An Insider’s Tips for Winning Bar Trivia

Rapid fire round: Do you like bar trivia aka pub quiz aka quizzo aka quiz bowl? Do you win every time? (If yes, stop reading, you lucky connoisseur of minutiae.) Would you like to win every time? Would you like some insider tips on how to quiz better? Please number your answers from one to four, and have your team captain submit them to Supercall for approval, because we’ve got the inside scoop.

We talked to Jamie Rosler, managing director of Quizzing North America and host of TriviaNYC for the past three years. A generalist with a particular fondness for ‘80s and ‘90s pop culture, as well as miscellanea from high school history, Rosler gave us the lowdown on crafting a winning team and nailing the nuances of bar trivia.

Assemble a Crack Team

A successful game of trivia begins before you even ever set foot in a bar. It starts with assembling a team of eclectic experts covering every possible category of useless facts. While everyone should be generally versed in contemporary pop culture and nostalgia from the last 30 years, there are certain specific topics that you should be sure to cover. For a 5-6 person team, Rosler recommends two to three general aces with a knack for rapid recall, and two to three niche experts. “You might have a friend who’s your sports junky,” she says. “Another person might have your arts answers. Then, if you can get a person who knows sci-fi, science or fantasy in your group, you’ve covered most areas.”

Make It a Team Effort

“I’ve never been on a team with an officially named captain, though I do know that’s a thing,” Rosler says, but she’s not a fan of the practice. If there is a captain, she says that person should probably be in charge of organizing the group, getting everyone to the bar and putting pens in hands. Beyond that, trivia should be communal. Admittedly not everyone will have a hand in every answer, but if a “captain” does invite you to join the squad, come prepared to contribute.

Step up When You’ve Got the Answer

Differing opinions can lead to a total breakdown of team dynamics. When a divisive question does arise, and push does come to shove, there’s only one real way to take responsibility: with the pen. Rosler explains it simply, “Someone becomes the person with the pen. Even if it’s not the same person for every question, the person who writes the answer holds a little bit more responsibility when it comes down to deciding the verdict—especially if there was some debate.”

Become a Trivia Regular

If your local bar hosts trivia every week, become a weekly regular. Not only will your skills improve with practice, but you’ll learn the particular ins and outs of that bar’s version of trivia, so you’ll know how best to prepare a bit before arriving. TriviaNYC, for example, always features a “This Day in History” round and a round devoted to music clips. Rosler points out that hosts often have a particular way of phrasing questions. Once you’ve become accustomed to that style, you won’t waste time deciphering the lingo while trying to recall John Wayne’s real name (Marion Robert Morrison).

Listen for Hints

Many TriviaNYC questions include hints hidden in the phrasing. If a question sounds weird or awkward, it probably is—for a reason. You may not be able to get the answer from a pun or subtle wording, but you could make an educated guess.

Never Leave an Answer Blank

“I always advocate for funny wrong answers,” Rosler says. “Don’t leave it blank. There are no points for wrong guesses, and it’s all for entertainment.” At TriviaNYC, some hosts have even been known to hand out prizes for the funniest answers.

Don’t Be Afraid to Clarify a Question With the Host

Between the background music, teams arguing over questions in stage whispers, and a not-so-pro sound system that makes everything sound like a transmission from outer space during a meteor shower, it can be a little hard to hear the host. You may have wondered in such circumstances if you can ask the host to repeat a question. Of course you can, says Rosler, within reason. “Understand that your host is a person, doing a job. They might not be able to repeat a question right away, but maybe they can come back to your table when the round is over,” she explains. “Just ask nicely and say please.” One thing you may not have considered: You can always ask how things are spelled, which can clear up any doubts or even provide unexpected insight.

Lubricate Your Brain (With Booze!)

“There’s strong scientific evidence that a little bit of booze opens up the inspiration part of your brain and can help you discover things held deep in your brain wrinkles,” Rosler says. Get the creative juices flowing and support the kindly bar that is hosting a bunch of competitive, crazed trivia nerds, by ordering a drink. As to what drink best stimulates the rapid recall and regurgitation of facts, Rosler leaves the cognitive behind: “Listen to your heart.”

Play with Friends

“The main thing is you’re there to have fun. Don’t go crazy trying to engineer the perfect team,” Rosler says, undermining our quest for bar trivia cheat codes. “You want to hang out with people you can eat and drink with, and have interesting conversations about the trivia topics.” You know—people you would actually like to go to a bar with. At the end of the day, bar trivia is supposed to be a fun way to pass the time in good company with engaging conversation. The pride of victory is just a (well-earned) bonus.