Is this information age making us dumber? Jan Berkeley often asks herself that question while she stays up late hunting for facts, and she probably has a better idea of the answer than most.
Going down rabbit holes on the web searching for question fodder takes time, but she can’t afford not to follow the news. Her interests have to stay broad—it’s just as important for her to know how many rivets are in one tower of the Golden Gate Bridge as what Drake’s real name is (600,00 and Aubrey Graham, in case you were wondering). That is because Berkeley is a quiz mistress, running her own company, Triviolity, that creates tailor-made quizzes for fundraisers and bar trivia nights. After hosting more than 370 games, her general knowledge skills are Jeopardy-worthy. Acknowledging that most people consider it an unusual way to make a living, she still keeps her day job teaching art at St Martin of Tours School.
Why this thirst for knowledge? Berkeley said, “My parents insisted that I get a really good education, because they never had the chance.” So she attended a girl’s convent school growing up in the UK. Her father worked on tugboats in Liverpool, but her parents sold their house and emigrated to California in 1978 in search of a better life. She continued her education at community college and, while working part-time at Palo Alto library, achieved a masters in political science.
Her first experience with trivia was when she joined a team of three women called Macbeth at Britannia Arms in Cupertino over 20 years ago. She kept coming weekly, playing with several different groups. Occasionally, she would volunteer to produce her own questions for Fun Week. When the owner eventually asked her to take over in 2011, she jumped right in and has been doing it ever since.
“I even did quizzes for the bar on Skype when I moved back to England for a year,” said Berkeley, who was determined to keep her long-distance business alive. Many bars simply buy trivia games from large companies like Brainstormer, but Berkeley offers her players a personal touch. “My quizzes are a bit more challenging.”
And her trivia nights are very popular, filling the Brit to capacity most Tuesdays. Apps like Trivia Crack and HQ Trivia have really raised trivia’s profile and whetted people’s appetites. The format works well and is inclusive while being competitive—a kind of perfect storm of team building for nerds. “It isn’t just for nerds. Everybody knows something,” Berkeley said, arguing that every kind of knowledge is useful when you join a team. Many people feel intimidated, but that one question you know the answer to may just score the winning point.
“It isn’t just for nerds. Everybody knows something.”
Her games consist of four rounds, 75 questions total, and smartphones are not allowed. All players bring to the party is their own general knowledge. The questions can cover word play, video games, puzzles, anagrams, and plenty of pop culture. One round features music, playing stuff for all ages. With 22 teams competing in three divisions for glory and gift certificates, she has to keep things interesting. Admittedly, finding the sweet spot between fiendishly difficult and super easy is one of her challenges. An average score is about 87, so if the numbers dip far lower, she knows it was too tough.
Berkeley loves providing a unique social experience for Silicon Valley’s admittedly introverted population. The weekly trivia night has been really helpful to those new in town looking to make friends. One guy told her, “This is a highlight for me. I didn’t know a soul. You’re responsible for everyone I know in the Bay Area.” That makes Berkeley smile. Her regular meetups have proved encouraging to team members undergoing chemotherapy or recovering from divorce. Knowing that people have found friendship and support each week makes staying up late writing questions worthwhile.
So, in an age of endless information, Berkeley hopes curious people will come and try their luck with her questions. “Meet people, and exercise your brain. It is a safe, welcoming place.”
Triviolity game: Tuesday nights, 7:45pm
1087 S De Anza Blvd
San Jose, CA 95129
This article originally appeared in Issue 11.2 “Device”