When Casey Donahue won $6,000, he couldn’t quite believe it.
The Los Angeles-based freelance filmmaker was at his parents’ house in Boca Raton, Fla., on Christmas Eve when he was just one of two people who won that night’s round of HQ Trivia. The popular trivia app, which has a live host present two games a day, has become a sensation over the last few months with hundreds of thousands of regularly players each round that typically split a cash jackpot ranging from $1,000 to $18,000.
But Christmas came early for Donahue, who was just one of two winners for the $12,000 jackpot, one of the highest prizes offered so far. His $6,000 is currently the largest individual cash prize since the game launched last October.
“I was flipping out,” Donahue told MONEY. “[My parents] really didn’t have any idea what was happening. I was just screaming, ‘I won $6,000,’ and my mom kept grabbing my phone to see if it was real.”
And it was. Donahue is one of several people who have won more than $100 playing HQ Trivia. Thanks to a combination of unique knowledge, strategic guessing and higher jackpots offered by the game’s creators, these winners are often stunned by not only their wins, but also by the amount that appears in their bank accounts.
To win the game, you must answer 12 questions — varying in difficulty — correctly with only 10 seconds to answer each. A set jackpot is announced for each round — with a new minimum of $2,000 for most of them, and a larger cash prize on Sunday nights. The winners split the cash prize, so the fewer the better.
Winners can use PayPal, an online money transferring app, to place their prize money into the bank accounts. While some players have won HQ multiple times, other players like Donahue win once and are immediately propelled to the top of the game’s leadership board. Both Jaimie Ortiz, a 26-year-old from Cincinnati, and Cesar Paolini, a father of three from Miami, have also had one big win that makes them a top-earning HQ player. In fact, Ortiz won the other half of that $12,000 prize on Dec. 24, when she was at her boyfriend’s house, she told MONEY in an e-mail.
Then there are other players like Paul Paquet, who has made a career out of playing trivia. He has earned $633 playing HQ Trivia so far — an accumulation of a half a dozen wins including one with a $500 prize in the fall.
But when you win hundreds or thousands of dollars on a free app, what should you do with that money? Paquet, of Ottawa, Ontario, will travel to New York City later this month to see a Broadway show. Paolini said he had nothing special planned for the cash but “probably bought a couple of better gifts than I would have otherwise bought for Christmas.” And Ortiz and her boyfriend used her $6,000 win to buy new Apple Watches. (The rest of the money, she wrote in an email, is for “responsible #adulting.”)
As for Donahue and his $6,000 prize? Investing in cryptocurrency sounds intriguing, he said. He’s especially interested in Ripple, the third largest digital currency now that he has some extra cash. (However, Donahue should take note that Ripple has suffered a staggering price decline this month.)
Though he hasn’t invested yet, Donahue is relieved to start the new year with “a bit of extra padding” — something that’s hard to come by as a freelance filmmaker, he said.
“It’s always, like, a little unsure where the money is going to come from throughout the year,” Donahue said. “It’s always a constant stress about money and living the freelance life. It’s nice not to stress about it for at least a little bit.”
It is unclear what the future of HQ Trivia holds. Cash prizes are funded by investors — but some have reportedly backed out over concerns about how the app’s co-founders have behaved toward women. (HQ founders Colin Kroll and Rus Yusupov also founded the now-defunct Vine back in 2012.) And users have complained of technical issues and delays in the game.
The actual trivia presented, however, is satisfactory, Paquet said. He has written more than 100,000 trivia questions for bar nights and other trivia games. “I can see the parameters they’re working against,” he told MONEY. “It’s difficult to have fun questions that are very short. All the tricks I use to make questions fun require a lot of space.”
But many of the game’s users play it for the experience, not necessarily for the cash prize. Take Lauren May of San Francisco, whose thrilled reaction to winning just $11.30 went viral. The same goes for Ortiz, who still sits at the top of the leaderboard for her $6,000 win.
“To be honest [winning] $1.00 or $6,000.00 wouldn’t have mattered as long as we had the satisfaction of winning the game as it is so incredibly fun,” Ortiz said.