One Risk You Run at This Bar Is Meeting a Real Jeopardy! Winner
Here in the Shadow of Alex Trebek, a Wednesday Trivia Game Is a Blood Sport
SANTA MONICA, Calif.—In the dingy backroom of an Irish pub on a recent night here, six men booed as a quizmaster read out an answer over a lousy public-address system.
They'd been stumped, which was no small feat, considering that among them, they had won more than $3 million on 30 episodes of the game show "Jeopardy!"
"What about partial credit?" implored Cliff Galiher, a 25-year-old graduate student and the 2007 College Jeopardy! champion. "We got half of it right." (click below to read more)
Every Wednesday night at 8, former Jeopardy! contestants, wannabe trivia superstars and the occasional unwitting visitor squeeze into the backroom of O'Brien's Irish Pub and Restaurant—with its patchy lighting, stained carpets and faded Guinness signs—for a pub-quiz night like no other.
Bars in other cities—from Pete's Candy Store in Brooklyn to Stetson's Bar and Grill in Washington—have distinguished quiz nights, but none has O'Brien's combination of location, demographics and history.
"Jeopardy!" tryouts happen all over the country and contestants have come from across the U.S., but the show has plenty of locals in its contestant pool to act as backups in case someone cancels.
Also, the Los Angeles area is crawling with former show contestants and hopefuls. O'Brien's is only about six miles from Sony Pictures Studios, where 72-year-old Alex Trebek hosts the show.
"Sooner or later, once you've been on Jeopardy! you'll hear about O'Brien's and you'll show up," said Brad Rutter, a 34-year-old actor and the show's all-time money winner with nearly $3.5 million.
His only loss was during a showdown with Jeopardy! phenom Ken Jennings and Watson, an IBM supercomputer.
"It's sort of like a secret society for former champions," Mr. Rutter said.
Still, on this particular night, Mr. Rutter and his team were reduced to booing when they flubbed the question: "What do the logos of Best Buy, Napa Auto Parts and Denny's have in common?"
The team's answer, they are all yellow, wasn't good enough. For full credit, a team had to say they're set on yellow hexagonal backgrounds. Of course.
"Yeah, well, I said they were hexagons," mumbled Ken Basin, 27, an alum of Jeopardy! and "Who Wants to be a Millionaire," upset that his team hadn't listened to him.
This reporter's meager credentials as a two-day Jeopardy! champion back in 2005 won an invitation to play on a team stacked with Mr. Rutter, Mr. Basin and other former winners and O'Brien's regulars.
And yet in this crowd—including three other teams with multiple Jeopardy! champions, that was no guarantee of a win. Two tables over, a team bristling with former champs huddled around an honest-to-goodness rocket scientist.
When it began back in 1998, O'Brien's quiz was like any other bar-trivia contest, a gimmick to bring in customers on a slow night.
For a while, attendance was so iffy that organizers nearly shut it down.
Then one day in 2006, Alan Bailey, a 50-year-old playwright and director who boasts five Jeopardy! wins, brought two former champions with him to the pub's quiz night—and cleaned up.
Mr. Bailey had just competed in the "Jeopardy Ultimate Tournament of Champions," which provided a rare chance for the show's top performers to play against one another.
"I had wanted this kind of fix but couldn't find it anywhere," he said.
To hold on to that vibe, he started inviting other Jeopardy! luminaries to O'Brien's.
Word quickly spread through the close-knit Internet underground of Jeopardy! champions and devotees that the Santa Monica pub provided the camaraderie and exceptional challenge TV show veterans long for after reaching the pinnacle of largely useless knowledge.
"The problem with being on Jeopardy! is that's it, you've climbed Everest," said Ken Jennings, the show's most famous champion, who has won $3.3 million and is best known for his record-setting 74-show win streak, but who, he says with regret, has never been to O'Brien's.
"There's no Super Bowl or Olympics. That's the hardest part for most people."
And so they flock to the Santa Monica brew house to be among their own kind.
"When I play at O'Brien's, I'm the third best on the team on a good day," said Mr. Basin, to his laughing teammates. "When I play on my girlfriend's team, I'm a ringer!"
Each week's questions are written by a different quizmaster, usually a regular attendee who has been approved by the pub-quiz nabobs. Tonight it was Eric Barela, 37, a three-game Jeopardy! winner who sprinkles his quizzes with pop-culture land mines.
Finding a good balance between devilishly difficult and outright impossible is tough in a room full of trivia experts.
"Once I had a question about a 14th-century Middle Eastern historian," Mr. Barela said. "I thought it'd be interesting, but people just looked at me. It fell absolutely flat."
The questions this night managed to avoid a level of complete obscurity, but were still plenty tough.
A devious question asked: What numbered season or cycle of the following shows ended this past spring? "Mad Men," "Survivor," "America's Next Top Model" and "RuPaul's Drag Race."
The answers: 5, 24, 18 and 4 seasons, respectively, pushed the rocket scientist's team to near revolt.
"What about an answer within a range?" pleaded Dileep Rao, a one-day Jeopardy! champ notorious for beseeching softhearted quizmasters to cough up an extra point.
But, this time, there would be no charity points. "Dileep complains the most," Mr. Barela later confided.
Another question, "Which country, other than Israel, has a kosher McDonald's restaurant," set off a quiz-wide chain reaction of contorted reasoning and faulty processes of elimination. My one contribution to Mr. Rutter's team was the correct answer: Argentina.
At 10 o'clock, as scores were totaled, a band warmed up in the main bar, and a few tipsy patrons wandered into the backroom looking confused.
Mr. Rutter's team won, just shy of a perfect score. For that, a $75 credit was applied to their bar tab.
Maribeth Mason, 36, a one-day Jeopardy! champion, who works on microelectronics reliability for satellites and spacecraft, wasn't upset with her team's second-place finish.
Winning depends a bit on luck, since different teams have different strengths, she said. She can dominate questions about "American Idol," but her real area of expertise doesn't usually come up.
"There are never any questions about rocket science," she said wistfully.