Trivia Marches On

Nothing soothes quite like a quiz in troubled times

Like some dispatch from an alternate universe where people are still happy and prosperous, Jeopardy! has been airing new episodes every weekday. Because Jeopardy! tapes approximately three months in advance, smiling nerds from around North America continue to perform great feats of intellectual athletics in front of live studio audiences, winning tens of thousands of dollars and giving us all something fun to do for a half-hour every day. There’s even a College Tournament this week, so we get to see bright young people try to achieve their trivia dreams, unaware that a hidden virus lurks in the future, waiting to crush reality. It’s charming, fun, sad, and bizarre. The new episodes will continue through approximately early June. By then, the government might let us out of our cages.


Trivia has framed my crisis, much like it framed my non-crisis reality. On March 7, I was in Chicago, as were most semi-professional American quizzers, for Geek Bowl XIV, the annual trivia contest that Geeks Who Drink sponsors. The host called it “the last public gathering in the history of America.” That turned out to be more prophetic than ironic.

My team, Post-Trebek Stress Disorder, comprised entirely out of former Jeopardy! contestants, finished 7th out of 233 teams. We  packed the Grand Ballroom at Navy Pier, and also got to see a They Might Be Giants concert. In retrospect, given the date, geographic diversity of the contestants, and our sweaty, close quarters, we all dodged a bullet. While I was in Chicago, the mayor of Austin canceled South By Southwest. Five days after I returned, I sequestered in my house for the duration.

The Quiz Goes Online

Yet somehow, despite it all, or maybe because of it, trivia is thriving during the outbreak. The members of my Geek Bowl team live in four different states, plus the District Of Columbia. But because of technology, we’ve been getting together every Tuesday night for a virtual Geeks Who Drink quiz on Twitch TV.  GWD laid off its entire staff almost immediately after Chicago. Three days later, it had re-emerged online.

So my friends and I actually get to practice trivia together, and I get to try out different sitcom apartment backdrops on Zoom. It’s something to do other than obsessively read the deathnews. More than 4000 other people were doing the same thing last night.

It keeps me sharp. You have to keep exercising your body during this crisis, but you have to keep your brain going as well. And nothing fires the neurons better than trivia.

Other quiz series have moved online as well, like Philadelphia’s Quizzo, which was doing pub trivia long before it was cool. Still other people are jump-starting their own online quizzes, or doing specialty quizzes for their now-at-home offices or to benefit local charities. It’s a boom unlike any the trivia world has seen, because we all have the time to kill.

Then there’s Learned League, the invitation-only trivia Internet trivia game that’s kind of like a graveyard for lost Jeopardy! contestants. The regular season was ongoing when COVID-19 crashed most unwelcomingly upon our shores. Now the season has ended, but there are mini-leagues going on. This morning, while I drank my first of too many cups of coffee, I answered questions about global cuisine and 70s music. Then I did one-day quizzes about TV Spin-offs and the 1960s Folk Music Revival. The minutes melted away.

Learned League

Trivia is possible right now because it doesn’t depend on the present, at least not entirely. Quizzing spans the entirety of existence, which has not, as of this writing, disappeared. And, let’s face it, the COVID-19 crisis isn’t exactly decreasing the realm of human knowledge or experience. From science to politics to entertainment, there’s a lot to remember, and to absorb. That’s why trivia is the world’s greatest sport, immune to quarantine. While it’s more fun to play with a team, it’s also easy to play in a chair while sitting in a dark room. That’s certainly how you study. And that’s what we’re all doing right now. Just like baseball players continue to take swings in the cage, mental athletes never stop absorbing information.

But if you are a normal person who seeks entertainment rather than Complete World Knowledge, you can still just watch Jeopardy! at home for a few more weeks and briefly pretend like everything is OK. Meanwhile, The Game Show Network has begun airing episodes of Master Minds, starring Ken Jennings, the “undisputed King Of Trivia.” Somehow, even though no one can actually get together to tape episodes and play against one another, trivia is mushrooming, not shrinking. However, I won’t be watching celebrity charity Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, which ABC is airing tonight, featuring special guest star Eric Stonestreet, who is already a millionaire. My God, I’m not that desperate.

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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 12 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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