Several weeks ago a small group of employes from Polaris Inc., a Virginia-based defense contractor, rented a weekend cottage along Skyline Drive in the Blue Ridge Mountains. They secluded themselves with two mentors, rarely stepping outside to breathe the autumn air and breaking only for meals.
Brian Sweeney, a 27-year-old computer programmer-analyst, was there. So was Barbara Ballard, 37, the company's director of contract administration. And Terry Castorina, 25, a technical specialist, to name a few of the company's 42 employes who were present.
The information Sweeney and his colleagues filed in their memory banks in Virginia's rural mountains was of no use to the Army or the Navy. Their mission? To toughen their minds for Washington's second annual Trivial Pursuit championship.
Yesterday, that contest was held at the Sheraton Washington. Ninety-six players on 24 teams, including those from Polaris, spent the day under hotel ballroom chandeliers, eating handfuls of caramel popcorn, nervously sipping at soft drinks, and racking their brains for the answers to such questions as:
"How many nephews of Edgar Allan Poe played for the 1899 Princeton football team?" (Six.) Or, "What black quartet named itself for the penguin trademark on the pack of Kool cigarettes?" (The Penguins.)
None of the competitors appeared more nervous than the defending champions in the Polaris group, not even the players from Giant Foods, who had brought along a bottle of Maalox Plus.
Not only had the Polaris team members practiced endlessly at the Blue Ridge cabin, but they also had played hundreds of hours of Trivial Pursuit over lunch breaks and at after-work sessions. A company fad had turned into a company obsession.
"I guess we all have trivial minds, and you do get addicted," said Castorina, a Polaris team coach. "But a lot of it has to do with the competition. We've got four players here today, and they're all very competitive people."
A good strategist knows his strengths, and Sweeney, the team captain, knew his. Science and nature. He also knew which players could answer questions about religion and which were the music experts.
Even Polaris President Chris Davy, 40, showed up to root for them, although he does not play the game. "I've just never had the time," said Davy. "Besides, when they throw something like 'Hollywood' or 'Sports' at me, I'm lost."
The championship, one of 70 around the country to raise money for local Easter Seal Societies, raised $5,100 here.
By early afternoon, the Polaris team had won one match and was into its second. Sweeney rubbed his hands against his knees. His teammates conferred in hushed tones, massaging whole walnuts between their palms to get rid of nervous energy. They said things like, "Whew, baby."
As a warm-up, the group played four hours of Trivial Pursuit after work on Friday. "Yesterday [Saturday], we played for six hours," said Vincent Belt, 26, a computer programmer and Polaris' head coach. "This morning, we came to the hotel in two cars, and we asked each other questions the whole way."
As the afternoon progressed, Polaris continued to win. Davy, the president, snapped pictures.
Polaris beat the team from John H. Snyder Associates. Whew, baby. They beat the Capitol Hill Old Boys. Double-whew. The Pepco team, the Giant Foods team, MCI Communications -- all down to defeat.
By dinnertime, the late word from the Sheraton was that for the second year in a row, the Polaris whiz kids had beaten everybody and, amid much backslapping, were headed out into the November night with their trophies: solid-walnut Trivial Pursuit carrying cases.