He sharpens the pencils himself.
When Rick Saldin enters the British pub, trailing the giant suitcase that holds his audio equipment, he surveys the room. The regulars are already filing in. He unpacks the pencils, the answer sheets, the speakers that will broadcast his voice to the patio where people sit smoking.
Then, glass in hand, he makes his rounds. He sips Jack Daniel’s. He chats up the familiar tables. He’ll sit and have a drink, or visit while you eat. He uses the measured cadence of a game show host.
The quizmaster has arrived.
Q: What is the capital of Kansas?
Saldin has been running Monday quiz night at the Crown & Anchor Pub in Thousand Oaks for five years, and writing quizzes for eight. Along the way, he has built up a cult following. Anywhere from 80 to 100 people show up weekly at 8 p.m. to try their hand at trivia — no mean feat in a suburb not exactly known for its nightlife.
Kim Miller, whose family owns the Crown & Anchor, says quizzes are a common feature of pub life in Britain, but the trend has taken longer to catch on overseas. Meanwhile, several teams now show up an hour early for Saldin’s quiz just to get a seat.
“It’s a huge part of our business,” Miller says. “We love it.”
Part of the magic is Saldin himself, affable, playing to the crowd. And he knows his audience: too easy and people get bored, too hard and they become discouraged.
Q: In mythology, Chiron is the best known member of what group of beings?
The Crown quiz consists of five rounds of 10 questions each; teams grade each other’s answers after every round, like an elementary school spelling test. Teams buy in for $2 per person, and the winning team splits the cash. On a big night, that can mean a $200 pot.
A self-described “overachiever,” Saldin holds a medical degree and MBA, and currently crunches numbers as an accountant. But most important, he has a sense of humor. He almost always asks a question about The Princess Bride. Teams swear numerical answers often take some form of 42, the answer to “life, the universe and everything” in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. And he’ll slip in secret themed rounds, allowing canny players who discover the key to solve difficult questions.
It takes Saldin about six hours to write each quiz, but it’s more like a week-long process. He constantly keeps his eyes peeled for interesting tidbits.
“Once you start writing quizzes, you look at life a little bit differently,” he says. “Everything becomes a question.”
Q: What ship rescued the Titanic?
Laura and Emily Dale, 23 year-old twins, bicker the way only people who once shared a womb can. They and their boyfriends started coming a year and a half ago, until the fateful night when they lost by 30 points. They brought in reinforcements. Now the whole family — daughters, boyfriends, Mom and Dad — meet once a week.
Perhaps one of the more contentious teams — in that loving family way, of course — they’re constantly reassessing strategy. “We do this at home. We’ll bring up a topic and start arguing about it and looking it up,” Katie Dale says.
It’s paid off. The Dales have the distinction of winning the second-largest pot in Crown history, a cool $240. They had Saldin autograph their answer sheet. More lately, they’re happy to come in third place. “We’re always one or two I-told-you-so’s away from winning,” Laura Dale says.
Q: What political candidate was described as “no Jack Kennedy”?
The Quintessentials are the Cobra Kai of the Crown quiz teams, if Cobra Kai believed in fighting fair. Five players with 40 years of higher education and 50 years of trivia competition among them, they’re so good Saldin has started writing the quiz away from them to give other teams a fair shake.
A couple of summers ago, before they’d settled on their current name, they hit a major winning streak. Thomas Johnson, a chemist and one of their linchpin players, has missed only a handful of Mondays in five years. As he tells it, one night another player started ribbing them, asking what name to expect that week.
“I don’t know, how about Nine in a Row?” Johnson shot back. But, he admits, “I got mine, because we lost that night.”
The Quintessentials specialize in geography and movies. Luck is with them tonight: in the 1971 movie Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, where could you taste a snozzberry?
“They were just in some hallway,” Johnson says. He looks around the table, appealing to his teammates for confirmation. “It was like flavored wallpaper. You just lick it.” He scribbles down the answer.
“It’s either that or — wait, wait,” Johnson pauses. “It was the Invention Room. Because Veruca Salt was eating something, and he grabs her mouth like this.”
He erases his first answer, and writes down the Invention Room instead. Ten minutes later, Saldin gives the answer: “lickable wallpaper.”
Q: What Latin American country’s name means Land of Silver?
Avi and the Cosmonauts are trivia newcomers who’ve gotten hooked. A band of friends in their 20s, they mostly work at Amgen as business analysts; they mostly have computer science backgrounds. “We’re basically the same person seven times,” jokes Eugenia Kennedy.
One exception is Mitsuki Walters, the Japanese wife of Matt Walters. Come round three — what singer was the first person to have her AOL account shut down because she made death threats against people she thought deserved them? — Matt explains to her that AOL is an Internet provider.
The team bats around ideas. Sinead O’Connor? Bjork?
“Bjork would not do that!” says Matt Walters. “She would wear a swan dress, but she wouldn’t do that.”
“Courtney Love?” Mitsuki Walters suggests. “She’s crazy.”
The Cosmonauts score their highest yet that round, pulling in nine points — including one for Courtney Love.
Q: What is known as the universal solvent?
Warren Usui of the Quintessentials likes lists. A software engineer from Pacific Palisades, he can rattle off the Superbowl final scores on cue. Back in 2003, he even won $60,000 in four nights on Jeopardy, but he’s been out of work for more than a year.
As a child, Usui was a “last-kid-taken type,” he says. Bright but physically small, he struggled to fit in. Trivia became a way to cope. He developed a magpie mind, seizing on bits of information about sports and TV shows and storing them away for future use. Working those details into conversation let the other kids think he was one of them.
“It helped fitting in,” Usui says. “It helped for getting beat up.”
Q: Who was the first rapper to debut at number one on the charts while in jail?
Trivia has a way of getting under your skin. The immediate satisfaction of a correct answer appeals to the know-it-all in all of us. And on a team, there is pride in being taken seriously enough to gamble a point on your say-so.
Saldin sees himself as a teacher, guiding the crowd toward information he thinks a well-rounded adult should know. It works: miss enough African geography questions, and you’ll spend an hour studying Google maps so it doesn’t happen again.
And despite its British roots, there is something profoundly democratic about trivia: it’s always anyone’s game.
Q: What is the Latin term for “I think, therefore I am”?
Across the room, it’s been a tough night. Emily Dale is indignant after her family argued her out of a right answer. After starting strong, Avi and the Cosmonauts tanked during what Saldin admits is the hardest round. The Quintessentials goofed two movie questions.
Saldin collects the answer sheets. As usual, the spread is tight at the top.
The Quintessentials lose third place in a tiebreaker to the Crown and Wankers, the longest-attending team. They haven’t won in months. The room erupts into applause. Second place goes to the Philosoraptors. The $25 gift card will go toward the customary post-game chocolate cake. “And in first place, with 43 and a half points,” Saldin announces, “ . . . the Robotic Unicorns!”
The Unicorns are ecstatic. A young group of friends who bring their own answer sheets, complete with a watermark of a galloping unicorn, they’re delighted to place, let alone win. It’s Saldin’s philosophy in action: You don’t have to be a trivia-head to make a valuable player.
“If you just happen to know something that no one on your team knows, that’s huge,” he says. “You can prove to be the difference between winning and losing.”
Answers: Topeka, centaurs, Carpathia, Dan Quayle, Argentina, water, Tupac, cogito ergo sum. (All questions were used with the permission of Rick Saldin.)
The Crown & Anchor quiz is Mondays at 8 p.m. Saldin also runs a second quiz Tuesdays at 7 p.m. at Cisco’s in Westlake Village.