20th Century Faux: Knuckle-brain

Metro Magazine: Auckland, New Zealand, June 1995.

Steve Braunias finds help with his addiction is a phone call away.

GOOD LUCK TO THEĀ new casino when it opens, but nothing is going to tear me away from the high passions and low miseries of playing Double-Up Trivia.

Even as I write, my eyes flick towards the telephone, and it’s like my fingers have a mind of their own – probably in the knuckle – as they itch to reach over and prod the 0900 number that will put me back in touch with the Double-Up Trivia gambling experience, which so far has won me the sum total of 16 lousy bucks. My losses to date? Not exactly the shirt off my back, but enough to put a warm singlet under that shirt.

A gambler feels the cold like no other creature on Earth.

Well, there’s a sucker born every minute – and every minute of Double-Up Trivia costs $2.49 (plus GST). Kids, ask your parents first. But the attraction of the game goes beyond its promise of precious loot. Almost subversively, and with a bizarre mix of the primitive and the sophisticated, it offers gambling as home entertainment.

The show is entirely prerecorded, and yet it crackles with live excitement. Two hosts lead you through a series of multiple-choice questions which are punctuated by anxious pauses. Time is money, of course, and Double-Up Trivia is in no hurry to get anywhere. You are left hanging on the phone, lost in a void. Like characters out of Pinter, the hosts make powerful use of silence. The effect of their finely judged performance is to turn a bunch of trivial inquisitions into an outstanding work of avant-garde drama.

In short, I’m hooked on the stupid game. My knuckle-brained fingers just keep on calling, and the voices of the show’s hosts fill my head with greed and worry, and rather explicit visions of revenge when I lose. I’d actually been warned about these symptoms a few weeks ago, when I ran into a middle-aged fellow from Gamblers Anonymous who was delivering junk mail along my street.

The poor wretch had ruined his marriage and a lucrative marketing career because of his habit; episodes involving embezzlement and cheque forgery had led to a prison sentence. I invited him in for a cup of tea. Although I’m ashamed to admit that I kept a close eye on my chequebook, he was pleasant company and I found it interesting to hear that most addicts favour one particular betting activity. His own weakness was for poker machines.

Interesting, but irrelevant to my own blameless life – until I discovered the dar-ing avant-garde broadcasts of Double-Up Trivia.

It’s very easy to play. All you need is a touch-tone phone and a head crammed with useless information. Appropriately, the two hosts model themselves on Newsnight’s Alison Mau and Marcus Lush: the female host plays the straight man, who announces such serious issues as the rules of the game, while the male host is left to riff through a zany series of multi-choice questions.

His initial brain teasers are always the same. Who played Crocodile Dundee? What was Georgie Porgie famous for? What kind of animal is a Friesian? Push_ the correct digit on your phone, and con-gratulations! You have now won $2 and proved that you are not a complete cretin.

From there, you are given 15 minutes to play double or quits. The excitement mounts. The pauses on the other end of the line stretch to anguished infinity. Steady your nerves, for God’s sake, because Double-Up Trivia is about to introduce its secret weapon: a substitute quiz-master, who sounds as though he has all the wisdom of the ages, or at least possesses higher degrees than Gisborne’s weather.

Like the stereotyped image of a retired professor, he’s a doddery old bastard. But the sense that he is about to ask absent-mindedly for his pipe and slippers is misleading. You can almost hear his false teeth slushing around in his mouth, and then he comes out with sharp, intelligent questions which he plucks from his sprawling fields of expertise. History. Physics. Archaeology. Not for him the embarrassment of asking whether a Friesian is a cat, a pig, a cow, a horse or a fish.

It’s my ambition to beat the professor at his own game. All right, it’s true that I want to stick his pipe up him and take a pair of pliers to his false teeth. But such acts are only passing fancies. I admire his contribution to Double-Up Trivia and take my hat off to the game’s effortless hold on the imagination. It probably deserves New Zealand On Air funding.

Still, I really should stop tuning into this mad little masterpiece of private broad-casting. I saw my friend from Gamblers Anonymous delivering more junk mail this morning, and he looked awfully cold in his shirtsleeves.