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Two-Fisted TV Football

With QB1, players pit their play-calling skills against those of bar patrons across the U.S.

To Run or Pass? That is the question. I am sitting barside in Bayside, N.Y., watching the Washington Redskins annihilate the Denver Broncos on Monday Night Football. Things are winding down in the First Edition bar, and the evening has entered its last-call phase. Yet in my hand I hold not a tall draft but a miniature computer keyboard.

A dozen other patrons and I are playing QB1, an interactive television game offered at more than 825 "hospitality outlets" (that's QB1-speak for bars) across the country. To play, you simply predict what type of play the offense will run before each down. The keyboard, known as the Playmaker, has keys designated RUN or PASS. It also affords you the opportunity to predict whether the play will go to the right, left or middle of the field; and if it is a pass, whether you think it will be thrown short or deep.

"Mark Rypien will pass short, I know it."

Meet Scott Mitchell, my newest, rowdy friend. Four years ago the 25-year-old biochemist played center for Trinity College in Hartford. This evening he is the czar of the Playmaker and my tutor as well.

"QB1 is a great game because it lets you be a defensive coordinator," Mitchell told me about 60 plays ago. A correct call is worth a minimum of 100 points, with additional points awarded for greater specification (RUN LEFT) as well as for each consecutive correctly called play.

My head is beginning to spin. The Redskins lead 34-3, but the din is only intensifying. "Pass? No way," I find myself saying to Mitchell. Sure, I have been the Rush Limbaugh of play-calling this evening, but the Redskins do lead by more than four TDs with less than three minutes remaining. I have to think that they want to go home at least as much as I do.

NTN Communications, the Carlsbad, Calif., company that produces QB1, is a pioneer in interactive TV, which allows the viewer to participate in a broadcast. A viewer can predict plays, as in QB1 or PowerPlay, a hockey version of QB1 that NTN calls its "fastest and coolest game," or answer questions, such as those posed in BrainBuster, a Jeopardy! analogue.

NTN possesses the technology not only to keep score for every player nationwide but also to flash its own leader board periodically on the bar's television. Thus you can see how well you stack up against the competition in your own watering hole and whether you're good enough to be among the top players across the country.

Which explains QBl's popularity. Players, who pay nothing to use the Playmaker, enjoy OBI because they not only watch the game, they also compete for prizes (at our place, a $25 bar tab). Hospitality location owners love it because thirsty patrons refuse to call it a night even when it is after midnight and the score is 34-3.

"The only thing wrong with QB1," says Joe Higgins, 30, a regional sales rep for Georgia-Pacific (the paper-products giant) and a First Edition regular, "is that it's impossible to play and meet girls at the same time."

True. QB1 requires a player's undivided attention. Consider Jan Warpinski, a 30-year-old software engineer from Hanover Park, Ill., who doesn't go to bars looking for Mr. Right.

"I look for formations, whether or not a team will pass out of the I or run out of the slot," she says. Warpinski, whose football ken would make most defensive coordinators envious, is the Nostradamus of QB1. Last year she won so often that her local bar in Rolling Meadows, Ill., the Stadium, awarded her a 27-inch television, a VCR, a five-disc CD player and a cordless phone.

But back to the Redskin game. At the moment my tutor, who is in the lead, has one word of advice for me: "Pass."

I check the down, look at the Bronco defense and the Redskin alignment. Joe Gibbs, the Redskins' coach, appears onscreen, and I remember that he is widely renowned for his compassion.

"Run," I say.

The ball is snapped. Rypien takes a three-step drop and fires a sideline bullet to wide receiver Art Monk. The camera remains on Monk as a graphic appears on the screen telling us that Monk has just broken the NFL's alltime career receptions record.

"You should've listened to me," says Mitchell. "Even Denver wanted to see Monk break the record on primetime TV."

Did someone say last call?