When you think about it, a pub isn't the best place to take a quiz. It's loud, crowded and full of drunks (present company included.) But on the other hand, trivia knowledge needs a public platform to shine. Sure, you can impress friends with your recitation of all the U.S. presidents, in alphabetical order, but will they give you cash prizes? Drink tickets? High-fives from strangers? Of course not.
San Francisco is blessed with many pubs and many pub quizzes, but one stands apart: Edinburgh Castle Pub. It's well known to be the toughest in the city. I've been before most recently a few months ago but have never gotten the glory (or the cash) of a trivia winner. No time like the present to change things, so I spent a week preparing to take top honors, to win some lucre and self-esteem.
Teaming with the strength
As a previous participant at the Castle, I knew the basic outlines of the quiz. There is a music round, a photo round, and at least one current events and one special themed round. My first focus would be current events. I did my best to be in front of a TV at 6 p.m. for the weekdays, to catch the local and national news shows. (I already read the internet every day.) It was harder than I thought. It turns out that I am always somewhere besides near a TV at that time of day. Also, it turns out that both local and national news are painfully boring to watch. Flipping around, I just heard re-treads of stories I've already read or listened to online. My time ended being spent on a far more worthwhile program: Antiques Roadshow, which is on for hours every weeknight. I might not be able to answer any questions about local crime stories, but ask me about the value of a Picasso ceramic piece or a mid-century porcelain doll collection. Seriously, ask me!
My attention then turned to composing the perfect quiz team. My strengths – YouTube videos of puppies, the Golden Girls, literary theory – were not going to secure the grand prize. For the music round, we need some music nerds: my pal Troy, a former record store employee, was a powerhouse during the last Castle quiz. He had to come. We needed some sports knowledge (fellow Bold Local Aaron is a baseball aficionado), some pop culture and maybe tech knowledge (Omar always has the latest gadgets), science smarts (Heidi is taking chemistry classes), historical knowledge (Bold Local Drew) and people who go to pub quizzes often (Michael, Shoshana). Then, of course, just people who appreciate a few pitchers of beer (you know who you are.)
As an aside, here's something that seemed like a good idea that I didn't have time to do – so much Antiques Roadshow to watch! – go to a quiz night a few days before hitting the Castle. As a warm-up. Practice makes perfect.
Between the lines
With the team assembled and my current events knowledge sharpened, I showed up early to the Castle with a friend to have one, final bit of cramming with a real, paper newspaper. I was surprised at how much potential trivia I had missed reading stuff online – who knew that the Nobel Committee had never awarded the Medicine prize to more than one woman before this year? Surveying the room, though, I felt good about our chances. We had prime seating, we had fish and chips, we were ready to go.
The thing that really sets the Castle apart is the quiz master, Carl. Seated at the front of the room behind a table, Carl was part disciplinarian, part stand-up comic, and a paragon of efficiency. "I know that you want to show that your education at Chico State wasn't in vain, but keep in mind that there are two kinds of people in the world," Carl intoned, "The kind who shout out the answers to questions and the kind who don't. The kind who do are assholes."
I had miscounted: there were two special themed rounds. Tonight's themes were the state of Ohio and character actors in situation comedies. My heart sunk. No one at the table was from Ohio and while I pride myself in recognizing character actors when I see them (That's the cousin from Cheers!) I am not going to know their names. But still, we soldiered on.
First round was current events. I quickly found that my study technique was appropriate for a school quiz, not a pub quiz. As Carl told me later, he writes questions that about events that have nothing to do with the actual event. For instance, he acknowledged the terrible earthquake and tsunami action in the South Pacific by asking what is the capital of American Samoa. Shamefully, our team didn't know. Also, the general interest questions dredged up facts buried just too deep in our collective brains like the original surname of Malcolm X. Troy said he knew, I said I knew, we ended up writing Jones on the piece of paper. Fail.
Even with our struggles, we had emerged as one of the frontrunners. Our real competition became clear: a group at the back of the room called Ahmadinejew. We were within two points of them after two rounds.
What about Bea Arthur???
Carl cleverly consolidated three rounds into one during the middle portion of the quiz: we would be listening to ten songs (and naming the artist) while passing around a page of photographs to identify and another page of characters from sitcoms with space to write in the actors names. Another pitcher was ordered. The photos had enough current event cache to validate my diet of TV and internet news. Troy led the charge on the music round but the character actors just killed us. Thurston Howell, III from Gilligans Island? Agent 86 from Get Smart? Murray Slaughter from Mary Tyler Moore?
Miraculously, even after missing most of the character actors, we were tied with Ahmadinejew. Five rounds down, two to go.
Hi in the middle and round on both ends
Next up, the round dedicated to the state of Ohio. Michael declared early that geography is a strength for me, so all eyes were on him. He wasn't kidding about that, correctly naming the Ohio River as a boundary with Kentucky (tricky, Carl!). (Also, I had no idea Ohio even bordered Kentucky.) We got stumped on what member of the Brat Pack hailed from the great state, though. Aaron argued Peter Lawford, I pointed out Lawford married a Kennedy, an improbable event for a boy from Steubenville and offered Sammy Davis, Jr. as a possible answer but we were both wrong. It was Dino.
Down by two now, one round to go. Carl promised that the last one would be ridiculously easy but his idea of easy differed greatly from mine. I got hung up on the fact that I couldn't remember who wrote the fake autobiography of Howard Hughes even though I totally saw the Richard Gere movie "Hoax" last year. The author of "Love Story" also stumped us. We began to feel the smell of defeat wafting over the table as groups began passing us to drop their answer sheets into Carl's cardboard box. Finally, we gave up.
Then, a minute later, Omar remembered the name of imprisoned author Clifford Irving! Carl accepted a late answer but it wasn't quite enough. We lost by two points, placing second. With our five winning drink tickets, another pitcher was procured but it wasn't the same as actually winning. Ahmedinejew whooped it up in the back.
Is that your final answer?
A day after the quiz, I called Jon Korn, an East Bay quiz lover and a recent contestant on Jeopardy!, where he took home $26,000, for a post-mortem. His team had placed fourth in their Tuesday night pub quiz, but they were missing a member.
In his opinion, there's no way to really prepare for a pub quiz. The nature of trivia is that it can't be crammed, he said. For the big leagues, when it became clear to him after a written test and two studio trips, that he actually would be on Jeopardy!, he did do a few things: memorize presidents, state capitals, world capitals. But that's it.
The quiz master himself, Carl, told me that he played at Edinburgh Castle for two years before the other quiz master quit and he asked Castle owner, Alan Black, for a chance to make up questions and get unfettered access to alcohol. As a quiz taker, though, Carl's proudest moment wasn't naming the capital of Syria, it was knowing the number painted on Herbie the Love Bug. Next time, our team will blow through the competition and I'm pretty sure that it's going to be a question about 19th century antique plates that will put us over the top.
Pub quiz action shots courtesy of paul.luminos.nl