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.