Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Insights from a Master of Trivia

Review: Brainiac, by Ken Jennings

On my British Airways flight across the Pond, halfway between the free wine and free cappuccino, I started to read Ken Jennings' book. If you haven't heard of Ken Jennings, here's a quick primer: In a nutshell, he's the guy who won Jeopardy! seventy-four consecutive times and raked in over two and a half million dollars. His book integrates three "spheres" of trivia culture: his own Jeopardy! experiences, various depictions of the American trivia scene (mostly focusing on college quiz bowl teams), and actual trivia questions to be answered by the reader.

It's a wonderfully entertaining book, and I'm not surprised. Looking at Jennings' demeanor while he was on Jeopardy, he's easygoing, conversational, and clever. In fact, Jennings reminds me of myself... granted, a somewhat more knowledgeable and much more successful me. He writes a lot like I do, too, with the critical distinction that he actually has something worthwhile to talk about.

One of the main themes of the book is the relationship between intelligence and success on Jeopardy. A cursory look at the situation would probably suggest that of course a smart person is going to succeed at Jeopardy because he knows lots of things. Jennings disputes this, saying that there is indeed a link between intelligence and Jeopardy success, but that it has comparatively little to do with knowing stuff. He himself knows a lot of stuff, and he's a smart man. But knowing stuff doesn't exactly translate into being intelligent, or vice versa. Jennings admits to being a "pretty mediocre computer programmer," acknowledging that his success in trivia and his mastery of information doesn't necessarily make him good at anything except knowing things.

Knowing things, of course, is a valuable skill to have on Jeopardy. But it's not the only skill. Another skill, the one that does have a direct connection to intelligence, is knowing how to play the game. It's things like knowing what time to press the button, how to wager well, and what the questions are going to be about. This last one was particularly important to Jennings: the most-asked topics on Jeopardy include US presidents; opera, ballet, and 19th-century poetry; and alcohol. The first was an old standby from college quiz bowl days, so that was an easy one. The next three didn't naturally appeal to Jennings as a computer programmer--who knows what the differences between Wordsworth, Keats, and Longfellow are? The last presented a problem as a Mormon--after making mixed-drink flash cards to study from, Jennings says that he could make a hell of a bartender even though he hasn't actually tasted any of those drinks.

Anyone who's ever planning to go on Jeopardy should probably read this book to follow Jennings' advice (look at the number of records on that Wikipedia page). But even if you're not a Jeopardy aspirant, this book is entertaining, insightful, and absorbing. Test yourself as you go through the book (there's even a question about Georgia Tech!) and allow yourself to be amazed by the utter trivia obsession of some of Jennings' contemporaries.

Currently listening: "Run," Snow Patrol


Gina said...

That's actually pretty freaking cool. My mom has a Jeopardy book that I poured through, being a fan of the show, and I might just have to pick that one up. It sounds cool to me.

Nick Simmons said...

My grandmother loved this guy when he was on the show. She usually watches Jeopardy!, but I think the only times she ever expressed disappointment at missing it were when this fellow was on.

This may not be an especially innovative comment, but I love that he was defeated by a woman named Zerg.

Matt Pavlovich said...

Oh, Ken Jennings loves that fact too. He cited the Starcraft aliens as well as another even more obscure science fiction reference. Apparently he should have known he was in trouble when he heard the woman's "space opera" last name.