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20 Questions

Thanks for taking a look at this monograph on the game of Twenty Questions, which at times is referred to at the Wikipedia article HERE.  Immediately below is an outline, followed by the main document and the appendix.  In the column to the right is more information about how to get around around here.

THE GAME OF TWENTY QUESTIONS

Introduction
  --Object of the game
The Two Rules
  Rule #1: Questioners ask Yes-or-No questions
  Rule #2: Answerer responds with a Yes or a No
    --The two exceptions to Rule #2
       "I don't know."
       "I can't answer."
Animal, Vegetable or Mineral?
  --Examples
  Targets made of plastic
  Targets made of more than one substance
Sampler of Beginning Questions
  Unique thing or class of things?
    Changing targets on the fly
  Alive or dead?  Long-dead?
  Single homogeneous substance
  Parts?  How many?  Moving parts?
  Size?
  Shape?
  Where found?
  Disposable?
  Associated with, sports, ptnerophilia, etc.?
  Decorative?  Functional?
    More on Rule #2
  Have I ever seen one?
  Used more by one class?
Skill in Choosing the Target
Novices Ask Good Questions in a Bad Way
  Confusing degree with comparison
  Not using "usually"
Appendix (for real-time online play)
  Answers must make sense out of context and out of order
  "Give us a hint."
  All CAPS
  String-spitting macros
  Revealing the target in a private message
  It's "20 Questions," not 20 questions
    --how to count to 20
  Who starts the next round?

INTRODUCTION

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Twenty Questions is a game you can play at a party or to kill time on a road trip.  It requires no board or pieces, nor paper or pencil.  All it requires is at least two humans communicating.  It can also be played online.

20 QUESTIONS IS A GAME IN WHICH ONE PERSON IN THE GROUP THINKS OF AN OBJECT OR SUBSTANCE AND THE OTHER PEOPLE ASK HIM YES-OR-NO QUESTIONS ABOUT IT UNTIL THEY DETERMINE WHAT IT IS.

Part of the fun is in the sober cerebral exertion of trying to guess what the thing is in as few questions as possible, and part of the fun is that this game inherently lends itself to being silly.  In this document I'll explain the two simple rules of the game, then I'll ramble off into some thoughts about how to play it well if you want to.  The silliness part is up to you.  Personally, I detest silliness and think everyone who behaves sillily should be taken out back and whomped once or twice with a warm walleye.

Hereafter we'll refer to the questioner(s) as "Q," and we'll refer to the person giving the yes-or-no answer as "A."  We'll refer to the thing A is thinking of as the TARGET that Q is trying to name.

(This game is well suited to real-time play via modem.  The only necessary ingredients are a reasonably experienced "host," at least one other player, and a reasonably quick interface.  Typically the way it works is that the Qs, however many there are, shoot questions at the agreed-upon A, who answers them as quickly as possible.  See the Appendix for additional information about playing online.)

THE TWO RULES

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There are only two fundamental rules, one for Q and one for A.

  • Rule #1: Q may only ask questions that can be answered with a yes or a no.
      
  • Rule #2: A may only respond with a yes or a no, whichever will be more helpful to Q.

Ideally, these two basic rules will sustain a complete and competitive game of 20 Questions, but the ideal is rarely achieved, especially when some of the players are novices.  There is a learning curve (albeit a quick and easy one) to jump on and ride, and there are exceptional situations that, once recognized and categorized, can be responded to by convention.

Also, it is your unalienable right to alter or abolish these rules at will.  As long as everyone understands and agrees to the new rules, they should be whatever you want them to be.

Rule #2 above is a good one -- the official one, I suppose -- but it's impossible to follow all the time.  Here are two exceptional acceptable answers that A (and Q) should keep in mind:

    --"I DON'T KNOW."  Sometimes A simply will not know the answer, even though if he knew it he could answer yes or no.   In such cases A may respond with "I don't know."

As an example, consider that A has chosen the Rock of Gibraltar as the target and Q asks, "Is it closer to London than is Svalbard?"  If A doesn't know then he should not merely guess, because Q might know, and if A guesses wrong he will certainly mislead Q, which is a more serious violation of Rule #2.  So, A should say he doesn't know and let Q take it from there.

    --"I CAN'T ANSWER."  Sometimes A will properly determine that he's unable to answer a particular question with a definitive yes or a no, even though he is not ignorant of any facts as in the example above.  In such cases he may respond with the generic phrase "I can't answer."

An example will clarify the intent of this guideline: If the target is hamster collars and the question is "Are they worn more by men than women?" then A simply cannot answer, because the question assumes a fact -- that men or women wear hamster collars -- that is false.  When the Qs hear this answer they are advised to analyze the exact wording of the question.  In this example it will likely lead them to realize that neither men nor women wear them, which is a big step forward.

(Also note that if A had been a real stickler he may have legitimately answered No to that question, because, in fact, hamster collars are not, strictly speaking, worn more by men than women.)

Here's a different reason for A to respond with "I can't answer."  If the target is a golf ball and the question is "Is it bigger than a golf ball?" then A will almost certainly mislead Q whether he answers yes or he answers no, which is a more serious violation of Rule #2.  Therefore he may simply state that he can't answer.  It's then up to Q to figure out what that means.

(Also note that if A had been a real stickler he may have legitimately answered No to that question, because a golf ball is not, strictly speaking, I suppose, bigger than a golf ball, the implication being that Q should have asked, "Is it bigger than or equal to the size of a golf ball?")

ANIMAL, VEGETABLE OR MINERAL?

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Traditionally, Q's first question (the only one Q may ask that does not allow for a Yes or No answer) is always the same: "Is it animal, vegetable or mineral?"  Indeed, in certain parts of the world this game is known as "Animal, Vegetable, Mineral."

The two important points above are that

  • all legitimate targets will fall into one of these three categories or a combination thereof, and
  • A must choose a legitimate target.

One kind of illegitimate target is an object whose very existence is in question, such as Martians or the Loch Ness monster, because A will be forced to answer Q's yes-or-no questions based on mere belief rather than factual knowledge that can certainly be shared.  Another example of an illegitimate target is something that has no literal or even literary corporeal existence such as patriotism or haste or the number 6.

It's sometimes difficult for A to decide whether to respond with "animal," "vegetable," or "mineral," so here are some examples and other thoughts that might provide help to both A and Q.

To begin with, anything that's never been alive is mineral, and everything else must therefore be either animal or vegetable.

Let me interrupt to go ahead and get this right.  Taxonomists classify life on Earth into five kingdoms, two of which are Animalia (animal) and Plantae (vegetable).  The other three are Monera (e.g., bacteria), Protista (e.g., protozoans) and Fungi (e.g., yeasts).  Only once in all my experience has an A chosen a target that fell into one of those last three kingda (Hi, KJ).  So, if your target is those nasty-tasting mushrooms you got back in college and a Q starts by asking, "So, what is it?  Animal, vegetable or mineral?" you should respond with "I can't answer," because mushrooms are none of the above.  It is then up to the Qs to follow up.  In any case, all such organisms are, of course, legitimate targets.

Here are three examples:

  • If you've chosen as your target the clock inside London's Big Ben, you should answer, "Mineral," because the clock parts are made of steel and brass and copper and so on, which are minerals.
  • If you've chosen as your target the wool sweater you're wearing, you should say, "Animal," because it's made of wool, which comes from sheeps, which are animal.
  • And if you've chosen the T-shirt that your date is wearing, you should say, "Vegetable," because it's made of cotton, which is a plant.

TARGETS MADE OF PLASTIC.  Targets made of plastic (floppy disks and trash bags) and other such petroleum-based products (nylon and gasoline) are impossible to classify as animal or vegetable because it is still uncertain in the scientific community whether petroleum comes from dead animals or dead plants (although the most recent evidence I know of, circa 2008, suggests it's both).   Therefore, by arbitrary convention, if your target is made from petroleum products you should say, "Vegetable," and as long as Q is aware of this convention, it is then his responsibility to think of asking, "Is it made of plastic?" or some such question.  For that matter, even if Q doesn't know this convention, it's still up to him to pursue the "plastic" question.

TARGETS MADE OF MORE THAN ONE SUBSTANCE.  Often A will choose a target that's made of, say, both vegetable and mineral -- for example, a pencil, which is made of wood and an eraser and paint (vegetables) as well as graphite and a metal ferrule (minerals).  In this case, A might say "Vegetable" because a pencil is more vegetable than mineral, although if he said, "I can't answer" that would be OK too.  As another example, if A's target is a floppy disk, then he should probably say "Vegetable," (plastic) despite the fact that a minuscule but fundamental portion of the total mass of the target is actually iron oxide (rust), a mineral.

In any case, A may declare only one of the three possible substances, so no matter what A declares it's up to Q, if he wants to, to determine more precisely what substance A's target is made of.

For the novice who didn't read all the paragraphs above, it's important to understand that when A says, say, "Vegetable," that doesn't necessarily mean that the target is a vegetable such as a carrot.  Similarly, the answer "Animal" doesn't necessarily mean that the target is an animal such as a platypus.  And, of course, the answer "Mineral" doesn't necessarily mean that the target is a lump of iron or a bucket of sand.  The question "Animal, vegetable or mineral?," as seasoned 20 Questions players know, asks about the primary substance of which the target is made, and every legitimate target, i.e., every possible object or substance in the universe, will be made entirely of animal, vegetable or mineral or any of the four combinations thereof.

A SAMPLER OF BEGINNING QUESTIONS

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To the novice it might seem Q has an impossible task -- to name the exact target A has chosen among the many trillions of such potential targets that exist.  However, those many trillions can immediately be reduced to mere billions and then mere hundreds and then mere dozens and then even eventually to the one true answer by using the device of dividing the universe.

Generally, then, Q's job is to divide up the universe as efficiently as he can, so that each new answer from A rules out as many of the remaining targets as possible.  (But Q should not embark on a series of questions such as "Does it start with the letter S?"  This method of tracking down the target must eventually succeed, but it's a lot of work with no fun.)

As an example, if Q has learned that the target is living, is human, and is famous, then the next question should certainly be whether the living, famous, human is male or female.   Whichever answer A gives, it will have the desirable effect of ruling out as many of the remaining targets as possible.  If you continue to rule out portions of the remaining possible targets, you must eventually determine what the particular target is.

As a more specific example, if as Q you've learned that the target is made of a metal, don't ask whether it's gold or mercury, or whether it's steel or bronze, till you've asked whether it's made entirely of an element.
 

Here's a list of questions Q might consider asking early on in the game.

  • "Are you thinking of a unique thing in the world, or are you thinking of a class of things?"

It's really helpful to determine immediately whether A is thinking of a single thing in the entire universe or merely some group of things without regard to a particular example of that group.  For example, if A has chosen nipples as his target, that's a class, whereas the left nipple of Sigourney Weaver is a unique thing (actual game example played by my brother and me).  If the target is riverbanks, that's a class, whereas the Left Bank of the Seine is a unique thing (in this most famous example of a game played on the celebrity panel television show called "20 Questions" back in the late '50s, this target was guessed in only seven questions).

CHANGING TARGETS ON THE FLY.  Sometimes A must change targets on the fly, as it were, depending on the questions he gets from Q.  For example, once when I chose a golf tee as my target, a Q started asking color questions early on, before he had asked whether the target was a unique thing or a class of things.  When he asked, "Is it red?" I had to decide (without telling him I was doing so, of course) whether my target was a particular golf tee (say, the red, plastic one that got stuck in my ear a few years ago as a result of an unusual fireworks accident and which I fully intend to remove sometime soon), or just golf tees in general, or just white golf tees.  I decided against a particular golf tee because that seemed too difficult, and I decided against any color other than white because the single most common color of golf tees is in fact white. Consequently, in answer to the question, "Is it red?," I said no.  Later I was asked whether the target was plastic, and, although there are such things as plastic golf tees, I decided to narrow my target down again, this time to wooden golf tees.

So, as you can see in this example, while I had originally thought of "golf tee" as my target, I later refined the definition to "any old, white, wooden golf tee," even though Q never knew I had effectively changed the target on the fly.  The novice A will fail to recognize that he may change the target on the fly (as long as he does it without contradicting any previous answers, of course), and the result is that his definition of the target starts to expand beyond his original intent, e.g., he ends up defining it in his own head as "any red or white golf tee that's made of plastic or wood or maybe something else, and -- yeah, now that I think about it -- maybe blue ones, too . . . "

This distinction between a unique target and a class of targets is important yet it's often overlooked by the novice Q and the novice A, which can result in a considerable waste of time.

Another tip on this subject: If A says he's thinking of a unique thing, Q should find himself asking questions like, "IS IT found in the eastern time zone?" and "DOES IT connect to something else when you use IT?" rather than, "ARE THEY typically found in kitchens more than anywhere else?" and "Do people typically use THEM outdoors more often than indoors?"

  • "Is it alive or dead?"

Of course, this question applies only if A says the target is animal or vegetable rather than mineral, but thereafter it helps to distinguish between the left nipple of Albert Schweitzer (dead) and the left nipple of Sigourney Weaver (alive).  (If Sigourney Weaver dies before I do and I don't get this page updated, please .)

  • "Is it long dead?"

If the answer to the "Alive or dead?" question is "Dead," then a series of follow-up questions might focus on whether the target has been dead for centuries (a plastic trash bag) or not (Albert Schweitzer's left nipple).

  • "Is it a single homogenous substance?"

For example, a watch crystal is a single homogeneous substance, so if the answer to this question is Yes then Q need not consider the possibility that the target is anything so complicated as an entire watch, or even a kitchen match.

Furthermore, if the answer is Yes then Q might well want immediately to ask follow-up questions about precisely what substance it is: "Is it solid or fluid?"  If fluid, "Is it liquid or gas?"  "Is it an element on the periodic table?"  "Is it a metal?"  "Is it bronze?"   "Is it plastic?"

  • "Does it have parts?"  "How many?"
  • "Does it have moving parts?"

"Does it have parts?" is a little different from "Is it a single, homogeneous substance?"  As an example, consider a stack of ice cubes in a glass.  This target has parts, but it still consists of a single, homogeneous substance.

If the target has only one part, Q's universe of potential targets is greatly reduced.  If it has more than one part, Q should attempt to determine whether the number of parts is closer to, say, four (your basic pencil) or four thousand (your basic car) or four million (your basic space shuttle).

And if it does have parts, ask whether it has moving parts.  Here again, either answer rules out a lot of possibilities: A kitchen match has parts but no moving parts, whereas a lighter has both parts and moving parts.

  • Size

If "Animal, vegetable or mineral?" is the best-known question in 20 Questions, the second best-known is "Is it bigger than a breadbox?"

What's My Line?  This exact starting question regarding the size of the target was popularized by Steve Allen, a regular early panelist on the game show What's My Line?  The show ran weekly in the evenings for 18 years, from 1950 to 1967, which is still a record for a prime-time game show.  As of 2008, where I live the show is in its second round of re-runs on the Game Show Network (GSN), and I record and watch every episode, and you should too.  The premise involved the four panelists asking the various contestants yes-or-no questions to detemine their various and usually unexpected occupations, hence the title.  If you watch more than a few episodes you'll note that Arlene Francis and Bennett Cerf are way better than any of the other panelists except that Dorothy Kilgallen is way better than them.  She had a way of figuring things out, using not just logic but all the little clues the other panelists missed, that was uncanny.  What a brain.

From here Q may move on to a softball, a golf ball, a penny, and the head of a pin in one direction and a desk, an elephant, the Sears Tower, and Norway in the other direction.

  • Shape

However, it will often happen that once Q gets within the approximate range of sizes, A will suddenly have difficulty answering whether the target is bigger than whatever Q asks about, which might tell Q that A is not having difficulty with the comparative sizes so much as with the comparative shapes.

For example, if A's target is a Frisbee and Q asks, "Is it bigger than a softball?" then A is going to have difficulty giving an unequivocal yes-or-no answer despite the fact he and Q share the same understanding of how big Frisbees and softballs are.  A thinks, "A Frisbee is wider and deeper, but then again a softball is taller and more massive," and so, because he may not mislead Q according to Rule #2, A will say, "I can't answer."

If this occurs, it is Q's responsibility to recognize that his series of "bigger-than" questions might now be better shifted to "shaped-like" questions such as "Is it irregularly shaped?"  "Is it spherical?"   "Is it flat?"  "Is it rod-like?"  "Does it consist of three four-inch long cylindrical projections a half-inch in diameter, extending from a dodecahedron with a diameter of 20 centimeters, each projection of which forms a 60-degree angle with respect to the topmost face of the dodecahedron, with a 5,000-micron diameter hemispherical concavity centrally located on every fourth face and a 47-cubit doodad sticking out from the top, or not?"

In one game some years back the clever A chose her target and I asked, "Is it bigger than a breadbox?"  She paused, she stared at the ceiling, and she scratched her head a bit, all the while murmuring to herself silently.  Finally, in a tentative voice that suggested great uncertainty, she answered "Yes."  It turns out she had tricked us into thinking it was a close call: Her target was the sun.

  • "Is it worked (shaped, manufactured, altered) by man?"

Here, for instance, A would answer No if he's thinking of a sheaf of wheat, whereas he'd answer Yes if he's thinking of a loaf of bread.

  • Where found

Sample questions: "Is it found (or "are they found" in the case of a class of things, remember?) on Earth?, within a mile of here?, in this car? in a store?, in a hardware store?"

If Q determines that the target can be acquired (a bottle of Gatorade can be acquired, the Atlantic Ocean cannot), he might ask about how it can be acquired.  For example, "Can you go out and buy it?"  "Does it cost less than $100?"   "Would you expect to find it in a grocery?"

  • "Is it disposable?"

This one might seem too specific for this list of good general questions, but you will discover that it's particularly helpful for a surprising number of targets.

  • "Is it associated especially with entertainment, sports, transportation, communications, education, business, etc.?"

If Q gets an unequivocal answer to any of these questions, he can then home in on the purpose of the target.

  • "Is it decorative?"  "Is it functional?"

Some targets are purely decorative (rose tattoos), some targets are purely functional (boxing gloves), some targets are definitely both (a grandfather clock), and some targets are not especially either (Mars).

MORE ON RULE #2: The Second Rule says A must answer Yes or No in whichever way he thinks will be more helpful to Q.  As Q you should realize that sometimes A forgets this rule or misinterprets it.  Be careful how you ask a question such as "Is it decorative?" and how you interpret the answer.  If A hems and haws (or just hems, for that matter), you should ask follow-up questions such as "Is it more decorative than functional?"

As an example, on a road trip in 1995 the A I was playing with said her target was decorative, which threw me off for the rest of that round; we arrived at our destination an hour later and I never did get it.  It turns out that she had been thinking of the bales of hay in the fields past which we were driving.  When I asked her why she said bales of hay are decorative, she told me about one time when she'd seen people drape bunting on hay bales at a barn dance.  If I'd only asked an obvious follow-up question such as, "Is it decorative about one one-millionth of the time?" I'd have gotten back on track.

  • "Have I (or you) ever seen (or possessed, or used) one (or it)?"

Many targets exist that both Q and A might never have seen (the Great Wall of China), others exist that only one of you has seen (that brick and plywood bookcase you had in college), and still others exist that both of you have seen (the sun).  Novice As tend to pick a target that only they are familiar with ("my wife's purse"); experienced Qs will remember this tendency.

  • "Is it used by [one class] more than another?"

Here, for example, Q might ask whether it's used more by men than women, more by adults than children, or more by lawyers than people you respect.

SKILL IN CHOOSING THE TARGET

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To the inexperienced player it might seem that A has nothing more to do than choose any old target that happens to pop into his mind and then sit back and answer Yes or No, at that point leaving all the work to Q.  However, as you play more you will discover that as A you need to stop to think pretty hard about whether the target you've chosen is indeed a good one -- one that will allow you to answer as many questions as possible with a definitive Yes or a No and that will give Q a fighting chance of eventually determining what it is you've thought of.

You already understand that as A you may not choose an incorporeal target such as voodoo or an essentially unknowable target such as UFOs, but you should also stop to consider other factors about your target, such as whether you yourself can answer Q's appropriate questions about it.  For example, if you choose George Sand or Joyce Kilmer as your target, you had better know a fair bit about him, because if you don't then -- no matter how much Q happens to know about Ms. Sand or Mr. Kilmer -- he probably will never be able to succeed.

And remember that as A you can't stop in the middle of the game and say, "Oh, gee, now that I think about it, I realize that I answered some of your earlier questions wrong."  You must give unequivocal answers in the first place, because Q may always expect that A's answers are accurate.  If A decides he can't answer yes or no unequivocally, he must answer, "I don't know" or "I can't answer" (see above).

If you're a novice A you might find it helpful to review the example questions above to determine whether the target you choose is susceptible to as many unequivocal answers as possible.

NOVICES ASK GOOD QUESTIONS
IN A BAD WAY

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As Q you should try to recognize the implications of imprecision or flawed reasoning in your questions. When you get an idea in your head about what you want to ask, take a moment to be sure you're asking that question and not a less specific one.  Here are a few types of faulty questions that novice Qs frequently ask.

CONFUSING DEGREE WITH COMPARISON.  A common reason novices get thrown off is that they ask questions of degree when they should ask questions of actual comparison.  A's duty is to answer truthfully, so, for example, if Q asks, "Is it soft?," A's answer cannot possibly help unless he's thinking of a diamond, because everything is soft compared to a diamond.  It's better for Q to ask a "compared-to" question such as, "Is it softer than talc?" or "Is it harder than my Aunt Mabel's potato knishes?"

There's an almost unlimited number of ways to get this type of question wrong: "Is it expensive?"  "Is it small?"  "Is it heavy?"  "Is it cold?"  Whether A says Yes or No, the answer will almost never be useful to Q and is more likely to steer him into a dead end than onto the right exit ramp.  (I confess that, when I'm A and I know the Qs are inexperienced, I do violate Rule #2 sometimes by answering "Softer than a diamond" or "Colder than your garden-variety supernova" rather than Yes or No, because I hope to point out, using this not-so-subtle form of sarcasm, that the players need to re-phrase their degree questions in terms of comparison.)

FAILING TO USE THE TERMS "USUALLY" OR "ESPECIALLY."   There's a big difference between "Is it found in the home?" and "Is it usually found in the home?".

Here's an example of the distinction.  Assume the target is a gecko, which is a lizard that's featured in a wide range of sizes and has extraordinarily sticky feet that allow it to walk on ceilings.  Its call is strikingly like that of a dog's bark.  They are fascinating creatures.  OK, I'm back.  Anyway, if Q asks, "Is it found in the home?" A must answer Yes, because geckos are found in the home.  In fact, they are found inside the walls of thousands of homes in the Philippines, where they are regarded with fondness as good-luck symbols.  You hear them scrabbling around in the walls, racing after bugs, and after a while it becomes a pleasant background noise.  OK, I'm back.  Anyway, A knows that his answering Yes will almost certainly mislead the Qs into a fruitless series of questions about where in the home the target can be found, but he is obliged to answer truthfully the question that was asked, so he must say Yes.  However, if Q asks, "Is it USUALLY found in the home?" A may truthfully answer No, which means that whole series of dead-end questions may be avoided.

In the golf tee example above, a better question than "Is it red?" would have been "Are they usually red?"

Here are some examples of failing to use "especially," all from real games.  The question given is the one that was actually asked; you decide how it could have been improved.

  • "Are they used by dentists?"   The target was paper clips; the answer had to be Yes, which led to a series of fruitless questions about drills and false teeth and spit bowls.
  • "Are they used by children?"   The target was Band-aids, so A had to answer Yes, which led to a bunch of wasted questions about Frisbees and rubber balls and Barbies.
  • "Are they found in Africa?"   The target was ants.  A said Yes, as he had to, and that led to ten minutes' worth of useless questions about giraffes and deserts and okapis.

Q should always ask himself, "What will I know if the answer is Yes, and what will I know if the answer is No?"  In order to do that Q must realize that A must answer the exact question asked, not what he suspects the real question is.

Reminder for A: You have exactly four answers from which to choose:

  • "Yes,"
  • "No,"
  • "I don't know," and
  • "I can't answer."

No answer such as "Well, yes, I suppose so" or "No, not always" is permissible.

APPENDIX: SPECIAL CONSIDERATIONS
FOR GAMES PLAYED ONLINE

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I've played several dozen games of 20 Questions on road trips over the years with my brother and other people, and any advice I have for you as a result of all those live, in-person games with an intelligent, experienced player has been given above.

But I've also played this game in real time several dozen times through a real-time computer connection to a chat area such as IRC, almost always as A, i.e., the temporary "host" of the room or channel, and I've discovered that you can't play exactly the same way you would if you were playing vis--vis.  This section deals with special considerations for when you're playing online.

The first one is especially important.

A'S ANSWERS MUST MAKE SENSE WHEN TAKEN OUT OF CONTEXT.  In a living-room game, whenever someone shouts out a question and A answers Yes or No, everyone in the room hears the answer and knows which question it's the answer to.  It's all nicely linear in a real living room, no matter how many Qs there are.  It's more chaotic and disjointed in the online living room, and you can't point and actually look at the questioner.  Sometimes three questions in a row (and maybe some non-game comments) will hit the screen before A can post an answer to the first one, so obviously A can't just answer Yes and No the way he can in a real living room full of real speakers, speakers who have not only ears but also eyes.

A must always answer in such a way that any player, by reading that answer, will know not only what the answer is but what the question was.

A few examples, in which the target is any old golf tee, will clarify:

Q1:

Are they made of wood?

Child1:

helo all.  age/sex check

Q2:

Are they flat like a piece of paper?

Child2:

11 year-old fe!! 5th grade!!! WERE R U FROM????

Q3:

Are they used in sports?

Child1:

any one want 2 talk about doom???

[At this point A gets off his accurate and correctly ordered but lazy answers to Q1, Q2 and Q3.]

A:

YES.

A:

NO.

A:

YES.

Obviously, seeing these responses from A, not only will Q1, Q2 and Q3 not be sure whether their questions were answered properly or even at all, neither will any other player.

And it's not enough for A merely to use the various Qs' names in his answers.

Q1:

Are they made of wood?

Child1:

helo all.  age/sex check

Q2:

Are they flat like a piece of paper?

Child2:

11 year-old fe!! 5th grade!!! WERE R U FROM????

Q3:

Are they used in sports?

Child1:

any one want 2 talk about doom???

[At this point A gets off his slightly improved answers to Q1, Q2 and Q3.]

A:

YES, Q1.

A:

Q2, NO.

A:

Q3, YES.

With these three answers above, only the three Qs know for sure at most one answer each, which is not how it would be in a real-life game.  As A you can't expect every online player to know every question every other online player ever asked.

No, what A must do is try a little harder and include the question in the answer:

Q1:

Are they made of wood?

Child1:

helo all.  age/sex check

Q2:

Are they flat like a piece of paper?

Child2:

11 year-old fe!! 5th grade!!! WERE R U FROM????

Q3:

Are they used in sports?

Child1:

any one want 2 talk about doom???

[At this point A gets off his answers to Q1, Q2 and Q3 by including the question in the answer.]

A:

USED IN SPORTS, YES.

A:

MADE OF WOOD.

A:

NOT FLAT LIKE PAPER.

Now it's right.  Notice that when A responds by including the question in the answer, he not only fully satisfies the three Qs who asked the three questions, he also provides the questions and their answers to anyone else who's playing, which is how it would be in a real-life game.

And a significant additional benefit of including the question in the answer is that there's no confusion even if the answers do not appear in the order in which the questions were asked.

"GIVE US A HINT."  Sometimes play will bog down, either because everyone is thinking real hard for a long time or because everyone is distracted or bored or utterly unable to come up with another question they're willing to commit to cyberspace.  When that happens, you may wish to consider giving a hint.

The only advice I can give you on this subject is that you should first respect the smartest and most experienced Qs in the room, because if you give too easy a hint (e.g., "It rhymes with  Folkswagen'"), you will have ruined the game for those people, whereas the others won't mind either way.  If you give a hint that's less helpful (e.g., "Think bugs and buggies") you need only one perceptive Q in the room to lead the all the others down the fruitful path you intended to suggest.

Formulating and phrasing hints as A and interpreting well-thought-out hints as Q are, to me, part of the art.

ALL CAPS.  When you're playing online as A, sometimes the questions and your answers fill the screen very quickly (you learn to type really fast).  As soon as it becomes obvious that a lot of people in the room want to play, A should toggle the Caps Lock key on so his answers can be distinguished from all the questions and any other messages that might be sent.  This way, players who are just watching and thinking for a moment need observe only what comes across in all caps.

When I'm hosting I ask permission to switch to all caps, because some people seem to get a kick out of complaining about all caps as soon as they see 'em.  On the other end of the scale are the people in the room who are not A but continue, because they're either creeps or morons, to use all caps.  I ignore it, and after awhile a confused Q will usually ask them to drop to proper case.

STRING-SPITTING MACROS.  If the software you're using to play the game of 20 Questions online allows it, and if you host much, you can create macros that will save you some typing.  For example, when users come into a channel where a game is going on, they quickly realize that something is going on, but few recognize the fast and furious exchange of questions and answers as a game of 20 Questions.  On IRC using the mIRC software client you could create an alias that types to the screen, "We're playing '20 Questions.'  We're asking Yes-or-No questions to figure out what Bigfoot is thinking of.  Join us."  You could even create an alias that refers newbies to this very Web page (http://barelybad.com/20_questions.htm).

What's even better is when the Qs themselves explain the game.  As A you can suggest that the Qs review what they know so far for the benefit of the new players, which might also allow you to identify any wrong interpretations of your right answers or (shudder) any wrong answers you gave.

DON'T ALWAYS REVEAL THE TARGET IN A PRIVATE MESSAGE.  If you host often enough, someone will eventually send you a private message asking you to reveal the target, usually saying he has to go offline and is just dying of curiosity.  Most such people will then dutifully keep the secret, of course, but a few will then immediately spoil the game by blabbing it.  You wouldn't think anyone would be so needful of such malignant attention or so heedless of others' innocent wishes, but it happens.  One solution, if you want to go to the trouble, is to offer to e-mail the target after the game ends.

IT'S "TWENTY QUESTIONS," NOT 20 questions.  Unlike in a real living room, where everyone has agreed to play, in a chat area it's likely that after a while some people in the room (usually those who don't wish to play or who have discovered they can't keep up) will ask, "Isn't that 20 questions already?"

(As A I never respond to such comments, because I figure if people wish legitimately to complain that an activity I'm sponsoring is interfering with their rightful enjoyment of the channel, they should do so.  I also figure that if they wish to leave the room they may do so, but I never say that either.

What I do do is continually gauge whether the game -- which definitely does pretty much wipe out any other activities in the channel -- is popular enough, especially with the originators of that channel, to continue playing it.  If it isn't, I bail out by giving an extremely easy hint and congratulating the winner.)

However, if as A you've got a fair number of fairly sharp Qs, you can add to the enjoyment by counting off the questions up to 20. 

Here's how I do it:  In my answers, when a good question is asked I do not count it, and when a dumb question is asked I do, like this:

    "IS EXPENSIVE COMPARED TO AIR    12.
    "HAS NO MOVING PARTS.
    "IS NOT HEAVY COMPARED TO A BLACK HOLE    13."

Pretty quickly, the Qs figure out that the number that sometimes appears at the end of an answer is always rising incrementally by one and that it's a counter for the questions.  The sharper players even figure out that the answers to the perceptive questions do not get counted.

Along these same lines, when the Qs I'm playing with need some encouragement I'll sometimes attach a comment to my answer to a particularly good question, e.g., "YES, IS USED TO HOLD SOMETHING ELSE.   Good q."

WHO STARTS THE NEXT ROUND?  In a living room game, whichever Q first guessed the target typically becomes the next A, and that seems to work out OK.  But in the online world, because of the special considerations that are the subject of this section sometimes the Q who happened to be the first to guess the target is new to and unfamiliar with the game and is certainly unqualified to host the next round.  This happens more often than you might think, because people are all the time coming into the room, watching for a minute or two, and taking a good guess.  If that happens at the wrong time, a novice who knows almost nothing about the game might end up hosting the next round, which is usually a disaster.

If as A you've done a good job of answering questions and keeping the Qs entertained, often they will champ at the bit to play another round.  As I see it, you've got some responsibility either to take on the hosting duties again or arrange it so they're passed on to reasonably capable hands.  (You have my permission to refer anyone you like to this very document; I hope that those who follow some of these suggestions will become better both as Questioners and as Answerers.)  As you yourself gain experience being A, you'll discover that you can discriminate pretty quickly between the Qs who clearly understand how to play well and those who clearly don't.

The better Qs will discover that this game requires two abilities that are usually found together: the ability to think logically and the ability to manipulate language with precision.

In 20 Questions those abilities are at least as helpful as merely knowing lots of facts.  20 Questions is as much an IQ test as it is a comprehensive final exam in Facts 101.

(Yes, I know.  I'm rambling again.  I can see that now.  I really wish I knew to use the delete thingy on this word proceddor.)

Anyway, thanks for reading this monograph about the game of 20 Questions, and have fun with it.  If you have any suggestions for how to improve it, please .

 

"Ported" to HTML for the Finznez Web site with kind permission and assistance of the author.  HTML version of this document is  1997 by (wizkid).

Stolen back from wizkid 1998.  The Game of 20 Questions, v3.1
1996, 2005 barelybad.com

If you've read this far you might be interested in what I found HERE.  If you do decide to go there, play fair.

And you might enjoy a parlor game quite similar to 20 Questions I discuss named Charades.

If you like 20 Questions you might like the page on Charades.


Outline of
20 Questions

Introduction

The Two Rules

Animal, Vegetable or Mineral?

Sampler of Beginning Questions

Skill in Choosing the Target

Novices Ask Good Questions in a Bad Way

Appendix (for real-time online play)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Click  ?  at the top of any page to see all the nifty navigation aids, including Search Site and Site Map.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Outline of
20 Questions

Introduction

The Two Rules

Animal, Vegetable or Mineral?

Sampler of Beginning Questions

Skill in Choosing the Target

Novices Ask Good Questions in a Bad Way

Appendix (for real-time online play)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Click  ?  at the top of any page to see all the nifty navigation aids, including Search Site and Site Map.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Outline of
20 Questions

Introduction

The Two Rules

Animal, Vegetable or Mineral?

Sampler of Beginning Questions

Skill in Choosing the Target

Novices Ask Good Questions in a Bad Way

Appendix (for real-time online play)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Click  ?  at the top of any page to see all the nifty navigation aids, including Search Site and Site Map.

 

 

Outline of
20 Questions

Introduction

The Two Rules

Animal, Vegetable or Mineral?

Sampler of Beginning Questions

Skill in Choosing the Target

Novices Ask Good Questions in a Bad Way

Appendix (for real-time online play)
  

B A R E L Y B A D  W E B  S I T E  
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