The art of good guesswork

Over the past year or so, I have become a big participant in pub quizzes. Quite quickly, I gained a reputation among my friends for being reluctant to guess.

This is an issue for our pub quiz team, because we have a few major weak areas. Part of this is down to our youth. All of us are around 23 or 24, making us among the very youngest of the regulars. As such, we are disadvantaged when it comes to questions about decades before the 1990s. This quiz contains many ‘guess the year’ questions. We also have big gaps in our knowledge in films, television and sport.

As such, it is important for us to be able to guess. So I understand why my fellow team members might be frustrated when I begin to pick apart the guesses we do make.

But the notion that I don’t like guessing is not quite true. What I cannot abide is bad guesswork. This is because I have realised there is a real art to guessing.

Taking a complete stab in the dark won’t do. Questions themselves are full of clues, even if they have been neutrally written. You just need to sniff the clues out.

I often ask myself questions about the question. What makes this an interesting question? What makes it something worthy of a pub quiz? Is it something topical? Is the answer perhaps amusing or ironic?

Many are tempted just to put down any old answer, as it’s better than nothing. And that’s fair enough if you don’t have a better idea. But bland answers don’t make pub quiz questions.

A few weeks ago we were given the following question: “Who starred in a 1950s public information film saying, ‘take it easy driving; the life you save might be mine’?”

I have to admit I didn’t have the foggiest idea. But I started to ask questions about the question. Why is this question interesting? It won’t just be any old person, because bland answers generally don’t exist in pub quizzes. It might be an interesting answer if the person who appeared in a public information film about speeding went on to die in a car crash.

So then I moved on to thinking of famous people of the 1950s who have died in a car crash. One person immediately sprung to mind, and it seemed like the perfect answer: James Dean.

Later, when the answers were announced, our quizmaster — and the owner of the establishment — started chuckling as he read over the answer to this particular question. “If anyone gets this right, I’ll give them £100.” It was looking good for us — my suspicion that it had to be an ‘interesting’ answer seemed to be correct.

The answer was indeed James Dean, and we were the only team in the whole pub to get it right. Sadly, the landlord didn’t stay true to his promise, even when we suggested a donation to charity!

Here is the “public service announcement” in question (which, according to Wikipedia at least, isn’t actually a public service announcement at all):

For me, this was one of the highlights of my pub quiz career so far, for a variety of reasons. Due to the format of this particular round of the quiz, for our team this question was the most important of the 25. So it was ultra-satisfying to get it right.

The amazing thing is that I didn’t have a clue. I had never heard of this footage. I just read the question and sniffed the answer out.

It underlines the importance of good guesswork. Every other team in the pub took a stab in the dark. Perhaps if they had asked questions about the question, more of them would have got it.

Sadly, even excellent guesswork skills aren’t quite enough to fill in all the gaps in our knowledge. While a few times we have won the “bingo” round (which involves a heavy element of luck), we have yet to win a proper pub quiz round. We are getting closer though, and I am learning more about how to guess all the time.


  1. We did win once…were u not there?! and a few stab in the darks have actually helped us out occasionally 🙂