Making Bar Trivia Virtual

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Though many bars are under lockdown restrictions, pub quiz companies still operate online. You provide the booze, they provide the brainteasers.

Credit...Luci Gutiérrez
Nov. 28, 2020, 11:37 p.m. ET

In the spring, just before lockdown hit North Carolina, Steve Bahnaman met some friends at a Cider Brewery, just outside Raleigh, for an evening of bar trivia. His team, Covid Operations (this was back before Covid-19 puns were “super tired,” he explained), won the competition that night. The prize: $40 in bar cash. “Which I’m probably never going to use,” said Mr. Bahnaman, who hasn’t visited a bar or played another game in-person since. “That is very sad.”

Lockdowns have shut some bars, while reducing capacity at others. Though this has had a withering effect on in-person bar trivia, it has also encouraged a proliferation of online games. Now you can test your knowledge of Episcopal sees or TV catchphrases from anywhere at any time, competing against other humans or just your own recall.

Bar trivia began in England in the 1970s. Designed to bring people inside to order drinks on slow nights, the competitions quickly gained popularity, providing both an economic bump for small businesses and a social occasion for bar patrons. In most quizzes, a host asks a series of questions — general, themed, audio or visual — and teams of patrons scribble answers as they down pints.

A good trivia question has an interesting fact at its heart, something you might want to know if you don’t already. And it presents the query not in a “you know it or you don’t” way, but rather in a form that generates discussion and allows you to deduce your way to an educated guess. (One example: What is the only state in which both the name of the state and the name of the state capital have been one-word titles of Oscar nominees for best picture?) Prizes include cash, a cleared bar tab or simply the warm glow that comes from really nailing that multipart hockey mascot brainteaser.

Having proliferated on Zoom, Twitch and Facebook Live, quizzes look and feel different now, of course. While a few enable remote socializing — via chat functions or breakout room — you still can’t share jalapeño poppers or hunch around the same worksheet. But that’s the price paid for not having to share a table (and aerosols) with people outside your household as you try to recall China’s major rivers. Asynchronous quizzes, available daily, weekly or whenever, are enjoying a rush of popularity, too. Some still offer cash prizes, but many function as fund-raisers for struggling bars, food banks or the quiz companies themselves.

David Gallic, the director of content at King Trivia, which had games at 190 bars across the West Coast and the Southwest before the coronavirus intervened, misses the personal interaction of bar trivia. “On Twitch, when I’m hosting, it’s me on camera, and everybody else in a little chat box,” he said. But he enjoys the multi-timezone reach that an online format provides. Lynn Yu, a co-founder of Trivia LA, which generates monthly trivia question lists and offers private livestream games for a fee, likes that she doesn’t have to dress up. “They’re only seeing the top half of me,” she said.

O’Brien’s, a pub in Santa Monica, Calif., that hosts a weekly quiz thronged with “Jeopardy” champs, held its last quiz on March 11. The following Wednesday the quiz reappeared online and hasn’t missed a week since. “This is a way that maybe gets us to 90 percent of the feeling of being there live with people with basically zero percent of the risk,” said Dave Shukan, an occasional O’Brien’s writer and host.

Once a month, its rotating hosts present what they call a “Frankenquiz,” a best-of edition designed for a popular (if scarily knowledgeable) audience. On a recent Sunday, 17 teams handily fielded questions about film directors, sports teams, Ibadi Islam and a British foreign secretary, anagrammed. “It’s not a question of being smart,” said Paul Paquet, a longtime player and trivia columnist. “It’s just a neurological quirk where we remember things.” Debatable.

Admittedly, Google remembers what we may forget and the online format makes cheating easier. (Most outlets use the honor system; some ask players to keep their hands visible onscreen.) Quizzes have also altered form and methodology to make answers less searchable. America’s recent racial reckoning has also provided a moment to rethink quiz content.

“There was a very concerted call and an effort within the trivia community to make sure that you’re not just asking questions about white America and white Americana,” Ms. Yu said.

Newcomers to trivia, even those with decent general knowledge and a trove of weirder info lodged somewhere in the hippocampus, may find quiz questions difficult. “To be completely honest, a lot of the pub trivia I played online is too hard,” said Bill Patschak, a founder of the new site BPtrivia. But, as with any new skill, players improve through practice, learning not only facts but the types of questions asked, and the way writers might frame them.

“Everyone is an expert in something,” Ms. Yu said reassuringly. “And they do know more than they think they do.” And if thinking too hard about health crises or fraught transfers of power has you down, it can be relaxing to spend 10 minutes or a couple of hours immersing yourself in material that doesn’t matter at all.

“It’s testing knowledge, but it’s not testing anything important,” Shayne Busfield, a founder of the exclusive quiz site Learned League said.

Here are some ways to play bar trivia from home, with or without pants. Just bring your brain, and your own booze.

Bar trivia without the bar

Many major trivia companies, like King Trivia, Geeks Who Drink, Brainstormer Trivia! and the Big Quiz Thing, have all migrated some of their live events online. While O’Brien’s weekly quizzes are invite-only, its monthly Frankenquizes, found via the pub’s Facebook and Twitter pages, are open to all. There are two rounds of 15 questions each, plus two handouts (now Google docs) that players work on in snatched minutes between rounds.

If you can assemble a dedicated squad, remotely, try Online Quiz League USA, which Mr. Bahnaman co-founded and described as a bowling league for the brain. Each week, your four-person team plays another via Zoom, Skype or Messenger. The season finishes with a cup tournament, when teams play for trophies and bragging rights.

Game on, camera off

If you prefer your quizzing on your own time, you can work your contacts to score an invite to Learned League, a 21,000-strong members-only club that lets you start or end each weekday with six synapse-tickling questions, delivered via email. Or try BPtrivia, which has daily, monthly and race-against-the clock quizzes, to be played in your browser anytime. (Some are free, others require a subscription.)

There are also plenty of apps, video games and online games, like Random Trivia Generator. Or if you need more incentive to answer questions correctly, try Jackbox Games’ Murder Trivia Party and try to stay alive.

Quiz shows, remotely

If you love trivia, you are probably mourning the recent death of the longtime “Jeopardy” host, Alex Trebek. But “Jeopardy” will continue, and you can still take the qualifying test, now available remotely. “Jeopardy” also offers a couple of apps so that you can practice phrasing your answer in the form of a question. A voice-only game lets you play even during drive time. If current events are more your speed, NPR’s news quiz, “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me,” has created a play-along game for smart speakers.

Let the board quiz you or choose your own trivial adventure

Maybe you grew up with Trivial Pursuit or one of its seemingly endless iterations. If you make a few exceptions for the geography category, the game has aged well, and a 40th anniversary edition collects question best-ofs. For a more recent iteration of a board game quiz, and assuming you don’t room with Ken Jennings, try Wits & Wagers: When a question is read, everyone in your household guesses the answer, then bets on which answer is correct.

If you would rather host your own quiz without having to do the work of writing questions, there are plenty of questions and answers available online. Start with Alpaca Farm, where Learned League alums post free quizzes, and interrogate family, friends and pets about 11-letter U.S. city names or Roberto Clemente.

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