Most pub quizzes begin with the rules. But on a recent Wednesday at Hard Times Cafe in Clarendon, there’s a phone number, too: Contestants can use it to settle any concerns or disputes. It’s not the bar’s number. It’s more like a corporate hotline.
The option of a long-distance conflict-resolution specialist is the first indication that this is not your typical barroom trivia night. Sure, there is a pair of wiseacre quizmasters with a laptop and microphone. And yeah, there’s a room full of 20- and 30-somethings swilling craft beers and eating greasy food. But tonight’s event isn’t a homegrown quiz, with idiosyncratic questions penned by the hosts. This is pub quiz gone Walmart.
Twenty-seven teams are competing in Geeks Who Drink’s first night in Arlington. Despite its name, the quiz is a pretty snug fit for the fratty atmosphere. “What sitcom allowed America to watch Alyssa Milano become a hottie in real time?” goes one question. In the same round: “In what movie does Johnny Depp care for his retarded brother…”—half the room bristles. The MC is embarrassed: “Intellectually challenged,” she later corrects herself.
Things aren’t running Walmart-smooth quite yet.
Geeks Who Drink runs more than 100 trivia nights around the country. The Colorado firm’s business plan aims to bring economies of scale to a quintessentially local activity. It has four full-time staffers. Question-writing is centralized. Its part-time quizmasters typically have to audition, although in Clarendon, hosts are also employees of the bar. And where the trivia nights that have become a social fixture for younger Washingtonians generally require participants to call upon all of their wonky, ambitious, ex-student-council president knowledge, this one is…sort of intellectually challenged.
But it may well be the future. With the launch of quizzes at Hard Times Cafe locations in Clarendon, Fairfax, and Springfield, Geeks Who Drink is trying to move into the D.C. market, where it’ll compete with other national pub quiz companies like Brainstormer, Stump!, and PubStumpers as well as two locals with growing footprints, Trivia Kings and District Trivia. Welcome to the pub-quiz wars.
This being its first run, tonight’s Geeks Who Drink quiz doesn’t go that smoothly. It’s certainly fast-paced: Eight rounds in two hours. The questions—heavy on pop culture, and for the most part not too difficult—do feature a few head-scratchers. But we’re also awarded an extra point for returning our Geeks Who Drink pencil—the pub-quiz equivalent of writing your name atop the SAT. Hyper-competitive Washington, it ain’t.
One pub-quiz staple that is replicated at Geeks Who Drink is the tradition of wacky, pretentious team names. Well, sort of. One group is “Is it too tsunami to talk about this?” Another is “Wish we were at the Caps game.” My squad calls itself “Studs Terkel”—after the Chicago historian who wrote the book Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression—mostly because we can’t come up with anything wittier. Perhaps, less consciously, it’s because we think we’re too smart to be here. It’s a close game, and we miss enough questions across eight rounds to assume we’ve lost. In the end, we do win, which means, in retrospect, that we have a good time. (There are a lot of reasons to play pub quiz, but the most important is winning, if only because it means free drinks.) Later, I check the play-by-play on Geeks Who Drinks’ website: “All in all the hump date treat we call GWD night at Hard Times was a success!” The revolution has been recapped.
Still, it feels like a pyrrhic victory—an exceedingly low-stakes pyrrhic victory—if only because the hosts don’t seem especially invested in their questions. In the music round, we’re asked to identify songs involving the word “pretty,” like “Pretty Woman” by Roy Orbison. By the time the answers are read aloud, the quizmasters have changed his name: Ray Orbison.
In economic terms, pub quizzes exist for one reason: To populate bars during the work week with people who otherwise would not be there. There are dozens of pub quizzes in the D.C. area—easily more than 100—and most are run either by the pubs themselves or by independent quizmasters who write their own questions, run their own promotion, and work out their own arrangements with bars. All of that work can be time-consuming, although the pay is sometimes good (and the drinks are always free).
Companies like Geeks Who Drink and Brainstormer, by contrast, are quiz factories: They generate and fact-check questions for quizzes across the country, sometimes soliciting freelance contributions; they usually handle some promotion; and they sometimes provide quizmasters. They’ve got a few selling points: value (they can be cheaper than indie quizmasters), consistency (since they’re, you know, corporate), and experience (not all questions and quizmasters are created equal). Usually, all the quizzes one company generates on a given night are identical or similar, although they sometimes can be tweaked by MCs.
People who know about these things will tell you the pub-quiz concept comes from the British Isles, and became popular in the 1950s, the era of the televised game show. Some give Ireland credit for inventing pub quizzes, others Scotland. Trivia nights began popping up in the U.S. around the early 1990s, mostly in Irish pubs, and there are essentially three kinds: the “traditional” style, involving multiple rounds each containing multiple questions; the “DJ” style, in which a host reads questions between songs, one at a time; and a version of the game involving a lengthy questionnaire that teams have to complete within a period of time. These days, many traditional pub quizzes are in fact multi-media, with picture and audio rounds. The prize for winning a quiz is usually a discount on the bar tab.
It didn’t take long for quizmasters to realize there’s serious money in reading questions to drunkards. “I take a lot of the credit for it,” says Liam McAtasney, who founded Brainstormer in San Francisco in 1996. “When I started, there were no other companies.” There are at least a dozen now. Most of his competitors also got their start as quizmasters.
McAtasney came to the United States in 1995 after attending university in Belfast, and for a time worked at a high-end retirement community, where he began running a monthly trivia night. He started hosting nights in San Francisco—eventually four a week—before creating Brainstormer in 1996 and selling his questions nationwide. His company’s product is read at nearly 100 pubs, including Fadó in Chinatown, several bars in Northern Virginia, and a monthly trivia night at the National Press Club.
Brainstormer’s questions are tough, which is one reason Fadó has a reputation as one of the District’s more competitive quizzes (its spaciousness and downtown location, guaranteeing a large turnout, help, too). “I don’t see a point in asking questions in which everybody knows the answer,” McAtasney says.
But Brainstormer’s approach has one big drawback—unless your bar is in San Francisco, you probably have to provide your own host and do most of your own advertising. By contrast, Geeks Who Drink, which is based in Denver, provides questions, advertising, and almost always a host. Its questions are also a bit more populist. “There’s a certain idea out there that trivia should be scholastic, and I think that’s a load of crap,” says co-founder John Dicker, who is also its official quizmaster-in-chief. “We’re trying to entertain people who might be good at trivia and those who aren’t.” The traditional pub quiz includes lots of geography and history, but doesn’t exclude pop culture. Dicker’s quizzes are interested in the latter, as well other ephemera of modern life. (Geeks Who Drink also puts on specialty quizzes, like an Arrested Development trivia event hosted around the country earlier this month, and an annual Geek Bowl.)
Geeks Who Drink and the local Trivia Kings are part of a newer breed of pub quizzes whose goal is more to entertain than offer a social experience. Call it the Dave & Buster’s model. Like many quizzes, they include audio and picture rounds (in which players identify songs and photographs). They’re over in two hours (“that’s kind of the commonly agreed-upon length of a movie,” Dicker says) with almost no downtime. Geeks Who Drink has eight rounds. Trivia Kings’ quiz—called “Inquizitive™”—has three periods of three rounds each and a final high-scoring round. Both companies collect quiz stats on their websites.
Geeks Who Drink also emphasizes quirk. Dicker sent me some sample rounds he says exemplify his company’s style. For example: In the category “Sitcoms, As Described by Someone Who Hasn’t Seen Them,” one clue is “1978, NBC: Two rival artists debate proper painting techniques.” The answer is Diff’rent Strokes.
The question, alas, is wittier than anything I heard at Geeks Who Drink’s Hard Times quiz. Although most of his quizzes on a given night have the same material, for new locations “I intentionally make them a little bit easier,” Dicker says.
I’ve been a regular at a handful of quizzes since I moved back to D.C. in 2009. For a while, I went to the Booze Clues night at the Argonaut on H Street NE. I thought it was fairly easy, though, come to think of it, my table never actually won. The quiz at Wonderland Ballroom in Columbia Heights is interesting, in that its hosts rotate each week. I played the quiz there when a friend and his colleagues from The Atlantic were in charge, and the result was predictably heavy on arcana, and not particularly fun (sorry, guys).
My favorite quiz is the one at Looking Glass Lounge in Petworth, which has fairly traditional, fairly difficult questions but mostly succeeds for the reason almost every person I interviewed for this story cited as essential to a good trivia night: a charismatic host.
That’d be Dalton Hirshorn, 34, a “software guy” at a law firm who bartends on the side. He’s been running the Looking Glass quiz for about three years, after coming aboard when the bar changed owners and names (it used to be Temperance Hall). “A friend was a bartender there,” he says, “and she asked me if I wanted to do it, because—and I believe these were her words—‘you know a lot of useless shit and you enjoy being the center of attention. Which is the perfect combination.’”
Tall, goofy-looking, and theatrical, Hirshorn heckles and is frequently heckled. His style is idiosyncratic and digressive and not necessarily high-brow (a recent Arnold Schwarzenegger round was a bouquet of spot-on impersonations), but he never overwhelms the quiz. “It’s not really about you if you’re the host,” Hirshorn says. “You’re an MC; you’re not really the star. Alex Trebek knows it’s not really about him.”
The quiz is competitive, in that the room’s collective IQ is pretty high, and the bar is always packed. Because Hirshorn usually does his own scoring, his quiz is also languorous and low-key. There’s time between rounds; it’s all very social. In Hirshorn’s world, a good pub quiz just needs good questions, a good host, good people, and a good room. Hirshorn’s own quiz excels, in my mind, because it’s also precious, weird, singular, and often D.C.-specific. If I wanted to answer the same questions as some guy in Denver—or even some guy in Arlington—I’d watch Jeopardy.
So is my pub-quiz beau ideal exactly the kind of thing the national firms, with their focus on efficiency, would eradicate?
Maybe not. Fadó’s quiz works because its host has a great feel for the room—but then again, Fadó’s quiz, which started a decade ago, is also one of the oldest in the city. Maybe the Geeks Who Drinks MCs in Clarendon will grow into passable quizmasters. Trivia Kings like to double up its hosts—in case one mutinies and tries to take the bar with it.
There’s one thing the pub-quiz behemoths will never aspire to, however, and it’s the real secret behind the best independent quizzes: They’re not about providing ceaseless, synapse-frying entertainment. The best kind of pub quiz, like Hirshorn’s, is an expertly controlled mess.
An anthropologist could glean a lot about The Way We Live Now by looking at our pub quizzes. The concept has held on especially well in the Washington area, and it’s easy to offer some theories as to why: It’s a way for competitive types to compete when they’re off the clock—even if they suck at sports. It’s a way for awkward types to hang out with people—and even impress them!—without talking too much. It’s a way for careerist types to go to the bar on Tuesday night without feeling guilty.
In trivial times, trivia is a way for a BlackBerry-addicted class of locals to demonstrate all the factoids they’ve amassed. In the 21st century, America’s new pastime is the constant consumption of information. “Even if you don’t want to know who some actor is dating, sometimes it’s impossible not to know,” says Hirshorn. “All these little tiny bits of information, a lot of them stick in your brain, and one of the few ways you can use it in a productive way is a pub quiz.”
And, since the quizmasters I interviewed put the average pub-quizzer’s age at closer to 33 than 23—most also said quiz-going crowds skew white, male, and quite educated—it’s also a way to be social, even if you’re living alone. “Trivia is one of the few things that allows a setting in which groups can come together,” says Bill Gélinas, one of the people behind D.C.’s Trivia Kings. “It’s a catch-up spot, and they can be entertained at the same time. Also, great [bar] specials.”
Gélinas has big plans for his business, and seems to be having some success at it, so it follows that he’d understand the appeal. But, of course, it also says something that people as bright as Gélinas are competing to be the corporate king of this sweet little ritual.
If people who play pub quizzes are reasonably competitive nerds, the people who want to become pub-quiz titans are horrifyingly competitive nerds. Gélinas is one of them. In D.C., “we are by far the biggest trivia provider on pretty much every single metric,” he says. They have the most locations in the area—18—and three of them, he says, are in the “top five.” That means they get big crowds.
Gélinas, 33, works in finance, and Trivia Kings is an outgrowth of the quiz he used to run at Union Jack’s in Ballston, where he’s one of the owners. In 2009, more than 300 people would attend the quiz each week, he says. “It was depressing: We had the largest quiz club in the world and no one knew about it.” He then started running the quiz at Union Jack’s Bethesda location, but became worn out. “I had a pretty big decision to make,” he says. “Either quit or change the economy of scale.”
With several partners—none of whom work for the company full-time—Gélinas put together Trivia Kings. Like most quiz companies, it charges a flat fee to bars: In this case, it’s a sliding scale depending on the specs (the introductory rate is $80 per week). Quizmasters are paid by the night. They have proprietary scoring software, which helps them get through 10 rounds (10 rounds!) in two hours, as well as keep comprehensive stats on the website.
Trivia Kings has big expansion plans: In a year, after they’ve rolled out a new content management system containing 20,000 questions, Gélinas hopes to have reached 100 bars across the country. Just in this region, he says, “our goal is to have the best bar in every single neighborhood from Baltimore to Richmond.”
(Gélinas says he’s asked Hirshorn to use his scoring software—for free, in fact, in exchange for Looking Glass displaying the Trivia Kings brand.)
That means going after competitors; Gélinas brags about already replacing PubStumpers at several bars. Geeks Who Drink isn’t doing the full-court press on D.C. yet (Hard Times Cafe came to them after dropping PubStumpers) but they’ve done it in other metropolises. “A lot of the time, we’ll pick a city that we want to go into, and meet with bar owners and basically hustle it,” Dicker says.
Trivia Kings, meanwhile, isn’t even shy about going after indies. “We do that a lot, and it’s been very successful,” Gélinas says. “A lot of these independent-run places have hosts that are really passionate about what they do and bars that support them. But there’s pressure to maintain and maintain, and high expectations—because of that, that’s why you’ll find there’s a very cyclical nature to pub quizzes in general.” In other words: Trivia Kings means you don’t have to worry if your quizmaster gets swine flu.
Gélinas is intense, and so is his quiz. The Trivia Kings website somehow makes room for a medieval motif and a Rockwellian Uncle Sam. It contains rules like “No Cheating,” “No Changes,” “No Yelling,” “No Peeking,” “No Easy-Money,” and “Tip Full Price”—with a paragraph-long explanation for each. The site also lists selections from its quiz’s playlists: “Not only has the best music from across the genre spectrum been compiled, but we have taken a lot of work researching lesser known independent artists still growing in the music scene.” That includes cool bands like Phoenix, The xx—and Starship. Research!
Passion aside, Gélinas at least knows that expansion isn’t easy, even if Trivia Kings is growing at a steady clip. “We lose one-quarter of every bar we start,” he says. It could be any number of culprits: bad planning, bad marketing, bad hosting, a bad venue, a bad night. “We’ve lost six locations. It just kills me every time, man. It kills me every time.”
Certainly, starting a new quiz—finding that perfect calibration of host, space, and crowd—isn’t a perfect science.
On the theory that one should review a pub quiz like it’s a restaurant, I return to the Hard Times Cafe in Clarendon one week later, hoping to give Geeks Who Drink a second shot. One half of the bar’s second floor—where the quizmasters have set up shop—is packed with Capitals fans watching Game 1 of the team’s playoff series. The far end of the floor is reserved for a consulting firm’s happy hour. One of the hosts announces over the P.A. that the quiz is getting ready to start.
She is summarily booed.
I ask what’s going on, and I’m told they’ve decided to cancel the quiz this week, which was to be its second ever.
“We’re fearful for our lives,” a quizmaster tells me, laughing a little nervously. “I feel like doing it right now would be a suicide mission.”