August 30, 2002

Mind Games
By: Thomas Nord, The Louisville Courier-Journal

On most nights, the scene at T.G.I. Friday's is what you would expect from a suburban chain restaurant: a scattering of business travelers, cubicle dwellers and soccer families eating and running.

But on Tuesdays around 8:30 p.m., the wood-and-brass bar area becomes an arena where pitched battles are won and lost. On several televisions arrayed about the bar, a question appears:

Which fish actually exists?

1. Brainfish
2. Kidneyfish
3. Liverfish
4. Lungfish
5. Thumbfish

If any of these creatures exist, it's news to most of us. This crowd, however, knows its fish.

"Four!" several people shout out. Dutifully, everyone -- there are about 30 of them in all -- punches in the number on the blue plastic keyboards in front of them.

"Lungfish" turns out to be the right answer, and there is much rejoicing. It means more points for the team and another step forward in this most trivial of pursuits.

It's the weekly gathering of the Tuesday night trivia club, a hodgepodge group -- young and old, black and white, male and female, foreign and domestic -- drawn together to play interactive trivia against similar gangs all over the United States and Canada.

Jim Leist, a member in good standing, runs through some of the roster.

"Holmes there is our resident geographer. Cloudy, sitting next to him, is military; he was a captain in the Marines," says Leist, a 53-year-old computer consultant from New Albany, Ind. "Scott, the next guy at the bar, is history, geography. He spent a lot of time in South America, so anything about South America, he knows it. Fish Man, next to him, we expect him to answer all the fish questions, aquatic life. Vishnu is English literature, writers, along that line. Doctor Megahertz is science, with a little bit of everything thrown in."

Imagine that you've spent your life knowing stuff most people don't. And not particularly useful stuff, either, like how to build a suspension bridge or hem a pair of slacks.

Instead, you know that the state tree of Wisconsin is the sugar maple. You know that it takes Pluto 248-1/2 years to orbit the sun. You know that the Kathiawar Peninsula is in India. You know that Winona Ryder's real last name is Horowitz.

It used to be cool, but the novelty has worn off and now it's just kind of a drag. In fact, some of your friends think it's annoying.

(Yeah, we know. "Kind of a Drag" was a No. 1 hit for The Buckinghams in 1966. This is exactly what we're talking about.)

For the true believers, church meets every Tuesday night at the T.G.I. Friday's in Plainview. Thanks to satellite technology, triviaheads have found a place where it's not just useful to know the difference between stratus and cirrus clouds, it's expected.

Leist and the Tuesday night crew are addicted to "Showdown," a weekly interactive trivia game produced by NTN Network, a Carlsbad, Calif., company that beams 15 hours of trivia each day via satellite to 3,600 bars and restaurants in North America.

For 90 minutes, the group at Friday's throws out its best answers in the hopes of scoring well enough to land in the weekly top 20 and, eventually, to earn a spot in the big tournament at the end of the season.

It is trivia as team sport; as soon as someone thinks they have the answer to one of these multiple-choice questions, they are obligated to shout it out -- the faster, the better. A correct answer that is initially worth 1,000 points is reduced to 0 as time runs down.

The only nebula visible to the naked eye is the . . . Nebula.

1. Hermes
2. Orion
3. Cassandra
4. Polaris
5. Rigel

There's some confused murmuring, but Leist is insistent. "Orion!" he blurts. "Orion!" He is, after all, one of the group's astronomy experts. Everyone seems hesitant, then punches it in. Leist grins because he knows he is right. When "Orion" proves to be the answer, there is a smattering of applause and the Tie of Knowledge -- a Godawful cravat circa 1968 -- is sent his way.

The Tie of Knowledge is your reward for pulling out a particularly wicked answer. Leist immediately dons it the proper way, like a headband, hippie-style.

"I like the challenge," he says. "It keeps the mind working. If you don't exercise that muscle, it goes to waste."

"Showdown" is considered the most difficult of NTN's nightly "premium" games, with the better teams matched against one another.

The Friday's club has worked its way to an 18th-place ranking in the Gold League, a 100-team division that is just below the elite 50-team Premier League. (After that, there's the 150-team Silver League, the 200-team Bronze League and the Open League, which is for everybody else.)

There isn't much at stake here. The winning team at the end of each three-month season gets a bunch of NTN shirts or jackets. The second-place team doesn't get anything. No one seems to care.

"I do it because it keeps you focused," says Alison Crook-Franklin, a 42-year-old customer-service manager. "It's been known to keep away Alzheimer's."

She's kidding. Or maybe not. If that's true, it's precisely the kind of thing they would know here. Crook-Franklin used to play NTN trivia at another Louisville bar until she met Keith "Cloudy" MacLeod, a Louisville stockbroker who more or less runs the team.

He loves trivia, and he isn't shy about asking someone he meets in another bar to come over to Friday's. Nor does he really care whether you are a trivia master or a complete novice. MacLeod is a constant cheerleader; even if you contribute only one answer that night, he makes sure to send the Tie of Knowledge your way.

"I like the diversity of the group," says 56-year-old MacLeod. "Some of my best friends, I've gotten out of this group. Some of the people have had problems, and we've backed them up. It's almost like a family."

A family that spends money. Club members estimate that they buy more than $500 in food and drink while playing. "I certainly wouldn't come out here if it weren't for this," says Scott Moir, a 48-year-old marketing manager from La Grange, Ky. "I'm not a big bar person."

Getting people to come in and stay for a while is the ulterior motive behind this madness.

Bars and restaurants pay $600 per month for the satellite feed and the wireless "Playmaker" keypads that participants use to transmit their answers. NTN sells this service armed with research showing that NTN players tend to spend more and stay longer. A 2000 study by an independent marketing firm found that the median NTN player spends $35.50 each visit, almost 50 percent more than a nonplayer.

While there are big games every night, "Showdown" was created with Tuesday night specifically in mind, explains Mark deGorter, president and chief operating officer of NTN Network.

"We wanted to create traffic on what is traditionally a slow night for restaurants and bars," he says. "We have found that players not only stay longer and spend more, but they encourage their friends to come and play too."

Unlike coin-operated games, a fixture in bars and restaurants for decades, NTN trivia costs nothing to play. On the other hand, it literally roots you to your table or barstool, where the server can keep your glass full and more easily tempt you with an appetizer or an entree.

NTN has its roots in "QB1," an interactive football game conceived in 1967 by a pair of executives with the NFL's Houston Oilers. Using keypads connected to their TVs, fans at home would score points by guessing which play -- for example, pass or run -- was coming next in a real, live game they were watching.

The idea didn't really get off the ground until the early 1980s, when the two football executives formed NTN Communications and focused their efforts on bars and restaurants.

"QB1" was a hit when it was introduced during the 1984 Super Bowl and is still popular today. But football is primarily played for a few hours on the weekend, prompting NTN to look for interactive games that could air during the rest of the week.

In 1988, the first trivia game was created. It has since been joined by a whole spectrum of question-and-answer games that begin at 11 a.m. each day and run until 2 a.m. the next morning.

To fuel this machine, NTN maintains a database of approximately 190,000 trivia questions, written by free-lance researchers who are paid $3 to $5 per query.

DeGorter says NTN, with 3,600 locations in North America (including 12 in metro Louisville), has barely scratched the potential market. There are about 343,000 bars and restaurants in the United States, meaning NTN is in just over 1 percent of them. The company is exploring the home market, as well as any place there is a captive audience, from hospitals to cruise ships to instant oil-change places.

And it all comes down to something very trivial.

"People like to demonstrate that there is some application for all this useless knowledge in their heads," deGorter says. "It certainly rewards people who have it all upstairs."

But what happens at places like Friday's, where entire crowds get together and take over the room, was an unexpected phenomenon.

"It's a wild dynamic," deGorter says. "It's very hard to explain. We've heard of bars where they will actually bring in computers loaded with reference materials."

MacLeod scoffs at such a notion. He believes there is enough brainpower in the club to handle just about anything. Several members have advanced degrees, and others have traveled around the world.

Sometimes, they just get lucky.

"The first time I came, I screamed out this answer that happened to be right," says Annie Ray, a 21-year-old Bellarmine University student. "It was about moths, and I want to be an entomologist, so it just happened to be pertinent to what I want to do with my life. But everybody thought I was so incredibly brilliant."

Ray, her boyfriend Brad Compton, 21, and their friend 21-year-old Todd Kuvin are the youngest members of the Tuesday trivia club. They got hooked when they wandered into Friday's to kill some time.

"We just showed up here one day," Compton says. "We were just hanging out and playing when this game came on. They told us to come sit with them."

It wasn't an invitation so much as a command.

"We didn't really have a choice," Compton says. "They take the box away from you if you don't play with them. We got a couple right, so they told us to come back."

And they meant it.

"The best thing is that old people think we're smart," Compton says. "We missed a couple weeks ago, and we got yelled at. But that's OK. It's Tuesday night -- what else are you going to do?"

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