School’s out, but factoids are in

Trivia night scorekeeper Steve Grant (left) and host Joel Bates, both educators, tallied scores at the Old Timer in Clinton last week as Jennifer Frommer, a contestant, submitted a team response. Some 200 weekly trivia nights are held across New England. Trivia night scorekeeper Steve Grant (left) and host Joel Bates, both educators, tallied scores at the Old Timer in Clinton last week as Jennifer Frommer, a contestant, submitted a team response. Some 200 weekly trivia nights are held across New England. (Christine Peterson/For The Boston Globe)
By D.C. Denison
Globe Staff / July 1, 2009
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As a trivia question, it would go like this: “What profession is shared by a majority of the trivia night hosts in Central Massachusetts?’’

The answer: teacher.

But they would never put that question before the Tuesday night trivia crowd at the Old Timer Restaurant in Clinton. It’s too easy.

After all, the host one recent evening, Joel Bates, is an assistant principal at Florence Sawyer School in nearby Bolton; the scorekeeper, Steve Grant, works for him as a second-grade teacher. At least a half-dozen other teachers were in the standing-room-only crowd.

Now that school is out, and with no playoff games drawing crowds around the flat screens, it’s peak season for trivia nights, the weekly, low-stakes contests that restaurants and bars host to swell the crowd on weeknights.

The diverting, brain-teasing events are particularly popular with college kids home from school and teachers on summer break who want their beer and burgers with some, but not too much, mental stimulation.

Trivia night hosting provides an entertaining summer job for teachers, who, it turns out, are uniquely qualified.

“When you think about it, it makes sense,’’ said Bob Carney, a trivia night organizer with “about 10’’ teachers in his stable of hosts. “Teachers are knowledgeable. They know how to control a room full of people. And if you can handle a 10-year-old, you can handle the occasional drunk.’’

Teachers are also authoritative, Carney said, and that helps minimize disputes among trivia fiends.

Another reason teachers end up running trivia nights: Many are avid and successful players.

Bates was on a team of teachers that competed in trivia contests at the Kinvara Pub in Allston during the late 1990s. “They were dangerous,’’ recalled Mike O’Neill, who ran the bar’s trivia night in those days. “They would win every week. I used to call them ‘the cerebral assassins.’ ’’

O’Neill, who now organizes 16 trivia nights around New England, said that roughly half of the hosts he employs are teachers. As with musical acts, the pay varies by the size of the room and the thirst of the crowd, with a host generally making $100 or more a night in folding money.

Trivia nights pay off more significantly for the venues, which pay the hosts and any promoters’ fees. “Trivia took my worst night and now it’s my second-best,’’ said Brian McNally, the Old Timer’s general manager. “We used to gross $250 on a Tuesday night. Now, we average around $1,500.’’

Bates and his original teammates all host trivia nights in Central Massachusetts. During the last few years, as the events have steadily proliferated - there are now around 200 held every week in New England - a number of their colleagues have gone from participant to host.

At the Florence Sawyer School alone, six teachers are involved with trivia: five hosts and Grant, the scorekeeper. “Good teaching is often about showmanship. You have to present a question in a way that holds people’s attention,’’ Bates explained, as he sat in his office after school one day last week. “That obviously works for trivia, too.’’

Florence Sawyer principal Kenneth Tucker is supportive. It’s not surprising. His son, Jaime, a teacher at Nashoba Regional High School, hosts a trivia night on Thursdays at Chuck’s Steak House in Auburn.

In addition to weekly trivia nights, the Sawyer teachers often hold the events as fund-raisers for local education-related causes. Bates also organizes trivia nights every summer at Confratute, a summer enrichment conference for teachers at the University of Connecticut.

Team trivia, in which groups of up to five gather to compete in an atmosphere of easygoing socializing, has been growing steadily in the Boston area since around 1996. But for victory, the rewards are modest. Top prize at the Old Timer’s trivia night is a $30 gift certificate to the restaurant itself; fourth prize is $1. Most participants spend as much energy table-hopping as they do cogitating over questions.

Bates can often spot the teacher contestants by their team names. “ ‘Praying for Snow Days’ and ‘Lost my Milk Money at Recess’ - definitely teachers,’’ he said.

He believes that trivia nights are therapeutic for teachers. “We spend our days urging students to think deeply about complex ideas,’’ he said. “And then that night, we’re at a trivia event asking, ‘Who was the lead singer for Def Leppard?’ ’’

“We’ve got a lot of factoids in our head,’’ added Mike Breslau, a seventh-grade social studies teacher who stopped by Bates’s office. Breslau hosts a trivia night at the Tavern on the Common in Rutland, Mass.

One gig feeds another, Bates said. A few weeks earlier, listening to a third-grade book report, Bates learned that William Howard Taft was the only president to serve on the Supreme Court. “Good trivia question,’’ he thought.

Breslau was working on a geography project with a student when he noticed that there are two countries that are “double landlocked,’’ surrounded by countries that are themselves landlocked.

“I immediately thought, ‘I could use that,’ ’’ he said.

“That’s a good one,’’ Bates said. Spoiler alert: One is Lichtenstein. The other is not Switzerland.

Promoter O’Neill appreciates the academia/trivia connection. “We like to use facts that come from middle school and high school,’’ he said. “State capitals. We love doing periodic table questions. People have that in their brains somewhere, which is what makes trivia fun, but teachers are around that stuff all the time.’’

Teachers simply can’t help flexing that professional muscle, O’Neill said. “Often, teachers in the audience will suggest a minor improvement, a refinement or minor correction, to a trivia question I just asked,’’ he said. “I always listen to them. They’re usually right.’’

D.C. Denison can be reached at