The skills needed to solve the quizmaster’s quandaries: A working mastery of organic chemistry, knowledge of bad Woody Allen movies, familiarity with old-school rap lyrics and the ability to recognize previous electoral maps.
“And then I thought, we could do something with the Fibonacci sequence!” Mehrun Etebari schemed.
This is how your bar games are made. As Etebari’s friends soaked up sun in the final days of official summer, the 29-year-old sat in front of a computer putting the finishing touches on his weekly bar trivia quiz. Contestants at Stetson’s Famous Bar & Grill thirst for mind-benders as much as they do Miller Lites — and depend on Etebari to deliver them.
Five years ago, Etebari was a “Jeopardy!” champion. It was a childhood dream, the culmination of poring over world atlases and tucking away every morsel of everything he’d learned, the coveted apex of nerddom.
So what happens to the deep well of knowledge after your dream is fulfilled?
You host trivia.
You spend weekends cutting and pasting music clips from Nickelodeon shows. You make copies of head shots of celebrities who are speaking at political conventions. You begrudgingly search for mug shots of male porn film stars.
“The team that comes in third place gets to choose a category [for the following week], so they decided to rib me,’’ said Etebari, explaining that last tawdry topic. “I did find a way of doing this without seeing anything I didn’t want to see.”
Stetson’s, a dimly lit saloon that has survived three decades of change on the U Street corridor, leaves the duties to Etebari.
“This is our biggest night of the week,’’ said Angela Pieri, the bar’s general manager. “And Mehrun always comes in so prepared. He even dresses in a suit!”
He didn’t tell them, until months into the job, that he was a “Jeopardy!” champion. For five days in a row.
Etebari is a stout 5 feet 9 and tends to speak in a monotone. During the day, he does research for a think tank. The teams who play his game often whisper to themselves that he looks a little bit like Aziz Ansari, the comedian who co-stars in the sitcom “Parks and Recreation.”
It’s hard for him to rationalize his quixotic quest for omniscience. He relished it when his parents pop-quizzed him on random math questions. He delighted in knowing the capital of Burkina Faso (Ouagadougou). By the time he was 8, he was watching “Jeopardy!” with a pen and paper, keeping track of his scores and wagering for the final round as if he were playing with the TV contestants.
“There comes a point when you realize you can’t learn everything,’’ Etebari said. “But there’s a lot of fun in trying. So I just like learning a little about a lot of different things.”
By 24, he played on “Jeopardy!” and was so successful that he gained a page on QB Wiki, the quiz-show world’s version of Wikipedia. His total winnings, $128,100, rank as the 22nd highest in the history of the game. Not that the money changed his lifestyle: It went to pay off graduate school in international studies at Yale.
In the many trivia games played at various District bars, Etebari hopes his stands out. First of all, it’s really hard. And Etebari said he tries to follow the first rule of trivia: Even if you don’t immediately know the answer, there might be enough clues in the question for you to guess it.
The true test of knowledge, he said, is to be able to use parts of what you do know to figure out what you don’t know.
Every week, Etebari labors eight hours to conjure up eight categories, 10 questions each. They include a current events roundup, a picture quiz, an audio quiz and a final round of 10 questions with answers that are subtly linked to one another. The best teams get about two-thirds of the questions right.
“I could just ask things about things I’d be interested in, like Islamic history and European soccer,’’ Etebari said. “It’s D.C., so you need all the political questions and whatnot. But the base has to be really wide because so many people have secret passions about so many things.”
There isn’t much fame to this. There’s not much wealth either: For all the work, he gets a stipend that’s barely three figures and free Allagash Curieux ale from the tap.
A few minutes before 7 p.m., the bar is buzzing as friends gather at tables, ordering tater tots and slurping beer. Playing tonight are all regulars — friends who work together on the Hill, a group of graduate students who have all studied in China, an affectionate couple who happened to be in the neighborhood.
The team names each week are irreverent and wonky, including “Isaac: Partying Like It’s 2005” and “SpongeMao Squarepants.”
The chatter hushes when Etebari takes the microphone. He asks about the keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention (Julian Castro, mayor of San Antonio) and who rapped the now-infamous lyrics that rhymed Mitt Romney, economy and Miami Zombie (Nicki Minaj). He asks them to name the compound also known as methanoic acid, or HCO2H (formic acid).
“What?” a contestant complained.
“My high school chemistry teacher talked about it in class one day, so I figured it was fair game,” he responded.
He asks the contestants to name that tune (“One Sweet Day,” “One Week,” “It Takes Two,” “3 a.m.”) and then the pattern, in which the next number in the sequence is the sum of the two numbers preceding it.
One contestant was so upset he missed the question that he banged his head on the table. “The Fibonnaci, of course!”
On that particular night, the crowd called him out for being wrong. The dispute revolved around the year of an electoral map that showed a Republican presidential sweep in every state but Massachusetts. Most figured correctly that the map was from 1972, but they were marked incorrect.
“I don’t know about politics but I know this has to be Nixon’s election year,” one contestantreasoned. When he was growing up in Massachusetts, he said, he remembers seeing bumper stickers with the phrase: “Don’t Blame Me, I’m from Massachusetts.”
The challengers were right. Etebari blamed the mistake on a typo. Even so, he was thrilled that someone who didn’t exactly know the answer could figure it out.
That, he said, meant he was making good trivia.
If you have an idea for a story about the Washington area at night, e-mail Robert Samuels at firstname.lastname@example.org.