The art of the scam, or why I cheated at trivia night

Mullet journal

Mug illustration of Arts columnist Ryan McCullough.
Armaan Mumtaz/Senior Staff

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I came into trivia night with a belief in fairness. I left as a fiend. 

I cheated. To do this successfully, I crafted a narrative that night. I created a version of myself that could believably win at trivia. 

I did not plan to ruin the event’s competitive integrity. I came to be a hater. I love to put myself in situations where I know I will not have fun. The flip side is my inherent discomfort at events where I feel expected to enjoy myself. A series of grievances led me to practice the art of cheating. The sequence of events was admittedly minor. I was mostly interested to see if I could successfully get away with it. 

I arrived at 6:30 to a rooftop I might have been able to physically jump onto from the rooftop of my own apartment. The sun was in a bitter disposition, hitting the one spot on my ear I missed when applying sunscreen. There was no water. I only brought one can of cider because when I bring more, I end up giving it away, and I’m trying to be less generous. 

Around 15 minutes after I arrived, the instructions began. I can’t listen to instructions given outside of a work environment. There is arguably nothing worse than having to listen to long, drawn-out instructions for something I’m not getting paid for. The night’s host included a plea to refrain from cheating, which I eventually ignored. 

I started to get annoyed with the concept of trivia fairly early into the night. Successful trivia contestants are what stupid people think smart people are like. Besides, it’s rude to ask me a question I can’t answer. 

Somewhere around the halfway point, I became vocally miserable. Our team, christened Megan Fox’s Thumbs, was mediocre, nowhere near the bottom but an insurmountable distance from a top-three finish. The questions narrowed to become more and more niche. My one can was gone, and there was no water to be found. Was I in hell?

It was time for the last question. In hope of surpassing a measly 4th place finish, we decided to wager all our points on this last shot at a podium finish. The question read: “What is the official bird of the city of Berkeley?” 

My group realized none of us had a potential answer. This sudden realization of defeat shifted our strategy from answering with random birds to asking, “Should we just cheat?” Much like Eve in the Garden of Eden, our group wanted knowledge. 

The prizes were guaranteed to be mediocre, making glory the only real reward. I did a quick Google search, thereby biting into the apple. 

It turns out, the official bird of Berkeley is the barn owl. Oh man, was the forbidden fruit sweet. As I quickly erased my search history in case of a post-victory audit, this newfound knowledge coursed through me. 

Googling was the easy part, now came the hard sell — we had to create a backstory for knowing the city bird of Berkeley, and also maintain the demeanor of honest, sane people who wouldn’t cheat at a 6 p.m. trivia night. 

We talked amongst ourselves, deciding which one of us has the most grounded lie for knowing the answer to the final question. We fabricated a story in which one of my teammates has an uncle living in Berkeley who also happened to be an avid bird watcher. 

After this, we produced loud chatter to show how much we’re thinking about the question. We all took turns saying things that amounted to “I’m feeling pretty confident about this,” thereby setting the scene for our surprise victory. 

When the time came, we were announced as winners. I’m not capable of public displays of excitement, but my teammates were emphatic. God’s garden was on fire, but Megan Fox’s Thumbs would reign in hell. 

As we took the prize, tickets to mini-golf, barn owls hooted in despair. The assortment of snacks turned to locusts in our mouths. Plants, once full of life, shriveled — their life withering alongside the centuries-long integrity of competitive trivia. 

After potentially compromising my personal ability to be buried in a Jewish cemetery, we all had to schmooze our ways to believability. Answers to trivia questions from ancient nights shouted over each other in my brain. I had to act naturally, and everything would be fine. Act like a winner. 

Cheating my way to a first place finish at trivia night was a dark art. What happened was nothing short of an “Ocean’s Twelve”-esque operation. Just like Danny Ocean, I perfected the art of the heist. I’m an honest person. But that night, I learned cheating is easy. It’s actually the aftermath, the small series of lies and the consequent hours of acting that are hard. But not impossible. 

I don’t even think I like mini-golf.

Ryan McCullough writes the Monday A&E column on exploring the irritations of art. Contact him at [email protected].