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Trivia Expert and HQ Winner Paul Paquet Knows the Secret to Savage Questions

As HQ Trivia continues to aggravate more than half a million people every day, players are struggling to find a way to get a leg up. They’re Googling answers quickly; they’re forming secret chat rooms to pool answers; they’re reading entire encyclopedias in the hopes of getting a slice of that sweet, sweet prize pool.

But for Paul Paquet, HQ has been a breeze. That’s because his job is literally writing trivia questions, and he’s come up with tens of thousands of them. He also runs the Trivia Hall of Fame, which you might find useful if you want to bone up on some random facts before the next round. Paquet has hovered near the top of the leaderboards since HQ launched, racking up hundreds of dollars in winnings, and was kind enough to offer Select All his thoughts on the app, as a long-time trivia expert.

How did you get started in trivia?
I’ve been doing it literally as a profession, as a job, for about, at least, ten years now. So I’m literally a trivia professional. In the ’90s, I did a job for a client and I still had the questions afterward, so I was trying to find ways — as writers do — of repurposing the questions, and getting more money from them. So we did two things: We started a pub trivia league here in Ottawa, and I started the website where we were selling questions. We did stuff for Microsoft Encarta, a whole bunch of clients like that. And as time went on, the league got bigger; the league got big enough that I was able to do that full time. And I still do database sales every now and again.

So when QuizUp launched a few years ago, about a third of the questions they started with were my questions. Yeah, so stuff like that. I’ve done stuff for Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader; I did stuff for an edition of Trivial Pursuit. Between those two revenue streams, it’s been enough to keep me busy.

How does trivia writing work? What’s that process?
I am basically always on in terms of getting ideas for questions. Because everything around you can sometimes be ideas for questions. I read a lot of magazines. It’s a way of keeping young, too, because I’m on top of video games and web memes and shows on the WB that I would never be interested in otherwise. Pop music, of course. I listen to new music and stuff. So I’m always on the lookout for ideas for questions. Things just pop up all around you. I bought a notebook; I take pictures of things so I remember.

A great question is like a joke where you provide the punch line. And the best questions are the ones where it takes a little bit of thinking, but if you think it through, you get to the answer. The best reactions I get in pub trivia is where I can tell that a team is thinking about it, and suddenly the bell has gone off in their head and they suddenly realize what the answer has to be, and I see the whole team light up and go, “Oh, yes! Of course, of course!” And those are the ones that people like getting the most. If you happen to know who the 42nd president is, that’s fine. But if you’re able to figure it out from the clues buried in the question … My approach to writing is to make the questions fun rather than just a raw display of what you know. I was writing one the other day which was “You’re breaking my heart. You’re shaking my confidence daily. You’re also the patron saint of music in Catholicism. Who are you?” And Cecilia, that’s a reference to the Simon & Garfunkel song, and Cecilia is also the patron saint of music. I like having little flourishes in there, little ways to get to the question from the question itself.

So what do you think of HQ?
Having written a hundred thousand questions myself, normally I’m a really harsh critic of questions, but I really like it, because one of the restrictions they have is that the questions have to be very short. A lot of the tricks that I have for embellishing a question and making it fun are not available to them. And it has to be gettable and also short. And the fact that they can do that, I think is really interesting. They’ve got good writers there that are putting together solid stuff, given the really tight restrictions that are on them.

The other thing I think that they’re doing (and this is just my impression) I think that they’re aiming to get a number of people winning $50 each time, at least if not more. Because I think they’ve realized that that’s sort of the threshold where people will go onto social media and say, “Hey, I won $80, $105 on HQ,” and that’s the threshold I think they’ve figured where people will start inviting their friends and talk about it on social media. Because if you notice the number of winners now, sometimes you’ll get things where there are like 100 winners, but I think what they’re aiming for is to get 10 to 20 each time. There was one day where it was very, very clear where they wanted one winner, one big winner. Because the questions were extremely difficult and very tricky. So I think that there was at least one day where they wanted one or two big, big winners, and that’s what they did when somebody won $1,500 that day.

Do you have any sort of advice or any sort of strategy for playing it? It happens so quickly.
I have to admit I have a leg up because it’s literally what I do for a living, so I have a leg up in that way. Extra lives really help. I’ve gone all the way about a half-dozen times now, and I think I’ve only managed it once without an extra life. So that’s important. And the other thing, I’ve noticed especially in the questions six to ten area, if you’re just guessing randomly anyway, to go counterintuitive and pick the thing that you think might be the least likely. That’s often what they’re doing now, in that middle block they’ll have what they call the Savage Question, where people who went with the likeliest possibility turn out to be wrong.

Got it. That’s actually extremely helpful. We all just sort of stand in a circle at 3 p.m. and try to talk it out in the five seconds we have.
Sometimes my wife, who is also really good at this, plays along with me, but it’s tricky to have to do that, because you’ve got so little time that you risk creating more confusion. So between the two of us, we’ve got a bit of a system where the more confident she is, then she’ll say something.

How do you feel about that sort of collaboration? Do you think it’s cheating or is it fair game?
I just think it’s what people are going to be doing anyway; I just don’t think it’s all that helpful. I think, even though I have Laura playing alongside me, I don’t think there have been many times where she’s gotten an answer to me in time to make a difference. But if you’ve got two people with very different skill sets, then absolutely. And I’m sure that’s happening anyway. I don’t think that it’s even something that they want to stop. They had a video once of the people in Jimmy Fallon’s office all playing together, so I don’t think they’re put off by that.

At times there have been people who have been voice-reading the questions into an app and getting the answer. I guess that would be cheating, but that would be tough to pull off, because you have to read it quickly, get the answer quickly, and hit it all in ten seconds.

Do you think the app can sustain its popularity or do you think it’s going to drop off quickly, flash in the pan?
It’s hard to tell. I don’t know if you remember QuizUp, because QuizUp was enormous there for a few months and they dropped off. I know some of the people on the leaderboard, and some of them have gotten frustrated and stopped playing. When I won, I was the only person to win $500 [the entire prize pool] one time, but there were only 30,000 people playing. As you get more and more people, it becomes harder and harder for them to have that sweet spot of people winning enough money to talk about it, so the questions have gotten harder and harder. And there are also more instances where the question is clearly designed to knock a whole bunch of people off the board, which is frustrating. The other issue that comes up, too, is that if you have half a million people playing, the odds of just simply hitting the button randomly and going all the way to the top increase. Once they get on Android and they have all the Android players, if they want to keep hitting that sweet spot, they’re going to have to either make the questions harder, which will frustrate people, or live with smaller pots for everybody.

This has also been a very contentious argument in the office, so I have to ask you: What do you think of Scott?
I like Scott, but I can absolutely understand why you wouldn’t. I think the tough part of his job is that for some technical reason, he has to vamp between questions and he has to fill the dead air between the questions, and the fact that he is able to do that is, to me, an impressive skill. But I can absolutely see where you would find it annoying.

What do you plan on doing, or what have you done, with your winnings?
It’s funny you mention that. It comes up to a fair amount. And I’m not sure yet, to be honest. I would like to do something big and fun, but I just haven’t thought of what. I’m a little bit frozen because it is just such a nice chunk of money that I want to do something special with it, and because I want to do something special with it, I can’t think of what to do. It’s not enough for a trip, for example — actually, you know what? I do think I know what I’m going to do with it, because I have a birthday coming up in January, and I think we’re going to go to New York City. That’s what’s going to pay for that. Literally talking to you, I’ve decided what I’m going to do with it. We’re going to go to New York City and celebrate my birthday. I’ve got a friend in New York who runs a trivia game on Saturdays, so we’ll go see him.

And maybe you’ll run into Scott.
Yeah, that’s right! Who knows? Who knows?

Trivia Expert Paul Paquet Knows the Secret to HQ