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Beer Meets Brains at Quiz Night

“Baby Got Back” blares. The Guinness tap flows. And 50-some bar patrons flex their gray matter to deduce the unit of measurement named after an Italian scientist who invented the electrical battery and discovered methane.

Fourteen small teams huddle in tufted booths, at the polished bar, and around the Pac-Man table in back, nervously crunching on Spicy Lime & Chile™ potato chips and a white-chocolate-drizzled popcorn called Unicorn Crunch. It’s Pub Quiz Night at Old Kings Road, the jackpot is $250, and these beer-swilling brainiacs are not effing around.

Pub Quiz or Trivia Night is an English tradition that began in the 1970s as a way to bring in more customers on slow weeknights. It arrived in Santa Barbara a dozen years ago and has endured many iterations from Dargan’s to Cooney’s and even a stint in Alice Keck Park Gardens. Today the most popular (and arguably hardest) game in town is at Old Kings Road on Wednesday nights — but you’ll find others at Wine Therapy, Taffy’s Pizza, Draughtsmen Aleworks, The Garden, Figueroa Mountain brewery, Captain Fatty’s, Santa Barbara Cider Co., and more.

Pub quiz attracts … a certain type. “Most of us have tried out for Jeopardy. We’re just all huge nerds,” Sara Randolph tells me. She and her teammates have been playing off and on for eight years — and though they “are really bad at African capitals,” they once won $850 in the rolling jackpot.

Questions range from “Name two of the flavors in Ben & Jerry’s Wavy Gravy ice cream” to “Within five years, what year was the Verdana typeface created?” to “Which airline had a longer existence: Pan Am or TWA?” You’re as likely to be asked about billiards as grunge rock, as wise to know about Greek gods as the periodic table. And answering correctly can be oddly satisfying.

“You can accomplish goals without having to do any training for it,” explains fan Jane Cullina, in a Dartmouth T-shirt. Trivia Night is played in about 2,000 bars in the U.S. every week; Jane has played in several cities and likes this one best.

Quizmaster Tim Duggan, who also runs the game at Uptown Lounge on Mondays, makes it extra fun by offering stickers you can use for automatic points, giving the $5 entry fee back to anyone who plays solo and gets half the answers right, and keeping team stats online at all year long.

Players funnel nearly as much brainpower into their wacky team names as they do onto their answer sheets — and hearing Tim read them aloud when they win makes victory all the sweeter. Favorites include E=MC Hammered, Mr. Ed Was a Stabled Genius, Another Great Day to Not Have a Uterus in America, and I Did It All for Tim’s 15 Minutes of Quiz Fame.

What makes a successful player? “There’s an art to cultivating a team. You’ve got to have [experts in] sports, geography, history, pop culture…,” says Casey Hankey, who once won a jackpot of $1,100 here. “You might be surprised: Someone you don’t think of as ‘book smart’ will have knowledge that’s valuable in trivia.”

There’s a social aspect, too. “Everyone we know in Santa Barbara we met through quiz,” says frequent player Aleah Van Woert. (In fact, quizmaster Tim met his wife, Andrea, here — and the bar owner was a groomsman at their wedding.) While the mood is competitive, it’s also convivial. One team member brought a Tupperware of homemade cookies and walked around sharing them with all the other teams.

Cookies, cash, and kinship aren’t what keeps these die-hard players coming back, though. It’s the chance to put their cell phones away for a couple of hours (it’s a rule!) and tap into that repository of oddball factoids they haul around on their shoulders all week long.

“If you have a lot of knowledge that doesn’t come in handy a lot,” says veteran player Andy McCumber, “it’s nice to be validated for that.”

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