Ken Jennings


September 1, 2006

(In the second part of our interview with World Quizzing Association director Steven de Ceuster, which began here, he fills in American readers on the state of the (European) Union when it comes to quiz.)

Ken: I think American quiz fans are generally aware of what a big deal quizzing is in Great Britain (the popularity of pub quiz, the variety of televised and corporate-sponsored weekend quiz events, etc.) But I don’t know much about quizzing in the rest of Europe. How popular and widespread is quiz on the continent? What kind of venues are there for quizzers to compete? And what about Belgium in particular?

Steven: We have to make the distinction here between the televised quizzes and the “social” quizzes. In almost every European country, televised quizzes are very popular. This ranges from international formats from Who Wants To Be a Millionaire, The Weakest Link and (in the past) Jeopardy! to many local formats in each separate country. The main televised quiz in France, for instance, is Question pour un champion (“Questions for a Champion”), which was also shown in the UK as Going for Gold. In easier quizzes buzzers are used; in the tougher ones rarely. A strange (and in my eyes unfortunate) tendency is that the easier the quiz, the more money you can win. In some shows you win a car if you can spell your own name and in others shows weeks of mind-bogglingly hard question answered by university professors will earn you a crystal trophy.

As for non-televised quizzes and really quizzing as part of the popular culture, it really depends from country to country. In some countries like Belgium, Estonia, Russia, Lithuania and obviously the UK it is really popular. In others like Norway, Finland, the Netherlands, Germany, Croatia it is currently picking up at fast pace. In France there are clubs where their favorite TV format are played. But when I talk to people of Southern Europe I have a hard time even explaining what I mean with “quiz.” In some countries the word “quiz” is a bit alternatively defined. In Lithuania, for instance, the quizzes are a combination of pure knowledge and logic thought. Sometimes quizzing is only popular in a part of the country; in Belgium it is only played in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking part (luckily the vast majority of the people live there).

Who organizes these quizzes? Well, that varies a lot. Easier quizzes can be organized by a local football team (soccer obviously!), a school or a city council. In that case they would use their own buildings, for instance a community center or a cafeteria. Tougher quizzes are organized by quiz teams themselves who rent, for instance, a community center for an evening. In Belgium this is possible for something like 75 to 200 Euro (so some 90 to 250 US$). In other countries it’s normally more expensive.

As for Belgium, and more in particular Flanders, dozens of quizzes are organized every weekend which are open to all. Not bad for a region with an area comparable to that of Delaware (a selection of those can be found in the Belgian Quiz Calendar).

In Belgium, quiz is seen as a team-sport. Most quizzes are for teams of 4 or 5 per team. An average quiz would have 40 of such teams competing. So that means that every weekend some 5000 people quiz in Flanders.

Some quizzes are easy, some are relatively hard and some are very hard. The 12 most prestigious (and often hardest) quizzes are grouped in a mini-competition called the ‘Superprestige’ and winning that competition is one of the most acclaimed trophies in quizzing in Belgium. Many of the questions of these “hard” quizzes can be found here (albeit in Dutch). One is in English because it was part of the European Championships in 2004.

The format is normally something like this: 10 to 15 questions are read, possibly with pictures, music tracks or video added. The teams write down their answers on the provided answer sheets. After each round the papers are collected, the correct answers are read out and the sheets are corrected by a jury while the second round takes place. Normally 100-150 questions on an evening for a quiz that starts at 8pm and ends around midnight. Apart from these ‘plain’ rounds we use ABC-rounds (in which 26 questions are asked, each starting with another letter of the alphabet), link rounds (every answer is also a world capital, for instance), super-rounds and many other formats.

All quiz results are grouped together in one ranking (compare it to the ATP ranking in tennis). In that ranking some 550 teams have earned points and many more are trying to be part of the ranking. The current ranking (August 1, 2006) can be found here.

K: Belgians took three of the top six spots at the most recent World Quizzing Championships. How (other than obvious inherent Belgian superiority!) do you explain the popularity of quizzing in Belgium and the success of its top players?

Well first of all, Belgium is a small country, tiny even, and has many bigger cultures really nearby. Drive from my home 15 minutes to the north and you’re in the Netherlands, drive one hour to the east and you’re at the German border, drive an hour and a half to the south and voilĂ : la France.

Furthermore, England is pretty close by and many television shows are American, French, German (in original version but with subtitles) and so are the movies. Most people go on holiday every year to France, Spain, Switzerland, Austria, Italy or Greece. What I’m saying is: we’re really immersed in a lot of different cultures and learn about them as part of our education. Not a bad preparation for a world quiz championship.

Second, we don’t really have very much national pride. In some countries, say France, the national identity is very important. Belgium, however, is somewhat of an artificial state defined in the 19th century to provide a buffer against France and is composed of two totally different peoples who have little more than the national football team in common. Which means that our view of the world does not end at the national borders. Far more than half of the television news and newspaper coverage deals with international issues. Also in our quizzes, questions on Belgium are less than half; in harder quizzes it would rather be around 10%.

Thirdly, the Belgian school system is pretty good. Four languages (Dutch, French, English and German) are normally taught in high school. Literature and culture of foreign countries is on the curriculum. Universities are practically free and open to all who want to register (well, there’s a yearly fee of around US$500 unless your income is low).

Finally I guess many Belgians feel an urge to “prove themselves” and show their teammates, competitors, and the world what they know. And maybe that’s what a lot of quiz players look for. “What is the point of knowing something, if the others don’t know that you know it?”

K: Describe the average European quizzer, if you can. Is there such a thing? Does the profile vary from country to country?

S: Oh, this is a tricky one. Even in Belgium there are many different kinds of quizzers. The majority of the quizzers are just people on a night out, who don’t care too much about the result. Then there are the diehard quizzers who read the newspaper every day, make notes of current events, browse the Internet for information and take every opportunity to visit a museum or watch a documentary on TV, always taking notes. In between there are the quiz players that have some enormous knowledge in one or two specific areas (e.g. pop music, science, art) and seemingly don’t need to do a single thing to keep it evergreen.

A couple more things about the “average” European quizzer: he is male, Caucasian, of higher than average education (many college graduates), and the best ones tend to be around 40 years old.

K: Do you have a personal favorite quiz question?

S: I have some but I singled out the following two. Firstly, because they translate easily to English, and secondly because they’re so different. The first one deals with American history and it’s such a coincidence that it’s hard to believe (and it’s a good example of a typical Belgian paragraph-long question):

November 8, 1811: in the then-Northwest Territories, between the Ohio and Vincennes rivers, the Indians lead by the Shawnee chief Tecumseh are devastatingly beaten by the army of General William Henry Harrison. A year later chief Tecumseh would die in batlle against the same Harrison. When the latter then became a candidate for the presidency, the brother of Tecumseh (nicknamed “The Prophet”) cast a curse that implied that Harrison, and after him every president elected every 20 years, would die in office. And behold–1840: Harrison dies of pneumonia, 1865: Lincoln is shot; 1880: Garfield is shot; 1901: McKinley is shot; 1923: a stroke kills Harding; 1943: Roosevelt dies of an haemorrage; 1963: Kennedy shot in Dallas. The curse seemed to have lost power in 1980 when Reagan survised an attack. This curse was named after the lost battle on November 8, 1811. What is it called?

The second is a not too difficult question, that everyone can figure out:

What classic 17th-century book can be cryptically described like this: “HELL 1 – HEAVEN 0”?

Posted by Ken at 10:38 am