Ken Jennings


August 31, 2006

Steven de Ceuster is one of Belgium’s foremost quiz gurus and a co-founder of the International Quizzing Association. He kindly agreed to be interviewed on this blog on the subject of the World Quizzing Championships, which he helps organize (well, organise), and on European quizzing in general. As you may recall, I’m fascinated with how prevalent quizzing is in European culture, and with the idea of a prestigious national quiz tournament, a Super Bowl of trivia, so I wanted to find out more about the IQA’s events.

About a thousand players took part in the last WQC, but, until now, there hasn’t been an official leg of the event here in the States. I did take the quizzes via email earlier in the summer and had a great time–though my unofficial final score out of 210 (somewhere in the 130s) would have barely made the top ten. Steven feels, as do I, that something like the WQC could really take off in the States, but the quiz types he’s talked to so far haven’t seemed interested. If you’d be interested in playing in the WQC in North America, or have ideas on how to get the word out to the right people, let me know.

Ken: You’re one of the directors of the annual World Quizzing Championships. Describe how that event functions, for someone who’s never seen an international quiz competition.

Steven: Well, I’m one of the directors of the IQA, the International Quizzing Association, of which I am co-founder. The IQA organises the World Quizzing Championships (WQC) as well as other quizzes.

The IQA was founded a couple of years ago by quiz enthusiasts from different countries and has grown over the years to include more countries. Most members of the IQA are representatives from the official quiz federation of their country, or if there is no official federation, of the biggest quiz organization of their country. Founding members were the UK, Belgium, India and Estonia, who were later joined by the Netherlands, Singapore, Malaysia, Finland, Norway, Croatia, France and Germany. People from other countries like the Philippines, Australia, Rumania, Ireland, and the USA have participated in events, but as individuals rather than official reps of their nations.

The aim of the IQA is to elevate quiz to a similar status as other mind-sports like chess and bridge. For that reason we have been working with quiz organizations from around the globe to develop and run international events. Until now 5 such events have taken place: 3 times a European Championship and twice a World Championship (plus a test event in England in 2003).

The WQC is an inidividual written quiz that is organised around the globe at the same time. In Western Europe the time is 3pm to 5pm on June 3rd (which means it will be morning in the US, evening in India, late evening in Malaysia; for countries like Australia where this would be past midnight, a difference of max 2 hours is allowed).

The quiz consists of 240 questions, to be answered in a maximum allowed time of 90 minutes. The questions are divided over 8 categories of 30 questions each, as listed below:

  • Culture (comprises Fine Art, Architecture, Religion/Mythology,…)
  • Entertainment (Pop Music, Classical Music, Television,…)
  • Media (Film, Literature, Comics, Language…)
  • History (History, Current Affairs,…)
  • Sciences (Exact Sciences, Social Sciences, Flora, Fauna, …)
  • World (Geography, Technology, Transport,…)
  • Sports (Sports, Games, Records,…)
  • Lifestyle (Food & Drink, Fashion, Tourism, Design,…)

The total score of an individual is the sum of the best 7 categories. So the worst category can be dropped (this was originally done to attract more women to the competition so they could drop ‘Sports’ and now it is part of the rules). The result on the worst category however will be taken into account in case of an ex aequo.

To assure fairness, the knowledge of English (or any other language) should not be a deciding factor. That’s why for the WQC all questions are translated to the native language of the participants. In Belgium most people get the questions in Dutch, in Finland in Finnish etc. They will all be allowed to answer in their native language too.

This format is probably very different of what you’re used to (believe me, it’s very different from what we do in Belgium normally). Obviously buzzers cannot be used for a WQC because of the distances and the language problem.

The people participating in the event are assembled into one venue to ensure there is no foul play (like working in groups, taking more than the allyoted time, using reference works or the Internet) where a country representative is present. This guy coordinates things in that country and will not participate in the quiz itself. Obviously, a big country can have multiple venues (India had 4 this year: Delhi, Pune, Bangalore and Calcutta), but in every venue there was a trustworthy person to oversee the event and send the scores.

The idea is that within 1-2 hours after the end of the event the complete scores are e-mailed to some central location (normally in the UK) where they are all processed and the results are then re-distributed to the various venues so everywhere the result can be announced.

K: Does the WQC have corporate sponsorship, and therefore prizes for winners? Does it receive media attention of any kind?

S: Well, the WQC was sponsored by Microsoft last year (more in particular MSN Search) but the amounts were limited and only used for the costs of the venues. The IQA provided a trophy for the overall winner and the national organizers provided prizes for the local winners and category winners. These trophies were stuff like Britannica Encyclopedia on DVD, books on art, history etc. and stuff like that. Not comparable (yet) to what you win on TV shows.

Media attention grows every year. In Belgium news of the WQC was picked up by most national newspapers (on average an half-page article) and was in the national evening news (a 2-minute item). Last year the European Championship gave us a 15 minute slot on prime time (9pm). In Sri Lanka there was also television coverage and in other countries it was mainly covered by radio and newspapers.

K: Is the WQC the only event of its kind, or are there other chances during the year for quiz fans to compete with players from other countries?

S: Apart from the WQC, the IQA also annually organises a European Championships (EQC). The EQC is an international face-to-face event that takes places once per year in a location somewhere in Europe.

The EQC consists of following quizzes:

  • Individual EQC
  • Team EQC
  • Pairs EQC
  • National Teams EQC

The individual, team and pairs competitions use formats that are choosen by the organizing country. The national teams EQC follows a fixed format that was devised by the IQA. After a selection round, the 4 best teams play semifinals face-to-face and finally a final.

International quizzing saw the light at the first EQC, in Bromley (London) with only 2 countries present (England and Belgium). In 2004 the event took place in Ghent (Belgium) with participation of quizzers from England, Belgium, The Netherlands, Estonia, Norway, Wales and Scotland. This event was completely filmed by Belgian television and broadcast (a summary) during prime time (9-9.30pm) on public television.

In November 2005 the event took place in Tallinn (Estonia) with quiz players representing England, Belgium, The Netherlands, Estonia, Norway, Wales, Scotland, Croatia, Finland, Rumania and Ireland.

Next event will take place in December 2006 in Paris and will also see for the first time the participation of quiz players from Germany, France and Lithuania.

People who want to quiz all the time against international competition or who want to find out the latest about international quizzing, can visit the International Quiz Forum.

K: You were also one of the question-setters at the most recent WQC. What do you aim for when designing a quiz for participants of dozens of nationalities? Is it really possible to make a quiz “culturally neutral”? Do you recall any particular challenges or troublesome questions in this regard?

S: What we aim for in the first place is a quiz that is fair for all. This is not an easy task as most questions (especially on the more cultural subjects, like literature, movies, music, but also those on sports, history and geography) somewhat favor people from some one or another cultural background.

We try to tackle this in three ways:

We acknowledge that some questions will favor some countries and other will favor others. What we try to do is have a pretty fixed split on the questions. For instance on literature: we will ensure that some questions are on English-language literature, some on French literature, some on Japanese, Russian etc. Those percentages are pretty strict. Obviously we only once every few years will have a question on, say, Finnish literature. This may seem a disadvantage for the Finns, but as they belong to a smaller cultural community they are assumed to have a bigger interest in other-language literature than someone with English as mother tongue. What we also try to ensure is that a question about a certain country is not impossible for people from other countries. For instance, television reporters can be very well known in one country, but does a guy from Sri Lanka has a chance to know them?

The other way in which we want to ensure fairness is to have it made and checked internationally. The set of 240 questions, divided over 8 different categories, is made by an international team of professional or semi-professional question setters. At the last WQC the team was comprised of one person from the UK, one from Estonia, one from India and one from Belgium. The team makes sure that every subject is represented and also that the questions are fairly spread geographically. An extra question setter from somewhere in the Americas would probably be good. The questions that were set are then sent to responsible parties in all countries who can vote what questions actually will make the quiz (we normally make 3x too many questions) and in some cases can veto questions which they deem would give an unfair advantage to any given country.

All the questions are originally set in English, but are translated to the native language of the quiz players (except in India, where because of the multitude of languages English is used as lingua franca).

Every year it’s quite an exercise to get it exactly right. We know we are never going to please everyone. But as long as the remarks that “the questions were too foreign” are equally spread over all nations, we probably are not doing too badly. Another proof is that in last year’s WQC there were 6 countries represented in the worldwide top-10 and that there were category winners (or joint-winners) from 8 different countries.

In the longlist for the last WQC there were a number of questions we had to delete because they were untranslatable. Especially questions where two or more clues are given are sometimes difficult to translate, or where one thing is derived from another. Here some questions that were vetoed:

St. Audrey died in 679AD of a throat tumor which she blamed on the vanity of wearing pretty necklaces. Thereafter silk ribbons were called St Audrey by merchants in the Middle Ages. Cheap and bright substitutes of the same appeared soon for general use. What term has entered the dictionaries as a result? (Answer: “tawdry,” from “St. Audrey.”) Untranslatable.

An imaginary creature in the children’s book If I Ran the Zoo by Dr. Seuss in a passage in the book says, “I’ll sail to Ka-troo / And bring back in it a kutch, a prelep and a proo, a nerkle, a ______ and a seersucker too.” The book was published in 1950 and was the first to use the word left out. It was earlier used to imply a dull, unattractive person though now the usage is somewhat different. The word please? (Answer: nerd.) Untranslatable.

Antelopes and gazelles rely on speed to escape from predators. However, impalas and springboks have another form of evasion. They arch their backs and leap repeatedly 10 feet up in the air, thus disconcerting the attacker. What is this evasive action called? (Answer: pronking.) Not every language has a name for this.

In greyhound racing, at the starting point dogs are restrained in stalls by leashes. These stalls have a specific name which has been borrowed by cricket for a fielding position. What name? (Answer: slips.) Deemed impossible to know for foreigners.

Sometimes the problems occur in unsuspecting places. Imagine the answer to a questions is “blue.” No problem? Wrong. In Italian there is apparently no word for the color blue. The words “celeste” (light blue) and “azzurro” (bright blue) and “blu” (dark blue) are used. So an Italian would have to know what kind of blue is meant before he could answer the question correctly, making it a bit harder. In Japanese there is no “normal” word for “sister,” only for “older sister” and for “younger sister”: same problem.

K: What’s in the future for the WQC? In its third year, it certainly seems to still be gaining in popularity.

S: Well, the WQC still seems to be expanding. For next year we’ll probably have some new countries like Denmark and Sweden but also in Africa and Asia there seem to be more countries that could join. We would also welcome some American or Canadian organizations to work with us and organize legs at various places in North America.

Apart from that we are working very hard on establishing a sponsored “final” to the WQC, which would mean flying the top players from the different countries to, for instance, the UK to have there a televised showdown. At the moment I can’t tell too many details because negotiations are ongoing, but I’ll let you know when it materializes.

(In the second half of the interview, which I’ll run tomorrow, Steven talks about the larger world of European quizzing, and attempts to answer the question I always ask myself when I look at European quiz standings: “Why Belgium?!”)

Posted by Ken at 11:29 am