Internet alters LU trivia contest

by Heather LaRoi
The Appleton Post-Crescent, January 24, 2002.
Go to original article.

Contrary to what some might think, winning a trivia contest these days is not determined by who has the fastest modem.

There is no question the Internet dramatically has changed such contests but have no fear, plenty of trivia lurks beyond the ready reach of even the cleverest of search engines, according to Curtis Dye, this year’s grand master of Lawrence University’s annual Midwest Trivia Contest.

“It just makes our job writing questions harder,” said Dye, a senior from Vernon Hills, Ill. “We have to find questions that people would know, that are trivial, but that they can’t find easily — or at all — on the Internet. There are questions out there like that. But it is a lot harder.”

Just how much harder will be determined soon enough, as the Midwest Trivia Contest opens at 10 p.m. Friday with the traditional re-posing of last year’s final question by LU president Richard Warch. The event culminates 50 hours later with the 100-point, virtually unanswerable “Super Garruda” question.

The entire proceedings are broadcast on the Lawrence campus radio station, WLFM-91.1 FM. For the first time, the radio station will Webcast the event.

More than 60 on-campus and off-campus teams — with participants from as far away as San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, D.C. — are expected to compete in the contest, phoning in answers to questions with varying point values.

The prevalence of information technology is a fact of life that not even a trivia contest can turn its back on. And Dye and the 11 other masters who come up with the questions certainly take that into account.

“You look for the kind of information that’s only written down and hasn’t made it onto the Internet,” Dye said. “If you ask a question about Simpsons’ trivia, everyone on the Internet has that answer. But if you find something about the history of Scotland, for example, the Internet’s not rife with that. You choose your topics carefully.”

That said, however, technology also offers enormous possible advantages.

John Brogan, who heads up the Bank of Kaukauna team, puts what appears to be justifiable faith in an array of high-speed computers. The powerhouse has claimed the off-campus champion title three of the last five years.

Each of the more than 20 members of Brogan’s team will have access to a computer this year. They also will have seven phone lines ready.

“What is interesting to me about the technology is the fact that it makes trivia simultaneously more and less accessible,” said Brogan, a Kaukauna native who returns to the Fox Valley for the event from his law studies at the University of Iowa. “On the one hand, before there was a Web, you had perennial powerhouses who really squashed upstart teams from being successful. With the Internet, it’s possible to become competitive without years of preparation and practice.

“On the other hand, to really succeed going the information technology route, there is a substantial cost barrier to entry. And in truth, other than our team, I think the same five teams that have been competitive for the last 20 years are still finishing in the top five. So the hope of access comes, perhaps, with an asterisk.”

Otherwise, Brogan’s team’s method is pretty straightforward.

“We gather up a lot of smart people: astrophysicists, programmers for Apple and Microsoft, law students, doctoral candidates in English literature, we give them each a computer and lots of phone lines. We feed them. We give them a place to sleep. We rotate a sleeping schedule and try to be on our toes for as long as we can. That’s pretty much it.”

As many come to learn, the winning answers are often more than just a click away.

“Even if the Internet does change the contest, it’s still going to be a lot of fun,” Dye said. “The charm is still there. The connections to the contest’s roots — energy and craziness — are still all there.”

Heather LaRoi can be reached at 920-993-1000, ext. 238 or by e-mail at hlaroi@