Revenge of the Nerds
Q. What is Mike Jones doing at the Irish Rover on a Monday?
A. Not soliciting gay sex. Sort of.
Mike Jones and the Jäger girls are getting along famously. The two scantily clad swag-peddlers get up periodically to make the rounds at the Irish Rover, with red, flashing medallions illuminating their hips as they offer free Jägermeister T-shirts, hats and beads to the bar's customers — but then they return to the corner of the bar and continue gabbing with Jones, the male prostitute-turned-author who outed former New Life Church pastor Ted Haggard last fall. The sixty-plus people — fifteen or so teams — gathered here for the Geeks Who Drink Monday-night pub quiz don't pay much attention to the odd trio; there are questions to answer, trivia asses to be kicked. Between rounds, though, Quizmaster Lauren blasts "Back Then," a song by Houston rapper Mike Jones that features the lyrics "I'm Mike Jones, don't act like you don't know the name." Finally, a few of the players grasp what's happening and exhale drunken "whoo-hoos" of recognition.
It was John Dicker, co-founder of Geeks Who Drink, a pub-quiz company fast blanketing the state and beyond with its quirky approach to the standard trivia night, who landed Jones as a guest quizmaster. "I saw the questions Mike Jones wrote, and they're filthier than anything I could have ever hoped for," Dicker says with an almost maniacal smile. "This is going to be amazing."
He takes the microphone and starts to introduce the guest quizmaster for the evening, only to be flouted by mike problems. "God is mad at us," he jokes.
And then Jones comes up to the mike. "I just want to point out that the story broke November 1," he says. "And I haven't had sex since then, so if any of you boys out there are feeling a little lonely..."
Several people chuckle at Jones's creepy, faux (?) come-on, but three baseball-capped young men sitting at the bar take notable offense. Their body language is rigid, their faces scowling.
"Who cares?" says one member of Team Burgeoning Homophobia. "Just do your round already."
The other two nod in agreement.
After a fast plug of his book, Jones launches into his round, unofficially titled "Ted Haggard, Massage and Other Naughty Things."
"When Ted Haggard got fucked by me," Jones begins, adding particular emphasis to the word fucked, "which position did he want to try? A) Doggie style; B) Sit and spin; C) Missionary; or D) Was he passive and let me choose?"
While some players shriek with laughter, others earnestly discuss the question, trying to see if they can't come up with the correct answer. Surrealism be damned, there are valuable points to be earned. But Team Burgeoning Homophobia is not amused. While Geeks Who Drink never shies away from blue material, a male escort discussing his sexual exploits is not exactly par for the course.
"Should we leave?" Backwards Ballcap inquires. "I mean, I get it. It's funny or whatever, but give me a break."
Instead, they put an answer on their score card and listen for the next question.
"What was the favorite underwear of mine that Ted Haggard enjoyed wearing?" Jones continues, unfazed. "A) Stars and stripes thong; B) Jockstrap; C) Cum-stained dirty briefs; or D) Leather with no back door?"
Burgeoning Homophobia resorts to a round of car bombs. "No, I mean, I get it," one member stammers. "Like, I get the joke, I get it...but, like, enough, you know?"
John Dicker is sitting near Jones at the front of the bar; you couldn't slap the smile off his face.
"During a gay massage, what does 'Go deeper' mean?" Jones asks for his third question in a round of eight. "A) Stick more than one finger in the ass; B) Pound harder; C) Dig deeper into the muscle; or D) Swallow the entire cock without gagging. I'm sorry I'm so bashful."
"How about E) Who gives a shit?" Backwards Ballcap yells.
"Are you questioning Mike Jones?" Lauren asks. "Nobody questions the quizmaster. Douchebag!"
"Douchebag, douchebag!" the trivia players yell, using a well-honed Geeks Who Drink tool of putting uppity miscreants in their place. Backwards Ballcap turns around and drowns his sorrows in his beer. A tense silence falls over the bar, until a nebbish fellow in a corner booth finally breaks the tension.
"Besides," he says meekly. "We give a shit."
Q. Where in God's name did this strange tradition begin?
A. The U.K. Probably.
The question of where bar-trivia games began is tough to answer. According to Chris Jones, director of Quizzing.co.uk and co-founder of the International Quizzing Association, the tradition became official in England in 1946. "I refer to the York Clubs and Institutes Quiz League," he says, citing a century-old nationwide association of member-owned social clubs that added a quiz division more than sixty years ago. "That league holds a certificate from the Guinness Book of World Records to substantiate their claim as the oldest."
But that's just the oldest organized league. Loose-knit unions of blokes pounding pints at a pub and unearthing trivia detritus from the nether regions of their memories for money, free booze, bonding or esteem predate any league. Jones has a book published in 1927 that he believes could be England's oldest quiz book; in it, the author writes of quizzing as a "new hobby."
"One thing never questioned in a pub quiz is the pub quiz itself," writes Stephen Phelan, a reporter for Scotland's Sunday Herald, in a recent article exploring the phenomenon. "Where did it come from? Who held the first one, and when? No quizmaster would ask any of the above, because the answers are unknown, unverifiable or open to debate, and therefore unwelcome..."
Some fans claim the pub quizzes started in Ireland, others in Scotland, still others in England. The only thing most quiz fanatics can agree on is that the pastime gained steam during the '50s and '60s as television quiz shows pervaded the airwaves.
"I've personally known it to be Irish," says Paul Bailey, a United States representative to the International Quizzing Association. "But it definitely started somewhere in the U.K. I think it just goes with the pub atmosphere over there, where it's not so much a bar, but more like a living room, a gathering place for that community where people are playing music and singing. I think the quiz kind of just sprung up from the popularity of the quiz shows and people asking the questions of the day. Getting your news in quiz form, in a way."
Patrick Hines, host of a popular, long-running pub quiz at Fergie's Pub in Philadelphia, helped get the game up and running in the States. He thinks.
"I'm not sure if I was the first to start doing a quiz night," Hines says. "But I think I may have been one of the first to put on a night run by an American, for Americans. All I know is that when we started out, it was a very ethnic kind of thing. It was run in pubs in New York for the Irish community or the English community, but outside of those close-knit groups, no one was really playing it. No one saw it as a viable source of income for a bar."
But Hines, who'd lived in Ireland in the early '90s, knew how successful the game was over there, so when his brother-in-law, the owner of a bar on the Jersey Shore, was looking for a way to keep the bar-hopping crowd in his place for more than a few drinks back in 1992, Hines suggested trivia. He wrote and hosted the trivia night himself, and the concept proved wildly popular. Two years later, Hines moved to Philadelphia, where he started a night at the New Deck Tavern, then moved from there to Fergie's Pub. Philly now has a thriving pub-quiz scene where players can attend up to three games a night if they are so inclined.
"I think the game really speaks to the ex-geeks, the ex-nerds, people who weren't on the football team in high school," Hines hypothesizes. "Sure, you have your casual players, the people who come in every once in a while and have fun with it, but the people who come in every single week, the people like me, they never got any girls or anything for being smart back in the day. Now they can get free beer. It's like finally we have a sport."
In 1968, University of Colorado professor David Bowen coached a team of student geeks to an undefeated championship on the popular television quiz show GE College Bowl. After that, he decided to create a version of the show that relied on more useless knowledge than the GE Bowl, and CU kids took to it like alcohol. In its heyday the University of Colorado Trivia Bowl — which Bailey now heads — was featured in countless magazines, drew crowds of thousands and was once broadcast on ABC, with Family Feud's Richard Dawson flying in to host the festivities and kiss every woman he could.
"The Bowl flourished for over twenty-odd years before audiences dwindled in the '90s," reads the official history of the CU Program Council.
But that's when the game picked up in the bars. Alec Warner, a gravel-voiced entrepreneur who cut his teeth in the bar business, watched his brother popularize trivia at the bar he was managing in Atlanta in the early '90s.
"On slow nights, he would just get up in the DJ booth and start throwing out trivia questions," Warner remembers. "Eventually people started coming back just for that, and other bars started approaching him to do it at their place. So he had to start up a company called Team Trivia just to keep up."
After working with his brother and then slinging trivia in Dallas, Warner felt he'd learned enough to successfully start his own scene and brought his Trivia Face Off (www.triviafaceoff.com) to Denver in 1998. "We started out at Govnr's Park," Warner remembers. "I don't think people knew what to expect at first, but those first few weeks, more and more teams kept showing up, and all of a sudden it was pretty popular. My favorite line to say about what goes on is that it's unforced social interaction. You're in a bar, and all of a sudden there's trivia, and it gets people talking."
It helped that, using contacts from Atlanta, Warner was able to land Warsteiner as a sponsor of that first Govnr's Park night. Coors Brewing Company took notice of the new phenomenon and offered to sponsor Trivia Face Off as well, dispatching its reps to tout the concept. Within a few months, TFO had spread to ten locations, then a mini empire of 25 to 30 rooms across the metro area.
It also helped that TFO, which Warner runs through his Excessive Entertainment company, is quite simple to grasp. A DJ or host reads off several trivia questions that are also posted on a television screen, and then a song is played. By the time the song ends, a runner for each team has to take the answer sheet up to the DJ, who then tallies totals for each of three rounds as the questions grow increasingly difficult. At the end of the game, there's a bonus round with a huge point promise and the possibility of a last-minute forty-point swing that can shoot your team into one of the top three positions.
"Writing the trivia is the hardest part," says Warner, who draws from a massive archive of facts he's compiled over the years. "You have to keep the content fresh and not make it so hard that people can't get the answers. It's a balance."
You also have to make sure that people don't cheat. Since different bars will use the same quiz on the same night, Warner tries to make sure start times aren't staggered so that a player can learn the answers at one quiz and then attend another. But that doesn't always work. About three years ago, one guy stuck around a Boulder quiz long enough to get all the answers for the third, highest-point round, then sped to a later quiz in Louisville, where he joined a team of friends that had already won the first two rounds. They nailed the third round, too. At the time, TFO was offering $1,000 to any team that played a flawless game, and they demanded the prize. But Warner was suspicious and called the DJ running the Boulder room, who confirmed that a man on the winning Louisville team had played a TFO game in Boulder that night. Warner refused the man the prize, citing the "no outside reference materials" rule. With an unmistakably American sense of justice, the man pointed out that because playing the same game in two places the same night wasn't specifically prohibited, he couldn't be expected to have known that. Warner told him to get lost. The man filed a complaint with the Better Business Bureau, called all of TFO's sponsors to complain and, of course, put in a call to Tom Martino, the Troubleshooter, who went after TFO with his signature mustachioed fervor. Eventually, Coors stepped in and paid Tom Martino Guy to shut up and go away.
"You get so many Cliff Clavins out there, you really have to dot every i and cross every t," Warner says. "Needless to say, that man is no longer allowed at any TFO nights."
But while such banishment would have seemed like a trivia death sentence a few years ago, future Tom Martino Guys need not fear. Because while TFO currently operates in 45 establishments and intends to launch an interactive, web-based bar-versus-bar format soon, new trivia entrepreneurs are cropping up all the time, staking their claim to a Denver pub-quiz scene that grows larger by the day.
Q. Should John Dicker be on Ritalin?
A. Yes. Though we will accept "Most likely," as well.
John Dicker and Joel Peach are having a hard time finding the right venue for the next Geek Bowl. Last January they hosted the inaugural event a week before the Super Bowl at the Oriental Theater (see story). Thirty-eight teams showed up — more than 200 people — and the action-packed event dragged on for an exhausting six hours before a team was finally crowned champion and the brain-dead masses were able to leave. This time around, Dicker and Peach, the founders of Geeks Who Drink, are going to trim the fat off the Geek Bowl, whittling it down to a more manageable length, but they're going to need a much larger venue to do so: Since January, the number of Geeks Who Drink rooms has doubled. There are now nights in Fort Collins, Boulder, Denver, Colorado Springs and Gunnison, and some of those are capable of drawing close to 38 teams every week.
"Some people wouldn't hesitate to call what we do a cult," says 28-year-old Peach.
"Isn't this just 'trivia night'?" the Geeks ask on their website, www.geekswhodrink.com. "Hell no. The difference between a proper pub quiz and 'trivia night' is roughly the difference between your mom's cooking and The Sizzler. Most so-called 'trivia nights' are structured in a way as to render them indistinguishable from a dartboard or a foosball table. That is, something to enjoy if you like darts or foosball but otherwise totally forgettable. Generic questions, no interactions with the audience punctuated by ten-minute pauses between questions. Ask a question, play a few songs. Boring, boring, boring. Geeks Who Drink uses different media (soundbites, songs, printed handouts), theme rounds and creative genius to entertain, challenge and engage the crowd."
The Geeks also keep a blog detailing the goings-on of every trivia night — as written by the room's quizmaster — replete with photos and good-natured trash-talking. To keep things personal, the Geeks also skip the television screens, opting instead to just read questions and repeat any that players didn't hear. "It's all about the community aspect of it," says Dicker. "At quiz you debate questions, you can yell at the quizmaster and they can yell back at you, you can flirt with people on the other team, talk shit on the blog the next day. You get known by who your team is, and it's about those relationships. Why would I put the questions on a TV screen? You don't form a relationship with the quizmaster that way. Why don't we all just bring laptops if we're going to do that?"
Dicker understands the importance of the social interaction, because that's what drew him to quiz nights. While a freelance writer living in New York, he picked up a copy of the Roddy Doyle play War, about a bunch of unemployed Dubliners who become obsessed with pub quiz. Intrigued, Dicker sought out a quiz in the city and wound up at Rocky Sullivan's.
"It stems from social insecurity," he says. "I used to like to go to bars that had a Pac-Man machine, and if I was feeling insecure or something, I could go play and still be around other people. That's what I liked about the quiz: I could see the same people every week. And we weren't the best of friends or anything, but there was just this inherent community there of the most hilarious characters."
The host of the Rocky Sullivan's pub quiz allowed Dicker to sit in as a guest host every now and again, and he fell in love with the game.
When he moved to Colorado in 2002, Dicker sought out the quiz community, but he didn't particularly enjoy what he found. He thought about opening his own room and ran the idea by Peach, a snowboarding buddy who'd sold the IT firm he'd started back in Ohio. "On the lift at Breckenridge one day, he told me how he wanted to try it," Peach remembers. "I wasn't working, and I had started a company before, so I figured why not?"
The two christened their night Geeks Who Drink and kicked off the pub quiz in LoDo, at Nallen's, in June 2005. For the first two weeks, the players were mostly friends the duo dragged to the bar, but pretty soon the night began taking on a life of its own, with regulars turning up every week.
"As soon as we built that first crowd there, I thought, if we can do this in one location, then we can do it in forty," Peach says. Bar owners agreed. Once word got around about the loyal, rabid Geek players — and their liquor tabs — bars came calling.
The Geeks have made trivia hip. They inject humor into nearly every element of their pub quiz: Past games have included a music round titled "Jew or Not a Jew," a round identifying X-rayed items people have placed inside themselves called "Shove It Up Your Ass," and pornographic adult story problems. The Geeks also offer twists on the norm, such as nights when they compete against other cities (Denver recently did battle online against Seattle, Philadelphia and Toronto in the same evening), guest "celebrity" quizmasters (Mike Jones), and rooms where the rules are completely chucked out the window, such as at the Trail Head Tavern in Fort Collins, where analog cheating is allowed and attendees regularly tote encyclopedias and reference books to the bar. Another difference is that the Geeks ask an entire round of trivia, then call for the answer sheets, rather than rely on the standard question-song, question-song format.
"I don't think we're afraid to be a little edgier, a little different," Peach comments. "We're at a bar, we're all adults, so we're not really concerned with offending people. I remember we had Ben Kronberg the comedian come in as a celebrity quizmaster, and he did an entire round on poop. The owner of the bar wasn't thrilled that he walked two tables, but the reality is that we pack the place every week, so they're willing to let us take chances. Plus, most people loved it. They like to see us doing new and different things."
Dicker and Peach are reluctant to talk exact numbers, but they will say that in the past few months they've been able to collect regular paychecks as opposed to sinking every cent back into the company. Dicker, who published The United States of Wal-Mart two years ago, has even been able to cut way back on his writing. "I love the hustle of it," Dicker says. "Even with freelancing, it was like that. I loved writing, but I realized that my favorite part was hoodwinking editors into giving me assignments, and once they accepted the pitch, it was like mission accomplished. Then it was like, oh, shit, I actually have to write this thing. And even though I've written dozens of stories, I always found it bang-my-head-against-the-wall frustrating. Writing a quiz, editing quiz material, giving my blog writers feedback, pitching bars, closing sales, logging on to the website in the morning to see how we did last night here, last night there, what we can do to tweak this so that it works better — I love that there is always something different for me to focus on. Maybe I have ADD or something."
Whatever, it's working. Geeks Who Drink currently has thirty rooms and an estimated 1,200 to 1,500 players a week. Dicker and Peach have started approaching potential sponsors, preaching the logic of advertising to beer drinkers drinking beer in a bar with concentrated eye space, and offers are beginning to trickle in.
"A lot of these companies try to be all things to all people, make it palatable for anyone, anywhere," Dicker explains. "We know that our product is not going to go over too well at more conservative suburban bars or whatever, but that's not what we're about. We're about pouring our heart into this thing, making it as cool as it can possibly be from every angle. We want people to come into the bar and be swept up in the quiz."
Tobin Hays, creator and owner of Buzzwordz (slogan: "Killing the weak brain cells"), takes the opposite approach. He agrees that people appreciate the social interaction of trivia nights — otherwise they'd stay home and read Trivial Pursuit cards — but thinks trivia does not have to dominate the evening.
"Some trivia nights they have music blasting, they're shouting into the microphones, which is fine for your trivia crowd, but not everyone in the place is playing trivia, so you need to be inclusive with them as well," Hays says. "With ours, if you're there to play trivia, you're going to have a great time. If you're not, you can go on about your evening and have a great time as well."
Hays started his company in January, after deciding not to transfer to Albuquerque when his job as a Quiznos fulfillment services manager went south. "I was in the corporate world for twelve years, and I needed to start my own thing," he says. "I kept trying to think of what I could do, and they always say to do what you love. And at the time, I was playing trivia three nights a week, and I thought, 'Well, why not this?'"
Hays, who'd played a version of pub quiz while in college at Texas Tech in the early '90s, was a regular at the Squire Lounge on Thursday nights, which Dan Clarke has been hosting for years. He approached Clarke, and although Clarke — who's been running a few rooms since 1999 out of pure love for the game — wasn't interested in going into business, he said he'd be happy to share his expertise.
"Every room that I do is just my thing," says Clarke, who also runs nights at the Uptown and Blake Street taverns. "I fell in love with it when I was living in Belfast in the late '80s and just wanted to do it here. But I didn't want to become more entrenched in it. I'm happy with what I'm doing right now; it's basically a one-man op where I can put 100 percent into my room and not worry about others. But I helped Tobin get Buzzwordz off the ground because I appreciate what he's doing. Basically, he uses my format and we share questions and stuff like that."
Clarke let Tobin run his room at the Downtown Tavern, where Tobin was able to hone his trivia skills, learn to write better questions and perfect the template for what he wanted to do. Once he felt comfortable with the product, he began to push his business, cold-calling bars or visiting them in person to preach the gospel of his trivia. Buzzwordz currently offers fourteen trivia nights, with a healthy mix of Denver bars and suburban rooms where Tobin's unobtrusive style of play goes over well (www.buzzwordz.net has a complete list). Scruffy Murphy's on Wednesday is the most popular evening, with a recent evening drawing more than fifty players.
"Business has been great on the nights he's been there," says Craig Hostrup, manager of Scruffy Murphy's. "We try to keep it just in the main room, but occasionally we've been spilling over into the second room. The nice thing with Buzzwordz that I don't see in town very often is that there are more sort of thinking questions, reasoning. If you don't know the answer necessarily, you can usually think your way through it, as opposed to just flat-out not knowing the answer. People seem to enjoy that element of it."
And if you don't like that format, there are always other games. "I don't think that I could have picked a more competitive city to start this business in," Hays says. "There are certainly a lot of competitors — some are good and some are bad — but competition in this city is good. It keeps us on our toes."
Q. Can You Ever Have Too Much Trivia?
A. Ask Alex Trebek.
Trivia is no longer a trivial business in Denver. Between Trivia Face Off, Buzzwordz and Geeks Who Drink, there are close to ninety trivia nights in the metro area. And that figure doesn't include the occasional room run by some trivia fan who encountered the game in his U.K. travels and decided to put on his own night back home, like Dan Clarke.
"Denver's got a great community for it because there's a large transplant community here," says Clarke. "That means a lot of new people looking to get out and meet other new people. And with all those people came this huge influx of people moving into downtown, the Highlands, Wash Park, Baker, so we have a lot of thriving neighborhood bars right now, and trivia is the perfect neighborhood-bar activity."
Could the market ever be saturated? Alec Warner doesn't think so.
"I've been in this business a long time," says the TFO founder, "and I've seen trends come and go. Poker will go hot or cold. Karaoke seems to have taken its cycle in terms of popularity. How many times can you hear a regular belt out 'You've Lost That Loving Feeling' without losing that loving feeling? With trivia, that's not the case. If you keep it fun, interesting, challenging, keep the people talking, that's the kind of thing that always will keep people coming back."
And keep competitors coming into the market.
"Some of these new guys have taken a few of my rooms from me, and that's just one of those things that spurns me to keep it fresh," Warner acknowledges. "I'm not going to stop someone from going into a bar and asking trivia questions. If we keep on the content and we have good people who do it, I don't even really consider it a threat to my business. I think our product is good enough and unique enough and we have that appeal and we're pretty established that people will look at our logo and know that we can come into the bar and run a fantastic night. Besides, if you look at Denver and the suburbs, there are so many places out there, I don't know if I can even take on all the business I want."
"When I first got into this business," Buzzwordz's Hays says, "I asked myself, 'Is this just a trendy thing?' I don't think it is. I think that people are always going to be interested in trivia. I've been playing it for years, people watch Jeopardy, people play those electronic NTN games. People will always be interested in showing off how smart they are."
And not just in Denver. "Obviously we have a really strong base here, and I think the goal after that is to go out to other cities," he says. "That's one of the big parts of my game plan. Fortunately, with my business model, it's not going to be difficult."
The Geeks have already crossed state lines. Earlier this month, their inaugural night at Burt's Tiki Lounge in Albuquerque, hosted by Eric the Jewish Viking, drew 38 teams, four shy of the Geeks Who Drink record. But even as they look at other markets, they pay close attention to their nights here, careful not to step on their own toes.
"That's something we always think about," says Peach, "because we really pride ourselves on the experience and the inclusiveness of being part of this Geeks community. If we have too many of our nights at too many bars near each other, then we dilute that experience. We'll wind up pulling people from one bar that's successful and bringing them to another one, robbing the people at both bars of the best experience they can have. Our goal is not to divide the city into pockets of ten people."
Or, as Dicker puts it, "I think the goal is to get big without sucking."
That's a noble goal for the entire scene, and one that Clarke believes Denver can achieve. "I think healthy competition is good," he concludes. "It lets people decide which night they like more. And the more competition, the lower the prices and the better the quality. Hopefully, more and more people will start to take it as seriously as some of us already do. But at the very least, you have more people going out with their friends, having a few drinks and racking their brains for some obscure trivia. And there's nothing wrong with that."
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