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Lounge Wizards Find Intoxicating Pastime

Leisure* In televised trivia games, tavern and eatery patrons match wits with rivals nationwide.

July 17, 2002|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On Wednesdays and Fridays, Kim Ludwig and her friends go to their neighborhood bar, not to drink or even to flirt, but to show off their formidable powers of recall. They go to play televised trivia games. So committed are they to their sport that during the NBA playoffs they begged the bartender to switch channels--even Shaq and Kobe were no match for their favorite game on the bar TV.

Their pastime of choice is besting thousands of other players at as many as 3,600 bars and restaurants in the United States and Canada by answering such questions as:

"The Thar Desert is also known by this name: (1) Great Indian (2) Death Valley (3) Empty Quarter (4) Great Sandy (5) Painted Desert." (Correct answer: 1.)

Ludwig and her friends are part of a community that relies on NTN Network, a Carlsbad, Calif.-based company that produces and transmits trivia programming. The network attracts 6 million players a year, 500,000 of them hard-core, according to 45-year-old Mark deGorter, the network's president and chief operating officer. And 30,000 to 40,000 new players tune in every month.

A real estate investor and former ostrich rancher who laughs derisively when asked her age, Ludwig has been playing trivia at TGI Friday's in Woodland Hills since May 1995. She was newly divorced, she recalled, "and I decided I needed to get a life."

Televised trivia gave her a legitimate reason for sitting at a bar, striking up conversations with strangers who also knew which of the following utensils are not used by cooks: "(1) zester (2) vitrine (3) skimmer (4) colander (5) trussing needle." (Correct answer: 2, a glass showcase for art objects or curios)

When the Wednesday game begins at the stroke of 6, Ludwig and half a dozen others are crammed together on one side of the square bar, oblivious to the clamor and courtship going on around them. Their eyes are fixed on the TV screen, their fingers hovering over the buttons on their electronic answer boxes, or Playmakers, as NTN calls them.

The network transmits a different themed "premium game" each night of the week, with specially tailored questions. Mondays feature sports trivia; Saturdays, Spotlight, a show-biz trivia contest for the date-night crowd. Games are broadcast live, and players compete in real time against devotees from Maine to Florida, Vancouver to Southern California. The highest individual scorers and top locations are announced at the end of every game.

The network produces and sends 15 hours of trivia programming a day and is the world's largest out-of-home interactive television network, according to DeGorter.

So seductive is the pastime that players have been known to sneak out of work early to play and have rescheduled their weddings rather than miss a favorite game. DeGorter said that the FBI once subpoenaed play records of a suspect whose alibi was that he was playing televised trivia.

"My best all-time score, I was ninth in the nation," Ludwig recalled. She also remembers her most humiliating defeat, failing to choose blueberry as the official muffin of her adopted home state of Minnesota.

"The game either brings out your spirit of camaraderie or it bring out vicious competitiveness," said Ludwig, whose nom de trivia is Cheers.

At Friday's, play is intense, but bonhomie is the dominant attitude. Bar trivia is a subculture unto itself, in which players who avoid alcoholic beverages to stay sharp are known as "tea sippers." Ludwig, who often nurses a Scotch and water or Captain Morgan's rum and diet Coke as she plays, can drink and win at the same time.

The handle Pegisu flashes on the TV screen, showing that lawyer and mediator Peggy Sue McGinn has won the round at Friday's.

"When people win here, the others do the wave, they clap or they say, 'Way to go,' " said Ludwig. But bad losers happen.

"I've seen people storm out," Ludwig said. "I've seen people throw things."

Players begin by punching their "handles" into their answer boxes. When a question appears on the screen, players have 20 seconds to choose an answer.

Speed counts. If you answer correctly in the first three seconds, you get 1,000 points, fewer if you're slower.

In the view of bar-entertainment analyst Kevin Seddon, televised trivia is appealing because "people like to answer questions. They like the competition. It's social and interactive, and you're able to do it in a bar, while having a drink, so it satisfies a whole range of social needs."

NTN's operation is unusual in that it is played in a bar or restaurant, unlike trivia games played on home computers, said Seddon, 36.

And unlike coin-operated trivia games, NTN broadcasts live and doesn't charge players, said Seddon, whose Mississippi-based Oxford Publishing produces Nightclub & Bar, Restaurant Marketing and Beverage Retailer magazines.

The network justifies charging bars and restaurants $600 a month by citing a 2000 study it commissioned from a Michigan marketing research firm that found that players spend a median $35.50 per visit, 47% more than nonplayers.

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