'Brainiac' Author Ken Jennings Ken Jennings, who racked up wins and $2.5 million on the game show Jeopardy, talks about his new book, Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs.
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'Brainiac' Author Ken Jennings

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'Brainiac' Author Ken Jennings

'Brainiac' Author Ken Jennings

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

After 74 consecutive victories as a contestant on Jeopardy!, Ken Jennings is famous for being a smart guy - and rich, too. He won two and half million dollars putting his answers in the form of a question. But these days he's a little like the gunslinger with the reputation as the fastest draw in the West. Wherever he goes, people try to stump him. Who served the shortest time as president of the United States? Name the five founding members of the Baseball Hall of Fame. What's the longest book in the Bible?

Well, if you run into Ken, don't try him on any of those. They're asked and answered in his new book, Brainiac, which is partly about his amazing run of success as Alex Trebek's costar, but mostly about people like him and their passion for varied forms of useless information - for trivia.

Later in the program, Syrian security and today's failed attack on the U.S. embassy in Damascus, and your letters.

But first, Ken Jennings. If you have questions about the history, development, and meaning of trivia, give us a call: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Or you can zap us an e-mail, talk@npr.org is the address. Please put your question in the form of a question.

Ken Jennings' new book is called Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs, and the author joins us now from our bureau in New York. Thanks very much for coming in today.

Mr. KEN JENNINGS: (Author, Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs): Thanks, Neal. I'm happy to be back on the show.

CONAN: And what do you do when trivia tinhorns call you out for a showdown at high noon?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JENNINGS: Yeah, it's - I guess it's like the people who see a boxer in a restaurant and just, you know, ask to take a swing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JENNINGS: People apparently always have a very hard trivia question in mind in case they meet me. I usually try to get it wrong is what I usually say, you know, just to - it's easier for me, and it's more fun for them. Everybody's happy.

CONAN: And so they go away feeling like they've bested the champ, and, well, you just go away.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JENNINGS: Exactly. As long as - any trivia battle you can walk away from, I guess.

CONAN: Yeah, I guess so. You write that trivia should not be called trivia. Our usage of that word is relatively new the way you trace it through our language. You prefer a meaning of cultural literacy.

Mr. JENNINGS: Yeah, I mean there's part - big parts of Brainiac that are almost a manifesto in favor of trivia, you know. It does sort of make me angry that, you know, trivia - the idea of knowing a lot of things - has a name like trivia, which literally means it's worthless or inconsequential. And I try to go through ways in the book in which trivia really does, you know, has made my life a lot richer. You know, as a social lubricant - it's the way I met my wife, for example - trivia is great.

CONAN: Mm-hmm, well, we know it made you a lot richer, but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JENNINGS: ...what about the rest of us? There's a scene, a chapter near the end of the book where you go up to Stevens Point, Wisconsin and an annual event that they have up there, which you have some - a lot of skepticism about going in. And you come away completely engaged in this contest.

Mr. JENNINGS: Stevens Point, Wisconsin just totally beguiled me. They - the entire town gets together every April and plays a 54-hour trivia marathon. And literally, there's like 10,000 or 12,000 players every year in a town of 20-odd thousand. They play these questions on the radio, and nobody sleeps for 54 hours while they answer trivia questions. And I was a little skeptical because, you know, these are people sitting at home answering questions, and so, you know, they take elaborate notes all year on every sitcom they watch and every movie they go to...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. JENNINGS: ...in hopes of, you know, finding the answer either via Google or via their own notes. But I - you know, I just loved to see the camaraderie and the teamwork, and it was like a big family reunion. If you can manage to be in Stevens Point, Wisconsin in April, I would say do it. It's a lot of fun.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. You describe this as the crack cocaine of trivia contests.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JENNINGS: Yeah, I found I couldn't turn it off. Every seven minutes, just when I'd, you know, be about to turn it off and go to bed, there'd be another question on the radio. I was hooked.

CONAN: We want a lot of listeners to get involved in this conversation, so if you have a question for Ken Jennings, give us a call: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail us, talk@npr.org. And we'll begin with Chris(ph), Chris calling us from Modesto, California.

CHRIS (Caller): Hi, good afternoon, everyone.

CONAN: Afternoon.


CHRIS: Ken, I have a question for you, Ken. I'm kind of a trivia buff myself, and I was wondering where you think you sort of got your inspiration or spark for it when you were younger.

Growing up in my family, we used to - my parents would have us, we'd all read the same books at the same time, like Frank Herbert's Dune series, things like that, and my parents would quiz us about different aspects of the story; and then it just kind of turned over and did game boards, and we'd go on vacation, and they would quiz us about things. I was wondering where it came from for you.

Mr. JENNINGS: Yeah, my childhood sounds very much the same. That's one thing I found researching Brainiac is that, you know, this childhood that I thought was very odd and that I tried not to talk about, really there's, you know, thousands of Americans just like us who, you know, who had this odd childhood of collecting notebooks full of weird facts and staying inside reading odd reference books when they should have been playing outside. I trace a lot of it back...

CHRIS: Yeah (unintelligible).

Mr. JENNINGS: Go ahead.

CHRIS: Oh, no. I was going to say my parents used to always have like every year's Almanac when it would come out...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHRIS: ...or the Book of Lists. We have those from 1970 to 1989. And just those would be laying around the house, and we would just pick them up. And I actually found - I mean it's, you know - when it came to high school, I was pretty good at Scholar's Bowl. I did a little bit in college, and now it really comes in handy. I seem to have a knack. Like I work in IT, and I read a lot of just, not trivia, but information about it, and it's interesting how that type of information can really come back and like help me in work situations. So it almost seems like a life skill that I - my parents sort of primed me for I think.

Mr. JENNINGS: Yeah, we keep that in mind. We are raising a three-year-old son who seems to have the same kind of sponge-like memory that reminds me of me as a kid. And, yeah, we're doing the same things my parents did I guess. We read to him every night and, you know, try to express how much we love books and knowledge, and hopefully it'll turn him into as huge a nerd as I am.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHRIS: Exactly. Hey, thank you so much. Really appreciate it.

CONAN: And, Chris, thanks very much for the call. Ken, one of the things you do write about, though, is, yes, you kept those volumes of notebooks when you were a kid and read all those books and memorized things, and then became acutely embarrassed by this.

Mr. JENNINGS: That's absolutely true. You know, in high school you start to realize, whoa - and maybe even earlier if you're more socially adept than me -you realize, wow, not everyone is like this. And that's sort of a scary feeling when, you know, at an age when conformity trumps all else.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. JENNINGS: And, yeah, there's a big part of my life where - except for Jeopardy!, you know. I hung onto Jeopardy! But there really wasn't much - you know, I did try to keep that know-it-all part of myself under my hat. And, you know, in a way that's good. Nobody likes the Cliff Clavin type of know-it-all.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JENNINGS: But I think I'm definitely out of the closet as far as (unintelligible).

CONAN: I think you've been outed, yeah.


CONAN: Well, you kept onto Jeopardy! And one of the things you describe that show is that this is the last place in terms of, you know, sort of the American commons where smartness, being intelligent, is rewarded.

Mr. JENNINGS: Yeah, you know, the winner on a game show is just the person who's best at the game, you know. It has nothing to do with, you know, who's dating the boss's daughter or who went to the right prep school or whatever. And I think that's very attractive to a lot of people. And, you know, we're worried so much about the culture dumbing down, but Jeopardy! and shows like them sort of show that, you know, people still do love information when it's packaged right.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Julie(ph), Julie calling us from Meadowlands in Minnesota.

JULIE (Caller): Yep, and I - Ken, you're huge to many of us out here. I host a community public radio station show called Green Cheese. It's a trivia show, and I ask questions and the listeners provide the answers. And what it sets up and what I think that you might have found through Jeopardy! and stuff - and I of course listened to Jeopardy! and watched all your shows - is this community against community.

Or, you know, listeners call up and say, you know, they're not afraid to answer wrong. They're not - and then when the ones that answer right, their neighbors from another town will call up and say, no, I've got it right. It sets up a whole community of listeners shouting trivia at each other (unintelligible).

CONAN: Lunatics, no doubt, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JENNINGS: Yeah, there's...

JULIE: Anyway, you're huge amongst all of us who listen to my show, and I watched you on your show, and I intend to get your book. And I hope you have some really good trivia questions that I can use.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. JENNINGS: You are very kind.

CONAN: What is it about Wisconsin, Julie?

JULIE: No, it's Minnesota, for one thing. Because we all, well, we all love to know things, don't we? I mean we like to know little things more than our neighbor or participate in a conversation with just one little tidbit of knowledge, like being a Jack-of-all-trades and master of none. Something like that I guess.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

JULIE: But it's huge here.

CONAN: Ken, you write, you know, basically it makes you feel smart. You get a trivia answer. There's a little rush. You feel good.

JULIE: Absolutely, and they don't win prizes here. They just win loads of accolades.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JENNINGS: That's true. You know, we carry around all this useless information in our heads and so often it doesn't come up. And so it is nice to have a little outlet for it. You know, this thing that I've been carrying around for years actually pays off 20 years later. It's a great feeling.

JULIE: It's true. And thanks a lot.

CONAN: Julie, good luck with the radio show.

JULIE: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's talk quickly with Lacy(ph), Lacy with us from Tulsa, Oklahoma.

LACY (Caller): Yes, am I on?

CONAN: Yes, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

LACY: Ken, I am sort of a trivia buff myself, and I heard a vicious rumor abound Jeopardy! and I was just curious if it was true or not. In the back, before you go on, do they give you a list of answers, not necessarily to the questions, but just a list of the answers that are going to be on the show?

Mr. JENNINGS: No, I get asked this all the time. You know, do - does Jeopardy! tell you the categories beforehand or anything? No, you don't see any hide nor hair of categories, questions or answers till the same time the studio audience does.

CONAN: And in fact there's a scene you describe where at one point you're wearing the wrong tie. You have to change clothes between the tapings of the show - they do five shows a day - and you're taken back to Alex's mirror to straighten your tie. Oh, my gosh, and there's a huge kerfuffle.

Mr. JENNINGS: It turns into Trebek-gate. Yeah, they take their security very seriously on game shows since the ‘50s scandals. Contestants go to the bathroom together. It's Pentagon-level security in there.

LACY: That's great to hear. Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Lacy. Let's go to Carol(ph), Carol with us from Louisville, Kentucky.

CAROL (Caller): Hi, I just wanted to say that I agree with Ken that there really should not be a category of useless information or trivial information. In my work as a urologist, I deal with a lot of men, many much older than I am, and it's amazing what a social lubricant “useless” or trivial information can be as I try to connect with my patients. And it really helps me a lot in my job.

CONAN: How does it come up?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CAROL: I'm sorry.

CONAN: How does - how do trivia questions come up in your relationship with your patients?

CAROL: Well, you know, you're talking to the patient about themselves and their family - I have a lot of patients that are elderly.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

CAROL: And, you know, you just can't go like straight to the point with them. You have to talk a little and get to know them a little bit before you can get the - what I consider very important information about their medical health. So, you know, you talk to them about, you know, their experiences as a World War II vet, and, oh, really, you were stationed on that island. Well, really, I heard this or that, you know.

And they're thrilled that you know something about their history and where they're from or that you have a little bit of information about one of their hobbies. And maybe something that's wrong with them is keeping them from accomplishing what they want to do in their daily life, and if you know a little bit about it, it really helps you a lot to figure out what's going on with them.

CONAN: An icebreaker. Ken, you write about that a lot, too.

Mr. JENNINGS: Yeah, in Brainiac I tell the story of, you know, sitting next to a guy on a plane who pretty much only decides if he's going to talk to me about his job working at Francis Coppola's winery if I can answer this movie trivia question correctly, so our whole conversation is determined by my one answer. It was pretty tense.

CONAN: Carol, thanks very much. We appreciate the call, and good luck with your patients.

CAROL: Thank you.

CONAN: And if you'd like to join the conversation with Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings about his life in the world of trivia and his book, Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs, give us a call: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. You can also send us e-mail if you'd like. The address is talk@npr.org.

We're going to be back after a break. I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Our guest this hour is Ken Jennings, record-breaking Jeopardy! champ and author of the new book Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs.

If you're a player in the trivia game, call us and tell us your story. You probably already know the number, but here it is anyway: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail us, talk@npr.org. And why don't we get another caller on. This is Tabby(ph), Tabby with us from Ken Jennings' hometown, Salt Lake City.

TABBY (Caller): Hey, nice talking to you guys.

CONAN: Nice of you to call.

TABBY: Ken, the reason I'm calling is I wonder isn't life boring for you since everything you hear and see and comes on TV or the radio, it seems like you already know it, so…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JENNINGS: I actually find it's the other way around. You know, there's pretty much a limitless supply of trivia in the universe. You know, you're never going to hear it all. You know, even somebody who seems to know it all, you know, probably really knows, you know, nearly nothing. And, you know, being a trivia fan just sort of makes you more aware that you're paying attention to the world around you and making connections between things. And, you know, you're, you know, listening to the radio and suddenly you hear a great fact. Ah, you know, I didn't know that about The Beatles or whatever and you file it away.

CONAN: Interestingly, though, you talked to a man who was a compiler of lists and publisher of book lists about trivia, a guy who later sued the makers of the game Trivial Pursuit because he thought that they'd ripped him off. But he was going on and on saying, you know, I can read these four books about Elizabeth Taylor and I might get one new fact out of this. He calls them those four-star things, that there are fewer and fewer of these that he can find.

Mr. JENNINGS: That's certainly a center of the trivia mind, you know, the desire to boil everything, all kinds of knowledge, down into some beautiful little crystal and perfect trivia factoid. And obviously some kinds of knowledge don't condense that well, but that's definitely a passion of the trivia fanatic.

CONAN: Is there new trivia, though?

Mr. JENNINGS: Yeah, I talk about that in book. You know, it does become where you'll hear the same old chestnuts over and over, but, you know, you just have to think a little harder. Plus, you know, nature is generating new trivia for us all the time. Ten years ago, you couldn't ask which two U.S. presidents - or what middle name is shared by two U.S. presidents because it hadn't happened yet.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. JENNINGS: But now the answer we know is Walker, for both Presidents Bush, so.

CONAN: Or what the e-mail address was for TALK OF THE NATION. Anyway, Tabby, thanks very much for the phone call.

TABBY: Okay, good luck, guys.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go to Michael, Michael with us from Nashville.

MICHAEL (Caller): Hi.


MICHAEL: Hi. A long time ago, I guess about 10 years ago, I graduated from college. I became the world's youngest college graduate at the age of 10. And for a little while...


MICHAEL: Yeah, 10.


MICHAEL: I'm the Guinness Book of World Records holder for being the world's youngest college graduate.

CONAN: Congratulations.

MICHAEL: Thanks. I actually...

CONAN: How were the frat parties?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MICHAEL: They wouldn't allow me in. I was 10. I've gone back to them since though.

CONAN: Oh, good.

MICHAEL: The question that I had was a long time ago I was kind of considered to be like the smartest boy in the world, and I was wondering - I know you're kind of the new title holder of being the smartest man in America, and I was wondering if they ever feel a lot of pressure in your, you know, social interactions to deal with that.

Mr. JENNINGS: Yeah, that's a good question. I don't know. I guess I'm very uncomfortable with a title like that, and I go to great lengths in Brainiac to explain that, you know, just having a lot of trivia facts at your disposal, you know, is not the same thing as intelligence.

But, yeah, that is sort of a common misconception. And yeah, I guess I'm not furthering it along by, you know, getting trivia questions wrong when I'm asked them on the street. I think people don't have to know me for very long before they find out that, you know, the so-called know-it-all has plenty of gaping hopes in his knowledge.

CONAN: Now, wait a minute. You do say that, that, you know, all this knowledge is not the same as intelligence. But you also say that these sorts of - these concepts are in the same neighborhood of the brain. They're very closely aligned.

Mr. JENNINGS: There does seem to be a correlation. You know, you meet these people on Jeopardy!, and they're also, you know, doctors, lawyers, professors. They're obviously very smart people. And I think there is some kind of vicious circle where if you have a good memory for trivia, you know, there's lots of stuff in your head to help you make new connections and remember new stuff. And conversely, the more new stuff you learn, probably the better you are at trivia. So there's a relationship.

CONAN: Michael, when you were in college, did your school have a Quiz Bowl team, and did you participate on it?

MICHAEL: Well, that's the interesting thing. I was actually too young to participate on my college's Quiz Bowl team, but I've since gone back and gone through kind of the old circuit. And I had also a secondary question. I was wondering when you planned to make your triumphant return to the Quiz Bowl circuit, Ken.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JENNINGS: I guess I can reenroll...

MICHAEL: (unintelligible)

Mr. JENNINGS: I guess I can reenroll in college just for the purpose of playing trivia - Quiz Bowl again. I do still participate...

MICHAEL: Well, there's still masters' tournaments.

Mr. JENNINGS: I do still participate to some degree. I still write and edit questions for NAQT, which puts on Quiz Bowl tournaments and I help out at some of their national tournaments. But I don't know. I feel a lot of pressure now playing trivia in public, you know. Even down at my local NTN bar or whatever I feel like a thousand eyes are on me every time I step to the bat, like mighty Casey.


Mr. JENNINGS: It's a network of trivia games you play in bars and restaurants across the country over TV.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And I have to say though, you were at as a guest presenter this past spring's American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, Connecticut, and not only presided over some of the events there but participated. You were a rookie and you won the rookie level competition and ended up presenting yourself with an award.

Mr. JENNINGS: Yeah, I think New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz was a little taken aback when I asked if I could, you know, play along as well as, you know, give out the awards. And he said, okay. But, yeah, it did totally backfire. I had to give myself an award. It was very awkward.

CONAN: And a lot of people at the end of the tournament were muttering let's see him do that again 73 more times.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Michael, thanks very much. What do you do with that parchment that you got so early in life, Michael?

MICHAEL: Well, I kind of rest on my laurels as a teacher. I try to get other people to learn the same things that I had learned, so I'm a chemistry teacher right now.

CONAN: Michael, thanks very much for the call. Good luck.

MICHAEL: Thanks.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go to David, David with us from Des Moines.

DAVID (Caller): Yeah, my question for Ken is - really, it's funny. I always - I read a lot just like him, and I read wide variety of things. But friends always tell me that I have - don't have common sense because I'm smart. So I want to know from Ken if he also has been told that if he has problem with common sense just because he's very smart.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JENNINGS: Yeah, there is a difference between book smarts and street smarts, right? The problem I have is often, you know, that I have this, you know, famous memory. People often ask me about my photographic memory. But, you know, ask my wife, and she'll tell you how, you know, I never know where my car keys or my cell phone are. I never remember what I needed to pick up at the store, so (unintelligible).

CONAN: Doesn't cure refrigerator blindness?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JENNINGS: What's refrigerator blindness?

CONAN: You can go get the milk. Couldn't find the milk. It's right there on the shelf.

Mr. JENNINGS: Yeah, there you go. Yeah, exactly. Trivia smarts often does not carry over into real life in all the ways my wife wishes it would be.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: David, thanks very much for the call.

DAVID: Okay, so thank you very much. Now I know that it's not only me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: No, it's not just you.

DAVID: Okay. Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's get a question in from Sean(ph), Sean calling us from Cadillac, Michigan.

SEAN (Caller): Yes, I have a trivia question.

Mr. JENNINGS: Oh, I knew it was coming.

SEAN: Pardon?

CONAN: Go ahead.

SEAN: Where does the word trivia originate?

Mr. JENNINGS: I talk about this a bit in the book. It goes back to the ancient Greeks, at least as far as the ancient Greeks. Trivium was often used as a word for the crossroads. It was Hecate, the god of the crossroads. And it also came to be used as, you know, three of the seven subjects taught in medieval universities. Grammar, rhetoric, and logic made up the trivium. But it took centuries of word drift before that became to mean, you know, useless factoids in magazine sidebars.

CONAN: Who was the first person to create - or the first iteration of trivia as we know it today?

Mr. JENNINGS: Trivia called as such didn't - wasn't even born until the late ‘60s at Columbia University. Two Columbia students named Dan Carlinsky and Ed Goodgold held nostalgic game show-style quizzes for their fellow classmates and called it trivia. Until then, the practice, you know, went back at least to the 1920s but didn't really have a name.

CONAN: Hmm. Sean, thanks very much.

SEAN: Thank you. You're the man.

CONAN: Okay. I think he's talking about you Ken.

Mr. JENNINGS: No, I'm sure that's you, Neal.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's get Bruce. Bruce is on the line with us from Ouray - is that right - in California?

BRUCE (Caller): It's in Colorado.

CONAN: It's in Colorado, but at least I pronounced the name of the town correctly. Please go ahead.

BRUCE: It's Ouray.

CONAN: Oh, I got them both wrong. Well, go ahead.

BRUCE: Ken, I'm a long-time superintendent, school superintendent, and a long-time principal. And I was principal in Stevens Point in the mid-‘70s, and I actually participated in the trivia contest I think about the time when it started.

But my question is as a school person, as a school superintendent and so on, I've always objected to the definition of being educated as somebody who can do well on Jeopardy! And I've always thought that knowing is not nearly as important as knowing how to find out. And I wondered if you would comment on that, and I'll hang up and listen to your answer.

CONAN: All right, Bruce. Thank you.

Mr. JENNINGS: Well, that's certainly true and never truer than now in the Google age when you really don't have to ask people for a month if you're trying to remember an old song lyric or whatever, you know. Every answer is literally, what, 10 key presses away.

But that said, I think the pendulum has also swung pretty far in the other direction where, you know, people are so convinced that, you know, how to learn is more important than what to learn. That, you know, people are often pretty fact efficient on, you know, what you used to be pretty basic, you know, cultural literacy stuff. And I think that often leads to specialization where people in different careers don't, you know, talk past each because they share so little of this, what used to be called good old-fashioned general knowledge in common.

So that's what I see as one upside of trivia, you know. It's a refresher for all of us on, you know, history and geography and books and art and movies and music and, you know, the stuff that used to be just the general discourse of day to day life that now we don't share so much anymore.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. One of the things you write about, though, is when trivia came to life in the ‘60s, people from all sorts of different backgrounds shared a common group of movies and TV shows and books that they could all talk about. Now with the atomization of media, that's no so true anymore.

Mr. JENNINGS: Yeah. Several people in Brainiac comment on that. That, you know, maybe trivia's doomed because, you know, with, you know, 300 cable channels what can you ask about that you know everyone has access to. And yeah, it's an interesting question. I don't know how that's going to shake out.

CONAN: You do make a terrible confession about your life, though. Something that I think a lot of people are going to have problems with. That you liked multiple-choice tests.

Mr. JENNINGS: Yeah. I hated confessing it, because it does tend to get you beat up, especially in, you know, junior high. But it's true. Like one of the reasons that trivia and things like that have always appealed to me is because, you know, they're sort of like puzzles. You know, they're sort of like pencils games you go into with a sharpened pencil and, you know, your tongue sticking out of the corner of your mouth. And that's sort of how the SAT test felt to me, I hate to say.

CONAN: As an indifferent student myself, but a very good tester, I appreciated your comments on the degree to which you can read the question to get the answer.

Mr. JENNINGS: Yeah. Many people don't realize that, but, you know, you watch Jeopardy and the very good players are maybe guessing, I don't know, a third of the time maybe, just based on little cues and little clues in the question. And I think you can often do the same tricks on standardized tests.

CONAN: There's a process of deduction that you go through with one particular question about which you had no idea on the clue on on Jeopardy - and I think it was an important question at some point, win or lose question on the test -this having to do with Renaissance lovers.

Mr. JENNINGS: Yeah, there's a very - a daily double with a lot of money and a lot at stake on the line. And it's a question where I really have no idea who the two literary lovers are in question - the medieval lovers - and, you know, I just end up spending the ten seconds going through, you know, dozens of pairs of medieval lovers in my head trying to figure out which fits the clue and why they might be asking the question this way. And not until the very end do I settle on, you know, Abelard and Heloise just as my time is about to expire.

CONAN: Yeah, the answer is blah, blah, and you're stretching out the syllables just to work it in.

Our guest is Ken Jennings, Jeopardy Champ and author now of Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs. If you'd like to join us: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail us, talk@npr.org. This is TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News.

In your career on Jeopardy, one of the things that has happened to you is you were able to - I've seen a couple of different descriptions. Have you taken a leave of absence from your job as a computer programmer or have you quit now?

Mr. JENNINGS: You know it was always a leave of absence, but a very indefinite on. And I had such a good time, you know, working from home, working on Brainiac, you know. You get to see your son grow up instead of always being at the office, and I guess you gain 10 pounds because the kitchen's right there.

But I have really liked not working for the man anymore, and hopefully the book will do well enough that I can continue to write because, frankly, I was a pretty lousy computer programmer.

CONAN: And you're also working on a game yourself?

Mr. JENNINGS: Yeah. There's a couple of things. There's a Can You Beat Ken board game in stores. And a proposal for a game show that I'm working on with Michael Davies, who produces Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, that initially might have aired on Comedy Central and now we're sort of shopping around.

CONAN: Hmm. Well, good luck with that. Anyway, let's get some more callers on the line. This is Nannette(ph). Nannette with us from Tucson.



NANNETTE: Hi. I am part of an online international trivia community with players in Australia and Canada and England and the United States - all different parts of the United States - one in Serbia, one in Holland, and we have live online trivia games with live hosts, no robots.

It's chatgames.com for anybody who's interested. There's six to eight hours of live trivia everyday, which is a lot of fun. And I do it for two to three hours a day and I'm limited because I have two small children. Just imagine how badly I could be addicted to this without them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Or just wait until they grow up to be big enough to start looking stuff up for you.

NANNETTE: Sometimes I ask them the answers to the question, when it's about Finding Nemo or something. My five-year-old son sometimes does better than I do.

CONAN: See, it's not the gene pool. It's more resources for your trivia game.

NANNETTE: And, also, like somebody was saying, I hope you have trivia I can use. I also host on this and we're always trying to steal trivia questions from everywhere. So all the hosts are good trivia stealers so that we can host for all of our players and do a lot of that.

CONAN: Are there ever any arguments about whether a particular fact is entirely accurate or whether the question was phrased properly?

NANNETTE: Absolutely. And that's - I think half of the enjoyment for some of our players is complaining about the results, about whether the answer is right or not. And we are all big frequenters of Google, sometimes during a game.

CONAN: Ken, in your book you describe a couple of - it seems you can't go into any situation of an ongoing trivia contest of any sort without people remembering the famous gaff of aught-six(ph) or something.

Mr. JENNINGS: Right, right. Everybody remembers the, you know, the bad call that inevitably lost them the game. There's a case I write about in the book where in England it even led to a lawsuit, you know. An answer wasn't accepted and it turned into a bar fight and then a slander lawsuit. So, yeah, passions do run high sometimes.

CONAN: Nannette, thanks very much for the call. Good luck with the game.

NANNETTE: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And, Ken, it was interesting. She was talking about obviously trivia is, as far as we understand it, an English language, American culture, or I guess in her game a British and Canadian culture as well. You throw in Trivial Pursuit, you have to know how many provinces border the Great Lakes and that sort of thing. But it's interesting, there are different kinds of puzzle games.

Sudoku, which is getting very popular now, there's a game that comes without cultural baggage. You define trivia as cultural literacy. That's a very similar kind of puzzle, but without the cultural baggage.

Mr. JENNINGS: The cultural baggage is a real problem with internationalizing trivia. And in the book I mostly focus on American trivia because I was pretty ignorant as to the world of trivia at large, except that I knew that quizzing was very big in English pubs.

But since then I've talked to some people who do put on international trivia quizzes, and it turns out it's huge in Belgium and Sri Lanka and Croatia and, you know, all over the world, frankly. And it's a huge problem. You know, how do you write questions that are if not equally well known to the Croatians and the Sri Lankans, at least equally unfair to everybody.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JENNINGS: It turns out to be a big headache.

CONAN: And well, writing the questions turns out to be a big headache under all circumstances, doesn't it?

Mr. JENNINGS: Yeah. There's a whole chapter in Brainiac on how hard it is to write trivia, because I think people do get the idea that, you know, any fact can just become trivia. Oh, just open the encyclopedia and, you know, you'll have a trivia quiz right there. And really there is more of an art to it than that.

Not every fact is some beautiful piece of trivia that you want to tell your friends at parties, you know.

CONAN: Ken Jennings, it's been a delight to have you back on the program. Good luck with your new projects and with your new book.

Mr. JENNINGS: Thanks, Neal. It's always a pleasure.

CONAN: Ken Jennings book is Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs. Coming up next, a foiled attack in Damascus and what it tells us about the political climate in Syria, and your letters.

I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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