the instructions that Duke Ellington wrote for Billy Strayhorn to follow to get to his home. After you heard the famous quizzer Arul Mani answer correctly (‘Take the A train”), you would’ve either gone back home, listened to more of the Duke, got your portal to another world opened, or sat back and cribbed about how such jazz has nothing to do in your daily life.

You could go back with that one tune, a domino effect that would lead you to a lot more interesting things which might or might not be useful in a quiz. If one doesn’t want to answer questions removed from his daily life, there always are quiz masters probing you with gems such as “Name the number of buttons on your shirt without looking down.”

Competitive and niche quizzing

Large competitive open quizzes such as the Landmark Open Quiz see mostly regulars competing in the final rounds. Like any competitive sport, it’s not easy to win from the get-go. It’s largely a function of interest if one wants to turn a hobby into a competitive sport. That said, these are not the only quizzes. There are an incredible number of events happening all over the country – the regular meets of most quiz clubs such as the Quiz Foundation of India (Chennai) are not competitive. There are a lot of specialised quizzes too – on food, music, non-fiction, soccer, business, science, movies, etc., which see non-regulars participating and doing well. The happiest memory that Thejaswi Udupa has after conducting the Music Quiz for Karnataka Quiz Association (KQA) over the years is about a bunch of musicians, members of a band, who won the quiz once beating the regulars.

Open quizzes see anywhere between 50 and 1,000-plus participants. I acknowledge that the number of participants at certain quizzes has been dwindling over the years. Key reasons include the sheer volume of quizzes, existence of alternatives to spend one’s time on, lack of carrots such as prizes, poor marketing or the unwillingness to associate with a knowledge brand which has no volume riding and to an extent, the difficulty of the questions themselves.

There are quiz clubs in most cities in towns of India and they do their bit to address these issues. Like any other subculture, with the clubs tending to become congregations of people sharing interests and wavelengths, the landing can be difficult for a newbie. It’s unfortunate for it to be this way but it’s not by design that people are excluded. In my opinion, a lot of quiz clubs that have consistently seen more participants than others do so because of their inclusive nature.

The notion that quizzing is only for a select few, that it is a brute memory game, that one can’t enjoy without competing, that one needs to be competitive without lifting weights, and that one needs to compete and win by any means possible including cheating and Googling for answers are the best contenders for things that might destroy quizzing. These ideas and practices should hopefully, in time, fall by the wayside – thus strengthening the sport.

Ashwin Kumar is a marketing professional in the high-tech industry with interests in photography, writing and quizzing.

  • Fahad Inbesat

    Great article. Totally worth a share.

  • QuizSumo

    Good stuff. Love the niche quizzing concept.

  • Suman

    Nice read.