A collage of a pub quiz machine surrounded by neon stars with pints of beer in them, floating around the page. Some stars say 'quiz zone' in them.

In Memory of the Pub Quiz Machine, Gambling’s Good Guy

For decades, almost every boozer had a quizzy – now they’re harder to find than a cheap pint.

It’s 2003 and it’s a Friday, which means you’re at the pub. Your frothy pint of Carling rests on the table next to you – your hands are occupied. One pirouettes a cig between your fingers (remember, coughing up a lung was allowed back then) while the other is wrapped around the waist of the quiz machine, answering questions for cash. You’re playing Pub Quiz and are nearing the £1 milestone.

As the embers of your cigarette turn to ash, you have four seconds to remember what flower the alien in E.T. The Extra Terrestrial brought back to life. “I swear it was a forget-me-not,” a mate splutters, putting their neck on the line. Another extends an index finger with fittingly extraterrestrial length towards the quiz machine. “Nah, surely it was a sunflower!” they protest.

With two seconds to go, the final option catches your eye: chrysanthemum. You try to say it out loud but the booze gags you. Time splits into a final click of the clock, your pupils dilate and you make your choice. You press the screen. It flashes green. You’ve bagged yourself a fiver, but you’ve also won something far more valuable: respect.


Or, maybe this wasn’t you. If you’ve never played or even seen one before, pub quiz machines (or quizzies) are coin-operated, floorstanding consoles that look a bit like ATMs and are loaded with games that test your knowledge in return for cold hard cash. They’re a form of Skill With Prize machines (SWPs), video games that reward you with money or prizes based on how well you play – a quid-pro-quid quiz for a few quid. (Or a lot more, occasionally, but we’ll hear from the professional players later.)

These days, quizzies feature a glut of games: Most of them are based on dated TV gameshows (from Who Wants to be a Millionaire to Deal or No Deal) and feature the official voiceovers and distinctive visuals. A single play usually costs 50p and jackpots never exceed £50. As well as the one-off purchase, pubs have to buy a “dongle” (a silly word for a licence key) every few thousand plays to keep it in operation.

Not that there have been many of these new versions for a while. In the last few years, quizzies have quietly fizzled out across the UK. Thousands have gone from British drinking institution Wetherspoons and many independent pubs have thrown in the beer towel, calling quits due to a lack of lucrativeness. Add to that the hangover of the pandemic and the continued closure of local drinking holes across the country and you’ve got an industry making peanuts.


It wasn’t always like this, though. As soon as the first quizzy landed in Cardiff in 1985, the industry went wild. Manufacturers like Coinmaster, JPM and Bell-Fruit churned out machines, snapped up by boozers across the UK ready to make a quick buck. By 1994, models had turned touchscreen (yes, once upon a time all tapping a screen did was leave a giant smudge) creating the far-too-frequent glitching nightmare which potentially made it harder to win.

In 2003, the Paragon Pro23 hit the market, the most advanced machine yet thanks to its mega monitor and scores of flashy games. Selling 8,000 units in a few years, it contributed to the quizzy becoming a mainstay of pubs across the country. You could barely stumble into a pub without seeing one lit-up in the corner, dancing between its demos. The “bunged-up brain boxes” even featured in an episode of Peep Show, dramatising the classic argument of who should be designated tapper.

As pub quiz machines spread, a crack team of amateur quizzers and memory experts started to travel across the country, trying their luck at making half a living by heading into pubs with quizzies and winning some money – or, as the cocky fruit machine player often calls it, withdrawing some cash.

One such quizzer was Christian Drummond, making headlines back in 2012 after outing himself as a professional player. “I was a proper quiz prodigy,” he tells VICE. “I started playing machines when I bunked off school, and at about ten years old I could make around £15.”

Finding himself in publand Glasgow as a young adult, he started to take things more seriously, getting to a point where he could make £100 or £200 a night on Colour of Money. This led to a semi-professional career that took him to 10,000 pubs across the UK by coach and car, staying in "shitty budget hotels" and hitting up every pub in each city and its surrounding towns in a day. “You see a lot of weird, wonderful, crazy and horrendous shit at a Wetherspoons in Sunderland at 9AM,” he remembers fondly.

The money – kept in thousands of pound coins and once hilariously missed by a burglar – made it all worth it. “It meant I was able to study, go to Japan, get married, learn how to drive. It was completely life changing,” he continues. While his career may be over, it still meanders into his dreams. “When I need to sleep I still walk through all the streets I've been to in my head.” Who needs to count sheep when you’ve fleeced an entire industry, eh?


He wasn’t totally alone, either. Several other trivia fiends played the circuits: Oxford duo David and Lesley Brewis made £10,000 playing The Big Match; an anonymous man called Gerry was reported to have made £850 a week tax-free in the 90s; and Paul Johnson was bagging five figures a year from 1985 – before facing vexed landlords and actual car chases.

But what was the trick to all of this? Just memorising the answers to a bank of roughly 30,000 questions, no less. Drummond explains that the better you played, the harder the machine would make it for you to win. They would also give you “blocking” questions that were nearly impossible to get right – ones that could have dozens, or potentially hundreds, of possible right and wrong answers. 

Drummond remembers one question which asked you to select the lighting director of Friends. This was a nightmare since there were literally hundreds across the entire show for you to memorise. Plus, the machine would give you a different new correct name each time, alongside two new bogus ones, and mix up the order for a bonus bit of public house shithousery. 

By the mid-00s, quizzies were still everywhere – with one estimate suggesting there were 35,000 in 2010. Quietly, though, they began to vanish. Even though they narrowly avoided a potentially disastrous £2500-per-pub tax in 2010, fate had called last orders for a number of other reasons: In 2008, only 17 percent of adults owned a smartphone, but by 2020 this was 87 percent. This meant that fastest-fingered cheaters could use Google, rather than phone a friend, for every single question. 


Boozers in general had started to dry up, too: Since 2010, a pub has closed every 14 hours, meaning we’ve lost 5,500 potential places to play. For the pubs that have survived, keeping a quiz machine is less appealing when fruit machines (that are able to rake in hundreds of quid per week) are on offer.

It’s no wonder, really, that Wetherspoons got rid of all their pub quiz machines a few years ago and replaced them with digital slot machines. As for gastropubs, with people now more interested in the colour of their merlot than the Colour of Money, the quiz machine has become, well, trivial. The ones that do linger, languish alone in sticky-carpeted corners.

To me, though, it’s a crying shame. There was something magical and fuzzily familiar about the quizzy, a portal to another world. Sure, it’s a form of gambling, but it was pretty much as innocent as it gets – with each 50p game lasting a few minutes at the least, you’d be hard done by to lose a fiver in an hour. And yes, the questions were ridiculous, going from “Which famous man has the surname Christ?” to “Who patented the woodchip?” in seconds, but that was part of the fun, right?

Thankfully, I’m not the only mourner. “When I was a teenager almost every pub you'd go into you'd find that stout little battleship-grey machine with its drinks holders and plethora of wild and wacky games,” says Jimmy McIntosh, writer and pint correspondent for The Fence. “Some days we'd come out £20 up, but more often than not we'd lose a fiver or so,” he recalls.


For McIntosh, 2015 was the real turning point. “Something shifted, possibly around 2015. I didn't notice it at the time until one day, I realised there weren't any pub quiz machines anymore.” Why does McIntosh think they’ve gone? “I'd imagine they weren't financially worth it for pubs to run, and so if a big pubco sold loads of its pubs with itBOXes on, they'd be the first thing to go,” he says.

To get more answers, I bell Games Warehouse, quiz machine manufacturer and creator of the Paragon. Sean Lynch, their customer relations officer, paints a picture of a company operating on an untied shoestring. “The smoking bans were the nail in the coffin but it's also a cultural thing in terms of footfall,” he says. “When COVID hit, a lot of machines were sidelined and a lot of the operators and users sold them.” This lack of demand created a vicious cycle. “Once we stopped manufacturing machines, the money that went into developing games was gone," he adds. This only led to horrendously out-of-date questions

Aside from repairs and dongles, the main way that Paragon isn’t a total goner is thanks to home sales. The quizzy, it seems, has entered the man cave. “I would say around 30 percent of our sales are from home users,” Lynch says, explaining that pub shed landlords have become major clients.

With this new market, could the quizzy be given a second chance? Can we entertain the idea of a full-on revival? Lynch, who comes from a jukebox production background, hopes its retro era is around the corner. A true comeback is unlikely, though – these days, it’s a quest to even find one. Lynch thinks a couple of thousand might still exist, a mere five percent of its 2010 population, but I have a hunch it could be even lower.

McIntosh is hopeful. “For as long as there are bored people getting pissed in pubs, I think there's a market for them to come back. You'd imagine, though, that in this cashless society they'd all have to be equipped with a card machine – a thoroughly dangerous proposition after four pints of mid-tier grog,” he says. 

Perhaps, though, Drummond is a little more realistic: “Trivia, because of the internet, has generally become a pastime – I see it as something like how everyone used to sit around the piano, something that's lovely but is lost.”

For now, the question hangs in the air like the stench of a packet of pork scratchings: Are quizzies gone for good? The low culture romantic among me hopes that “no” is the correct choice. The indecisive, non-committal agnostic within me would opt for “maybe”, and see what happens. But if I was playing for a few quid, and I had to go with my head over my heart, I know deep down I’d tap “yes” and stumble out into the gloomy night – a fiver in my pocket, a lump the size of a plum in my throat.