DC’s Trivia Scene Is Facing A Cheating Scandal

No sirens blared outside Red Bear Brewing Co. last week. No caution tape closed off the patio outside the bar. No cops roamed, no evidence was gathered, no patrons were turned away.

Yet a crime had occurred.

By the time The Washington Post arrived to investigate, a day after the scandal broke, the brewery looked as it usually does — millennials, mostly, sipping craft beers at sticky wooden tables, happy hour buzzing under the shadows of fermentation tanks. It’s a neighborly joint — the kind of place that stages Madonna vs. Gaga drag brunches and bingo nights hosted by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. But as patrons tipped back pints, the staff seemed on edge.

One bartender wanted to talk about what had gone down. Then he hesitated, turning to a supervisor. “Should you be involved in this?” he asked. “No,” the manager fired back. “And you shouldn’t be, either.”

Wise, probably, not to have anything to do with this kind of illicit activity. The sort of misdeed that can send shock waves through a town that thought it had seen every conceivable shade of corruption. A violation of basic moral convention. A transgression that could permanently change the meaning of a capital/capitol offense: Someone cheated at pub trivia.

A couple of someones, allegedly.

There were 42 teams playing trivia the night the crime became public. Jacob Rubashkin, a Red Bear regular for almost a year, noticed something amiss at the evening’s onset: There was no photo featuring the prior week’s winners on the brewery’s TVs. Then a slide appeared, warning players against cheating.

Then the trivia hosts addressed their audience.

“Don’t use Shazam on your Apple Watch to figure out the songs on the music round,” Rubashkin recalls one host saying. “Don’t throw your arm up in the air while Shazam is still on your Apple Watch so everyone can see that you’re using it to cheat.”

There had been speculation among competitors that the previous week’s winners, a two-person team that had been crowned champions several times in a row, were running a con. To regulars like Rubashkin, this seemed like a ghastly (if slightly validating) confirmation. They did cheat. Using Shazam! On their smartwatches!

Rubashkin took to X (where, somehow, all good D.C. gossip still finds a home) to expose the crooks. The story spread — on Reddit, in group chats, at trivia team tables, in the hearts of the many Type A’s who’ve made a home in this city, where our love for knowing the answers, for being right, remains unrivaled.

The outcry of appall was quick and judgy.

“How pathetic do you have to be to cheat at bar trivia?” one commenter asked on X.

“Cheating at trivia is vile sicko behavior and I will not rest until the cheater is brought to justice and shamed out of town,” chimed in another.

The next night at Atlas Brew Works, where self-proclaimed nerds gathered for a Harry Potter-themed trivia night, some clad in the traditional Hogwarts uniforms, chatter tended mostly toward beer selections, magical spells and the fact that the BBQ guy ran out of brisket.

The only sign something was off came when host Hunter Stevens announced smartphones needed to be hidden during gameplay because “this is not Red Bear Brewing.” (Also, one team was named “Red Bear’s Golden Snitch,” but in full transparency that team belonged to a reporter on this story and did not get the laugh he hoped it would.)

Below the surface though …

“It’s annoying and lame,” Christian Hunt, owner and founder of the Capital City Showcase, the company behind the Harry Potter trivia night, said in a follow-up phone interview. “Unfortunately there are pathetic jerks out there so desperate for free stuff, they’re willing to cheat at bar trivia and ruin the game for everyone.”

Trivia matters in Washington. Sure, it’s a boon for bars, playing a key role in attracting customers post-covid, when everyone had gotten used to staying in. But it’s also a way to connect, despite living in a lonely city, in our lonely times. While some folks have rec sports leagues (read: Volo heads), others make friends, unwind and build relationships over questions about Hogwarts houses.

Of course the people of D.C. root for the Caps and the Nats, but deep down our sport is trivia. The city has never shied away from its status as an alumni hub of former academic decathletes, Model U.N. diplomats and class presidents.

Which raises the question: Who would break an honor code in a town full of honor roll kids?

And, perhaps more importantly: Why?

The folks at Red Bear, we knew, had intel. We just weren’t sure we’d get them to talk.

But Simon Bee, who co-founded the 7,000-square-foot brewery in 2019, was happy to hop on the line. Unfortunately, he wouldn’t say much.

The name of the team caught cheating? Not comfortable sharing. The name of the trivia hosts who made the bust? Not comfortable sharing.

He was willing to say, though, that this is the first time in five years of Red Bear trivia that anyone’s been caught cheating — and that the offenders (now confirmed) have been banned from playing, though they’re still welcome in the establishment, if they can face the public scrutiny. He also says he’s surprised by all the attention.

“I’ve been calling it Triviagate,” Bee says.

With no leads on the offenders, we returned to the question of motive.

Triva’s fun, right? A leisure activity? What would make someone sacrifice their dignity for a four-pack, a $10 gift card and a Red Bear red bear plushie?

Michael Blake, a philosophy professor at the University of Washington who teaches a class on ethics, posits the reason someone might cheat at pub trivia and the reason it can stir up true feelings of anger and hurt might stem from the same place: It’s a voluntary activity, often done with a group of regulars.

He evokes Sayre’s Law: “Emotions get more heated when the stakes are comparatively small.”

A weekly trivia match at a bar is a repeated act of social engagement. Players know each other. They look forward to the evening, to the gathering. “It’s a community we’re building together,” Blake says. So cheating feels “less like an ordinary wrong and more like a betrayal.”

When someone cheats on a test, you might shrug your shoulders. They found a way to beat an institution. When someone cheats in a board game, it’s a personal affront.

“The people that we worked with and see on a face-to-face basis have destroyed something we care about and helped create,” Blake says.

Perversely, the community aspect of trivia might be the exact element that drives people to cheat. What the culprits are after, suggests psychologist Jessica MacNair, is the feeling of superiority to their peers. (Sound about right, D.C.?)

MacNair, who’s lived and worked in the Washington area for more than 20 years, says the crime should be considered in the context of the city’s culture. “People here feel a lot of judgment and pressure to succeed and perform at extremely high levels,” she says. “We dedicate a lot of time to high achievement and success in the ways that I think other cities around this country don’t.”

A trivia win, no matter how ill-gotten, could still feed the winner’s ego. “They can feel empowered,” MacNair says. “It’s possible that this is a group of people that doesn’t feel that in other aspects of life.”

On the other hand, maybe it’s simpler. Maybe they really want free beer. Or maybe there’s a thrill of cheating and not getting caught. The low-stakes danger of it. “You might feel an enormous sense of satisfaction at getting away with something,” Blake says.

And maybe they just cheat because they can. Because the answers are all right there at their fingertips. (Or, in this instance, wrapped around their wrists.)

Today, most pub trivia sessions actually require the use of smartphones to submit answers. It’s only ethical restraint that prevents players from using the same technology to retrieve answers.

Yet Nick Groves, founder of District Trivia — a company that runs more than 40 weekly trivia nights at venues throughout the DMV — doesn’t think the gadgets are to blame.

“From my anecdotal observances there might be less cheating going on,” he says, “because people are more hyper-aware of the fact that you have your phone in your hand.”

But that doesn’t correspond to any decreased suspicion of cheating.

Groves recalls a game District Trivia hosted at Bark Social, a dog cafe with a location in North Bethesda, Md., when a team rolled in 20 minutes late, missing the first round completely before demolishing the competition by the end of the event. Of course, the accusations were swift. What other players didn’t realize: that was a team of “Jeopardy” alums.

A week after the scandal broke, the cheaters’ identities remained a mystery.

Reckless internet sleuths had dragged other teams names through the mud. Was it Gays in Space? Or Destiny’s Children? (It was neither, The Post confirmed, still refusing to let Democracy Die in Darkness).

Undaunted, we headed back to the scene of the crime, hoping that answers would reveal themselves in the harsh light of another trivia night.

The impropriety was still fresh in everyone’s minds. The room buzzed with theories, stories and anticipation. And players had grievances.

“It’s petty theft,” said Sean O’Neill, a member of the group (Caitlin Clark Cuties Club) that would go on to win the evening’s coveted first place spot.

Other players thought they should be retroactively compensated. One equated the situation to Russia’s state-sponsored Olympic doping scandal. But no one seemed to be able to pin down exactly which team had actually done the cheating.

“They know what happened. They know what they did,” explained host Logan Stone, who’s also a regular on the D.C. drag scene. “They know that they’re not allowed back.”

And maybe that’s punishment enough. Maybe it’s time to move on, to resume play and let just one question go unanswered.

That was the tack Stone and his trivia co-host took on Wednesday night. More or less. They turned on their mics, hushed the ruffled crowd and announced that the theme of the evening’s game would be scandals.

There were questions about Lance Armstrong and Theranos and Lori Loughlin’s college admission gambit.

Toward the end of the event, as players identified songs about betrayal, the crowd united to belt out a rousing chorus of Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats.”

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