Q: Does it Matter if Pub Quizzes Go Corporate? A: It's Complicated Barroom trivia nights have spawned national chains. Does that mean the end of the wacky local quizmaster?

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People who know about these things will tell you the pub-quiz concept comes from the British Isles, and became popular in the 1950s, the era of the televised game show. Some give Ireland credit for inventing pub quizzes, others Scotland. Trivia nights began popping up in the U.S. around the early 1990s, mostly in Irish pubs, and there are essentially three kinds: the “traditional” style, involving multiple rounds each containing multiple questions; the “DJ” style, in which a host reads questions between songs, one at a time; and a version of the game involving a lengthy questionnaire that teams have to complete within a period of time. These days, many traditional pub quizzes are in fact multi-media, with picture and audio rounds. The prize for winning a quiz is usually a discount on the bar tab.

It didn’t take long for quizmasters to realize there’s serious money in reading questions to drunkards. “I take a lot of the credit for it,” says Liam McAtasney, who founded Brainstormer in San Francisco in 1996. “When I started, there were no other companies.” There are at least a dozen now. Most of his competitors also got their start as quizmasters.

McAtasney came to the United States in 1995 after attending university in Belfast, and for a time worked at a high-end retirement community, where he began running a monthly trivia night. He started hosting nights in San Francisco—eventually four a week—before creating Brainstormer in 1996 and selling his questions nationwide. His company’s product is read at nearly 100 pubs, including Fadó in Chinatown, several bars in Northern Virginia, and a monthly trivia night at the National Press Club.

Brainstormer’s questions are tough, which is one reason Fadó has a reputation as one of the District’s more competitive quizzes (its spaciousness and downtown location, guaranteeing a large turnout, help, too). “I don’t see a point in asking questions in which everybody knows the answer,” McAtasney says.

But Brainstormer’s approach has one big drawback—unless your bar is in San Francisco, you probably have to provide your own host and do most of your own advertising. By contrast, Geeks Who Drink, which is based in Denver, provides questions, advertising, and almost always a host. Its questions are also a bit more populist. “There’s a certain idea out there that trivia should be scholastic, and I think that’s a load of crap,” says co-founder John Dicker, who is also its official quizmaster-in-chief. “We’re trying to entertain people who might be good at trivia and those who aren’t.” The traditional pub quiz includes lots of geography and history, but doesn’t exclude pop culture. Dicker’s quizzes are interested in the latter, as well other ephemera of modern life. (Geeks Who Drink also puts on specialty quizzes, like an Arrested Development trivia event hosted around the country earlier this month, and an annual Geek Bowl.)


Geeks Who Drink and the local Trivia Kings are part of a newer breed of pub quizzes whose goal is more to entertain than offer a social experience. Call it the Dave & Buster’s model. Like many quizzes, they include audio and picture rounds (in which players identify songs and photographs). They’re over in two hours (“that’s kind of the commonly agreed-upon length of a movie,” Dicker says) with almost no downtime. Geeks Who Drink has eight rounds. Trivia Kings’ quiz—called “Inquizitive™”—has three periods of three rounds each and a final high-scoring round. Both companies collect quiz stats on their websites.

Geeks Who Drink also emphasizes quirk. Dicker sent me some sample rounds he says exemplify his company’s style. For example: In the category “Sitcoms, As Described by Someone Who Hasn’t Seen Them,” one clue is “1978, NBC: Two rival artists debate proper painting techniques.” The answer is Diff’rent Strokes.

The question, alas, is wittier than anything I heard at Geeks Who Drink’s Hard Times quiz. Although most of his quizzes on a given night have the same material, for new locations “I intentionally make them a little bit easier,” Dicker says.

I’ve been a regular at a handful of quizzes since I moved back to D.C. in 2009. For a while, I went to the Booze Clues night at the Argonaut on H Street NE. I thought it was fairly easy, though, come to think of it, my table never actually won. The quiz at Wonderland Ballroom in Columbia Heights is interesting, in that its hosts rotate each week. I played the quiz there when a friend and his colleagues from The Atlantic were in charge, and the result was predictably heavy on arcana, and not particularly fun (sorry, guys).

My favorite quiz is the one at Looking Glass Lounge in Petworth, which has fairly traditional, fairly difficult questions but mostly succeeds for the reason almost every person I interviewed for this story cited as essential to a good trivia night: a charismatic host.

Our Readers Say

While the Looking Glass shout-out is appreciated, I think you are too quick to dismiss Wonderland. These are easily the two best quizzes in town and quite complementary to each other. The variability of the hosts makes it extremely hard to win consistently, which is important when there are regulars. And that's why I love both bars - the fact that there are teams that have been going for years. I'm surprised you never interviewed any of the regulars.
I recently started a trivia at a bar here in DC and Id been going regularly to a few different trivia nights including some of the ones mentioned here. I also feel like Wonderland is oddly absent from the article especially given how many other trivia hosts play there regularly. Hosting there helped me decide I wanted to do this weekly and the MCs were super helpful in assisting for the first few weeks and providing help with editing. Now that I host its the only trivia night I still go to.
I have to say that this article was fairly on the money in mentioning most of the big spots in the general DC area. Looking Glass (Dalton), Fadó (Brainstormer), Wonderland (Volunteers), and Trivia Kings’ biggest (both Union Jack’s and maybe a few others), are all among the biggest and the best. Having played many spots around the area it’s a little unfair to leave out Ireland’s Four Courts (Brainstormer), Ireland’s Four P’s in Falls Church (Amy), McGinty’s in Silver Spring (In House), and perhaps The Tombs (Independent) which are all huge, long established, and very well liked. That being said though, and Wonderland & Argonaut are classic examples, size isn’t everything. There are dozens of other pub quiz nights all over the city that could make a case for best of the city that are always at full occupancy with similar levels of satisfaction. Another surprise you didn’t mention is how competitive, on a business/corporate level, pub quizzes are in the greater Baltimore area, with four very large business with almost 20 locations each, all competing against each other. While Trivia Kings and District Trivia may be the local DC players, they are still catching up with the “wars” up I-95.
Sounds like GeeksWhoDrink should have had a Washington Capitals trivia night ready to roll for such an occation... C-A-P-S! Caps! Caps! Caps!
Dude! Am I the only one noticing how there is a Geeks Who Drink web banner advertisement at the top of this article?
Oh god, I'm all for creative business ventures, but that Hard Times trivia sounds absolutely miserable. My team has followed a local host to two different bars, in part because of his charisma, but also because he's able to read the crowd and design the questions to challenge and appeal to that audience.

I've done a few Trivia Kings quizzes as well, and it's the same deal. Clarendon has a different crowd than Dupont and Petworth. (I can't even picture a nationwide model.) General knowledge is fine and good, but the charm of a really excellent pub quiz is banter, trivia and a host that provides something more.
studs terkel...eat a bag of dicks.
Imma let you finish . . . but the Argonaut on H St. has the best & smartest trivia night anywhere in the city.
This sounds like too much of a puff piece for Looking Glass, the author's "favorite quiz". I wouldn't be surprised to find that the author did not even bother to attend the various bars that use these larger services, and only attending one night or one location is not enough to gain a perspective on the larger phenomenon. Like it or not, these "factories" of trivia have simply grown because they have been successful, arguably due to providing an overall superior product -- just like other successful industry businesses.
I use Brainstormer questions as an "indie quizmaster" in Old Town. Having been on the other side of the mic as a competitor, it wouldn't be fun if it were easy like Geeks Who Drink apparently is. As fun as a round devoted to Arrested Development might be, it sounds like a load of horseshit. What's the point in asking questions that everyone knows? Trivia wasn't meant to have everyone win; it's not for the frat guys and drunkards. It's for highly-knowledgeable and socially-maladjusted fucks like me. And when you have to put "Geeks" in the title, you're trying too hard.

True story: someone whinged to me after trivia a few weeks ago that the questions were too difficult and rigged toward "old people", since there was one team that had a seven-week winning streak and they just happen to be middle-aged. I explained to him that I don't write the questions, because the Brainstormer-branded answer sheets and pencils everyone was using weren't enough of a clue for him. He threatened to go to Union Jack's, as their answers "are geared to a younger crowd". I don't even work for the bar where I announce, so I couldn't give a fuck if he left, I don't write the questions, although sometimes I'll make up my own bonus questions for a little more fun, and as someone who knows everything not worth knowing (unless there are hockey tickets at stake), I take offense to the notion that people in their thirties can only be good at trivia if the questions are geared toward pop culture. Read a fucking book sometime.
One major problem with this article is that it is based on the assumption that trivia geared towards fratty guys is a good thing. Corporate bar trivia in DC could easily be renamed "stuff white guys like". For women and people of color, independent trivia remains our outlet for teams and hosts that reflect things we are interested in and the media we consume. This writer may have found the questions at Wonderland too obscure but it is the only place in DC where I have seen a good number of female hosts and teams. For ladies who love trivia and don't want to just be a token player on a team of guys, independent trivia remains the best option.
Looking Glass is in Park View~!!!!!JHUISDga svhm
I began a weekly team in February 2008 with a co-worker, and since that time, he and I have seen team go through several major "eras" with maybe 10-15 people who were once regulars having come and gone. We're still going strong. And while I've moonlighted at other pub quizzes and enjoyed them, Fado, with it's competitive questions, strong (and generally funny) crowd, and intelligent and sharp-tongued host, Allison, will always be my quiz comfort zone.
Trivia, hey, that's cool.
So... suck a dick?
Think and Drink started in 1973 in Grand Forks ND and they recieved copyright #A523218 April 1st 1974. It spread throughout the midwest even with some locations in CA

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