July 17, 2002|
Lounge Wizards Find Intoxicating Pastime
By: Patricia Ward Biederman, LA Times Staff Writer
In televised trivia games, tavern and eatery patrons match wits with
On Wednesdays and Fridays, Kim Ludwig and her friends go to their
neighborhood bar, not to drink or even to flirt, but to show off
their formidable powers of recall. They go to play televised trivia
games. So committed are they to their sport that during the NBA
playoffs they begged the bartender to switch channels--even Shaq and
Kobe were no match for their favorite game on the bar TV.
Their pastime of choice is besting thousands of other players at as
many as 3,600 bars and restaurants in the United States and Canada by
answering such questions as:
"The Thar Desert is also known by this name: (1) Great Indian (2)
Death Valley (3) Empty Quarter (4) Great Sandy (5) Painted Desert."
(Correct answer: 1.) Ludwig and her friends are part of a community
that relies on NTN Network, a Carlsbad, Calif.-based company that
produces and transmits trivia programming. The network attracts 6
million players a year, 500,000 of them hard-core, according to 45-
year-old Mark deGorter, the network's president and chief operating
officer. And 30,000 to 40,000 new players tune in every month.
A real estate investor and former ostrich rancher who laughs
derisively when asked her age, Ludwig has been playing trivia at TGI
Friday's in Woodland Hills since May 1995. She was newly divorced,
she recalled, "and I decided I needed to get a life."
Televised trivia gave her a legitimate reason for sitting at a bar,
striking up conversations with strangers who also knew which of the
following utensils are not used by cooks: "(1) zester (2) vitrine (3)
skimmer (4) colander (5) trussing needle." (Correct answer: 2, a
glass showcase for art objects or curios)
When the Wednesday game begins at the stroke of 6, Ludwig and half a
dozen others are crammed together on one side of the square bar,
oblivious to the clamor and courtship going on around them. Their
eyes are fixed on the TV screen, their fingers hovering over the
buttons on their electronic answer boxes, or Playmakers, as NTN calls
The network transmits a different themed "premium game" each night of
the week, with specially tailored questions. Mondays feature sports
trivia; Saturdays, Spotlight, a show-biz trivia contest for the date-
night crowd. Games are broadcast live, and players compete in real
time against devotees from Maine to Florida, Vancouver to Southern
California. The highest individual scorers and top locations are
announced at the end of every game.
The network produces and sends 15 hours of trivia programming a day
and is the world's largest out-of-home interactive television
network, according to DeGorter.
So seductive is the pastime that players have been known to sneak out
of work early to play and have rescheduled their weddings rather than
miss a favorite game. DeGorter said that the FBI once subpoenaed play
records of a suspect whose alibi was that he was playing televised
"My best all-time score, I was ninth in the nation," Ludwig recalled.
She also remembers her most humiliating defeat, failing to choose
blueberry as the official muffin of her adopted home state of
"The game either brings out your spirit of camaraderie or it bring
out vicious competitiveness," said Ludwig, whose nom de trivia is
At Friday's, play is intense, but bonhomie is the dominant attitude.
Bar trivia is a subculture unto itself, in which players who avoid
alcoholic beverages to stay sharp are known as "tea sippers." Ludwig,
who often nurses a Scotch and water or Captain Morgan's rum and diet
Coke as she plays, can drink and win at the same time.
The handle Pegisu flashes on the TV screen, showing that lawyer and
mediator Peggy Sue McGinn has won the round at Friday's.
"When people win here, the others do the wave, they clap or they
say, 'Way to go,' " said Ludwig. But bad losers happen.
"I've seen people storm out," Ludwig said. "I've seen people throw
Players begin by punching their "handles" into their answer boxes.
When a question appears on the screen, players have 20 seconds to
choose an answer.
Speed counts. If you answer correctly in the first three seconds, you
get 1,000 points, fewer if you're slower.
In the view of bar-entertainment analyst Kevin Seddon, televised
trivia is appealing because "people like to answer questions. They
like the competition. It's social and interactive, and you're able to
do it in a bar, while having a drink, so it satisfies a whole range
of social needs."
NTN's operation is unusual in that it is played in a bar or
restaurant, unlike trivia games played on home computers, said
And unlike coin-operated trivia games, NTN broadcasts live and
doesn't charge players, said Seddon, whose Mississippi-based Oxford
Publishing produces Nightclub & Bar, Restaurant Marketing and
Beverage Retailer magazines.
The network justifies charging bars and restaurants $600 a month by
citing a 2000 study it commissioned from a Michigan marketing
research firm that found that players spend a median $35.50 per
visit, 47% more than nonplayers.
Seddon said that both televised trivia and coin-operated games can
boost a bar or restaurant's traffic. The regulars always show up, and
the presence of competition attracts newcomers.
"People will stand and watch," Seddon said. "They'll wait to play. It
really pulls them in, which is why the bars and restaurants love
To make its trivia package more attractive, NTN offers its longest,
toughest general-knowledge game Tuesday, "the night the bars and
restaurants need business most," DeGorter said.
On Tuesday it broadcasts Showdown, a grueling 1 1/2-hour contest, and
the team at National Sports Grille in West Covina owns Tuesday night,
NTN estimates that 55% to 65% of its players are male. The elite West
Covina squad--often the highest-ranked Showdown team in North America-
-has some 10 men and one woman. For the most part, these are people
who did way better than you on their SATs: Two Harvard-trained
attorneys, three "Jeopardy" winners, a young married couple who met
on the thinking fields of Caltech.
"We're one of West Covina's major tourist attractions," joked player
Richard Mason, a 30-year-old mechanical engineering student at
Caltech who has won Ben Stein's money.
The National Sports Grille players are what some in the trivia
community deride as a "borg team," one with an almost robotic drive
to win. Players use multiple-answer boxes, and they sometimes look
answers up on a laptop computer.
"We get a lot of grief because we use the computer," said West
Covina's Barry Anton, a retired attorney.
Other winning teams consult reference books, Anton pointed out. All
his team did was to discover a superior weapon that helps it win fair
and square: "Instead of the crossbow, we used the gun."
The West Covina team loves trivia but is sometimes piqued with NTN.
Players make bitter jokes about losing money on the stock of NTN
Communications, the network's parent company. The firm has lost money
for the last seven years, but its financial picture is improving,
DeGorter said. It recently launched a trivia cable channel in
Pennsylvania, and its bar trivia business made a profit for the last
Some longtime players also grouse about the lack of any reward but
the occasional cheap trophy and the network-wide announcement
of "Brain of the Day."
Maureen Pflum, director of marketing research, said that avid players
will play no matter what: "They're addicted." But the network
recently completed preliminary rounds of a game with a possible $1-
million payoff, and it has started giving top players certificates
for discounts on food and drink, she said.
Pflum rattles off player demographics--median age, 33; median income,
$70,000. But what she really enjoys is plumbing the "psychographics"
of game loyalists, looking at why they play, their play patterns and
how televised trivia fits into their lifestyle.
A regular player of Showdown, Pflum collects examples of the player
community's distinctive language, lore and rituals. Players who don't
share answers are called "sandbaggers." Some players regard as an
article of faith "the rule of three"--if you're not sure of the
correct answer, press 3 and you'll probably be right. Top scorers
often seek each other out when they visit new cities.
And televised trivia may even have its own urban legend, Pflum said,
the tale of an Ohio buff who died suddenly and whose friends solemnly
placed five Playmakers in his casket.