The Low-Stakes Magic of Trivia

Barry Benson tightened his grip on his steering wheel. The federal wildlife-damage-abatement officer had handled bears, coyotes, and wolves. But now he was on a bigger hunt. And he was not alone. At an utterly unassuming, otherwise-bucolic intersection just outside the 280-acre Schmeeckle Reserve in rural Wisconsin, dozens of cars—Benson’s among them—idled in the predawn darkness of 5 a.m., all tuned into the same local radio station, 90 FM, waiting for instructions.

[Read: Wisconsin: Images of the badger state]

Suddenly a voice crackled into the night air: “From where you are now, go past the walking people. Now turn left. Careful, the lane ends. Go past the large cat, the show hosted by David Letterman, the French explorer, the white star, and the printed word seven. Turn left after the protected plastic yellow sleeves. Go past the red arrow. Now turn right. Continue down the road … You have 45 minutes.”

Cars screeched and sped off. The chase was on.

The cryptic announcement was one of hundreds of clues in Trivia Weekend, billed as “the world’s largest trivia contest,” which annually floods the college town of Stevens Point, Wisconsin, with about 10,000 players (the town’s population is just 26,000). For 54 nonstop hours, the college radio station asks more than 400 questions, waiting only the length of a song or two for the answer. The more teams that answer a question correctly, the less it’s worth. There are also scavenger hunts and music scrambles, where eight songs are spliced into 11 seconds and must each be identified.

The morning at Schmeeckle Reserve was in April 2019, in what has been nostalgically called the “before times.” Before COVID-19, of course. But also before mask and vaccine mandates. Before working from home. Before using Zoom for everything from school to funerals. Before toilet paper and flour and baby formula and eggs became hot commodities. Before George Floyd’s murder. Before the insurrection. Before Redditors made bank from GameStop stock.

Trivia Weekend celebrated its 50th anniversary that year (the mayor’s 44th year playing). There was a kickoff parade, which sometimes includes weddings. That year, the parade ended with Governor Tony Evers issuing a proclamation enshrining that weekend as Trivia Weekend statewide.

Over the years, nothing had stopped it. Not a 20-inch blizzard in 2018. Or even the miracle of childbirth (Anne Frederiksen played throughout the Friday night of trivia in 1991 and gave birth that Saturday to a girl who was almost named Trivianna—she went with Lauren instead; her team came in first that year). One year in the 1990s, a local woman fell into a coma in November and awoke in December to doctors warning her she would be hospital-bound for life. “But I have to play trivia in April,” she told them—and she did, sending the quizmaster a thank-you T-shirt afterward embroidered with a needlepoint poem. Even the town’s police, firefighters, and EMTs played on a team called the Choir Boys. The Jeopardy superstar Ken Jennings’s best-selling book on trivia, Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs, has a chapter about Stevens Point. Trivia Weekend was a way of life. One year, local merchants reported that the only holiday that stimulated the town’s economy more was Thanksgiving. Trivia Weekend was bigger than Christmas.

Then came COVID.

“There is a cloud overhead,” wrote Trivia Weekend’s quizmaster, known as Oz, in an email on March 12, 2020. “Many of you have heard about the announcement by the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point concerning extension of spring break and suspension of in-person classes until April 15th. This is presuming that things don’t get worse, which there is no promise of that … So, I like to avoid the problem. At this time ‘Raid on Trivia 51’ is being postponed until the weekend of October 23, 24, 25, 2020.”

Like many proms and weddings and funerals and office meetings that could’ve been emails, Trivia Weekend in October 2020 was largely confined to Zoom. The marathon took breaks from midnight to 8 a.m., and a lack of human-run phone banks meant that answers were submitted through web forms that hadn’t shaken out all of their flaws. It didn’t return to being in person until last year.

Trivia Weekend was a kind of annual rumspringa, a time when mild-mannered midwesterners could stop living Wisconsinbly and become sleep-deprived zombies animated in equal parts by book smarts, beer smarts, and Google. At the core of the festivities is Network, a team of Pointers (as people from Stevens Point are called) who have been playing every year since 1976, when many of them were in ninth grade—they’ve taken the first-place prize 22 times and placed in the top 10 in all but their first two years (including the pandemic years). They are known as the Dark Lords of Trivia. Their mascot is George Leroy Tirebiter, a long-lost pet tarantula from a member’s childhood. Once, in the 1980s, amid a four-hour perfect run, they debated purposely answering a question wrong to quell suspicion that they were cheating.

Even if you’ve never heard of Network, you may have played against them. One member, Ray Hamel, a quizmaster at Slate, has published more than 2,000 crossword puzzles, including one for every day of the week for The New York Times. Since 1980, he has been taking notes on the movies he watches, and has logged about 11,000 flicks; in 2018, he beat his annual record with 454, but by Trivia Weekend 2019 he was already on track for 650 (he hit 635, which still stands as his record). Another Network member, Jim Newman, has written questions for NPR’s Ask Me Another, runs pub trivia in bars across Los Angeles, has directed a stage adaptation of the old television quiz show What’s My Line?, and created a podcast—Go Fact Yourself—that tests celebrities on their nerdy realms of interest. He went on Jeopardy in 1993 and was beaten by the eventual Tournament of Champions winner the following year.

[Adriana E. Ramírez: Everyone loses on Jeopardy eventually]

Network’s core is Barry Heck, whose mother’s basement hosted the team continuously from  1980 through 2019. When the Heck family moved neighborhoods in 1988, they engineered their new basement specifically for trivia, building bookshelves customized to the exact size of, say, a huge collection of Big Little Books or every World Almanac since 1868 (unlike many trivia contests, outside references are allowed). The prize of the collection, housed in a glass cabinet, is a set of the Encyclopedia Britannica bought by Heck’s grandfather in 1918. The overall collection is so large—extending even to vintage board games (Leave It to Beaver Ambush Game! Nancy Drew! Stick the IRS!) and limited-run cereal boxes (Addams Family cereal! Nickelodeon Green Slime cereal! Sugar Jets!)—that the basement has its own card catalog and a 1,200-page printout from 1999 dubbed the Megadex. Network plays with a dedicated Slack channel running on two large monitors. Amid the clutter are the team’s dozens of trophies.

In 2019, Heck’s trove came particularly in handy. In a complicated question about the Explorer Scout Manual, Heck, himself a Life Scout, sauntered over to his vintage manual, flipped to page 155—“backwoods engineering”—and found the answer. It was worth 400 points, which means only one other team knew it. But he also had secret weapons in his nieces, 15-year-old Emma and 10-year-old Renee, who were well versed in Disney shows and cartoons (about which there are a disproportionate number of questions for an adult contest).

When I asked why he has stuck with Trivia Weekend over the decades, Heck shrugged: “It’s something we do for ourselves, not for the neighbors or the internet or anyone else.” His mother, Mary Ann, now 90, made doughnuts for the team every Sunday morning during the tournament for almost half a century. She loves the group, whom she still calls “kids,” and the feeling is very mutual. When her husband and Barry’s father, Ron, died in 2013, most of the team came back to Stevens Point for the funeral, where the pastor began the eulogy with three biblical-trivia questions, which the team solemnly answered.

From a lonely apartment in Brooklyn (with a cat), then a lonelier one in San Francisco—no roommate, no paramour, no pet—I writhed through much of 2020, including an 18-day fever of 103 degrees Fahrenheit with coughs that led to diminished lung capacity that I developed after reporting on the unfolding pandemic for The Washington Post.

My saving grace was a weekly Sunday-night Zoom session with a motley cohort of L.A. industry strangers—producers, musicians, actors, designers, and writers of all types (one of whom had sent me an invitation). For two hours every week, we could retreat into a carnival of knowledge and know-how (some challenges involved drawing or doing impressions or silently mouthing a catchphrase). I was not alone. We were not alone. Pub-style trivia took off in a big way that year, despite being handicapped by the pandemic. “It’s not a question of being smart. It’s just a neurological quirk where we remember things,” a trivia columnist told The New York Times in a November 2020 trend story. Another trivia leader chimed in: “It’s testing knowledge, but it’s not testing anything important.” The beloved Jeopardy host Alex Trebek had died a few weeks earlier, making us all keenly aware of the power and promise of trivia done well.

[Read: How Alex Trebek made a mundane game show brilliant]

My own trivia night worked so well because it happened every Sunday, rain or shine, whether the Super Bowl or the Oscars or Valentine’s Day. Every week brought fresh pandemic chaos and insanity, and was so heightened—so optimized and maximalized for madness—that it turned trivia night into a capstone cleansing ritual, a baptism in which we reasserted our internal weirdness over anything external. No trophies or prizes. Each week the top scorer gave an improvised assignment—usually an impression—to the low scorer.

It helped us not lose track of the paradoxical power of pointlessness, of genuine free time (monetized hobbies or activities motivated by “self-care” don’t count). In a world desperate to normalize everything, we reclaimed the bravery of our weirdness. It helped that we were strangers enjoying one another’s strangeness. Having lost so much time and momentum, and with so many folks consequently demanding that we not allow another minute to go by without advancing our best selves, here we were goofing around in every week’s crucial final psychic round, in which we guessed people’s names prompted only by their photo.

One week I won by correctly identifying Dick Fiddler (the same week I also scored the most Shark Tank–style investors for my company Bones ‘N’ Things. The pitch: “We got all kinds of bones. Femurs! Clavicles! Skulls! And then also on the side we have, y’know, some things. Some things you probably want. Pretty good things.”). Another week, I correctly identified the 19th-century British General Manley Power and compelled that week’s lowest scorer to do an impression of Captain Crunch’s supervisor explaining why the cereal mascot was being passed up for a promotion yet again.

Trivia has a magic; it encourages a flow state through a multiverse of memories—of possibilities. Every ping everywhere all at once. The wonder of it all, and its refusal to be optimized, maximalized, or otherwise scaled toward mechanization compels us to own our own mystery in ways that are inexplicably human, free from the artifice of imposed or supposed intelligence.

While everyone else was prioritizing the tedium of life hacks or the contrivance of TikTok trends, we were frolicking in the serendipity of rabbit holes and a convoluted extrapolation of Truth or Dare.

One question from pandemic Zoom trivia still resonates with me frequently: In the eighth century, the Venerable Bede determined the exact duration of a moment; how long was it? The answer was 90 seconds. Knowing this has given so many minutes since added momentum.  Any moment, however feral or frenzied, has a life span of just 90 seconds. Now is never forever.

We were and still are definitively in a historic moment of flux—in all the big ways, sure, but also a redefining era for what counts as marginal, incidental, and trivial. We are not back to normal and never will be. Anyone calling for that might as well be asking to “Make America normal again.” Instead, we are tasked with rebuilding a new normal out of hope but also out of memory, which is why it’s so important to remember how we spent those pre-pandemic days.

In the Network basement, Kayla Nelson—the sonographer daughter of a stenographer and one of the team’s many younger-generation women—was brought to tears by finally discovering the source of a mysterious bird image. It was on an obscure backgammon board from 1975. On a whim, because it was the 11th hour of the tournament and no board-game questions had been asked yet, she had googled vintage board-game swan (although most Network players thought it was a dove or a sparrow). She composed herself enough to call in the answer when the time came, to a round of applause.

Later, Thom Aylesworth, a lawyer from Boston who had co-founded the group with Heck, was filing the team’s final quibbles to the complaint line. No one was picking up. “Hang up,” said Nick Pionek, Network’s IT guy, from behind his three computer screens. Aylesworth hung up the landline and Pionek tapped his keyboard. “Okay,” he said, “I’ve changed that phone’s number. Try now.” Dark Lords of Trivia indeed.

At last, the final question came: “A literary character and his two sons were in town to get 10 bags of feed at the store. The store owner informed them that a prisoner had escaped and was out to kill all three of them. As they were leaving the store, the youngest brother accidently bumped into a young man, knocking him into the street. The young brother tried to apologize but the young man jumped up, pulling his gun, putting it in the brother’s stomach and pulling the trigger. Luckily, nothing happened and the young brother proceeded to give the young man a closed right fist, which caused the young man to collapse. What is the complete name of the young man who collapsed on the street?”

Heck stood up. “That’s gotta be a Big Little Book,” he said, and began pulling them off the shelves by the armful, onto the conference table covered by laptops and snacks, each book the size of an overstuffed wallet. The whole team descended on the books like locusts, turning the old pages so briskly that some of them tore or crumbled. “Check all the Westerns! Anything with a cowboy on it! It’s gotta be—”

Too late.

“Phones down in the back; that is it for question eight of hour 54, Trivia 5-0,” said the DJ before announcing the answer: the Bubble Gum Kid.

Network hadn’t even called in a guess. They stood there, at the game’s ungracious finale, amid the chaos of books that now seemed like the flotsam of their sunken hopes. Is this what it felt like to be in the ashes of Alexandria or the rubble of Babel? The silence was deafening. Then they did what all Pointers do at the end of a party: They cleaned up and drank after-party beers in the garage.

This is the unifying thread among COVID, the insurrection, the Great Resignation, and inflation: stakes. Across the board, the stakes are high. But what matters is how we respond to these stakes. In most conflicts, especially zero-sum scenarios, the response is some form of brinkmanship—threats and other bullying or imposing tactics. Give us the White House or we’ll storm the Capitol. Give us the Supreme Court or we’ll expand it in our favor. Give us promotions or we’ll quit. Give us raises or we’ll strike. Give us liberty or give us death. The result too often is a kind of gerrymandering of the soul, a parceling of principles for the sake of pragmatism, which only works in theory. By its nature, trivia is not that deep.

[Read: The link between happiness and a sense of humor]

These stakes are traumatic, though, and one of the best-kept secrets in trauma response is to engage in something trivial: a silly game like my own go-to, Candy Crush (a National Institutes of Health study focused on Tetris, which caused hippocampal increases in the brain, reducing anxiety, depression, and PTSD). Something that can absorb attention in a way that mops up panic or pain. It’s a response that literally blocks traumatic memories from forming. Similarly, trivia contests flex your brain’s frontal cortex. “That’s the first thing to go with injury or with age if we don’t use it,” a psychologist who specializes in neurotherapy explained in a Healthline article about the health benefits of trivia.

All of our progress over the past few years is admirable, but also exhausting. Our lives would be far more comfortable if they were just a little more trivial.

On the 55th hour of Trivia Weekend 2019, Network drove to the radio station to collect their trophy. Even at 1:30 a.m., the station was packed with trivia zombies, including babies, elderly women, men in kilts or Princess Leia cosplay, and at least one person in a panda costume (presumably a member of the team Trivial Fursuit). Strangers recognized Heck and asked to shake his hand.

Network came in sixth place in the tournament, up from seventh the year before but far from their regular spot in first. Their standing was out of 341 total teams. Fifth place in 2020, fifth again in 2021, and sixth in 2022. Not quite winners, but not quite losers either. They are Pointers. And we could all use a few Pointers in our lives every now and then. But especially now.