I enjoy trivia enough that I’ve paid to participate for most of my adult life. I’ve been to countless bar trivia nights, trying to win prize money that barely covers the tab. I pay $30 a year to take part in an online trivia league called Learned League, which offers no prize other than the ability to check whether you correctly answer questions that former Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings got wrong. Then in 2017, something wonderful happened: Some geniuses (or idiots, I haven’t figured out which) decided to launch a free app that pays people for answering trivia questions. HQ became a sensation, sweeping offices, college campuses, and anywhere else where people like winning money and wasting time.
But that was just the beginning of the Free Money Phone Trivia Phenomenon. Shortly after HQ’s breakout success, dozens—literally dozens—of other startups jumped into the phone trivia game. Almost all of these apps rip off HQ in some capacity (nearly all of them offer 12-question games, even though 10 or 15 would easily work), and nearly all lag behind HQ in some notable way: If you think HQ host Scott Rogowsky is annoying or that the app glitches too often, I urge you to venture into the world of HQ knockoffs, where not-ready-for-prime-time hosts awkwardly stumble through games that are significantly more likely to get wiped out by technical difficulties.
However, there is one critical area in which many imitators do not fall short: They award actual money to winners, typically promptly and without hassle. In fact, there have been times when knockoff games featuring significantly fewer users than HQ have offered larger prize pools.
I used to pay money to play trivia; now, I make enough money playing trivia that it’s a legitimate side hustle. I have 14 trivia apps on my phone, and since I started keeping track in March, I’ve won a grand total of $1,790 playing trivia—an average of $15.84 per day. I’m the no. 2 all-time winner on a game called Halftime Live, having won $536 in that app alone. (Catching the no. 1 player has become my primary goal in life.) I’ve won at least $100 on five different apps (HQ, Halftime Live, Cash Show, SwagIQ, and Joyride), and at least $50 on four others (Hangtime, HypSports, The Q, and Beat the Q).
While a lot of my trivia success comes down to, well, knowing random stuff—I have waited my whole life to monetize my knowledge of the president of France being considered a co-prince of Andorra—I have also picked up some tips along the way that I think could help anybody make a quick trivia buck. Well, assuming that person is willing to spend several hours each day staring at questions on a phone and ignoring the rest of the world.
In June, I was particularly devastated after missing the final question on the app SwagIQ. The question asked which of three scenarios involving the World Cup trophy had really happened; one of the options was that the trophy had been stolen, and that it was later found by a dog named Pickles. I quickly eliminated this from the running—I love dogs, international sporting events, and reading Wikipedia pages for various heists. Surely, I figured, I would know if the World Cup trophy had once been recovered by a dog named Pickles.
But lo and behold: In 1966 the World Cup trophy was stolen, and Pickles, a mixed breed collie, found it. I was distraught to have missed out on the money, but glad to have learned about Pickles, the very good boy. And that knowledge would later help me. On the July 5 midnight game of HQ, the 11th question asked: “Which of these things happened to the World Cup trophy in the 1960s?” Like a faithful dog fetching a ball (or a stolen World Cup trophy), Pickles returned what I had lost. Thank you, Pickles—I hope you’re getting plenty of belly rubs up there in puppy heaven, buddy.
If you play enough trivia apps, you will start to see repeat questions. I have been asked which movie was the first to feature a flushing toilet on screen (Psycho) at least three times. Part of this seems like coincidence: When two sports trivia games, HypSports and Halftime Live, held games with Stanley Cup–themed questions on the same day, both asked how the Toronto Maple Leafs’ name is misspelled on the trophy. (It’s MAPLE LEAES.) I don’t think this was trivia plagiarism, just bizarre timing. There are only so many quirky facts.
But writing trivia questions can be hard, especially for apps with multiple daily shows that require 24 or 36 fun facts per day. I logged at least five instances in which questions from a game called Cash Show (“How many red stripes are on the American flag?”; “Which is the only continent that doesn’t have bees?”; “What is a petrichor?”) were later used in a game called The Q. The writers for these apps are definitely watching their competitors—and not just for inspiration about ways to improve their games.
I decided to start taking notes. If I miss a question, I’ll write it down in the hope that doing so commits that fact to my brain. And don’t turn off a game after you lose! You’ll learn something if you keep playing—and trivia is about learning, right?
Don’t Just Google; Become a Googling Expert
I know what you’re thinking: Googling during trivia is cheating! What’s the fun in trivia if you look up the answers?
I agree in spirit. I would never Google at bar trivia, or as part of my online trivia league. There’s an honor code to uphold. Recently, a Learned League user proved that a decent chunk of users Google the game’s questions every day, which seems like the most ridiculous thing in the world. Why would you cheat in a game with no prize, in which no one knows who you are?
But these trivia apps are different, for two main reasons. First, they are giving away free money, and I’m going to do what I can to win it. And second, the time limit to answer each question means that finding an answer via Google is a legitimate skill. You have 1-2 seconds to interpret a question, another 1-2 seconds to type, and maybe five seconds to scan Google’s landing page for an answer (perhaps by clicking on another link, or hitting Command-F to find relevant search terms) before frantically responding in the app. Sometimes, you have to Google the answers instead of the question, requiring you to type three separate search terms in a span of 10 seconds. HQ has openly stated that Googling is OK, as have a few other games.
When I miss a question, I don’t just write down the correct answer—I also troubleshoot my Googling strategy to see if other search methods would have produced the answer faster. You need to experiment to figure out how to most efficiently locate information—some search terms will bring up the answer in a neat little box at the top of the page, others won’t. I blew a Cash Show question that asked what George Clooney’s first movie was because I searched for “George Clooney first movie.” After missing it, I ascertained that I should have searched for “George Clooney filmography,” clicked the Wikipedia link to the page of the same name, and scrolled down to a chronological list of his roles. The next day, Cash Show had a question about Adam Sandler’s first film; I knew what to do, and got the info in a matter of seconds.
There are ways of actually cheating in trivia apps: some users spin out dozens of duplicate accounts; others have bots that guess the most likely answer for them. But Googling in these games is like using a calculator on a math test. It’s a tool that can help generate the correct answer, but only if you’re smart and skilled in how you use it.
Prioritize Trivia Over Your Social Life and Relationships
My girlfriend used to help me with trivia. For about 15 minutes per day, we’d play HQ together and remark on how we came to learn various tidbits about the world. As my trivia habit turned into an obsession and those 15 minutes turned into, uh, two or three hours, the games became less of an “us” thing and more of a “me, by myself, in front of a computer” thing.
Maybe you have a job, or a social life. To maximize your trivia haul, you’ll want to cut down on those and devote as much time as humanly possible to staring at a phone, preferably with a computer nearby. Any time that people are out having fun is an ideal time to play trivia—the games often offer the same prizes, even though fewer people are playing. (Cash Show actually used to award larger prizes on weekend afternoons, under the mistaken belief that more people would be playing.) Games during business hours tend to have notably low participation. As a result, you’ll want to reverse-engineer your life so that when other people are doing meaningful things, you’re playing trivia.
What was once a shared experience with my girlfriend is now a legitimate rift in our relationship. My girlfriend remains (rightfully) incredulous that I’d take time away from our mutually caring, loving relationship for the opportunity to win, like, $2.87 on my phone. She’s right, but I can’t break the habit. At least it’s a relatively profitable way to disappoint a loved one!
Choose Your Games Wisely
There is a trivia-app logjam. Each game seeks out a timeslot unoccupied by other trivia games, to cater to people like me who have downloaded several of these apps. Still, some slots remain double- or triple-occupied. For example, 8 p.m. ET has SwagIQ and Cash Show; 8:30 p.m. has The Q, HypSports, and That’s Right; Halftime Live starts at 9:20 p.m. and runs into the Cash Show at 9:30. How do you pick which game to play?
The key is to figure out which apps are best suited to your skill set. I have developed way too much knowledge of the ins and outs of these games, and since my editor told me it would be boring to extensively detail the pros and cons of 14 trivia games, I’ve put together an abridged list of lessons I’ve learned.
- At least one Halftime Live question per game involves accessing a leaderboard on a Sports-Reference site. I happen to be extremely good at answering these, because I’m a sports blogger adept at tracking down sports information online. I never miss a game.
- Hangtime loves to ask questions about movie casts, so get used to Googling “(X movie) cast,” a search that brings all of the involved actors’ names to the top of your page.
- The Q doesn’t appear to have paid anybody since about March—you can skip it.
- Don’t bother with the Joyride games that cost five keys (the game’s version of extra lives) for a $1,000 prize. Hold out for the games that cost 10 keys for a $5,000 prize.
- The host of SportsQ always says the name of the player the upcoming question will be about before asking the question, which should give you a head start on finding the answer. If he’s talking about Deandre Ayton, just camp out on Ayton’s Wikipedia page.
- Arena asks viewers to pick a “mob” at the beginning of every game (a recent one was Popeyes vs. KFC), with the winning “mob” getting twice as much money for winning. Always pick the one with fewer players—it never loses.
- Cash Show is the last game that doesn’t let you choose when to use one of your extra lives. Since I like to exclusively use extra lives on questions 10 or 11, I generally skip Cash Show if it’s happening at the same time as a different game in which I have extra lives.
Take Advantage of These Apps While You Still Can
My favorite trivia game is already dead. It was called Beat the Q, and it was great. The questions were well-crafted—not easily Googleable, but easy enough that I could win a few times per week. The host, Laci Mosley, was genuinely hilarious. And most importantly, it paid well: There were nightly $5,000 games and weekly $25,000 games, meaning that during its run, Beat the Q gave out more money per game than HQ with only a fraction of the users. I won $74.86 in about a month and a half.
But now it’s gone. The game announced its “first season” was over in April. There was a final game in which Laci had the opportunity to make awkward jokes about the show ending (“See you next time—oh wait,” etc.), and in the four months since, there’s been no indication that there will be a second season.
I will never get rich off Beat the Q. I’ll also never have an opportunity to use my 12 remaining extra lives in G.O.A.T., a sports-themed app that shut down in April. I’ll probably never recover the $3.15 remaining in my Genius balance, because I never hit the $20 threshold before February, when the app announced it was taking a hiatus to find a new host—a hiatus that is ongoing, presumably for eternity. And the $15 or so I won in QuizBiz are officially gone for the ages: The game used to be hosted on an app called Cheez, but switched to an app called Live.me without giving users the opportunity to cash out … and now the game is played for in-app tokens instead of currency.
I keep the dead trivia apps in their own folder, a trivia-app graveyard. My hope is that some games will reboot, but that’s not the only reason I maintain this. I also like having a reminder of what has been obvious about these apps all along: Giving away thousands of dollars per day while asking for no money from users in return is not necessarily a sound business strategy. I can see how HQ is going to survive, as its access to more than a million daily players has garnered the fledgling company multimillion-dollar advertising deals. But for smaller games, which attract less than 5,000 users but are on track to give out hundreds of thousands of dollars per year in prize money—and that’s before even accounting for the salaries of the hosts, writers, product teams, etc.—this approach probably doesn’t make sense.
About once a week I scan for new games, because newer ones are likely to have the least reasonable proportion of players to payouts. (The r/TriviaApps subreddit often features users listing all the games they’re playing; if you type the names of multiple trivia games into Twitter’s search function, you’ll find users sharing all the games they play.) Last week, I found a game called That’s Right, which gives out $2,000 per game—$1,000 for trivia, $1,000 in a raffle you can win tickets to by correctly answering trivia questions. (The game appears to have purchased a lottery-style machine that shoots ping-pong balls up into chutes.) The game generally has fewer than 1,000 total players. I can’t imagine how it will be able to sustainably give away multiple dollars per user, every day.
I suspect that sooner rather than later, the Free Money Phone Trivia Phenomenon will pass. I see the inevitable expiration date as a personal challenge: As long as these startups are willing to give away gobs of money, it’s my moral obligation to take it.