Scenes From a Trivial Pursuit

Dueling the Duck

Q: What was Patty Hearst's name as assigned by the Symbionese Liberation Army?

A few years ago, some local NTN Buzztime trivia players were discussing another player's obit, and how cool it would be if his love for Buzztime trivia was mentioned.

"I can see it now," said the bartender. "Terry will die and his obituary will read, ‘Terry Goebel was a. born in 1956, b. worked for..."

The smart-ass remark got a good laugh, but don't be surprised if it's prophetic. Goebel, known on the electronic NTN Buzztime game screen as DFYDUK, lives for trivia. "I enjoy it. This is what I do," he says.

DFYDUK loves demonstrating his prowess at answering esoteric questions in electronic duels that pit teams of trivia aficionados around the nation against each other. In Knoxville's bars and restaurants, daily battles of nearly useless knowledge are being waged.

The game works thus: Different bars, among them Ray's, Mellow Mushroom, and Buffalo Wild Wings, broadcast NTN games in prime time on television screens around the bar. For free, each player signs on to an account on a little electronic game box, much like logging on to e-mail.

For each hour or half-hour game, the screen displays multiple-choice trivia questions; players press the number of their selected answer on the electronic box. Each player can receive a full score (usually 1,000) for each correct answer, and diminishing returns for changing to the correct answer (in reaction to clues that appear on the screen) at any time before time's up for that question.

The players compete for high total score against the other players in the bar, but also play in real time against all the players in other bars across the country, sometimes tens of thousands of them. The prime-time game schedule depends on the night—lots of sports trivia on Mondays, for example, and music and popular culture on Saturdays.

If you're signed up, you get a ranking for each game played in prime time and a bar ranking against other bars that consists of the average of your bar's top five players. You also accumulate Players Plus points, 1,000 or 500 for most games. Goebel has amassed 7.3 million of those. But who's counting?

"I always knew I was good, but since I found the players' website, I know how good, and it scares me," he says. It's a matter-of-fact statement, not bragging. He's ranked 700-something among around 40,000 NTN Buzztime (that's the general knowledge game) players nationally and 40th of 13-15,000 NTN Sci Fi Trivia players.

When you come in first in the nation as an individual in a prime-time game, you receive a gold medal. The Duck may look like a NASCAR fan, with longish, graying hair, an ever-present ball cap, and T-shirt tucked into blue jeans, but he has six of those medals.

And here's the kicker: this guy from Knoxville, an unapologetic Trekkie, born at Baptist Hospital and worker for a copier company warehouse, has also come in first in the nation twice—as a bar. That means he worked all five of the machines that accounted for his bar's average. "People go, ‘You're so smart,' but I'm like, ‘No, I have this head full of useless knowledge.'"

It will probably never pay the utility bill to know that Patty Hearst became "Tania" with the Symbionese Liberation Army, for example, but Goebel knows the answer to that before they even display the choices on the screen.

"Everything I ever learned, I read in a book," says Goebel, who found out in a college English class that he reads 450 words per minute with 90 percent comprehension. "I read anything I can: science fiction, gunfights, and American history. I can tell you about physics from reading. I have yet to see a quantum physics question on NTN, but if I do, I'll know the answer!"

Goebel sports a lapel button every day. One of his favorites is, "Does it make you angry that I'm always right?"

It's pretty close to the truth. "I hate pissing people off, but I do," he says. "Scott Roy [who plays as DEACS] has a sculpture in his yard that's all twisted, and when I was over at his house he told me, ‘That's me when I'm playing you.'"

My Name Is DEACS, and I'm a Triviaholic

Q: Which chemical has

atomic mass of 24.3?

Charlie Peppers on campus, those were the good old days. But since it closed, DFYDUK is a free agent. His favorite 2006-7 venue, Quaker Steak and Lube in North Knoxville, has removed the NTN Buzztime boxes, at least for now. He's moved his points back to Buffalo Wild Wings on Cumberland Avenue, which is where he's congregating now with seven other players.

The draw on Tuesdays is Showdown, an hour-long game heavy on geography and general knowledge, with a Final Jeopardy-type bet at the end. Tonight it's pretty quiet. A few quiet couples on dates, a couple of pool players in the corner, and these folks, who are here to win—and to quibble, and joke, and banter.

DEACS, a history major and math minor from Wake Forest, is also known as Scott Roy. He's some kind of life-coaching guy who travels worldwide and recently spent a long spell in Cambodia with his British fiancée. Nobody seems to know what his job is, exactly.

A woman at the bar who's known Terry since 2002 confesses she has no idea what his last name is. "Hell, I don't know your last name either," says Roy. "Who cares? My name is DEACS and I'm a triviaholic..."

Q: Complete the name of this

famous book by Carson McCullers: The Heart Is a...

Names don't matter. Knowing who knows what does. That'd be JEFFS for botany—he works at Oak Ridge. Wadeo for sports or current events, DEACS for world geography, DFYDUK for anything he says he knows.

Some stuff, of course, nobody can answer. For example, in the warm-up game, Brainbuster, to answer one question correctly you must know which chemical has an atomic mass of 24.3, which gets a laugh. (That would be magnesium, if you're wondering)

KEVV's already let everyone know that the answer is the Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, so they can get a good laugh over choice number four: The Heart Is a...Friendly Organ.

The Man With the Questions

Q: What actress has played the following characters: Cecelia Bloom, Brenda Cushman and Stella Claire?

It's another Wednesday night on the Strip and they're all in their places in the bar area at Mellow Mushroom—more than 100 in all, nine chairs or stools squeezed around the average tabletop. The occupants of some tables have six-figure incomes, others are spending their laundry quarters to buy garlic bread. But all the groups are united by their will to win pizza coupons, their neon-green trivia answer sheets, and a stockpile of little pieces of paper that one agile team member will have to hustle to the bar with each answer. And a burning desire to best Andy Keys, a.k.a. the guy who writes the questions.

Improbably tall, with New Testament facial hair, Keys has crafted 20 questions and a Final Jeopardy-type thing once a week for four years. Never mind that the retired bartender, who hails from Dayton, Ohio, is still working on his first undergraduate degree—he confounds the contestants, some of them school teachers, Oak Ridge scientists and Ph.D.s, with a mix of standards and twisted current events.

"Andy always manages to zing us with some obscure movie or music question," says Eric Drummond Smith, a regular who holds a doctorate in political studies.

The one above tricked all but a few teams; the answer is "Bette Midler," not the actress who played in How Stella Got Her Groove Back.

Keys' other job is to stand and read scores and team names, which he does deadpan: "Steven Got Us Kicked Out, 75 points, Slice Girls..."

Q: Who did the American colonies fight in the Revolutionary War?

That, says Keys, is the easiest question he's ever asked that a team of English-speaking adults got wrong. "It's a lot harder to come up with easy questions than the hard ones," he says. "What do you ask over and over every week that all people are going to know, that you know someone could not get wrong? Some people don't know shit!"

Q: What is the largest freshwater lake in the world?

What percentage of the contestants really take it seriously? "Oh, about 100," says Keys with his characteristic dry humor.

"The one guy that did get furious, I'm pretty sure he wasn't drunk. He just kept saying that Lake Baikal was the largest freshwater lake in the world because it's the deepest, so by volume it's the largest. That's like saying the Andes can't be the longest mountain range because the Himalayas are the tallest mountains....Anyway, the right answer is still Lake Superior."

A woman who prefers to go by her stage name, the Trivia Goddess, has emceed the standing-room only Farragut Mellow Mushroom live Wednesday game since September 2006 and says keeping your sense of humor is very important.

"I've got a theater background, but I personally am horrible at trivia," she says. "Trivia is not life and death. It's drinking beer and sitting listening to me make comments about Ryan Seacrest for a couple of hours. It's just fun."

Keys has made a lot of friends from this game and his other Live Trivia gig, at Buffalo Wild Wings on Monday nights. "Some people hate it, and hate me, but usually they don't come back," he says.

"One time I asked about this famous book by George Orwell, and then read the correct answer. This girl came up and snarled, ‘It's THE Animal Farm.' That's the kind of comments I get from people I know don't like me."

The Team With the Answers

Q: What is the only state with a city that's spelled Greeneville?

Celebrating their fifth anniversary in February, they've been dubbed Mr. Smith's Class, Dr. Smith's Class, and, on one memorable occasion, Mr. Smith's Bible Study. And they've won hundreds of dollars from the Mellow Mushroom's live trivia game on Cumberland Avenue, says Christopher Echols, a former Scholar's Bowl competitor from Greeneville High School. He's the only founding member who still shows up and is a designer for a software-development company.

The team, avowed enemies of another regular squad, Newman, includes Eric Drummond Smith and his doctorate in political science with an emphasis on regime change and international war. Other members: Nick Love and Doug Waddell, also members of Greeneville High School's class of '98; Christin Chandler, who keeps one of the team's three perfect score sheets on her refrigerator; Hannah Lowe, a law student who reveals her Stourbridge, England, upbringing the second she speaks; and Stephen Esposito and Zac Johnson, who sheepishly admit they came over from another team, Polyphonic Funkplosion, though the switch happened many games ago.

Q: How long, in minutes, was the movie Forrest Gump?

Ever take it too seriously? "I used to," says Echols, just as Esposito and Waddell point at him and say, "Yes!"

"He's completely put out for days if we miss an easy one," says Love.

"One time I did boycott for six weeks, but that was because of the questions, not the team's performance," admits Echols.

They're just as conscientious about the trivia involving the team's history. "We had a tie-breaker question that was whoever gets the closest to the number would win, and the question was, ‘How long, in minutes, was the movie Forrest Gump?'" says Echols, "For some reason I remembered 147 minutes and we were only off by like one minute."

The Family That Plays Together

Q: Four of the past five presidents have been governors of states. Name the states.

If they ever give a key to the city to the First Family of Knoxville Trivia, surely the Jendreks would be the ones on the platform with the mayor. They've had at least one of their four children in high-school academic bowl competitions since 1996, wrapping up this year with the youngest, Bonnie, as captain of the West High School team. Amy, now a senior, appeared on College Jeopardy in 2004.

Right now they're appearing at Mellow Mushroom, which used to be an every-week thing. Tonight, they come in first, coolly wagering enough on the final question to beat the next closest team by one point if both came up with the correct answer—Texas, Georgia, Arkansas, and California—to the question about recent presidential governors.

It's almost always nice to be good at answering trivia questions, says Kurt, the oldest son, now a pilot in training. "But it can come back to bite you, if you come across as always having to be right, say, at work," he says. "It doesn't do me as much good now as it did in high school. But I like it usually. And of course I take this game seriously. I want the free dinner!"

All My Rowdy Friends...

In seven years as "JW," Joe Wilkinson has almost 8 million NTN Buzztime Players Plus points, many of them earned in late-night bar games. It's the highest of anyone at the Mellow Mushroom on Cumberland.

Nowadays, though, you'll only find him punching buttons on the NTN box during the quiet times at Mellow Mushroom, particularly the '50s, '60s, and '70s pop-culture Glory Days played on Tuesday nights.

A mainframe programmer who's had modest success with real-estate investments, Wilkinson is quick enough to play one box for himself, and one for his son Tate, born to him and Karen Carty, who he met playing trivia, two and a half years ago.

TATE's got almost a million Players Plus points, but his mom, known as KIKI on the Knoxville circuit, only plays every now and then. "I used to really care, really want to have the most points, want to beat Joe," she says with a laugh. "Now I just concentrate on raising the one who will be able to beat him..."