Student Stories

Trivia, Pursued

There is a statue at the easternmost end of the Midway of a knight on horseback, which was set up in 1955 as a memorial to the first president of what country?

It’s 8 pm on a Tuesday in the dead of winter—not to mention the dreary depths of midterms. Across Hyde Park, College students huddle over papers and problem sets in silent study rooms. But a few blocks southeast of the Regenstein’s imposing facade, a devoted group of undergrads, grad students, and other community members gather for a different kind of intellectual inquiry.

Trivia Night at the Ida Noyes Pub, a tradition since 2002, is now a campus institution. Down in the basement by the darkroom and RSO offices, the Pub is worth a visit in its own right: it boasts 24 beers on tap as well as superlative chicken strips. But on Tuesday nights it truly becomes a scene, ideal for people-watching and catching TAs in their natural habitat. Just about every booth is packed; tabletops are crowded with pitchers, snacks, and answer sheets. Occasionally a cheer or a boo erupts over the staccato thwacks of billiards shots and the steady chatter of teams joking and debating.

At a booth toward the middle of the Pub sits the group of alums, grad students, and staff members who write the questions and score teams’ answer sheets. Among their ranks is Andrew Rostan, MAPH’10. Andrew first experienced the Pub as a patron: he became a member his first week of master’s classes and played trivia competitively for two years before accepting a friend’s offer to help host.

Andrew is a connoisseur of competitive trivia: he’s played in pubs from Boston to Los Angeles as well as—no joke—on Jeopardy! (he’s a five-time champion). But he says Tuesdays in Ida are unique in their rigor.

“UChicago blows even Mr. Trebek’s show out of the water due to its intensity. We’re well aware we’re writing for smart people and the threshold of challenge is that much higher. Other bars and competitions have far more pop culture and far less academic knowledge, and since we never want to ask the same types of questions twice, we cover an immense amount of ground.”

The way Andrew describes Pub Trivia players will sound familiar to anyone who’s ever been in a UChicago classroom: “They’re eager. They’re excited. They take the game just seriously enough to argue with us over how questions are worded and what answers are acceptable. Most of all, they come to have fun.”

The hosts, Andrew says, do their best to provide on this front. “For [students] to lay down some of their hard-earned cash on us means we have a duty to give them the best time possible.”

Based on the fervor of trivia devotees, “the best time possible” sounds about right. The evening shakes out to about two hours of play time, with ample breaks between rounds for a team pep talk or a chance to replenish the supply of onion rings.

The hair of what animal is traditionally used in the manufacture of shaving brushes, and even gives the object its French name?

The night starts a little before eight, when players trickle in, find their teams, and slap down the $3 entry fee at the hosts’ table. At the beginning of each round, the emcee reads eight questions on topics from science to politics to the arts. Once teams’ responses are in and scored, the emcee announces the correct answers (often to much whooping and groaning), then the standings of all teams (more whoops, groans). After the fifth and final round (which has a special theme, often revolving around a quote from pop culture, and is worth double points), teams’ fates are sealed. Top contenders win cash prizes, and lower-placing teams have the chance to take home bar kitsch or a coupon for free appetizers.

One booth over from the hosts’ table, a five-some of fourth-years is in it to win it. They’re part of a larger group of friends that tries to make it to Trivia every week, with much success—they’ve taken first place twice and otherwise tend to place in the top five. But tonight there’s a hitch: this week they actually have too many people for a team (there’s a strict 8-person limit). They’ve divided up into two factions: 100 Beers of Solitude, sitting a table away, and their pointedly named rivals, #$%* 100 Beers of Solitude.

Despite the bravado of their name, the folks on #$%* 100 Beers of Solitude enter the night feeling nervous. Most of their usual heavy hitters are at the other table—they see themselves as the B team. “This is embarrassing,” insists fourth-year Peter Herman. “This is the worst we’re ever going to do.” They aren’t optimistic about their chances of going home with a share of the cash, but they hope to at least outplace their sometime-teammates.

Meanwhile, across the Pub, illuminated under the bright glow of a Miller Lite neon sign and bordered by the mural of a gargoyle holding a cue stick and smoking a cigarette, a team of students assemble to form An Approximate Knowledge of Many Things. Their group, primarily Orientation Week student directors, coalesced at the beginning of Fall Quarter. Admittedly, they had never individually come to the Pub prior to their first group appearance at Trivia Night. They placed fourth, and they’ve been coming weekly ever since.

Fourth-year team member Nadia Alhadi explains, “We do this because it’s a great way for us to stick together. O-Week was the reason we all met and got to know each other so well, so for us this is a tradition we’ve created for ourselves.”

What country leads the world in production of precious opals?

Over the course of the night, #$%* 100 Beers of Solitude hovers around third or fourth place, while An Approximate Knowledge of Many Things keeps a stern focus on their main objective: according to them, “the goal is to always not be last.”

Tonight, as always, the questions are...illuminating. (Who knew the word ham comes from the Old English term for the bend of the knee?) And teams’ responses can be illuminating too, even if they aren’t exactly what the hosts are looking for. Says one emcee before reading out the standings, “we receive a lot of excellent answers each round; it’s just a shame that so few are correct.”

Round 2, for example, deals with motorcycle rallies, horn violins, and fish-themed slang terms. But the judges get a different sort of information on one answer sheet.

Announces the emcee drily, “One team, instead of writing the first six answers, wrote the first six lines of the Iliad in Ancient Greek. Nicely done. Your handwriting is so-so and we disagree with your interpretation of line six, but whatever.”

Presumably, no points were awarded for their efforts.

In the human body, the sesamoid bone is completed embedded in what?

As points gradually accumulate, tension builds in the basement air. Don’t be fooled by the punny names and loose banter between rounds: the hardcore teams (particularly the regulars) come with their game faces on. Adam Lindemulder, one of the fourth-years on #$%* 100 Beers of Solitude, says the competitive aspect is part of the fun.

“You’ll see the same people each week, but not know them, and grow to hate those people.” He points out a guy turning in an answer sheet who he remembers from a particularly contentious game last spring. “To this day I think of him as my mortal enemy, even though he’s probably a nice guy,” Adam muses cheerfully.

Going into the fifth and final round, #$%* 100 Beers of Solitude is hanging onto fourth place with 14 points, while their counterparts on 100 Beers of Solitude have jumped to second place with 16 points. But this last round is worth double, and the tables can turn.

Things start off rough with a tricky anatomy question but then things begin to pick up—#$%* 100 Beers of Solitude confidently glides through the series of geography and pop culture questions that follows.

Now teams play the waiting game: the hosts are scoring the answer sheets for the last time and calculating the final scores. Finally, an emcee names the teams that didn’t place (including 100 Beers of Solitude), amid supportive applause…and then stuff gets real. #$%* 100 Beers of Solitude waits patiently as the fifth, fourth, and third place teams are announced, then erupt into cheers as they’re declared the runners-up. They’ve made it within one point of winning team, The Defenestration of Smaug (known to be trivia heavyweights). Not bad for the B team.

Their former teammates on 100 Beers of Solitude are bummed out, but eventually handshakes are exchanged and #$%* 100 Beers of Solitude counts their money in glee. Peter Herman puts it simply: “I’m pretty #$%*ing into it.”

On July 30th, 2012 60% of what is officially known as the International Strategic Reserve was stolen and replaced with water. The theft is estimated to have cost approximately $18 million—that’s more than 13 times the value of the same amount of crude oil. What is housed, and therefore was stolen, from the International Strategic Reserve?

An Approximate Knowledge of Everything didn’t quite manage to place, but as fourth-year Steven Wendeborn explains, it’s indicative of the quality of trivia the Pub provides. “I think we all agree that the Pub has the best trivia compared to all the other pubs near campus. It’s always surprising how much we don’t know”—“and how much Steven knows,” interjects fourth-year teammate Stephen McHugh—“but it’s always fun. I mean, if we knew all the answers it wouldn’t be as much fun, right?”

Some players may leave harboring disappointment, or with a little extra fire added to their inter-team rivalry. But for the most part, as things wrap up the mood in the Pub is buzzy with excitement. Friends from different teams convene to compare answers or affectionately trade trash-talk. Everyone seems invigorated by the experience.

Andrew Rostan explains the appeal: “The University of Chicago is one of the finest institutions in the country. You have to earn your way in here and you prove your worth day after day in the classrooms and laboratories. Pub Trivia offers a chance to use the intelligence that got you here in a way that’s purely for fun and potential profit, and where you won’t feel any shame talking about action movies and Taylor Swift side by side with string theory and ancient empires.”


Searching for answers to the questions above? That knight on the Midway is in the image of Tomáš G. Masaryk, the first president of Czechoslovakia. Badger hair is traditionally used to make shaving brushes. Australia leads the world in production of precious opals. The sesamoid bone is completely embedded in the tendons. And the International Strategic Reserve houses maple syrup.

Have we piqued your interest? Trivia occurs weekly during academic quarters, every Tuesday night at 8. Entry to the Pub is $3 for non-members, and the fee to play is another $3 per person.

Additional reporting by William Rhee, Parents Media Editor, Class of 2017.