Maybe it's the creative juices that lead to the quirky trivia team names: Bandito Incognito, The Crystal Methodists, The Full Monkey.
Maybe it's the host's carefully worded questions or take-no-prisoners emcee style, described by one contestant as "smirky drill instructor."
Whatever it is, the weekly trivia nights at Brendee's Irish Pub in Lancaster have become a direct pipeline to "Jeopardy!", the nation's game show for Einsteins, brainiacs and jack-of-all-trade smartypants.
Today, the game show will host the second contestant in about a year who is a regular at the Wednesday night trivia contests at the bar, at Mary and Lemon streets.
Melanie Hess, 35, a technical writer from Lancaster, will match wits with contestants on the syndicated game show, shown locally on WPVI at 7 p.m. and WHP at 7:30 p.m.
She followed in the footsteps of Matt Johnson, 31, a doctoral student, baker and musician from Lancaster who appeared on the game show in April 2012.
"It's pretty mind-blowing when you think about it," says J (no period, no full name) Stekervetz, the trivia master at Brendee's who can wield both a carefully worded question as well as some wicked banter.
Says Johnson, "His questions are hard but always intriguing.
Says Hess, "Brendee's puts you in the trivia mindset."
Johnson, who is working on his doctorate in philosophy at Temple University, first attended Brendee's trivia night by chance almost 10 years ago, going to the bar for a beer during a blizzard, participating in the show and winning.
He soon was a regular, forming Bandito Incognito, which became the commonly agreed-upon team "everybody loved to hate" because it was so hard to beat.
It's not surprising, perhaps, that Johnson loves trivia contests. He grew up watching "Jeopardy!" with his mom, Eileen Miller of New Providence, and always thought it would be kind of fun to be a contestant.
"It was a bucket list thing," he says.
It's not that easy to get on, he notes. Prospective contestants must take an online test, have a tryout in front of show officials and take an additional test, before being chosen. Show producers are looking for someone who is smart but also congenial and who doesn't freeze up in front of the buzzer or camera.
"One guy who ended up being a four-day champion tried out 14 different times," Johnson notes.
In his appearance, Johnson finished in last place of the three contestants, winning $1,000, which covered the cost of his trip to California for the taping.
He notes that the woman who won was so matronly and polite that she messed up his normal go-for-the-jugular "playing mojo."
"She would lean over and say, 'That was a good answer. I would not have known that,' " he says, laughing. "I wanted to be against a jerk who thought they were all that."
Johnson isn't as regular at Brendee's trivia as he once was, but still attends. He also now hosts his own trivia night, on Sundays at Hurricane Pizza on Columbia Avenue, as well as a monthly Japanese game show/trivia night at the Chameleon, called "Battle of the Minds."
Oddly enough, it wasn't Johnson who inspired Hess to make her run for the money on "Jeopardy!" She doesn't know him, and did not even know he had been on the show until after she had been booked for her own appearance.
It was actually Hess' husband, Travis Anderson, who got Hess to take the online test for the show, after he took it. The couple (whose first date was at Brendee's trivia night) then tried out for the show, and she was chosen.
"I was nervous," she says, noting her husband is as good or better than she is at answering questions when they watch the show. "I said, 'I don't want to be on TV! I want you to be on TV!' "
Hess went on to tape her segment Sept. 11, just 10 days before she and her husband were married. She is not allowed to reveal the results of the show before it airs.
"Jeopardy!", she says, is the ultimate goal for trivia players.
"I can get paid money for knowing these random things," she says.
Both Hess and Johnson credit Stekervetz for being a great trivia master.
The 36-year-old Lititz man runs trivia contests four nights a week at local bars, as well as works as a blacksmith and makes knives and swords, selling his wares at the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire.
Brendee's trivia crowd includes neighbors, painters, car mechanics, Franklin & Marshall College students, retired professors, social workers—you name it, Stekervetz says.
Brendee's owner, Jen Avery, says, "We do have some very highly intelligent people who come in, I can tell you that. They are almost intellectual celebrities in their own right."
Stekervetz says, "I'm constantly surprised each week by some of the questions, that I just think are impossible, and two or three teams actually nail it."
Johnson and Hess are not the only local residents to appear on "Jeopardy!"
The county's best-known contestant is Brad Rutter, a 1995 graduate of Manheim Township High School, who won $3.35 million, the highest amount in the quiz show's history from a combination of appearances.
Information from: Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era , http://lancasteronline.com