July 21, 2002|
DaveTV makes Toronto Star
By: Leatrice Spevack, Toronto Star reporter
Bar game no trivial pursuit
Dave Hallett plays NTN, the TV-based trivia quiz, up to 40 hours a week.
Obsessed? Maybe. A champ? For sure
SPECIAL TO THE STAR
TRIVIA: n. pl. matters or things that are very unimportant, inconsequential
or inessential (Random House Dictionary Of The English Language).
Maybe so. But for Toronto's Dave Hallett, being top dog of life's
trivialities is no mere trivial pursuit.
He has dedicated more than a decade to studying reference materials and
spends upwards of 40 hours a week in pubs playing NTN, the TV-based
interactive trivia game, with the goal of being Grand Pooh-Bah of NTN
screens across North America.
"Every night I play, either somebody I'm playing with, or me, or the bar, is
No. 1 in North America," he says.Hallett has been playing NTN for 13 years,
and his notoriety spans the continent.
Broadcast over bars' television sets, NTN poses a series of multiple-choice
questions with five possible answers, sometimes with a series of clues, and
with a limited time to choose correctly (see http://www.ntnc.com for
More than two million Canadians are mesmerized monthly as they sit glued to
TVs, fingers perched atop their electronic game boards - officially dubbed
"playmakers" - punching in answers to general-knowledge and specialized
trivia games with the hope that their scores (or the pub's, if folks are
playing in a team) will be broadcast across North American bars' TV screens.
Hey, it's a cheap thrill - so cheap that it costs nothing to play and, for
the most part, the only thing you stand to gain is bragging rights. Yet the
cost of playing constantly and playing inordinately well has taken its toll
on the 43-year-old Hallett, whose screen name is DAVETV.
Hallett is no ordinary master of minutiae. His prowess in this gaming
subculture has made him, depending on whom you talk to, revered or reviled.
"Everybody thinks I'm a monster, but I'm a nice guy," he insists, from a
booth at the Quail and Firkin where he has managed to score not one, but
five playmakers from the accommodating waitress. He is nice enough to hand
one to me, risking a lower bar score due to my limited trivia knowledge.
Much to his sincere delight, I offer the correct answer of Hedda Hopper when
the poser is: What gossip columnist was famous for her hats? (He was leaning
toward Louella Parsons.)
"There are two different ranking systems," he explains. "There's the
individual score, and there's the bar score (arrived at by the average of
the top five players in the bar, which is why he is a board hog). I like to
compete at both levels. And also as a Canadian, I really, really, really,
really want to have a Canadian bar No. 1 over the American bars. I don't
like Americans very much."
American know-how is responsible for NTN. Created in La Jolla, Calif. by Don
Klosterman and Dan Downs in 1985, NTN came to Canada a year later. It now
serves up trivia to 500 bars across the country.
What is a cheap thrill for players isn't so cheap for pubs to offer. Still,
at the cost of $996 monthly, which includes 10 playmakers, NTN can help them
turn a profit if players are inspired to participate on a regular basis,
thereby pushing up their bar tab. And many are - some compulsively,
obsessively and, as in the case of Hallett, to their detriment.
There's no love lost between Hallett and NTN's Steve Breitner,
vice-president of hospitality sales for Canada. "He's not a good word around
here," Breitner says. "I've seen him, but I have no desire to speak to him.
I do know that some bar owners like him because he gets them up on the
(score) board, and I know a lot of bar owners don't like him because he'll
bump the regulars out all the time. We've created a lot of players; I guess
we created one too many."
While an occasional game of NTN might be a way for the average Joe or Jill
to pass pub time, for Hallett it is a passion - one that has proved beyond
peculiar. His peccadilloes - such as playing six boards at a time (in case
one board is slow), shouting out the answers and using his playmakers to
choose optional games that he (and, he attests, the rest of the bar) would
prefer to play - have got him barred from more than one local watering hole.
But Hallett's biggest quarrel has been with NTN's California head office.
"About 10 years ago I won a whole bunch of prizes," he says. "They sent me
three registered letters from NTN in California saying we'd love to send you
these prizes, only we don't know your address. They sent me letters saying
they didn't know my address!"
What really got Hallett's goat were "screw-ups" in the game itself -
language and spelling errors or the broadcast "freezing" and sometimes
failing to display a question.
"A lot of people at that time were pretty angry with the game too. I used to
phone (NTN) and be very nasty," he recalls. "You remember during the
Unabomber scare, years ago - I sort of intimated that, yeah, that I was
gonna, you know, they're pissing so many people off that something like that
could happen to them.
`As a Canadian,
I really, really, really, really
want to have
a Canadian bar
No. 1 over the American bars.'
"Some people thought it was funny. Other people looked at me like I better
not follow them home."
Hallett found it less funny when he got a warning from the RCMP not to call
NTN any more.
"I regret doing it," he says, adding, "Although I'm sure I gave them a few
sleepless nights at NTN, I had no intention of doing them any harm."
The real harm, though, seems to be assaults on competing egos. "I've run
into a lot more negative reaction than positive. A lot of people who are the
lead player in a certain bar take it really personally - (as if) I've come
to challenge them and laid down the gauntlet. It's not like that at all," he
"Nobody knows everything. Quite often I invite the other people who are
playing, not in an arrogant way, but in a fun way, to say, hey, let's beat
them. I like the idea of being in a bar together. I think that's what NTN
had in mind."
Toward that end, when the Firkin Group of Pubs went nose-to-knows in a
series of trivia tournaments in which 35 Ontario Firkins competed against
one another, it was Hallett who helped win two trophies for Mississauga's
Rooster and Firkin.
Dana Kerbel, manager of the competing Quail and Firkin, a Rosedale pub often
frequented by Hallett, enthuses: "His name is synonymous with NTN and the
Firkins. DAVETV lives up to his name. He's one of the top players, and he's
welcome at the Quail any time."
Hallett's legendary talent once earned him a four-month trip through
California courtesy of a well-to-do fan (a Canadian expatriate from Thunder
Bay) and has spawned more than a little Internet discussion.
A Toronto resident since moving here from Ottawa in 1982, Hallett says he
lives a "marginal existence."
"I'm lucky enough to have an inheritance that I'm spending slowly, and it's
not great. I'm not a snappy dresser. I barely drink at all, but you gotta
buy something to pay the rent to play this game. If I could find a way of
playing this in a library, I'd do it and never set foot in a bar again."
Off-screen, he metes out his hours ensuring his roommate's cat is getting
its insulin shots. He demurs about romance. "When I first started playing, I
thought maybe I'll meet Miss Right, (but) women hardly play this game. It's
90 per cent men. It may be the constant time in the bar, the confrontational
aspect of it, but it's mostly men."
Surprisingly self-effacing about his prowess, he says, "I was really good at
Trivial Pursuit - nobody would play Trivial Pursuit with me because I'd win
all the time - except when I play my sister."
With such an abundance of acumen, one can't help but ask why he hasn't
turned his talent to Jeopardy or Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. "I would
love that," he says. "Apparently, they've come to Toronto a few times, but
my friends always let me know about these things a week too late."
Nor has he hustled games. "I run into enough hostility for free," he says.
Is it just testosterone-driven bravado that has, in many cases, cast this
Canadian trivia champ as a pub pariah, or is it merely our WASP-ish reserve
that inhibits us from lauding our own?
"I almost never get a pat on the back. I'm trying to promote Canada by
playing this game. People talk about Terry Fox, and they say, `Oh, he never
made it all the way across Canada,' or they talk about Wayne Gretzky: `Oh,
he scored a whole bunch of goals, but he never could have done it without
Marty McSorley' - that's the Canadian way. I'm so ashamed of that as a
Canadian. I wish we could celebrate our heroes."
With eyes focused to the screen, already having earned the Quail and Firkin
a No. 1 North American bar score ranking for that particular game, but only
a No. 2 individual score for himself (which he takes with a pleasantly
philosophical grain of salt), he reflects somewhat sadly, "A misanthrope is
what I am."
Or maybe just misunderstood.