Archive for the ‘Jeopardy!’ category

Comic Art Friday: Let’s make some REAL news

August 11, 2017

I’m just back from my annual junket to the Trivia Championships of North America (TCONA) in Las Vegas, and man, is my brain fried.

I’ve attended every TCONA since the first one in 2011, and it seems as though it’s even more of a blast each successive year. It’s my one opportunity every summer to interface in person with fellow quizzers (including many other former — and some yet future — Jeopardy! champions) from all over the continent (and in a few cases, from other continents), amid the diz-busting, face-melting heat of Vegas in August.

Once again, I managed to keep my six-year medal-winning streak alive, with a bronze in the Team Trivia Championship (shared with five of the nicest and smartest people you’d meet anywhere). When you can’t be the brightest bulb in the room, it’s good to be one of the luckiest.

Best of all, the Pirate Queen joined me as usual at the end of the convention for a few days of Vegas-style R&R, as we are wont to enjoy.

But you’re here for the comic art, aren’t you?

All righty then.

Starman and The Creeper, pencils and inks by Tom Derenick

Today’s featured artwork is this tremendous effort by Tom Derenick, a leading contender in the Why Isn’t This Artist More Famous? sweepstakes. Our latest dip in the Common Elements theme pool matches The Creeper, one of Steve Ditko’s less prominent creations, with the Golden Age hero Starman. What in the wide world of DC Comics might these two have in common, you ask? Perhaps more than you’d think.

When we first encounter the man who would become The Creeper in Showcase #73 (March 1968), he’s Jack Ryder, an obnoxious blowhard TV personality. Starman in civilian life is Ted Knight, who shares his name with an actor (sadly, no longer with us) best known for playing… wait for it… an obnoxious blowhard TV personality. There’s your first common element.

I say “first” because sometimes when I devise a new Common Elements concept, I’m so focused on the idea I have for the project that I miss entirely plausible alternate connections between the characters involved. My good friend and colleague, the legendary commission collector Damon Owens, was quick to point out one here that I didn’t even think about.

The alter egos of these two characters go together to form “Knight Ryder,” a title differing only in spelling from that of a popular action-adventure program from the 1980s. That series, coincidentally, starred David Hasselhoff, a man who also fits the description of… wait for it… an obnoxious blowhard TV personality.

(Incidentally, any additional connection, real or imagined, to an obnoxious blowhard TV personality currently in national public office is 100% serendipitous. *cough*)

So, there’s another common element — one you’d suppose that a self-professed trivia maven such as your Uncle Swan would have picked up on from Jump Street.

Alas, no. Therefore, my thanks to Damon for sweeping the glass and snatching the uncontested rebound.

Back to our spotlight heroes for a moment. As noted previously, The Creeper sprang from the fevered imagination of Steve Ditko — probably best known as the artist co-creator of Marvel’s Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, but also the source of such characters as The Question, Hawk and Dove, and Shade the Changing Man.

In his debut adventure, Jack Ryder becomes The Creeper through the most unlikely of circumstances. In his capacity as a security expert for the television network that recently fired him from his talk-show-hosting duties, Ryder hunts down the subversive agents who kidnapped a famous scientist. While tracking the kidnappers, Ryder crashes a high-society masquerade ball wearing a costume he threw together from random items — the costume that later becomes The Creeper’s signature look. When Ryder finds the missing scientist, the man gives him a serum that speeds healing from injury, along with a device that enables Ryder to transform his apparel from his everyday clothes to his Creeper garb in the blink of an eye. The scientist is soon murdered, leading Ryder to devote himself to battling evildoers.

Starman’s history dates back to Adventure Comics #61 (April 1941), wherein astronomer Ted Knight invents a device he dubs a gravity rod. This handheld implement allows Knight to fly and to fire blasts of energy at his opponents. Almost a year later, in All-Star Comics #8 (January 1942 — the same issue in which Wonder Woman makes her debut appearance, although in a separate story), Starman and blind crimefighter Doctor Mid-Nite join the Justice Society of America, the original superhero team.

Starman faded from the scene (like most Golden Age superheroes) in the late 1940s. In the intervening decades, several other DC characters have used the Starman identity — some connected by legacy to the original Ted Knight version, others completely unrelated. A cynic might opine that DC keeps creating new Starman types merely to keep its trademark alive… but we’re not cynics here, are we?

Returning to our artwork: Not only does Tom Derenick draw with classic style and razor-sharp precision, but he also employs a brilliant twist of perspective here. If you look closely at the background, you’ll notice that the “bottom” of the scene from a real-world point of view is actually the right-hand side of the frame (in other words, that’s where the “ground” is). Thus, in portrait orientation — which is clearly how Derenick expects the viewer to see the image — it appears that The Creeper is jumping down onto an upwardly rising Starman, in attack mode. But when we adjust the angle, and put the bottom of the frame where it would actually be, we observe that it is in fact Starman who has the upper hand, and The Creeper is leaping (or falling) backward, away from his opponent. (See the rotated image below.)

Starman and The Creeper, pencils and inks by Tom Derenick

It’s a masterful shot, perfectly designed and executed. When Tom sent me his preliminary sketch early on in the project, the background was merely suggested by a handful of lines. Only when I saw the finished piece fully rendered could I understand and appreciate what the artist envisioned. I was completely blown away. You might be too.

As with so many things in this life, it’s all in how you look at it.

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.

Go Central, young man! (Rundle A Central, that is.)

March 27, 2014

LearnedLeague season 60 (hereafter, LL60) has concluded, with a grand time had by all 1824 trivia mavens who participated.

For the benefit of those new to the conversation, the greater League is divided into eight (soon to be nine) smaller leagues (formerly known as subregions). Within each league is a tiered system of player groups called Rundles, consisting of between 22 and 32 players. (The ideal Rundle size is 26, which allows for each player to face every other player in the Rundle exactly once during the 25-game season.)

The eight A Rundles — one in each league — form the top level of competition. Before LL60, only four A Rundles existed, with the most lethal being A West — nicknamed “A Murder” for the frighteningly high skill level among its members, many of whom were Jeopardy! all-stars, crossword puzzle superstars, and world-class quiz champions. For the season just concluded, in an effort to spread the best players around a bit more, each of the previous A Rundles was split into two. The former A West morphed into A Central — my new home for LL60 — and A Pacific.

I finished 7th in the newly established Rundle A Central, with a record of 13-4-8. That’s a significantly improved showing over my last season in the late, unlamented A Murder, when I ended up 26th of 30 players, with a record of 3-9-13. (Two of those three wins came on the last two Match Days of the season. It could, therefore, have been even uglier than it was.)

Or is it?

As interesting as it is to follow the head-to-head match totals that determine one’s standing within the Rundle, as a trivia purist I’m far more interested in that most basic of statistics: How many questions did I answer correctly? In this case, the answer is not as many as last season. In LL60, I scored 124 (of a possible 150) correct responses, for a batting average of .827. That’s not at all shabby. But in LL59 — the last season of A West — I notched 133 correct, a percentage of .887. This means that, with nine fewer correct answers this season over the previous, I gained 19 places in the standings.

It’s worth noting that I had the same correct answer total this season as I did in my first season in A West (LL57). That season, I finished in 8th place. In each of the next two seasons, my level of accuracy went up slightly — I had 125 correct (.833) in LL58, then the previously mentioned 133 (.887) in LL59 — even as I plummeted in the Rundle rankings: 17th in LL58, 26th in LL59. You can see the reason for this by looking at the ever-growing number of correct answers given by my opponents: 115 in LL57, jumping up to 122 in LL58, then a stratospheric 135 in LL59. Over the three seasons, even while my accuracy was getting marginally better, my competitors were consistently getting even better still.

Now you see just how freaking difficult it was to play among the monsters in A Murder.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not complaining. A Central is plenty tough just as it is. But I’m under no illusion that my season-to-season record improved in LL60 because I suddenly got a lot smarter. I have the newly diluted competitive environment to thank.

It’s certainly not my defense. My defensive efficiency dropped this season to .671, from .692 in LL59. (We’ve already seen how well that latter number worked out for me. Which is to say, not much at all.) I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I will probably always be a mediocre defensive player, given that I have little desire to spend hours poring over my respective opponents’ question histories in an effort to more effectively divine what they may or may not know.

Anyway, the bottom line is that I managed to avoid relegation to the B level for yet another season, granting myself at least one more go at the A level.

LL61 begins on May 12.

Michael Rankins. Jeopardy! 1980s Fan Favorite. Vote. Yadda, yadda.

September 30, 2013

Choose Michael Rankins as your Jeopardy! 1980s Fan Favorite!

So, here’s the deal.

I’m Michael Rankins — you knew that, right? nobody’s real name is SwanShadow, for crying out loud — and way back in 1988, I was a five-time undefeated champion on Jeopardy!, America’s favorite quiz show. You can see how young and serious I was then, in the graphic above. (You’d think they’d have found a pic of me smiling, wouldn’t you?) I was also a semifinalist in the 1988 Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions; a participant in the first prime-time Jeopardy! tournament, Super Jeopardy! in 1990; the winner of the Jeopardy! Battle of the Bay Area Brains in 1998; and a Round One winner in the Jeopardy! Ultimate Tournament of Champions in 2005.

Okay, résumé over.

Now, I’m competing for the chance to go head-to-head against other 1980s Jeopardy! champions in the show’s 30th Anniversary Season Battle of the Decades! The Battle of the Decades is bringing back former Jeopardy! champions from the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s to compete in a multi-level tournament, that will begin airing in February 2014. The show’s producers have already selected 14 champions from each decade, but the 15th and final spot in each tournament is up to Jeopardy! fans — this means YOU — via an online voting campaign. I’ve been selected as one of five candidates for the 1980s Fan Favorite slot in this mega-event.

To get there, I need your help!

Here’s how you can throw me your support starting today, and continuing daily until 6:59 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time on Monday, October 7.

  • If you’re on Facebook, you can go to the Jeopardy! Facebook page (a.k.a. Facebook.com/Jeopardy) and use the Battle of the Decades voting tab. Just like on the Jeopardy! site, you can choose me as your Fan Favorite, and click “Vote Now!”
  • If you’re a Twitter user, you can vote for me by tweeting: Michael #JeopardyVote. (Be sure to include both my first name and the hashtag.) One such tweet per day counts as a vote for me.

It’s that easy! You can vote for me once each day in each format — that’s one vote on Jeopardy.com, one vote on the Jeopardy! Facebook page, and one vote via Twitter using my first name and the special hashtag: Michael #JeopardyVote. Again, voting starts today, and continues until next Monday morning, October 7, at 7 a.m. PDT.

I’m not the sort to ask folks for much — if you know me, you know that. But if you would take a moment each day this week to vote for me — once per day in all three locations, if you have Facebook and/or Twitter accounts — I would be eternally grateful. (Well, for this lifetime, anyway.) And I’d especially consider it an honor and favor if you’d invite your friends, family members, and other contacts to vote for me too.

By the way, each of the other four nominees is a worthy champion also. Some of them I’ve come to know at least a little over the years, and they’re all cool people. Any of us would do you proud in representing our Decade of the 1980s as your Fan Favorite. But if you’re inclined to give me your votes, please know that I treasure your generous support. (And please, vote fairly. No spambots. I want your help, but not that kind.)

Thanks for your time, friend reader.

Now, please… go vote for me as your Jeopardy! 1980s Fan Favorite!

A LearnedLeague update: LL58 postmortem

September 25, 2013

LearnedLeague Season 58 concluded this week, and in the immortal words of Gloria Gaynor, “I will survive.”

After a grueling 25-day campaign, I managed to finish 17th in Rundle A West — without dispute, the league’s most talent-loaded bracket. By placing above the bottom 10 in our 32-player Rundle, I avoided relegation (the LL euphemism for “demotion”) to a lower bracket for next season. Not escaping that fate were several esteemed competitors whom I consider superstars in the trivia world.

Sometimes, it is indeed better to be lucky than good.

It’s worth noting that my placement in A West plummeted nine slots between last season (when I finished 8th) and this, even though my statistical performance in both seasons was similar. (My head-to-head matchplay record in LL57 was 11-9-5; this season, LL58, I went 10-9-6.) The primary contributing factor here was the disbanding after LL57 of the League’s previous top level, Rundle Championship, and the redistribution of its participants into the four A-level Rundles. A West inherited several former R-Champ members, raising the difficulty factor of our bracket exponentially. (Not that it needed to get more difficult. Rundle A West has long borne the nickname “A Murder” with good reason.) I would have to check name by name to be certain, but I’m pretty sure that every A West member who was in R-Champ in LL57 finished above me in LL58. So, there you go.

Now that I’ve completed three full LL seasons, the last two in A West, it’s a good time to analyze my overall performance in the League to date.

My win-loss-tie record stands at 42-21-12. That’s significantly skewed by my rookie season, in which I went 21-3-1 against other rookies and won my Rundle. None of my fellow R Central competitors had yet advanced to A-level as of LL58 (I believe one or two just earned promotion to A for next season), so it’s fair to say that I compiled that gaudy rookie record against less-stiff competition than what I’ve faced in A West the past two seasons. So, let’s call that first season’s 21 wins an outlier. In A-level competition, I’m a just–over-.500 hitter.

It’s also important to understand wins, losses, and ties in the context of LearnedLeague’s unique method of match play. In LL, defense — that is, the point values assigned to each day’s questions by each player, based on his or her estimation of that day’s opponent’s likelihood of answering each question correctly — plays a critical role. Quite frequently, a player wins or ties a match in which his or her opponent offers more correct answers — simply by virtue of more effective defense. Here’s an example: Player A gets four of the match’s six questions correct; Player B assigned those four questions values of 3, 2, 2, and 1. (Player A therefore missed two questions, valued at 1 and 0.) Player B gets five out of six, earning the following points: 0, 1, 1, 2, 2. (Player B missed the sixth question, valued by Player B at 3.) Player A’s score is 8(4) — that is, 8 points on 4 correct responses. Player B’s score is 6(5) — 6 points on 5 correct responses. Since only the match points, and not the number of correct answers, determines the outcome of the match, Player A wins, despite getting one less question right than Player B.

As a hardcore trivia guy, I sometimes find that system less than satisfying. Ideally, every trivia matchup would be decided purely on the basis of “who knows more stuff.” But the fact is, even Jeopardy!, the venue from which whatever minuscule trivia street cred I possess is derived, works the same way. I’ve certainly won games in my Jeopardy! career where one of my opponents answered more questions correctly, but I happened to get more of the high-dollar-value questions, or a Daily Double or two, correct. It’s how game creators make games competitive and exciting. I get that, and I’m cool with it.

I do, however, like to keep track of my own performance based strictly on my percentage of correct answers. When it comes to LearnedLeague, I’m pleased that I’ve continued to improve in this regard. In my rookie season, I notched 118 correct responses for a .787 batting average. In LL57, my first season in A West, I got 124 answers right, upping my average to .827. In the season just concluded, I scored 125 correct answers (.833). Some of that is pure luck, of course — you happen to get asked things that you know, or can figure out — but I’ve also been working on upping my game by reviewing material in categories where I could use a boost. I also spend at least a bit of time each evening playing quizzes on Sporcle. You just never know when knowing, say, the capital of Burkina Faso will come in handy. (It’s Ouagadougou, in case you were curious.)

Speaking of categories where I could use a boost…

To help facilitate defense, LearnedLeague publishes extensive statistical background on each player’s performance. At a glance, you can survey an opponent’s track record in every category, and see where his or her weaknesses lie. (You can — if you’re really into it — review every question your opponent has ever played, and discover which specific items he or she got right or wrong. I’m not quite that anal-retentive.)

Were you to review my statistical profile, you’d find few surprises if you know me well at all. After three seasons, my highest correct percentages are in Current Events (100%), Television (96.9%), Film (96.7%), Theatre (92.9%), Lifestyle (a catch-all category that encompasses such diverse areas as religion and fashion — 91.7%), and Games and Sports (90%). You’d have predicted that, yes?

Conversely, my nemeses are Art (60%), Classical Music (58.8%), and of course, Math (16.7%). Again, if you know me, you know that my ineptitude in mathematics rivals only my distaste for country music. In fact, I believe that Hell is an eternal algebra class with country music playing at ear-splitting volume over the loudspeakers.

I’ve been doing some brush-up reading on art, and trying to memorize some basic facts about the most notable classical composers. I think it’s helping. Nothing will help me get better at math. If you find yourself facing me in a future LearnedLeague match, and there’s a math question in the day’s sextet, you might as well slap a big fat 3 on that one. (Then again, I do pull one out of thin air 16.7% of the time. So, you never can be too certain.)

For what it’s worth, I’ve also attempted to work on my defense. I’m consistently a subpar — although not altogether horrible — defender, which means I do a mediocre job at assigning points based on my opponent’s perceived strengths and weaknesses. I could probably win an extra couple of games each season just through better defense, so I’m trying to take more time with that portion of each day’s quiz. My defensive efficiency rating improved to .672 this season, from the previous season’s .651, so I suppose I’m doing something right. Or at least, less wrong.

LearnedLeague 59 begins November 11. I’m looking forward to the next challenge.

TCONA 3: Most of my pursuits are trivial

August 16, 2013

I just flew in from Las Vegas, and boy, is my brain tired.

Actually, the Pirate Queen and I flew back from Bright Light City two days ago, and I’m mostly not tired any more. I’d headed to Vegas last weekend for the third annual Trivia Championships of North America — henceforth, TCONA, or I’ll be typing all day. The Pirate Queen joined me on Sunday following the festivities, and we spent a blissful three days checking out the sights and sounds of one of my favorite vacation destinations.

But let’s talk TCONA.

What began two summers ago as a largely informal gathering of game show champions, Quiz Bowl veterans, and pub quiz mavens has ballooned in this third installment into a real live media event. Not only were crews from two nationally televised game shows — NBC’s Million Second Quiz, and The Chase, GSN’s new Stateside version of the UK hit — on site to conduct in-person auditions, but the stars of both the US and UK editions of The Chase also participated in several of the weekend’s competitions. The Experts, easily the best weekly quiz program on YouTube, taped four episodes before a live audience. And of course, there was in attendance the usual assortment of trivia geeks from all over the continent, and beyond. (I met at least one fellow who’d come all the way from Sweden. Or maybe Norway. Somewhere in Scandinavia, anyway.)

A summary of one attendee’s highlights follows.

The weekend commenced on Friday morning with a multi-part written quiz. This opening salvo serves not only to start the neurons firing, but also to provide an initial gauge of one’s level among the competitors. My first thought after completing the test was that I should have ingested more coffee before we began. I was relatively pleased, once the scores were published later that day, to discover that I hadn’t fared as poorly as I feared, and in fact, I’d outpointed several folks whose names are far better known in the trivia world than my own. With another triple latte in my system, I might have performed even better.

One of TCONA’s primary individual events is 5×5, a buzzer battle whose gameplay bears distant similarity to a certain television quiz program with which I am intimately acquainted. Despite the aforementioned acquaintance, I never seem to do very well at 5×5, and this year’s contest was no exception. I lost my first match thanks to a foolishly aggressive final wager — I was leading up to that point — on a question about Celebrity Apprentice, a program with which I am clearly not as intimately acquainted as I thought. I was never a factor in my second game, and thus lost any hope of advancing to further rounds.

I had high expectations for myself in another individual event, LearnedLeague Live. At TCONA 1, I won my first round against seven other competitors, despite never having played the game before. Last year, I held my own at an eight-player table that included several seasoned LearnedLeague veterans; I didn’t win the table, but I felt that I acquitted myself decently. This year, I made the critical error of playing at a table featuring two of the greatest (and two of my favorite) players in Jeopardy! history, Jerome Vered and Dan Melia. Note to self: Next year, instead of sitting with people you like, sit with people you might stand a chance of beating. Assuming there are any.

For the main team event, Quiz Bowl, I reconnected with two other members of last TCONA’s silver-medal-winning squad for a run at fresh hardware. Our team captain, Dave Legler, who once bagged $1.7 million on the game show Twenty-One, recruited as our fourth player a trivia host from Chicago, Jeremy Cahnmann. Combine that with our not-so-secret weapon, Jonathan Hess, a soft-spoken grad student from South Carolina who knows more arcane information than I’ve forgotten — and I’ve forgotten a lot over the years — and little old me (you remember that I’ve won eight games on that TV quiz show with the Canadian ex-pat, right?), and we liked our chances going in. We galloped off to a tremendous start, going undefeated in our first three games and winning our four-team bracket. Then, in our first elimination match, we ran into a tough crew led by Anne Hegerty, one of the “chasers” on the original British version of The Chase. As coincidence would have it, the game commenced with a battery of Anglocentric material that Anne leaped all over like a wolf attacking a Porterhouse. Our side rallied, though, making up ground furiously as the game progressed, only to lose in the end by the value of a single question. It was a hard loss to stomach… but there’s always next year.

Luckily for me, redemption came in the other team event, the Pub Quiz Mashup. Another Jeopardy! Ultimate Tournament of Champions veteran, Dr. Shane Whitlock, invited me to team up with him and his charming bride. We added three other players to fill our roster, which Shane dubbed (in the time-honored pub quiz tradition of quirky team names) “Natalie Portmanteau.” After seven often-hilarious rounds of play, we walked away with the silver medal. Except… well… we didn’t exactly. An apparent scoring error, uncovered between the end of the event and the medal presentation the following day, resulted in our being bumped from second place to third. So we got the bronze medal instead of the silver. I don’t care — it started out silver, and I’m sticking to that. It’ll always be silver to me.

Having the two hottest new game shows in television making their first TCONA appearances generated considerable buzz. Both Mark “The Beast” Labbett, the “chaser” on the US version of The Chase, and the show’s producer came in for Q&A sessions. (Not only is Mark a smart fellow, he’s also ginormous. They don’t call him The Beast for nothing.) Quite a few folks auditioned for Million Second Quiz; it’ll be interesting to watch the show and see how many people I know who made the final cut.

Speaking of game shows, if you aren’t already watching The Experts every Monday (or whenever you choose — it’s on YouTube, so tune in when it suits you, but the new eps post on Mondays), you should be, doggone it. Produced by my Jeopardy! colleague Alan Bailey, it’s consistently as entertaining a 20 minutes as you’ll spend. Alan and his crew shot four new games on Saturday night, including an all-star slugfest between The Chase‘s Anne Hegerty (whose subject specialty was Terry Pratchett’s Discworld) and Jeopardy! superstars Brad Rutter and Roger Craig (experts on Mad Men and Prince, respectively). All four games offered action, suspense, brain-shredding trivia superiority by the contestants, and abundant joviality for all. I won’t spoil the outcomes for you — you’ll just have to hie yourself over to YouTube when the new shows post, and check them out for yourself.

There were, as usual, plenty of ancillary events in and around all of the above. Quiz hosts and trivia producers from all over North America bring their favorite material and stage impromptu games throughout the weekend, which anyone can drop into and play. TCONA is also the home of the World Championship of Kno’dgeball, an amusing yet bizarre hybrid of trivia and dodgeball. (Your Uncle Swan declines participation in the latter, preferring not to combine mental challenge with risk of bodily injury. But the Kno’dgeballers do seem to enjoy themselves.)

Of course, TCONA’s most memorable highlights are always the connections and reconnections with my fellow trivia mavens. TCONA is the one place each year where I run into some of the many amazing people I’ve met via Jeopardy! — Bob Harris, Roger Craig, Brad Rutter, Steve Chernicoff, Dan Melia, Shane Whitlock, Alan Bailey, Jerome Vered, and I’m probably forgetting others, for which I’ll apologize in advance. (Yes, all of those people are as intelligent as they appear on TV. More, even.) It’s also a chance to meet up again with my Quiz Bowl teammates Dave and Jonathan, as well as many other new acquaintances I’ve made over these past three events, including such quiz show stars as Who Wants to Be a Millionaire winners Ed Toutant and Joe Trela, whose exploits I’ve admired from the other side of the tube. It was fun to put faces to many of the names with whom I compete in LearnedLeague — I think at least half of Rundle A West, my current LL bracket, was in attendance this year, several of whom I met for the first time.

Kudos to the TCONA team for lining up an infinitely superior venue this time out. The Tropicana met the event’s needs as well as anyone could have hoped after the horrors of Circus Circus last year. The Trop’s not perfect — in particular, its dining options are limited, especially in the budget-friendly/quick-service areas (there’s neither a buffet nor a true food court). Still, it’s an easy stroll across the street to the MGM Grand, New York New York, or the tram-connected Excalibur/Luxor/Mandalay Bay trio, so ample eating choices are right nearby. On the positive side, the conference center is easily accessible, and eminently convenient if you’re staying in the Trop’s Club Tower — basically, step off the elevator and you’re there. I couldn’t have been more satisfied with my room, which was large, well-appointed, clean, and comfortable. The in-room high-speed wifi worked splendidly. (Don’t get me started about the execrable Internet access situation I encountered when I moved over to Excalibur after the convention ended.) And, if you like to while away your free time and dollars in the casino, I found the Trop’s blackjack dealers as friendly and helpful as any I’ve encountered anywhere in Vegas.

Speaking of the Trop, TCONA shared the hotel’s weekend hospitality with another niche convention: the National Pole Dancing Championships. (Yes, that’s a thing. I kid you not.) I can assure you that, for the most part, you’d have had scant difficulty determining which guests were there for the trivia, and which for the pole dancing. Let’s just say that, were you to draw a Venn diagram depicting quiz nerds and pole dancers, there would be precious little overlap between the two sets. Maybe none.

Before I departed, I registered in advance for TCONA 4. You could join me in Vegas (probably at the Trop, but that’s yet to be negotiated) next August 8-10. But I’ll warn you: You’d better bring your A game.

Everybody’s got to lose sometime

March 7, 2013

It was fun while it lasted.

I made it all the way to Match Day 12 of LearnedLeague Season 56 before losing a match, exceeding my initial expectations by roughly a factor of 11. The fact that my opponent on MD12 “drank the beer” — answering all six of the day’s questions correctly — made my first loss inevitable, given that I only went four-for-six. (My opponent, a six-time Jeopardy! champion and 2010 Tournament of Champions finalist, will run the table frequently, I suspect.)

Let’s review the set of questions that wrought my first crushing defeat.

  • Question 1: The 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning Master of the Senate, by Robert Caro, is the third volume of a mammoth biography of what American?
  • Question 2: The 32-song soundtrack to what film, released in July 1994 and filled with American artists such as Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, The Mamas & the Papas, Bob Seger, and Aretha Franklin, peaked at #2 on the Billboard chart, and was ultimately certified 12x platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America?
  • Question 3: The only blemish in what thoroughbred racehorse’s 21-race career was a place at the 1919 Sanford Memorial Stakes in Saratoga Springs, New York, behind a horse named, appropriately enough, Upset?
  • Question 4: The scientific field of nuclear physics was born, one could argue, in 1896, when radioactivity was discovered by what Frenchman, for which he shared the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics with his doctoral student Marie Sklodowska-Curie and her husband Pierre?
  • Question 5: Name the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran who was ousted in August of 1953, in a coup d’État orchestrated by intelligence agencies of the United States and United Kingdom.
  • Question 6: What is the most common term in mathematics for the type of number that is the sum of a real number and an imaginary number, typically expressed as x + iy, where i is the square root of negative 1?

Got your answers ready?

Okay then, let’s check them off.

Answer 1: A fair chunk of my pleasure reading consists of biographies. Although I’ve never read any of the books in Robert Caro’s series on President LYNDON JOHNSON, I’ve certainly heard of them. Caro is probably one of the three or four best-known biographers of this era, and he’s won pretty much every award that one can win for writing such books. Although, why anyone would want to write four thick volumes about LBJ (with a fifth and final still to be published) is beyond me.

Answer 2: I have a difficult time remembering numbers — I have to look up our home phone number every time I order a pizza — but the two categories of numbers I do well with are the sequence of U.S. Presidents and the release years for movies. The key to this question is the year the film was released — 1994. The two biggest Hollywood hits of that year were Disney’s The Lion King, whose soundtrack consists of several now-famous show tunes written by Elton John and Tim Rice, and FORREST GUMP, whose soundtrack boasts a wealth of classic rock songs. Clearly, the latter was the correct response here.

Answer 3: Here’s another of those questions for which The Daughter, a horse-racing aficionado, would never forgive me if I didn’t know the answer. It’s also a familiar etymology factoid. One of racing’s most legendary horses, MAN O’ WAR, lost his only match against a little-regarded challenger named Upset. Prior to this event, the word “upset” only meant “angry” or “irritated.” Afterward, sports fans started referring to an overwhelming favorite’s loss to an underdog as “pulling an Upset,” and the word gained a new meaning — one that’s almost as common in usage today as its original ones.

Answer 4: This is where the first wheel fell off for me. I know about the Curies, of course — Marie Curie remains to this day the only individual to win Nobel Prizes in two different fields of science. (A frequently handy nugget of trivia, that.) But the name of her mentor? I hadn’t a clue. After assuring myself that this snippet of information wasn’t in my memory banks anywhere, I typed in the name of the only French scientist from the relevant time period that I could think of — Louis Pasteur. Yes, I know Pasteur had nothing to do with radioactivity, but at least I filled in the blank. My esteemed opponent, conversely, had no difficulty in coming up with HENRI BECQUEREL, whom I might have thought invented one of the mother sauces in French cuisine.

Answer 5: There’s only one reason I knew this. Just last weekend, the Pirate Queen and I finally got around to viewing Argo, the reigning Best Picture Oscar winner. Without that very recent hot dip into modern Iranian history, I’d have never known that the Shah’s predecessor was the duly elected MOHAMMAD MOSSADEGH. I still didn’t know how the man’s surname was spelled, but the Commissioner of LearnedLeague took pity on me and gave me credit for a correct response despite the mangling.

Answer 6: I probably shouldn’t admit this in print, but my future opponents will quickly figure it out anyway: Math is not my element. I need the calculator on my iPhone to figure out the tip on a restaurant check. Algebra and other higher mathematics? Please. When I see a question with an equation in it, like this one, my eyes glaze over. I put down one of the terms floating about randomly in my skull — irrational number — which proved to be incorrect. (I felt better after learning that my response was the most common wrong answer to this question. At least a number of other players knew as little about math as did I.) My esteemed opponent, who apparently has no gaping holes in his knowledge base, accurately identified the correct answer as COMPLEX NUMBER. Me, I only have a complex about numbers.

Having been soundly thumped for the first time in LearnedLeague, I’m off to lick my wounds. But before I dash, here’s a bit of bonus trivia for you:

What was the name of the British one-hit wonder whose song title I parodied in the heading of this post?

The first person to answer correctly in the comments wins… well… nothing material. But I’ll give you my undying admiration, which you’ll have to admit is priceless.

With six, you get egg roll

February 27, 2013

Before I get into the meat of today’s post, I want to throw a word of congratulation to Colby Burnett, winner of this season’s Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions. As winner of the Teachers’ Tournament this past year, Colby becomes only the second player to graduate from winning one of the show’s special-interest tournaments (College, Teachers’, Teen, and the long-defunct Seniors) to also winning the TOC. (Back in 1989 — the year after my own TOC experience — a guy named Tom Cubbage won the College Tournament before advancing to and winning the TOC. Tom was in my taping group for the Ultimate Tournament of Champions in 2005. I’m pleased to report that he’s done quite nicely for himself, despite having become an attorney.)

Colby blazed through the field in both his tournaments, in both instances going into the last Final Jeopardy! of the two-day final round with an insurmountable lead. He displayed quick buzzer skills, a broad range of knowledge, and a quirky sense of humor throughout. Way to represent, Colby!

Speaking of knowledge and quirky humor, it’s time for an update on my rookie season in LearnedLeague. (For the backstory on this online trivia league, and my participation therein, check out this post.)

Six games into LL56, I’m astounded to find myself in first place in my bracket (or Rundle, as it’s called in LL). Match Day 6 also afforded me my first “six-pack” — that is to say, I answered all six of the day’s questions correctly. (LearnedLeague members — “LLamas” — refer to a six-for-six Match Day as “drinking the beer,” or “downing a six-pack,” which accommodates the soda-swilling teetotalers equally.) I’m not sure that says as much for my prowess as one might suppose, as MD06 appears to have been the easiest day of the season thus far, based on League-wide accuracy statistics. But it sure was nice to get that perfect-score monkey off my back at last.

My opponent for the day earned seven points for his four correct answers, against my nine points and six correct. So I needed a flawless card, or nearly that, to get the victory.

If you’re curious whether you could have “drunk the beer” on this particular round, these were the day’s questions. I’ll give you my thought process after you’ve had a chance to answer.

  • Question 1: This sturdy young woman is the work of what Dutch master? (Click here to view image.)
  • Question 2: Give the term from economics, a portmanteau coined in a 1965 speech to the British parliament, used to illustrate a scenario where prices are increasing at a high rate, economic growth slows, and unemployment remains at a steady high level.
  • Question 3: The most produced variety of sweet cherry in the United States is a cultivar which goes by what name, after the Chinese foreman who worked for the orchardist who created it in 1875?
  • Question 4: Which is the only NFL franchise to have won championships in three different cities? The first two were won in Cleveland and Los Angeles, the third in the team’s current home city, in 1999.
  • Question 5: A collection of figurines kept lovingly on the shelf of an introverted young woman named Laura Wingfield provides the title for what classic play of American theatre?
  • Question 6: A pair of wars were fought in the mid-19th c. between China and the British Empire over restrictive Chinese trade laws, and specifically the trade of what product, in very high demand in China at the time?

Done? Excellent.

The answers follow.

Answer 1: Given that he’s her favorite artist, The Daughter would never have forgiven me if I didn’t immediately recognize this as the work of JAN VERMEER. The title of the painting is The Milkmaid, and it’s probably Vermeer’s second most famous work, after Girl with a Pearl Earring. (The latter, incidentally, is currently here in San Francisco at the DeYoung Museum, as part of a rare North American tour of artworks from the Mauritshuis in the Netherlands. I’m looking forward to seeing “the Dutch Mona Lisa” in person soon.)

Answer 2: I’m far from an expert on economics (just ask the Pirate Queen, who holds both an MBA and a Master’s in Financial Engineering), and I’ve never heard of the 1965 speech mentioned in the clue. However, the conditions sound a lot like what I’ve heard described on news-talk programs as STAGFLATION, which is definitely a portmanteau (a word made by combining two or more existing words). And in fact, it’s the right one.

Answer 3: The only varieties of cherry I can name off the top of my head are Bing, Montmorency, and Maraschino. The last two don’t sound even remotely Chinese, and I’m pretty sure that Montmorency cherries are sour rather than sweet anyway. So BING it had to be.

Answer 4: This was an instaget for me. The NFL franchise now known as the ST. LOUIS RAMS began life as the Cleveland Rams before a lengthy stint in L.A. (1946-1979) and Anaheim (1980-1994) as the Los Angeles Rams. The team moved to St. Louis in 1995, following the Cardinals’ departure for Phoenix. The most common wrong answer to this question was “Oakland Raiders,” who did play in L.A. for a number of seasons in the ’80s and ’90s, but never in Cleveland.

Answer 5: Another instaget. The combination of “collection of figurines” and “classic play” could only mean Tennessee Williams’s THE GLASS MENAGERIE.

Answer 6: This was the only question on this Match Day that I struggled with even slightly. My first thoughts were “tea” and “silk,” but I couldn’t recall any wars being engaged over those commodities, at least not between the British and the Chinese. As I was mulling that over, I thought, “The only wars I can even remember those two countries ever fighting were the Opium Wars… oh, yeah… OPIUM. Duh.” Sometimes, it really is that simple.

How did you do with this set? Did you drink the beer (or soda, if you prefer), or were you a bottle or two short of a six-pack?

I’ve already submitted my answers for Match Day 7. Alas, I won’t be drinking anything but my own sorrows today.