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Life Lessons

Hold Close These Bar Trivia Tenets And Be Merry

A group of young women in New York take advantage of a change in the licensing laws, permitting customers to drink while standing at the bar, 21st May 1934. (Photo by FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of life's great pleasures is rounding up a group of hooligans, heading on down to the local watering hole, and testing the limits of your collective knowledge against that of other groups of hooligans. Bar trivia—or as Anglophiles might term it, using two equally off-putting synonyms for bar trivia, the "pub quiz"—is a delightful setup for a competition, as it tests your knowledge of all manner of stupid bullshit with the mitigating factor of a setting that reduces your faculties to remember all that stupid bullshit. Maybe the host will ask some question about the most populous country whose name ends with an H, and maybe one of your friends has been to Bangladesh or at least knows something interesting about the country and they have a good story about it, and there you go, everyone is now better friends. And you learned something about Bangladesh in the process.

I have always tried to have a regular trivia game going. When I was in college, the geology undergrads fielded a regular team at the most notoriously difficult trivia game in town, which we lost to the geology grad students every time except once. Obviously this habit had to stop for a while, as going to a bar and whispering directly into your friends' mouths became maybe the most dangerous thing you could do a Monday night. Finally reassembling a squad of hardened killers to ride into battle alongside me after the first year-and-a-half of the pandemic and then moving to Oakland (home of a conquering trivia hero) has been a real joy. I had forgotten about the thrill of hearing a hard question and immediately knowing the answer, or entering the mind palace when faced with a seemingly impossible question (Who won best original song at the 1997 Golden Globes? What the hell kind of question is that?) and arriving at the answer (Titanic must have come out around then!). My point is, socializing is back on the menu in a way it was not in March 2020 or March 2021, though now that many more people are working from home, you have to be somewhat more deliberate about social engagements, and bar trivia is a great low-stakes, early week institution. You also do not even need to drink, and it will probably improve your performance not to. The pub quiz imagines a bar not as a site of binge drinking (rather, not exclusively), but as a genuine communal site. That sort of thing feels good right now.

As a very competitive person who does not want to alienate those around me, trivia is a perfect outlet for this energy, since, as with chess, climbing, or running, you are really only competing against yourself. This is not true in a technical sense as regards to trivia (or, for that matter, chess), but if you get every question right (or always make the right move), nobody's going to beat you. As a practitioner of trivias of both the bar and Twitch varieties, here is what I have learned makes for a good trivia experience.

The Questions Cannot Be Too Easy

Imagine you are participating in a trivia game, and every question is like, "Who is the President right now?" That's no fun, requires zero trips to the mind palace, and given enough relatively easy questions, the actual selection that will determine the winner will ultimately come down to which team screws up fewer times. That's a rather negative way of separating the teams, and it's also less fun than a series of reasonably difficult questions. If you are getting people together on a Monday to put your heads together in service of answering questions on the order of "How many is one dozen?" that is not a very rewarding experience, and surely you and your friends would reason there are dozens of better ways to spend their time. The difficulty should be somewhere around the level of Jeopardy!, though there is one big caveat here.

I do not have a brain for music, though you should seek out games with at least one music or picture round. Our current game has one of each, though also only two rounds of actual questions, so winning teams probably skew more music-centric. The real problem with this game is not the structure of the rounds but the gaps between them. There is nothing more deflating than turning in an answer sheet and waiting like 45 minutes for the one person handling the grading, collating, and reading to list out the scores for every team before starting the next round. The game should flow.

Do Not Take The Actual Questions From Jeopardy!

During an unfortunate bout of "living in Sacramento" that I experienced back in 2014, a couple of pals and I went to trivia every week at the Golden Bear, which is a great bar. My friend Nick seemed to be able to nail every tough question, but strangely enough, he couldn't figure out why he knew, say, how many countries the equator passes through. We won pretty consistently with a small team, mostly because Nick carried us, until he realized a few weeks in that the host was simply borrowing questions from the previous week's Jeopardy! games. I suppose the converse of this section is Take A Few Minutes To Peruse The Previous Week's Jeopardy! Games, but this is not a blog for cheaters. This is a blog for those who would like to destroy their enemies on the field of battle with honor.

A Note On Prizes

Having something to play for is an almost necessary component for a well-attended, worthwhile bar trivia experience, though there are many ways to make this work. One game I went to all the time had a $5 per person entry fee and four rounds of questions. You would only win the prize money if you won three out of the four rounds, which means that the jackpot rolled over most weeks, and kept growing in size until it crept up into the low four figures by the time we were lucky enough to win it in a sparsely attended game a few days after New Year's. Nobody was happy about this arrangement (except us), so the bar ceased distributing their jackpots in such a manner immediately after our win. The point here is that the prize money was too big for the game in question, and what's more, having actual money on the line really incentivizes people to cheat.

Now that everyone has the ability to access the correct answer to almost any question within seconds, it has never been easier to cheat at bar trivia. Some bars will make everyone stack their phones in a column in the center of the table or something, though since most people come to bar trivia to chuckle with their buddies, cheating isn't that serious, or at least that consequential, of a problem. But once money is introduced, the incentives change and the whole thing sours. The best genre of prize is, of course, some beers, though another caveat applies here. It is not always the most pleasant thing to suddenly come into possession of a half-dozen beers right before you and your teammates are all about to go home, especially since most trivia games happen earlier in the week, and double especially if people drove to the game. This happened when we won that big pile of money, and we wound up backdooring our way into buying a round for the bar. It is good to get the option to redeem said beers later, even if there's a short time limit, like, say, one week.

Final Tip

Think of a good name before you show up and have to go, "Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh?" once put on the spot.

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