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In Pursuit of Pub Trivia

Off Campus | April 4, 2011

The 2010 financial reports revealed that which restaurant chain had surpassed McDonald’s as the largest restaurant chain in terms of units?  In lieu of an autograph, which pop singer recently drew a homemade money sign tattoo on a fan’s ankle, using a needle and a pen?  For most people, the answers to these questions (Subway and Ke$ha, respectively) are both unknown and unimportant; however, to a growing following at a local pub, these frivolous answers are all part of a new trend sweeping the bar scene: trivia night.

Every Tuesday night, Tufts students and Somerville locals converge at P.J. Ryan’s for drinks, laughs, and, above all, trivia. The Irish pub, located in Teele Square, is only one of the countless bars hopping aboard the trivia contest bandwagon, combining society’s love of friendly competition and random facts. The appeal of these contests is easy to understand. Participants enjoy the opportunity to spice up a regular bar night and owners embrace the contests as a way to increase their sales and number of customers. Either way, trivia is quickly establishing its place in American bar culture.

According to an article in the Boston Globe, there are more than 1,700 separate trivia competitions in the United States each week; almost three times as many as there were five years ago. For local trivia enthusiasts, Boston is an ideal location to prove your talents. The city ranks in the top five in terms of number of weekly competitions. Popular trivia hotspots include Inman Square’s Druid, an Irish bar and the 2008 Best in Boston Trivia Night winner; Harvard Square’s Tommy Doyle’s; and Allston’s White Horse Tavern, which hosts trivia contests three nights per week.

In the area surrounding the Tufts campus, students and locals have a variety of trivia contests they can attend. Johnny D’s in Davis Square offers trivia and free pizza on Monday nights, while Joshua Tree and P.J. Ryan’s compete for the Tuesday night crowd. But according to a few who have sampled the different contests, P.J. Ryan’s is the place to go for original and fun trivia. “We used to go to Orleans [in Davis Square], but it was more tailored toward 30-year-olds, so the questions weren’t very interesting,” says Alex Lach, a new P.J. Ryan’s competitor. “This place [P.J. Ryan’s] has the best atmosphere and way more Tufts people,” he adds.

Each pub’s quiz format is unique, with different rules and questions that greatly alter the game’s appeal. P.J. Ryan’s pub quiz allows for teams of up to six people, with groups recording their answers on a score sheet that is tallied after each round. Each question has a category, ranging from the traditional, such as geography, literature, or science; to the more obscure, such as last week’s “Batshit Crazy People who aren’t Charlie Sheen.”

After each round, the MC reads aloud the answers, and teams cheer or boo to indicate their success during that round. Although the questions become increasingly more difficult as the game progresses, the diversity of categories usually limits the ability for one team to dominate, and most weeks the competition is tight. “I often know answers to random questions, but then can’t name important landmarks or events,” said one regular who wished to remain anonymous. “One week I accurately named the original members of Destiny’s Child. I was the only one who cheered when he read the answer and the entire bar stared at me. That was embarrassing.”

At the helm of the pub’s weekly contest is Quizmaster Bob, a burly guy in his mid-30s with a bushy beard and a newsboy cap permanently on his head. An accountant at a law firm by day, on Tuesday nights the jolly Bob moonlights as a trivia master, turning the P.J. Ryan’s pub quiz into a popular weekly event. “It used to be hit or miss,” says the bar’s waitress Bridget Mann of the trivia contests. “But we are now seeing a consistently good crowd,” she adds, praising Quizmaster Bob as a reason for the new popularity of the P.J. Ryan’s trivia night. To regulars, Quizmaster Bob is an icon for the bar’s quizzes. “I have tried other trivia contests in the area,” said David Morrison, a Somerville resident and regular at P.J. Ryan’s. “But it is hard to beat Bob,” Morrison added. “His questions are original and he is just such a good guy.”

To come up with interesting questions week after week, Quizmaster Bob relies on a variety of sources for inspiration. “I look everywhere,” he says. “Old trivia books, websites, even random shit on Wikipedia.”  The recent popularity of the pub’s trivia contest among Tufts students provides a “new challenge” for the quizmaster, who says he now tailors questions to appeal to a younger population. He adds that he has to find harder questions to challenge the brainy Tufts population. “You kids can actually answer my math and science questions,” he adds with a laugh.

Although the definition of trivia implies meaningless or unimportant information, do not let the name fool you—pub trivia devotees see the competitions as much more than irrelevant knowledge. For some, the motivation is financial; many bars give the winning team a cash prize or gift certificate. At P.J. Ryan’s, each team pays $5 to compete and the winning team splits half of the total money. Not wanting to discourage the less successful teams, the bar hands out free shots to the event’s losers at the end of the night.

For other contestants, the friendly competition is enough motivation to participate. “When I get an answer correct, I like to rub it in everyone else’s face,” said Abby Fuller, a frequent P.J. Ryan’s competitor. “One time, I knew the correct name of the Taco Bell Chihuahua and my group didn’t believe me. We lost six points because of that question. They will never live that down.”

Bar-goers are not the only ones embracing this new phenomenon. To a pub owner, weekly trivia competitions, especially those held during the week, are a fun way to lure people to the bar. Once inside, the fun atmosphere and lengthy games (P.J. Ryan’s competitions generally last two hours) encourage patrons to keep drinking. David O’Malley, the bar’s bouncer, says that Tuesday nights are P.J. Ryan’s most popular weeknight, with the pub quiz bringing in roughly the same number of people as a Friday or Saturday night. However, Mann says that the bar is just seeing an increase in drink sales, while the dinner sales remain the same.

Both of the P.J. Ryan’s employees noted a shift in the demographics of the trivia night contestants. “Over the past year, we have seen a shift from mostly locals to more college students,” says O’Malley. He estimates the trivia crowd is now “60% Tufts, 40% locals,” with fluctuations from week to week. When asked how the bar and its regulars were adjusting to the recent influx of Tufts students, both O’Malley and Mann agreed that the college students offer a lively change of pace. “Locals don’t mind the Tufts students,” remarked O’Malley. “They aren’t obnoxious and they’re really smart,” he adds. Mann agreed, commenting that the college students are strong competitors. “They can answer questions I don’t even understand,” she says with a self-deprecating laugh.

If last night’s standing-room only pub quiz is any indication, trivia nights are the new trend among college students, combining their diverse knowledge with their fresh energy. Whether hoping to win some money, have some fun, or just get a free round of shots, bar-goers and college students alike are enthusiastically embracing the friendly pursuit of trivia.