Guesses Over Guinness

The regulars love to subvert the contest. It's yet another twist to the city's toughest pub trivia night.

Question: Which chanteuse traded salty verses with Shane MacGowan on "Fairytale of New York," the Pogues' Christmas paean to the Irish of the Big Apple?

Answer: Kirsty MacColl.

Bonus question: How did she meet her tragic end?

If you know the answer (see bottom), you might do well on any given Wednesday night at Durty Nelly's, a no-nonsense Irish pub in the Sunset that's hosted a weekly trivia contest four years running. Trivia is a fixture at many a local bar, but Nelly's, an Irish anomaly amid the Asian grocers, tapioca-drink counters, and Russian knickknack stores on outer Irving, is a wee bit different.

First, the California smoking ban apparently doesn't apply to Nelly's, where a thick haze seems to reverberate to the Irish jukebox pop (plenty of Pogues, U2, and Van Morrison). Second, contestants can win big cash prizes, often $100 and more. Best of all, every team has a common nemesis: the Horny Toads, a group of six, seven, sometimes as many as 10 people packed into a booth. Too many chefs, perhaps, but their more-minds-the-merrier strategy works wonders. When our crew, Los Lefties Malos (an obscure reference to a Mexican baseball insult), beat them last summer, the absolutely lovely red-tressed bartender Sinead served our complimentary drinks and smiled. "At last someone's finally defeated the Horny Toads," she said, pronouncing the final words something like "Haerney Toeds" in her enthralling brogue. Indeed, if it weren't for Sinead's steady presence, we're not sure Los Lefties could stomach the frequent pain of losing to the Toads.

While other pubs spot the punters an easy time with prizes for best team name and fill-in-the-limerick, Nelly's sticks to trivia the way its patrons stick to hand-poured Guinness: eight rounds of eight questions, with one round reserved to identify head shots (Is that Joseph McCarthy or perhaps Albert Finney playing Winston Churchill?) and another to deduce title and artist from the opening chords of songs that often leave Yanks befuddled. (The Stranglers' "Golden Brown" wasn't exactly a smash stateside.)

The trivia itself ranges from pop-culture stats such as current box-office toppers to true arcana: Which country has the highest per-capita GDP in the world? (No, it's not the U.S.) When a team's know-it-alls all have a different answer, the debate often sways toward who has the most convincing, if half-remembered, rationalization. Brunei has the richest man in the world, or at least it once did, yes? But Sweden's generally prosperous, isn't it? Well, maybe, but a tiny population is probably necessary. How about Qatar? The answer, alas, was Luxembourg, which prompted a few people in the bar to rattle off the Smiths' line about frightening verse and a bucktoothed girl.

This collective fret-and-worry, what one of our teammates calls "impromptu brainstorming," is a bad omen and often results in last-minute changes for the worse. Once the seed of doubt is planted about, say, Joseph McCarthy ("No, that can't be, McCarthy had much less hair"), the collective angst proves too strong, and somehow the group queasily settles for one teammate's insistence on Sir Ralph Richardson ("In high school I saw him on PBS playing King Lear; I swear that looks like him").

Winning teams draw from a pile of identical envelopes. Only one leads to the cash prize, the rest to a round of drinks. Or three. No one seems to mind drawing the wrong envelope. A lucky draw, however, nets the jackpot, which starts at $75 and is bumped $25 each week that no one claims it.

Other than the trivia contestants, whose ranks include many hypereducated microbrew drinkers, there are the Irish regulars, some old, some young, some still in their spattered painter pants and construction boots, who smoke like chimneys and lean over to whisper advice into contestants' ears. One night, desperate to stay even with the Horny Toads, Los Lefties got a great tip on Jack and Bobby Charlton, the stars of England's champion 1966 World Cup team.

Others in their cups take great joy in shouting answers ("Debbie Does Dallas!," "The Lusitania!") across the bar to subvert the contest. Such answers are often wrong, often on purpose. It's yet another twist to the city's toughest pub trivia night. And with the holidays upon us, you're likely to hear "Fairytale of New York," too. "The boys of the NYPD choir were singing, "Galway Bay'/ And the bells were ringing out for Christmas Day ...." -- Alex Lash

(Bonus answer: MacColl was killed by a speedboat while diving off the Mexican coast.)

Consider Yourselves Warned

Most newspapers give us yesterday's news today. Now, for the first time, SF Weekly will give you tomorrow's news today. Borrowing a page from the National Enquirer, we hired a part-time psychic who looked into the future (using astrology and chardonnay) and found that some truly astoundingdevelopments will happen in San Francisco in 2003.

In the world of politics, mayoral candidate Gavin Newsomwill promise that if he's elected, all proceedings of the Board of Supervisors will stay open to the public until 2 a.m., and that, somewhere in the meeting room, he'll install a cash bar. The surprise of the mayor's campaign, however, will be the sudden emergence of San Francisco's large and vocal dog population, which will organize into a new political force under the slogan "I do it in the street, and I vote." Meanwhile, as some have anticipated, Mayor Willie Brownwill retire from public life, saying that he looks forward to spending more time with his families.

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