Cheating in pub quizzes

This is the big topic for anybody who runs or attends any kind of quiz night these days. Once upon a time it was about people sneaking a look at reference books in their bag. Then it was about texting friends to ask them for help, or indeed for them to look something up for you. But nowadays it is like an arms race between quiz teams who cheat, quiz teams who don’t cheat, and the quiz master. There are so many tools available to the quiz cheater, and so many people seemingly willing to use them.

So in this post we’re going to look at who is cheating, why they are cheating, and how they are cheating. We’ll also look at a selection of counter-measures that can be used by quiz masters. As always we’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Who is cheating at pub quizzes and why?
I have seen all types of people cheat at quizzes – old, young, male, female, clever, stupid, and people from all nationalities and social demographics (actually, people from countries without a pub quiz culture are more likely to cheat from my experience, probably because they don’t know and therefore are less able to respect pub quiz convention). The most obvious explanation is that people cheat, or try to cheat, because they don’t know the answer and want to know. But it is more than that.

People cheat because they are too lazy to work out the answer – because we live in a world in which you can hear something that you don’t know much about (be it on TV, in a conversation or anywhere) and within seconds have full details on the subject on your smartphone to read some background. This means that we have become accustomed to always knowing the answer in real life. If you are a smartphone user, or someone who spends a great deal of time with access to the internet (and let’s face it, this applies to most pub quiz goers) you are incredibly rarely in a situation where you can’t very rapidly get hold of some information you don’t know in your head. In other words, we no longer cope with a situation of “not knowing”, and for many people the solution to that situation is to look something up. And that of course is fine in a social/work context, but it defeats the point at a quiz night.

You could say that the sort of people who cheat at quizzes are those who don’t care about the conventions of a quiz night – or more likely simply don’t care about the quiz at all and don’t want to be there. They don’t want the mental effort of thinking because they have become so used to instant technological access to answers. This tends to be more of an explanation for attendees at corporate quiz events – to which non-quizzy participants will generally go because of social pressure from work colleagues – compared to pub quiz nights which most of the participants are enthusiastically and voluntarily attending. Yet cheating is a problem in the quiz at your local pub just as much, if not more, than at a work quiz night. So this “not interested” explanation doesn’t cover a big chunk of quiz cheating.

We can cover some of the remaining cheaters as people who should know the answer and don’t want to look stupid/want to look cleverer than they actually are in front of their team mates or rival teams (which could often be friends/foes/work colleagues).

In this category are people whose response to being challenged with wikipedia in full flow in their hands is: “I used to know that/I read that the other day, so looking up isn’t cheating, it’s refreshing my memory.” This brazen response usually comes from people who are supremely self-confident and can justify to themselves and to their teammates that this is entirely “acceptable cheating”.

At a pub quiz, where you might not really know the other teams (except by repute or frequent attendance at the quiz night), there is no shame in getting a question wrong that other teams get right. In fact, at some quizzes the opposite is true. It is indeed very common to see teams gleefully boasting that they know nothing about “Glee” and are pleased to have got it wrong (whether they actually feel this, or are just making their excuses for not winning the quiz is academic here: my point is that there is a way to cope with lack of knowledge that does not reduce teams to cheating). So do people ever cheat at a pub quiz to avoid looking stupid? Yes they do, but it is just as likely to be one rogue individual on a team cheating without the knowledge of his/her team mates. If a question comes up on a team member’s “specialist subject” then the pressure is on. I would suggest that a large number of cheating incidents at a pub quiz are committed by one or more members of the team, unbeknownst to their team mates. And as such any accusations against that team can be quite easily denied – it only requires one person on the team to be a good liar. My conclusion here is that a team that cheats may in fact be an honest team with one bad egg that the team itself is not aware of.

At corporate quiz nights (which is very familiar territory to us) it is perhaps easier to understand why people might cheat to avoid looking stupid. Most workplaces are very competitive, even if not on the surface. Put people into teams, and make them compete on anything and the competitive juices start flowing. This is emphasised when the people are work colleagues and the real prize for winning the quiz is not the cheap bottle of champagne but gloating rights for months (or indeed years. Who can forget the time in 2003 when Bill’s team of shelf-stackers from the warehouse came from behind to win the work quiz night on a tie-break against the team from Accounts?). So we sometimes see people trying to cheat at company quiz nights to avoid the ignominy of coming last, or to take the glory of coming first. In short – to avoid looking stupid in front of work colleagues.

The most obvious reason for cheating at quizzes ought to be a desire to win the prize. There are pub quizzes out there with £500+ jackpots, £100 bar tabs etc. People might see the (albeit relatively modestly sized) dollar signs in their eyes and end up using subterfuge/fraud to get their hands on the prize – but is this really different from a drugs cheat in the Olympics or a benefits cheat? Not really, and when the prizes are large it isn’t just “a bit of fun” but actually it is just fraud. Wikipedia, that great quiz resource, defines fraud as “intentional deception made for personal gain or to damage another individual…defrauding people or entities of money or valuables is a common purpose of fraud… [as is]… to gain prestige…”. Clearly the consequences of pub quiz fraud are unlikely to be more serious than being booed or banned from the pub. It is a fairly well known phenomenon that winning anything, however small, stimulates a buzz, so this could explain people who cheat for even small prizes.

How do people cheat at quiz nights?
Once upon a time cheating was looking something up in a book or nipping out to the phone box to call a friend, but technology has advanced dramatically. We’ll look at some hi- and low-tech cheating methods.

Low-tech
At school, cheating will often mean “copying” from another student. This definitely still happens in quizzes: teams try to sneak a look at other teams’ answer sheets. I’ve seen this done very surreptitiously and very conspicuously: someone goes to the bar, but weaves their way round a few tables glancing towards the answer sheets; someone talks to the quiz master and tries to sneak a look at his computer or question sheet; a player leans over to talk to their friend on another team, all the while casting their beady eyes towards the answer sheet; a team sends a scout to try and steal another team’s answer sheet (yes, really, I’ve seen this!).

Then there is cheating by eavesdropping / overhearing. The former is, I would say, cheating. The latter is, I reckon, carelessness by the team speaking too loudly! If you genuinely hear another team say something, then it is really impossible not to at least throw that answer into the mix for your team. I’ve run a handful of quizzes in which several teams have all put down the same unlikely and uncommon wrong answer to a question, although there are explanations other than mass cheating for this phenomenon (like shared experiences at work places). The flipside of this is that you get teams saying comedy wrong answers deliberately loudly to try and put other teams off the scent (although occasionally they’ll say the correct answer out loud having completely missed the point of the question).

Mid-tech
Send a text to 63336 and they’ll text you back the answer (this is the phone number for AQA, Any Question Answered). Or send a text to your friend or just sneak outside and call them. They can look the answer up for you. Not much more to say about this really. If your friend is so good at quizzes that they can tell you the answers without looking up, then they should be with you at the quiz night…and if they are looking things up online for you, then that is much naughtier.

Hi-tech
I reckon that you could have most answers to most questions at most quizzes answered pretty easily with Wikipedia, Google Maps, Google Goggles and Shazam. Assuming a pub has 3G access (and many even have Wifi) then most smartphone users will be able to do their cheating under the table or in the toilet or outside whilst “taking a phone call from their dad”.

  • Wikipedia – well I think most people know about Wikipedia, the single greatest knowledge resource ever known to man. For even faster mobile access try the Wikipanion app.
  • Google Maps – an underused but stunningly powerful quiz research (and hence quiz cheat) tool, and not just for Geography questions
  • Google Goggles – finally, a way to cheat on picture rounds. It works best on pictures of celebrities, logos, paintings – I believe it works on anything that Google can look up in its database and see if it has the same picture in its database.
  • Shazam – a way to cheat on music questions. Shazam only needs to hear a short snippet (less than 10 seconds) of some music and it can compare it to its database and tell you what it is.

The other higher-tech cheating technique I have seen combines the good old “text your mate” with Twitter. This works particularly well for celebrity quizzers with vast twitter followings. We ran a Hallowe’en quiz with Paul Daniels in 2011 which had an almost entirely celebrity audience (TOWIE type celebrities). During the quiz, the Twitter feeds of the participants were buzzing with requests for help from their followers.

How to stop people cheating

For every reason that people cheat, and every method people use to cheat, I believe there is a counter-measure, or combination of counter-measrues. There is a lot of crossover in preventative techniques, as well as some general principles, all of which should combine to reduce or eliminate cheating. So here we go. This is how you stop people cheating:

Fire up the mobile phone jammer and configure any available wireless networks not to accept connections from mobile devices for the duration of the quiz, and/or monitor all network traffic on your wireless network so you can see what sites people are visiting and what they are looking up.

OK, this is a bit unrealistic, and probably illegal. Let’s try some realistic ways to stop people cheating:

1. The quiz master should start the quiz night with a firm instruction about phones. Try this: “Before we start, a very important announcement about iPhones, Android devices, Blackberry phones, or anything else: keep them out of the way, keep them off the table, and in your bags or pockets. If they are seen at any point during the quiz, it will look like you are cheating, even if you are not. We don’t want anyone to be unfairly accused of cheating, so keep your phones out of the way. Turn them off if you dare.”

If you see someone using their phone during a quiz, pick them on it very rapidly, and do it publicly and humorously. Even if you can see they aren’t cheating, you need to emphasise the message about phones being kept completely out of sight. Mobile phones in quizzes are just an unacceptable as phones in the cinema or theatre, albeit for very different reasons.

2. If the prize is large, you could consider adding to the announcement above: “We’ve got a big prize tonight, and as such we will treat any attempts to win it using anything other than the brains of your team as fraud. Please don’t make our life complicated. Keep your phones out of the way and switched off. If you can’t trust yourself not to use them, then you can hand them in at the bar for safekeeping.” This is a bit extreme, but seriously – if people are cheating to win large sums of money off other punters at the pub, then why is that any different from another type of theft/fraud? I don’t recommend using this line unless you have a genuine, evidence-backed concern about the integrity of your participants.

3. Make the first 5-10 questions of the quiz quick and easy. Every team has to feel that they could have got 10/10 on the first 10 questions. As soon as you throw in a question that teams could never have got (because it is too hard/specialist etc.) then you risk people cheating. It’s ok if they end up getting 6 or 7 out of 10, as long as they feel they could have got 10 out of 10. People cheat if they feel that is the only way to get to an answer.

4. Ask some questions early on that every team will get or get close to, but that they have to go through some easy to identify thought process to work out. e.g. ‘In the ‘Wizard of Oz’, which one of Dorothy’s three main companions does she encounter first on the Yellow Brick Road from Munchkin Land to the Emerald City?’ Why does that work? Well, pretty much everyone has seen the film. They might not remember it that well, but they will be able to establish that it is multiple choice. They know they can at least make a guess. They have some options to discuss. You have to ask questions that people can get their teeth into. If you ask a question and see that nobody is making any progress on it, then give them a little handle to be working on.

5. Get some answers and scores given out within the first 15-20 minutes of the quiz. Show people that they are getting things right.

Points 3-5 are about showing people early on in your quiz that the questions will not be so difficult that they need to consider cheating to get answers. It gets people into the habit of answering questions from their knowledge (because the questions are accessible). It shows people that the fun of the game is in using your brain, not in looking things up, and by giving some answers and scores early on your provide positive feedback for this, correct, way of the participants getting to answers. Which brings us onto the next one…

6. Don’t ask questions that are too difficult or boring. Each question that you ask that nobody in the quiz knows or finds interesting massively increases the chances of people cheating. If you don’t let people interact with your quiz in the way you want them to because your material is unsuitable then you push people towards using their technology. Yes, I am saying that a badly set quiz is often a reason why people cheat.

7. Don’t give people longer than they need between questions. Keep an eye on your audience and understand the difficulty of a question. If a question is easy, move on to the next one quickly. If it is hard, give them enough time to get into the question, but not so long to start looking things up. You can tell how teams are getting on by watching them, and seeing the level of their thinking/discussion. If you give them more than a minute or so to work out the answer to a question not only will they get bored but it then gives them time and space to start on the dirty deed. If you keep the momentum going, then any effort to cheat on a question will be interrupted by the next question coming along, and so and so forth. The net result is that any sustained cheating effort will become more and more obvious as a player will have to be permanently attached to his/her phone to keep up.

8. Ask some cheat-proof questions, like lateral-thinking questions, or connection questions. Actually, totally cheat proof questions are difficult to set week in, week out, what with all the tools available to the well-prepared and determined quiz cheat. And indeed a whole quiz of puzzles, observation questions, and backwards-music clips could quickly become tedious. You need the variety, and you need to reward honest quizzers for their knowledge.

9. To counteract Google Goggles cheats on picture rounds there are a few options. First – you can add some kind of fuzziness or scrambling to your pictures. Second – use non publicly available pictures from paid-for picture libraries (although this can be expensive). Google Goggles generally doesn’t cope with those, but it is an expensive option. Thirdly, and most fun (but regular quiz teams and indeed any regular quiz cheats will catch on to it, so use it sparingly and intelligently) put in a high quality picture of someone not famous or recognisable but who has a significant online profile, e.g. an academic, or a very famous popstar from another country who has no profile at all in this country. Any team getting it right is probably using Google Goggles.

10. Ask teams to identify a famous phone number. “Which service would you reach by calling the following number…” and then give them a SkypeIn number you have set up specifically to divert to a cheapo pay as you go mobile phone that you have bought. Anybody who calls…well, ring them back and when their phone rings expose them as cheats.

11. Play music between questions to stop teams overhearing each other.

12. You could consider offering two prizes at the quiz: one prize of £5 or a single pint of beer for teams that wish to use their phones during the quiz, and the proper main prize for everyone else who plays honestly. Set a simple rule that as soon as you see a phone on a table, or being got out of a bag or a pocket that is automatic entry into the “cheats” competition. The danger with this approach is that you risk tempting people to try and cheat without detection, but I have heard of this system working well in some pubs, particularly ones in which there are a few very strong “real teams” and a lot of weaker teams. You then actually have some fun seeing if the technology can overcome the real quiz teams.

My best advice to prevent cheating is a combination of a firm, but good natured, warning at the start and engaging, gettable questions. As we wrote back in December in a related post:

“There is far more to preventing cheating than having Google-proof questions. In fact, counter-intuitively, one of the techniques used by our QuizMasters to prevent cheating is the exact opposite of having Google-proof questions. If you can start the quiz with a selection of questions which would be easy to find on Google (or any other cheating means) BUT are engaging enough and interesting enough and gettable enough that players and teams realise the enjoyment is in working out that they know them, then you are onto a winner. Players discover that the fun is in the challenge of working out that they know the answers (or can work them out) without resorting to naughtiness.”

This is a big topic…we would love to hear your thoughts on any of this, and indeed any other cheating counter-measures you have tried or seen used effectively.

9 replies
  1. Barry Bridges
    Barry Bridges says:

    In 6 years of hosting pub quizzes I can honestly say that I don’t think I’ve witnessed a quiz where cheating has been allowed to be a problem. That’s not to say that it might not be on other occasions; rather, a good quizmaster should be able to behave in such a way to deter it or else reduce its effect.

    First and foremost, I think attack is the best form of defensive. To some extent, being playful around the topic of cheating and almost *encouraging* cheating reduces the ‘naughtiness’ aspect of it, which tends to put teams off. Some teams cheat simply because they view a pub quiz as a chance to show off in front of friends or colleagues: by cheating, they are defying the system. So, to legitimise it neutralises the threat. This might include pro-actively encouraging teams to share or cheat – or better still, make it known that you are open to fair bribes, although this is risky.

    One tip related to the above might be to inform teams that whilst answers are being collected, quizmasters are on hand to give them hints on up to three answers. I know some pub quizzes where the quiz master gently ambles around seeing if he can nudge teams that need help in the right direction on questions they are stuck on – far preferable for people to know this might be available than to resort to underhand means.

    Problems generally only arise when a) a small number of teams are cheating, b) other teams know that those teams are cheating, c) the cheating teams win and d) the cheating teams win by virtue of cheating. This is an incredibly rare occurrence and – quite fortunately – I tend to find that those teams that cheat are usually not ‘pub quiz types’ anyway, and so are rarely at the pointy end of proceedings once the final results are calculated.

    Reply
    • admin
      admin says:

      Interesting. I suppose one line that could be taken by the QuizMaster is: “If you really want to cheat I can’t and won’t stop you, but frankly what’s the point? We can organise a “who is better at using their iPhone” contest another time, and I’m sure you’d do well in that.”

      Reply
    • trevor
      trevor says:

      tend to walk round and hint.were needed music questions ie play 20 seconds of music (that’s not enough for music apps Thu you are told 10 i found you need more time i tried it took shazam 23 ) and pictures plus speech at start about not using smart phones and i will make comments if i use wiki or google in the question about them knowing all about said groups

      Reply
  2. S512
    S512 says:

    I will agree with everything above.

    Depending on the audience, you can approach cheating from a hard-line “do it, and you’re banned” or a very soft”don’t do it, it makes you look silly” stance or something in between. There is a lot of ways, depending on whether people are going for high-value prizes or prestige or something else.

    But I think the fundamental rule is that if you are running a quiz and do not want cheaters, say so, and find a way to enforce this. (This is the second half of #1).
    You can try to look over each table, or have people walk around the place and try to spot phones. As long as something is done, you will lose most of the simple obvious methods of cheating, and that’s a major part of the game there.

    Also, my pub runs through a written test, twenty minutes to answer twenty question. They announce and enforce a rule that no one is allowed to go to the bathroom during those times. It gets a laugh but it cuts off another simple obvious avenue for cheating, and I’m ok with this.

    Great articles. Cheers!

    Reply
  3. Richard
    Richard says:

    I host a popular quiz once a month and because I am in a booth I don’t get to see what everyone is getting up to. However at half way, before the first set of questions are marked, I always a announce that i will be going for a fag and if I see enough people on phones that I think may be trying to get answers then I will come up with an alternative result at the end of the quiz. In other words I tell the participants that at the end I might decide, due to the amount of perceived cheating , the team that comes 4th will be the winners. It always confuses people especially when you see them factoring in how they could strive to come 4th….

    Reply
  4. Dominic
    Dominic says:

    A very interesting read. I thought the passage about starting pub quizzes with easy questions as a way of discouraging cheating to be rather ingenious. I say this because my local pub quiz employs such a tack and I had never really considered the impact. My local also utilises your suggestion about announcing early in the evening that cheating will not be tolerated. On the whole I consider cheating at my local pub quiz to be a low incidence problem (of course this is just my perception) and at the end of the day you want participants to perceive that they have an equal chance to win as any other team sans iPhones.

    Reply
  5. Anne
    Anne says:

    I find that most teams police each other and will tip me the nod to keep an eye on a team that they think might be cheating. I have a roving mike so I’m constantly moving around the room throughout the quiz, making it more difficult to cheat.
    If I’m absolutely certain that a team is cheating then I add ten points to all the other teams scores thus ensuring that the cheats never get to win the quiz.
    I have approximately 3 very difficult questions in every quiz (I think most Quizmasters get to have a good idea of what their regulars will and won’t know) and if one team gets all of those correct, I know that I will need to keep a close eye on them in future.

    Reply
  6. خرید
    خرید says:

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  7. Mario Martini
    Mario Martini says:

    Is this thread still open? I go to a quiz where there is a team that uses a phone in every round. The quiz master has been told but just shrugs his shoulders and says there is nothing he can do. Is a quiz, where money is put down, not a contract? If you pay for a straight quiz and don’t get it does the ‘house’ have some kind of obligation to provide one?

    Reply

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