Nothing frivolous in duel of bar trivia entrepreneurs
The coup to seize control of Boston’s bar trivia industry began with one word: boring.
In one corner we have the longtime ruler: Stump Trivia, a company begun in a Marshfield basement 13 years ago that now hosts 150 weekly team trivia competitions at local bars.
In the other corner is Geeks Who Drink, a Denver upstart that invaded Boston in the spring with an ambush: Geeks’ founder, John Dicker, sent a letter to all of the Stump bars, calling its style of trivia boring. “Seriously boring.”
When the dust settled and the bar lights came on, something unthinkable had happened. The Geeks had stolen Trivia Will.
Per capita, Boston is the bar trivia capital of America. And “Trivia Will,” Will LaTulippe, is the biggest host in town, a fact he will gladly tell you.
A scrawny, hyper-articulate 29-year-old with shaggy hair and an intentional Casey Kasem-esque radio voice, Trivia Will has something of a cult following in Allston, where he hosts three trivia nights at the White Horse Tavern and a fourth at Harry’s Bar and Grill. He is one of the few trivia jockeys in the nation to make it a full-time job.
Over the past seven years, as Stump helped build pub trivia from a bar special to a bar staple, LaTulippe emerged as its star trivia jockey, known for a style that was part ’70s gameshow host, part unfiltered rambling. As one fan wrote on Yelp, “He is one of the most awkward humans on the planet.”
He obsessed over the questions. He took radio voice classes to improve his delivery on the mike. He studied the pop charts to make sure the music for each of his events was fresh. And he considered Bob Carney, the 43-year-old who created Stump in his father’s basement in Marshfield, as more of an uncle than a boss. If Boston is a Stump company town, then LaTulippe was a Stump company man.
So when John Dicker sent that letter to the bars that hosted Stump nights, criticizing Stump’s basic formula of “ask a question, play an entire song, ask a question, play an entire song” as boring, LaTulippe took offense. He does not like being called boring, and he did not welcome this out-of-towner, which specializes in frenetically paced and profanity-laced trivia, on his turf.
When he heard Dicker was coming to Boston to make his pitch in person, LaTulippe demanded a sit-down. When they met, Dicker openly acknowledged that Trivia Will was the king of bar trivia in Boston — he is the only trivia jockey to host four nights — and so he began the process of trying to steal him (and his bars).
“It’s just like the Red Sox going after a star pitcher on the other team” is how Dicker characterized it.
“It’s more like Roger Clemens going to the Yankees,” was how Stump founder Bob Carney took it. “I guess it’s just business, but let’s just say that if I went into Denver, this is not how I would have conducted myself.”
The courting took some time. For months, LaTulippe continued to defend Stump, and went so far as to write a letter to the editors of the Boston Phoenix, questioning their methodology after they named Geeks the “Best Trivia Night.”
But Dicker was persistent, offering LaTulippe more money — he says he makes about $150 per event — and a management opportunity with the company. In September, LaTulippe made the jump.
Bar trivia has become a big business in this country, a proven way to get people to sit and eat and drink on weeknights. There are over 2,000 trivia nights nationwide. It’s even more popular in the United Kingdom, which has more than 10 times the number of quizzes. More than 40 percent of the UK’s many, many pubs host a weekly quiz.
The modern American game began in Atlanta in the 1990s, when a company called Team Trivia popularized the idea of competing in groups. Carney first saw the game while living there, and when he returned home to Marshfield he created his own version, wrote his own questions, and sold it bar by bar. Establishments pay Stump a tiered fee based on the number of teams that compete, starting at $110 for an event with up to six teams, then rising $25 for each additional six teams.
Before Geeks Who Drink launched its assault, Carney had built a near monopoly. After a year of “aggressively marketing and harassing people,” said Carney, Geeks has claimed 20 local bars, including six who switched and six who added a second night in addition to Stump.
Carney said that what Dicker is missing is that Stump is designed to fit the Boston bar crowd. The slower pace, he said, is intentional. There are four rounds of four questions, and teams must bet on the likelihood their answer is correct. There are also bonus questions, and a picture round that features 10 photos that must be identified (e.g., Name these movie characters with moustaches). After each question is asked, a song is played while teams confer on the answer, which leaves time for groups to talk and socialize.
Geeks Who Drink is very different and is closer to the rapid-fire UK model. There are double the number of questions, including audio and, increasingly, video rounds, plus bonus questions that require people to huddle around the host and shamelessly hustle with paper and pencil to be the first to write down the answer for a free beer. Dicker’s mantra is that there is more trivia in the trivia.
Since LaTulippe made the jump from Stump to Geeks Who Drink, an interesting thing has happened: His legendarily large attendance is down.
“Will has always thought it was the ‘Will Show,’ ” Carney said. “Well, Will is still there, but the game has changed.”
There has been some grumbling from White Horse regulars since the switch was made, causing LaTulippe to write an open letter on Facebook to his critics — he is a prolific Facebook writer, and uses the site as a place to publish his internal monologue — about why he was never going back to Stump. “Consider this to be a divorce,” he wrote. “Sometimes mommies and daddies stop loving each other. But you, the players, are my children, and I will always love you.”
Geeks recruited him, he wrote, because “they know I’m the best trivia guy in Boston.” And while he admits he couldn’t figure out why there was so much swearing or why they read three rounds at a time, he said he planned to take a “screwdriver” to what they do. “We’re not going to have a show where I ask one question and play one song . . . but is that really necessary?”
The answer to that question, really, comes down to Trivia Will. More questions means more time for LaTulippe on the mike. Where some find his awkwardness endearing, others find his uncensored commentaries just awkward.
“If people can’t deal with my honesty, I suppose it’s on them,” he said recently. “I am a Boston trivia institution. I am a star.”
In his mind, there is no question.