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February 19, 2008 12:08 PM   Subscribe

How do I become a trivia master?

I want to reign supreme on trivia nights. Any tips on how to better absorb obscure factoids and become familiar with fun trivia questions? Any websites out there with commonly asked trivia questions?
posted by engling to Grab Bag (28 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
Yeah, I'm not sure there's any orthodox way to prepare for it. Really, the only way is to practice -- go to bar trivia nights, or watch a hell of a lot of Jeopardy. Read a lot too.
posted by the dief at 12:28 PM on February 19, 2008

Try reading the Encyclopedia Brittanica, or just read AJ Jacobs book "The Know-it-All" in which he does exactly that. Interesting humorous read, and it's full of fun facts and such. Might be a good start!
posted by Grither at 12:29 PM on February 19, 2008

I have two that will help: Watch Jeopardy, do NYT crosswords daily (or equiv). Do both everyday.
posted by poppo at 12:30 PM on February 19, 2008

Yeah, I'm going to have to agree with Pollomacho.

It helps especially if those same insufferable pricks love to correct you any time you make a mistake (ie: misquote a line from a movie, forget the name of an actor in a movie, etc).

That said, the only real way to BECOME a trivia master is to watch lots and lots of movies, lots of TV, and listen to music obsessively.
I have a tendency to obsess over something intensely for short periods of time. I remember watching Farscape all the way through, start to finish, seasons 1-4, in about a month. Then I spent a month re-watching. Since then, I havn't really gone back, but still remember it.
I do the same with music... I'll latch onto an album and play it repeatedly for a month or so, then lose interest (however, every now and then, I go back).

Repeat this ad nauseum with all sorts of media, and you start knowing things you almost wish you didn't, because people look at you funny when you know the producer of a Skinny Puppy album that was made when you were 4 years old.
posted by smitt at 12:30 PM on February 19, 2008

If you're going consistently to the same trivia night, spend a couple of nights noting down some of the questions. The questions are probably aimed at a certain time period and audience. Are they asking about 70's music, 80's music, 90's music? Are they asking about historical events from hundreds of years ago, or happenings in pop culture in the last few months? What vintage are the movies they ask about?

Also pay attention to how in-depth the questions go in various categories. For a movie, do they ask about the director or the key grip? For an album, is it the year or the recording studio? You'll still have to study interminably, but at least you can focus your attention better.
posted by pocams at 12:34 PM on February 19, 2008

Read a lot. I attribute most of my trivia knowledge to the fact that I read literally anything in my vicinity.
Watch Jeopardy.
Trivial Pursuit. Sometimes I just go through the decks of cards by myself...for fun.

On preview, pollomacho and smitt nailed it.
posted by gembackwards at 12:35 PM on February 19, 2008

Another way is to expose yourself to different environments. You pick up the weirdest things from random places. Something you see at a new place you've never gone to sparks your interest, and all of a sudden you're looking up information about that topic. Some person says something or you see an ad that makes a claim (at places you don't usually frequent) that you go check out and scary enough, that claim is true. Things like that.

Follow your daydreams and investigate ideas. Hang around libraries/librarians/library websites. Seconding lots of reading (which will come along with all this dang inquisitiveness, trust me).

Here's a free one, browsed onto while investigating current events.
posted by cashman at 12:36 PM on February 19, 2008

The truly amazing J! Archive has enough good trivia questions to last you a lifetime. Or just work through a box of Trivial Pursuit cards with someone.

To build up a base of general historical knowledge, get yourself an almanac and go through US presidents, state and country capitols, famous battles, championship sports teams, billboard charts, etc.

To keep abreast of current events, scan the headline and lead paragraph of every story in a national newspaper every day. At the very least read Newsweek or Time every week.

Good luck.
posted by otio at 12:37 PM on February 19, 2008

For more "academic" trivia, watch Jeopardy every night. Read up online at websites like Mental Floss. Read the news every day, including the sports and entertainment sections. I'd also suggest buying a couple different styles of Trivial Pursuit and using the questions as flash cards - the sports and decade-themed ones will be most useful for pub nights.

For questions you're not totally sure on, if you're good at spotting patterns you can usually intuit a lot of the answers. The short answer, like everything, is that practice makes perfect. Get a group of friends together and a book of trivia (or even find sample questions from trivia leagues) and drill yourselves. If your trivia night uses buzzers, buy a set and practice with them or use some sort of analog - your reaction time is just as important as your knowledge in that case. At each trivia night you go to, write down the questions you didn't answer correctly and look up the answers, find similar information online, and study that category more intensely.

Pub trivia nights seem to focus more heavily on sports and pop culture than the more "academic" categories that Jeopardy and other trivia games do.

I tried out for Jeopardy twice and was captain of my high school trivia bowl team. Please don't take my lunch money.
posted by backseatpilot at 12:38 PM on February 19, 2008

On a recent 'This American Life', Bob Harris was interviewed about how he crammed for an appearance on Jeopardy. In the interview he talks about some memory techniques he used--you might find helpful. (And he wrote a book about his Jeopardy experience, too.)
posted by sexymofo at 12:38 PM on February 19, 2008

Best answer: One of my side jobs is writing 50 trivia questions a week, so here is my advice:

1.) Start reading:
--- the Schotts Miscellany series of books is absolutely indispensable.
-- the Dictionary of Cultural Literacy is a great general reference book.
-- Panati's Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things makes for some really entertaining reading.
-- Some people swear by Uncle Johns Bathroom Reader series of books.
-- Mental Floss magazine is pretty sweet.

For Online links, I like:
-- the Jeopardy Archive
-- I Did Not Know That Yesterday
-- I also spend a lot of time randomly surfing Wikipedia.
-- and also using the Stumble Upon toolbar to surf the subject word "trivia".
-- I didnt think of it till just now, but you could always search for "trivia".
-- Damn Interesting.
-- Jeopardy master Ken Jennings has a website, blog and books.

I'm sure there is more.. but that is off the top of my head.. ;)
posted by jmnugent at 12:42 PM on February 19, 2008 [43 favorites]

Every trivia night I've been to is a team affair. The answer is simple: bring friends with different strengths, and at least two who are obsessive about winning/recordkeeping.
posted by kittyprecious at 12:43 PM on February 19, 2008

If you're able to handle multiple sources of input at once, leave your TV on an "educational" channel when you're doing something else. I can't count the number of quiz show answers I've picked up from passively listening to the History Channel and the Discovery Channel.
posted by Nelsormensch at 12:50 PM on February 19, 2008

One thing I want to add:

Writing 50+ trivia questions a week takes me about 10 hours. Why does it take so long?... because there are A LOT of crappy, vague and just plain outright wrong "trivia" websites out there. If you really want to learn the CORRECT information/facts, make sure you dont take the first answer you find as gospel truth. Fact check and research it to make sure you arent learning misinformation.

As others have noted, another good tip (and something a lot of trivia writers fail at) is paying attention to how the questions are worded. Nobody likes a completely obscure question. Good trivia writers will carefully word the question with pointers/hints/tips... or enough information to get you in the ballpark so you (or your team) can put your heads together and figure it out.

Lastly, as others have said above, you need to just be a sponge for information. Watch/read the news daily. Stay up on current events and pop culture happenings. Listen to lots of music. Go out of your way to learn about subjects you wouldnt normally be interested in.
posted by jmnugent at 12:52 PM on February 19, 2008

I second the mental floss suggestion.

Also: sign up for Ken Jennings' weekly trivia email on his website.

I frequently host my local pub trivia night and since doing so, I've drastically improved - maybe something to do with the research necessary, or figuring out how the questions are written. If that's an option, I definitely recommend it
posted by troika at 12:54 PM on February 19, 2008

Response by poster: These are great. Thanks so much....
posted by engling at 1:01 PM on February 19, 2008

Not sure there is a good way to practice. I've had pretty good luck at various local pub quizzes with a ciuple different teams. But there are some things that come up a lot, that could in theory, be memorized or learned.

- US presidents
- Major wars and battles
- Olympics
- Oscar winners
- European royalty
- sports championships
(when is a pretty big thing for all the above, if for no other reason that making educated guesses about dates)
- geography in general and in particular us state capitols, and world capitols.
- some basic art history is useful

There tends to be lots of literature and music questions, not really sure of a good way to improve on that.
posted by alikins at 1:06 PM on February 19, 2008

A lot of these are good ideas. You should try a little of each of them. Watch every episode of Jeopardy for a couple straight weeks, and you'll start to get a feel for what those writers think is a good question. Their standard format is to include an extra hint in each questions to help you get it even if you don't know it. There are also a couple standard books that Jeopardy contestants read when they find out they're going to be on the show (check the Jeopardy forums).

But also try bar trivia, and more importantly, different bars with trivia. Do this a lot and you'll definitely come across the "standard" trivia questions. These are based around "firsts" and "mosts." Who was on the first People cover? What film was nominated for the most Oscars? If you try trivia in as many different formats as possible (game shows, board games, books, websites) you'll come across these over and over. They're almost like a handshake among trivia players, in that it's assumed all hardcores know these.

I wouldn't recommend crosswords for trivia (though they're certainly fun in and of themselves). When the same crossword answer comes up again and again it's because it has a lot of vowels, not because it's a particularly good trivia question.

Bookmark Wikipedia and go there everyday. Read everything on the front page. If anybody mentions anything at work you've never heard of, go home and read the article about it. Every movie or book or song you consume, go read about it. Always know the background of something, even if you're not the Cliff Clavin type who feels the need to spout off about it. Consume as much information as possible, though. Always have your laptop in front of you, to look something up. Buckle down and memorize a few lists. It's the least fun way to learn something, but it can really help. Take a week and work on presidents, then take another week and work on EU nations. In addition to the Jeopardy books, the NYTimes has a series on essential knowledge, and both Ken Jennings books are good (the first being more about trivia than filled with it). And of course the standby is the almanac. I'm a bit skeptical of just plowing through books like these (or flashcards) with hopes of retaining everything, but others swear by it.

Also, get smart friends who like to talk about everything.

Don't get stuck in merely practicing for or competing in only one trivia format, though. You might get really good at it, but it could be leaving out entire areas of the trivia world.
posted by aswego at 1:12 PM on February 19, 2008

You don't need to actually watch movies or TV, attend theater, or read books, to know about them for trivia. Take a major work you're not really familiar with (either the classics or pop culture), read a bit about it to get to know the major characters and basic plot. For TV or movies, the actors who played the major roles. Wikipedia tends to be reasonably good for this kind of thing. Maybe take a look at Wikiquote or other quotation sources to see if there's any particularly well-known quotes from the work. If you happen to be watching TV, don't flip the channel if a movie commercial comes on--another quick source for basic plot and primary cast information.

When you're playing trivia (bar trivia, Trivial Pursuit, just playing along with Jeopardy!, whatever), choose just one or two questions you missed, per night, and read up on those topics (Wikipedia, again!) to get the basic facts. Just pick whatever one seems interesting. Don't just look up the answer to the particular question you missed, but learn a little about the topic. Example: after missing a trivia question on the topic, and reading up on it afterwards, I can now name the people involved in the shootout at the OK corral, who was on which side, and who survived and who did not.

Break things into manageable chunks. Want to get better at geography? Naming the thirteen mainland South American countries (OK, twelve sovreign nations and one overseas department) is something which can be learned without too much difficulty. (Bonus: which two are landlocked?) 50+ African countries? You might want to split Africa into 4-6 regions and learn the regions one at a time.

If you learned things once before, and have found you've forgotten them, don't feel bad that you need to review. People often have to learn things multiple times before they retain them.

I recently came across the concept of spaced repetition, which seems to me an intriguing method which could be applied to learning trivia, but I haven't yet tried it myself.

If you're able to handle multiple sources of input at once, leave your TV on an "educational" channel when you're doing something else.

Ooh, good one. I've been a Food Network junkie for several years myself, and often have it on as background. I find that food trivia is now one of my strongest areas.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 1:21 PM on February 19, 2008

Ask Metafilter

Seriously. The wealth and breadth of knowledge (be it trivia or otherwise) on this site is staggering.
posted by slimepuppy at 1:24 PM on February 19, 2008

A few have mentioned Jeopardy! and Ken Jennings: I'll just add a specific recommendation for Jennings' book "Brainiac." It was a great read (I think Ken's hilarious) and he talks a lot about how people acquire knowledge over time. It's not a collection of tips, but it might give you a sense of how it's done.
posted by soonertbone at 2:34 PM on February 19, 2008

I see that no one has mentioned that tribe that haunts many campuses and from which many a gameshow and trivia night winner hails from, Quizbowl. As an example, Ken Jennings hails from the BYU quizbowl team and is writer for NAQT.

Anyway, here are some links for resources
Valuable Lists
Common References

Magazines already mentioned such as Mental Floss are always good and handy. The best way to be better at trivia is to write questions. Reading and writing reinforces the knowledge and if you are good you will continue on the reading.

I find that if you develop certain knowledge areas such as, the sexual habits of famous historical figures, can serve interesting niches on a team.
posted by jadepearl at 3:21 PM on February 19, 2008

Watch Cash Cab on the Discovery Channel!
posted by iamkimiam at 3:49 PM on February 19, 2008

Etymology may give you a light when memory leaves you in the dark.
posted by Tixylix at 3:55 PM on February 19, 2008

As others have suggested, get addicted to Wikipedia. This is a natural addiction for me, and I can look up something like "goat herding" and end up two hours later reading a page on Hitler's breastfeeding technique. Well, you get the idea. An inquisitive nature is certainly required for this, but I tend to look up everything and anything. Just a few minutes ago I learned that Harlem was named after a town in the Netherlands called Haarlem.. when am I going to use that knowledge?
posted by wackybrit at 4:24 PM on February 19, 2008

Find your weak points and research it in depth. Like, Ken Jennings did a lot of research into the "potent potables" (alcohol) stuff that pops up on Jeopardy! because, as a Mormon, he didn't know that stuff from every day life.
posted by dagnyscott at 7:59 PM on February 19, 2008

Buy yourself one of those "World Almanacs" that contain facts & figures on every country, city, person, and major historical event. Read a few pages EVERY DAY.

And, FWIW, grab a couple of Roger Ebert's massive books and begin plowing through the reviews -- you will be surprised at how much trivia you will accumulate this way. All major movies released within the last couple of decades, AND thanks to Ebert's insight, you will also glean an awful lot of pop-culture and trivia tidbits.

posted by davidmsc at 9:34 PM on February 19, 2008

seconding The Know-it-All by AJ Jacobs
posted by prophetsearcher at 1:45 AM on March 2, 2008

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