“Question one: What’s the longest river in Japan?”
It was May 23, 2006, when I looked out on a bar mostly full of strangers and asked them all that question. And then I repeated it, because that’s what quizmasters do.
I was surprised, although I shouldn’t have been. Yes, hosting was (ugh) performing in public, speaking in front of a bunch of people. I was awkward and introverted, with the Myers-Briggs score to back it up.
I started the evening as a fill-in host for a friend, and finished the evening desperately wanting to do it again — and with a list of ideas for how next time would be better. Because if you haven’t noticed, or were too kind to think it, that first question was not very good. Too obscure, too dull. (But not just plain cruel, like question 8: “What road, completed in 1986, connects Pakistan with China, passing over the Khunjerab Pass at its highest point?” I can’t remember the answer to that and I just looked at it.)
Being a quizmaster appeals to the part of me that loves being an insider. I like to know how things work, even more than I like figuring them out. I want to know how magic tricks work. I read spoilers.
Quizmastering was perfect. I had all the answers, because I wrote the questions. Playing trivia is fun, and I wouldn’t give it up — in part because playing the quiz makes you a better host. But writing trivia questions is a blast. Learning to do it well is a pain in the ass, because it turns out that writing good trivia is not about showing off how much you know. (When you do it really well, you delight people by revealing to them how much they know. Tough to pull off, but the best.)
If I had to host quizzes so I could write them, it was worth it.
A few months after that one-shot gig, I ended hosting regularly at that bar — the Old Pequliar, in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle — with [Seth] (https://twitter.com/SethKolloen) and [David] (http://www.davidswidler.com/), two other editors at the local blog Seattlest (RIP). We each wrote and hosted once every three weeks, and helped run the event the two weeks in between. We publicized the night on our blog, turning an already popular quiz into a crazy busy event.
It was an awesome and daunting crash course. Seth and David weren’t flat-out trivia nerds like me, but they were funnier writers and had a better sense of what people might actually know. (I have a bad habit of assuming that everyone knows what I know, even if I just spent 10 minutes researching the subject because it was so hard to narrow down on Google.) They demonstrated that good hosting means making sure that everyone else is having a good time.
Learning to host was incredibly valuable. It made me a better writer, and it gave me more confidence both in the pub and beyond. I could rewrite questions on the fly if the audience was giving me the “I have no idea” rumble. I could recognize an “I have no idea” rumble and distinguish it from a “this is tough but not too tough” rumble. I could crack jokes that made people laugh. I could take good-natured shit and throw it back without being too milquetoast or too mean. I could give the hairy eyeball to potential cheaters without dragging down the whole crowd. Once or twice I even shut down hecklers.
And I learned to write questions that were the opposite of dull and tough: Fun, interesting, funny, thought provoking. Some of that came from good resources like the [Trivia Hall of Fame] (http://www.triviahalloffame.com/writeq.php) and Ken Jennings’ Brainiac. A lot of it came from trial and error and seeing what kinds of things made it fun for people in the pub. Turns out people really like to get questions right — they have more fun if they get 7 or 8 questions out of 10 than if they get 3 or 4. That was a useful reminder to axe the snobbery.
Eventually my Seattlest cohosts dropped the trivia gig. For a while, hosting was a free-for-all — sign up on a yellow pad and you could host in the future. I settled into hosting once a month, which was the ideal schedule. I got enough time to compose 81 questions (50 written, 20 pictures, 11 audio clips, generally) that were factually solid and entertaining. A set of other hosts settled, and I became the de facto ringleader.
Eventually I wrote a house style guide — how to kick ass as a trivia host. Some of the other hosts broke the rules brilliantly, some of them ignored the rules and unleashed some terrible, terrible quizzes on unsuspecting audiences who were just out for a good time.
We billed ourselves as “Seattle’s brainiest trivia night,” and in the golden years, we were a magnet for people who wanted a high-quality, high-energy quiz worthy of Jeopardy! hopefuls and other smartypantses. Our questions ranged beyond pop culture to stuff like geography and history, yet made time for rounds on lollipop riddles and eHow’s how-to articles. We could delight and annoy quiz-bowl topic snobs in one wo-hour span.
Eventually, I gave up the regular hosting gig. I’m still not entirely sure why, to be honest. My reasons seem both significant and stupid: I wanted to stop while it was still fun. I felt like it was something that was coming too easily, and I wanted to figure out a new challenge. I wanted to pass the torch and watch the quiz night at the Old Pequliar continue on and stay awesome. I was getting treatment for mild depression at the time, and this seemed like a way to break out of a rut.
The quiz continued on with the same structure for almost exactly two years. Until a few days ago, the Old Pequliar’s management decided to cancel the existing quiz and bring in the national chain Geeks Who Drink to run the night.
Geeks Who Drink is a fine organization, but they’re the Subway of quiz nights. Thoroughly solid, competent, and consistent, and popular because of that, not because their sandwiches ever approach amazing. And to their credit, they’re very good at appealing to the bar’s bottom line.
Some of my fellow regulars are upset, but I can’t get too mad at the bar. Attendance had been declining over the last year or so, and that accelerated within the last three months. There were nights where only 3 teams showed up, and the people playing the quiz were outnumbered by people just hanging out. Bars host trivia nights to bring in revenue on otherwise slow nights; if the slow night is outgrossing the loud sideshow, something’s got to change.
And not to toot my own horn, but many of the regular hosts were not putting in the same amount of time and care and craftsmanship. Longstanding hosts had drifted away. Not many wanted to commit to even one night a month; most of them did a gig every couple of months. It’s understandable, because $50 bar credit isn’t much compensation for the work put in. But when you don’t host that often, you don’t improve very quickly. I wasn’t attending the quiz as regularly as I had been, because it became more likely that an evening would be more a slog, less a good time.
Since then, I’ve guest hosted a few times, almost always to a strong crowd. Each time I kind of miss it, and kind of remember why I gave it up. Mostly I get annoyed that I haven’t figured out a satisfying new trivia-related project to tackle in its place. (My question-a-day email is a start — [sign up now! Free! Brain-teasing!] (http://www.quizquizbangbang.com/2013/11/11/get-a-question-a-day-emailed-to-you/) )
I’ll say it once, because I’m otherwise shitty at giving myself credit for stuff: I’m an awesome trivia host. My quizzes are fucking amazing. And I thank the people who suffered through some terrible early ones for that, and for being patient and responsive once I got better.
There’s nothing wrong with Geeks Who Drink, really. But I’m not going to drive half an hour to eat at Subway, or to play a Geeks Who Drink quiz.
But I would drive half an hour (maybe 45 minutes!) to hang out with the people I met at trivia. I know because I’ve done it weekly. That was the other, unexpected but wonderful thing about quiz night at the Old Pequliar: the friendships. As players became regulars, we all got to know each other to varying degrees. I’ve played pub quiz with some of my regular teammates for over ten years now; we’ve seen kids arrive and marriages dissolve and new marriages start. We’ve drunk many beers (or ciders, for me) and eaten a lot of fish and chips and Irish nachos and complained about the bar’s kitchen for seven years.
And we’ve gotten to know the rival teams as well. We’ve gone to dinners together, and parties. Some of them have taken our kids to the movies. Later this month I’m going to a wedding, two people who had their second date at one of our quiz nights a few years ago.
We’re friends. It’s a community.
And the community will change, no doubt; right now we’re united in disdain for Geeks Who Drink trivia at the Old Pequliar, but we’ll find a new regular hangout. Maybe some of us will start hosting again.
But some people will come less often. Some new people will come in. The bar didn’t define the community, but it gave us a common space. You can’t take that away without spurring big changes.
The last time I hosted as a regular at the Old Pequliar was early in January, 2012. The house was packed because I was doing my traditional year-in-review quiz, all about the previous year. And at the end of the night, my friends, and a bunch of other people I recognize by sight but not by name, gave me a standing ovation, and a handmade card signed by scores of people, and gift certificates to several local merchants.
It was one of the high points of my life, and I only made it through without crying (or just fleeing from the crowd, because it’s not like I’m not an introvert anymore) because I’m a professional quiz host, goddammit.
I have never had a job that awesome, and that’s a shame. And although it was probably time, it still sucks that the quiz got canceled, especially before I was able to do one final year-in-review quiz. It was going to be awesome.
Oh, and the longest river in Japan? The Shinano. That one I do remember, seven years later. (But just now I had to look up “the Karakoram Highway” again.)