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Should phones be used at trivia nights? A D.C. cheating scandal begs the question

Bar and pub trivia originated in England, but it's become a popular past time in the United States over the last twenty years.
Charles Krupa
Bar and pub trivia originated in England, but it's become a popular past time in the United States over the last twenty years.

Updated April 19, 2024 at 14:15 PM ET

A recent scandal rocked Washington D.C. – but it wasn't the political kind people are used to seeing in this town.

This one may sound trivial to most, but it was a big deal to the participants of the weekly trivia night at Red Bear Brewing Company – and possibly a good reminder of why old-school methods like simple pen and paper might be more reliable in the digital age.

A team that had won the previous week was caught cheating during the music round of a trivia night earlier this month at Red Bear. The team allegedly used song recognition app Shazam and was immediately banned after the bar managers discovered its members cheating.

But catching cheaters in the future may be an uphill fight for Red Bear and other trivia venues. With smart phone use in trivia becoming more and more popular, it's easier to cheat and harder to catch culprits in the act. Paper and pen ballots have become less popular, but they can make it harder to cheat

The most popular method for bar trivia can make cheating easier

Bar trivia nights have become a popular cultural pastime in the United States. The event started in the United Kingdom in the 1970s, but has made its way into bars and breweries in the United States over the last 40 years. Trivia nights tend to attract large crowds — Red Bear has about 40 teams participate every week — and bars get paid wellfor providing booze and snacks during the two-hour event.

Some venues, though, have phased out the classic pen and paper methods that participants use to turn in an answer before the clock runs out.

People compete in Red Bear trivia nights by using their phones, which player Victoria Alves says can lead to people cheating.

"Everyone just has their phones out which means that sometimes people cheat," Alves said "But it also means that people will record you cheating and turn you in.

Howard Gelinas, a coordinator at Trivia Kings, a D.C trivia league that uses pen and paper said that the most popular methods for cheating are going to the bathroom or looking things up on your phone. And, there's really nothing anyone can do to stop cheaters.

"It happens, it's going to happen, and there's really nothing anyone can do if they want to stop it," Gelinas, who has been coordinating trivia for the last 15 years, said.

Gelinas says that phones have become more popular because it makes counting scores and keeping track of teams much easier, especially when over 20 teams are participating in a weekly trivia night and hosts don't want the game to go longer than two hours.

"Cost effective strategies involved with using a phone are fantastic," Gelinas said. "They're getting a great return on that, at least on the surface."

But plain old pen and paper don't always solve the problem of cheating. For one, it takes a much longer time for hosts to calculate scores, which can make games go on for longer. And sneaky people can always glance at their phones or go to the bathroom for a quick Google search and write the answer.

Still, Gelinas prefers pen and paper because at least it feels a little less like people are cheating.

"For the last 15 years of trivia, people see phones out and they're like 'Oh, they're cheating,'" Gelinas said.

Why would someone want to cheat at trivia?

"I think it's happened once or twice, but like, people apologized and we moved on. But this one blew up," Logan Stone, one of the three co-hosts for Red Bear's Wednesday night trivia said.

Stone thinks that one of the reasons someone might cheat is for the prizes – Red Bear offers free drinks and merchandise for the winners of each round.

"Sometimes they want the gift card, sometimes they want the free booze," Stone says. "I think people who like the rush of winning don't want to feel like they don't know something."

Others think that people cheat because they are competitive – especially at a place like Red Bear, where trivia goers are regulars, and see the same faces every week.

"It's about like, 'those m–fers right there have won three times in a week, we have to take them out, this is ridiculous," Gelinas said.

Bars have to rely on the players to hold each other accountable, which Allen and Stone says is how teams usually get caught: another team will let the hosts know if they catch someone looking up an answer on their phone.

"We're not kidding when we say we have eyes everywhere," Allen said.

The fact that people are catching cheaters also helps the trivia goers feel like the game is fair.

"At the end of the day, they got caught," Brad Hamilton, a regular at Red Bear's trivia nights, said. "So I guess the systems they have in place work."

And, at the end of the day, cheating doesn't really take away from the experience of trivia.

"Our main purpose of being here is to hang out with your friends. It's not necessarily winning," Bella Gabriel, who has been playing trivia at Red Bear for two years said.

In fact, a little scandal makes it fun.

"I'm here for the drama," Alves said, adding "I'm also here for the personal high road situation of like, we don't cheat, and we're going to continue winning things without cheating.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Mansee Khurana
[Copyright 2024 NPR]