As far back as 2001, Tuesday night was pub trivia night for my friends and me. We crammed into Molly Malone’s in the Highlands, tested our brains against those of fellow nerds, got our butts kicked regularly, and had a blast.
But we never envisioned a Louisville where teams could play pub trivia pretty much every day of the week. What was once a novelty has become a staple, and the momentum doesn’t appear to be slowing down.
In August 2002, Turner Luesing hosted his first night of live team trivia at O’Shea’s Irish Pub in the Highlands – he hasn’t looked back, and now does trivia three nights a week, including a long-standing Wednesday night show at Flanagan’s Ale House. At any given show, he said, he may get eight to 17 teams, but it’s been a steady climb.
For Luesing, it’s about bringing people back and having that ongoing cast of regulars. Hey, it worked for Cheers, so why not trivia?
“There are people who have been attending shows that I run for the almost 12 years I’ve been doing this,” Luesing said. “I’ve had, so far, eight marriages – and two divorces – between people who met during my trivia games.”
Luesing’s style is loose and fun, which is what trivia should be. In the early days, he made frequent references to actor Lou Diamond Phillips, poking good-natured fun at the 1980s star. Somewhere along the way, the crowd began a call-and-response reaction when he would announce that sports was going to be a category for a certain round, the whole room echoing “sports” as soon as he said it.
Asked how that began, he said, “You know, I’m not really sure; I think it had to do with some drunk asshole yelling ‘sports,’ and it just caught on. That later morphed into some people yelling ‘books, if the category is authors, and some yelling ‘maps’ when the category is geography.”
The point is well made – this is the kind of fun community activity that brings people back.
“I like to think that my charming on-mic personality has at least something to do with people coming back every week,” Luesing said. “I tend to adopt a ‘good-natured-but-pedantic, sarcastic asshole’ tone.”
Alex Gustafson hosts his “Gus Bus” trivia four nights a week and has been at it a relatively brief one-and-a-half years. A near-participant on “Teen Jeopardy” (he passed the test twice but was never called to be a contestant), he also was on his high school’s Quick Recall team.
“I’ve been a trivia nerd all my life,” he said prior to a recent Thursday show at Great Flood Brewing. He began playing pub trivia and quickly realized he would have more fun hosting than playing. He now writes all the questions himself, doing the bulk of research on the Internet.
Nathan Stalvey, who hosts trivia every Wednesday night at the Bard’s Town as part of the group Louisville Trivia, became a trivia junkie through a personal trivia experience.
“I remember once playing years ago at another venue where there were 20 teams,” Stalvey said. “The only people on my team were my wife and a close friend of mine, and we beat all of the teams there. I couldn’t tell you what we won because I don’t remember, but I do remember the thrill of victory that night.”
Community meets competition? It makes total sense. If you frequent a weekly game, the other teams become familiar foes. It becomes like beating a big brother or a best buddy at a video game. It also represents a way to go out and socialize for those who aren’t necessarily a “partying” crowd. This is why most of the live trivia around town happens Monday through Thursday.
Buffalo Wild Wings in the Highlands hosts trivia by Last Call Productions (which is based in Cincinnati) every Wednesday and Friday. General manager Chris King said Wednesday typically brings the best turnout, complete with a cast of regulars.
“I think when you’re dealing with a crowd that’s going out for something a little more cerebral, you’re not looking for a weekend crowd,” King said. “That’s why, personally, I think weekdays work better than weekends.”
From a business development perspective, he said, it offers his sports-themed restaurant a chance to bring in a crowd and establish regulars who aren’t necessarily going to visit for sports and wings. And while he does see some college-age trivia players, most are in their late 20s through early 30s, on up to people in their 50s.
“This is very much a business of regulars,” Luesing said. “Nobody ever comes just once. That’s part of the sales pitch when soliciting new business: You will hopefully get some of your existing regulars into your establishment on an additional night, as well as creating new regulars who will start showing up on non-trivia nights because they now feel connected to the bar.”
The questions aren’t easy, either, so having a diverse group is important. You may have a group of sports buffs versed in college sports and the NFL, but what if Stalvey throws an LPGA question out there? And a casual movie fan may love Tom Hanks but may not know he had a role in the 1980 horror flick, “He Knows You’re Alone.”
That’s where a round like “Cast Party” gets interesting – in that round, you are given a series of movie titles and are required to name the common cast members. In most forms of trivia played in town, players place wagers on questions based on how sure they feel about their answers. In others, it’s a matter of answering straight questions at 10 per round, with audio or picture rounds thrown in. Sometimes, the entire game is focused on just music.
So what drives the popularity? Stalvey said his weekly show gets 17 or 18 teams and has had as many as 21. In fact, it is highly recommended you make reservations, as trivia fills up both dining rooms on Wednesdays.
“It’s hard to say why trivia is getting so popular,” Stalvey said. “More and more places seem like they are hosting trivia than before, which I think is a good thing. I think it’s a great way for friends and family to get together and have fun. If you look at the makeup of trivia teams at the Bard’s Town, you will see a wide range of people: family members, longtime friends, even people who have recently met. It’s competitive, but it’s a fun kind of competition.”
“Trivia-based parlor games have generally been popular since Trivial Pursuit came out in the early ’80s,” Luesing said. “Holding trivia games in bars allows people to play but not have to entertain; you don’t have to worry about dishes, food, etc. It is also a good way to legitimize hanging out in a bar on a weeknight, even for people with a 9-to-5.”
“I can’t explain the boom,” Gustafson said. “I don’t know where these people were before.”
But he believes the variety in topics and question styles help, along with the fact there is no cover charge – you just show up and play. And not only can bring your friends, but chances are you’ll make new ones. Perhaps pub trivia is simply bridging interpersonal gaps created by smart phones and social media.
“Neighborhood bars are all about community,” Luesing said. “(Trivia) is one more thing contributing to that.”