The yellow glow of beer lamps casts a jaundiced pall over the faces at the bar, all staring intently at the television screen in front of them.
Before each is a machine that resembles an early electronic calculator, much larger than the slim, hand-held models of today.
As a question pops onto the television screen, players at the bar full of seeming accountants lean forward, their fingers positioned over answer buttons on the clunky calculator contraptions.
A newcomer strolls in, puts his hand on the shoulder of one of the people and asks, “Who’s winning?” Just for the record, he was not inquiring about the Houston Rockets, who were stomping opponents on another TV screen at the bar.
Folks at Al’s Sports Bar & Grill were focused on the next question on the other TV screen: “Goldie Hawn starred in all of these films except …” More and more, bar-goers in Houston and across the country are staring transfixed at television screens with questions and answers on subjects ranging from rain forests and racy films of the ‘50s to Renaissance writers and religious shrines.
“It’s addicting,” says Steve Johnson, who plays regularly at one Houston bar. “And it’s educational - it’s not the same pinball game over and over.”
In the trivia games, a question appears on the screen, followed by five possible answers. The score starts at 1,000 and decreases each second while three rather corny clues appear, allowing players to change responses according to the clues. The quicker the player chooses the correct answer, the more points he or she gets. If, after the 20-second answer period, he’s got it wrong, he loses 250 points.
“If you were visiting the famous Casbah, where would you be? “India “Pakistan “Zanzibar “Morocco “Algeria” As players ponder the answers, the clues start.
“Don’t pack it up” “Not at the bar” “Call him Al” A brief statement about the answer follows. “The Casbah is a 16th-century fortress in the Muslim quarter of Algiers.”
The trivia and sports interactive games are offered through National Trivia Network, which draws around 12 million players each month to its various satellite-fed trivia contests at subscribing “hospitality centers,” an NTN euphemism for bars, hotels and restaurants. The games are broadcast seven days a week, 24 hours a day.
In Houston, where NTN first appeared three years ago, about 60 establishments have the games. Many offer the answer boxes, called Playmakers, for free. Other bars charge $2 or $3 a night to rent a Playmaker. About 3,000 businesses in North America offer NTN.
“It’s a big draw,” says Al Roemerhauser, who has 20 playing boxes for his 40-seat bar, Al’s, and is considering getting 10 more. “People who might not normally go to a bar come and play all night.”
And, of course, if they sit at a bar, they’re going to order drinks and possibly food.
NTN outlets participate in weekly trivia tournaments, in which bars compete against other bars throughout the United States and Canada.
Individual players can see how they stack up against other players in the bar - and against everyone else who is playing at that moment in North America. The leaders’ names, locations and scores appear regularly on the TV screens.
NTN is also available in Australia and South Africa and is poised for installation in the United Kingdom. Differences in time zones, however, prevent bars in those locations from competing with those in North America.
Players can win trips to Paris or Madrid by excelling at the travel and geography game, Passport, or trips to the Super Bowl, Kentucky Derby or the NCAA Final Four through sports interactive games.
Recently, NTN became available on the Internet through America Online.
And the 14-year-old company, based in Carlsbad, Calif., has been working with Hasbro, the maker of the board game Trivial Pursuit, to develop a computerized version of the game that will be available in the next few months.