Getting Some Use From Useless Information

The world's Super Bowl of trivia means going sleepless in Stevens Point.

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Here's a question for trivia buffs: Where is the world's trivia capital?

Answer: Stevens Point, Wis.

This lively university town is a sleepy one today, since much of its population, and a host of visiting contestants, stayed awake all weekend.

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From 6 p.m. Friday until midnight Sunday, many of the city's 23,000 residents were holed up in basements around town armed with reference books, computer databases and plenty of chips, dip and soda in a quest to win the world's largest trivia contest. The objective was to answer eight very challenging questions an hour - for 54 straight hours.

They came from Chicago, Milwaukee, and even Australia to see old friends and try to answer questions like "According to some printed Visa Card ads in 1989, what is the answer to the following question: Why is the American Express Card Green?" (Answer: envy)

The marathon, a fund-raiser for WWSP, the student radio station at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, is broadcast over the station's airwaves. It started in 1969. This year, there were more than 12,000 contestants on 520 teams. Each team pays a $30 registration fee for a chance at the trophy.

Few of the questions can be answered without research, so many of the teams have elaborate libraries and even their own card catalogs. The serious teams use a pair of computers: one linked to the Internet, another to a homemade database. Each team hoards vast numbers of books, magazines, games, and CD-ROMs. A team that calls itself Astro Wolf Pack even keeps a plastic garbage bag with 1,000 empty candy bar wrappers for those difficult food questions.

The Wizard of Oz

Jim "the Oz" Oliva has been organizing the event and writing most of its questions for the past 20 of the contest's 29 years.

Though he owns a local computer store, the former junior high teacher tries to discourage the use of computers in the contest. Most contestants, he said, use computers only to verify answers. "The kind of question we're writing," he says, "is the kind of question you are not going to find on a computer because no one cares to put it on the World Wide Web."

Besides making the questions challenging, Mr. Oliva's main goal is to make the contest fun.

"I want the team in 300th place to get an answer right once an hour to keep their spirits up."

Brenda Weyer sits in a friend's basement. She wears headphones connected to a boombox and records all the questions verbatim. She plays for the Astro Wolf Pack, a regular top 10 team, and has been participating since her college days 20 years ago.

Weyer is as competitive as the next trivia nut but the main reason she drives two hours to Stevens Point each year is for the camaraderie.

"It's a great chance to see old friends and a great chance to regress to college age," she said. "I pull stuff out of the air and I help find things and I whine a lot. Oh, and I cook."

Ray Hamel's team has won many a trivia title since 1973, partially because Mr. Hamel knows a little something about minutiae. Hamel makes his living writing puzzles and trivia games for Games Magazine.

Without boasting, Hamel admits he has a sharp memory. "Sticky, not photographic," he says. He has trouble with names of people he meets, but said that he can see an actor once and remember his name for life. Yet the contest is not won or lost on mental acuity or vast resources alone, explains Hamel. "It's not what you have, it's knowing what you have and how to use it."

Power of youth

Most teams have a few children, because they're handy on questions about cartoons and cereal. Daniel Chang, 10, earned points for his team by knowing that Cinnamon Toast Crunch was "the breakfast cereal that has a taste you can see."

On a team across town, 13-year-old Stephen Rutherford wore a telephone headset and called in the team's answers to the station.

Teams get the space of two songs to report answers back to WWSP.

Stephen immediately knew the fictional affliction that helps basketball star Shaquille O'Neal not miss free throws. It was Taco Neck Syndrome.

"When I have nothing to do I just sit in front of the TV and write stuff down," he says.

Said one of his teammates, paramedic Tim Yonash, '"We have all these facts and figures floating around in our brains and this is the only time we get to use them."

For the record, Astro Wolf Pack finished ninth time, an improvement from last years 10th place finish.

The winning team: No Easy Trivia When Oz Reads Kerouac, a trivia powerhouse from Wisconsin.

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