Trivia mania: the triumph of useless information

Perhaps the next Ken Jennings is in this room.

Among the bodies jammed shoulder to shoulder in The Kinsale, an Irish tavern in downtown Boston, there are plenty of possibilities. Like the computer programmer at the corner table who knows that Tom Hanks once starred in a film called "Volunteers." Or the gentleman seated to his right who confidently proclaims that a person's height squared divided by weight is called the "body-mass index."

True, they have a long way to go before they can match Mr. Jennings, the Utah techie who has become a minor pop-culture deity by winning more than 30 rounds of "Jeopardy!" and pocketing $1 million. But they are his kindred souls - and from the looks of the packed house on Trivia Night here, they are not alone.

Once the province of the pocket-protector set, trivia has become a national pastime. First, there were the scandalous TV quiz shows of the 1950s, "Twenty One" and "The $64,000 Question." Then came "Hollywood Squares" in the late '60s and '70s. The board game Trivial Pursuit took the know-it-all craze to new heights in the '80s. At its peak in 2000, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" dominated ratings with 30 million viewers a week.

Now local charities are bouncing Bingo for "Braniac Balls," pubs are ditching darts for weekly "jeopardy!" wannabes, and one airline even holds in-flight trivia tournaments.

This is Trivia Nation, and for now, Ken Jennings is king.

America's fascination with the arcane has been occurring for a while now. On one hand, it builds on a primal human need that emerged only shortly after fire and cave-painting: "People like to feel smart," says Toby Maloney of Mental Floss, a magazine that devotes itself to eclectic trivia, such as "Six Tricky Song Lyrics You'll Never Get Wrong Again" and "Eight Brilliant Science Screw-Ups" in its current issue.

Yet the arc of modern culture has offered a unique take on the Renaissance man. For a world on fast-forward, trivia has become the Cliff's Notes for a liberal-arts education - genius attenuated into Tollhouse morsels of pure information. "People can get news in bite-size chunks," says Mr. Maloney. "People don't have to wade through a 2,500-word story."

In Maloney's eyes, trivia is the gateway to greater knowledge, sparking new interests. To others, though, it is simply the mental flotsam left over from hours of "Googling" the Web for stock quotes and watching "Shark Week" on the Discovery Channel.

"We all have a lot of stuff bouncing around in our heads," says pop-culture critic Ed Robertson. "This is an outlet."

These days, there are plenty of outlets. On the airline Song, passengers can use personal entertainment consoles to hold live music-trivia competitions. And in pubs across America regulars flock to weekly trivia showdowns.

On such a night in Boston, The Kinsale was packed. Music by U2 and Radiohead throbbed from the speakers as a DJ handed out rules, answer sheets, and pencils to 10 teams.

Nearby, the computer programmer, Mike Allen, sat with friend Mark Trefethen. They call their two-man team M Squared. As they munched on ribs and fries they dipped into the furthest reaches of the obscure.

Q. What bright orange spice is the most precious in the world?

A. Saffron.

Too easy. How about...

Q. Who is the only US president to have ever been divorced?

A. Andrew Jackson?

No. Ronald Reagan.

Trivia night is more than just a gimmick to boost meal tabs on slow nights. In many places, trivia contests have become community events.

For 13 years, Family and Children's Services of Tulsa, Okla., had held a Black Tie Bingo fundraiser. This year, organizers tried a "Brainiac Ball." They raised a record $124,000.

"The most we ever raised before was $92,000," says director of development Susan McCalman. "In an economy in Tulsa that's not actually booming, that's pretty good."

Still, she has a ways to go before she reaches Jennings' "Jeopardy!" total, which is nearing the record of $1.15 million. In this, the first year that "Jeopardy!" has allowed champions to stay until they lose, Jennings has become a phenomenon. (Before, winners were limited to five shows.) This is not "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" Jennings didn't win $1 million in one sitting. His run began June 2.

In other words, he has earned it - as much as you can earn anything on a game show. Steve Calechman knows that. The Boston-area stand-up comedian once played "Jeopardy!" - and finished second despite studying Shakespeare, the classics, and presidential history for 3-1/2 weeks straight to prepare.

"That's a full month!" he says of Jennings's mark. "He's probably gotten into [his opponent's] heads, like [boxer Mike] Tyson did at his peak. They were shaking before he got into the ring."

Yes, a moon-faced Utahn has now become America's reigning heavyweight, and back at The Kinsale, challengers are already lining up. Eventually, M squared loses out to a team ominously named The Great Unknown, but it didn't finish too far behind. So there is still hope.

"I've toyed with the idea of going on 'Jeopardy!' " Mr. Trefethen says. "The guy who won last night is Ken Jennings. He's a software engineer. Graduated from Brigham Young. And he's a 31-day champion."

You see, Jennings himself has already become trivia.

Whiz Quiz: 10 questions Jennings was asked on 'Jeopardy!'

1. First designed as a surgical disinfectant, in 1895 it was available to dentists, and by 1914 it was sold over the counter. (What is Listerine?)

2. In the NATO phonetic alphabet (alpha, bravo, etc.), the two that are title Shakespearean characters. (Who are Romeo and Juliet?)

3. In 1582 the man born Ugo Buoncompagni proclaimed this solar dating system still used today. (What is the Gregorian Calendar?)

4. Josephine Cochrane's 1886 version of this consisted of a copper boiler, wire baskets, and a pump. (What is a dishwasher?)

5. The almost four-decade collaboration of these two Germans began in Paris in 1844. (Who are Marx and Engels?)

6. In 1826, Daniel Webster eulogized these two men by saying, "They took their flight together to the world of spirits." (Who are Jefferson and Adams?)

7. This 1973 thriller was re-released in 2000, with extra footage including a scene in which Ritalin is prescribed. (What is "The Exorcist"?)

8. In 1901 US surgeon general Walter Wyman helped establish a hospital in Hawaii for this disease. (What is leprosy?)

9. "I am the rose of Sharon," and "When you know your name you should hang onto it," are from two different books with this title. (What is "Song of Solomon" from the Bible, and by Toni Morrison.)

10. This title character's full name is Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkle Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs. (Who is the Wizard of Oz?)

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