Contest a trivial matter for experts on minutiae


by Susan Squires
The Appleton Post-Crescent, January 30, 2000.

KAUKAUNA - Question No. 115: Why did Ben Franklin wear a fur hat to Paris?

"Did it have anything to do with the weather?" Sam Williams asks someone at Lawrence University's Midwest Trivia Contest headquarters.

Apparently not.

He tries again.

"Was it related to the fur trade?"

While Williams, Amanda Maxham, Lance Fuller and Tom Hennen tie up Trivia Central's inbound phone lines, teammates search the Internet for an answer.

Time's up. Turns out Ben wore the hat to hide a rash.

At 35, the Lawrence contest is the country's oldest on-going trivia tournament.

Trivia masters ask the questions over the university's campus radio station, WLFM. On- and off-campus teams fight for trophies like a plastic bust of Fred Flintstone.

Williams' team, the Blood Bank of Kaukauna: This Time it's Personal, has fallen behind its arch rivals, Touched by an Uncle.

The 12 teammates are holed up at the Brogan residence for the weekend.

"My parents are conveniently out of the country," says John Brogan.

It is 3 p.m. Saturday. The trivia contest is in its 17th hour. Only 33 more to go.

Brogan - now a computer consultant to the University of Iowa - hasn't slept.

He, Williams and Jason Maxham are the team's founding members.

They made their debut as high school sophomores, in those dark days before the Internet was part of popular culture.

They had to use books.

"It wasn't pretty," Brogan said.

The trio only answered one question correctly.

"It was more of a party than a hard-core trivia contest," Maxham said.

They entered again four years ago, reinforced in number and buoyed by technology.

The scene in Brogan's family room Saturday was a generation.com cyberfest.

Six computers lined a counter, four connected to the Internet while two search databases of the team's own invention.

"Most of us work in computers," Brogan explains.

The NASDAQ was well-represented among the Blood Bank's slightly disheveled 20-somethings.

Maxham works in San Francisco for Amazon.com.

Williams burned a vacation day to return to Appleton from Seattle, where he works for Microsoft.

"They're very understanding at work," he said. "They're like, 'Oh, it's a trivia contest. OK."

The questions are so esoteric it is unusual for anyone in the room to actually know an answer.

"Maybe collectively, we'll answer 10 in the course of 10 hours," Brogan said.

Winning is more a matter of knowing how to locate the information - quickly - and in understanding how the questions are formulated.

For the last three years, they've recorded all of the questions and answers.

An analysis shows that 15.2 percent of the questions asked during the last three contests involved movies.

That being the case, the team assembled a film library of 142 DVDs for this year's match.

They didn't need the DVD collection, however, to answer question No. 27 - In what country did the forged fifth golden ticket in Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory appear? - correctly.

While she watched the cinematic classic earlier this year, Amanda Maxham took notes.

She wrote down the wording on signs in the background and the time on clocks.

"We take comprehensive notes on all the movies we watch," she explains.

Some of the team's strategy is proprietary.

"We could tell you, but we'd have to kill you," Cutler said.

The team, sponsored by the Bank of Kaukauna, won the off-campus title in 1997 and 1998 but was bested in 1999 by a team called Triviagra - reincarnated this year as Touched by an Uncle.

"We placed second, but we think of it as losing," Brogan said, hence the reference to blood and the barely-veiled threat "this time it's personal."

At 7:30 p.m. Saturday, the team is down 50 points, but gaining.

Only 200 questions to go.