Three years before launching the trivia mega-competition known as Geek Bowl, John Dicker was a thirtysomething journalist who was new in town – that town being Denver, Colorado. After participating in a few pub quizzes there just for fun, he realized he could do them a lot better.
Dicker started a quiz at Nallen’s Irish Pub in downtown Denver, but it was slow to catch on because the place had more of a sportsbar clientele and became a bar-hopping stop on weekends. People who worked downtown wanted to go home on weeknights and stay there.
Business picked up, Dicker says now, because he and his friends livened dry competitions with fun questions that had a different point of view. He did not exactly intend to go into running pub quizzes as a living, but, 15 years later, he heads up a pub quiz empire.
“The reason I wanted to make a career out of it is that it really hadn’t been done before,” he tells the Guardian. “We’re like this entertainment-industry bottom feeder, and as such we have a ton of creative freedom to really define what the American pub quiz actually is.”
Geek Bowl XIV is to be held on 7 March at the Aon Grand Ballroom at the Navy Pier in Chicago. They Might Be Giants, an alternative rock band, will play. Some 233 six-player teams have paid $270 to $750 to participate. There is a winner’s purse of $20,000, say nothing of an actual Geek Bowl.
Geek Bowl XIII in Las Vegas drew 246 teams, an event record, but Dicker said it took six weeks to sell out. Geek Bowl XIV sold out in three days. There were only 38 teams for Geek Bowl I. Any team can enter – no qualifying – and individuals are arranged into six-player teams.
Of course, some people are better at trivia quizzes than others, although Dicker hardly considers himself to be one of them. His company, Geeks Who Drink, has 42 full-time employees that help run more than 900 weekly pub quizzes in 47 states and Canada. Six staffers exclusively write quiz questions.
Pub quizzes migrated to North America from Ireland and the United Kingdom, and they owe some of their popularity here – but not all of it – to such popular television game shows in the last 20 years as Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and Jeopardy!
“It’s competitive, and it’s social,” says the 46-year-old Dicker. “Despite `social media,’ I think people are craving a reason to get off their phones for a while and talk to each other. We require phones to be down while questions are being asked and I think that’s welcome, though no one tells us that explicitly.
“I also think the popularity has a lot to do with the rise of craft beer and the smoking ban. Neither of these things are new, but they’ve allowed a different clientele to feel comfortable in bars and to spend money without feeling pressure to get completely shitfaced.”
The participants of the weekly quizzes, and Geek Bowl, have a wide age range, though the sweet spot demographically seems to be late 20s to early 30s. Dicker says, “Professions vary: teachers, grad students, techies, unemployed failsons, overeducated underemployed service/gig economy workers, you name it.”
Meet three Geek Bowl All-Stars, as Dicker calls them:
JEREMY CAHNMANN, 45, Chicago, runs a small independent trivia company, Geek Bowl X and XIII champion: “I used to play competitive Scrabble, and a guy I knew from the Scrabble community was also heavily involved in the quizzing community. He told me about a trivia event in Las Vegas called TCONA [Trivia Championships of North America] which was organized by a man named Paul Bailey. That has now become Trivia Nationals. Anyway, I attended that in 2011 and met a ton of other trivia people and found out about Geek Bowl. I didn’t make it in 2012 but I did get down there in 2013 and loved the event. I like learning things, I like reinforcing what I have learned, I like competition, I like the social aspect of it, and I am good at it.”
SARA LEHMANN, 43, Albuquerque, server, Geek Bowl III and VII champion and former Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? contestant: “I have always loved trivia. I watched Jeopardy! regularly as a child, played Trivial Pursuit, until my friends wouldn’t play with me anymore because they couldn’t beat me. I suppose it appeals to me since it gives me an opportunity to actually use all the useless knowledge I pick up through my reading and Wikipedia surfing. And as Geek Bowl has been getting bigger, and my involvement in the wider trivia community grows as well, I feel like less of a geek! I’m still a giant dork, but I have found my people! I think the increase in popularity has a lot to do with accessibility, too. Before Geeks Who Drink came to town, there was one crappy bar trivia night in Albuquerque that I never went to. I heard bad things, y’know? But Geeks who Drink ran a professional show, with a good variety of topics, good quality control, and a fun, easy-to-understand format.”
JEROME VERED, 61, Los Angeles, writer, four-time Geek Bowl participant who set a single-day record in Jeopardy! in 1992: “I find them fun and fulfilling. Where I play, we form new teams every week, and it’s fun to take down someone who’s so good and informed, and for us to win. I think that it’s a fun competition. The competition is stiff during the game and then dissipates immediately. I’m very happy to contribute. And I love when my instituted rule of `one for the night’ is followed. On your team, everyone gets one chance to declare a question his or hers for the night. And that person answers overrides the whole team if need be for the question. If the person is right, they get another -- after all they can override all the way to the end if they’re right. If not, then they don’t get another till the next game.”
But are these people actually geeks? Dicker, Cahnmann, Lehmann and Vered can agree that it all depends how you define the word … and how harsh you want it to sound. Says Dicker: “Whether they consider themselves geeks is irrelevant. What a geek means really depends on who you ask, but we try and take a broad definition.”
Lehmann, the self-described “giant dork” who also now feels like “less of a geek,” has noticed something very interesting happening when she says she has “dragged” non-regulars with her to pub quizzes, though.
“Many of them end up hooked!” she says. “One of them is even a quizmaster now! I’ve also made lots of friends over the years. One of my besties likes to joke that she’s usually only good for one answer a night – and if we had listened to her at Geek Bowl VIII, we’d have won money. But she’s still always willing to come out, because it’s fun. And the possibility of free dinner doesn’t hurt!”