Each week, a recording of an old-fashioned brass processional announces the beginning of Tom Mays’ pub quiz. The fanfare is an often futile attempt to quiet the bubbling chatter at the Dubliner bar at the corner of University Avenue and Vandalia Street. It’s usually full of live-music fans who have come for the Sunday show.
But then the trivia audience settles in, groups of three to five people clumped around the low wooden tables, quietly chatting. And Mays gets right down to business, shouting out the rules to his unique trivia night, where all the answers are organized alphabetically and the questions are displayed with an intricate PowerPoint presentation full of hidden and visible themes that have included BBC TV shows, World War II tanks, movie special effects, Martian science fiction, glam rock and synonyms for the word “money.”
These days, Twin Cities pub quizzes are typically of two schools: The new school is dominated by the Trivia Mafia, a Minneapolis bar trivia operation that has spread far and wide across the bars of the Twin Cities. With the Mafia format, there’s always an “image round” and a variety of other rounds often ripped from news headlines or the internet. Some of the rounds are repeated at different bars, as the hosts float between Pizzas Lucé or other joints like St. Paul’s Amsterdam Bar or Minneapolis’ 331 Club, where the Mafia began.
But there remains an old school of Twin Cities’ Euro-style pub quizzes scattered around, dominated by the area’s traditional British Isles pubs like Brits and Merlins Rest in Minneapolis and the Dubliner. Some of the differences reflect generational knowledge, much like the “genus” editions of Trivial Pursuit. For example, while Trivia Mafia games often emphasize events from the ’90s to the present, quizzes like Mays are aimed at a slightly older generation, and more of the cultural lore is from the ’70s or ’80s.
“I’ve been a big fan of trivia for a long time,” said Mays, the trivia host who works his day job doing lighting design for the Guthrie. “I seem to have a mind that captures details and holds on to them, usually things that are not relevant to normally functioning life.”
Mays began his trivia half-accidentally. There had been a pub quiz hosted at the Dubliner for years, he said, a repeat of the UK-themed trivia from Merlins Rest (run by a Brit named Bill Watkins). But around five years ago, when the quiz fell through, a vacancy opened up at the Dubliner and Mays agreed to give it a try. The rest is history.
“The way I do the quiz is that I sit around and wait,” Mays told me. “Usually inspiration hits me during the week. I pick a theme and deconstruct it, a theme and a subtopic of the theme that makes sense, and I add one with a twist on the theme for people with different knowledge and skill sets.”
Tips for beginners: Pay attention to the themes. Mays announces them at the beginning of the quiz. There are almost always clues embedded in the PowerPoint slides, little subtitles to give you hints at the answer. Bring a team of folks with diverse interests, for example, people who like history, literature and pop music. And keep track of the “alphabet” using the letters on the side of the score sheet; you can cross them off as you go. Each answer will begin with a unique letter of the alphabet.
“I always try and give at least one or two ins and put a clue into something that’s difficult,” Mays told me. Each quiz takes him about four hours to put together, though it might take longer if there’s a lot of multi-media.
“There are some questions that, unless you are an absolute fanatic about the topic, you won’t know the answer. I try and limit this, but I occasionally get people who get perfect scores,” Mays explained.
The Dubliner itself mirrors the old-school approach. The big neon sign from the old days when this place was known as the “Ace Box Bar” hangs over the popcorn machine, and the wooden floors, old wooden chairs (salvaged from a defunct Ponderosa Steakhouse) and smell of Heggie’s Pizza create a cozy atmosphere in which to ponder the trivial. And there are no TVs at the Dubliner. The only screen you’ll find here is Mays’ PowerPoint presentation, full of music videos and photos of obscure vehicles, everything from tanks to ’70s British cars.
“It’s a great dive bar,” Mays told me. “You can go in there and see people you know, hang out or be by yourself if you want, have a quick drink and head home. It’s got a lot going on, always interesting people. And free live music; you can’t beat that. There’s no cover charge and they get pretty good bands.”
Mays admits to being bribable—explicit in the rules is that you can trade answers for a shot of single-malt scotch, and win the whole game by purchasing a bottle. But nobody does that. The spirit of friendly fun remains intact.
The last time I was there, one of the teams had brought along their knitting to pass the time, which seemed like a good idea in the January chill. When Mays brought back the completed trivia sheet, he told my partner and me, “You did very, very well!” For a brief moment we got our hopes up, thinking our score—24 points—might carry the day.
But a few moments later, the winning table cheered and began divvying up their free drinks.
It happens almost every week: Sundays at 8 p.m. at the Dubliner, 2162 University Ave., St. Paul.
Bill Lindeke is an urban geographer and writer living in St. Paul.