This piece of mine was published on Sunday (June 29) in Mail Today.
It’s Sunday, and you’ve had enough of boring op-eds and opinion pieces all week. So let me start this piece with a quiz question about cards: In Texas Hold’em Poker, which hand is known as ‘six tits’?
If you don’t know the answer, I encourage you not to shift your eyes to the end of the piece, where I reveal all. Just look at the question one more time: as the Beatles would say, you can work it out.
Every two Sundays, a diverse group of people meet in an office in a Mumbai suburb and ask each other questions like this. They are the Bombay Quiz Club (BQC), a group I co-founded on April Fool’s Day, 2006. Most Indian cities have clubs with a much older pedigree – the Karnataka Quiz Association of Bangalore celebrates its 25th anniversary today, and the K Circle of Hyderabad predates that by a decade. But the kind of quizzing all these clubs do is rather different from what most Indians understand of the term.
To most Indians, quizzing is about knowledge. You are asked a question: you either know it or you don’t. If you don’t, the quiz is terribly boring. There might be drama about who is winning or losing, but beyond that narrative, your brain isn’t being made to work. You might as well watch a soap opera.
But attend a quiz by the BQC or by any of these other quizzing clubs and you’ll find a different dynamic at play. You will find that the quizzing they do is not so much about knowledge but about problem solving. Even if you don’t know a question, you can still work it out by clues given in the question. Sure, you still need to know things: but if you’re intelligent and have a basic interest in the world, you have a crack at solving any question. A 100-question quiz then becomes not a boring event where you know some things and are clueless about others, but a challenge in which you try to solve 100 brainteasers, often with the help of team-mates in a collaborative process that is immense fun.
For example, here’s a question I asked in a quiz last year: “X is a unit of hype. One kiloX is equal to 10.42 days. One MegaX is equal to 28.5 years. What is X, and why is it so called?”
When I asked this question, I also advised the teams to use their calculators. The team that cracked it was the one that figured out that X was equal to 15 minutes. The answer, then, was obviously Warhol, who had famously said: “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” Now think of what a boring question this would have been if I had simply asked: “What is the unit of hype?”
Every well-framed quiz question should lead to a Eureka moment. You are asked a question, you search it for clues, one teammate suggests one strand of thought, another suggests an alternative, you rack your brains and suddenly it all falls into place. My friend J Ramanand, the last man to win Mastermind India, expressed it beautifully when he wrote: “Working out answers is sometimes like tugging at the loose thread in a sweater. A decent yank & the whole thing unravels magically.”
To illustrate this, here’s a question framed by the quizzer Arun Simha: “H0H 0H0” is a postal code used by Canada Post for routing letters sent in Canada to which person?”
The question is bewildering – until one notices that H0H 0H0 can also be read as Ho Ho Ho. Yank that and you come to Santa Claus. (Jabba the Hutt is also associated with that laugh, but any reasonable quizzer would eliminate that option, for why would Canada Post care about Jabba the Hutt?)
Here’s another question, framed by a BQC quizzer, Sumant Srivathsan: “If ‘three short – three long – three short’ (. . . – – – . . .) is Morse code for SOS, where would you be most likely to come across ‘three short – two long – three short’?”
The ‘three-shorts’ are the clue. Clearly the second code stands for S-something-S, and when you work that out, you start thinking of what the missing letter could be. M? SMS? And then you remember the default Nokia ringtone for incoming messages (“beep-beep-beep, beeeep-beeeep, beep-beep-beep”) and the answer falls into place.
Imagine how boring the question would be if it was framed thus: “In morse code, which letter does ‘two long’ stand for?” Or “What is the default Nokia ringtone for incoming messages inspired by?”
I was recently asked by a friend, whose only acquaintance with quizzing is via Kaun Banega Crorepati, how I prepare for a quiz. The answer, of course, is that one can’t prepare for this kind of quizzing. Schoolkids may buy Malayalam Manorama and learn capitals and currencies, but the best quizzers are simply people who live life fully. They show an interest in the world around them; they read a lot; they watch films and listen to music; they are culturally aware; they keep in touch with the news. And when quiz questions pop up that touch on any of those areas, they have a chance at cracking it, even if they don’t know the funda behind the question.
Ah, fundas! Quizzers use that term a lot. What does it mean? Loosely speaking, a funda is an interesting fact at the heart of a question. Every good question contains a little nugget that tells you something you didn’t know already. Sometimes this is trivial, sometimes not. But the net effect of a good quiz with solid fundas is that you end the quiz not just entertained by it, but also more knowledgeable about the world in a meaningful way.
A connect question in a quiz is one in which you are asked to find the common thread running between a few different elements: four visuals, say, or a video, an audio and a picture, and so on. But, in a way, all of quizzing is about connecting. We look for something in the question that we are asked that we can connect with the world we know. And when a funda is new to us, it expands that world. If it’s interesting, it might even increase out interest in a particular area of knowledge. We might finish a quiz wanting to see a certain film or read a particular book, or simply looking at something in an entirely new way. To extend Ramanand’s analogy, after we yank the thread and the sweater unravels, we find other uses for that wool.
So the next time you’re playing poker on a Sunday and your opponent beats you with a hand that has three queens in it, congratulate him (or her) for holding six tits. Then walk right out and find a good quiz to take part in. It’ll be worth your while.
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I’ve earlier written on this subject here: The Joys of Quizzing. Also check out this three part primer by J Ramanand and Niranjan Pednekar: 1, 2, 3.
I do all my quizzing at quizzes organised by the Bombay Quiz Club, and if you’re in this city and would like to try out quizzing, please do. For other cities, check out the KQA (Bangalore), K Circle (Hyderabad), Boat Club Quiz Club (Pune), QFI (Chennai) and the Qutab Quiz Club (Delhi).
More more essays and op-eds by me, click here.