What I learned from team trivia

March 28

Mike Tamarin looks at me from behind a pair of functional glasses. “That’s my legacy,” he says wryly. “Running this team.”

Tamarin is a Washington, D.C. contract attorney mired in short-term legal assignments. He’s also the leader of the trivia team “I’m on a Boat.” It’s one of the several serious, dominating trivia squads that roam the District. He is a motivator, a pusher and a promoter. A Don King of trivia.

“I’m looking for people who are playing to win and have the warrior spirit,” Tamarin says.  “We’ve got a team of people who are hardcore, and show up every week to win.”

Tamarin draws on a standing rotation of around 12 professionals to assemble his eight-player team. They regularly roll through many of the roughly 70 D.C. bars that open their doors weekly to the alphabet soup of JDs, PhDs and MBAs battling for intellectual supremacy in a casual atmosphere. 

Tamarin is the friend of a friend, and tonight at Arlington Rooftop he shows me the underbelly of the D.C. trivia scene. He has watched the game grow in the city over the past decade, and in that time he has amassed an eclectic collection of mega minds who are as dedicated to each other as they are to victory.

I’m a leadership author, so my own esoteric interest is in studying the alchemy of winning teams—and that’s what prompted me to seek out Tamarin. I decided to find out if there’s something to be learned about team dynamics and high-pressure performance at, yes, even a rowdy bar’s trivia night.

As the game begins, low-profile teams of young professionals hunch over tables littered with wings, burgers and drinks. Tamarin and his teammates ask me to play alongside them through the evening. They have a swagger, and I take their invitation less as a vote of confidence than as a way of emphasizing that there’s little any outsider can do to disrupt the existing chemistry.

“If you can get enough people with obscure knowledge, regardless of what it is, the mathematics fall in your favor,” Tamarin explains.

But it’s trickier than just bringing in smart people and letting them answer questions. It’s the safe space Tamarin has created for disagreement that makes them a formidable team.  According to Chris Battista, a corporate lawyer and an “I’m on a Boat” mainstay, “the biggest obstacle to a high-performing team is trust.”

The format of team trivia naturally dilutes confidence. Even if you’re pretty certain someone is wrong, it’s daunting to call into question the engineer or policy wonk on either side of you, especially when the clock is ticking.

Tamarin’s strategy: Welcome input from everyone, but look to subject-matter experts to break ties. “We’ve beat a lot of seven-person teams with just four guys,” Battista says. They have learned that a streamlined unit of trusting intellects can outperform a larger, less unified group. 

The process of finding the best players for “I’m on a Boat” is nearly as vetted and exhaustive as Major League Baseball’s farm system. Tamarin identifies talent by listening for those in his professional and personal circles who have a noticeable interest in one specific subject, or several. “You don’t have to be a genius,” he says, “you just have to be curious and have a good memory.”

Once he identifies a possible player, Tamarin invites him or her to one of the roughest games in town, D.C. Improv trivia. It’s the perfect trial. Run by comedian Chris White, the game can be demoralizing. Jokes are made at the expense of individual players. The questions are challenging and patience for wrong responses is slim.

“More people than not don’t come back after D.C. Improv,” Tamarin says.

Players like Tony Pham have made the cut, though. By day, Pham works in IT for United Health Group. By night, he regularly drives down from Baltimore to showcase his trivia wits.

The Arlington Rooftop game that I’m visiting follows the standard trivia format: 10 rounds of 10 questions that increase in difficulty as the game progresses. The best teams take the game in the final rounds, outpacing the competition as the questions become more demanding. Yet the early-round questions, often focused on pop culture, can trip up teams that pride themselves on more obscure bodies of information, costing them critical points.  The challenge for “I’m on a Boat” has been to include players who can answer those low-brow questions.

The weakness was on display this night. “What classic movie monster is named after the director’s lawyer?” The emcee asks.

The question frustrates Battista and others, who deem things too pedestrian to be worth knowing “oblivia” rather than trivia.  As a general philosophy, Tamarin says, “I let the team run itself.” But his leadership does extend in ways beyond organizing and inviting players.

“No, that’s not oblivia,” Tamarin calms the group as they wrestle with the emcee’s question. “That’s a good question.”  Teammate Melissa Harto and some others keep focused, then offer “Jaws.”  They’re right and get the points.

The one subject the team actively recruits for is this type of pop-culture knowledge. The tradeoff is that these players are typically younger, and often lack experience and commitment.

For Battista, who is still groaning about the stupidity of a “Jaws” question being asked during a trivia match, commitment isn’t an issue. His interest is something of a calling—an insatiable hunger for information and knowledge that started rumbling at a young age. “It’s a lifestyle thing,” he says.

As the Arlington Rooftop game winds down, “I’m on a Boat” pulls further ahead of the competition. “What vegetable was worshipped by the ancient Egyptians?”  The team quickly agrees, “onions.”  They even try to correct the announcer when he says that basketball was created in Boston. A minor controversy ensues.

By the end of the game, Tamarin’s team dusts their rivals by more than 50 points. He congratulates his players and leaves the table to collect his team’s prize: a $30 gift certificate used to defer dinner expenses. I stay seated for a moment, looking at this ragtag after-hours group, and thinking that leadership and teamwork really do play themselves out everywhere.

Dan Leidl is a coauthor of Team Turnarounds: A Playbook for Transforming Underperforming Teams.

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