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Trivia Pursuit

Competing in Geek Bowl is no trivial matter

By R.U. Steinberg, Fri., Jan. 24, 2014

Trivia Pursuit

It's a Tuesday night at the Pinthouse Pizza Craft Brewpub, and the place is hopping. Good luck if you are looking for a seat after 8pm. There are easily about 200 people here, but it's not all about the pizza or the beer. Tonight, it's about trivia, and the room is bursting with collective wisdom.

Pinthouse is one of almost 30 venues in Austin that hosts regular trivia contests put together by Geeks Who Drink. The Denver-based company, which holds events at more than 400 pubs and restaurants in 29 states on any given night, formed in 2005 as a way to bring pubs business on slow nights. Austin is the company's second-biggest market; there are contests here on every night of the week (Round Rock and San Marcos even have a couple of venues of their own). "When you multiply out our attendance, we probably see 18,000 to 20,000 players a week," says John W. Smith, the company's director of public relations and marketing.

In addition to the nightly contests, Geeks Who Drink has held an annual Geek Bowl since 2007. For the first few years, it was held in Denver, but lately it has been in Austin. "The initial reason we moved to Austin was because the venue we wanted in Denver was unavailable," says Smith. "Rather than hold it at a smaller venue in Denver, we decided, 'Why not go to Austin?' Austin is known nationally as a great place to visit, especially in January or February." Smith adds that Geek Bowl X will probably move back to Denver, and the company hopes to hold a future bowl in Seattle.

This Saturday, Jan. 25, Geeks Who Drink is sponsoring Geek Bowl VIII at the ACL Live at the Moody Theater, where some 1,200 players from as far away as Vancouver will vie for more than $10,000 in prizes. The Chronicle set out to get an insider's look at the tourney by talking to some of the teams prepping for the big night.

The Game

Players can form teams with as many as six members or may play alone. A quizmaster reads questions aloud for eight rounds. On any night, the same quiz is read in all venues nationwide. At the end of each round, each team turns in its answer sheet to the quizmaster. Teams aren't penalized for wrong answers – they just don't get those points. Except for the Geek Bowl, there is no registration or fees, although players are encouraged to buy food at the venues. The contest lasts about two hours.

Each round has a theme: One round usually consists of song clips that players must identify, another round might be something visual, and the last round is usually about random knowledge. A sample theme might be about music and have a catchy title like "The Answer's in the Lyrics," with questions like this:

1) Elton John's tiny dancer was a blue jean baby and an L.A. lady. What was her job for the band? (Answer: seamstress)

2) In Right Said Fred's lyrical masterpiece "I'm Too Sexy," which of the following is Fred not too sexy for? A) his shirt, B) New York, C) your party, or D) his pants. (Answer: his pants)

3) Chuck D of Public Enemy "got a letter from the government the other day. He opened and read it, it said they were" what? (Answer: suckers, from "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos")

At the end of the night, the team with the most points wins. Prizes might be something like a $50, $25, or $10 gift card for the pub for the first, second, and third place teams.

The Players

But perhaps the most important element to the competition is the slate of participants. Meet a couple of the teams:

Team Ababus Finch

(Pablo Wilder explains: "We change our team names a lot. Usually someone says something, then someone mishears it, and that's how we come up with the name.")

Members: Ken Bragdon, sisters Anita and Consuelo Hacker, Steve Maggi, Antonio Quintero, and Wilder

By Day: Bragdon and Wilder work at Waterloo Records, and Consuelo works just across the street at BookPeople; Anita is a freelance editor.

Credentials: Last year, the team (then called "Hipso Facto") was one of 144 to compete in the Geek Bowl and finished in 29th place.

History: They got together about three years ago after hanging out at the HighBall. "Once we started playing at one place, we would get together there weekly," says Bragdon. "It just sort of blossomed out of that."

Prep: To prepare for their regular contest, Bragdon says: "The best approach is to not take it too seriously. If we take it too seriously, then we start second-guessing ourselves." Wilder adds: "One rule we have is first guess is best guess. Usually it's whoever gets their answer in now, OK, but if you get it wrong you have to buy everyone a beer."

Pro Tips: Despite the name Geeks Who Drink, Ababus Finch suggests that consuming alcohol is not always the best strategy. "On any given night, we're not all drinking. It's not a requirement," says Anita. "We'll either remember more or less depending on how much we drink," adds Consuelo.

Team Jameis Winston Birthday Rape­tac­ular

(The elaborate name is in "honor" of the quarterback for the BCS-winning Florida State University Seminoles, but they are thinking of renaming themselves Nice to Meet You, Hostages – a reference to a character on Futurama.)

Members: Leif Bagge, Ryon Day, and James Rincon

By Day: Bagge is an electrical engineer, Day is a computer security software specialist, and Rincon works in marketing.

Credentials: The team competed in last year's Geek Bowl at the Austin Music Hall, so they had some valuable perspective to offer: Compared to the weekly contests, the Geek Bowl was faster paced and a little more formal, they said, with proctors picking up teams' score sheets.

History: They've been playing together since 2010 and also started at the HighBall. "They had the greatest setup," says James. "They had a stage, a projection screen, and at the end, they had all these crazy contests."

Prep: Rincon says the best preparation is watching a lot of Netflix to connect with the pop culture references. "The kind of questions they ask, they're rarely something you learned in social studies class. This is stuff that you pick up along the way because you read a book or someone told you along the way. Rarely does being a good student help you answer these questions."

Pro Tips: They say it helps if everyone has a specialty. "Everyone has to be good with everything, but James is really good with sports; Leif knows lots of random stuff, current events, and Internet culture; and I usually get really obscure stuff, especially older music," says Day. "Trivia is never stuff that you think you know. Then they ask that question you can answer. You don't know why you know this, like which Kardashian is married to who." Rincon adds, "When you play with the same people over and over again a lot, a certain dynamic develops."

Bobb X. Ha

(pronounced "Bobby X")

By Day: Ha is a freelance IT professional.

Bobb X. Ha
Bobb X. Ha
Photo by John Anderson

Credentials: He's the player everyone wants on their team, but fears as a competitor. Because of his consistent successes, other players have nicknamed him "the Elvis of Austin Trivia." He appreciates the title, but says he is more of a Beatles fan. Two years ago, Ha was on a team that tied for first place at the Geek Bowl, but lost the tiebreaker.

History: Ha started at the HighBall (seriously, what was in the water down there?) and has been competing since 2009 or 2010.

Prep: Ha says he owes his success to his teammates. "I surround myself with people who know their stuff. I stand on the shoulders of giants. It helps to know smarter people." He adds that he competes about four nights a week. "With Geeks Who Drink, the way they phrase their questions, it helps to practice. What I like about them is it's not trivia, but a quiz. It's not testing your ability to remember random stuff. It's a lot about listening comprehension." Although he hasn't competed out of town, Ha compares notes with friends who compete in other cities. Since Geeks Who Drink has the same quiz on any given night nationwide, he can compare his answers with others. "Even if you do really well on the quiz with the people in the room, you are also competing with people all over the country. ... I like being able to compare my performance on a given night with people all over the country. It's like you're playing golf; you're actually playing the course."

Pro Tips: When the cameras come out, Ha hides his face, an idea he got from a teammate. He says, "I didn't even realize that people recognize me." If you're a beginner, Ha suggests you sign up for the newsletter. "The hints they give are actually really helpful."

Geek Bowl VIII takes place Saturday, Jan. 25, at ACL Live at the Moody Theater; for more information on entering or being a spectator, visit www.geekswhodrink.com.

Trivia About Trivia

The idea of trivia contests at pubs is relatively new. In the Fifties, trivia quiz shows were all the rage on television. Then, a scandal revealed that some popular contestants responsible for bringing in good ratings were secretly getting the answers from the shows' producers. The popularity of the shows took a sharp decline.

In Britain and Ireland, pubs drew in customers because unlike most homes, they had televisions. Regulars watched quiz shows and often yelled out answers, which led to pubs holding quiz nights.

Fast forward to 1965, specifically to Columbia University. Two enterprising students, Ed Good­gold and Dan Carlinsky, led late-night bull sessions and trivia games in the school's dorms. Goodgold, who wrote feature articles for the Columbia Daily Spectator, promoted the new trivia game in a Feb. 5, 1965 article:

"Has anyone ever asked you what was the name of the Lone Ranger's nephew? Has anyone ever challenged you to the name of the snake that appeared in 'We're No Angels'? Maybe someone has dared you to name Superman's Kryptonic parents? If any of these things have happened to you then, no doubt, you have been involved in a game of 'trivia.' Trivia is a game which is played by countless young adults who on the one hand realize that they have misspent their youth and yet, on the other hand, do not want to let go of it. It's a combination of 'Information Please' and psychoanalysis, in which participants try to stump their opponents with the most minute details of shared childhood experiences."

According to Columbia writers George Leonard and Robert Leonard, Goodgold enlisted the help of a band he managed called the Columbia Kingsmen to attract attention to the games; they later changed their name to Sha Na Na so they wouldn't be confused with the Kingsmen who recorded "Louie Louie." Sporting gold lamé, leather jackets, and pompadour and ducktail hairdos, Sha Na Na performed Fifties rock & roll standards. By 1966, Goodgold and Carlinsky graduated and published their first trivia book, a 50-cent Dell paperback that eventually hit the New York Times bestsellers list. The idea of trivia contests spread to other Ivy League universities and led to university trivia bowls.

Back across the pond, in 1976, Sharon Burns and Tom Porter founded and organized 32 pub quiz teams in three leagues in southern England. By the late Seventies, pub trivia quizzes had grown into a national institution, with as many as 10,000 teams competing weekly.

Trivia nights returned to the United States in the early Nineties, mostly in Irish pubs. After attending university in Belfast, Liam McAtasney moved to San Francisco in 1995 and started hosting monthly trivia nights. A year later, he founded Brainstormer and began selling his trivia questions nationwide. Other companies gradually cropped up, some regional and some national, some quirky and some more scholarly.

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