It might seem like Princeton students would be cracked at trivia. Here be College Jeopardy players, quiz bowl whizzes, even a couple Slavic majors. We like to think we’re all nerds. We like to think we’re pretty good at knowing useless things. Trivia might be a fun way to boost our egos with something that doesn’t matter.
This is all basically true. It’s also true that trivia provides something different for Princeton students: An outlet where we can rip our friends, enemies, rivals, significant others, and distant acquaintances to shreds.
Each Wednesday night, eighty-some undergraduates gather in the Rockefeller College common room at 9:30 p.m. to attend Rocky/Mathey trivia night. The event is run by three Rockefeller College resident graduate students, Benny, Melvin, and Arthur, who come up with questions and serve as emcees.
Once you become a regular at trivia, a few things become clear. You’re going to see people you know. The same teams show up again and again and again, and typically show up towards the top of the leaderboard. Some go by the same name every week, usually mediocre puns: Agatha Quizteam, Nash Equilibrium. Others switch around, but you know them by face if not by name. One previously competed as Felly but more recently as Jaké; another high performer was once memorably known as Male Nipple.
How do you feel about trivia?
I love it, says Benny, the RGS who serves as the senior organizer of Rocky/Mathey trivia night. It’s one of my favorite events.
It’s a really delightful event, says longtime trivia player Juju, where we get to get all of our aggression out… just a primal scream kind of environment. It’s very healthy.
There are times when, I think, folks could do with taking it a tad less seriously than they do, says Benny.
It’s addicting. It’s magical. It’s the best night of the week.
A typical game goes something like this.
You walk in and the air is loud and yellow. People are everywhere. There are the grad students on the far left preparing the board, there are the chips and pretzels and lemonade on a table right in front, and your eyes cast upon the crowd, linger on an acquaintance or two—he’s here? she’s here?—before landing upon where your team waits, sitting. They didn’t get the good couch this week. Bummer. Half of them are on the floor.
Greetings are exchanged perfunctorily. Everyone’s day was fine, but we have more important things to worry about—has someone picked up a score sheet? Does anyone have a pen? One of my teammates scratches down the name Trivia Traitors, front and back. After a moment, she adds a cartoon heart.
We get a pretty consistent group, mostly from Forbes, mostly sophomores, occasional frosh and special guests. Looking across the way, our sister team is here too. Our friends, rivals—part of the same social constellation. Sitting far away, but one of us might go over to talk before the game starts. They go by a few names, usually Big Enough, sometimes Peter Town or Duck Faniel.
Why that last one? Not important.
All ready and Benny is starting to read out the first round of questions. Eighty-some students in a room with friends and unchecked adrenaline don’t typically quiet down. But when Benny speaks, there is eerily complete silence.
Each round has ten questions; in Round One there are no themes, so they can be about anything. The first question asks for the name of some obscure foreign leader from the 1990s. Everyone looks over to Jude, our resident foreign affairs expert. Every once in a while there’s a pop culture question for either Linnet or Grace, history or geography for Juliana. Tim gets math and science, sometimes correctly, and I’m supposed to do literature stuff.
All ten questions are read out, first once, then again. Linnet writes down a word or two to remind us of what was asked next to each answer box. There are no hints in trivia, no multiple choice. You know the answer or you don’t. The grad students put on two songs to discuss and write out answers, give us minute and thirty-second warnings before taking the scoresheets back.
This time it’s a bit of a head scratcher. At the end of the round, we’re all staring as Melvin marks down scores—
Five points. Eh. Not our best round, but hey, we’re fine.
That is, until we look at the scoreboard. Both Better than Sex (nice) and Male Nipple have eight points each. This early on, a three-point differential might be problematic.
We look at each other. We lock eyes. We can fix something in Round Two.
It’s the same as Round One. Ten questions, read out loud twice, time to confer, no theme.
No, we do not fix things. We actually do worse: Four points total—look at the scoreboard, Male Nipple and Better than Sex have six each. Not looking good.
There’s still one chance for redemption: Round Three, the picture round. The third round is different from the first two in that the questions aren’t general knowledge. Each team is instead presented with a sheet of paper with ten images. They are then asked to identify something in the pictures, whether that be character, subject, or more quirky: Which person dated all of these celebrities?
For us Traitors, the picture round is fairly boom or bust. We either get all ten or a measly two or three points. But if we do get all ten, we have another trick up our sleeves: For one of the four rounds each team can “joker,” doubling their points for that round.
It’s a big risk. You only get one per game, and in order to win you have to use it correctly. Still, this represents an opportunity to make twenty points and catapult head-over-toe past our inadequately-named rivals.
Melvin announces the theme: Oscar nominated movies. We look at one another. A shout breaks out.
This is our round.
Looks like it’s stills from each film. A lot of them are pretty obvious, we get them in a second or two. The one with blue people? Avatar. The one with an old guy and period lighting? Probably Elvis. The one with Paul Mescal? Aftersun. The weird, half-animated one? That’ll be Marcel the Shell with Shoes On. The Banshees of Inisherin, Everything Everywhere All at Once, and The Fablemans go similarly quickly. The space guy stumps us initially, but Linnet points out at the last minute that it’s got to be Top Gun: Maverick.
(I wouldn’t know. ’Cause only I watch films.)
Which leaves only the one at the end. Number 10. It depicts— a lava flow? The National Geographic logo? What?
(Well. I don’t watch documentaries…)
Someone says something like, Our Burning World.
Sure. That’s fine. Just put it down.
Time is running out and we’re looking back at the answers. It all looks good and then Tim, who is not a movie person, says Hey. I have an idea. For some reason, I feel like ten is Fire of Our Love.
(What?) (That sounds really dumb.) (Yeah.) (Sure.)
Does anyone have something better? I mean—
So we put it down. There’s a thrum in the air as the score sheets are collected, as the organizers start correcting and as Arthur steps up and reads out the answers. Starts off as expected: Banshees, Fablemans, whatever, whatever, whatever.
You get a sense of the room. When a team gets a hard question right, you hear them shout. Every once in a while people mess up a question they expected to get, and there’s a collective groan, low and angry. Pretty quiet this round; we make eye contact with our rivals, they make eye contact with us. No real emotion for better or worse.
Tensions ratchet as time progresses. Question eight, question nine, so far we’ve gotten everything right. And we’re basically blowing it off at this point. eighteen points with a joker isn’t super bad, it may not be super great but it isn’t super bad either, right?
Arthur reads out the last answer.
Fire of Love.
A perfect twenty round is the best feeling in Princeton. Maybe the best feeling in the world.
We might actually catch up on this one.
Then we look at the scoreboard. Both Better than Sex and Male Nipple also got the perfect twenty.
We lost that night. Five of us were sitting around moping, half-eaten bowls of pretzels, glasses still sticky with lemonade, sitting in strange positions, waiting for the night to be over so we could walk back to Forbes dejected.
The most exciting thing that happened was in the last round. One of the big teams, Agatha Quizteam, had turned in their score sheet late, after Melvin read out the theme and started reading through answers. Massive party foul. When everyone else in the room noticed, they started booing, lowing like cows or a chorus of hungry ghosts.
At the end, maybe masochistically, one or two of us went over to look at the top scores. Better than Sex and Male Nipple tie for first with forty-four. Both teams cheered when they found out—happy, obnoxiously happy. Agatha Quizteam, party foul aside, got third and Nash Equilibrium got fourth. We were a paltry fifth, thirty-eight points from a maximum of fifty-four.
A horrible performance.
That is, until we looked at the other teams. Around where they were handing out prizes—usually only a candy bar or two, but you play for the bragging rights—there were around twenty people clustered, milling, chatting, self-congratulating, and taking team pictures in front of the scoreboard. Gross.
Wait— how many people? We look at one another. There are five of us. The maximum team size is six. If two teams tied for first, and the maximum team size was six, then there should be no more than twelve people standing up there.
There were a lot more than twelve people standing up there.
We look around, and the other big teams, Agatha Quizteam and Nash Equilibrium have around ten players as well.
Well per capita, we got like twice as many of them.
Yeah but we’re not playing per capita.
I, for the record, was the voice of reason.
Hey guys, we’ll just beat them next time. It’s fine.
Maybe if we also have ten people.
And then the fateful thing happens. Tim looks across the room. He sees them, the two teams, the two cringey winning teams, smiling like there’s nothing better in the world than winning a game of Rocky/Mathey trivia.
He yells: nice ten-person team.
They don’t hear us at first. Then other Traitors join in.
It’s always good to see ten person teams winning. Yeah. We like that.
Really great job with your ten-person team!
At some point we get on their nerves. One of them shouts back: Nice losing team!
Damn, says Tim. Can’t say anything to that.
The end of trivia might be the best part. Talking with friends, mingling with our sister team. I’m close with ten or so regulars, and it’s nice to see their faces even if it’s only once a week, 9:30 p.m. at night on Wednesdays in the Rocky common room.
It’s a lot of fun, I said during my conversation with Benny. And it means a lot to all of us.
Oh, I’m glad. It’s supposed to be fun. If it ever becomes not the case that the dominating dynamic is fun, then we have to shift something.
No no no. The dominant dynamic is always fun.
I chat with an acquaintance on one of the winning teams, hang around a bit. Then the Forbes crowd breaks off and we walk home in contemplative silence. Mostly. I do say one thing.
Next week. We’re going to play by the rules. And we’re going to win.
The next day, I was running three minutes late for my CPS appointment when I heard someone call my name.
Daniel? Are you heading to class?
I turned around.
Um yeah, kinda.
We were in the middle of the McCosh Walk, right next to Washington Road. Just an acquaintance of mine, not someone I knew super well.
We should talk about something. If you have a second.
Because what do you do if someone you sort of know comes up to you, fixes you an intense stare, asks you to talk? What could it be about?
It’s about trivia. Last night.
Then it made sense.
If your team wants us to change our behavior, you guys do not talk to Benny. You do not yell at us from across the room. You talk to us. You ask us and we figure things out. It’ll be more fun that way. For everyone. Got it?
Do you got it?
I nodded feebly.
Okay. Good. Then I’ll see you around.
She left, and I hurried off to my appointment.
When I got to trivia the next week, there was a big sign right at the entrance, done up in blue permanent marker:
MAX TEAM SIZE: 7 people
Please don’t make us yell at you <3
I have a good feeling about this week. No ten person teams, thank god; the team formerly known as Male Nipple has a paltry four members, looking sullen in their corner.
No, the bigger threat is our sister team, today known as Peter Town. Right over there, giving us the stink eye. A friend of mine once described them as “all men.”
I used to play with them, actually. Sometimes I still get asked by an especially enthusiastic member if I’m, quote, coming home.
The answer is always, no. Because I play to win. If that means switching teams, so be it.
The first few rounds go very well. Almost perfectly, actually. We get a full twenty on the picture round again, but so do a lot of others. Still, it looks like we’re ahead, in first place.
Most importantly, we’re ahead of Peter Town. Well, it’s not super important. We don’t absolutely have to beat them, we don’t actually take it all that seriously.
But hey. Winning feels nice.
They are close enough to catch up, so it’s all up to the fourth and last round: The theme round. It’s similar to the first and the second rounds in that the first nine questions can be about anything. But all those answers are related, obviously or unobviously, to the theme. The 10th question is always “what is the theme?” and worth five points (but can’t be doubled by a joker). We tend to be pretty good at these, but Peter, of Peter Town, is a specialist. So we buckle in.
Which 1960s girl group is known for the song “Be My Baby”?
This twentieth president of the United States came into office after James Garfield was assassinated.
In American folklore, which figure was said to bring water to wounded soldiers during the revolutionary war?
When Melvin and Arthur come around to clarify questions, we ask for half of them again. Still stumped.
Then some of the easier answers start to come together. Percy Jackson. Ginny and Georgia. Georgia (the country).
Harry Potter characters.
No, no. It’s gotta be… Weasleys.
From there we get all, or almost all of them. The band has to be the Ronettes. Juliana gets the president as Chester Arthur. And for the folklore we have no clue, but there’s only one Weasley left, so we just put down Molly. We turn in our sheets.
So how did you guys do? asked a member of our sister team afterwards.
Not bad. Not bad. But we’ll have to see.
Benny reads out the answers. We look at the scoresheet, and there it is, a full fourteen points.
Peter Town got the theme, but not much else.
What the fuck. The Ronettes?? There’s no way you guys knew Molly Pitcher.
Well. Hey. We got points for it.
That week we won. That week we were the ones to cheer obnoxiously. We were the ones to get our pick of lame prize candy, we were the ones to take a cringey group picture in front of the scoreboard. We were the ones to thank the RGSs and walk back gloating. We won. Fair and square.
Never mind the fact that I did talk to Benny last week about the team sizes. Yeah. That was me. So what?
And never mind the fact that this was the week before midterms, that Agatha Quizteam and Nash Equilibrium weren’t even there. Whatever. Doesn’t matter. This week, we won. There is nothing sweeter.
But next week is always another game.