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.