Slouching toward Jeopardy!, part 11: Teachers Tournament 2016

Being an alternate for the Teachers Tournament in February, 2016, had some cool perks.  Like the 15 tournament contestants, I would stay in a hotel at the show’s expense (unlike regular contestants, who travel to and stay in LA on their own dime), ride a shuttle to the Sony studios in Culver City, and be present as the five quarterfinal games were filmed on one day.  The second week of shows–the three semifinal games and the two finals–would be taped on a second day in Washington, D.C., in early April, and the ten games would air consecutively in early May.  I would receive a per diem allowance and, if I wasn’t needed to play, a small thank-you check.  My school was great about giving me the time off, counting it as a professional absence, and people were very supportive.  I completed several multiple-page forms (release form, tax forms, teacher information form, a form where you list five fun stories that Alex could ask you about), scanned and emailed them back, and kept studying.

I knew that the overwhelming likelihood was that I wouldn’t play, but I made sure to schedule brunch the weekend before with Gillian, Chris, and Lisa to get their advice–Chris and Lisa because they’d been on the show, of course, and Gillian because we’ve been friends for 30 years, she watches the show regularly, and she gives great advice!  We went over wagering strategy and Chris and Lisa gave me some what-to-expect tips.  I learned that even as an alternate, I’d get to step up to the podium and practice ringing in during rehearsal.

Lisa gave me what I still think of as the best piece of advice: “You can win on Jeopardy! without answering a lot of questions,” she said.  “You feel like you have to answer everything, but you don’t.”  It was more important, she said, not to panic and ring in on questions you don’t know.  (Remember this.  It’s important later.)

The tournament hotel was the Universal Hilton, which is nowhere near Sony Studios, but it was a thoughtful choice because it’s one place in LA that you can stay and actually walk to a major attraction (Universal Studios and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter).  Matt took me there the afternoon before and we walked over to Universal Citywalk, a theme-park-ish outdoor mall, where we spent part of the per-diem check on dinner at Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., a place I had never eaten before or have since.

Falling asleep was surprisingly difficult–I felt keyed up and couldn’t resist playing some online map quizzes, checking my school email, and other activities not conducive to sleep. But, conditioned by my usual 5:30 school-year wake-up time, I also had no trouble waking up the next morning to dress in my hypothetical on-camera outfit and meet the contestant coordinators in the lobby.  They gave us our final pieces of paperwork, checked us in, and loaded us onto a bus.  Here we are!  They didn’t even make me ride in the back!  I sat with Nicole, a high school English teacher from Virginia:

contestants on bus

Photo from Jeopardy! site. According to their caption, they told us, “If you’re excited to be on Jeopardy!, raise your hand!”

Now here are two things that pretty much all Jeopardy! narratives include:

  1. The contestant coordinators/contestant producers are fantastic.

Glenn, Robert, Corina, and their amazing chief, Maggie, made us laugh, cajoled us, encouraged us, and made sure the game is played fair. Everyone is looking out for fairness, both because of the laws around quiz programs, and because of basic decency. However they hire staff on the show and however they run the program day to day, they do it right. Everyone I had anything to do with was delighted to be there. They give money away every day, and that’s their job.  —Glenn Fleishman, on BoingBoing

Maggie in particular is a human amphetamine, and her epic hour-plus pre-game pep talk is sufficiently energizing that it would not be out of place on an episode of Hard Knocks. L.V. Lopez, on Frontier Psychiatrist.

I’ve been looking for this one story which does a particularly great job of describing how Maggie, in particular, takes a bunch of slightly-to-severely-inward nerds and makes them TV-ready, but I haven’t been able to find it.  I just want to add that they–in our case, Maggie, Corina, Glenn, and Aimee–really seemed to get that for each contestant, a day on Jeopardy! is a peak experience, and they never seemed to let on that for them it is a job and maybe someone on staff is being annoying and maybe they’re worried about something outside of work and maybe the coffee was bad that morning.  They were like Bruce Springsteen giving his all to Akron, Ohio–“Howyadoin, Akron!” like there’s no place he’d rather be.

(Which, actually, is kind of true of teaching, also.  You cannot act like one day is Paris and one day is Akron.)

(Akron, please don’t be mad.)

2. The atmosphere is camaraderie, not competition.

Arthur Chu is right: you definitely try your hardest to win, whatever that means to you and whatever that looks like at home.  But almost everyone I know who has been on Jeopardy! has stayed in touch with the people they met on their tape day.  The shared experience makes a powerful bond, maybe particularly because it’s relatively unusual to meet anyone who has had the same experience.  (I’m getting ahead of myself a bit now, but now that I’ve played, I do feel a tiny echolocating ping of familiarity when I meet someone else who has been on the show.)

This is probably extra true of the Teachers Tournament because we also all share a profession and therefore had plenty to talk about from the first minute.  Anyway, here with Alex Trebek is the 2016 group, all of whom followed Maggie’s jocular advice not to let me get anywhere near their coffee, “because if you go down, Nan gets to play!”:

TT Contestants, 2016

I had my eye on Ian, a social studies teacher from the Valley (here on the far right of the back row), because he had been the previous year’s alternate, and I was hypothesizing (hopefully) that he would have an edge as a returning contestant.  We chatted a little and he did seem very calm.  It turned out that he taught at the same charter school as one of my former colleagues.  Another, geographically weirder coincidence: Hannah, a math teacher (on the far right of the front row), had attended a summer institute the previous year with one of my current colleagues.  Terrie, in light blue in front of Alex, taught social studies in Maryland, my home state, and lived in Pennsylvania not far from Gettysburg, where I taught for a year.  And Cory from Connecticut, in the front row, far left, had an MFA in fiction and, like me, would attend the Associated Writing Programs conference in D.C. the following year.

I should mention that not all Jeopardy! contestants really are inward nerds.  Some of us are extrovert nerds.  It’s definitely a teacher type, and one example is Jason, in the back row, upper left.

Or perhaps you remember him at the end of the 2016 Teachers Tournament:

Jason Sterlacci behind $100k score

Of course, that didn’t happen until April, and I had to wait until the episodes aired in May to find out most of what happened that day.  Unlike regular Jeopardy! contestants, who get to watch games from the audience, tournament contestants are sequestered in the greenroom on the first day until it’s their turn to play.  The reason for this is that not only do the winners of the quarterfinal games advance to the semifinals, so do the four highest-scoring non-winners.  To know the scores preceding your game would be an unfair advantage to those who play later, so they’re kept separate.  As an alternate, I would stay in the greenroom until the last three quarterfinalists went onstage, watching movies with the sound turned up so that we couldn’t hear anything revealing from the stage.

First, though, we were instructed to turn off our cell phones and sent three at a time into makeup while Maggie continued our briefing.  She had already, facing backwards on the bus as the driver, Ernie, negotiated a picturesque surface-streets route through Hollywood and the Fairfax district to Culver City, briefed us on the day and on many of the niceties of gameplay, including the rules about what constitutes a complete, correct or incorrect answer; how to give an answer if you’re not sure of the pronunciation (enunciate every letter); and how to write down your Final Jeopardy! answer if you’re not sure of the spelling (represent every sound).  She’d also told a number of stories about tricky rulings and favorite contestants and made us laugh a lot.  Now she and a representative from an outside auditor explained that we had the right to contest a ruling if we thought we’d given the right answer and how to do it (at the next commercial break).  We also met representatives from Farmers Insurance’s Thank America’s Teachers program, which gave $2500 grants to each contestant for use at their schools.

Finally, we trooped out to the set to get briefed on how the light pens and buzzers work, to practice writing our names, and to ring in on a mock game in which Glenn played Alex Trebek and the questions were easy, although not so easy that we didn’t get some wrong.  My first successful ringing-in was in the category NURSERY RHYMES.  The clue, about “Hey Diddle Diddle,” was something like “This ran away with the spoon,” and I said, “What is the fiddle?” instead of “What is the dish?”  Fortunately, they let you practice until you’ve rung in and answered successfully a few times.

Here are some of the things I remember from standing on the stage: People tell you that it’s smaller than it looks on TV, but it was bigger than I expected and the board was farther away.  The buzzer is also larger than I expected and I was most comfortable holding it with two hands.  (There are many schools of thought on how to hold the buzzer.)  Contestants stand on platforms that can be raised and lowered so that everyone’s head is at about the same level regardless of their actual height, and the stage personnel are very concerned that you’ll forget you’re on a platform and fall off, so you get helped down like a Victorian lady descending from her carriage, even if you’re only six inches off the floor.  (Usually right after the extremely calm and kind microphone technician stops you from walking away still attached to the podium by your rehearsal microphone wire.)  Finally, it’s chilly in the studio so that you remain cool and dry.  If you ever watch from the audience, bring a sweater.

Families and friends had been told to arrive at 11:15.  Matt came to watch, and so did Chris and her sister, T.  Chris was also looking forward to seeing Maggie, who had already reminisced with me about Chris’s previous appearances on the show and the Tournament of Champions.  Contestants aren’t supposed to make contact with their families and friends, so they herded us back to the greenroom and let us know that the first three contestants would be Lauren, Dianne, and Chris.  Those three got mics attached (cordless this time, connected to a waist pack by a wire that runs down the back of your shirt–this is why you should not wear a one-piece dress on Jeopardy!), makeup touched up, and a huge round of applause from the rest of us as they headed out to the set.

Aimee quickly distracted us like a babysitter with a bunch of preschoolers by pulling out a stack of DVDs, and we settled in to watch The Princess Bride, enlivened–or ruined, depending on your perspective–by her caustic commentary.  (I have to agree, Buttercup really is a pretty lousy girlfriend.)  We chatted, snacked, made many visits to the bathroom (there are two).  I peeked into the flimsy partitioned-off changing area where, on a normal tape day, the winner changes clothes to preserve the illusion that a day has gone by between games.  (It’s usually more like ten minutes.)  There’s a star on the door that says Jeopardy! Champion,” but inside it’s basically a closet with a chair.

Somehow, the morning went by.  Greg, Jason, and Nicole were whisked away for game two, then Jill, Hannah, and Ian for game three.  Lunch was brought in for the remaining six contestants, our custodian Aimee, and me.  The pizza and sandwiches were good, but I was a little disappointed not to get to go to the Sony commissary, which figures in so many contestant narratives.  Aimee put in a new movie–Iron Man, which was much funnier than I expected–and Maggie came to fetch Pete, Tenaya, and Terrie.  So the final group, and the only one I would get to watch, would be Kaberi, Cory, and Bill.  Once they were standing behind their podiums, Corina sent me into the audience to sit with the rest of the contestants.

Chris, Jason, Jill, and Pete had won their games and would be semifinalists; so would Lauren and Nicole, with scores of $11,000 and $5,000.  The scores for the two runners-up to beat were Terrie’s $1,300 and Tenaya’s $600, but of course Kaberi, Cory, and Bill didn’t know that.  Tournament cut-off scores have varied wildly–Keith Williams has a 2015 chart on his blog, The Final Wager, that shows cut-offs between $4,000 and $18,000 since Season 21–and while it’s rational to aim for $10,000 to $12,000, like so many other things on Jeopardy!, you just can’t know.

I’d actually been in a Jeopardy! audience once before–I’d gone over spring break the previous year, reserving free tickets online for me, my daughter and one of her friends.  I’d taken the online test and wanted to see what the taping was like.  So sitting in the audience was familiar, except that now I was watching people I’d spent the whole day with.  I knew that Kaberi had fallen in love with the Spanish language on a junior year abroad in Spain and taught bilingual kindergarten in Chicago.  I knew about Cory’s young son and Bill’s special-education students.  I wasn’t rooting for any one of them more than the others–I just wanted them all to play well and have fun.

As it turned out, they did.  Going into Final Jeopardy! (category: AUTHORS), Kaberi and Cory were neck and neck at $8,600 and $8,400, but Bill led them both with $13,600.

The clue: She wrote in her journal in 1867 that a publisher “asked me to write a girls’ book.  Said I’d try.” * Kaberi bet modestly, $3000, and raised her score to $11,600.  Cory, an English teacher, made a gutsy bet–all but $2–and it paid off: $16,798.  Bill made a conservative bet of $3601, probably hoping to stay above the cutoff.  He didn’t come up with the answer and dropped to $9,999, but all three of them went on to the semifinals, knocking out Nicole and Terrie.  (Terrie got to go to D.C. as the alternate for the second taping day.)

We all went up onstage and took pictures and milled around.  The semifinalists did interviews for the show’s website.  (All those promos are still here.)  Maggie made sure I took a photo with Alex.

“Would you want to come back for next year’s tournament?” she asked.

“If I have a choice, yes!” I said.

“Well, we’ll see,” she said.  “But we’re looking forward to having you back to play!”

Matt and I went out to dinner with Chris and T before driving back over the hill to collect my stuff from the hotel, and they filled me in on some of the excitements of the games I missed, which I’d have to wait until May to watch.  And then I went back to school, picked up the threads of the semester, and kept going with the usual–teaching, writing, and studying for Jeopardy!.  Nothing more would happen, I was pretty sure, until the beginning of the next season, at least.

This blouse is really too busy for TV, I discovered the following year.

*Louisa May Alcott.

Posted in Jeopardy!

Slouching toward Jeopardy!, part 10: The Call

Looking back at my emails, I realize that nothing Jeopardy!-related happened in the rest of 2015, except that I began preparing for the show in earnest.  The next time I saw my trivia teammates Chris and Lisa, each handed me a bagful of books from her own Jeopardy! studying, and my history colleague Rob gave me an old paperback student atlas and a pile of slightly outdated but still useful AP history prep books.  The copy of The American Nation below was my daughter’s eighth-grade history textbook, and her AP European History prep book from tenth grade is on top of the same pile.  Chris included a laminated periodic table of the elements, which you can see below: piles of books

So how do you prep, exactly?  Everyone has a view on this, from Bob Harris’s reports of highly regimented cramming (in his great book Prisoner of Trebekistan, which is well worth reading even if you’re just a casual viewer) to the airy claims of some winners that they didn’t prepare at all, really.  My suggestion is to begin with Karl Coryat’s invaluable page of advice, which led me to try to get a clear sense of how much I knew by keeping track of my Coryat score (the total value of questions I could solve, not including wagers) when playing games on the J-Archive.  (Install the Chrome plugin–it makes playing the games through much faster, and it keeps track of your Coryat for you!)  I was able to see that my knowledge was a reasonably good match for that of most three-player groups–my Coryat was rarely very far off from the players’ combined Coryat score.

Playing a lot of games on J-Archive was what I did most often and most consistently.  You can play a game pretty fast (in about 10 minutes) if all you’re doing is clicking through clues as fast as you can read and think of the answer, and it makes a nice break when you’re in front of the computer working anyway.  You’re only exposed to authentic Jeopardy! material, and you’re getting practice with the categories, question types, and the sometimes unusual ways that questions are framed.

However, with all those study materials, and with an unknown number of months between me and The Call, it seemed practical to study, too.  I decided not to try to deliberately acquire knowledge in categories far outside my strengths (e.g., sports) and instead to try to retrieve, refresh, and build on knowledge I’d already acquired once.  I read some of Chris and Lisa’s books because I enjoyed them.  If I read a review of a book that seemed germane to the studying process, I’d put it on hold at the library.  I thumbed through nearly every book in Kenneth C. Davis’s Don’t Know Much About… series, including Chris’s (or Lisa’s) copy of Don’t Know Much About Anything, the ultimate distillation of stuff you’re supposed to know but don’t.  I discovered some books I’m glad I read, including Periodic Tales: A Cultural History of the Elements by Hugh Aldersley-Williams (which I didn’t finish and must get back to sometime soon) and Brainiac by Ken Jennings.

Karl Coryat also succinctly recaps the things “you absolutely must know”:

State and world capitals; U.S. presidents (order, years of office to within a half-decade, and general biographies); state nicknames; and Shakespeare’s plays, including basic plot lines and major characters. How much you need to know about one thing depends on how significant that thing is, so you need to know more about Abraham Lincoln and Macbeth than Martin Van Buren and Titus Andronicus…

You also want to know all about the world’s major religions and currencies. Later, you’ll want to learn which U.S. senators (notable past and present) come from which states, current and (notable) past cabinet members, major world leaders, and other similar fields where there’s a fairly finite set of information. In addition, you should be as sharp as possible on history, geography, literature, mythology, artists, composers, religions, and languages. These are the heavy-duty academic categories that make up much of the weight of the Double Jeopardy round. If you’re weak in one of these areas, work on it, and your score will go up. In most Jeopardy games, you’ll see a variation on literature, history, and geography in one or both of the rounds.

Two enormous bouquets of thanks to the Los Angeles Public Library, which allows patrons to have up to 30 items at home at once and which has a fantastic citywide hold system that works fast and sends books to whichever branch your want, and to the volunteers who built and update the J-Archive.  Both of these resources, completely free, gave me hundreds of hours of access to material.

How much time did I actually spend on preparing?  I wish I’d kept track!  It’s a bit like when someone asks me how long it takes me to write a poem, though.  I often remember the moment that I began, and I may remember the moment in which I’m sure it’s finished.  In between, it’s hard to say.  There may be a month, or three, or six, or a year, in which I’m thinking about it, returning to it for bursts of concentrated attention at some times, at others simply on the lookout for a change about to happen in it.  Maybe Jeopardy! studying was more like writing a book of poems, when the project simply runs next to me like a river–even when I’m not immersed in it, I can still hear it and know it’s there.  From July 2015 onwards, I was more on the alert for things to know than before.  I read books and newspapers and magazines with a bit more purpose, scavenging for possible relevance.  I irritated my friends and family by applying the same scavenging instinct to casual conversations.  I used online quizzes to help build my geography knowledge–Google any region of the world and “map quiz” and you’ll get some great options.  And I played game after game on J-Archive.

Chris told me that I’d probably serve as an alternate before actually getting on the show on a different tape date; it’s what happened to her, and Lisa, and nearly every Los Angeles-area contestant I have met.  I got The Call in mid-January, 2016, to be the alternate for the Teachers Tournament in late February.

Posted in Jeopardy!

Interlude: “Whitney Houston, we have a problem”

Did you watch on Wednesday, May 3?  Did you notice the $600 question in the category “Aye Aye, Admiral”?  Years after he was booted from the Bounty, he achieved the ranks of rear and vice admiral.*

I really like this piece, “Inside the Jeopardy! Writers Room,” from the show’s website.  It gives a peek into the process by which the show is written and highlights the creativity, cleverness and consistency of the show’s writers.

Just a week to go until my episode on Thursday, May 11!  I’m basically shoveled out from the blizzard of Napa Writers’ Conference emails–if you haven’t heard from me, it’s because I’m waiting for a response from someone else before I can reply to you.  This weekend, I’m hoping to cover 2015 and 2016 so that I can blog about the taping of the Teachers Tournament as the tournament itself begins to unfold, starting Monday.

*Answer: William Bligh.

 

Posted in Jeopardy!

Slouching toward Jeopardy!, part 9: audition room redux

My second crack at the audition room, in July 2015, was actually quite similar to the first one except that I went in determined to be effervescent and wasn’t infected with anything (except charm!). All I remember about the written test is that there was a mutiny on the Bounty question. When I returned to school in the fall, I mentioned to my Australian colleague Dan that Jeopardy! seems to be mad for the mutiny on the Bounty, and he thoughtfully filled me in on Pitcairn Island’s more recent history, including a number of disturbing facts that will never, never be Jeopardy! questions.  (All that information about serial killers that I absorbed as a child from The Book of Lists and The People’s Almanac is similarly useless in this context.)

It could have been the same hotel–it could have been the same room, just with gaudy hotel carpet of this decade rather than the last.

We came up three at a time to the buzzer bank, practiced ringing in and answering questions, and nervously watched the contestant coordinators flip through our paperwork.  This time, when Glenn asked what I’d do with the money, I said I was a poet and I’d like to build a tiny house in our backyard to write in and to have writer friends come to stay in while they were working on their books.  Which is true–this time I just left out the part about how it would probably wind up in the college fund.  And when he said, “You’re a teacher?  A full-time teacher?  For how many years?  Would you be interested in playing in the Teachers Tournament?” I said, “Um, I guess so.  I mean, I sure would!”

Posted in Jeopardy!

Slouching toward Jeopardy!, part 8:

There is no part 8.

Just kidding.  Actually, I have just finished sending out emails to all the people who applied to the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference by the priority deadline of March 31.  We had a lot of applications, which is great, but I could not offer everyone a place at the conference, which is not, and I had to disappoint a lot of people today.  So I’m in a restless frame of mind that is not soothed by thinking of the people who were probably made happy by being offered places in one of the four poetry workshops.

I always want to tell the people I have to reject that I do get how lousy it feels, and that it’s not personal, and that it’s not even a commentary on their work.  Most years, I am receiving my own rejections for summer writing residencies around the same time I’m sending out the Napa emails.  (In fact, I’m expecting one any day now.)

AND HERE’S THE KIND OF SEGUE I COME UP WITH AT 10:30 PM:  Did you know that about 100,000 people take the Jeopardy! online test every year?  And that only a few thousand are invited to in-person auditions in Los Angeles and a handful of other cities (which are changed up from year to year)?  Talk about impersonal rejection!  I know a lot of people, including some pretty formidable trivia players, who have been trying to get on for years.

So I know there was some luck involved when, flush with six months of successful pub trivia nights in which I more or less held my own against a couple of past Jeopardy! champions, both of whom encouraged me to try out, I signed up for the online test in April of 2015 and actually made it through to a live audition that summer.

You might get lucky, too.  The online test is being given again at the end of May and the beginning of June.  You register, and then you’re allowed to log in on one of three consecutive nights–whatever time works best for you; they’re being offered at 5 P.M., 6 P.M., and 8 P.M. Pacific time.  This page has pretty much everything you need to know.  The test launches and the 50 questions appear one at a time, at the same time for everyone taking the test in the same time slot.  You have 15 seconds to type your answer into a box–not in the form of a question, and spelling doesn’t count as long as they recognize the answer.  The next question follows automatically, and 12.5 minutes later, you’re done.

I took the test by myself and wanted to keep track of my correct answers without having to pick up a pen, so I put a pile of paperclips by my right hand and each time I got a question right, I flicked a paperclip to the other side of the desk.  When the test was over, I’d flicked 42 paperclips, which seemed like a solid number of right answers.  No one outside the show knows what the cutoff number is or if it changes from one online test to the next.

You can actually look at one set of those questions on the Jeopardy! Facebook page–they are in the Photos, but you have to scroll down to get to 2015.  There are also videos online of people filming themselves as they take the online test.

The next step is the in-person audition.  Auditions seem to be held in the summer, when the show is on hiatus and the contestant coordinators are able to travel.  If you’re the obsessive type, you could start following the conversations on the JBoard, where people discuss the game and also share news about all stages of the contestant experience.

am the obsessive type, but I didn’t obsess about this particular part.  Really quite uncharacteristic of me, but then I generally tend to obsess about things about which I have at least the illusion of control.  I figured I’d either hear or I wouldn’t.  (Those are the choices, right?) And I did: in early June 2015, I got an emailed invitation to attend a live audition in Los Angeles in mid-July.

Okay, off to bed now.  Audition next.

Posted in Jeopardy!

“Bee 1” in the SF Chronicle “State Lines” column

Poet David Roderick’s lucid words about my poem “Bee 1” make it a particular delight to have a poem in Sunday’s newspaper.

Posted in Uncategorized

Slouching toward Jeopardy!, part 7: Constantly risking absurdity

On, now, to the recent past!  In the summer of 2014, my friend Christine (a four-time Jeopardy! champion) mentioned that a pub trivia night was starting up at a recently opened bar and grill conveniently located between our houses.  We live about five miles apart, which in the San Fernando Valley is practically next door.  One night we gave it a whirl, with her husband, Len, and my husband, Matt, meeting for dinner and staying to play.

There were only a few teams playing that night, and we won handily.  We started going pretty regularly, most often with Lisa, a five-time Jeopardy! champion, and Gillian, a college friend through whom we met Lisa, Chris, and Len, but sometimes adding more folks: another college friend, Bret, and his wife, Maria; sometimes our daughter, 14 at the time; sometimes she’d also bring a friend.  If we were going to be more than six (which is typically the limit on team size), we’d try to get at least eight or nine so that we could field two competitive teams.  We didn’t win all the time, but we usually placed in the top three, and the prize was usually a gift certificate for the next time, so we’d keep going back to the same place.

If you’ve never played pub trivia, the way it usually works is that the venue sponsors some outside company to come in and run the game.  Teams play for free; it’s the revenue on their food and drink that pays for the entertainment.  In many cities, including here in LA, companies like King Trivia and Geeks Who Drink run games at multiple venues almost every night of the week (with few or no games on Friday and Saturday because that’s when the venues don’t need the help).  This article has other suggestions, and there’s also the independent and very long-running pub quiz at O’Brien’s in Santa Monica, which is famously challenging, written by longtime participants, and full of Jeopardy! players.

The specifics vary, but in general all pub quizzes share a few characteristics:

  • Teams give themselves silly names.  When we play with any group that includes Chris and Len, we generally bill ourselves the Human Targets in homage to one of Len’s creations, the Action Comics character Christopher Chance, a.k.a. Human Target.  That’s very low on the silly end.  Shortly after we started playing pub trivia, Matt played Fluellen in a production of Henry V, and he and I began using the name Fluellen’s Leek, silly for a Shakespearean name but not that silly overall.  Here’s a King Trivia rankings page: Westeros Baptist Church, Only Here for the Pokestops, and Bed, Bath, and Beyoncé are all good examples. (Basically, pop culture, current events, and puns.)
  • The game is run by a quizmaster, who emcees, reads the questions, scores the answer sheets after each round, cracks jokes, and deals with troublemakers.  The quality of the questions matters, but the quality of the quizmaster is at least as important.  If they can’t deliver the material, the game falls flat.
  • Games have multiple rounds, some of which are a mix of general knowledge questions–what Jeopardy! calls “potpourri”–and some of which have themes.  There are usually one or two “picture rounds” where you have to identify multiple images on a common theme, like “people with a connection to Kansas” or “TV show bosses.”  Questions are worth points, the quizmaster keeps track, and at the end there are prizes for the top three or four teams.

I wrote a multiple-round trivia game once when Len was recovering from surgery and couldn’t get out to trivia.  It took about eight hours to put together an even halfway decent game and gave me a great appreciation for the people who write them on a regular basis.  I was proud, though, of the picture round, which was “Statues in Southern California.”  I included the scary Lucille Ball statue in Palm Springs (which isn’t as bad as the one they replaced in her hometown of Celoron, New York), the Jackie Robinson one at his eponymous UCLA stadium (there wasn’t yet one at Dodger Stadium–that just happened this month!), Jack Benny, Will Rogers, Tommy Trojan, and these, which you may recognize (answers at the end of the post):man in suit jacket holding hands with someone we can't see

The really great thing about pub trivia, even with Jeopardy! champions like Chris and Lisa, pop-culture savants like Gillian and Len, and Shakespeare-expert Matt (on whom we also rely for sports trivia since the rest of us know almost nothing and he at least knows a lot about baseball) on your team, is that everyone generally has a chance to contribute.  There are some things that everyone knows, some things that a few people know, and some things that only one person knows, and when that person is you, it feels great!  And because the nature of trivia is that everyone knows some things that most other people don’t know, everyone gets to be that person, whether it’s because they were obsessed with rocks as a kid or loved the movie Blade Runner as a teenager or lived through the Watergate hearings or are in high school right now and therefore can name even one person who could legitimately be called a “YouTube star.”  Whatever particulars of time, interest and chance gave you the specific bits of knowledge that you have, in a well-written trivia game you will probably get to use some of them.

Which is also true of Jeopardy!, as I’ve mentioned.  Sometimes only the 8-year-old knows the answer, sometimes only the retiree, sometimes only the person who had a Lebanese grandmother, sometimes only the person with that really weird hobby.  I’m not a gambler, but there’s definitely something addictive, something just-one-more, about being asked trivia questions.  Don’t you think so?

Picture IDs, top to bottom: Walt Disney (that’s Mickey’s gloved hand he’s holding), Amelia Earhart, Al Jolson, John Wooden.

Posted in Jeopardy!