Elite Trivia Death Squads, Take 3

Elite Trivia Death Squads, Take 3

(what follows is a re-post of a re-post.  The original article was written in 2006, then re-posted on my sadly neglected other blog last year.  I’m re-posting it now for a reason that will be clear at the end…)

Or, the answer is “Brainiac” by Ken Jennings; and the question is: “What book did James just finish reading?”

Yes, that Ken Jennings (who, of course, has his own website and blog).

It’s a great book, and Ken’s 74 game winning streak on Jeopardy is only a (relatively small) part of it; it’s mostly Ken’s travels in the world of trivia – from pub trivia and the online nationwide NTN (now Buzztime) trivia games; to college trivia contests (such as the largest, and, I assume, longest such contest, held yearly in Stevens Point, Wisconsin), to College Bowl (and its various mutations), to, of course, Jeopardy and other game shows.

What comes across is both how pervasive trivia is, and also how small a world the highest competitive levels of it are, as the same names keep showing up in different places throughout the book. It’s a great read, and highly recommended.

As someone who’s got his own history of trivia, I especially enjoyed it. And I can say with pride that (in a Kevin Bacon sense) I’m only two people away from Ken Jennings myself. How, you may ask? Well, my freshman year of college, I and three other frosh put together a team for CWRU’s college bowl tournament. Truth be told, our only goal was to beat another team from our dorm, but to our surprise we made it all the way to the finals (where, to no one’s surprise, including our own, we got trounced by a team of law students. The final score was several hundred for them, and, I believe, minus 5 for us). We played the next year as well, and on one of the other teams in the tournament was one Linda Krisak.

Who is Linda Krisak, you ask? Well, today, she’s a professor at Baldwin-Wallace College (thanks, Google!). But in 1989, she was a contestant on the Jeopardy College Championship, where she made it to the final game, losing to Tom Cubbage of Southern Methodist University.

Cubbage’s win earned him, 16 years later, a spot in Jeopardy’s Ultimate Tournament of Champions, an event that took every winner of every Jeopardy tournament (and every five time winner as well) and set them against one another in order to produce two winners, who were then pitted against Ken Jennings to determine all time Jeopardy supremacy (Cubbage lost in the first round of that tournament).

So the six-degrees chain is: me to Linda Krisak to Tom Cubbage to Ken Jennings.

The best thing about that whole story? Our college bowl team got to play against Linda Krisak’s team, and we beat them. Which means…well, exactly nothing, but I’m still proud of it anyway.

So go buy the book; it’s fun and entertaining. And it may make you, as it did me, want to go right out and try out for Jeopardy (I did do the online test last year when it was offered, and failed to make the cut. Oh, well).

Since that original 2006 post, I’ve passed the online test and been invited to the local (Washington, DC) tryout for Jeopardy! twice.  I posted about that last year (after I passed for the second time) as well:

Once a year, there’s an online test you can take to try and qualify to be on Jeopardy.  It’s 50 questions – I don’t know the cutoff for passing, but my guess is that it’s probably somewhere around 45 correct.  If you pass, then you get put into a lottery among all the people who passed in your area (when you take the test, there’s a list of 8 or 10 cities they hold the actual try-outs in, and you pick the closest one to you.  Lucky for me, Washington, DC is one of the cities).

I passed once before and made it to the try-out stage.  What happens there is, assuming it hasn’t changed, is that you retake another 50 question test (I guess to make sure you didn’t have help or Googled the answers for the online test), and then in groups of 3 at a time, you go up and play a short practice round, including a brief personality interview question (you have to give 5 “interesting facts” about yourself on your application form).  And then you go home, and you wait, and if you did well, you may get a call sometime in the next 18 months to go out to Los Angeles and (possibly – no guarantees, even if you do make it out to the studio!) get on the show.

As you can probably guess, I haven’t been invited out to Los Angeles to compete on Jeopardy! yet, although technically I’m still in the “contestant pool” for another six months.  I’m not holding my breath.

The reason I’m re-posting this now is, just tonight I got a comment on the year-old post on my other blog.  The comment is from the above-mentioned Tom Cubbage, winner of the 1989 Jeopardy! College Tournament.  I’ll reproduce it for you here:

Having lost in the first round of the UTOC as you noted, Cubbage has never met Jennings. So you must add Cubbage’s vanquisher Bob Harris as another degree — Krisak to Cubbage to Harris to Jennings. Incidentally, if you liked Brainiac, I recommend Harris’s book, “The Prisoner of Trebekistan,” as well as his recent book about his personal experience with microfinance (“The International Bank of Bob”). /s/ Tom Cubbage

I’m still only four degrees away from Ken Jennings, well within “Kevin Bacon” range, so I’m not too upset to be corrected by Mr. Cubbage!





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