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Culture » Arts & Entertainment

Pub Quizzes

Combining beer and brainteasers, quiz nights take Salt Lake City by storm.


For 15 seconds, a snippet of a song plays—a grind of guitars, a maybe-familiar vocalist. Heads bow together, each team member hoping one of the others has got it pegged. It’s a challenge, under the most ideal circumstances. Throw a beer or six into the mix and it’s even more of a test—and even more fun.

Six months ago, you wouldn’t have been able to find a scene like this anywhere in the Salt Lake valley. Yet since the early spring, pub trivia nights have been popping up faster than you can name both of Harry Potter’s parents. At The Republican, bartender Josh Stasinos launched a Monday quiz night in April; just a week later, Colorado-based Geeks Who Drink held its first event at Piper Down, subsequently expanding to A Bar Named Sue and The Huddle in Cottonwood Heights. And Republican trivia-night regulars Shannon Barnson and Bryan Young initiated their own Thursday-night quiz at Burt’s Tiki Lounge on June 17.

While formats vary slightly at individual venues, the fundamentals are similar. Teams of competitors play themed rounds, answering questions from a quizmaster on everything from biology to movie quotes, occasionally with audio or visual accompaniment. Smart-phone or other electronic assistance is strictly prohibited. And at the end of approximately two hours of head-scratching and memory-rummaging, winning teams receive prizes.

The popularity and rapid proliferation of local pub quizzes is no surprise to those who saw their success in other cities, and saw an opportunity here to fill seats on traditionally slow nights at bars. “I’d been to [trivia nights] elsewhere,” recalls The Republican’s Stasinos, “and I’ve been talking about doing one here for about a year. … It was either going to work really well, or go down in flames.”

With a degree in journalism informing his research skills, Stasinos then set about putting together an entire quiz on his own. He gathers feedback from players on a week-to-week basis to help tweak his choices of categories, but sometimes it’s just obvious when he’s hit a sweet spot. One week, an audio category involving TV theme songs included a piece of the gospel-tinged theme from The Jeffersons, inspiring a lively hand-clap-along. “I haven’t seen or felt energy like that in a bar in years,” Stasinos says.

Where Stasinos is practically a one-man operation at The Republican—ably assisted by question reader Linda Wight—Geeks Who Drink has a system that involves contributors in dozens of cities. Founder John Dicker—a one-time City Weekly book-review contributor—started the enterprise in Colorado after reading about the culture of pub quizzes in a Roddy Doyle play, then playing a quiz in New York City in 2000. “I guest-hosted once, then realized I liked putting together the questions more than I liked playing,” Dicker says.

He has plenty of help putting those questions together, with around 25 writers submitting rounds of questions that are fact-checked before heading to the bars. Dicker’s ideal for questions, he says, is “taking the familiar, and making it strange,” which might include providing the name of a song and the artist, and asking teams to come up with the very first word of the song. “I could give you a list of cliché quiz topics that writers are never allowed to touch,” Dicker says. “If I told you how many times people submitted, ‘What’s the first rule of Fight Club?’ …”

The vibe at the various venues can be quite distinct. The Republican’s quiz nights have featured between seven and 10 teams, and—because promotion has been almost entirely word-of-mouth, and because the prizes come from local businesses’ donations—feels intimate and boisterous. By contrast, Geeks Who Drink’s Piper Down night has included more than 20 teams spread over a much larger space vying for cash prizes, for a feel that’s more regimented and professional.

There are common threads, though. Most venues tend to develop a team that wins consistently from week to week, becoming a target of friendly ire from other teams (or even the quizmaster). The ritual reading of the answers becomes an opportunity for celebratory whoops and groans of dismay. But mostly, it’s an intellectual party for the participants—a chance to revel in pieces of knowledge dredged up from who-knows-where, in the company of friends and rapidly emptying beer glasses.

That collective, competitive fun is part of the reason Young and Barnson decided to start their own weekly event at Burt’s, in addition to the desire to create a quiz that might appeal to self-proclaimed “geeks” like them by including comic-book or science-fiction categories. “I’m terrible at sports, and I don’t play video games,” says Young. “This is how I get my competition fix.”

As crowds grow at quiz nights across the valley, it looks like he’ll have plenty of company.

917 S. State
Mondays except fourth of the month, 9:30 p.m.

A Bar Named Sue, 3928 S. Highland
Mondays, 7:30 p.m.
The Huddle
, 2400 E. Fort Union Blvd.
Tuesdays, 8 p.m.
Piper Down, 1492 S. State
Wednesdays, 7:30 p.m.

Burt’s Tiki Lounge
726 S. State
Thursdays, 7 p.m.