The quiz-biz


For a large part of my life, from when I was about 10 years old till I left college, I used to take part in quizzing competitions. A couple of times, I’ve had people ask me how they could start quizzing, or what preparing for a quiz would entail. This is a question I have some difficulty answering, because I have never really prepared for a quiz. In fact, procrastinating while trying to prepare is pretty much how I learned some of the different tidbits that have helped me win different quizzing competitions. Looking back at quizzes I’ve participated in the US, India and the UAE, I notice that in a manner somewhat evocative of the plot of “Slumdog Millionaire”, most of what I know is just due to “life”. An open mind, an inkling of inquisitiveness and a few fortuitous forays into (frankly) frivolous fields would aid anyone on a quest in the quizzing world. Here, I recount three snippets from life that helped me on the journey.

Drawing b(l)anks

The first significant quizzing memory I have is from a Standard Chartered quiz I had taken part in while in the 7th grade. This was my first time representing my school on stage, and I was both happy and surprised to have made it. The event had just started, when Derek O’Brien, the quizmaster, told us that if we said “bank” before answering, we could double our points. Quiz competitions usually have some dumb gimmicks, to “spice things up” for the 200 or so people watching who would rather be elsewhere, so this was not as strange as it may seem. It also seems like the most pointless way you could try and sell someone on the idea of giving you some money (“Hey Standard Chartered, for 100$, we will get contestants to say ‘bank’ a bunch! Get it? Free publicity since you are a bank! Groan”). We didn’t get an opportunity to drive up Standard Chartered’s stock price until a few rounds later:

A word that means "to fix an object firmly and deeply in a surrounding mass" has also been used with respect to journalists in the Iraq war. What is the word?

The question was a direct question to our team. “Bank”, I said. At this point, both my mother and my teacher (who were watching) were wondering why this kid was upping the stakes for a question that he at best may be able to guess at. On stage, however, I was sure I knew the answer. To tell you how I knew the answer, we must take a short detour through what life is like in a typical Indian home.

Here’s a simple question - as a 12 year old Indian kid, what would you be watching when your favourite TV show is on? Whatever your parents are watching, of course! As patriarch, my dad had supreme authority over the remote control and what he (& my mom) wanted to watch was coverage of the Iraq war. So, that’s what I watched. The news - all day, everyday. BBC, CNN and then some more BBC. I resigned myself to my fate. Fast forward a few months, and we are back at the quiz.

“Embedded”, I said.
“Are you sure?” Derek O’ Brien asked.
Why the hell would I be “bank"ing, otherwise? I thought. “Yes”. “20 points to the Indian High School!” he announced in a manner not very dissimilar to Dumbledore. My mother and my teacher were amazed that I knew this and I was a little annoyed at how dumb they thought I really was.

But, it says it right there!

Pilani, where I went to college, was an interesting place for quizzing. Most of the questions - the format, the style and the content - were not what I was used to back in Dubai. I really didn’t want to continue quizzing past school, but college offered a truly appealing incentive - cash. I decided to go for a few quizzes, met a few quizzers and managed to convince a couple to let me on their team. Now, I could actually win some money - or in some cases treats to free food - and as a college student, I’d take what I could get.

The audio-visual (AV) quiz held during Oasis, Pilani’s “cultural festival” was one of the bigger quizzes. On-screen, a flag was displayed. The challenge was to identify who the flag belonged to. While the other teams got down to trying to enumerate Arab entities that could have reason for using a green and yellow flag, I blurted out, “But, it says it right there!”. You see, growing up in the Middle East, I had to learn Arabic for 10 years. By the time I finished school, I could hardly speak or understand the language. But, I could read the script! The flag on screen had the name of the organization clear as daylight - if you read Arabic. Utsav, my teammate, gloated (as only he can do), yelling out, “Arre isko arabi aati hai!” [Hey, this guy knows Arabic!]. Once the question passed to us, “Hezbollah” netted us a cool ten points, much to the quizmasters’ chagrin at us not having to “figure anything out”.

Pure thumb luck

In primary school, I came across a book on cats, and a similar book on dogs. My parents may have bought them for me, but I have no recollection of that, so all I can assure you is that I came across them. Both books were very similar - they contained pictures of various breeds of cats (or dogs) and the names of the breeds. The books didn’t have any further information, but, regardless, I read each page. As soon as I finished reading both books, I knew I was a dog person. I went back and “read” the dog book a few more times through my childhood, and that’s probably where my love for animals first began. Disney films, chock-full of animals, served as the perfect complement to this curiosity, along with some plastic animal figurines, including from “The Lion King”, that lay around my house. One of these was of a white tiger. Growing up, I was told erroneously that these were called Siberian tigers. Many years later, while browsing the vast expanse of information that is Wikipedia, I learned that this was not true! Having a piece of information that took years to correct seemed to indicate to me that this was not a well-known piece of information. Now, all of this may seem trivial, but I heard no complaints from my stomach when I won a free “paneer frankee” in a bet against a friend who was sure that Siberian tigers were white tigers.

However, besides the Siberian misnomer, my parents provided lots of useful (and, at times, incorrect) information about animals in response to my questions. Before Wikipedia, they were my best bets for finding useful information. While four year olds usually play with cars and dolls, my parents bought me some dinosaur cards. These cards contained pictures, names and possibly some details about various dinosaurs. Although I didn’t really “keep in touch” with dinosaurs (they are extinct after all… huehuehue) in the years that followed, the information nestled itself in some part of my brain. Fast forward to 2003. A large dinosaur’s image is projected onto the screen and I hear the quizmaster ask our team to identify the dinosaur. This was a bad question - one where you either know it, or you don’t. Good questions usually have some clues embedded that require you to connect them and build towards the answer. Sometimes it’s tough to say what’s “in vogue”, but I don’t think school students were bullish on dinosaur names improving their social status. Just one of those things that changed in the last 65 million years, I guess. Still, from the trenches of my mind, I dusted off what I had once gleaned from those cards, and hesitantly asked, “Iguanodon?”

“Why did that inconsequential name not disappear from the limited list in my brain? Was it because of the dinosaur’s weird thumbs? The quizmaster told us that that is what piqued his interest. Was it because the absurd name (Iguana?!) amused my 6 year old brain?” I wondered, as ten points came our way.


It’s only normal for a kid growing up to be enamoured with stories. Usually these stories are folk tales, picked from “Aesop’s Fables”, “Grimms’ Fairy Tales” or maybe “Panchatantra”. Around grade two, though, I was audience to stories that I’m assuming are not normally narrated to a six-year-old. My sister, eight years older, was preparing for her exams and as (I’m assuming) the restless younger sibling, I was all ears. No topic was out of bounds. The details of social injustices like sati, dowry & child marriage (on which she had written a report for school) were considered par for the course. While most topics were interesting because of their novelty, there was one topic that was immensely thrilling due to how it was presented.

Instead of superheroes fighting supervillains, my sister’s explanation of her ninth grade history textbook’s take on World War 2, for me, embodied the quintessential battle between good and evil. From Hitler & Mussolini, to the tragedy of the holocaust ending with the Allied powers storming in to save the day, I was hooked. History is an easy thing to dull, by focusing on numbers and facts, instead of the story behind the peoples involved. This perspective on wars and history never really changed as I grew up. The madness that pervades reality has a far greater allure than the artificial settings in a work of fiction.


The most absurd answer I’ve heard in a quiz competition

End part 1