by Mark Hill
Trivia, whether it’s at the bar, on your phone, or in the form of the man who kidnapped your loved ones, posing riddles you must solve if you ever want to see them again, is a fun hobby. But sometimes, after another last place finish or another finger in the mail, it seems like something you’re either good or bad at, with no way to improve. Well, we’re here today to tell you that that’s crap. Not only can you get better at trivia, but you can do it in ways that are easy and fun. Here’s how to reach the point where your friends will think you’re a genius.
Learn How To Tune Out Superfluous Information
Trivia is rarely as simple as “What war was fought in 1812?” Whether it’s at the bar or on Jeopardy, writers love to throw a ton of superfluous information at you, usually to distract, confuse and make you second guess yourself. So they might ask something like “The Battle of Rappahannock River, the Siege of Fort Meigs and the Battle of Stoney Creek all occurred during what 1812 war?” Well, you’ve never heard of Fort Meigs, Rappahannock sounds like a person with a strong Irish accent telling you about their band, and you thought Stoney Creek was a whiskey brand. But none of that matters -- the only important part of the question came in the last two words.
"The answer, good sir, is 'exactly 3 Cats'."
Always keep an eye out for those two or three words of key info in a paragraph full of distracting details. If a paragraph-long question mentions an “Austrian psychiatrist,” then 99% of the time the answer is Freud, regardless of what the rest of the question said. To prove our point, can you name a second famous Austrian psychiatrist? Probably not, nor can we, nor can anyone else who isn’t an expert. And unless you’re doing trivia on a specific subject for superfans, good trivia draws from subjects that a reasonable person could know without dedicating their life to the subject. We call it the Ninja Turtles Rule: the artists who had Ninja Turtles named after them are far more likely to show up as answers than the artists whose names you’d only know if you have $40,000 worth of debt, jammed into an art history degree.
Places and times are especially important to watch out for. They’ll help you narrow down impossibly large categories like art and literature to a few major names. And remember that most categories are going to use the same handful of famous, easy to recognize answers. To use psychiatry as an example again (because it makes us sound smart), whenever the subject comes up, the answer is probably going to be Freud, Jung, or one of their famous concepts, like the ego. You’re not going to see a lot of questions about Eugen Bleuler, because we had to Google “famous psychiatrists” just now to learn about him. If you can remember a few times and places associated with the half-dozen-ish most famous answers in a category, you’ll always be able to make an educated guess. It’s not foolproof -- sometimes you won’t pick up on a hint, sometimes the question will aim for more obscure knowledge -- but you’ll always be playing the odds.
"Sir, none of the answers are 'exactly 3 Cats'. Please stop saying that."
Look For Subtle Hints
Sometimes questions don’t try to overwhelm you with detail. Instead writers might try to get cute and clever with their hints, and if you pay attention, you can spot them and answer questions that you otherwise wouldn’t know the answer to. Say you get a question that reads “What colorful soul singer recorded ‘Living in America’ for Rocky IV?” You can’t think of the song because you don’t know the genre well, and you haven’t seen Rocky IV because you secretly hate America, so you just start rattling off all the famous soul artists you can think of. Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Ray Charles, it could be any of those, right?
Sure, but only one of those people is “colorful.” And no, this isn’t going to become a weird racial thing: Brown is the only famous soul singer whose last name is also a color. So there’s your answer, even though you knew nothing about what the question was talking about. Remember, a good trivia question usually doesn’t just test whether you know a fact or not. They’re puzzles that you can logically unravel, and paying attention to cheeky hints in the wording can give you the info you need. Paying close attention can eliminate the vast majority of potential answers, so try not to crunch down on too many nachos while the questions are being read.
"Until these are gone, all answers are 'nachos,' because it's all I can think about."
Spot The Patterns
Trivia is an impossibly large subject. It’s basically the sum of all human knowledge condensed down to millions of tidbits that you can test people on while getting drunk. Even if you win the lottery, quit your job and focus on becoming a trivia master, you’re never going to know everything. So you’ve got to decide what you want to focus on, like picking a college major but with more of an impact on your life.
Luckily, there are usually hints as to where you should direct your attention. Maybe the guy running your local trivia night is really into Presidents, but doesn’t seem to care much for geography. If you live in Florida, you’re probably not getting many questions about cold weather sports. Maybe Trivia HQ or Trivia Tyrant or whatever other trivia app happens to be popular when you read this loves celebrity gossip. Or, if you want to get on Jeopardy, you don’t have to know much about football because the show is for nerds.
Conversely, you should keep an eye out for subjects that seem to pop up all the time. American history, capital cities, Best Picture winners ... some subjects seem to be universal, and big, broad subjects like movie stars are going to pop up far more often than ‘70s action movies. There are patterns within categories too -- if you’re getting quizzed on Presidents, you’re going to see a lot more questions about Kennedy than Fillmore. If you spot the patterns in your preferred game, you can massively narrow down the subject matter that you should try to study up on. Speaking of which ...
You Can Study, But It’s Not About Boring Memorization
Whether or not you want to study for trivia is entirely up to you. Some people find it fun, while others find that it ruins the fun. But if you do decide to bone up, there are ways to make it effective and enjoyable instead of soul crushingly tedious. After all, the whole appeal of trivia comes from wanting to learn as many interesting things about the world as possible; not from jamming knowledge into your head solely for the sake of becoming an omniscient robot.
"THE - ANSWER - IS - EXACTLY - 3 - CATS."
The first step is to stop giggling at “bone up.” We see you. Next, remember when you were back in school (or remember last week, if you’re in school now), and you had a big test that you really didn’t want to study for? You kept putting it off and then the night before the test, you finally sat down and forced yourself to memorize all of the relevant information? And while you did fine on the test, you forgot everything you studied almost immediately afterwards? Yeah, don’t do that. If you sit down thinking “I know lakes come up a lot in trivia, so I’m going to memorize all of the world’s lakes!” you’ll start to hate trivia, and you won’t maintain the information well anyway.
The best way to study is to find ways to engage with the knowledge that makes it interesting. Read about subjects you’re naturally curious about. Go down weird Wikipedia wormholes where you start on “New York City” and somehow end up on “Lemon battery.” Want to learn more about Shakespeare, but don’t feel like reading thousands of words of ye olde English and all the corresponding footnotes? Watch all the fun modern dramas and romcoms that have been based on them. Or how about those Best Picture winners? Don’t just stare at a list of them for hours on end -- throw them on in the background while you make dinner and slowly work your way through a century of cinematic history.
Even subjects that require some degree of rote memorization, like state capitals, can be made fun if you use a song or an online game. If you study without making it feel like studying, you’ll be surprised by how much you learn.
Step 1: Put on your Fun Learnin' Hat ...
Finally, and most importantly, don’t try to force yourself to learn a subject that you hate. Unless you’re getting ready to go on TV to try to win thousands of dollars, it’s safe to skip areas that you loathe. This is supposed to be fun, and besides, you’re better off learning a little about a lot of subjects than learning tons about just a few areas. For every subject you can’t stand, there are a dozen more you’d be happy to check out. And while you’re learning, don’t forget to ...
Keep Up With The World
Read the news! And keep up with pop culture as much as possible. That’s just good advice in general, but most trivia games feature at least a few topical questions, and the news is also a great way to absorb other information. Even if you only spend a few minutes a day reading world news, you’re slowly going to start picking up on world capitals, leaders and geography, simply because you keep reading about them. Again, that’s more effective than just staring at a list of cities and hoping you psychically capture hundreds of pieces of knowledge. And you never know what weird fact a news story might lodge in your brain, only for it to come in handy a week, month, or decade later.
The same logic applies to pop culture. No, you don’t have to watch every movie that comes out -- we like and respect you too much to suggest that you should subject yourself to yet another Transformers sequel. But taking a few extra seconds to really look over a movie poster in the subway station you’re waiting in will help you remember the name of a movie, when it came out and who’s in it. Not familiar with modern music? Throw a radio station on while you’re driving or working and try to catch as many song and artist names as you can, even if you’re only half listening to the music itself. It all helps in the long run.
"You're listening to a 4-hour, nonstop block of Cannibal Corpse."
Basically, if you want to get really good at trivia, you need to start spotting stuff in your daily life that’s probably going to pop up in the games. You don’t have to go out of your way for it if you don’t want to; you just have to recognize that it’s information that would be good to retain. Did a celebrity die? Try to file away the date. Did a big TV show just start or wrap up? Try to remember its stars. Was there an election? Remember the loser. The more you do stuff like this, the better you’ll get at it, and unlike going to the gym to improve your body, you don’t really have to change your routine to better your mind. You just pay closer attention to the world around you.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly ...
Trust Your Gut
Your first reaction in trivia is usually the correct one. Brains are weird like that; some fact that’s been lying dormant in its deepest recesses for years will pop up the instant you hear a relevant question, and before you know it you’re blurting out “The Muppet that got murdered in that one weird episode that they’ve refused to acknowledge was named Herbert!” If you’re drawing a blank then you can use the tips above to think the question through logically, but if you hear a question and immediately think that you have the answer, you probably do. At the very least, it’s probably the best guess you’re going to come up with, so you might as well run with it.
"... I hate you."
It’s when you question your initial reaction and start talking yourself out of it that you usually get in trouble. There is a caveat here: it never hurts to take a moment and verify that your gut hasn’t led you astray. Maybe you’re remembering a myth, or an old misconception you had, so you should review your own work. But don’t look for reasons to doubt yourself when you probably got it right the first time. The best part about this? The more you study up like we suggested, the more often your instincts will pay off. It’s all cyclical, and before you know it you’ll look like a genius, even though you did most of your studying without any pants on.
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