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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That’d be Dalton Hirshorn, 34, a “software guy” at a law firm who bartends on the side. He’s been running the Looking Glass quiz for about three years, after coming aboard when the bar changed owners and names (it used to be Temperance Hall). “A friend was a bartender there,” he says, “and she asked me if I wanted to do it, because—and I believe these were her words—‘you know a lot of useless shit and you enjoy being the center of attention. Which is the perfect combination.’”

Tall, goofy-looking, and theatrical, Hirshorn heckles and is frequently heckled. His style is idiosyncratic and digressive and not necessarily high-brow (a recent Arnold Schwarzenegger round was a bouquet of spot-on impersonations), but he never overwhelms the quiz. “It’s not really about you if you’re the host,” Hirshorn says. “You’re an MC; you’re not really the star. Alex Trebek knows it’s not really about him.”

The quiz is competitive, in that the room’s collective IQ is pretty high, and the bar is always packed. Because Hirshorn usually does his own scoring, his quiz is also languorous and low-key. There’s time between rounds; it’s all very social. In Hirshorn’s world, a good pub quiz just needs good questions, a good host, good people, and a good room. Hirshorn’s own quiz excels, in my mind, because it’s also precious, weird, singular, and often D.C.-specific. If I wanted to answer the same questions as some guy in Denver—or even some guy in Arlington—I’d watch Jeopardy.

So is my pub-quiz beau ideal exactly the kind of thing the national firms, with their focus on efficiency, would eradicate?

Maybe not. Fadó’s quiz works because its host has a great feel for the room—but then again, Fadó’s quiz, which started a decade ago, is also one of the oldest in the city. Maybe the Geeks Who Drinks MCs in Clarendon will grow into passable quizmasters. Trivia Kings like to double up its hosts—in case one mutinies and tries to take the bar with it.

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There’s one thing the pub-quiz behemoths will never aspire to, however, and it’s the real secret behind the best independent quizzes: They’re not about providing ceaseless, synapse-frying entertainment. The best kind of pub quiz, like Hirshorn’s, is an expertly controlled mess.


An anthropologist could glean a lot about The Way We Live Now by looking at our pub quizzes. The concept has held on especially well in the Washington area, and it’s easy to offer some theories as to why: It’s a way for competitive types to compete when they’re off the clock—even if they suck at sports. It’s a way for awkward types to hang out with people—and even impress them!—without talking too much. It’s a way for careerist types to go to the bar on Tuesday night without feeling guilty.

In trivial times, trivia is a way for a BlackBerry-addicted class of locals to demonstrate all the factoids they’ve amassed. In the 21st century, America’s new pastime is the constant consumption of information. “Even if you don’t want to know who some actor is dating, sometimes it’s impossible not to know,” says Hirshorn. “All these little tiny bits of information, a lot of them stick in your brain, and one of the few ways you can use it in a productive way is a pub quiz.”

And, since the quizmasters I interviewed put the average pub-quizzer’s age at closer to 33 than 23—most also said quiz-going crowds skew white, male, and quite educated—it’s also a way to be social, even if you’re living alone. “Trivia is one of the few things that allows a setting in which groups can come together,” says Bill Gélinas, one of the people behind D.C.’s Trivia Kings. “It’s a catch-up spot, and they can be entertained at the same time. Also, great [bar] specials.”

Gélinas has big plans for his business, and seems to be having some success at it, so it follows that he’d understand the appeal. But, of course, it also says something that people as bright as Gélinas are competing to be the corporate king of this sweet little ritual.

If people who play pub quizzes are reasonably competitive nerds, the people who want to become pub-quiz titans are horrifyingly competitive nerds. Gélinas is one of them. In D.C., “we are by far the biggest trivia provider on pretty much every single metric,” he says. They have the most locations in the area—18—and three of them, he says, are in the “top five.” That means they get big crowds.

Gélinas, 33, works in finance, and Trivia Kings is an outgrowth of the quiz he used to run at Union Jack’s in Ballston, where he’s one of the owners. In 2009, more than 300 people would attend the quiz each week, he says. “It was depressing: We had the largest quiz club in the world and no one knew about it.” He then started running the quiz at Union Jack’s Bethesda location, but became worn out. “I had a pretty big decision to make,” he says. “Either quit or change the economy of scale.”

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
once
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