Good Questions

Good Questions

Jimmy Smits. ing JIMMY SMITS! I knew it, of course, just not in time to answer the question, “What actor replaced David Caruso after he left the cast of NYPD Blue?”

Such is the fun and frustration of Trivia Night with Big Boy Trivia & Games, hosted by emcee and company owner Craig Ventura and offered every Tuesday at Next Door restaurant. During a game last week on Election Day, my teammates and I played five themed rounds—“Musical Personalities,” “Current Events,” “Opening Lines from Famous Books (Audio Round),” “Reality Show Catchphrases” and “Random Trivia”—offering 10 questions apiece. We competed with nine other teams that filled the middle dining room, with noms de guerre including Wages of Sin, Mambo Nos. 1-4, Let’s Be in the Corner and saucy but topical Oops—I Thought This Was Erection Day. My team’s name, The Friends of the New Haven Animal Shelter, abbreviated FOTNHAS, was prosaic by comparison, but it won a smattering of applause when announced.

Each question is presented twice, but the pace is fast. Rather than shouting out answers, players are expected to write them down and turn them in after every round, at which point the correct answers are revealed and 10 points awarded for each. At the end of Round 5, there’s a bonus question; get it right and double your score for the round, or get it wrong and lose all your final round points.

It’s painful but fair to say that FOTNHAS tanked, with a middling overall score of 310. On the plus side, we scored 9 out of 10 on “Famous Books.” We also performed respectably with “Music” and “Random Trivia.” The other two were Waterloos—and even if I could call up Paris Hilton’s catchphrase on “The Simple Life” at a moment’s notice, I’d be loath to admit it. No team scored on the double-or-nothing bonus question, “What year was Gianni Versace murdered?” (1997), but expert teams Mambo Nos. 1-4 and We Voted, at 420 points apiece, had to play a tiebreaker: “How many steps are there to the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa?” Though neither arrived at the exact number—294—We Voted came closest at 235, earning the first prize of a large cheese pizza courtesy of Next Door. (Second prize was a voucher for two drinks, third prize a bottle of wine.)

Throughout, Ventura kept the proceedings light, lively and smooth in an easygoing manner that suggests he was born to the role. Actually, he fell into it. He started by playing trivia at Anna Liffey’s in 2007 while working (for fun) as a DJ at former Internet station Ultra Radio. “When the Black Bear Saloon opened in New Haven, one of my fellow DJs was asked to host trivia nights there,” Ventura says. “He asked me to co-host.” When his colleague decided to attend graduate school instead, Ventura took over. Pretty soon, he was working not only Black Bear New Haven, but also the Milford, Norwalk and Hartford locations, five nights a week.

He’d discovered a passion, but it took a sympathetic girlfriend to get him to act on it. “I had an office job I didn’t like at all,” he says. “My girlfriend told me, ‘Quit. You already have your next path.’ I said, ‘Give me 90 days. I promise you I’m out the door.’” By March 2012, he’d become a justice of the peace, a wedding DJ and owner of his own trivia events company, with six clients and two co-workers. “It was terrifying and amazing at the same time.”

Now, he has 10 weekly clients, including New West Café in Westville, Dive Bar in West Haven and, in Milford, Eli’s Tavern, Plan B Burger Bar and Bonfire Grill, the calendar rounded out with monthly gigs at IKEA and a couple of northern Connecticut wineries. He currently employs five other emcees and still hosts games himself up to five nights a week. “I pay my staff well enough that it’s a great second job for them,” Ventura says. “Some of them have been lawyers who told me, ‘Being an attorney pays off law school bills, but this puts extra money in my pocket.’ It’s a lot to keep going, but I don’t have to wake up to an alarm clock every day, and that makes it worthwhile.”

Big Boy prides itself on creating games with broad appeal. “There are companies out there that cater to a younger demographic, but I prefer to mix it up a bit,” Ventura says. “Just looking at the room in Next Door the other night, there were participants from baby boomers to Gen Z. You have to find a way to reach everybody.” That attitude, he’s found, has bred loyalty. “I have some trivia regulars who have been coming to play since they were teenagers accompanying their parents, who now are getting married and asking me to DJ at their weddings. Some of them are bringing their own kids. I can’t tell you how many lifelong friends I’ve made in this business.”

I certainly intend to return, and not just because Next Door’s garlic knots, spicy Brussels sprouts (with hot honey and goat cheese) and house-made salmon burgers are worth the trip. It’s a joy to participate in such a convivial atmosphere, not to mention one where you can learn what year the first Air Jordan sneakers were released and what genre of music causes cows to produce three percent less milk.

Big Boy Trivia & Games
Website | Trivia Calendar

Written by Patricia Grandjean. Image, featuring Team FOTNHAS, photographed by Doug Coffin.

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