Ah, trivia night. The universal restaurateur’s ploy to get the bar hopping on off nights, the last bastion of hope for those who can think of no other way to get their dork friends to leave the house. My friends may reject half-price appetizers, margarita specials, or live bands until kingdom come, but I’ll be darned if I have yet to meet even the most steadfast teetotaler who will turn down the rare opportunity to show off her intimate knowledge of celebrity marriages.
Of late, my enthusiasm for haggling about geography over beer has waned significantly. My inner 21-year-old is getting smaller and smaller. It’s like I’m getting older or something. These days, I make it to a trivia night once every few months or so, which I know is a shame. But I can’t get religious about a bar’s trivia unless it has all the Key Elements of a Great Trivia Night…
1. Location, location, location
Some of the worst bars and restaurants have some of the best trivia nights. Some small, gross places I have attended trivia have been some of the most fun. But when a bar or restaurant that doesn’t really need to draw more patrons holds trivia night, meeting and seating your party becomes exponentially more difficult.
In 2008-2009, I used to go to trivia night at a well-known chicken joint in Austin. Their trivia was superior in almost every way to every other trivia night I have been to, but I usually had to be dragged out of the house anyway. Why?
This was a popular restaurant for dinner patrons, not just trivia attendees. If we wanted to have a seat for dinner and trivia at 9:00 PM, we had to be in the establishment by 6 at the latest… or stand. When the management didn’t turn tables, they couldn’t sell food. It made no sense to me. Do people really enjoy sitting around for three hours waiting for two more hours of sitting around for trivia? Which brings me to element 2…
2. Policy on table campers
The first place I ever regularly went to trivia was (at the time) the only sushi place in Oxford, Mississippi. Trivia started at the same time the kitchen closed, so you had to get there early if you wanted to eat. If someone needed a table, table campers would be politely ousted to make way for hungry diners. I agree with this policy; the benefits to management and customers were many. For my trivia team, the art of arriving with enough time to have dinner, then play trivia, was mastered after just two or three weeks of attending. We always had dinner if we wanted it and a table for trivia by showing up half an hour before the kitchen closed.
Contrast this with Austin Chicken Joint, which would permit diners to linger for hours… and hours. I stand behind my earlier statement no normal person wants to sit at a table in any restaurant, no matter how hip or fun, from 6 PM until midnight. (Speaking from experience, servers usually don’t like it either.) Jobless hippies don’t mind, though, and that’s why Austin Chicken Joint had a trivia stacked with jobless hippies who weren’t buying food or booze. (Also, let’s be real, because it was in Austin.) Hungry customers would be turned away if table campers wouldn’t move, and standing triviagoers who would have otherwise purchased food did not do so because they had no surface on which to eat it.
Yes, people would stand up for trivia there for hours. That’s how good it was. In part because of the chicken, and in part because of the…
Austin Chicken Joint gave its winners a trophy to take home for a week and free food. The trophy was a truly magnificent beer can sculpture, and despite how much jobless hippies stink, they are honest, and always brought the trophy back for the next week’s winners.
Oxford Sushi Place charged $3 a person to play and gave the winners 2/3 of the pot or $100, whichever was bigger.
I’ve been to pubs that awarded Cowboys tickets and sports bars that handed out t-shirts. In my experience, cash is king because it’s instant gratification that can be split right away. Gift certificates are good too, though, and keep loyal winning teams coming back week after week. Any kind of prize is fun, but sometimes the glory is all you need. Especially if you have a good…
We pretty much stopped attending trivia night at one Mexican restaurant altogether after the quizmaster (why they got a college student I will never know) was so drunk he fell off his barstool.
“You really stopped going?” You’re screaming. “But that’s hilarious!”
Yes, it was. The first time. The second time, the third time… and finally, after hours of it, at midnight on a weeknight, when we had one round left, really needed to get to bed, but we were winning by a lot… it just wasn’t funny anymore.
I’m not saying trivia hosts can’t be drunk. Sometimes they relate better to their patrons if they are. But they should engage their audience, come up with good questions from a variety of sources, and not be too wasted to do their jobs.
That’s why there are professionals who will do it, and I gotta say, they’re the best. That’s right, professional trivia hosts. Bars and restaurants do hire them in larger cities, and I can only assume they’re worth the money. Geeks Who Drink are just such guys, and they did such a good job at our favorite pub in Austin that they kept us coming back week after week. They’re hilarious, a little crude, and did a great job coming up with interesting questions that weren’t all based on popular culture (many of the ones I heard were so creative I still remember them). They also had a website where scores and standings were posted along with pictures taken by a photographer throughout the night. More of these guys need to exist. I wonder if there are any in Atlanta? I smell an alternative career… where was I?
Oh yeah, the last and most important aspect of trivia night.
No, not the musical (though it has made its way into more than one question in my experience). Your friends. Your buddies. Your team!
I know you have a lot of them. The trick is paring down which ones work well together while achieving the widest variety of knowledge possible. Too few people can sink a team, unless they are trivia geniuses (I’ve only known one or two of those in my life, though).
Too many people… well, you’ve heard that thing about the cooks and the broth before, and it’s true. Far too often I’ve seen right answers passed over in favor of wrong ones because the sports or TV whiz got shouted down by the majority who thought something else “sounded right.” In addition, if too many people participate, it can really do a number on any winnings once you split them. I find between 4 and 7 people usually maximizes the efficiency of brainstorming and socializing, though you may disagree with me.
Team styles vary, too. Some teams take things way too seriously and are gung-ho about every answer. (These are often of the “iPhone cheater” ilk, giving me double reason to hate them.) Taking trivia seriously is fine, whatever. But I can speak from my personal experience about my favorite teams, and they were all laid back, lazy, and fun… and it never stopped us from winning. I think it’s possible to hang out and be sociable and still get answers right without ripping your best friend’s throat out over which solo artist has the most #1 Billboard hits.* Those are the most fun trivia nights.
In other words, I would prefer to pay for my own food and come in last every week with people I like than get caught in a ridiculous quagmire over college baseball standings and wonder why I didn’t just stay home and play Sporcle.
So what makes a great trivia night?