WAUSAU, Wis. – A millionaire game show whiz joins thousands of competitors this weekend at the 36th annual self-proclaimed world's largest trivia contest.
Ken Jennings (search), who won nearly $2.5 million during a 74-game winning streak playing "Jeopardy," will visit the contest 30 miles south of here in Stevens Point to witness the competition in his research for a new book about trivia.
Will he want to play after getting caught up in the passion of the 54-hour marathon of the mind that begins Friday?
"I don't think it is the kind of stuff I would be that good at," Jennings said in a telephone interview from Salt Lake City, his hometown.
"My impression is to make the questions Google-proof, they have to be pretty obscure stuff, not the kind of general knowledge that "Jeopardy" (search) tests, but really specialized kind of minutiae. And I have no way of knowing how I would do at that kind of stuff. I would probably get my butt kicked. I am just sort of interested in seeing what the vibe is like."
This year's trivia contest features the theme "Trivia 36: Keep on Trivia" in a tribute to Robert Crumb, a cartoonist famous for the comic book Zap Comix that introduced popular icons such as Mr. Natural, Fritz the Cat and Mr. Snoid.
Nearly 500 teams with about 12,000 players, some traveling from across the nation to Stevens Point, a central Wisconsin city of 24,400 people, are expected to compete.
The contest involves eight questions read every hour on WWSP, the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point radio station. Contestants search books, the Internet, movies and other sources for answers to obscure questions.
For example: Patrick and SpongeBob SquarePants once squared off against each other in the squared circle for a major wrestling match. What piece of food was the wrestling ring built upon? Answer: Hamburger.
There's also music questions that include sound bits from songs, and a "Trivia Stone" treasure hunt that sends players through the city looking for various clues visible in road signs, yards and landmarks to retrieve stamps worth points.
The organizer of the event, Jim Oliva, nicknamed "The Oz," from the "The Wizard of Oz" because he's the all-knowing, the all-powerful and the final say on any grievance over a question and answer, intends to keep a well-known tradition going — the first answer is always either "Robert Redford" or "Bob."
A year ago, the team Knights of Neek defeated runner-up The Deadhead is All Wet — Network PSISE. Third place went to Graduates of a Lesser God.
Jamie Shorts, a spokeswoman for the contest, said Jennings will participate in a celebrity phone shift when players call in answers on Sunday, the final day of the competition.
"It is kind of a cool thing," she said about Jennings' visit. "It starts a buzz in the city. People who are not too familiar with the contest say, 'Oh, Ken Jennings. What is that all about?'"
Jennings, a computer software engineer from Salt Lake City, captivated the country last year with his knowledge on the TV game show, providing more than 2,700 correct responses before he was tripped on this Final Jeopardy answer: Most of this firm's 70,000 seasonal white-collar employees work only four months a year.
The correct question was "What is H&R Block?" Jennings guessed Federal Express, losing $14,001 to $8,799 to a former actress from California.
Jennings said the Stevens Point event is the big leagues of trivia contests in the United States.
His book, due for publication in 2006, will explore the history of trivia, the various kinds of trivia and the cultures of the people who play it, he said.
"I am real interested by a lot of what I have read about this contest, because it does seem to be an unusually tight knit-community that loves the social side of what they do just as much as answering the questions. So I am very interested to see these sort of unusual players at work in their native environment," he said.
Shari Hastings, 52, of Rosholt, is entering her eighth contest as a member of Gene Autry's Ninja Warriors, a team featuring mostly educators. She is an assistant in the Rosholt High School computer technology program.
"We did not even start using computers until about four years ago and we have always played in the top 50," she said proudly. "We have Ninjas online. We have a secure chat room. We concentrate and think about this all year."
As for Jennings being in town, Hastings gushed about the "Jeopardy" champ. "Oh my gosh. We are so excited. We are just hoping that he notices some of the Ninjas," she said.