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Bar Trivia Is the Most Polarizing Issue of Our Time

Somehow, I never see it coming. At most, I detect some small, incipient energy in the bar where I’ve come to catch up with friends or dive into a book — nothing that would, in itself, suggest the calamity to come. Then, all at once, the pub reaches critical mass; every seat is taken, and the chatter of the room rises a dozen decibels. Finally, just as I’m putting the scene together, I hear it: the pop of a cheap microphone, followed by close, distorted, over-amplified breathing. The host speaks. “OK, everybody,” they say.

That’s right: it’s fucking trivia night.

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While I harbor as many bad opinions as anyone — click here to see more! — I’m usually at peace with this contrarian streak, confident that I’m right and everyone else is wrong. But the sheer popularity of pub quizzes (not to mention other trivia games) has me wondering if I’ve missed something when I declare it the lowest form of drinking. Perhaps I’ve encountered more than my share of smug quizmasters with grating voices, stealthy cheating via smartphones, overlong audio rounds of obscure hair metal, and nerds who take the whole thing way too seriously. Worst of all, I think, is the way fierce internal furor about answers supplants anything like normal, relaxing conversation.

I opened the question up to my friend network and found that, as a pastime, bar trivia is more polarizing than I’d assumed, largely due to the way it recalibrates a social group. “The thing I hate most,” said my pal Stuart, “is kissing the ass of your friend who ‘is really good at history.’” Hunt, another friend, noted that “like 60 percent of it is delicate interpersonal politics explaining why you think that actually you are the smartest person there and actually everyone else’s answer is wrong, and then god help you if you actually were wrong the whole time.” Tom reports that he still wants to “punch a former teammate in the face for what he said to me after I blurted out a wrong answer.” Others are more blunt about their distaste for trivia: “The worst. Loud, stupid, boring,” says Lisa.

Even Brandi, a college friend attracted to bar trivia for its competitive aspect (and potential for significant prizes) acknowledges this downside. After joining an acquaintance’s regular team for a few months, and doing rather well, she received a bitchy email from another member who thought she was too focused on the questions and not engaged enough with the group. “It has most certainly changed the dynamic of the night, almost to the point where I fear friends who we have known for years and who have attended for years will no longer attend,” this woman wrote, suggesting that Brandi should withdraw from the team. But a ringer like Brandi doesn’t exactly need company:

Beyond the sporting view of pub quizzes, and those glorious rewards — I must have been going to the wrong events, since I only remember “$15 off your tab” as a grand prize and, like, a bag of chips for second place — some view them as an important outlet for otherwise useless skills. As my colleague John McDermott put it: “What else am I supposed to do with all of the useless knowledge I’ve accumulated/how else am I supposed to feel like I haven’t wasted my life accumulating it?” (My advice: stay home and yell at Jeopardy! contestants.) “At the very least it lets men exercise flex their ‘actually’ part of the brain in a relatively safe space,” says Christopher, not unreasonably. And for Ruth, the depth of trivia background fits hand-in-glove with faux-communal experience: “I like pretending I’m doing something social but actually I never have to have a conversation with anyone at the table bc I’m too busy showing off how much I know about which celebrities have dated each other,” she tells me.

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I guess I’m not exactly against people doing this, if they think it’s entertaining or worthwhile: “It’s a cool alternative to just going for a drink,” says Rob, while Elias quips, “I love validation in all forms.” Certainly it shouldn’t be outlawed or anything. (“I’m against nerds having fun. I miss the old days when nerds hid in a basement to avoid getting punched,” my friend Kyle sarcastically replied when I said I hated the format.) Probably the most devastating critic of my position is Sarah-Louise, who doesn’t even drink, and says it’s a “game with friends that doesn’t demand all of your attention (since there are usually breaks between rounds), and it provides fun fodder for conversation.” Me, I’d prefer hitting up the dive that has the giant Jenga blocks, but I’m a simple man.

If anything, though, my resentment is bound up in pub trivia’s creeping omnipresence. In the college town where I make my home, there’s a different quiz night every single weekday in as many different bars, and you have to keep abreast of their rotating schedules to avoid them. They’re also a British institution, foisted upon us by our former colonial overlords since the 1980s, and an underhanded scheme to pull customers on slower nights. Unlike karaoke nights, there’s little opportunity for someone to bring the house down or truly embarrass themselves. As my old classmate Alison points out, “When I’m drinking the only thing that makes it better is a test,” and Jay doesn’t love hearing “facts from Wikipedia the host obviously looked up 20 minutes before.”

Part of bar trivia’s ascendance is down to franchisers like Geeks Who Drink, an outfit that runs more than 900 weekly events in 47 states. Ken Brill, their director of PR and marketing, was kind enough to answer this curmudgeon’s queries about why he should change his ways and embrace the quiz life. “We put a lot of time and effort into making our quizzes more fun than their old-school equivalent,” he says, “and that includes diverse question topics that have at least something for everyone in the room to feel good about.” Beyond that egalitarian bent, GWD wants to get people together when they’d normally be apart. “I don’t think we’re a replacement for your ‘regular night out,’ Brill says. “Our bread and butter nights are Tuesday and Wednesday, nights where, traditionally, you might stay in. We’re giving you an excuse to rally your friends for something each and every week.” He attributes the explosion of pub quizzes in part to craft beer and a swelling population of college graduates and others who want to share what they know with their friends. Ultimately, however, the GWD ethos is about being “entertaining rather than difficult,” and they want their players “to feel smart at the end of the night, even if they’ve lost.” As a huge idiot, I can absolutely get behind that.

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I’ll even admit to loving another particular trivia event. It was down around Wall Street, poorly advertised, and on the second floor of the kind of “Irish” pub that my friend EJ refers to as a “ratfuck.” She and I and a few other co-workers would go to battle about three other teams, max, in a quiet atmosphere where we could fondly abuse one another and rest assured that our collective liberal arts education would help us defeat any finance bros who accidentally stumbled in. It was trivia night without most of the trappings — nothing was at stake, so nobody cared, and the organizers were grateful for any attendees, so they never became weird, controlling assholes. What I’m saying is, my favorite pub quizzes are the unsuccessful kind. If you run one of those, hit me up.