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The Bar Exams 

A crackpot pursuit through Cleveland’s ultra-competitive live trivia circuit in search of fame and glory (but mostly bragging rights and free bar tabs)

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Unlike the narcotic for which it’s named, (*Cocaine = benzoylmethylecgonine, a tropane alkaloid harvested from coca leaves), the popular mobile app “Trivia Crack” loses its luster after about 48 hours.

What’s the story with all these coins, for instance? No one cares about the coins. No one cares about the “levels” or the “achievements” they’ve eclipsed or unlocked. No one, as far as I’ve observed, harbors any urgent desire to post their results to Facebook, despite the routine urgings of the app’s six cartoon icons; especially when the user-generated questions tend to plumb the depths with head-scratchers like: “What does PG stand for in the sport of basketball?”

It’s all wrong. Part of the enduring appeal of trivia, since the Trivial Pursuit board game first appeared --(*in 1979, *in Montreal, Quebec, *created by Chris Haney and Scott Abbott, a photojournalist and a sports editor, respectively, at Canadian newspapers)-- is self-edification, the idea of quote unquote “feeling smart,” of tapping into your Sherlockian mind palace and summoning the name of an 80s movie director or a Turkish strait or a weird food product from your youth. This is a personal sensation that’s been corroborated by live trivia hosts across the region. We love the thrill of specialized knowledge, is the gist. And there just isn’t any when you glumly thumb the button between “Power Guard” and “Point Guy” and rack up some phony currency.

I can’t get no satisfaction from this stupid app, is what I’m trying to say. And in practical terms, I can’t get no time. The developers have programmed a ticking-clock component -- in one-on-one match-ups with Facebook friends, users must play their turn within 48 hours -- so the addiction element inherent in the crack branding is in large part prefabbed. Plus, if you’re anything like me, when you whip out the old iPhone and surrender to Trivia Crack’s siren call, most of the screentime is commandeered by Kate Upton and her breasts, which undulate in slo-mo through the World of War ads that interrupt play at every wrong answer. (*World of War’s budget for the Kate Upton ad campaign: $40 million).

After the first furious salvos, when the format is new and exciting and one’s introductory supply of coins hasn’t yet been exhausted, the whole experience gets old. Maintaining even three simultaneous games becomes a chore. Everything’s way too easy, or else way too hard. With the ads, the rigamarole, the rainbow graphics, the social media proddings, Trivia Crack may as well be FarmVille, (*Developed by Zynga, *in 2009).

But people continue to download it at unprecedented levels. At the end of January, Trivia Crack was far and away the most downloaded app in both the paid and free sections of Apple’s App store, averaging about 750,000 per day in the U.S. alone. (*To date, the most downloaded app in history is Angry Birds).

The fact that people are interested in trivia shouldn’t come as a surprise. NBC’s “Jeopardy,” which began as a daytime show in the ‘60s, has been continuously syndicated with host Alex Trebek for three decades since its nighttime debut (*Show #1 for Trebek: September 10, 1984). Trivia Crack could be interpreted as just another iteration of that addiction.

Or maybe folks are practicing.

In Northeast Ohio, after all, live bar trivia has also become one of the most popular and continuously growing pastimes for the pubbin’ crowds. And after a few weeks on the live circuit, it’s easy to see why.

MONDAY

Seats are scarce at the Happy Dog in Detroit-Shoreway. And if you’re a trivia regular, you know that this is to be expected. Tables are a hot commodity on game nights, and hosts generally encourage you to arrive 20-30 minutes before play. At the Happy Dog, in particular, with limited floor space and a loyal weekly contingent, you’re better off arriving even earlier.

[Note: Platform Beer Co. on Lorain and W. 41 tends to have a bit more availability, if you’re looking for a Monday night game on the West Side with a gentler learning curve (*Term “Learning Curve” originally coined by German memory psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, *in 1886).]

One thing to be mindful of upfront, though, here and elsewhere: Don’t strut in, armored in your graduate degree(s), touting GPAs and resumes, and expect to compete at a high-level. People take this very seriously. People are very good at trivia.

I asked my brother, an encyclopaedic movie watcher; my friend, a history and sports buff; and my fiance, a walking compendium of pop culture tidbits and Food Network politics, to join me this evening. I’m pretty solid on my Nobel laureates and geography stuff, (What up, Dardanelles?) and we’re all college graduates. We’re all employed too, which means we spend several hours each day browsing the internet. Was I wrong to feel pretty confident?

Short answer there is Yes.

The Happy Dog game is distinguished, according to devout players, for the obscurity and difficulty of its questions. Ryan Gohmann, founder and host at Cleveland Awesome Trivia, (which does not host the Happy Dog game but does have a fiendishly attended Movie/TV Trivia Night at Parma Tavern on Mondays) says that his goal is never to award the smartest team in the room -- “I don’t care who wins,” he told me. “Every night, I hope for a 20-way tie for first place. Everyone should have a chance to pull off the big upset.”

At the Happy Dog, no such egalitarianism obtains.

Players whisper of a rogue genius, a solitary player who calls himself “The Champagne of Trivia” who wins with startling frequency. He hasn’t revealed himself this evening. Another team with a reputation around here is “Danny DeVito.” (*Famous for playing Louie De Palma on Taxi, *Married to Rhea Pearlman, *Middle name: Michael). They’re a couple who live a few blocks over in Detroit-Shoreway, and they clean up tonight, landing in first or second place in each of the evening’s six rounds. You would not confuse them for athletes.

Strictly speaking, there is no strategy to the Happy Dog’s brand of live trivia. It’s one point per question, and you either know this shit or you don’t. The purse, as one player described it, is naught but “pure glory” and kitschy door prizes or occasional shots for victors of individual rounds.

The opening round, which begins promptly at 8 p.m. (standard trivia start time) is a “picture round,” which tonight asks teams to identify 10 U.S. states by their shape. In the past, the picture round has presented images of British punk bands, flags of Asia, ferns, so tonight’s struck me off the bat as a comparative breeze. But it’s much harder than it sounds. The outlines on the page are not to scale, nor are they presented in the context of their neighbors. Florida and Texas and Ohio are not among them. To give you some idea, Indiana is the easiest. Pennsylvania and South Dakota are pictured next to each other and are virtually indistinguishable.

My team -- “Molson XXX,” which sounds douchey but was intended as a non-sequitur -- scores a middling 6 out of 10.(*Molson was founded in Montreal in 1786, making it North America’s oldest brewery, and merged with Coors Brewing in 2005). We confused Alabama for Mississippi, Oregon for Washington, and South Dakota for Nebraska. As I’m looking at the sheet now, I still can’t figure out what this fourth one we missed was. Something on the East Coast.

The balance of the evening doesn’t bear mentioning, other than to say that music trivia is not fun at all if you’re just kind of a casual listener. Also, we did manage to nab four out of 10 points on the the final round, which was, appropriately perhaps, beer-themed.

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