It’s almost like a parody of what mid-20th-century Americans would have predicted quiz programs would look like in the future: a real-time, app-based game show that only can be played from smartphones and tablets, complete with psychedelic graphics, strange music and a daily audience of players that exceeds 800,000.
Welcome to HQ Trivia, which launched in October 2017 and is taking the country by storm, propelled in large part by its Jewish emcee, Scott Rogowsky, who refers to himself as the “Semitic Sajek,” or “The Meshuggeneh Martindale.”
Twice each day, at 3 p.m. and 9 p.m., the emcee poses a series of 12 trivia questions, increasing in difficulty, that players have 10 seconds to answer by choosing from three multiple choice responses. Players who get all 12 questions right — which is really hard to do — split a pot of cash, usually $2,000, but sometimes up to $10,000, and on Super Bowl Sunday totaled $20,000.
HQ has become a daily ritual in a lot of offices across the country, with workers slipping away from their desks at 3 p.m. to huddle around one or more smartphones, pulling their collective knowledge in an attempt to win a slice of the pie, which usually ends up being somewhere between $10 and $25, once it is divvied up among those players throughout the country who have answered all 12 questions correctly.
Last Tuesday, the staff of the Chronicle stepped away from their computers and stood around publisher and CEO Jim Busis’ iPhone to try their hand at the game everyone seems to be talking about.
I was charged with tapping our responses on Jim’s phone — which turned out to be (spoiler alert) a big mistake.
Here’s how it played out:
An enthusiastic Rogowsky, decked out in a suit and tie, appears on the tiny screen and greets his audience of 850,000 players, who he refers to as his “H-Qties” (or is it H-Cuties?).
“Live from the greatest city on Earth, the city that never sleeps, Tuscaloosa, Alabama,” Rogowsky jokes.
After giving shout-outs to a few players celebrating birthdays, he offers quick instructions on how to play and announces that the current game’s cash prize is $2,500.
“Think of all the cut-rate plastic surgery you could afford with that kind of coin,” he says.
Then he dives right into the game with the first question, asking: “Which of these Muppets is green?”
I’ve got this one, without even seeing the three response choices; and once they appear on the screen, I confidently tap “Kermit the Frog,” not even needing to consult my co-workers. For the record, the other choices were Swedish Chef and Miss Piggy.
Despite the easiness of the question, 12,000 players are eliminated.
Question 2: equally simple, an inquiry into what product’s packaging states “do not insert swab into ear canal.” The choices are Rice-A-Roni, Q-Tips or Oreo Cookies. No problem there for the astute staff of the Chronicle, although 20,000 other players are tripped up on that one. To be fair, though, none of those products actually belong in an ear canal.
Moving on to Question 3, we have a Jewish angle: “Which of these holidays does not involve fasting?” Quickly eliminating Yom Kippur and Ramadan, we all agree it’s Easter and, starting to feel a bit smug, are ready and psyched to move on to the next round. More than 200,000 of our competitors, however, are not so fortunate.
Question 4 asks, “Which of these three Supreme Court cases dealt with the First Amendment?” Channeling knowledge from a previous life, I recall the answer is New York Times Company v. Sullivan, and we continue to Question 5, leaving 350,000 others behind.
Now we are on a roll. But we face a snag with Question 5, which queries what the metal at the end of a pencil is called. No one at the Chronicle has a clue, even though, somewhat ironically, we write for a living. We have to guess.
But we guess correctly (ferrule!) and move on.
We are still in this but are now starting to get a little nervous. The questions are most definitely getting tougher.
And here’s where I blow it. Question 6, inquiring: “The ‘S’ in USB cable shares its name with a well-known what?” The choices are: airline, podcast and sports team.
I am at a loss here, and my teammates are taking FORever to answer. “Pick one!” I yell in a panic. But time is ticking, and I don’t want to be completely shut out, so I tap “airline,” just as Jim is hollering the correct answer: “Podcast!!”
But it is too late. We are eliminated.
And here is what makes it worse: We continue to watch, just to see how we would have done, and we get the next five questions correct, which means if I had only waited a second longer in Question 6, we would have made it to the final question.
Seven hundred other people are left to respond to Question 12, but it’s a killer: “Marsha Bell was the model for what iconic character?” The choices are Rosie the Riveter, Little Debbie, and Carmen Sandiago.
We are torn between Rosie the Riveter and Little Debbie, and when the final answer is revealed — Carmen Sandiago — I have to say, I am hugely relieved. See? We would have lost anyway, even if I hadn’t blundered on Question 6!
Only 94 players remain, making each winner’s share a grand total of $26.60.
So, even though we didn’t walk away with cash, now we know what all the fuss is about. Some Chronicle staff were more enthusiastic than others, but on a slow news day, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone pulled out his or her phone for a trivia break. PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at