Pyramid Questions

Many coaches and students hear the phrase “pyramid questions” and groan. They imagine questions as long as a Dickens novel about things no one’s ever heard of, except for the writer and two of his friends.

You do find tossups like that in many tournaments written by high school and college kids who are either A) showing off for their friends, B) virtue signaling in some way, or C) trying to incorporate every single thing they’ve ever read about the topic into a single question.

There’s no way for anyone to stay in business for more than 15 years (as we have) who writes pyramid questions like that. So, relax a little and let us explain the concept of “pyramid questions.”

Consider what happens with a one-liner like, “What is the capital of Spain?” If one team knows it and the other doesn’t, it’s easy to tell who should get points. But what if both teams know it, and especially, what if *every player on both teams* knows it? The question becomes a race to hit the buzzer.

Do you really want a game, or a championship, decided by a buzzer race? Or would you prefer the points go to the team who actually knows more about the topic?

This is the intent of pyramid questions. You start with hard or obscure clues and gradually give easier clues. The team who recognizes the right answer first, or who can puzzle it out first by deduction, elimination or other “critical thinking”, gets the points. The other team needs to learn more about that topic.

As an example, take these 7 clues from history and arrange them yourself in order from 1 to 7, where 1 is “almost no one knows this”, while 7 is “almost everyone should know this.”

A. He was the U.S. President in office during all of World War I.
B. He still appears on the $100,000 bill.
C. He bought the U.S. Virgin Islands from Denmark for $25 million.
D. He served as President of Princeton University.
E. His name has been removed from the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs because of his racism.
F. He called his opponent, Socialist Presidential candidate Eugene Debs, “a traitor to his country.”
G. He won the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize for his Fourteen Points.

Our order would be C, D, E, B, F, G, A. Your order may vary from ours, but you would probably put C near the beginning, F somewhere in the middle, and A somewhere near the end.

That’s all a pyramid question does: it puts the hard clues at the beginning (so students who know them are rewarded), easier clues in the middle (again, so students who know them are rewarded), and the easiest clue at the very end so someone will eventually know the answer and get the points. So you get something like this:

He bought the U.S. Virgin Islands from Denmark for $25 million. This former President of Princeton University whose name was removed from its School of Public and International Affairs because of his racism still appears on the $100,000 bill. He called his opponent, Socialist Presidential candidate Eugene Debs, “a traitor to his country.” Name this U.S. President who won the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize for his Fourteen Points after serving in office during all of World War I.
answer: Woodrow Wilson

Not so bad, right? Try our pyramid questions for your next tournament, and you’ll see.