Back in college, Robert Hentzel and his teammates competed at the championship level, but victory always came without fanfare. Or fans, for that matter. As spectator sport, academic quiz bowl was a bit like watching a perpetual IQ test being given out loud, with small teams of students vying to see who could answer the most questions the quickest.
Did anyone else really care what lake is fed by 14 perennial rivers, including the Ruhuhu, or what German invented the vacuum pump, or who lost a leg in the Battle of Chickamauga? (Malawi, Otto von Guericke, John Bell Hood.)
After the wedding of fellow quiz bowlers, a late-night pickup game draws Maribeth Mason, Chris Nolte, Chad Kubicek and Tom Waters.
(Ben Garvin For The Washington Post)
Quiz bowlers didn't merely accumulate knowledge; they stockpiled it. Fact upon fact upon small, obscure fact. Worthless information, outsiders would scoff. But the quiz bowlers' passion ran deep. And their pursuit turned out to be not so trivial.
Over the past five years alone, more than 40 former quiz bowlers have quietly infiltrated the ranks of television game-show contestants, raking in nearly $7 million, primarily from "Jeopardy!" and "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire."
Call it the ultimate revenge of the nerds.
"There's definitely a subculture there," acknowledged Michael Davies, executive producer of "Millionaire" and himself a reject from the academic challenge team at the University of Edinburgh. ("I was just useless in classics and the sciences.")
Certainly the most visible member of the underground intelligentsia these days is "Jeopardy!" phenom Ken Jennings, a 30-year-old software engineer from Salt Lake City whose pretaped winning streak is the longest and richest in that show's history, and is rumored to be more than half over. And while "Jeopardy!" questions are less complicated than quiz bowl's elaborate clues, Jennings said he figures that roughly 40 percent of his correct answers on "Jeopardy!" came from knowledge he amassed over the years via quiz bowl.
Yet even with $1.66 million in brain booty so far, Jennings still doesn't qualify as quiz bowl's biggest success story.
That honor belongs to Kevin Olmstead, an Ann Arbor, Mich., environmental engineer, who remains the biggest prize winner in TV history with the $2.18 million pocketed from "Millionaire" in 2001 -- definitely an improvement over the $26,911 he had won on "Jeopardy!" several years earlier.
The aging top players keep their minds sharp and buzzer fingers nimble with occasional Masters tournaments and the Chicago open held each summer. "When we get together, we frequently sit around and read each other questions," said Hentzel, a friend and business partner.
What extinct arthropods were named for the number of divisions of their dorsal plates? What 1819 massacre began with a saber attack by Manchester yeomanry? They asked themselves these questions and more (oh, so many more) during all-nighters in coffee shops or grudge matches over pizza. (Trilobites and Peterloo.)