It's Sunday night, and the patrons of the Streets of London on J Street are chatting anxiously. They've just signed their fate over to the man in the chili-pepper shirt at the bar. It all comes down to this.
The man in the chili-pepper shirt is Ken Koch. He's been hosting trivia at Streets for more than a decade. Ten years ago, the place would have been packed, with players sitting on the floor and using the jukebox as a writing surface.
But by today's standards, tonight is pretty typical: a dozen or so teams, five or six easy questions, a winning score of 29 points out of 36 possible. And of course, there's Jeff Gordon.
Gordon plays at all three trivia nights Koch hosts every week. He's a pub-quiz veteran and one-time "Jeopardy!" contestant, and tonight his two-man team places second with 24 points.
"That was actually kinda low, to be honest," he said.
But no matter. Gordon will take back his title soon enough. In the meantime, he has about a half-dozen gift cards in his messenger bag, spoils of pub quizzes past, that he can use to pay his tab.
When The Bee reported on trivia nights in 2003, only three local businesses held them weekly. Today, bars from Davis to Auburn have turned to what are otherwise known as pub quizzes to drum up business on slower nights.
Sacramento residents have shown themselves to have a big appetite for trivia, too. Five nights a week, local bars and restaurants give them an opportunity to put their useless knowledge to work. They come out in droves to socialize, drink and in at least two cases meet future spouses.
The crowd at a typical trivia night is pretty heavy on 20- and 30-somethings, but the appeal of trivia isn't strictly bound.
"Our age group is between 10 years old and 75 years old," said Amie Sybesma, who works trivia nights at Saz's Sports Bar & Grill in Folsom. And she would know: Her son plays on a team of fifth-graders there every Wednesday.
At Bella Bru Cafe in Natomas, said quizmaster Bill Silveira, a team called the Vintage All-Stars consists of a group of women, all 60 or older, and one of their sons.
Individual trivia nights cater to different audiences. Some joints become hushed after a question is asked, while others are more festive.
Mike Beile, who co-owns the Blind Pig in Carmichael, said his patrons play drinking games during trivia. The bar's quizzes are hosted by local improv comedians.
"As soon as you walk in, you don't feel like you're in Carmichael at all," Beile said.
Trivia nights are pretty casual affairs. There's no need to register just take an answer sheet at the start of the night and turn it in after the last question. Teams come up with a variety of playful, weird and unprintable names to get a laugh out of other patrons once the scores are read.
The restaurants and bars contacted by The Bee allow patrons to compete for free and offer prizes ranging from $100 gift certificates to local restaurants to bar credit or gag gifts.
With incentives like that, patrons can get really into the quizzes.
Marc Anderson, who has been playing trivia at Bella Bru in Natomas for four or five years with his wife and friends, estimates that he has saved "a couple thousand dollars" on his tabs over the years.
For the most part, though, players say they don't play for the prizes. It's the chance to socialize and learn something new about their teammates as they dig into the crevices of their cerebrums for the most obscure facts.
Karen Malnick, who hosts trivia nights at Saz's Sports Bar in Folsom, said she has seen two couples get acquainted though her trivia nights before getting engaged.
Allyson Rathkamp, a self- described trivia addict and past contestant on the short-lived game show "Win Ben Stein's Money," said that pub quiz competition in Sacramento is less cutthroat than in her hometown of Santa Barbara.
Here, she said, "There's groups that are competitive, but it isn't as hard-core" as what she was used to.
The rise of pub quizzes has also meant the rise of dozens of local quizmasters and trivia formats.
Dan Scott runs the quizzes at The Shack in east Sacramento. His trivia nights are straightforward: 20 questions, one of which is always about "The Simpsons."
He doesn't even use a microphone. On Wednesday nights, his booming voice can be heard from across the street.
"It's one of the hardest trivia nights I've ever been to," said head server Christopher Fairman, who has played at several local bars.
Some quizzes are more slickly produced. Chris Finley who goes by Christopher Scott when emceeing a trivia night has been quizzing at the Depot in midtown for 10 years. His questions also cover a range of categories, but they include a wordplay game that Finley himself invented. He uses a mike, and his questions appear on the Depot's 30-plus TVs.
Still, the Depot's general manager, Taylor Facha, notes that attendance has dipped in the past year. "We're not sure why," she said. "It used to pack the bar. Now, we get a nice crowd." She wonders if trivia has run its course.
The Depot isn't alone. Several bars and restaurants say that attendance at pub quizzes has dropped, and some managers suspect the trivia craze is dying down. Germaine Smith, who manages the PowerHouse Pub in Folsom, said her establishment ended its trivia night when it didn't pick up steam after two or three years.
"We just don't have a high demand for it," Smith explained.
Others see the shrinking crowds as a sign of competition among businesses offering trivia nights.
Silveira, the quizmaster at Bella Bru, has hosted trivia nights at several businesses since 2007. He points out that trivia fans have a lot more options.
He also doubts the decline. Since 2009, he has meticulously tallied monthly attendance at his trivia nights. Though attendance dipped in 2010 and 2011, Silveria's numbers suggest that the crowds at his pub quizzes have grown the past two years.
The business of trivia
For some trivia diehards, pub quizzes have meant a new business opportunity. Several local quizmasters are paid for writing questions, and some are looking to expand their businesses.
For Silveira, who makes his living as a teacher, hosting trivia is "a hobby that generates some money," although he wouldn't say how much. He sees even more potential in selling some of the thousands of questions he has written over the years.
Malnick, the host at Saz's, has fun writing questions.
"I have a regular job, unfortunately. I wish I didn't," she said, adding that she'd love to spin trivia quizzing into something bigger.
She has tried to pitch her trivia nights to other businesses that got cold feet when the quizzes didn't draw a crowd within a few weeks.
Hosts like Malnick and Silveira face competition from outside the region.
Geeks Who Drink, a franchise based in Denver, provides questions and hosts for two trivia nights a week at Alley Katz in midtown and one at Capitol Garage downtown.
Ozzy Nelson, a sales representative for Geeks Who Drink, said the questions and materials produced by his company were superior to those of local quizmasters. More than 100 writers submit questions to Geeks Who Drink, Nelson said, and the company trains quizmasters.
He emphasized that professional graphic designers and sound engineers create material for the audio and visual rounds of a Geeks Who Drink pub quiz. With a typical patron-turned-quizmaster, said Nelson, the printout for a visual round might "look like something a fifth-grader could have made on Microsoft Word."
Though Nelson declined to discuss pricing, he said that Geeks Who Drink was less expensive than karaoke.
In the end, though, it's not about the money, said Mike Moore, who quizzes patrons at Samuel Horne's Tavern. He writes 40 questions a week and scraps 10 of them. For him, it's a labor of love.
"Your quizmasters work at it!" he said.
TRIVIA NIGHTS LOCATIONS
This list is subject to change, so check before stopping by if you're coming for the trivia.
Streets of London, 9 p.m., 1804 J St., Sacramento
Luna Lounge, 7 p.m., 5026 Fair Oaks Blvd., Carmichael
Bonn Lair, 8:30 p.m., 3651 J St., Sacramento
De Vere's Irish Pubs, 7 p.m., 1531 L St., Sacramento, and 217 E St. Davis
Bella Bru, 7 p.m., 4680 Natomas Blvd No. 100, Sacramento
Powerhouse Pub, 8 p.m., 614 Sutter St., Folsom
Kilt Pub, 7:30 p.m., 4235 Arden Way, Sacramento
Clubhouse 56, 6:30 p.m., 723 56th St., Sacramento
Pete's Restaurant and Brewhouse, 7 p.m., 571 Gateway Park Blvd., Sacramento
The Boxing Donkey, 7 p.m., 300 Lincoln St., Roseville
Blind Pig, 7 p.m., 4720 El Camino Ave., Carmichael
Fox and Goose, 7 p.m., 1001 R St., Sacramento
Alley Katz, 7:30 p.m., 2019 O St., Sacramento
Halftime Bar & Grill, 7:30 p.m., 5681 Lonetree Blvd., Rocklin
Cool River Pizza, 7:45 p.m., 1805 Cirby Way, Roseville
Churchill Arms Pub, 8:30 p.m., 649 E Bidwell St., Folsom
Hoppy Brewing Co., 10 p.m., 6300 Folsom Blvd., Sacramento
The Shack, 6 p.m., 5201 Folsom Blvd., Sacramento
Blue Cue, 6:45 p.m., 1004 28th St., Sacramento
Po'Boyz Bar & Grill, 7 p.m., 9580 Oak Ave., Folsom
Maple Room, 7 p.m., 2740 Arden Way, Sacramento
The Capitol Garage, 8:30 p.m., 1500 K St., Sacramento
Little Belgium Deli and Beer Bar, 8:30 p.m., 780 Lincoln Way, Auburn
Streets of London, 8:30 p.m., 2200 Lake Washington Blvd., West Sacramento
The Depot, 9 p.m., 2001 K St., Sacramento
Alley Katz, 7:30 p.m., 2019 O St., Sacramento
Tokyo Fro's, 8:30 p.m., 2224 Fair Oaks Blvd., Sacramento
GOT WHAT IT TAKES FOR TRIVIA?
Bill Silveira, trivia night host at Bella Bru, wrote these questions. Answers are below.
1. What play was Abraham Lincoln watching when he was assassinated?
2. What is the nickname of the left-field wall at Fenway Park?
3. The flag of which of the 50 states includes a palmetto tree and a crescent?
4. Who was the only president of the United States to be sworn into office by a woman?
5. What is the first name of Kourtney, Kim and Khloe Kardashian's little brother?
1. "Our American Cousin"; 2. The Green Monster; 3. South Carolina; 4. Lyndon Johnson; 5. Rob
Call The Bee's Jack Newsham, (916) 321-1100. Follow him in Twitter @TheNewsHam.