New York Quiz Bowl Alliance. Contact us at

  • Facebook Social Icon
  • Twitter Social Icon
  • Google+ Social Icon

Pyramidal tossups


A good tossup should reward players for significant knowledge of a particular person, event, or thing in any category but should be accessible to most teams. Since quiz bowl is a knowledge-based competition, teams should be rewarded for having "deep knowledge," or knowledge that exceeds just knowing who wrote a particular novel or what empire was located in a certain region of the world. Tossups found in most trivia leagues like RQB are one-liners and are oftentimes ambiguous. 


Take a look at this one-line tossup that I have constructed:

"What instrument is played by Jacqueline Du Pré and Yo-Yo Ma, and is pitched two octaves below the violin?" ANSWER: Cello

For most teams, this will likely result in a "buzzer race" on either Du Pré or Yo-Yo Ma since there are so few uniquely-identifying clues in the question. A buzzer race occurs when multiple people buzz-in to a tossup at the same time. Although this tossup rewards the players that know Du Pré and Yo-Yo Ma, it does not reward deep knowledge of the cello. By no means is this tossup easier or harder than any other pyramidal one on the cello, since pyramidal questions most of the time mention all of the information found in this one-line tossup.


This tossup from Prison Bowl XI 2018 follows what is called a pyramidal format in which clues get progressively easier as the tossup continues. 

"One Russian player of this instrument premiered Prokofiev’s nearly unplayable Sinfonia Concertante . Heitor Villa-Lobos scored the fifth of his Bachianas Brasileiras for soprano and eight of these instruments. Hanuš Wihan (“HA-nush WE-han”) wrote a cadenza for a B minor concerto for this instrument, which was played during the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia by (*) Mstislav Rostropovich, and one player of this instrument founded the Silk Road Ensemble. Jacqueline du Pré famously played this instrument in a recording of a concerto by Edward Elgar. For 10 points, name this string instrument played by Yo-Yo Ma which is pitched between the double bass and viola." ANSWER: violoncello


This tossup follows the pyramidal structure seen in this chart created by PACE NSC. A pyramidal tossup starts off very difficult, the first clue exclusively pointed towards the correct answer, then gets progressively easier. The clues after the power mark (if answered correctly before the power mark, the tossup in worth 15 points as opposed to 10) are much easier than the clues before. The "giveaway" is the last clue which should give the answer away without actually saying the answer. A good question like this one should be converted in approximately 85% of all rooms, and since cello is a fairly common instrument, the giveaway should be easily converted. This tossup is hard to power without strong knowledge of cello repertoire, but all clues uniquely identify the cello as the answer. Do note that at some difficulties like Prison Bowl (regular plus), very strong tossups will go dead since the tossups match the intended difficulty and weaker teams may not be at that level. By no means is the above question a trick question since very early on it addresses the cello as "this instrument."

Good tossups should educate players on a variety of topics so that even if tossups go to the last line, all players pick up on some earlier clues. By nature, pyramidal tossups will only be powered in a few rooms across the entire tournament, but the extra lines in the tossup serve to not only narrow down the answer but also give additional facts that may inspire players to do more research on that topic. The large number of clues (housewrite packets are posted a few months after the tournament and can be analyzed closer afterwards) may stimulate interest in a particular composer, writer, book, scientist, etc., proving quiz bowl's goal of introducing knowledge to players. 


On the contrary, bad tossups ruin gameplay and do not teach players anything extremely useful. One particularly bad tossup format is the "lecture" tossup, or the tossup that sounds like it was copied from Wikipedia. These tossups may be the same length as pyramidal ones, but they consist of 4-5 sentences of random background facts about the answer that do not get progressively easier. Lecture tossups may not be uniquely identifying also. For example, by starting a tossup with "This author attended Harvard and published his first work at age 22," you aren't really narrowing it down significantly since there are probably multiple authors who have done that. In addition, players are not supposed to know trivial facts like the age that an author published his works at unless it is notable. Writers also sometimes get carried away when writing tossups on familiar subjects, making all clues before the giveaway very challenging but easy to the writer.


Other poor tossups are the aforementioned one-line tossups, "hoses" (questions that make it seem like they are asking for a book but in reality are asking for the author, like "Gregor Samsa transitions into the title animal in The Metamorphosis, a novella by what author?"), questions that are too hard ("What instrument played at the premier at Prokofiev's Sinfonia Concertante?"), and trivia tossups that are about alma maters, birthdays, and random dates with no academic significance. Factually incorrect tossups, although rare, do hinder gameplay since players will buzz in on misleading clues and be marked incorrect. Such easily-correctable errors are inexcusable since teams are paying money to play such questions at a tournament. Tossups with answerlines that are too difficult are also faulty examples of tossups since they do not conform with the "canon," the specific answerlines that are frequently asked about at any particular difficulty. 




Bonuses are read immediately after a team correctly answers a tossup and that team can confer on all three bonus parts. Bonuses are designed to test deep knowledge in a particular subject, usually with an easy, medium, and hard part in any particular order. Like tossups, good bonuses use uniquely-identifying clues that are difficulty appropriate. About 85-90% of teams should be able to answer the easy part, while only 10-20% of teams should be able to answer the hard part. Good bonuses should have all three parts related in some way and should typically not switch between subjects (i.e. starting out science but ending up literature).


This bonus from Prison Bowl XI 2018 is a solid modern history bonus with clear easy, medium, and hard parts. 


This movement was begun by Tito, Nehru, Sukarno, and Nkrumah. For 10 points each:

[10] Name this collection of states not affiliated with the U.S. or the U.S.S.R. in the Cold War.

ANSWER: Non-Aligned Movement [accept NAM ]

[10] This Indonesian conference was held in a namesake city by Sukarno in 1955 to promote African and Asian cooperation and prevent the spread of colonialism, including attempts at dominance by the USSR.

ANSWER: Bandung Conference [accept Afro-Asian Conference or Asian-African Conference]

[10] This country was represented at the Bandung Conference by its first premier, Zhou Enlai, who later moderated Mao’s policies during the Cultural Revolution.

ANSWER: People’s Republic of China [accept PRC ; do not accept or prompt on “Republic of China”]


This bonus goes Medium, Hard, Easy, and focuses on historical attempts to prevent the spread of the Soviet Union's power in the mid-1900s (a "common link" bonus). All parts are related and each part builds upon the previous one. China is an easy part since is mentions Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong, two extremely important historical figures, and the words "This country" at the beginning of the bonus part clearly suggest that the answer is a country. The Non-Aligned Movement is a fair medium part for Regular and Regular-plus difficulties since the movement is oftentimes discussed in World history classes. Bandung is a reasonable hard part since Sukarno and Indonesia are referenced, but most people will not know it since the conference is more obscure than others during that era. 


This bonus from Prison Bowl XI 2018 is much more creative than other literature bonuses at the tournament and it works well.


The only thing better for your health than poetry is fruit. For 10 points each, name some things about both.

[10] Robert Frost writes, “I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight” in a poem titled “After [picking this fruit].” This fruit comes in varieties like Red Delicious and Gala.

ANSWER: apple s [or “After Apple -Picking”; accept Malus pumila from over-achievers]

[10] In “This Is Just to Say,” William Carlos Williams confesses to having eaten some examples of this fruit “that were in / the icebox / and which / you were probably / saving / for breakfast.”

ANSWER: plum s [accept Prunus domestica or Prunus salicina or Prunus simonii]

[10] Seamus Heaney’s poem about picking this fruit recalls being sent out “with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots” and laments, “Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.” This fruit also titles a Yusef Komunyakaa poem.

ANSWER: blackberries [or blackberry or “Blackberry -Picking”; accept Rubus ]


To preface this explanation, this bonus is not easy and will most likely be 10'd by most teams without a solid literature player. This bonus is fair for the Regular and Regular-plus difficulty, but even novice teams should have no trouble getting the first part which name drops types of apples. The Robert Frost poem "After Apple Picking" is a fairly common Frost poem as well. Plums is a fair middle part since plums in the icebox is usually a late clue for William Carlos Williams, a prolific American author who can be tossed up at Regular difficulty without overstepping the difficulty. The blackberry part is very challenging for teams that do not have strong literature players, and Seamus Heaney does not come up frequently at Regular difficulty tournaments. However, this hard part is fair since Heaney's poem "Blackberry-Picking" is one of his most famous poems. There is a clear logical connection between all three parts and the link is specific and very interesting.


Similar to tossups, bonuses that do not clearly identify the subject, are biographical and not uniquely identifying, and do not flow logically hinder gameplay. Other bonuses that do not work well are ones with poor difficulty control. Bonuses that have too many easy or hard parts will lead to inconsistencies in stats. On bonus that goes Ibsen/A Doll's House/Hedda Gabler at regular difficulty with easy clues will be 30'd by many teams, while a bonus that goes Minimalism/Terry Riley/Steve Reich (the latter of which are minimalist composers) will be 10'd or even 0'd by a lot of teams since Terry Riley is too difficult and Steve Reich is a hard part for high school minimalism bonuses.