Ken Jennings, a software engineer who won 74 games in a row on Jeopardy!, is well aware of the limits of trivia. During his 2004 winning streak, the longest in the show’s history, he’d give his answers tentatively, as if he had no idea what was coming out of his mouth. When his daily earnings were announced at the beginning of each episode, he’d shake his head—”Is that in disbelief, or do you not want the money?” host Alex Trebek finally asked. In his 53rd game, he accidentally gave the answer “What is a hoe?” (instead of “What is a rake?”) to a question about long-handled gardening tools, and then sheepishly giggled at the impropriety.
Jennings disappeared from work for a summer while he crushed his opponents (studio rules prohibited him from telling his colleagues what he was doing). He sat through every contestant orientation, patiently listening to the same instructions, with the same jokes. His new book Brainiac is both a chronicle of his time on the show and a rogues’ gallery of figures in the trivia world, many of whom are still dwelling on questions they missed, years ago. Their devotion to Jeopardy! goes well beyond the realm of hobby. Alex Trebek, waxy and impenetrable, becomes a figure of total authority. Jennings thinks of slipping him a note: “Do you like me? Check One. Yes/No.” He alternates between feeling guilty and thrilled about his remarkable flair for irrelevant facts. “Could trivia be America’s last meritocracy left standing?” he asks. A call from the show reduces him to “quivering blob of nerd Jell-O,” but he’s relieved to find that other contestants are equally consumed by the game. Many prepare by watching episodes standing up, carping over pronunciations on the show’s message boards, and lugging around a fairly standard selection of books: The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide, Classical Music for Dummies, The Baseball Encyclopedia, Don’t Know Much About the Bible.
Jennings sees an important distinction between “the flower of trivia and the weed of minutiae.” A good question is nostalgic and combines high and low culture. When Jeopardy! first aired in 1964, NBC executives recommended the content be dumbed down to a 13-year-old’s level, but the show maintained its standards. In his academic survey of the game show Rules of the Game, Olaf Hoerschelmann writes that the early quiz shows, even the rigged ones, prided themselves on their egalitarian potential. The sponsor of The $64,000 Question explained the logic: “We’re trying to show the country that the little people are really very intelligent and knowledgeable. That’s why the show has caught on— because of the little people.”
Deep knowledge has never been the goal. In his memoir Prisoner of Trebekistan, Bob Harris, a Tournament of Champions finalist who gives a play-by-play of almost every game he was in, explains how to appear well-read without reading. “Here’s absolutely everything else I need to know about Robinson Crusoe,” he writes. “A shipwreck was involved. Some guy named Friday. Oh, yeah: an island.” He won $135,000 on the program. His relationship with Jeopardy! is more intense and rapturous than Jennings’s. Four months before he went on, he began studying 12 hours a day, and ate only the kinds of danishes, protein bars, and tuna croissants offered at the studio café. He used a ballpoint pen as his practice buzzer, which he frequently called his Weapon. (Jennings used his son’s Fisher Price ring-stacking toy.)
Harris often refers to himself as a failure (he got rejected from the show at least four times before making it—possibly more, he can’t remember) and sees his Jeopardy! studies as a pivotal point in his intellectual coming-of-age. “Trebekistan” is his name for a world of unspecialized learning, where “art and math and geography and science stop pretending to be separate subjects, and instead converge in a glorious riot.” Throughout the second half of the book, he can barely resist trailing off into bits of trivia (the font gets smaller as he begins talking about the origins of Life Savers and the mating rituals of bonobos). Both Harris and Jennings explain with some remorse that they see their lives as preparation for the show: Anything is a potential clue and, in turn, a house payment. The game has become a bite-sized national curriculum. With flashy lights and thousands of dollars, it’s one of the few institutions to reward a broad, liberal education—useless in almost all other contexts.