Where’s the toughest pub trivia in the country?

Every Wednesday night, in the crowded back room of a west coast Irish pub, you’ll find a bar trivia contest that can rightfully claim the title of the toughest bar trivia in the country.  Along Main Street in Santa Monica, California, O’ Brien’s Irish Pub has been hosting its own trivia night for close to twenty years, attracting a rather formidable clientele over that time.  To put things in perspective, among the 1,200 people who play Pour House Trivia each week, only five players (and two hosts) have appeared on Jeopardy!  At O’ Brien’s, about 80% of its regular trivia players have appeared on a TV quiz show, with the majority of those being Jeopardy! champions.  The prevalence of trivia superstars is so commonplace, that O’ Brien’s offers a prize to the highest scoring team without a Jeopardy! champion.  I first heard about O’ Brien’s about four years ago, as its reputation began to grow outside of the Los Angeles trivia community.  Through participation in various national trivia events, I became friends with many of its regular players.  After relocating to the west coast last month, it was only a matter of time before I joined in on the abuse fun. Tonight, I’ve managed to weasel my way on to a rather impressive team: my group of five teammates includes four former Jeopardy! contestants, including a College Tournament champion, and a player who held the single-day scoring record for six years.  The game at O’ Brien’s is truly unique: each of the regular players rotates as host, writing and presenting his or her own questions for the night.  Hosts are able to infuse a little artistic license into the standard game format, so no two nights of trivia are alike.  The opportunity to host is in high demand, as the waiting list is about four months long.  Since the patrons all know each other very well (and there are no season standings), most players have different teammates each week.  Team names change constantly, often referencing current events with jokes and puns.  The O’ Brien’s website maintains a running list of the best team names.  With nine teams and 50 players participating, the back room is packed to capacity. Basically, my goal was to answer one question correctly that none of my teammates knew.  Barring any wheelhouse categories, my chances were slim.  Tonight’s host is Warren, who (no surprise) won three games and $61,000 during his Jeopardy! appearance in 2003.  According to my teammates, Warren is well known for subtly linking each answer to the next category, which would provide some key hints to several answers throughout the night.  In one instance, after he asked “Which star is also known Alpha Orionus?”, we noticed that the following category was movies, giving a clue that the answer was Betelgeuse.  Despite O’ Brien’s ominous reputation, the game did include some innocuous questions, at least during the first half (all answers appear at the end of this article):

1) Identify any two of the eight Chicago “Black Sox” who were banned from baseball by Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

This one is fairly easy for most baseball fans – I was able to name three players off the top of my head.  One of my teammates rattled off five.  So much for being a baseball expert.  Moving on…

2) Identify the films or TV shows which featured these characters named Potter:  1) Lionel Barrymore as Henry Potter,  2) Harry Morgan as Sherman Potter,  3) Katie Holmes as Joey Potter

Though entertainment questions comprise the bulk of most bar trivia, they would be few and far between on this night.  This would end up playing as the easiest question of the night, as every team pulled all three correct answers.  The first half got progressively harder, with Warren concluding the round by asking several questions that will probably NEVER be found at traditional bar trivia:

3) Which character appears as a ghost alongside eight of his descendants in Act III, Scene IV of Macbeth?

4) In the Puccini opera Manon Lescaut, the title character dies in a desert outside which major U.S. city whose name begins with an ‘N’? (HINT: Puccini did not know U.S. geography very well)

5) Who are the two minor prophets from the Old Testament with four-letter names?

6) Which nationality is found in the name of the only hound dog classified in the toy group by the American Kennel Club?

Having a well-rounded team is always a requirement for a winning bar trivia team, but with a maximum of six players per team, diversity is crucial at O’ Brien’s, as these questions proved to be a challenge even for top-notch squads.  With a couple of strong guesses, “we” answered each of these last four questions correctly (with zero input from me).  The first half concluded with a handout round, naming states based on unique characteristics and obscure state symbols.  Did you know that the official rifle of Tennessee is the Barrett M82?  Or that Montana is the only state whose motto is in Spanish?  Apparently, it’s “Oro y Plata”, which means ‘Gold and Silver’.  On this list of 25 questions, five of the answers were California (none of which I knew), but I am able to pull my weight for the first time, as one of the questions is to name the only U.S. state whose official sport is jousting.  A little local knowledge pays off, as I was the only player to know that the answer is Maryland. We’re down three points heading into the second half, which continued with much of the same mental anguish, along with several questions that stumped many of the trivia giants in the room:

7) When it was recorded in 1922, which song by Louis Armstrong had a one-word title which was also used as a slang term for marijuana?

8) In terms of evolutionary theory, what does the acronym LUCA stand for?

9) Which former NBA star who passed away in July of 2016 had his number retired by both the Warriors and the Cavaliers?

10) Also home to a Premiere League football team, in which city is the headquarters of Wedgwood pottery located?

After feeling belittled by the second half, I am able to pull one more answer during the second handout round, which included pictures of people and things who share their names with former British Prime Ministers (seriously).  I recognize an album by the band Cream, and pull “Disraeli Gears”, for one of our last points of the night.  Apparently, that point is crucial (or at least I’d like to think so), as the game ends in a tie.  Every host employs a different tie-breaking procedure.  As expected, Warren links the tiebreaker back to the first question, so it will be “obscure baseball history” for the win!

–> In which year was a player first given a lifetime suspension from Major League Baseball?

After some quick deliberation, our answer of 1882 was only six years from the correct answer of 1876, securing a win for the ages.  The winning team each night gets $60 off of its tab and has its picture taken with the weekly trophy, a maroon fez. Did any of the questions above stump you?  Of course they did…

  1. Black Sox players: Eddie Cicotte, Oscar “Happy” Felsch, Arnold “Chick” Gandil, “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, Fred McMullin, Charles “Swede” Risburg, George “Buck” Weaver, Claude “Lefty” Williams
  2. Potter characters: 1) “It’s a Wonderful Life”,  2) “M*A*S*H”,  3) “Dawson’s Creek”
  3. Macbeth ghost: Banquo
  4. Puccini city: New Orleans (he was indeed bad at geography)
  5. Four-letter prophets: Amos and Joel
  6. Only hound dog in the Toy Group: Italian (greyhound)
  7. Louie Armstrong song: “Muggles”
  8. LUCA: Last Universal Common Ancestor
  9. NBA player: Nate Thurmond
  10. Wedgwood city: Stoke-on-Trent (BONUS TRIVIA: Josiah Wedgwood is the grandfather of Charles Darwin)