Quizmasters: ‘It’s not about being the smartest person in the room’

Quizzes have had a renaissance during the lockdown, but for some people they were always a way of life

Quizzes are having a moment. Under lockdown, quiz nights on Zoom have become a regular occurrence. The quiz creation and learning app Kahoot! is among the most downloaded apps on the App Store. One of the most talked-about television programmes of the last few months has been Quiz, ITV’s starry retelling of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire’s coughing scandal.

For most people, quizzes are a very casual pastime. However, there is a cohort for whom quizzing is a serious pursuit. These people can confidently tell you how many furlongs are in a mile and who shot JR. Before lockdown, they attended quizzes weekly, sometimes travelling long distances to do so. For their efforts, they regularly win cash, prizes and vouchers.

What is it about quizzes they love so much? And how does one become a top-tier quizzer?

For Colm O’Sullivan, quizzing was in his DNA. His late father John was a “quiz machine” and once won 53 quizzes in a single year. “Dad would go to quizzes locally whenever there was one on,” recalls O’Sullivan. “He’d come home and ask questions around the dinner table. I’d always be looking to answer a few questions.”


As soon as he was old enough, O'Sullivan started competing in table quizzes with a team that included his father and a few school friends. They would scour the internet for details of upcoming quizzes. "Any quiz around Dublin, we would identify it and go and compete in it," he says. In 2009, they won the All Ireland Quiz, a competition broadcast live on The Ray D'Arcy Show on Today FM. He estimates that his team still wins 80 per cent of the quizzes they enter.

“People have this notion that there are ‘professional’ quizzers going around,” he says. “For 20 years, we were that team – and still are.”

O’Sullivan and his teammates have taken part in quizzes in hundreds of venues across Ireland, mostly in Dublin and surrounding counties. From the prizes to the questions, they can throw up “everything from the sublime to the ridiculous”, he says.

His team once attended a quiz in Moynalty, Co Meath in which the quizmaster asked a question intended to stump blow-ins like themselves.

"He said, 'What is the name of the cul-de-sac – now I don't want the real name, I want the name it's known as locally – where so-and-so lives?' We were like, 'What are we going to do with that?' The answer he wanted was The Congo. "

So, what does it take to excel at quizzes? “It takes a certain mindset to be good at quizzing,” says O’Sullivan. “It’s a particular kind of memory. It’s not an intelligence thing so much as it’s how your mind works. You need to have a good memory for details.”

Over the years, he and his teammates have developed certain techniques that help keep them match-fit. They "read or listen to the news and filter it like, 'This is happening in the news. What could be asked about this?' For example, Donald Trump is defunding the World Health Organisation. What would be asked about that? 'Who is the head of the WHO?' Something that will be askable as a quiz question."

O'Sullivan and his teammates are not alone in regularly attending quizzes. In fact, Ireland is home to a booming quiz scene. "Before the lockdown, pub quizzes had never been in a better state," says Dan O'Malley of the Irish Quiz Organisation, which promotes quizzing as an activity and hosts different tournaments and events.

A die-hard quizzer himself, O'Malley once won €3,400 on Crossfire, a television quiz show broadcast on TV3 and hosted by Sean Moncrieff. Last summer, he secured a gig writing questions for Mastermind Australia. The fact that there are no quiz shows being produced in Ireland is a personal bugbear of his.

"You look at the UK where you have The Chase, you have Pointless, you have University Challenge, you have Mastermind," he says. "Despite all of that, nothing on RTE and nothing on Virgin Media. I think the market is wide open there for a new quiz show along the lines of classic Irish quiz shows like Where in the World? and Blackboard Jungle."

As part of his work with the Irish Quiz Organisation, O'Malley helps run the Dublin Quiz League, which sees teams of four compete against each other in a series of quiz "matches". The matches are held once a month between September and April with an overall winner being crowned at the end of the season.

“Every year we have had more and more teams take part,” says O’Malley. “For someone who is good at their local pub quiz and wants to try something a little more competitive and harder, this is a good stepping stone. It’s a great social thing as well.”

Alan King takes part in the Dublin Quiz League every year. King, from Dublin, is a quiz veteran. Before he turned 13, he joined a team in Walkinstown Library and took part in a quiz league around south Dublin. Around the same time, the board game Trivial Pursuit was released. He recalls playing the game with his uncles for money. "That was the start of it," he says.

These days, King tries to squeeze in table quizzes whenever he can. As he works in the arts, there is usually no shortage of fundraiser quiz nights taking place. He and his friends recently came out on top at the Dublin Film Festival’s annual Film Quiz. “That was pretty good and the prizes were decent,” he says.

But there is one quiz he wants to win above all others. "There's a group called the Theatrical Cavaliers which is a cricket team set up by a bunch of actors," he says. "Every year they host a huge table quiz and it's expensive. I've been going for years and I've never won it, but that's the Premier League of quizzes. The prizes for that are really good."

Though it might be somewhat gauche to acknowledge, prizes are one of the key draws for quizzers. Last year, Dan O’Malley and some friends travelled to Kells to take part in a quiz. After being crowned the winners, the team was invited on stage to take part in a sing-off. “Whoever the audience liked best would win a trip for two to Las Vegas,” explains O’Malley. “My rendition of YMCA with hand gestures won the day. I won the trip to Vegas. Myself and the wife went there back in January and we had a great time.”

It's not a coincidence that we're all a bit nerdy and into the pursuit of knowledge

Rachael O'Byrne and James Rooney are two other quizzing enthusiasts. The 20-somethings first got into quizzes when they were in college. "It's not a coincidence that we're all a bit nerdy and into the pursuit of knowledge," says O'Byrne. The pair are part of a quizzing quartet in Dublin. Pre-lockdown, they would meet up and go to a weekly table quiz led by Donall Hoey in The Grand Social. What kept them coming back?

“I feel like I always gain something from a quiz,” says O’Byrne. “I’ll always come out of it remembering a couple of facts. You never feel like you wasted a couple of hours when you take part in a quiz.”

For Rooney, a PhD student in Trinity College, quizzes allow him to take part in a team exercise. "I wasn't terribly good at team sports growing up," he says. "But I have a pretty good memory and I know a lot of general knowledge-y stuff so it means I can take part in a team and not be the weaker link, which I find quite enjoyable.

“It’s like spending your teenage years on Wikipedia and listening to niche music suddenly pays off.”

According to Rooney, the gender imbalance at quizzes is “noticeable”. O’Byrne concurs. “It’s a male-dominated environment,” she says. “But that doesn’t mean it’s unwelcoming at all.”

With pubs closed and social distancing on the cards for the foreseeable future, pub quizzes are unlikely to take place for a while yet. So how are quizzers faring without their regular quiz fix?

“There are a lot of quizzes going on online at the moment,” says O’Malley. “With all the pubs being shut, a lot of the folks who normally run pub quizzes are turning their attention online and running quizzes via Zoom or other video conferencing apps.”

I’m doing that just to scratch an itch and keep my hand in. Some of them are quite good. Last night I won €100 on one of them. There are good cash prizes to be had out there.”

Others have resorted to old habits. “I’ve re-downloaded QuizUp,” says King, referring to a popular mobile quiz app. O’Sullivan prefers Sporcle.com. “I like Sporcling a lot,” he says. “That’s a good resource if you want to improve your quizzing.”

In the meantime, the advice for budding quiz aficionados is simple: give it a try and have some fun.

“That’s what it’s all about,” says O’Malley. “It’s not about showing off or being the smartest person in the room. It’s about having a bit of craic. If the useless knowledge in your head wins you a few bob, then all the better.”


Be inquisitive Curiosity pays off in quizzing. Internationals standard quizzers read newspapers and take note of details that seem like potential quiz fodder.

Little black book Colm O'Sullivan brings a little black book to quizzes and takes note of the answers his team submits. That way he has his own record lest organisers make a mistake while totting up their scores.

Practice makes perfect If you really want to get better at quizzes, then you should do as many quizzes as you can. The more you do, the better you get. "It's a bit like crosswords that way," says Alan King.