Lawrence's trivia contest keeps thriving

Strange questions, devoted players, and passionate trivia masters each play role

January 25, 2007

What makes a good trivia question? James Hall, a senior at Lawrence University, has the answer.

"A good question first of all has to be interesting," said Hall, grand trivia master for LU's 42nd annual Great Midwest Trivia Contest, which begins Friday night. "Nobody wants to be asked how many cracks are in the sidewalk between City Centre mall and the Lawrence University campus; although that may be a difficult question, nobody cares."

Difficulty is the second feature of a good question. Participants in the Great Midwest contest, for example, have three minutes to search the Internet, books or the far reaches of their minds to find the answer to a presented question, and then quickly phone in the answer. The job of the crack team of 13 trivia masters who come up with the questions is to make them "un-Googleable."

That's one of the beautiful things about trivia, Hall said. "Half of it is always going to be a mystery and half of it is always going to be nerdy and explainable."

So, you may be asking, what's an example of a really good, equally obscure and difficult question? Well, how about this one, the "super garruda" (a made-up word meaning final and most difficult question) from the 2003 contest:

When he was in ninth grade, Frank Zappa won a Fire Prevention Week poster contest. What did his poster say?

Stumped? So was Hall, who at the time was a member of a team entered in the contest. His team tracked down daughter Moon Unit Zappa's phone number and gave her a call at midnight minutes before the contest ended.

Ms. Zappa was not happy nor did she know the answer, which turned out to be, "No Picnic. Why? No Woods. Prevent Forest Fire."

"Those are what you call shutouts," said Hall, a trivia master for the last three years and one of seven graduating from LU this spring. "Last year we had maybe a dozen shutouts, which is always a point of pride for the trivia masters when we find a question nobody can find an answer to.

"Since I have been at Lawrence, five years now, only one or two garrudas have been answered correctly; those are kind of the Holy Grail of trivia questions."

A long, proud history

Broadcast over Lawrence's Internet radio station, WLFM, the Great Midwest Trivia Contest was founded in 1966 by James B. deRosset, with both on and off campus teams competing against each other during the course of the 50-hour mental marathon. The event at LU also is known as the world's longest running trivia contest because of its custom of asking the last question from one year as the first question of the next.

Beginning at 10:00:37 p.m. Friday, the first of 300 to 400 of the most difficult and least important questions will be Webcast at sorg/trivia to dozens of teams that then have three minutes to call in the answers. For each correct answer, points are awarded. The teams with the most points at the end of the event receive prizes, awarded on the steps between the LU Conservatory of Music and Memorial Chapel.

While winning the Great Midwest brings huge bragging rights, the prizes are as inconsequential as some of the questions. Prizes include a stainless steel bedpan and pink flamingos.

"The trivia credo is kind of the governing motto, which is to have fun," Hall said.

It's addicting

"We never want to come in first because the prizes they give are just horrible," said Carole Leslie, the 70-something housemother of team Jaberwocky, which has been having fun since the team began playing out of her Greenville basement in 1979. Jaberwocky is, however, consistently in the Top 10.

Leslie's introduction to the contest came in 1979, when son Brian, then a sophomore at Hortonville High School, found out about the LU trivia contest and asked if he and his team could set up shop in the basement. Twenty-eight years later the team numbers about 10, including Leslie.

"It's like a family reunion for us," she said with a chuckle. "My husband just looks at us and says, 'If somebody told you that was work, you'd pile it up and throw rocks at it.'"

Leslie is living proof there's no such a thing as a quintessential participant. Being a brainiac helps, but knowing how to research questions quickly is equally important.

"It is less about what you know and what you think you can find," Hall said. "So if you know absolutely nothing about trivia but you can search Google with the best of them you'll probably do well. The best teams are the ones with both smart people and lots of resources, computers and phone lines. It is as much about resourcefulness as intelligence."

While the questions haven't gotten any harder over the years, the method of researching the answers has, Leslie said.

"We used to have seven bookcases we would set up and we had massive numbers of books. We went to movies just to take trivia from and never watched TV without a pencil and paper in front of us, so we had a massive pile of index cards. We were the last team I'm sure that had a rotary dial phone because we were in Greenville and it took that long for us to get touchtone."

It's all done by computer now, added Leslie, whose team will make use of seven to 10 computers and two phone lines.

As for the title of grand trivia master, Hall does not take it lightly.

"It is a big honor, a big privilege and a big responsibility," he said. "There's hundreds and hundreds of people that play this contest every year and look forward to having a good one. So we need to make sure we are putting out good questions of varying degrees of difficulty, that everything's working with the radio station and with on campus and off campus stuff, and this year they're filming a mini-documentary film of the contest.

"So there are a lot of things to be facilitated and organized."

That's one of the reasons he hasn't autographed the honorary Grand Master trivia scepter, a long illuminated black pole topped with a plastic-encased baseball featuring the signatures of all the Grand Trivia Masters before him.

"I am going to put it on after the contest is open to sort of leave my mark," Hall said. "First the contest needs to go off well and then I'll feel like I'm qualified to do it."