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.
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.”