It's day one of the 2015 Trivia Championships of North America (TCONA) and already there's been an "incident."
We're oblivious to the unfolding disaster as we mill around the Havana Room of the Tropicana Hotel in Las Vegas. Approximately half of the 200 or so registrants have just finished playing the First Quiz of TCONA, a 100-question written exam covering everything from Gwyneth Paltrow's vagina cleaning regimen to French World War I flying aces.
But now we're ready for 5×5, the Jeopardy style game that is a TCONA favorite. And there's no 5×5 to be had.A couple of guys wearing sports caps and jerseys break unexpectedly into show tunes. The rest of us Monday morning quarterback the First Quiz.
We agree that the test's biggest stumper was to name the most recent Mexican-born winner of an acting Oscar.
I had immediately thought of Anthony Quinn, who was born in Mexico and won two Oscars for Best Supporting Actor in the 1950s (for Viva Zapata! and Lust for Life). I eventually settled on the equally wrong Salma Hayek, who was nominated for Frida but didn't win.
The correct answer was what we in the quizzing world call a YEKIOYD: you either know it or you don't. As it turned out, almost no one knew that Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years a Slave) was actually born in Mexico. For all the brain power in the room, there are still things even most of us don't know.
Slowly the word gets around that during the night one of the event's organizers quietly checked out of the hotel taking half of the game buzzers with her. Without them, several events are up in the air including both the team event Quiz Bowl and the 5×5 preliminary heats which should already have started.
You might wonder why anyone would want to torment themselves trying to remember the name of the Egyptian handmaid to Abram's wife Sarai in the Bible. (Hagar)
But you've probably met people like us before – the ones who can name every episode of Star Trek, or who know the nickname of the Battle of Austerlitz (The Battle of the Three Emperors), but can't figure out how to open their hotel room doors.
Polite people often call us "different" or "quirky;" those less kindly disposed "weirdo" or "loser."
But we are doctors, lawyers, tutors, stay-at-home parents, students, and teachers. We have more Jeopardy champions than the flag of Brazil has stars (27). We even boast a former rock star (Yours truly).
What we don't have very many of are assholes. We play trivia for the glory of winning and the acquisition of knowledge, not to bring anyone down. We don't care whether you are male or female, black or white, gay or straight, or anything in-between. We don't care if you talk to yourself out loud, or whether you're not a teenage girl but you can name five number one singles by Katy Perry.
But you don't have to be a genius to feel welcome at TCONA. In the 24-hour game room, you can play Press Your Luck or the $20,000 Pyramid, along with more cerebral game shows like Britain's Only Connect. Tony Hightower, TCONA's organizer, has added an Amazing Race-style scavenger hunt that, unfortunately, doesn't come with a much needed fitness advisory.
My partner for the race is a diminutive New York attorney, Harvey Silikovitz, who goes by the nickname H-Bomb. As H-Bomb and I run around in the 100˚ midday desert heat, I start to feel the effects of too little sleep and not enough water.
Getting a photo of one of us high-fiving a dealer is easy. But spray-tan Elvis demands a tip before he'll high-five me. A video of me running up a down escalator nearly does me in.
Fortunately H-Bomb nails his Statute of Liberty Speech and we don't have to do much to obtain a strand of blonde hair with a dark root. Not so some of the other teams, who ask if I can spare one. I turn all but one of them down — though I'd happily trade a fistful of my hair for a bowtie, which no team manages to locate.
I finish the quiz with what feels like the early symptoms of heat stroke. Hans von Walter, a soon-to-be-doctor, looks me over and jokes that I'm his first patient. It's only after he pronounces me merely dehydrated that I realize he's planning on becoming a psychiatrist! (For the record, psychiatrists, unlike psychologists, are M.D.s.)
But while we've been running around like maniacs, the rest of the events have gotten more or less back on track. The buzzer incident has, however, eaten up our downtime. Paul Pacquet, the Ottawa-based quizmaster who runs the Smarty Pants event, kindly runs off and finds me a bottle of water. Bill Schantz, the unflappable organizer of the 5×5, tells us to ignore our scheduled heats and come play in the Montecristo rooms on a first-come basis.
I wander into Montecristo Two to see if I can pick up a game before Quiz Bowl. By sheer coincidence, a group is in the middle of one of the two boards I've contributed to this year's competition.
Two categories remain: "Heroin" and "Knitting 101," my attempt to counterbalance the sports questions 5×5 writers often favor.
"Who wrote this board?" someone grumbles. I slide down in my seat, mortified. There's nothing worse than a board full of questions to which no one knows the answers.
I needn't have worried, though. One of the men runs the knitting category, prompting Sara Lehman, the sole female in the group, to exclaim, "You're such a hipster!"
After a disappointing 5×5 of my own, I head upstairs for Quiz Bowl. I'm playing on team France France Revolution, one of the early favorites. It proves to be the day's hardest event and we lose both our games. But the event also provides us with one of the funniest moments of the weekend.
In Quiz Bowl, players can buzz in at any time during the reading of the usually quite long questions. A wrong answer, however, costs your team points and locks everyone out until the other team has heard the entire clue and had a chance to answer. As a result, Quiz Bowl contestants seldom buzz in early.
About halfway through the competition, a new clue is begun:
"In this novel, Mrs. Bird predicts that her husband, a Senator…"
Brandon Saunders, a self-described "kid braniac" immediately answers "Uncle Tom's Cabin" for the other side.
"Oh sure, get a black guy on your team," I say. Everyone in the room cracks up. While everyone is welcome at TCONA, competitors are predominantly, frustratingly white. There are a handful of people of Asian, Indian or Hispanic origin, but Brandon is one of only three African Americans in attendance at this year's TCONA.
Sara Lehman is on Brandon's Quiz Bowl team. She pulls out her wallet. "I've been waiting for months to use this," she says. She gleefully slaps a laminated green card onto the table in front of me. Printed on its face in huge black letters is the word "RACE."
The room cracks up again, the tension of Quiz Bowl momentarily broken by the race card. After the match, as we are congratulating the team on their victory, Brandon confesses he just read Uncle Tom's Cabin at school.
The comment unintentionally reminds me that I am, at 55, one of the older players at TCONA. I am by no means, however, the most senior. There are retirees with their children and grandchildren, and white-haired players who have probably been collecting social security for years. The youngest players, like Brandon, are still in college. But none of that seems to matter. Older players do better identifying '60s rock songs. The youngsters have an advantage when it comes to Taylor Swift.
Only the night before, people of all ages had gathered at Shane and Lea-Ann Whitlock's annual pre-TCONA bash to eat pizza and play games on the J! simulator (basically, player-written games of Jeopardy). We were also celebrating the 40th birthday of Brian Fodera, a fellow cat lover who is a regular at O'Brien's Pub Quiz in Santa Monica, where I play almost every Wednesday night. With Vegas just a five-hour ride from Los Angeles, O'Brien's is always well-represented at TCONA and this year is no exception.
At around 10:00 PM, Jerome Vered –a multi-day Jeopardy champion and O'Brien's regular who once wrote for the game show Win Ben Stein's Money — unveils a special Jeopardy board he's created in Brian's honor. The first six categories are cats, Katz, GATS, ghats, "cats," and qats.
I quickly learn that buzzing in at the right time is much harder than it looks on TV. Fortunately, there are plenty of buzzer-free games at TCONA. And for those who prefer true team events, there are pub-style quizzes in the evening, at which up to eight people can play as a team.
Finding a team at TCONA is easy. You don't need to know which moons of the solar system are larger than the planet Mercury — although it helps (Ganymede and Titan). Really all you need to know is how to sit down.
I find a table that is mostly full of strangers but am welcomed. I know Paul Pacquet and I recognize Alex Jacob, a poker pro and seven-time Jeopardy champion. He seems a bit nonplussed when I tell him my mother has a huge crush on him.
Eventually, I discover that I do, in fact, I know some of my other teammates. Or rather, I know their last names and their flags, courtesy of Learned League, an invitation-only online trivia league that is also hosting several events at TCONA.
I learn that Michael, who is seated next to me, is RawkinsM. I know his flag– a blue swan and its shadow on a white field. Many players know my flag, as well — a side-by-side rock and star. It's stupid, but it's memorable. And we trivia nerds are into vexillology (The study of flags). So we love our flags and are fascinated with everybody else's.
Like everyone at the table, I'm hoping I'll have something to contribute, something no one else at the table knows. I get my chance when we are asked to name the only movie other than Boogie Nights to feature porn star John Holmes as a character. I write down "Wonderland" on a slip of paper and my teammates accept it.
When the answers are read a few minutes later, I receive high fives and a pat on the back. Michael comes up with a clutch answer – the name of the singer from Dexy's Midnight Runners (Kevin Rowland). Later, we all scramble to unscramble 24 phrases on a written handout. The phrases fall into two different categories — only we have to figure out what they are.
Someone on the team works out that half are African capitals. Someone else discovers that the others are U.S. Vice Presidents. This is not your typical pub trivia. Antananarivo. Port Louis. Mondale. We're running out of time.
There's an audio round in which we must identify the people speaking on various rock songs: Malcolm X on Living Color's "Cult of Personality"; Phil Rizutto on Meatloaf's "Paradise by the Dashboard Life." A couple give us trouble. At the last minute, we cross out Jack Kerouac in favor of Alan Ginsberg.
That decision costs us the game. Still Looking For That Bowtie takes the gold. We lose a tie-breaker for the silver. But in a room full of Jeopardy champions, a bronze medal is no small accomplishment. By the time Sunday morning's Celebrity Smarty Pants rolls around, I feel like I just might not make a fool of myself this year.
It's an all O'Brien's panel. My opponents include Brad Rutter, Jeopardy's all-time highest money winner and Raj Dhuwalia, still the only person to defeat the Beast single-handedly on GSN's "The Chase."
The questions come rapid-fire, one after the other. I manage to surprise myself. The former name of the Kaliningrad Oblast? I've got this one — Königsberg. The baseball player who shot off his finger and offered it for sale on eBay? Jose Canseco.
Paul Paquet begins another question. "Asked about her cover of 'I Love Rock and Roll'…"
I buzz in before he can say another word. Everyone looks at me, expecting me to say "Joan Jett."
"Britney Spears," I answer. I see a couple of people grimace.
"Correct," Paul says. Nods of respect from the panel.
Too soon, the game is over. No surprise, Raj has finished on top. But while I haven't made the final, I'm nowhere near the bottom. I've even outscored the brilliant Pam Mueller, my trivia inspiration.
Hooray! I'm not the stupidest person at TCONA.
I fly home with a smile, a bronze medal in my hand.
Jackie Fuchs is a Los Angeles-based writer and attorney, as well as the former bass player (as Jackie Fox) for the 70s all-girl rock band, The Runaways. Jackie's work has appeared in the Huffington Post, the Metropolitan News-Enterprise and Listverse.com, among others. She also writes the popular blog Nothing Too Trivial: Interesting Things for Interested People.