I formed a trivia team called DC in 2014 with a friend who is equally competitive. After putting together a good team and learning the idiosyncrasies of the different games, we began racking up more than our fair share of big wins. As of 2017 our team is firmly at the pinnacle of competition in the Phoenix area.
- January 2014, Team Trivia Tournament of Champions, 1st place, $1000
(David led another team to this championship before we formed Team DC.)
- August 2014, Team Trivia Tournament of Champions, 5th place
- August 2015, Team Trivia Tournament of Champions, 1st place, $1000
(First championship for Team DC!)
- November 2015, Casino Arizona FRTL Tournament of Champions, 2nd place, $700
(Inaugural season for FRTL@CAZ)
- January 2016, Team Trivia Tournament of Champions, 1st place, $1000
(Back-to-back Team Trivia championships)
- April 2016, Casino Arizona FRTL Tournament of Champions, 3rd place, $300
- August 2016, Casino Arizona FRTL Tournament of Champions, 3rd place, $300
- August 2016, Team Trivia Tournament of Champions, 2nd place, $500
- November 2016, Casino Arizona FRTL Tournament of Champions, 3rd place, $300
- January 2017, Casino Arizona FRTL Tournament of Champions, 1st place, $1500
- June 2017, Casino Arizona FRTL Tournament of Champions, 1st place, $1500
- September 2017, Casino Arizona Showtime Tournament of Champions, 2nd place, $500
- November 2017, Casino Arizona Showtime Tournament of Champions, 1st place, $1500
- Five championships (most in AZ history). Two back-to-back in Team Trivia. Two in FRTL. One Showtime
- Placing in the top three in 11 of 17 major tournaments (most in AZ history).
- Qualified for every tournament of champions 2014-2017 (only AZ team to do so).
- The only team to make every casino tournament of champions and most times placing.
- Highest cumulative team cash winnings in AZ history.
This is our first “Big Check” for a Team Trivia tournament of champions. It was the first of two consecutive with several second and third place finishes as well.
The first is the certainly the sweetest.
It wasn’t David’s first. Here he is (center) posing with his volleyball team that he led to victory before joining DC. David is widely recognized as the top trivia player in Arizona and proves it time after time.
It was especially challenging to win a FTRL casino trivia championship. Although we did well from the start in the weekly games, and we placed in the top three in all but one season championship tournament, it wasn’t until season six that we finally took home the trophy and the big money. This style of trivia is designed to spread the winnings out among many teams and it has proven very challenging to win consistently. Luck and game management play much more of a role than in other forms of trivia. Plus it includes more than just trivia. There are word puzzles, word scrambles, crosswords, recognizing celebrities, price matching, and more. But the reward for the added difficulty and frustration is $1000 in play every week among the 35 to 45 teams that typically play.
Keys to success
We regularly beat some very good and knowledgeable teams. It’s interesting that we probably do better than we should. One obvious reason is my teammate who is easily the best player in the area. But we’re also more competitive than other teams and we work a lot harder to prepare.
Teamwork is key. When no one knows the right answer, working well together to negotiate the best guess is the difference between a good team and a great team. Teammates who can objectively judge their ideas and express them properly are better at negotiating the best possible guess. Lesser teams tend to think “you either know it or you don’t”. We don’t buy that. We often don’t know it, but we can still get it correct with some effort.
It might seem odd playing trivia at a time when everything is a click away on your smart phone. My teammate is motivated by the quest to know everything. Sometimes it seems like he might accomplish that. But for the rest of us, that’s not realistic. I like learning new things, but I prefer learning about things that are not so trivial, and especially things that require understanding. Fortunately, winning consistently at trivia competitions is one of those things. No one can know everything. So it usually comes down to teamwork, good decisions, and communication. You’re rewarded for preparation, discipline, objectivity, honesty, and humility, all of which are valuable to improve.
How I got into trivia
I always loved to play and to compete at any sort of game, puzzle, sport, or challenge. Sports presented a particularly tough challenge because I lacked any exceptional natural athleticism. When I played baseball I found that I needed to practice and play a lot more than others in order to advance. I loved that, but it was a problem because there wasn’t much you could do alone. I couldn’t hit myself fly balls or pitch to myself. I got pretty creative making up ways to practice throwing, catching, and batting, and I eventually even got a job at a batting range. But in the end I couldn’t keep up.
Later I discovered pool. It was the perfect combination of practicing skills and testing them in competition. I could work as hard as I liked until I came up against my natural limitations some 20 years later. The same was true years later when I got into cornhole, although those skills were a lot narrower and easier to master.
Pool and cornhole are more like bar games than true sports. But they attracted real competitors, and even some who were athletic-minded. I dabbled in a lot of the other bar games like air hockey, darts, ping pong, shuffleboard, and so on. And even though I almost never drank I was in bars almost every night.
Buzztime a.k.a. NTN
I had a friend who I met playing bags. He was a devout gambler. He wouldn’t play anything unless there was cash on the line. We were both competitive but I had no chance at darts and he had no chance at pool. The only thing we could compete at fairly was bar trivia. In those days Buzztime video consoles were huge. We played several times a week. It was the kind of thing that grew on you as you got more experience. And it helped to be earning enough to avoid the ATM each week. That lasted about a year.
Around then I heard that my bags teammate David was playing live trivia at an Irish bar with a large group of his friends, and they were winning all the time. I jumped at the chance to join them. The first thing I noticed was that I had little to contribute. It was hard. But David was incredible! He was a trivia prodigy. I never would have guessed. He does not strike anyone that way.
Bags was losing its appeal to David and I. We had dominated for almost two years and it was getting boring. We didn’t aspire to play professionally or travel the country. So all that was left was defending our reputations. It was challenging but as long as we put everything into it, we always seemed to win. And the up and comers were no longer the friends we’d started playing with. Instead of being enthusiasts who really had fun playing and competing, the new players seemed to care mostly about money and ego. It became a job to beat them down. That changed everything. It took me 20 years before the allure of the game of pool succumbed to the negatives of the subculture and environment of that game, but only two years to lose my love for the most competitive side of bags. David left first and moved on to volleyball, and I eventually gave up the tournaments and played only for fun. I continued to play and to promote the game, but I avoided the underbelly.
Bar trivia sounded like something we could dominate at. I was sure that between the two of us we would be unbeatable. I had seen David’s talents, and I knew what a hard worker and relentless competitor he was from bags. Boy was that right, but it took a while before we started winning consistently.
We started at Team Trivia, a nationwide game with a live host and prizes in the form of bar tabs. Free food for me and free drinks for David, can’t beat that. We lost that first game, just me and David and another friend. We were surprised by how good the other teams did, missing only one or two answers. But that would be us before long.
We started playing weekly. But then we learned there was a league and the top teams in the league qualified for a big tournament every six months with $1000 cash prize. Unfortunately, right then David moved across town. He started playing weekly with his volleyball friends and was turning them into winners. Meanwhile I was playing in my area almost every day. We were also winning, but I was the only player always there. I had a different team each night and often played solo as well. At first we played to help David’s new team qualify for the tournament, but we eventually got a league team together as well.
That first league season David led his team to the tournament with some help from us. I attended the tournament as a spectator. They won the championship, and it was all David. He’d deny that, but it’s beyond question.
The next season David was playing with his old team and with me and my team. Both were winning consistently. When it came time for the next tournament, both teams qualified. David owed it to his old team to help them see if they could win again. So David and I played on different teams. Both teams failed to place. I was especially proud that my team did better than his, specifically because I would not claim to be a better player, and my team was far less experienced than theirs. We should have named ourselves Goliath for doing better than David. David and I both felt that if we played together we could have won that tournament. That was the last time we played separately.
Missed our first opportunity at a cash tournament
A new bar opened up and threw a mid-season tournament. It would be the first test of our combined experienced team, and my first chance to compete for a title with David on the team. We had a few weaknesses to address. We were very deficient in pop culture – I hadn’t watched TV in over a decade and neither of us knew much about Justin Bieber or Britney Spears. Fortunately, we had met a younger player and were able to recruit a mutual friend and her dad. We put together a team of six. And we seemed ready to win! And we would have, but I screwed up. The new bar had a name almost identical to the name of the bar where the previous championship was held. I told the team to meet at the wrong one. By the time we realized my mistake and got to the right place we had missed the first three questions. We didn’t miss another answer the entire game AND we would have known all three we missed. My mistake had cost us our first title and $500. They were great sports about it, but we were not able to keep that group together to try again.
Honing skills and learning unique strategies
As we played more and more we learned the game better and improved at figuring how to win when we did not know more than other teams. We knew at least two or three things about the game that no other team knew. To this day, one of those things has never been discovered by any other team to my knowledge. In fact, I often sit in with other top teams and I’m certain they don’t know! David is the only other person who knows, and to his credit he is the only other person who I could have shared that information with and have it still be our secret three years later.
I’d like to share these secret strategies and how we discovered them, but doing so would sacrifice an advantage and could upset the power structure of the game. Maybe someday if they become widely known or less useful. As of 2017, one is now known by at least four teams and will surely soon be widely known.
Our first championship
We easily qualified for the next tournament. We had an extra place and we decided to recruit another friend we had known from bags. He was another sports enthusiast. But he was also very cooperative and competitive. He was the perfect personality. Unlike other teams who recruited mostly based on trivia knowledge, we cared more about judgement and the ability to work with others. The key to our success wasn’t what we knew, it was our ability to work together well when we didn’t know something. And we played that tournament with only four players, as we have ever since. Just about every other team had the maximum of six. Our new player Steve was ‘another’ sports enthusiast, actually a sports copy editor. We’d be top heavy in sports because David was the best there is, and Lee was good as well. But Steve also helped with TV and pop culture. It turned out to be a great addition. When the next tournament came around we led the whole game and won convincingly. It all turned on one final question and Steve made the difference.
Back-to-Back Championships and On Top to Stay
The next season we led the rankings almost every week of the season and won the tournament again. No team had ever won twice in a row before. It’s very hard to win a trivia tournament when it’s one game (23 questions) against all the top teams in the state. The questions are arbitrary and random from a wide range of topics. No one can know everything, and we sure didn’t. But our advantage was becoming obvious. We had become far better than other teams at coming up with good answers when we didn’t know for sure. And maybe more importantly we knew how to work together to communicate just how confident we were in an answer. And most other teams would make mistakes when it came down to the wire. One player would say they were confident when they were wrong, or a player would defer when they were right.
We kept winning and dominating. It was clear from that point on (to everyone serious about playing trivia in the Phoenix area) that team “DC” was the team to beat. They’d gang up and recruit ringers to try, but so far no one has consistently found a way to beat us.
Our Unique Formula for Success
I’ll take credit for building the team and keeping it together, and some for doing the hard work to stay on top by playing often enough to motivate the others. And there’s also a lot of effort that goes into keeping the team fun to play on and competitive by encouraging the right players to show up and cutting the negative ones.
But David himself is a team strength. He’s by far the strongest trivia player in Arizona. (There are two contenders I’m keeping a close eye on) David is also one of the hardest workers, similar to myself. And he’s very sharp. I think everyone around now knows he’s the best and many try to recruit him away. But he’s also loyal and knows what happened in the past when he tried playing with a different team. I’m sure it helps that I understand him and know how to work effectively with him, something that is a lot harder than it sounds.
A book could be written on David and no other subject could compare. He is unbelievably intent on winning. I’ve never met anyone who takes losing worse. He’s gotten better, but he is a very very bad loser. And yet, if you excuse that immediate moment when the crushing weight of second place hits him (it’s not very often that we’re not first), he’s a good guy. You have to understand his unique psychological need to always win. It’s something very very rare, maybe similar to what drove MacEnroe or Tiger Woods. But it causes him to work hard and prepare as much as anyone. Somewhere deep inside he thinks he can know everything, and when he finds out otherwise, he addresses it immediately.
David and I have very different minds. Mine is about concepts and relationships. I do not care about details as much as understanding difficult concepts. And so I only remember the major details, sometimes not with certainty. I guess I’m better than most, but David is in a different world. For example, I know that Babe Ruth hit “a lot” of home runs and that his record stood for decades until Hank Aaron surpassed it with seven hundred something in the mid 1970s. David knows the record was 714 and that Aaron hit his 715th on April 8th 1974 in the fourth inning off of the Dodgers’ Al Downing. I’m sure he could tell you the distance it was hit to within 10 feet and which part of the field it was hit to, what happened to the ball, which uniforms were worn, who was pitching for the braves, how many hits Aaron had that day, and so on. Most importantly, he would either know or not know every one of those details. If he said he knew it, he’d be exactly right, not off by one. If he said he was unsure, it was clear, but he could also guess with more accuracy than most people who actually knew the answer. If he did not know the pitcher he could develop an excellent guess. For example, he might know the roster, know that the record was broken on opening day, and presume that the Dodgers were pitching their ace that day. Knowing so much leads to great educated guesses. That’s David.
A New Cash Game to Conquer
In the summer of 2015 we got a huge break in Arizona. A local upstart trivia company and a nearby casino started doing a weekly trivia game. It was free to play and the prizes were cash! $500 for first, $300 for second, and $200 for third. And this was repeated every week and has gone on for two and half years now.
At first David was a bit apprehensive about this new game. He thought the cash would bring out the best players, many of who might not have been attracted to the bar trivia because they didn’t hang out in bars and didn’t care about winning bar tabs. He expected people similar to Ken Jennings and Alex Trebek to show up and humble us. I was more sure we’d stay on top, but I couldn’t deny his logic. There’s always a higher level somewhere. A big fish can become small in a new pond.
Surprisingly, few of the other good teams who played the standard types of trivia came out to play for the cash. Those that did come out, always did well. It’s a bit of a mystery why competitive teams would not want to play for all that cash. Maybe there was an intimidation factor or a reluctance to play at a casino. No such reluctance was justified however, there was no entry fee, no requirement to gamble, food was inexpensive, and it was always a very low-key atmosphere. The one requirement was to provide an email address and get a players reward card. That resulted in a single unobtrusive spam per week.
The one issue about the FRTL style of trivia that was hard to adjust to was the questions. Most questions were multiple choice and displayed on the video screens. That meant that the questions were mostly either very easy or very hard, so games are always tight and a lot of luck is involved. Teams that were accustomed to beating lesser teams consistently had to adjust to more chaos. And it was structured intentionally to spread the winnings out rather than favor a few dominant teams.
The other thing that was different were the type of questions. Along with typical trivia questions, there were price match, facial recognition, word puzzles, anagrams, crosswords, and so on. And there was a new level of truly trivial questions such as “How many bricks did it take to build the Empire State building” (seriously).
But it didn’t take long for us to adapt and become the most winning team. Among the 35 to 50 teams that played each week, we placed in roughly a third of the games. We were the only team to qualify for all 10 quarterly champions of champions tournaments, and we placed first to third in five out of six with a first and two second places. It took until the sixth season to finally win the championship trophy (as pictured above). [those stats are outdated now in 2017 as we continue to win]