Baseball players have their steroids.
Trivia fanatics have their smart phones.
The hand-held devices, a lifesaver for handling emergencies, checking e-mail during boring meetings and listening to music has a new role: trivia night crib sheet. Bar patrons are using Blackberries, Apple iPhones and all other sorts of cellular technology to get help answering questions about obscure 1980’s indie rock bands, NCAA bowl game records and other random queries, annoying competitors who play by the rules.
“Oh yeah man, it’s a major problem,” said Bernie O’Brien, manager at Fado’s, a bar in Annapolis.
It’s a combination of cutting edge telecommunication technology and old-fashioned cheating, a mix that violates the pub quiz commandment that answers shall only come from the crevasses of a player’s brain, not the ether of cyberspace. In the balance hangs a gift certificate for few bucks off a bar tab – always handy in a recession – , promotional loot like shirts and hats, bragging rights and other goodies.
Take the quiz for sinners and saints
And it’s an intellectual shortcut nearly every American old enough to drink can take. According to the Cellular Telephone Industry Association, nearly every American has the ability to cheat at pub trivia. By their count, 277 million people in the United States had a cell phone in June. And according to ComScore, a media consulting company, around 28 percent used a mobile device with 3G technology trivia quiz – cutting edge software and hardware that quickly allows people to search the web and figure out Ace Frehley’s real name (hint: Frehley was one of the more normal members of KISS).
People have always cheated on trivia night, but bar managers said that June 29, 2007 was a special day in dishonesty – the iPhone was released, creating a great intellectual equalizer.
“If you could pick between a Johns Hopkins scientist with a Ph.D. or a 17-year-old with an iPhone, who would you pick?” said Mike Morris, the quizmaster at Sly Fox Pub.
For trivia fanatics who play by the rules, cheating is a major problem, large enough to keep some, like Kim Gaver, from returning to some pubs where it seems that somebody at every table has their nose in their cell phone, mining for answers.
“They weren’t even being sneaky about it, it was blatant. It was so bad we never came back,” said Kim Gaver, referring to Heroes Pub, a bar just outside of Annapolis.
So she and her teammate, Lisa Anderson, relocated a few miles away to Fado, where there was still a problem but technology – or the lack of it – limited cheating with smart phones, Anderson said.
“The good thing about here is that we get no service,” she said while sipping a pint of Guinness.
Even so, O’Brien said he and staff members are regularly approached by people with accusations of cell-phone cheating. As such, his bar’s employees are mindful of scofflaws but careful not to condemn an innocent person as a cheater when they’re really just texting a friend, asking them to join them for the next round, he said.
In the last decade the cell phone industry has grown 400 percent
Morris said he looks for blue lights under tables, a good sign that somebody is using their phone to gain an edge. Another good clue is when a typically talentless team suddenly submits a stellar score.
“If a team that historically hasn’t done well suddenly has an awesome night, you know something’s up,” he said.
When a cheater is discovered they’re given a warning, O’Brien and Morris said. So far, neither has disqualified anybody, 86-ed them or bounced them out of the bar, both said.
And even if caught red-handed, violators try to play it off, O’Brien said.
“People definitely try to shake it off. But it’s like ‘Dude, I just saw you, you were on Wikipedia,’ ” said O’Brien, who admitted to occasionally cheating himself, at his own bar no less.
But O’Brien said is learning that as much as he tries to make cheating more and more impossible he’s fighting against more and more technology. For example, he said he’s going to introduce a name-that-tune portion to his routine.
But cheaters, if you want an edge on your competition, there’s an app for that, namely Shazam, an application for the Apple iPhone and iPod Touch. This program is capable of picking up parts of any recorded song, analyzing it and determining the artist and song title.
“We haven’t even started it but I’m pretty sure that’s going to be a problem,” O’Brien said.
Combating cheating seems to be an uphill battle, technology is never on the enforcer’s side and while not everyone has a phone that can search Google or Wikipedia, everyone can send a text message with a question to Google and get an inquiry, O’Brien said.
Kevin Stewart, president of Pub Quiz USA, said his company, which runs 15 trivia nights in Seattle and Portland, Ore., said he has a solution to cheating. First, at the beginning of the event, the quizmaster makes it clear that you can’t use your cellphone. However, if you must, really really must, you have to leave your table and your team and make all calls while standing next to the quizmaster. That way your conversation is being monitored and you can’t cheat, Stewart said.
But Stewart said that even that system has a weakness: Mother Nature.
“We can’t exactly stop people who dip into the bathroom or do something like that,” he said.
While easy, discreet and potentially profitable, sidestepping the rules needs to stop, if only because offenders instant become a special type of low-grade loser, O’Brien said.
“I really hope people stop. It’s $50, but you’re the guy cheating at pub quiz,” he said.