Anatomy of a (nearly) singlehanded victory

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Okay, I have to come clean somewhere, so you just got voted my confessor. Lucky you.

So Laura and I started playing Wednesday nights in a pub trivia league late last spring. It's a uniform game that takes place in different bars not just all over Chicago but in several cities around the country. Our first few outings were dismal, but gradually we improved to the point where we took several firsts at our home bar, and we regularly place near the top of the pack. During this past season, our team—then known as The Reigning Cats and Dogs—did well enough to get invited to the city league championship match on February 13th. We placed 15th out of about 25 teams.

Using cell phones to look up answers is strictly forbidden, and we never cheat on that score. Sometimes, though, if we're nervous about a question, we'll look up the answer after we've already turned in our response. We're there to have fun, but we also love winning, and we can get pretty competitive with the other regular teams. It's a friendly competition, though.

Besides Laura and me, we have a few regulars on the team, most consistently Diane and Chuck. On a normal night, we have three or four players. There is no real limit on team size, though. We've had as many as six and as few as two. Everyone has categories they're strong and weak in. Laura does great at business and advertising and celebrity questions. Diane has TV and politics. I'm good at music and science and geography. Chuck has history, and he's pretty good at sports too. We generally dread sports questions, though, and there are usually a lot of them, so we recently recruited a new player, Randy, to help shore up that weak area.

Also, we have a regular waitress at the bar who's taken a liking to our team. I'll call her Devin. She likes to get in on the act too, so sometimes when we're stuck on a question she'll drop by, under cover of taking our beer order, and brainstorm with us on the answer. She has saved our bacon on more than one occasion.

Last Wednesday night, for the first time, I was the only team member able to attend. I considered blowing it off, but I wanted to get out of the house and have a few beers, and playing alone sounded like an epic challenge. For the new season we've changed our team name to Question Authority, but as long as our assigned league number is on our answer slips, we can call ourselves whatever we like on any given evening, so that night I called my team of one the Lone Punman. Nervously, and not without a great deal of self-consciousness, I settled in at our regular table to wait for the game to start.

I usually send a few Twitter updates from the matches, and much has been made there and on Facebook about my performance that evening. But I'm here to semi-publicly confess something that my teammates already know—I'm not as amazing as I've led people to think I am. Here is a detailed recap of the evening's match, from my perspective, that I wrote up the next day for my fellow Question Authorities.

(I've inserted some annotations along the way on how gameplay proceeds.)

As the game gets close to starting, a few people including the bar owner Freddy and our quizmaster Hank (not their real names) stop by my table to ask me where everyone else is. "They all abandoned me tonight," I say. Our waitress Devin, on the QT, promises to drop by and lend a hand when she can.

[Our trivia game is played in six rounds of three questions each. At the start of each round, the quizmaster announces the three categories that will be used. Teams have three different point values they can assign to the questions in the round—5, 3 and 1. Each can only be used once. For example, if a team uses their 5-point value for the first question, they have 3 points and 1 point left to use on the two remaining questions. The quizmaster reads each question, then plays a four-minute song. Teams write their answers down on slips of paper, together with their point value, team name and league number, and turn their slips in to the quizmaster before the end of the song. Questions start easy and get harder as the round proceed. In addition, the answer to one question for the night, but not the question itself, has been revealed that day on the league's web site—if you've played before and know to look.]

American History
Classic TV
Music Lineup
1. What was first recited in unison by American schoolchildren on October 11, 1892?
5 points. Hank reports everyone got it right.
2. On the television series "Green Acres," what big city did Oliver and Lisa Douglas leave to move to the old Haney place?
I have never seen "Green Acres," so for me this one was a stab in the dark. This is only the first time I wish the whole team was around, because I know all the rest of Question Authority would have known the answer. I base my guess on the idea that it's supposed to be an easy question, and I give it 1 point. Hank reports that everyone got it right, which makes me relieved that I didn't become the only person to miss it.
3. Which of the following Gibb brothers was not a member of the Bee Gees? Is it Andy, Barry, Robin or Maurice?
Slam dunk. 3 points.
U.S. Geography
Whew! Still no sports! How long can this luck hold out?
1. The back of what U.S. state's commemorative quarter features an ear of corn, a wheel of cheese, and a cow?
This is a guess but not a difficult one. 5 points. Hank reports that everyone got it right.
2. What insect appears in the title of a popular opera by Giacomo Puccini?
Now I'm really wishing Laura and her opera brain were around. I know this should be simple, but somehow I get my head hung up on Strauss's Die Fledermaus, which I know is a bat and not an insect. Still, I can only think of creepy crawly things. Devin drops by and, under cover of asking if I need another beer, whispers the answer. 3 points. Everyone gets it right.
3. The Canadian provinces of British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan all border what U.S. state?
Having a spent a very formative (if brief) portion of my life in southern Alberta, this one is a slam dunk. I obnoxiously turn my answer in before the music starts. 1 point, but hopefully it will be an important 1 point.
The Olympics
The Olympics?! Isn't that, like, sports? Oh, no!
1. What was the last U.S. city to host the Winter Olympics?
I can hardly believe that the first sorta sports-related question of the game is one I can answer easily. 5 points.
2. What international restaurant chain's slogan is "Love all, serve all"?
"And it's not IHOP," Hank adds. This gets me thinking about all kinds of chains that probably aren't correct. I don't have a clue, and I'm trying to justify Denny's as an answer in my head when Devin comes by to see if I'm okay on beer. She whispers an answer. "I think," she says. I put it down for 1 point, wait a bit, then turn it in. Devin comes back. "I'm wrong," she says. Actually, she isn't wrong, and she's one of the few who isn't wrong, to judge by the groans from around the bar.
3. What alternative rock band's forthcoming album Teargarden by Kaleidoscope will consist of 44 tracks released one at a time as digital downloads? Is it Coldplay, My Chemical Romance, Smashing Pumpkins or the White Stripes?
I've started writing the answer to this one before Hank even gets to the part where he makes clear it's a multiple-choice question. Fortunately, my answer turns out to be one of the choices. I turn it in obnoxiously fast. 3 points.

[The halftime bonus round, also known as the "shots round," consists of one four-part question. A correct answer for each part is worth 2 points, for a total of up to 8 points. The team with the most points on the halftime bonus question is awarded a round of free shots, courtesy of Freddy. Teams have the length of two songs to turn in their answers.]

For each of the following, name the island nation by its capital city:
  • Manila
  • Reykjavik
  • Santo Domingo
  • Suva
I have no trouble with the first three, but as other teams start turning in their answers I realize I have no clue about Suva. Devin to the rescue. I end up in a 5-way tie for the shots.

[In the case of a tie for first place on the bonus question, one representative from each contending team is sent to the front of the room with an answer slip and a pencil. The tiebreaker question has a numerical answer. The team to come closest to the actual value wins the free shots.]

Theme Parks
In what year did the Black Widow roller coaster make its debut at Six Flags New England?
"Yes, there is a Six Flags New England," says Hank. My guess of 2002 is not even close. I no longer recall which team won, but their guess of 1991 is much closer to the correct answer of 1977. (I will add that back in 1977, as it turns out, that park was not yet called Six Flags New England. In fact, the Black Widow was removed around the same time that Six Flags bought Riverside Park in Massachusetts.) It's all good, though. I have the 8 points, and I really didn't need the shot.

[Going into the second half of play, the quizmaster reports the current standings.]

8th - 29 points - Flavor Stripe
7th - 31 points - Dangling Participles
5th - 32 points - Succotash My Balzac, Pound Puppies
3rd - 34 points - DB(?), LeVar Burton Love Explosion
1st - 35 points - Old Song, Lone Punman
Now Hank points out to everyone that the Lone Punman is tied for first and playing alone. Um, gee, thanks for the added pressure!

[In the second half, the available point values for each round of questions increase to 6, 4 and 2 points.]

Movie Plots
Categories for this round look pretty good, and I can't believe no hardcore sports category has appeared. I breathe a sigh of relief. But I also remind myself of the evening's secret answer, "Black Widow," and try to stay alert for the question it goes with. The secret answer usually but not always shows up in the fourth round.
1. Who is the only actor from any television series in the Star Trek franchise to have been knighted?
I don't know this one for sure, but I can only think of one reasonable candidate. 4 points. Relieved to be right.
2. What Clint Eastwood movie was loosely based on the real-life Zodiac killings?
Though I'm not sure everyone hears, some ninny at the front of the bar shouts out an answer. Hank says, "Hey! No shouting out answers." Unfortunately, the ninny shouted out the same answer I was thinking, which makes me start second-guessing it. In the end, after four minutes of agonizing and considering other Clint movies, I go with my gut. 6 points, because, when in doubt, as Chuck likes to exhort us when he's here, "go big, go strong." Me and the ninny and many other people get it right.
3. What nickname is shared by both billiards champion Jeanette Lee and competitive eater Sonya Thomas?
Okay, this has to be the secret answer of the night! 2 points. It still seems to stump about half the teams, though, and one team apparently misunderstood what the web site said, because when revealing the answers Hank pointedly tells them, "Not 'Black Hole.'"
Science Fiction
I'm excited when I hear the categories for this round. All good categories for me, and still no sports!
1. What is the name of the king that Macbeth killed?
Uh-oh. Though I've read "Macbeth" multiple times and seen it performed, somehow I'm not at all certain of the answer that comes reluctantly to mind for this question. Devin is nowhere in sight, so I go with my gut but assign it only 2 points. What the hell, the other categories look to be more my speed. After I turn in my answer sheet, Devin swings by to offer an answer. "I wasn't sure," I said, "but that's what I put. I already turned it in." We're right, but so are several others.
2. What word for a solution of water and salt can be applied to seawater or the liquid in a jar of pickles?
Once again I turn in my answer obnoxiously quickly (it's a tactic to psych everyone else out, you know?), but I'm not the only one who does. Most folks don't seem to have any trouble with this one. 6 points.
3. What 1979 sci-fi/horror movie featured a spaceship called the Nostromo?
Hank spends some time arguing with the LeVar Burton Love Explosion about how Nostromo is pronounced. "Nuh-STROH-moh," they say. "NAW-struh-moh," Hank says. "Nuh-STROH-moh," they say. "NAW-struh-moh, bitch," Hank says into the mike. The crowd oo-oo-oohs. Again with the obnoxiously fast answer. 4 points.
A perfect game so far, with only three hints from Devin. I'm very nervous at this point, and I realize with this set of categories that my sports luck has finally run out. I'm not too sure about the car category, either. In fact, the only category I like at all is mythology. "Is your perfect streak still going?" one of the LeVar Burton women asks me from the next table. "Yes, but I'm pretty sure it's about to end," I say. I just hope I have enough of a lead built up to weather this round and stay out front.
1. In 2007, what international car maker became the first company to sell a million vehicles in one year in China?
No. Freaking. Clue. The first answer that comes to mind is Toyota. Then I start thinking about how the Chinese and Japanese feel about each other, and I fixate on Volkswagen. I keep going back and forth between those two. Finally I write down Volkswagen, certain I'm wrong, and take my answer sheet up. Someone is conferring with Hank about something, though, and I realize there is no point value written on my sheet. I head back to my table and sit down. Devin stops by as I'm writing a 4 on the sheet. She whispers the answer. "No shit?" I say, and order another beer. "Pretty sure," she says. I scrap my VW answer sheet and stuff the crumpled paper into my shoulder bag. I write down her answer and give it 4 points because, hey, baseball is coming up, but so is mythology. I wait a decent interval, then take my sheet up to Hank. From the cheers, most teams, including the Lone Punman, got this one right. That was a close call!
2. What is the only current National League team to never win a pennant or NLCS?
That's National League Championship Series, for those who don't know—like me. Of course, something else I don't know is what team this could possibly be. (I also fail to note the "National League" distinction in the question, not that it would have meant much to me.) Where the crap are Hank and Randy, anyway? I consider the Texas Rangers, maybe because that was Bush's team, but that's just a wild guess. Then the Colorado Rockies pop into my mind. I mentally try out a bunch of other teams that I know, but the Rockies are the only team that sound like total losers to me. I write it down. Then Devin comes by and says, "The Rangers." "You sure?" I say. "Yeah," she says. I write it down for 2 points, wait a minute, and hustle it up to Hank as the music ends. He reveals the correct answer. Gee, we were both wrong. What a surprise. And, in a strange way, what a relief!
3. In Greek mythology, what kind of creature was Polyphemus?
The Odyssey is, like, one of my favorite books ever. It's always risky to save your biggest point value for the last question in the round, but this time it pays off. I take the answer up obnoxiously fast and slap it down on Hank's table just as the music starts. More psychological warfare. But a couple other people are right behind me. 6 points.

[At the end of regular play, the quizmaster reports the current standings again.]

8th - 49 points - Dangling Participles
6th - 60 points - DB(?), Succotash My Balzac
5th - 61 points - Flavor Stripe
4th - 62 points - LeVar Burton Love Explosion
3rd - 63 points - Old Song
2nd - 66 points - Pound Puppies
1st - 69 points - Lone Punman
Three-point lead! But given the wagering system on the final question, everyone is within striking distance of first place, especially if it turns out to be one of those extraordinarily hard ones...

[Teams are allowed to wager anywhere from 0 to 15 points on the final question. If they turn in a correct answer, the point wager is added to their score. But if they turn in an incorrect answer, that wager is deducted from their score.]

Place the following in order from greatest to least:
  • Number of pawns a player starts with in chess.
  • Highest possible value of a hand in baccarat.
  • Number of $20 bills a player starts with in Monopoly.
  • Numerical value assigned to the left fielder position in baseball stats.
Oh, snap! Only one of these is something I know offhand, and it's the number of pawns. I have a guess for the left fielder number, which sort of pops into my head from picturing a diagram of a baseball field. I'm not sure it's right, but I'm going to go with it. Usually with these sorts of questions, the answers all cluster together in a tight group, which means these numbers must all be very close. I'm not sure about the Monopoly money, but I figure there's no reason to start with more than about five twenties. That gives me a good cluster to work with. I have no clue about the baccarat number, but with the other values in place I can make an educated guess as to where it fits in. Within a minute or so, I've written down my answers in order and wagered 13 points, the minimum I need to stay ahead of Pound Puppies if they bet 15. I turn in my answer.

Then, during the second song, Devin stops by to check on my beer situation. She rattles off an answer to the question, with dead certainty, that is entirely different from mine. "Yikes, that's not at all what I put down," I say, "but I was only guessing." "Well, there's sixteen pawns in chess, right?" Devin says. "I thought it was the number of pawns on one side," I say. Devin goes up to talk to Hank.

I sweat.

The song ends. Hank prolongs the agony with thanks and so forth before slowly reading off the right answers in order. My first answer is right. My second answer is right. My knuckles are white. Third answer is right! Cheers start going up all around the room, but it doesn't matter. With the wager I made, no one can touch me. I slump back in my seat. It's over. I'm a rock star. I'm a legend.

8th - 45 points - DB(?) (was tied for 6th, down 15 points)
7th - 46 points - Flavor Stripe (was 5th, down 15 points)
6th - 48 points - Old Song (was 3rd, down 15 points)
5th - 60 points - LeVar Burton Love Explosion (was 4th, down 2 points)
4th - 64 points - Dangling Participles (was 8th, up 15 points)
3rd - 75 points - Succotash My Balzac (was tied for 6th, up 15 points)
2nd - 81 points - Pound Puppies (place unchanged, up 15 points)
1st - 82 points - Lone Punman (place unchanged, up 13 points)

And that's my confession. I took first place last Wednesday night, but I didn't quite do it alone—as I would have admitted on Twitter except that I didn't want Devin to get in any trouble. I learned a valuable lesson in the process, though. It may be gratifying to appear to win alone, but it's more fun to play team trivia as part of an actual team.

Well, tomorrow it will be, anyway. Last Wednesday night was awesome. I don't regret a bit of it.

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This page contains a single entry by William Shunn published on March 2, 2010 12:37 PM.

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