This 25-year-old guessed at 80% of his HQ Trivia questions — and won over $20,000

This 25-year-old guessed 80% of his HQ Trivia questions — and won over $20,000
This 25-year-old guessed 80% of his HQ Trivia questions — and won over $20,000

On March 28, Jason Varney, a 25-year-old admin from western Ohio, became one of a dozen winners who split a record $250,000 jackpot from popular live game show app HQ Trivia.

The prize money, all $20,833.33 of it, appeared in his PayPal account this week, Varney tells CNBC Make It. It puts him among HQ's biggest winners.

"I'm going to be smart [with the money]," Varney says.

"But, the devil on my shoulder is telling me to have some fun."

HQ Trivia streams daily trivia games to users' mobile devices and players try to answer multiple-choice questions for the chance to win a share of a cash prize, which has ranged from $1,000 to $100,000 in past games, with $250,000 being the largest pot ever.

Varney, who made it through 15 trivia questions like "What festive term also describes a hidden feature in a video game?" (an Easter egg) and "What does the Russian word 'glasnost' mean?" (Answer: openness), tells CNBC Make It that he plays HQ Trivia basically every day but had never won a single game before.

"Something like this just doesn't happen to everybody," he says.

Indeed. Especially because Varney says he guessed the answers for 12 of the 15 questions.

His win was pure luck, he says.

"I guessed from [questions] 4 to 15. I mean, complete guesses," he says. "What are the chances?" (Roughly 1 in 177,147, according to Harvard statistics professor Mark Glickman.)

What's more, Varney guessed incorrectly on the 11th question (about the tech start-up founder with more Twitter followers than Mark Zuckerberg — it's Box's Aaron Levie). But he had one "extra life." HQ eliminates players as soon as they get a question wrong, unless they have an "extra life," which can be earned by referring friends to download the app and allows you to keep playing.

Then, during the closing seconds of the game, Varney thought he blew it.

The final question hinged on the famous line from the 1987 Patrick Swayze movie "Dirty Dancing," asking what words Swayze's character utters immediately after "Nobody puts Baby in the corner."

Varney chose the phrase, "Come on."

"As soon as I [made the selection], I put my phone down on the dresser and I said, 'I just missed it, that doesn't even make sense,'" says Varney, who was playing the game on his smartphone while laying in bed.

He assumed he'd lost his shot at the $250,000, so he got up to take his dog for a walk to take his mind off the disappointment.

Jason Varney

Then he heard HQ Trivia host Scott Rogowsky announce the correct answer. It was indeed "Come on."

"I just looked at my girlfriend and we both start screaming at the top of our lungs," Varney says, recounting the moment he realized he'd won.

Varney and his girlfriend, Emily, 24, live with her parents and they raced to tell her family the good news.

"I actually fell down the stairs," Varney says. "My dog took out my legs on the stairs. It was just pure elation and joy."

HQ winner Jason Varney with his girlfriend, Emily Dooley.
Jason Varney

Varney was one of nearly 2.4 million people who logged into the HQ app for a shot at the $250,000 prize — record viewership for the app. Though Varney and his fellow 11 winners won big, in March, HQ gave away $50,000 to one winner in its largest individual payout since launching in August 2017.

Varney says the win "couldn't have come at a better time." He completed his MBA at Indiana Wesleyan University nearly a year ago, and his current administrative fellowship at Kettering Health ends in September, so he's grateful to have additional financial support.

"It was truly a blessing," he says.

Varney plans to put some of the money toward paying down his student loans and car payments. He'll also visit his family in Florida, where he'll be able to see his grandmother before she undergoes heart surgery later this month.

But Varney does have one splurge in mind.

A big golf fan, who has always wanted to see Tiger Woods play in person, Varney says he's considering making a special trip to Augusta, Georgia to watch The Masters Tournament, which began Thursday and lasts through Sunday. "That would be amazing," he says.

Varney will also set aside some of his winnings to pay for the eventual tax bill on his prize money. Representatives from HQ contacted him the day after he won to ask him to fill out a W-9 form to insure that the IRS taxes his winnings appropriately, and to talk him through the taxation process. Varney says he expects to pay around $5,000 in federal taxes.

The federal government taxes cash prizes from game shows like HQ Trivia, along with lottery drawings and other similar contests, as ordinary income, an IRS representative tells CNBC Make It. Game show winners must report any prize money over $600 as additional income on a 1099 form, so the tax rate depends on the winner's income bracket, says April Walker, lead manager for tax practice and ethics for the American Institute of CPAs.

Jason Varney in the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee. "I was trying to get as high as I could to get a signal on my phone [to play HQ Trivia]," he tells CNBC Make It.
Jason Varney

Meanwhile, Varney plans to continue playing HQ.

The $250,000 jackpot was sponsored by Warner Bros. in conjunction with its recent movie, "Ready Player One." It's HQ Trivia's latest move to increase its cash prizes by partnering with corporate sponsors. In another recent game, HQ partnered with Nike to give away $100,000 in total, along with free pairs of sneakers, to four winners.

Varney doesn't think that HQ's users will be deterred by the fact that sponsorships will likely mean more advertisements in the games, which often attract well over 1 million players each. However, even popular mobile gaming apps often have trouble hanging onto users in the long term, and HQ has already angered its user base by taking money from a controversial source, tech billionaire Peter Thiel's Founders Fund, which led to the brief spread of the hashtag "DeleteHQ" on Twitter earlier this year.

Still, "The chance to win money, it's what keeps you coming back," says Varney, noting that bigger jackpots will maintain his interest in the games.

And, for Varney at least, his big win made the marketing push from HQ and "Ready Player One" that much more effective: "When I won, I was like, 'Ok, I have to go see that movie now.'"

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