Bars & Clubs 2019

Trivial Pursuit

In an age of instant information, trivia night remains a sanctuary for handset-free headiness

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BARFLY BRAINS: Mr. Harada and The Mack on their continued quest for ethanol-enhanced enlightenment. Illustration by Mr. Harada

Things had gone from bad to worse that night, but that was to be expected. My 1976 BMW 2002 was limping down First Street, burping gasoline fire out the tailpipe with every downshift and stuttering like it had a few too many. My car was slurring. Still, I was confident things would soon take a turn for the better. I just needed to consult over a couple quiets.

Those were the days. Moments of carbureted frustration, when the world was a mystery and knowledge was difficult to obtain. I hobbled my poorly running Bavarian motored wonder into a parking spot on Divine Street and made my way to Trials Pub.

It was 1997. A glorious time, before internet access was portable and before the internet had much information anyhow. Easy access to facts stopped as soon as the library doors locked.

Inside the pub was a man who I knew had answers to my (and many other) dilemmas.

Back then, there was always someone with the answer. These people tended to live at the end of bars. Their choice of seat served two distinct purposes. First, it meant they were able to keep a firm line of sight on the barkeep at all times. It also made them easy to find for regulars in need of conversation, consolation and information.

These were the oracles—individuals with deep reservoirs of knowledge. They were the masters of trivia.

That night, an oracle of a man named Andrew Pejack solved my quandary. He listened to my tale, walked out to the car, adjusted some bits under the hood and got it running right, all the while sharing fun facts: that Shakespeare invented the name Jessica in The Merchant of Venice; that Kennedy and Hitler shared a doctor who would inject them with amphetamines; and that Louis Armstrong would visit San Jose regularly, and stayed in the same neighborhoods where a destitute Jack London couch-surfed after returning from the Klondike.

At that particularly wobbly time in history, oracles were at their height. The breadth of their knowledge spanned oceans. There were no pocket portals, allowing anyone and everyone to access the global hivemind with a tap and a swipe. People took great pride in the things that they knew and would gladly share with those humble enough to ask.

Surely, it was sometimes difficult to discern the cold, hard facts from beer-bolstered bluster—or to determine which fabrications were bald-faced lies and which were innocent misrememberings. Some of my good friend's most self-assured proclamations remain difficult to verify. The truth continues to be a slippery thing, after all.

But the thrum of my Beemer's engine—that was indisputable.

I bring up this particular anecdote in order to make a point: Exercising the mind is essential if one hopes to keep a firm grip on the pint glass of memory. And while doctors and public health officials may spend their days issuing warnings of alcohol's deleterious impact on the human brain, plenty still spend their evenings at local watering holes—refusing the aid of their internet-connected handsets and searching their minds for answers to questions such as this:

"The active ingredients in aspirin are naturally found in the bark of what tree?"

Howard Rachelson, who has been hosting trivia nights at pubs and private events for the past 35 years, remembers how pleased he was to learn how one team of trivia-lovers arrived at the correct answer. As the group put their heads together, one member offered that salicylic acid is the active ingredient in Bayer's second most famous painkiller. From there, they found their way to an opera by Verdi—Otello—and the aria "O Salce Salce." The title lyric, translated from Latin to English, is "O Willow!"

"There are interesting things that happen in a group trivia contest that don't happen anywhere else," says Rachelson, who also pens a weekly trivia column for Metro's sister paper.

The retired math teacher currently hosts a public trivia night once a month at the San Rafael food, drink and live music venue Terrapin Crossroads. The place was founded by Phil Lesh—bassist and co-founder of the Grateful Dead, whose co-founding frontman was ultimately consumed by a combination of Bayer's most famous painkiller and Merck's most famous local anesthetic.

As a teacher, Rachelson has always had an inquisitive mind. Furthermore, he has always taken great satisfaction in watching his pupils work their way through a difficult riddle. However, his greatest epiphany about the joys of trivia did not come from the classroom. Rather, it was in an English pub—the archetype for San Jose's very own television-less Trials—that Rachelson first saw what we all now know as a proper trivia night.

In the early 1980s Rachelson was teaching at an American school in England when he stopped into a public house to discover people asking each other obscure questions and enjoying themselves to no end.

After attending a similarly formatted "quiz supper" while teaching at another American school in Israel, Rachelson was hooked. He brought the idea back home with him when he returned to the States. He was not the only one.

By 1984, when Rachelson began holding his own trivia nights—at The Mayflower Pub in San Rafael—Trivial Pursuit, the board game, was all the rage in the United States. The night he founded at The Mayflower is still running to this day, and Rachelson wonders if it might be the longest-running pub trivia contest in the US.

Whether that is true, Rachelson has no doubt as to why the enterprise still continues to be a draw at bars all over the country.

"People pride themselves on their intelligence and their knowledge," he says. "They love the competition of plumbing the depths of their mental experience—especially with friends while eating and drinking and laughing."

Indeed.

In my experience, all the most interesting folks enjoy a few rounds of drinks and a few rounds of questions in the company of friends. A solid collection of facts is not so different from the plume of a virile peacock. Yes, understanding how the world works helps in navigating the game of life. But it's also a hell of a lot of fun to put it all on display at the local trivia night.

Some of my fondest memories are inexorably tied to the powerful trivia platoons in which I've served. These unforgettable teams would congregate around the bar: executives who cannot be named, and many dearly departed. Hackers like the Barnaby Jack, legends like Andrew Pejack, wizards like Lorin Ferguson and DJs like Brian Roos, would assemble their teams and observe their opponents from the bottom of hoisted glasses like 18th-century naval captains preparing to sail into battle.

Favorites such as Noam (the journalist), Kate (the translator) and Timmy (the technologist) would float around and survey which team was most worthy of joining. Everyone knew there were great brains about, and the slightest tremor of superior knowledge could tip the scales toward victory.

Rachelson's job is indeed a sacred one. The emcee of a well-run trivia night must hold the reins tight, while still entertaining the crowd and making sure the whole thing doesn't stall out—devolving into a drunken nerd cluster of shouts at every question involving Doctor Who.

It's not easy to control a room full or brainiacs who have gathered with the express purpose of showing off what they know. In the late '90s, that job was handled by a bartender named Rob, who is today known as the owner named Rob. He managed the crowd like a stagecoach driver: equal amounts of the whip and carrot. He was later replaced by an even less forgiving character whom some people call Bosco. Bosco enjoyed abusing the contestants and would berate them mercilessly. It was everyone's favorite part of the night. A proper Bosco zinger was treated as a mark of distinction.

Once the answers were completed, the questionnaires were distributed randomly and graded by opposing teams as the emcee read the answers. Every reveal would bring a chorus of moans and celebratory cheers as the teams tallied how they fared. Eventually a victor was chosen. Some champions would accept the honor and prize (usually a generous credit of bar bucks) graciously, like a group of researchers who have been chosen by the Swedish Academy. Others though, the more animated lot, would behave like absolute villains: gloating, pointing, pounding their chests and getting a victory spat of alcohol poisoning from devouring their prize as quickly as possible.

The competition would ignite great conversation afterwards, which would build on the trivia presented. That in turn would inspire all concerned to pursue facts and stories to add to their own hoard of data, which would stiffen the competition for the next week's battle. This is why it's best to find answers at the pub if you're having problems, and why you should never trust a teetotaler.

As for my gravest fear: that this Valley of Silicon might be disrupting a future generation of trivia masters with it perpetual quest to make more information more easily accessible, Rachelson reassured me.

"Having all the answers in our pocket makes people even more interested in going out and testing their knowledge in public," he says. There is a small pleasure in getting something right. It's a form of success."

Nick Veronin contributed to this story.

Trivia Tonight

MONDAYS

7 Stars
398 S Bascom Ave, San Jose
408.292.7827 | 7starsbar.com

Fred’s Place
2534 Old Middlefield Way, Mountain View
650.940.9838 | fredsplace.tv

Geeks Who Drink at Off the Rails Brewing
111 S Murphy Ave, Sunnyvale
408 773 9500 | offtherailsbrewing.com

Loma Brewing Company
130 N Santa Cruz Ave, Ste G, Los Gatos
408.560.9626 | lomabrew.com

San Pedro Square Market
87 N San Pedro St, San Jose
sanpedrosquaremarket.com

St. Stephen’s Green
223 Castro St, Mountain View
650.964.9151 | ststephensgreen.com

Trials
265 N First St, San Jose
408.947.0497 | trialspub.com

Uproar
439 S First St, San Jose
408.673.2266 | uproarbrewing.com

TUESDAYS

Britannia Arms Almaden
5027 Almaden Expy, San Jose
408.266.0550 | britanniaarms.com

Dive Bar
78 E Santa Clara St, San Jose
408.288.5252 | sjdivebar.com

Fibbar Magees
156 S. Murphy Ave, Sunnyvale
408.749.8373 | fibbars.com

The Fountainhead
SoFA Market, 387 S First St, San Jose
408.642.5270 | sofamarketsj.com/fountainhead-bar

Khartoum
300 Orchard City Dr Ste 101, Campbell
408.379.6340 | khartoumlounge.com

The Rose & Crown
547 Emerson St, Palo Alto | 650.327.7673

WEDNESDAYS

Clandestine Brewing
980 S First St, Ste B, San Jose
408.520.0220 | clandestinebrewing.com

O’Flaherty’s Irish Pub
25 N San Pedro St, San Jose
408.947.8007 | oflahertyspub.com

THURSDAYS

Sports Page
1431 Plymouth St, Mountain View
650.961.1992 | sportspagesf.com

FRIDAYS

Cyclismo Café
871 Middlefield Rd, Redwood City
650.362.3970 | cyclismocafe.com