HQ Trivia is a genius app.
It sits at that perfect sweet spot between tech, timing, and concept, afforded only to a few people every year (think 'Chocolate Rain' to 2007, or Donald Trump to 2016), and there's little question any longer that its creators—also the duo that brought you Vine—are certified app wizards. Wherever they are now—whether it's swimming in a private pool filled with hundreds, or wiping themselves with gold toilet paper—I tip my hat to them.
You, on the other hand...we need to talk.
How much money have you made playing HQ Trivia?
b) Ten bucks or so
You can't win money playing HQ Trivia. It's true: one can, and a few people do, win money from this app. Maybe even someone you know knows someone else who won once. But you and I? We don't have a shot. And I can basically prove it. Allow me to explain...
To believe you can win any money in HQ Trivia, you must do one of two things: either you believe yourself to be a genius, or you're ignoring simple math.
As of this writing, about 500,000-600,000 players tune into any given round of HQ, with the average winning pot usually sitting at $1,500 or $2,000 (occasionally $4,000 or even $10,000, but not often). Because of the discrepancy of these figures, one of two outcomes can be had in any given round: either a lot of people win a little, or a few people win a lot. HQ doesn't release its internal data, but it appears that on average some dozen or so players win any given round (sometimes no one wins, sometimes a few do, sometimes 40 or 50 do, but usually not more than a handful or two).
But you play the game for fun. Even winning just a little money would be worth the screenshot you can send to all your friends, knowing you went 12 rounds and came out a winner.
What are the chances that any given HQ Trivia player will win any given round?
Answer: if on average about a dozen players win any given game, from a field of some 600,000 total, any single player in that lot would represent 0.00002% of that population. (We can talk about standard deviations here, but it'll only account for some 0.00001% or so in the final tally.)
There, of course, is more to this question than simple division. We've yet to account for skill and knowledge, for instance--perhaps you're very well-read and intelligent, so you believe your chances are higher.
What are my chances of winning a game where I have to guess only 2 answers?
Answer: Maybe you're having a good round, and you manage to know the answers to a whole 10 of the 12 total questions, but have to guess the other two. In that scenario, you'd have an 11% chance of completing the game. If you have to guess three times, your chances drop to just under 4% (one guess, of course, gives you a 33% chance of winning the game).
Maybe 11% sounds like pretty good odds. But how often do you reach question 10 anyway, and if you have, how many lucky guesses did you already have to make to get there? Just reaching level 7 or 8 can feel like victory is on the horizon--you can almost taste it, only a few clicks away. Remember, though: those are the hardest questions, and if you don't know even a couple answers you'll have to get really lucky. Like, 1/27th chance lucky.
But I'm really good at trivia--how long before I can expect to win?
a) ~4 days
b) ~40 days
c) ~4 years
Answer: This is a long one, and we'll have to make some assumptions along the way.
If you're really good at trivia, you might expect to know some 7 to 9 questions per round in HQ. Since it's a game that tests random, often useless knowledge from various unrelated domains of life, I'd venture to say there's no single type of person out there who's particularly well-suited to correctly answer more than 9 questions a game. Even a relatively tough trivia game like Jeopardy involves three contestants, no one of whom needs to know every answer to every question to win. Jeopardy, too, has the advantage of testing certain types of knowledge suited to specifically well-read, braniac types (HQ, which can veer all the way into questions about celebrity dating drama, is not as kind to the braniac).
Unfortunately, because HQ Trivia holds tight to its data, you'd have to craft a detailed spreadsheet to represent exactly how many people tend to lose in which rounds to figure out exactly what an average HQ player looks like. For estimate, because the "Savage Question" (where a particularly large portion of players all lose at once) tends to come in round 4 or 5, we'll assume most average players tend to run for 4 or 5 rounds per game. According to this paradigm, below-average players will only last a few questions per game, and good players will go 6 or 7 (very few people lose on the first two questions, which are made obviously easy to avoid kicking people out of the game so soon after they've joined). Because questions get progressively harder as the game goes, we might properly assume that someone who lasts only, say, 4 or 5 rounds, might only have known one or two more answers through the later rounds that come.
But you're not just good, you're really good. You tend to last 7, 8, 9 rounds a game--maybe sometimes you'll trip up after 5, or get a hot streak going and reach 10 or 11. How long before you hit the money?
If you were to know about 8 of 12 questions per game, you should expect to win once per every eighty or so games you play. That's because, on average, you're going to have to guess about four questions per round, with a 1/3 chance of landing any individual guess (not counting educated guesses, which for purposes of this simplified math we're considering questions you "know"). Four times over that number is 1/3^4, or 1/81. In other words, for a set of 81 games, you will be expected to approximately one time have made exclusively correct guesses necessary to win 12 rounds in a row. Since HQ runs 81 games every 40 1/2 days, the scale here would be a month and a half.
Okay, I'm not bad at trivia--how long before I might get my moment?
a) >3 years
b) 1-3 years
c) <1 year
Answer: If you're an average HQ trivia player, you might expect to know 5 correct answers in a game (not necessarily in order of round--as in, you may get question 4 wrong but know the answer to question 7), lasting about 4 rounds per session (since all the easiest questions come first, you'll likely know most of the first few answers and few from the backend of the game).
By the same math used in the above paragraphs, if you were to have to guess an average of 7 times in a round to reach the magic number of 12, you'd have a 1/3^7, or 1 out of 2,187ths, chance of winning a given game. In other words, you could never miss a round--730 per year--and you might only expect to win one time over the next three years. That's 2021, in case you forgot.
Thusly, we return to my original argument: to believe you can win any money in HQ Trivia, you must either you believe yourself to be a genius, or ignore simple math.
The math I did here was broad and imperfect--there's much more complicated probabilistic modeling that can be done to more accurately estimate your chances of winning a game of HQ Trivia, by accounting for player skill, luck, group-playing, AI bots, extra lives through referrals, and other factors. But even basic arithmetic, as I've done here, shows what sorts of odds you face every day at 3- and 9 pm.
There are a lot of reasons to play HQ. It's a cultural moment. Being part of a live event with hundreds of thousands of people is exciting. It's fun. But don't be mistaken: if you're someone who just picks up and plays HQ, and you want to win some money, you should be thinking on a timeline of years, not days or weeks.
Then again, maybe you're Ken Jennings, or one of the few other most knowledgeable people in the entire English speaking world. If so, congratulations. How's it feel? I wouldn't know.
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