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Secret Stuff: Trivia on Trivia

Trivia World

Toronto's trivia leagues

In Britain, trivia leagues are a cultural phenomenon. Every pub seems to have a trivia night, and many of those pubs fight it out to find out who knows the most FA Cup winners and Eurovision finalists.

In North America, however, pub trivia is largely confined to Irish or British pubs in major cities, and full-on leagues are practically unknown. Pauline Mills helped change that. She had run a pub trivia game in Cheshire, England in the 1960s, and when she came to Canada, she was surprised to see that the concept didn't translate.

“In Britain, pubs are a way of life,” says Mills. “You go there every evening, but there’s only so much you can talk about, so somebody says, ‘I’ve got a good one for you.’ But instead of a joke, it’s a puzzler. If Bob Hope is in the news, somebody might challenge everybody else to name all five Road movies."

Eventually, she hooked up a number of British expats at a Toronto pub called the Artful Dodger. Soon, Mills was running a weekly game there on Monday nights. The pub upstairs challenged her regulars, and soon other pubs were issuing challenges of their own. From this, the Toronto Pub Quiz League was born. Founded in 1982, the league was aided by the popularity of Trivial Pursuit and by the spread of British-style pubs in Canada. At its height, it had 60 teams.

In 2006, we received an e-mail from David Mills, Pauline's ex-husband, who offered a different take on the league's founding, as follows: I organized the first games, designed the concept, scoresheets, recruited teams and bars. When I started it, Pauline, my wife at the time, worked full-time for Mary Kay. After a couple of years she started to help me in running it. She had NO involvement in TPQL for the first 2 years. Following that, we ran the League together until I moved to Costa Rica in 1996.

Memories are made of these ...

“We have people who have been playing since the very beginning,” says Mills. Over time, friendly rivalries develop and funny incidents are get turned into lore than becomes fodder for in-jokes for years.

“It’s a chance to meet new people every week and have a good laugh.” A tradition in her league is the witty answer that is totally wrong and very funny. For example, “What was the writing on the wall at Balthazar’s feast?” Answer: “Valet parking, 15 shekels.”

"We had a bluegrass fanatic who was always demanding a bluegrass round," recalls Peter Mathieson, who runs a rival league. "But there was no way I was going to deliberately play into somebody's strengths like that. But I play banjo, so I taped an audio round where I did songs like 'Don't Cry for Me Argentina.' I called that the Bluegrass Round. The league loved it but the bluegrass fan was furious."

Interestingly, about half the people who come out to Mills' league are single. "We had several people who met and got married. And we have several who met somebody else, got unmarried and then married that other person."

Expansion leagues stir the pot

The Toronto Pub Quiz League was so successful that it produced breakaway leagues. At one point, Toronto had five of them, but now there are three: the Toronto Pub Quiz League, the Canadian Inquisition Trivia League and the Toronto Trivia League.

“Inquisition was the first to spin off,” says Mathieson, who has been running the Toronto Trivia League since 1993. "They thought Pauline was charging too much and they wanted much harder questions. 'Inquisition' is very a propos for that league."

Mills explains the difference this way. "Every week we have a stinker round. We give a special prize to the team that does best on the stinkers. But Inquisition wanted nothing but stinkers."

Naturally, the Inquisition folks see it differently. As David Smith explains: "We split off from [Pauline's league] because of what we believed to be excess fees to play, disrespect for the QMs (they weren't paid at all), no system for adjusting scores when the questions were inaccurate, a wide difference in abilities in the teams, and, as implied, to write more challenging questions. We also felt there was too much repetition of questions."

To account for differing levels of ability, Inquisition has two divisions, European-soccer style. There is A league called the Torquemada division (named after the Spanish inquisitor), and a B league called the Jaworski division (named after the Watergate prosecutor). After every season, the top Jaworski team gets promoted and the bottom Torquemada team gets demoted.

Accounting for different levels of skill is important to Smith. "In our last season in the Mills League, we won all but one game by a minimum of 20 points - no fun for either of us."

Mathieson's league was the next to break away, in part because teams in the Beaches were reluctant to head downtown. (The Beaches is a wealthier Toronto community, one somewhat removed from the downtown core.) Whereas Inquisition offers much harder questions, Mathieson's league offers somewhat easier questions.

Today, Mills lives in Victoria, BC, and a year ago she sold her interests in her league to two of her players. But she still writes a column called "Mind Teasers," which appears in the Sunday Sun in some cities. "About a year after our league started, some reporters did a story on us, and after it ran we approached them to do the column."

How the leagues work

Typically, players pay a fee: it's $3 per person in Inquisition, $6 in the Toronto Trivia League and $8 in the Toronto Pub Quiz League. If the home team doesn't provide a neutral quizmaster of its own, the league picks one for that pub for the season, paying that person a honorarium of $10 or so. A portion of the league's proceeds is used for an end-of-the-season banquet, which in some leagues runs concurrently with the league playoffs.

Style differences and price aside, the leagues are fairly similar. Teams, usually of five, represent their pub in home-and-away games. "There's nothing magic about the number five, but it does seem to be about right," says Mathieson. "There's a good balance between having enough people on the team to help answer difficult questions and too many cooks spoiling the broth."

If a team is one short, the missing member is usually dubbed Harvey, in honour of the imaginary 6-foot rabbit who used to hang around with Jimmy Stewart.

“I've found that the ideal season is eleven weeks; any longer than that and you will start to experience dropouts,” says Mathieson. “We run three seasons a year with about a month off between seasons. By the end of that month, it seems everyone is raring to get at it again.”

The season ends with the two leading teams (or three, in Inquisition's case) fighting it out for a championship. Says Mills: "The battle between the last two teams standing was always held at a large (licensed of course) location, with every member invited to attend free and watch the final showdown, the presentation of prizes, reading of the best of the funnies, and a slap-up dinner, all paid for by me out of their weekly contributions. This could be cold meat and salad in summer or shepherd's pie or chilli in winter."

The number of teams varies with the season, but Mathieson can usually count on 20 to 25 in the winter and about 15 in the summer. Inquisition has about 15 teams and the Pub Quiz League has about 30.

How a typical game runs

An independent quizmaster reads the questions, rules on the answers, keeps time and keeps score. Typically, a game consists of ten rounds of 10 questions each. A round called "The Strippers," for example, might involve naked dancers or, more likely, will ask about newspaper comic strips. (See below for a sample from the Toronto Trivia League.)

Each of the 10 players gets one question each per round. If you can answer it without help from your team mates, you get two points, called a deuce, but if you get it wrong you can call on help for a second try for a single point.

“Since there is no penalty for guessing wrong, it's almost always worth a guess; it's surprising (if not downright amusing) what your subconscious can come up with sometimes,” says Mathieson. “On the other hand, if you know you haven't the foggiest notion, take a very fast guess, and get right into the team discussion: five heads are better than four (usually). Remember, too, that while you are thinking, so are your opponents. If your whole team doesn't have a clue, it can be better to pass it across quickly, giving the opposition only five seconds more to get their act together, rather than giving them your minute as well to confer.”

If the first team can't get it, the other team gets a chance to steal the question for one point. Typically, the last round is a potpourri of miscellaneous questions, in which players take turns picking from five categories, each of which has two questions.

The quizmaster keeps score and also tracks deuces. "This is a statistic we keep throughout the league, and which players find very interesting," says Mathieson.

A feature at Inquisition is a Challenge Round, round 10, in which the player chooses from six categories. If he or she is unsuccessful, the question goes to his immediately-opposite opponent. In addition, Inquisition once assigned floating handicaps based on a team's average point score as compared to the leading team in its division.

There are some differences in play among the leagues. The Toronto Trivia League and Inquisition will hear protests over questions and change scores retroactively if the question is revealed to have a problem with it. Inquisition gathers its questions, not from one central source, but from a team that volunteers to sit out that season.

“Unfortunately, this sometimes creates an attitude of ‘Okay! Now I'll show you guys!’ and the questions are too difficult,” says Mathieson. “It requires a seasoned question-setter to ensure that the better players in the league generally get seven out of ten questions right.”

Writing good questions

For Mathieson, the golden rule of good trivia writing is this, "It's very easy to make up rounds that are too hard; it's almost impossible to create rounds that are too easy."

For Mills, there is a huge difference between general knowledge and trivia. "I explained it like this. General knowledge is asking, 'What is the longest street in the world?' Even in Toronto, some people don't know that the answer is Yonge Street. A good question has people saying, even if they don't get it, 'Oh, yeah! Of course! I should have known that!' But trivia is asking, 'How many subway stops are there on Yonge Street?' People hear that and say, 'Who cares?'"

Mathieson also suggests a mix of subject matter. "I find in my league that there are not that many real sports fans, so I only do two or three rounds of it each season. TV, movies and word games are always popular. However, you should tailor your selections to your players, and try to give them what they want."

He also likes running topical rounds: a ghost round near Halloween, for example, or an Irish round near St. Patrick's Day, or movie rounds around Oscar time.

(See our own essay on writing questions, which goes into the whole subject in ridiculous detail.)

Finding the right bars

The secret to a good trivia league is finding the right bars to serve as hosts. It is traditional for hosting bars to toss in some free munchies at half time, and in return they can expect $100 to $150 in revenue, usually on an otherwise slow night, typically on Mondays.

“They get 11 people in and they can put them by a window,” says Mathieson. “It’s good optics.”

But some bars are better than others.

“If they cater to a young, noisy crowd, you can bet that the teams won't stay there long,” says Mathieson. “The noise factor is of paramount importance, especially if you have an audio round, but overall as well, because the teams need to be able to hear the questions and answers clearly. We've made some mistakes along the way, and had to move teams out of pubs that don't measure up.”

Mathieson adds that the bar has to be "gung ho" about the concept. The best way for a bar to recruit players is through tent cards. Interested players simply fill in their contact number on the cards and pass them to their servers.

Of course, consideration goes both ways. Inquisition offers what it calls the "Diamond Jim Brady" rules: "Everyone should pay their bill, and if someone doesn't, the team should cover it before leaving and settle up with the player later. A reasonable quantity should be purchased at the table. Staff should be tipped for their time -- it takes them as much work to serve water or coffee as it does beer."

Inquisition also doesn't strong arm the host pubs into providing freebies. "Two of our regular bars do supply munchies, but we would not pull out if they stopped doing so," says Smith. "Nor do we ask the bars to recruit teams. Iif they want to enter a team, they are welcome, but we don't really represent them. We just play there."

Interestingly, neither Mills nor Mathieson nor Smith feel that NTN is much competition. "It's multiple choice and you get to gamble your points," says Mills. "What we do is more straight-up questions and answers."

Mathieson adds that the two are very different. “It’s like darts and bowling,” he says. “They are different things. A couple of the bars in our league have NTN and I find it easier to draw players from NTN bars. They’re already in place.”

However, while punching buttons and staring at a TV screen can be fun, nothing compares to pub play, in which players interact live with friends and rivals.

Big things


Whether they be big in name, big in stature, or big in tackiness, North America is filled with tourist attractions that dare to fall into the category of 'Big things'.

1. Sudbury is well known for its 'Big Nickel', which is a 30 foot replica of a 1951 Canadian nickel. Whose face adorns the Sudbury Big Nickel?

2. White River, Ontario has a big statue of this bear, who was born there but was bought by a soldier from Manitoba, brought to England, and later went on to achieve immortality in literature.

3. To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the death in their town of this big star of the Barnum and Bailey circus, St. Thomas, Ontario built a life-sized 38 ton statue in his honour in 1985.

4. Drumheller, Alberta has many big 20 foot plus statues of these creatures and their importance to the area. Ironically most of these are actually smaller in scale than what they represent.

5. It is not surprising that this city in Kentucky known for its baseball equipment chose to honour its involvement in the baseball industry by making a 7 story high baseball bat.
……………ANSWER - LOUISVILLE (home of the louisville slugger)

6. If you make it up to Wawa, you can take in a 20 ton statue of this symbol of Canada which unlike its real-life counterpart, stays in town year round.

7. Apparently either a gift from some ancient Greeks, Brad Pitt, or a condom manufacturer, the town of Lake Delton, Wisconsin has a giant statue of this famous giant statue.

8. Despite what its subject matter implies, it was costly for the residents of Ashburn, Georgia to erect this big statue, honouring of one of Georgia's most important crops.

9. This town in Alberta, named for the Roman God of Fire, not co-incidentally turned to Star Trek to improve tourism, building a big 31 foot replica of the Starship Enterprise in 1995.

10. Florida is filled with these dangerous wrestling opponents, but only in Christmas, Florida would you find a big one that is 200 feet long and comes complete with ticket counter, gift shop and company offices.

June 2004

updated April 2005