February 28, 2014

“Boys never grow up. Their ego, their competitive spirit, their ‘Mum, look at me!’ never really goes away. And nothing brings that male ego like a quiz.”
— Ricky Gervais, “A Night at The Office

I’m Jason. I remember things for money and beer.

About two years ago, my coworker Stephen announced that he’d be hosting a pub quiz event at Merchants Cafe on a Wednesday night. Four teams attended; my friend Mike and I finished 4th, winning nothing. Despite the razzing I received at the office the next day, I returned the next week to play again. Mike’s girlfriend Melissa provided the music knowledge we needed to score in the audio rounds. Other friends and colleagues provided crucial help: even one extra point could make a difference to earn a gift certificate — which could only be used on our next visit.

Merchants Cafe’s quiz night is no more, but most weeks I invite some 20 people to play trivia. We’ve competed at venues large and small, packed and empty, for prizes small and very small. I’ve become reviled by people I’ve just met, I’ve participated in a humiliating “dance-off” to settle a tie, and I currently have gift card prizes from six different Seattle bars.

Back in my pre-Internet days I often read the Guinness Book of World Records and other reference books like encyclopedias. I didn’t start doing trivia competitively until I was in high school, competing with my school’s team in on-line and face-to-face competitions. (In my apartment there is still a VHS copy of my appearance captaining the Syosset Braves against the Hicksville Comets on an episode of local quiz show The Long Island Challenge.) At Carnegie Mellon I continued to compete in intercollegiate competitions, particularly pop-culture “TRASH” tournaments, including some for which we had to write our own packets of questions.

Until my pub quiz habit began in 2012, I had been idle from trivia for about eight years. At some of the college events I had been attending, teams of players 10 or more years out of school would still come and compete — and often dominate. Wary of becoming one of Those Guys, and having alienated enough of Those Guys with my own behavior while in college, I drifted away from the trivia community.

Seattle has a booming pub quiz scene: QuizNight.net’s map shows a forest of weekly and monthly events throughout the city. Almost all are free; some have a cover charge of $2–3 a person, with the winning team taking the pot. The most competitive one I’ve ever seen was at Fadó in Pioneer Square, where teams of 8 people competed for a $60 gift certificate followed by a Card Sharks-style bonus round to win a jackpot of $300 cash. (Nobody won the jackpot when I went, so the jackpot rose to $350 for the next week.) Quiz events near Amazon’s headquarters in South Lake Union draw a steady, strong crowd: at my most recent trip to Lunhcbox Laboratory in SLU the room was full 30 minutes before game time and we placed 4th out of 16 teams. I’ve found that Geeks Who Drink, a national organization behind many local events, does a good job of blending various pop culture and academic interests into eight entertaining rounds.

Remaining conscious of one of Those Guys who take trivia far too seriously, I’ve adopted a few ground rules for pub quiz events:

  1. It’s just for fun. With top prizes for a team of 6 being rarely more than $25, with perhaps a few free pints to be earned as well, this is not exactly life-changing money at stake. We don’t have to play every week or at the same place every week. No complaints or protests are worth ruining a social night out.
  2. It’s a team event. Some of my teammates have said they come in part to be entertained by all the weird things I know. Especially at the larger events, though, close finishes mean that everyone’s input means a lot. I never play solo and I encourage everyone, even if they might know one question out of 64, to come along.
  3. No long-term commitments. Occasionally Geeks Who Drink will offer promotions to encourage teams to play more often. There are even long-distance tournaments like Geek Bowl, held this past year in Austin. I have no interest in any of them. For me, pub quizzes are local, one-off events only. Other social and work commitments for my team take precedence.
  4. No more dance-offs. At one event last year, we tied with another team for first place. Harry, our quizmaster, offered to break the tie by having one person from each team twerk to “Blurred Lines.” Both teams declined, so Harry countered by asking teams to do a group dance-off to the same song, no twerking required. As Harry gleefully recorded it, our team reluctantly tried the head-bobbing routine from the A Night at the Roxbury guys and took second prize. Since then, I’ve told quizmasters that I’d rather forfeit first prize than do any kind of competitive dance-offs. Unwilling participants are like Kryptonite to quizmasters, who have other alternatives like a beer chug-off (which a teammate has done and won) and an extra round of questions.

The local quiz scene is as relaxed as any Seattle institution should be. Although I upset a couple of people with rapid-fire bonus question wins at one recent event, most competitors appreciate the ridiculousness of making enemies over a pop-culture quiz. Quizmasters are more self-deprecating than insulting until a drunken loudmouth starts talking back. I’ve even been recognized on the street: after one triumphant performance at Lunchbox Laboratory, another team getting out of a car near my home a half-mile away recognized me and one person joyfully/drunkenly shouted, “Hey! Trivia!”

Hey, back. Let’s not get too serious.