Trivia Main Page

Contest Rules (and Rules of Thumb) for the semi-annual Williams College Trivia Contest

If you've never played Williams Trivia before..... RUN AWAY!


To get more points than any other team. The team that does so is declared the champions, wins temporary possession of the victors' trophy, and (ahem) "gets to" create and host the next semester's contest.


The semi-annual Williams Trivia Contest is presented twice per annum, in May and December. Contests are broadcast over WCFM Radio (91.9 FM), which is available via RealAudio on the station's website. The broadcast begins at 11:45 PM on the Friday following the end of classes each semester. The first 15 minutes are used to play the team's personalized introduction, if any, and go over the rules. Question #1 of the contest is scheduled for midnight.

Williams Trivia proper runs eight hours, ending at 8 AM the following Saturday morning. Following each contest, the big big big awards ceremony is held in Baxter Lounge, just above the radio station. The contest began in May, 1966.


After Final Scores are read over the air following the contest, all teams walk over to Baxter Hall for the concluding ceremony. The Chicago 60609 Trophy, first awarded by the team of the same name, is given to the first-place winners. The Lowlife Scum Award, originally given to the highest-scoring small team, is currently awarded to the top Freshman team.

Ownership of awards is temporary, as they are passed along to each generation of winners. There is only one Chicago 60609 trophy, and when you see it, you may think even that's one too many.

In recent years, a garish velvet painting has been awarded to the best (i.e., most naked) Action Trivia performance of the night. In addition, many teams hand out various toys and trinkets of a silly nature, to reward achievements real and/or ridiculous. Some teams also take the opportunity to hand out extra copies of their on-air questions. Speeches are made, applause is cheap, and breakfast is soon.


Any number of teams may compete. Any number of players per team is permitted. Obviously, the larger the number of participants in a team, the greater its likelihood of winning. Teams have ranged from 1 person to a reported 90. In recent years, 20-25 players is considered a big old team. Nonetheless, much, much smaller teams have left memorable marks.

Teams need to phone in a great many answers. Teams with but one telephone are considered "small teams," and often have a separate phone line set aside for them to make competition fairer. "Large teams" (with 2+ phones) cannot call Small Team Lines, but small teams may try any line. There are several extensions, at least eight, whose numbers are given out before midnight.

Comfort is an optimal concern. Most teams stake out a location on campus, install phones, amass props and reference materials, bring in foodstuffs, and otherwise make it habitable for eight hours. A Trivia-playing location should ideally allow for simultaneous loud question-answering, bonus solving, and Action preparation, without one drowning out another.

Like Dracula, Trivia needs a constant supply of fresh blood. Unsurprisingly, "freshman teams" are comprised of first-year Williams students. Occasionally such teams will have a valuable ringer, or two, or eight. But as long as a team's membership is 51% frosh or greater, its eligibility for the coveted Best Freshman Team Trophy remains intact.

Every team must select a name. Names are generally references from pop culture, the real world, or any other source that amuses or intrigues a majority of the team members. Most teams hold a voice vote between suggested candidates shortly before the contest starts. Other teams (though none lately) have maintained the same "franchise" name for years.

Trivia tradition also invites players to concoct names for non-existent teams, and call them in when convenient to score token points. Tastefulness is most definitely NOT a consideration when devising these shadow names.


A) The On-Air Questions and Songs:

For eight consecutive hours, questions are asked. Trivia questions are culled from a variety of areas. Traditionally, the most popular topics have included TV, film, music, comics, sports, advertising, and history.

Each question is preceded by a "Realm" and "Subrealm." Originally, Realms were brief and utilitarian, such as "Realm: Movies." Increasingly over the years, teams have expanded their use, providing tantalizingly obscure clues, belligerent wisecracks, or other subsidiary entertainment.

Successfully answering an on-air question is worth one point.

Each question is followed by a song. It is expected that each song will relate in some way, however obtuse, to some aspect of the question or its answer. Teams are commended for particularly clever and/or tasteless matches.

Each song determines the length of time teams have to get points for that question. Teams are permitted to call in with answers or guesses until the song ends. Partial answers receive no credit. Teams that have not completed their answering when the music stops are out of luck.

Phone operators are expected to provide help and hints within reason. But operators may also terminate a call exhibiting no signs of progress if it is believed that other teams are still trying to get an open phone line. A "No- Hints" line is usually provided for the benefit of those teams who do not require the operator's charitable nature to get the answer.

Identifying the song's title AND its artist is worth one point. At the end of each song, it and the trivia answer are revealed.

The majority of questions will be worth two points at a time: one for trivia, the second for music. It is possible for a team to score one of the two points and miss the other. Occasionally, a question with a multiple-part answer will be designated a "three-point play," in which getting both sections of the answer will earn 2 points, plus a third for identifying the music. It is possible for a team to get one of the two trivia points and miss the other.

A well-run contest approaches 100 on-air questions.

Now it's time to get subjective!

There has been endless debate as to what constitutes a "good" question or an "appropriate" song. The best guideline to a good question is that it makes you WANT to get the answer, whether you know it or not. Another common rule of thumb is that a trivia answer should be funny or interesting, preferably both.

But factual does not in of itself equal trivial. Obviously there is an answer to "On what day, month and year did Williamstown experience the largest rainfall?" But the answer is evocative of nothing. Learn the difference between trivia and minutiae, and accept the applause at 8:45 AM.

On one matter, however, there is no speculation. The best-loved questions are the ones that refer to half-remembered aspects of a book, TV series, film, comic, or whatever. Players like to unpeel the folds of their brains like artichokes, searching for the gunk underneath. In particularly lucky circumstances, these questions can cause the delicious tension of what was once called "T.O.T."-- the Tip of Tongue factor-- when people know the answer but cannot immediately retrieve it.

It is no coincidence that such questions are the most difficult to come up with. But whether the struggling player manages to Heimlich up the answer in time or not, these are the questions that will be recalled with fondness, often years or decades after the contest has ceased to be. One such question beats any fifty passingly amusing "News of the Weird" oddities. Trivia should grip the heart as well as the brain. When an answer is revealed, hopefully it will make the team without the points shout, "Ahh, SHIT!", not "Who CARES?"

There is even less consensus when it comes to Trivia music. Since perhaps six of the eight radio hours will consist of music, it provides in a real sense the "character" of any contest, and will be the element most swiftly praised or attacked. Trivia music must:


Since there are so many different tastes, satisfying every player at every moment is impossible. But there should be something for everybody. There are a dozen reasons why, but the long-used "Top 40" yardstick is no longer as helpful or firm as in years past. True, a song's status as a Top 40 entry is still reason enough to play it. But the converse is no longer true; failure to crease the charts is not automatic grounds for suspicion or dismissal. Judgement is essential. It is not difficult to find 100 songs that are so obscure that most teams will have trouble naming them. The real challenge is to choose songs that are irritatingly familiar, without being super-simple or unrecognizable.

A team's acumen in picking its music is now one of the hot topics following any contest; not all teams enjoy the reaction afterwards. Teams should always focus on "the possibility that SOMEONE playing has heard this twice" as an important consideration. This unfortunately does marginalize some perfectly good genres of music, and some excellent songs. But you're not there to improve people's tastes. You're there to run Williams Trivia.

A team that wants to avoid criticism for its song choices will select as wide variety of styles and genres as possible, from as many years as possible. On the trivial side, songs from 7-12 years previous seem to trigger the most memories; leaning towards the energetic side of sound is never a mistake. Remember always that Williams Trivia involves fighting the allure of sleep. It's no secret that slow, lugubrious and overlong tunes will never be best friends with a tiring eight-hour contest.

It is the rare player indeed who will have knowledge of, and access to, a tremendous assortment of multi-stylistic tunes. Many successful teams will therefore look to their entire membership for musical suggestions.

A sub-category of songs which needn't be previously known to the listeners is "scary." Trivia music doesn't have to be good in the sense of well-executed. There is little question that songs like "R2D2 We Wish You a Merry Christmas," "An Open Letter to My Teenage Son," or "Shoot Me in the Ass" are far superior for contest purposes than "Let It Be" by the Beatles. Some contests are punctuated by "Horrible Song Quartets," which are pretty much what you think they are. It's okay to stupefy listeners occasionally, just not thoroughly. What Trivia music must never be is boring.

The trivia questions should suggest the songs, not the reverse. Do it the other way around and you get weak trivia. If there's a song you simply MUST play, but it doesn't go with anything, you can get away with it during one question without a good song match. If there are twelve songs you simply must play that don't fit, you simply must stop being DJ for a day, and look to the big picture of contest running.

There is traditionally a break in the action at 4 AM. At this juncture, the running team gives bonus answers, updates scores, or plays non-contest music, providing no new content (unless it's an upcoming Audio Bonus). The break lasts about 10 minutes, sometimes fifteen, depending on the team's work ethic and bladder conditioning. The break should never extend past 4:15.

B) The Hour Bonuses:

There are eight of these per contest, which makes sense. Except for Audio Boni, teams must physically travel to the radio station in Baxter Hall to pick up each paper bonus. They are distributed at the top of each hour and must be returned to the scorers at Baxter Hall one hour later.

Each Hour Bonus is comprised of several questions focusing on a specific topic. A "question" can come in any form, as some bonuses are entirely visual. The amount of questions varies according to the whim of the person(s) producing the Bonus. But it is considered good form to restrain Boni to a challenging-yet-manageable length. Limiting the size of a bonus also maximizes the value of each question. For instance, in a 40-question Hour Bonus, each question is worth 0.25 points apiece; boost it up to a 120-question Hour Bonus and the same question is worth just 0.08 points. Teams should respect their own work.

Each Hour Bonus is worth up to 10 points, with a sliding scale for imperfection. Teams are not penalized for incorrect guesses, though obviously they receive no credit for them, either. Partial credit may be given, depending on the loving heart of the scorer.

Each contest contains Audio Boni. An Audio Bonus is a taped montage of sounds. These are most often fragments of music. Sometimes it will be dialogue from TV or film, or something else in the aural genre. Audio Boni are played over the radio, with each team expected to tape-record their own copy.

Like other Bonuses, Audios are assembled by theme. The success of an Audio Bonus depends on the deftness and precision of the montage. It is usually better to gear a musical Audio Bonus towards better-known songs. With a given clip lasting but a moment, snippets must be gettable (although preferably with great strain). It is easy to stump a team in 1.4 seconds, and clips that are utterly unfamiliar get instantly skipped over by players. Clips that are nearly recognizable, however, will haunt the listeners and inspire literally dozens of replays, up until the last allowable moment.

Most contests tend to have two Audio Bonuses. A few teams have offered only one; some have had three or even four. Once in a while, there may be an Audio Super Bonus. Audio answer keys of fuller musical clips divulging song titles can be played at 4 or 8 AM, and are appreciated.

The 1990s has seen the rise of the "sample bonus." Teams are given an assortment of individual items, such as powders, cereal bits, potato chips, or vials of liquid. Examining just the one example in hand, they must identify each. Not all contests include a sample bonus.

With the wealth of material now available on the internet, it is a good idea to at least attempt to web-proof all of your Boni as best you can. Ideally, Williams Trivia should challenge the abilities and memories of the teams, not the scope of AltaVista.

C) The Super Bonuses:

There are two per contest. They are made available at midnight and 4 a.m. Teams have four hours to complete and return each. Essentially a pair of gigantic Hour Boni, they pose the single-greatest opportunity for points in Williams Trivia. Though scoring variants have been used ranging from 20 to 35 points, Super Bonuses are typically worth a maximum of 25 points.

Supers are also organized under one specific topic, but due to their size, they can sprawl out in unpredictable ways beneath their conceptual umbrellas. The length of any given Super Bonus varies. Again, the considerate team will consider the enjoyment of its audience at all times when designing its contest. People "play" Trivia. Super Bonuses are perhaps even more susceptible to web searches than Hour Boni, because of the fourfold solving time. Teams should do what they can to keep their bonuses from becoming robotic hunt-and-click exercises.

D) The Ultra Bonus:

There is one per contest. At the top of each hour, three words or phrases are broadcast over WCFM. Teams must identify the common link between all 24 clues despite not having access to all 24. Written guesses must be hand-delivered to WCFM. Teams have an unlimited number of guesses and are not penalized for incorrect ones.

The challenge of the Ultra Bonus is a matter of elapsed time. As more clues are made public, the difficulty in identifying the theme lessens, and the value of getting the answer drops correspondingly.

Traditionally, the Ultra Bonus has been presented as a dark, ultimate secret, including its scoring. But typically, the value begins at either 10 or 8 points, dropping to 7 points at 1 AM, and downwards to a single point for a correct answer in the contest's final hour. Therefore, a correct answer at 2:05 AM after the third set of clues have been given would be worth 6 points; the same answer at 6:05 AM would earn just 2 points.

The answer to the Ultra Bonus is announced over the air sometime after 8 AM. Incorrect or ludicrous guesses are often read at the same time.

E) The Action Trivia:

There are seven per contest. Each topic is announced over WCFM at 30 minutes past the hour. A leading phrase or scenario is described, and teams have one hour to prepare and physically show up at the radio station to perform it.

After many years with a 5-point ceiling, Actions are now scored on a 6-point scale. Up to 3 points are awarded for demonstration of accuracy and trivia knowledge. The other 3 are allotted for creativity, frenzy, injury, nudity, or other performance quality. Scoring is somewhat amorphous and subjective, since a team is not being graded merely on its innate merits, but will inevitably be compared to the other teams who participate. Teams are encouraged to go all out in their efforts to outdo the others. Many bring props, costumes, music, or other elaborate accouterments.

Any number of players from one team may take part in a single Action Trivia. However, a well-designed, well-judged Action Trivia will not penalize those teams who simply cannot afford to send down large numbers of players. Conversely, judges should not be overly impressed by a parade of prop bearers and decide that 8 costumed people automatically deserve 5 points. It should always be possible for an inspired one-person performance to get the highest score.

It is generally counterproductive for a team to grade an Action Trivia against its own mental image of what a "perfect" rendition would be. Action Trivia are largely improvisational, and scoring should be conducted in a similar fashion.

Action Trivia fall roughly under three categories. In a straight recreation, teams are asked to mimic a specific scene or event, such deactivating HAL the computer from the film "2001: A Space Odyssey." In an "X+Y," two disparate elements are merged into one concept; teams are credited for the panache in which they are able to unite both sides. An example of X+Y might be "Mr. Rodman's Neighborhood," in which crossdressing and the NBA must somehow be made to merge with the gentle Land of Make-Believe. Then there are those Action ideas that occupy the middle ground, in which the style is specific, but the form is amorphous. An example of this type might be "Come down as William Shatner and sing any song that the real Shatner has never sung."

A good contest will strive for variety in its seven Action topics.

F) The 4 AM Challenge:

The 4 AM on-air break is for the comfort of the running team, not the competitors. Usually, a mano-a-mano-a-mano challenge of some sort is staged, so that Trivia does not come to a dead halt.

Each team generally sends one player to the radio station. Typically, teams are given the thinnest of insights as to which of their players they should select for the task ("send your angriest player"; "send your greatest trivia warrior," etc.). The challenges can be physical (a game of Twister or sword- fighting), creative (build a replica of the USS Enterprise from a huge pile of Lego), or mental (a card game, or short quizzes spanning a spectrum of knowledge, rather than one specific area).

The available points for these challenges depend on the concept. The quizzes often award up to 10 points, while other challenges may award one, or even zero points to most competitors. Some challenges are structured so that all participants are likely to register a score. Others are winner-take-all.

Since the 4 AM Challenge is generally a blind one, the running team should ensure that the players do not return to their locations feeling disgruntled. Teams should choose a 4 AM challenge that is in keeping with the spirit of the contest.

G) Miscellaneous:

Many contests rely on the above elements. Others like to offer further opportunities for points and frolic. Some of these innovations have been very successful, others have caused stomachaches. Concepts tried in the past have included:


It is beyond imperative that running teams keep proper account of team totals. Many times over the years, scoring discrepancies of various sorts have left bad tastes in players' mouths. More than once, they likely affected the outcomes of contests. Upon seeing the spreadsheet for one contest years after it was over, it was belatedly noticed that the winning team had been credited with a "20" for a particular on-air question, rather than the "2" that was the highest possible amount. Luckily, the winners were so dominant that this 18-point bump did not create their first-place finish. But it is indicative of how even a small slip has the potential to undo untold hours of work. Of all the reactions to a contest, the one a running team should least hope to inspire is anger.

Naturally, scoring should be fair and explicable at all times. ALL individual scores for Bonuses, Actions, etc. should be read over WCFM before the end of the contest. Thumbnail commentary, particularly when describing Action Trivia hijinks, is welcome. Listeners rely on the running team to provide a sense of the shape the contest is taking.

Years ago, Trivia was more strictly broken into eight one-hour blocks, with total scores-to-that-point read after each and every hour. The format is no longer so strict, so running teams must take special pains to provide periodic updates whenever useful, particularly in the second half. The drama of some excellent races has been undermined or spoiled by absent score updates.


Contests rarely end with two competing teams being credited with an identical number of points through eight hours. But it has happened once per decade, in 1972, 1986, and 1996. On each occasion, additional questions were asked in a "sudden death" format, with the first team to fall behind the other's pace eliminated, the survivor being declared champion. The number of trivia questions asked differed on all three occasions-- one question/song, a set of 5 questions, and a set of 3 questions, respectively.

The fact that tiebreakers and close races do occur is the reason why running teams should not be capricious in planning their content, or slapdash in keeping score. A team should not include anything they would later regret their entire contest turning upon.



It behooves a team to promote their own contest as best they can, especially since participation has been known to periodically droop. This task is particularly crucial for Spring winners hosting a Winter contest, as there is a new, impressionable crop of freshman students available each September who (unfortunately) will not learn about the Trivia contest via psychic osmosis.

In the past, efforts have included posters, radio cart advertisements, distributing mass flyers to student mailboxes, printing informational pamphlets, recruiting freshmen in person, and on one sad occasion, kidnaping at gunpoint. Oh, wait, sorry. That last one won't happen until NEXT semester.


Ongoing discussion via e-mail about America's Game has been made available to all subscribers. Traffic is noticeably heavier twice a year, just before and after the two contests, but if you wanna send a message in August, go ahead! People debate the burning issues of the game, critique the game just played, announce updates, planning or strategy, locate teams to play with, recount anecdotal history, and write vicious things they can never, ever take back. Sounds good? Want to join the few, the proud, the trivial? Well, then.....

Send a blank email to:

And you're all signed up. The sputtering bluster of crusty alums will soon be yours to delete. You'll never know just how very many different ways there are to rephrase "I do not care for X+Y Actions" until you join the frothing mob!


When in doubt, the running team is in charge. They are to be hailed as living gods for the night; players are but lowly worms. You are the silly putty, they are the fist that squeezes. Dance, marionettes, dance!

Remember always the underlying premise of the Williams College Trivia Contest:

no one forced you to play.