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Pub Quiz Competitions Go Mainstream At The 'Geek Bowl'


When pub trivia nights jumped the pond from the U.K. to the U.S. in the 1980s, they took some time to catch on. But today, they're not just for self-proclaimed geeks.

JOHN DICKER: It's gone from something that was almost like a nerd underground scene into a quasi-mainstream entertainment staple, I'd say.

CORNISH: That's John Dicker, quizmaster at a company called Geeks Who Drink. It runs bar trivia nights at a nearly thousand venues across the country. And this weekend it's hosting an annual trivia battle royale in Chicago. Monica Eng from member station WBEZ went to a Chicago bar to meet up with one of the 230 teams competing this weekend.

MONICA ENG, BYLINE: They call it the Geek Bowl, when more than 230 teams from around the country gather for a day of trivia competitions. At Cheesie's pub on Chicago's North Side, one of these teams is in serious training mode.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Rounds 2 and 8 tonight are going to be worth 16 points.

ENG: They're brushing up on the rules.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: No one from your team can be on their phone.

ENG: They're setting team positions.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Chris is the geography guy. And I know a lot of music. Megan is pop culture. Luke is sports. Banks knows...

BANKS: Random facts, like, from high school.

ENG: And they're sharing training strategies.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Not a bad idea to memorize the periodic table.

ENG: As you can guess, they're not athletes or even mathletes. These are wannabe (ph) trivia titans, and they're gearing up for tomorrow's competition.

DICKER: It's a pretty big deal.

ENG: John Dicker is quizmaster at Geeks Who Drink, one of several bar trivia companies in the U.S. and the force behind the annual Geek Bowl. He says some contestants just want to play for fun.

DICKER: And then there are the professionals who are usually former game show contestants and Academic Bowl champs who are there to win.

ENG: But the average attendee?

DICKER: Our crowd are your basic autodidacts, pop culture obsessives and high school valedictorians.

ENG: These are people who pore into thousands of bars each week, helping boost business on traditionally slow nights. And at Cheesie's pub, that team in training has picked a name for the weekend's big competition.

CHRIS OWENS: Sly and The Family Stone Cold Steve Austin. Last year, our name was Insane Clown Possum.

ENG: That's team captain Chris Owens. He and teammate Denise Stein say they have a few key strategies to prepare.

DENISE STEIN: We watch "Jeopardy!"

OWENS: I Shazam every song that I don't know.

STEIN: I like to go on Wikipedia and click on random article, and then just go into a black hole of clicking on different articles and learning about things.

ENG: When Owens mentions it's also important to study geography, I threw out this question.

What was the old name of Istanbul?

OWENS: Constantinople, which is funny because They Might Be Giants is playing Geek Bowl, and that's one of their hit songs.


THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS: (Singing) Istanbul was Constantinople. Now it's Istanbul, not Constantinople.

ENG: So what would be a success for this team on Saturday?

OWENS: We'd love to be in the Top 100. We've seen "Jeopardy!" champs playing there. Colby Burnett was on a team of nothing but "Jeopardy!" champs, and they got second. So it's a fairly hard competition out there for this.

ENG: The Geek Bowl winner will take home a prize of $20,000, but Owens' teammate, Luke Jacobs, says these quiz nights offer a less obvious prize for groups of friends who get together to play.

LUKE JACOBS: I think one underrated thing is we're not allowed to look at our phones. And so you really have to just be present with people for two hours at a time without being distracted by a screen in your pocket. I think that's kind of a nice thing.

ENG: So two hours with friends where nobody's on their phone? That's no trivial benefit.

For NPR News in Chicago, I'm Monica Eng. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Monica reports and produces segments on food, health and ethnic culture in Chicago and beyond.
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