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The Best Little Trivia Team in Texas

Pub trivia has swept the nation, but Austin may be its most competitive U.S. scene—especially with a collective of former ’Jeopardy’ champs seeking all challengers at the top.

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Illustration by Anna Donlan

George Draper _______ founded these department stores, which later birthed Target.

“Did you look up the department store?” asks Neal Pollack.

“Yeah,” replies Amanda Traphagan. “It was Dayton’s.”

“It’s a Midwest thing,” Lani Gonzalez says. “They had ‘em in South Dakota!”

The six people sitting around a wooden table collectively shake their heads. If competition heading into this final round stayed close, that could be the difference. Despite the tension, conversation went elsewhere for a few moments (Did the Cardinals only win a single World Series since 2000, or should we have put the Yankees? We have this bonus drink ticket, anyone want it?) Then, the emcee began reading the results.

“And in second place, earning a $20 gift card, A Body Pillow Made of Cats…”

A $30 gift card to the surprisingly well-tapped Billy’s On Burnet, a three-point victory over the nearest competition, a wire-to-wire lead maintained. Post-Trebek Stress Disorder—a loosely organized bunch of former Jeopardy contestants and champions quietly lurking in Austin’s pub trivia scene—had done it again. But though they had comfortably bested the competition that night at Billy’s, the team would have to wait until later in the week to know if they succeeded in their ultimate goal, which extended beyond this humble dive bar.

Why not go for six?

Closest to the actual number wins: How many years after the first acknowledged vampire novels did Stephenie Meyer write and publish the Twilight saga?

Beer bars and trivia were made for each other. The pursuit of unique hop blends and unusual fermentations can foster an almost academic obsession. Add a game of knowledge alongside the taps, and it creates a perfect environment for a specific type of nerd that thrives in a craft-beer obsessed town like Austin—where, as the last official Austin Beer Guide notes, there are at least 33 local brewers and 120 places to enjoy them. Multiple quizzes can be found nightly between Saturday and Thursday, and at least 45 weekly events take place in total. So in January, just a few months after moving to town, I gathered a group of friends and headed for the 80 taps at the Draught House, one of the oldest mainstays of the city’s beer bar scene. Of course it hosts a trivia night on Sundays.

For our first attempt, things seemed to be going well. Toward the end of the night we stood in a tie for second at 79 points (out of a possible 96, a relatively low figure I’d later learn). And so I stepped up to the host’s table representing Jaguar Gentleman’s Club—named for an embarrassing tee once worn by a teammates’ grandfather—for the tie-breaker.

“No pressure,” the host quipped. “But you’re about to go head-to-head with a Jeopardy champ.” Across from me was Neal Pollack.

My estimate of vampire novels’ beginnings appears quite flawed on second thought (I was nearly 100 years off; Polidori’s The Vampyre dates back to 1819), and Pollack beat me for second. But as I went back to our picnic table to deliver the news to my teammates, he followed to shake my hand. Well played, he told us, and that host isn’t lying. I went home and immediately looked him up.

Pollack appeared on Jeopardy in 2013 and won three games (“I wasn’t one of the best, but that puts me in the top 500,” he allows), but his resume extends far beyond the show. The Austin-based writer has several books to his name. He once recorded an album—complete with a Hold Steady-ish post-punk single namechecking David Bowie and Donald Rumsfeld—and played it at South by Southwest to promote a book. His writing overall has jumped between diverse topics such yoga and historical noir about Jewish ballers taking down Nazis set against the backdrop of 1930s American basketball. “I decided to try and come up with a plot where I could weave basketball and fascism together and I came up with a Jews versus Nazis melodrama,” Pollack told SB Nation back when Jewball debuted in 2011.

But after his Jeopardy run ended, Pollack quite literally found himself dealing with Post-Trebek Stress Disorder. “I kept watching Jeopardy and, even though I won, I still lost in the end and I’d have flashbacks,” he says. “But I’d still watch every day because I wanted to keep my brain sharp.”

The beginnings of PTSD, the trivia team, are a testament to Pollack’s time on Jeopardy and his dedication to the show post-defeat. Around the same time he appeared in front of a live studio audience in Culver City, California, Pollack noticed another player who hailed from Austin, a guy named Jared Hall. Hall eventually won six games and competed in the Tournament of Champions, and, according to Pollack, is “one of the best players in Jeopardy history.” So when the two both completed their runs, Pollack had an idea. He already played pub trivia in Austin with a former Jeopardy champion, a guy named Jay Robison. Maybe Hall would be interested too.

“Suddenly we had a team where three of the six players were Jeopardy champs,” Pollack recalls. “I thought, ‘why not go for six out of six?’”

Pollack began to notice a lot of other Austinites competing as he continued to watch Jeopardy. “There’s a lot of talent here, so I thought we could clean up at pub night,” he says. For instance, Cindy Stowell, perhaps the most famous Jeopardy contestant since Ken Jennings, was introduced on the show as “a science content developer from Austin.” Stowell famously won six matches in 2016, which were taped as she battled Stage 4 colon cancer. She passed away one week before her episodes aired. “She’s one of the greatest,” Pollack says, which feels like no small compliment coming from a guy who rattles off Jeopardy winners like others may recite point guards or quarterbacks. “I would’ve loved to meet her.”

Unlike Pollack, many former Jeopardy contestants stay away from the show after the fact. For female players, the brief time in the spotlight can often bring out unwanted online attention, and anyone can have their own degrees of regret and second-guessing that make continuing to watch unpleasant. But given that most people tend to have some kind of online profile these days, Pollack initially pursued his Jeopardy-team dreams by starting a PTSD Facebook group and using that to reach and organize fellow trivia whizzes around town. Although the other two original Jeopardy ex-pats on PTSD (Hall and Robison) have since moved away, Pollack had no trouble fielding an entire former contestant squad spanning ages, gender, race, and (most importantly) expertise for that recent Wednesday night competition at Billy’s.

Pollack met Traphagan, who won in 2005, through John Erler (a “movie mocker from Austin” who won an episode in 2012). Carlos Ross won three times shortly after Pollack and was discovered through Facebook. The same goes for Gonzalez. Rounding out the squad were Mike Ewing, an attorney who played in 2009, and Kirstin Cutts. Cutts won four games this year and keeps a low-profile online after her run—but Pollack recognized her during a trivia night at the popular theater chain Alamo Drafthouse. When it comes to finding Jeopardy people in town, Pollack doesn’t hide his dedication. “I’m determined like Yul Brynner in the Magnificent Seven,” he explains.

Today, the PTSD group includes a rotating ensemble of at least 15, nearly enough for three full trivia teams on its own. And that’s despite the fact that some local Jeopardy vets maintain their own teams (like That’s What She Said with Cecily Squier and Kate Reed Hauenstein), or that others have yet to accept an invitation. “There are people I’ve been trying to get to show up for years but haven’t yet,” Pollack says. “Doug Dorst is a novelist who lives in Austin and won three games in 2006. He was on the Tournament of Champions. He swears he’s going to come one of these days.”

The only game in town

Which Sex and the City character sold art for her day job?

If a team full of ex-Jeopardy trivia lovers feels unfair in the realm of pub trivia, you haven’t been paying attention to the scene recently. In Austin, like many cities, one particular brand dominates all others in town: Geeks Who Drink.

Founded just over a decade ago near Denver, the trivia startup has taken the country’s quiz nights by storm. In early 2007, Geeks Who Drink had fourteen competitions around its birth metro area, according to local paper accounts. At the beginning of September, the trivia outfit had 775 weekly events in 45 states, and Geeks Who Drinks expects that number to top 800 by the end of the year. August 2017 alone had over 39,000 teams participating in events around the country (with two to six players per team, depending on how rosy you want the math to be, that could be anywhere between 80,000 to 150,000 players). Austin venues hosting Geeks Who Drink have been known to reach upwards of 40 teams (or possibly 240 players) in a single evening.

So for starters, there’s a lot of competition for squads like PTSD, and in Austin the teams are strong. Geeks Who Drink sticks with a standard format—eight rounds, 96 total points, no more than six players per team, questions delivered from centralized quizmasters—so scoring can be tracked across the country.

“We create six full quizzes per week, one for every day of the week except for Friday since we don’t actually run quizzes that night—that’s around 22,000 questions a year,” says Jonpaul Guinn, Geeks Who Drink’s regional manager for Texas. “So on any given day if you go into a place doing Geeks Who Drink in Omaha, or Boston, or Anchorage, Alaska, or Austin, you’re playing the same quiz.”

In Geeks’ weekly breakdown of its nationwide competition, Austin appears to be a mainstay in the list of highest scores, its average score approaching 90. Guinn concurs it’s one of Geeks’ top regions in the U.S., right alongside some of the quiz’s earliest homes in Denver and Albuquerque. (Guinn notes that such experience counts: “If you play the New York Times crossword puzzle enough, you start to learn patterns and tricks—Geeks is the same way.”) You have to go back to the beginning of August to find the last time Austin wasn’t number one overall, and that week it finished second to Dallas-Forth Worth.

For a more PTSD-metric of Austin’s prowess, look to J-Archive, an unofficial but comprehensive archive of Jeopardy clues and results. The database shows 117 total competitors from Austin. That may sound small compared to massive epicenters like Los Angeles (495 and a location near tapings) or New York City (288), but convert those figures to per capita totals: .034 of every 1,000 New Yorkers make it, .127 of every 1,000 Angelinos, and .132 of every 1,000 Austinites. There’s a reason Geeks Who Drink once chose Austin to host four consecutive Geek Bowls, the organization’s Super Bowl of pub trivia.

“I used to play in Orlando. I was working at Walt Disney World, and this was before I was on Jeopardy,” Ross says between rounds. “I’d be off my shift waiting for my wife bored out of my mind, so I’d just go to a bar to play, I don’t even drink. There were times I’d win by myself.” Not here, as members of PTSD quickly note. Factors like the growing startup scene, large transient population, and proximity to a massive university make for increasingly stiff competition.

And the same knowledge that makes for a successful Jeopardy contestant doesn’t necessarily translate over into the Geeks Who Drink world. The long-running quiz program famously captures headlines when Alex Trebek recites a Drake lyric, relying on topics like history, literature, and geography more than modern pop culture. Geeks Who Drink flips that script slightly. Out of its eight rounds, you can expect at least one visual round (at Billy’s, this centered on first-person shooter video games like Halo or Goldeneye), an audio round of mostly pop music across decades, and typically another round focused on film and TV. Although the traditional final round (“general knowledge”) hews close to Jeopardy, others can run the gamut of fun themes: tubas or presidents, U.S. capitals through Cockney rhyme clues, and “round things” were all categories when I embedded with PTSD for a night.

Guinn sees some overlap—he would know, he competed on Jeopardy long before overseeing Geeks Who Drink in Texas—but he’s quick to acknowledge Geeks has a different crowd in mind. “We’re trying to appeal to everyday people who aren’t going to be on Jeopardy and want questions about Kelly Clarkson as much as questions about Archimedes,” he says. “A lot of skills you have for Jeopardy apply to Geeks. A lot of those players are really coming out of quiz bowl backgrounds or academic decathlons, places where they kind of start doing things like memorizing lists at an early age. That definitely helps, but other things that will help with Geeks include a subscription to Entertainment Weekly. Seriously, I’ve told people that and they laugh, but I’m a guy who writes it.”

Geeks Who Drink’s quizzes can also be a bit more intricate and personality-driven than Jeopardy categories. Guinn used to write 60 to 75 rounds (each at least eight questions) per month, but with his managerial responsibilities now does 15 to 20. “I get stuff from all kind of sources and it grows and changes over the years,” he says. “And every new writer brings a new perspective, our biggest thing is to keep it fun and current.”

As just one example of the playfulness of Geeks, Guinn points to interplay between questions in a given round or category. Jeopardy crafts questions that someone can answer in 15 seconds, but Geeks can have entire rounds where the answer to one question may send contestants back to reconsider earlier responses (say, a category where all the responses are from an established set, like U.S. presidents or capitals). “If there are some hoops a person has to jump through [for an answer], Jeopardy can’t really do it,” Guinn says. “We can—we ask people to take longer for some intersecting answers since questions are being answered as a whole round instead of a single question.”

The Post-Trebek Stress Disorder team: Mike Ewing, Amanda Traphagan, Lani Gonzalez, Carlos Ross, Kirstin Cutts, and Neal Pollack

Courtesy of Carlos O'Leary

Ask the PTSD crew, and there’s some debate as to whether Jeopardy knowledge automatically translates to pub success. “To me, Jeopardy feels more general knowledge and pub trivia feels more specific,” Traphagan says. “There is overlap, but the pub feels more specific.”

“True, but the head quizmaster for Geeks Who Drink is a former six-time champion, Christopher Short,” Pollack counters. “And the guy who runs the region we’re in is a former contestant [Guinn] . . . It’s not a complete overlap, but for a lot of people, this can be a training ground for Jeopardy.”

Pollack points to Stowell, who was apparently a successful Austin trivia competitor before her famous run, as evidence. So maybe it’s no surprise that his advice for making it to the big show remains the same today as it was back when I first asked that night at the Draught House: J-Archive, online quizzes—and pub trivia.

Where knowledge is still power

At Billy’s, PTSD bested the second place team by three. That’s at least two questions better, as teams can select one round throughout the night to count for double points. PTSD modestly admits their local success rate—defined as finishing in the prize money (top three) within a given Austin bar—comfortably hovers in the nintieth percentile. And though they took it easy over the summer, Pollack definitely has a Saturday-through-Thursday rotation of bars established through experience.

But this evening isn’t really about the other groups in the room. PTSD has been getting together regularly this fall because they’d like to test their abilities against the nation, and Geeks Who Drink has gladly obliged. The national Geek Bowl happens each spring, but that event requires travel and entry fees (Pollack once played with a group of non-Austin Jeopardy pals, finishing in the top 20). So for the past seven years, Geeks Who Drink has started a fall remote competition called the Rumble in the Pub.

One night each week starting in August, teams can register online and compete in a local trivia night that qualifies for the event. Only the top five scores nationwide make the weekly money ($100 per team). Play in at least four of those, and you might qualify for the Rumble finale on September 28, where you can earn $1,000 by being the best-of-the-best that night in your region. Mid-way through the competition, Geeks Who Drinks said it had issued just over 900 unique identifier codes to teams that played at some point during the event. Austin boasts the second most participants among that lot (“just barely” eclipsed by Dallas, according to Geeks Who Drink), but the city has had at least one team in the top five nationally—and frequently two or three—every single week of the event.

Pollack jokes that it’s all for tens of dollars of glory, but it’s easy to see what drives him, and the rest of the members of PTSD, to compete. We live in a world where knowledge and intelligence sometimes seem like things to be ashamed of; where jobs or leadership positions may be about who you are or who you know more than what you know, and people in power can brush off smarts in favor of sheer bravado and volume. Just look here in Texas: Representative Lamar Smith vilifies climate scientists and wants to mitigate evolution in education, yet he leads the House Science Committee. Rick Perry thinks people are too harsh on fossil fuels and once stated he’d prefer to eliminate the Department of Energy; he now oversees it.

But the humble quiz competition—whether the local pub trivia variety or in its more glamorous Jeopardy form—is one arena where knowledge is always celebrated.

“When it comes down to really winning, you could put together a super team or you can be friends who know each others’ strengths and weaknesses and become an actual team,” Pollack says. “So the goal is to be a champion again with everyone else who won and wants that chance again. Trivia is a sport, we’re dorky mental athletes, and I have this mad vision.”

During the first two weeks of Rumble in the Pub 2017, PTSD finished near the top ten of over 1,000 teams, but couldn’t crack the top five. That night at Billy’s, the team hits 94 (out of 106 this time due to an extra double-points round). And when scores roll out that Friday, September 1, they get their first taste of success—a total of 94 cracks the top five, though barely. That’s What She Said, that rival Austin-team of Jeopardy participants, hit 97—good for third.

After a handful of years adding teammates and getting to know each other, the members of PTSD recognize their weakness, though. They missed that department store question and debated a few other answers throughout the night (the team estimates that happens two or three times most games). But they’re most consistently nervous about music rounds (which, by the way, they scored 10 out of 16 on at Billy’s. I, self-proclaimed music fan who’s reviewed shows at SF Weekly and votes in the Village Voice Critics’ Poll, only got nine.)

“We’ve got you, me, and Bill [Tolany, who didn’t come this time]—all 40-something white guys with a similar mental makeup, similar knowledge base,” Pollack says to Ewing as the final scores are being read aloud. “We have to figure out the music if we want to win the Rumble.”

“I’m just waiting for that drone metal category,” Traphagan quips.

“Or obscure country punk from the 90s, that’d be my category,” Pollack adds.

The group starts to head home, separating again until next week’s showdown. But Pollack lingers a moment. He looks forward to competing head-to-head again on Sundays at the Draught House, and reiterates what he said before the night’s competition began. “I think I take it slightly more seriously than anyone else, but only slightly. We all want to win.”

Nathan Mattise (@NathanMattise) is an editor at Conde Nast’s Ars Technica, where he oversees feature reports and social media strategies. Based in Austin, he hopes to find more Sunday night trivia success now that Game of Thrones is over.

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