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.)
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.)
But Olmstead, Jennings and their fellow quiz bowlers are not merely expert at answering questions; they write them, as well.
Part of the price of admission to the quiz bowl tournaments of their youth was for each team to contribute a packet of roughly 100 clever questions. Nowadays, companies known as "question vendors" sell such packets to tournaments and trivia contests, with retired packets purchased by teams for practice.
At the forefront of this cottage industry is National Academic Quiz Tournaments, which Robert Hentzel runs full time from his Minnesota rambler. Olmstead and Jennings belong to the 14-member board and are active both in crafting questions and editing those submitted by freelancers, who earn $1.65 a shot. Olmstead also coaches and advises college teams, and Jennings occasionally moderates tournaments NAQT organizes across the country. Some 300 colleges field serious teams, Hentzel estimates, and thousands of high schools compete on the junior level.
Weekend tournaments last for hours at a stretch, 89 questions per round at breakneck speed, with political science toppling into rock music, physics commingling with Russian literature, references to "Dr. Strangelove" segueing into beheadings in the Bible.
With NAQT not yet turning a profit, their work, Jennings said, "is mostly a labor of love for all concerned."
Truth be told, Jennings continued, he prefers creating questions to answering them, likening the quest for the perfect question to "a very restrictive art form, like haiku."
The shows that have become the de facto quiz bowl payroll respond to the presence of semipro ringers amid the unsuspecting ranks of housewives from Jersey and lawyers from St. Louis with bemusement, admiration or, in the case of "Jeopardy!" -- complete silence.
On "Millionaire," the quiz bowl tentacles reach behind the scenes as well, with quiz bowl contestants using one another as their phone-a-friend "lifelines," a strategy that paid off handsomely for Olmstead, among others.
Davies already is fantasizing about a match between Olmstead and Jennings, "like 'Alien vs. Predator.' "
Eric Hillemann, an archivist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., and the school's quiz team adviser, has served as a "Millionaire" lifeline five times for quiz bowlers, including Olmstead (who tipped his friend "a wall of bookcases in my living room"), and won $20,700 himself on "Jeopardy!" four years ago.
"These people have put together a wonderful show for all my friends to win money," Hillemann said. "Two weeks wouldn't go by that there wasn't someone I didn't know on."
And while quiz bowl undoubtedly gives people "a tremendous advantage" on TV game shows, Hillemann acknowledged, "it's not an unfair one." They're more like professional tennis players who go on to win Olympic medals than sprinters on steroids, he noted.
Still, quiz bowlers do not generally volunteer their expertise on game-show applications. "Conventional wisdom is that it's best not to mention it," Hillemann said, a sentiment echoed by several others.
Jennings said he kept mum about his NAQT affiliation until preparing to tape his 20th game, when a fellow NAQT competitor was in the contestant pool. The two disclosed their association, and the would-be challenger was sent home, he said. Still, in the course of his "Jeopardy!" winning streak, Jennings has come across former quiz bowlers he didn't know.
"I'd be playing and a player would be very good, and after the game I'd ask," he said.
If producers are clueless or nonchalant about the six lucrative degrees of separation in the quiz bowl community, not all would-be contestants are. A college kid from California, preparing to compete on "Millionaire," tracked down Hillemann to enlist him as his lifeline, too. At his behest, Hillemann lined up three other hard-core former quiz bowlers who, along with the boy's father, completed the circle of lifelines.
When it came to the moment of truth, though, young contestant chose Dad to provide the answer.
"Bad move," Hillemann laments. Something about nasturtiums.
"The rest of us all knew it," Hillemann added.
Although the quiz bowlers don't formally coach one another for TV game shows, they exchange practice questions from their computer databases (Hillemann has some 360,000, from "Beowulf" to Blink-182) and freely dispense advice about what to expect. (The buzzer on "Jeopardy!" is the undoing of many an overzealous quiz bowler, it turns out, since quiz bowl rewards the swiftest response with bonus points while "Jeopardy!" locks out any contestant buzzing in before the host is finished reading the question).
At a small convention for TV game show aficionados in Burbank, Calif., this summer, former quiz bowlers offered panels on how to be a great contestant, how to be a lousy contestant, and how to manage your game show winnings.
Jason Block, a $37,701 champion on "Jeopardy!" and $125,000 winner on "Millionaire," told wannabes to practice for "Jeopardy!" by standing up while playing along with the show on TV, to simulate being at the podium, and to click a pen to enhance buzzer reflexes.
"If you drink alcohol, stop. There's nothing worse than being hung over when you need your reflexes on 'Jeopardy!' " Block said. On the set, he advised, be prepared for tight security.
"They followed me to the bathroom," he recounted. "What were they expecting? Inspector Gadget to come out of stall number 3 to give me the answers?"
To the quiz bowlers, though, playing is as much an art as a science, and Robert Hentzel sees "some division" in the community between those who cherish the game as a purely intellectual endeavor and those who welcome its intersection with the popular mainstream. Jealousy also seeps in.
"Certainly there is a segment of the community dismayed by game shows and the questions they ask and that Ken Jennings or Kevin Olmstead, whom they don't perceive as the best quiz bowlers or the most knowledgeable, are rewarded so much," Hentzel said. "It's like authors of serious fiction looking at J.K. Rowling and saying, this isn't fair, these aren't great books, yet she's richer than the Queen of England."
But Hentzel hopes that the success of his friends, particularly Jennings, will nudge quiz bowl into the spotlight, too. Maybe turn it into a game show in its own right. Or get corporate sponsorship, like the National Spelling Bee.
"We have trouble explaining ourselves," Hentzel allowed. "None of us is really good at putting together presentations. If it's between writing questions or cold-calling Microsoft for sponsorship, well . . . People who tend to be salesmen, managers and really people-people don't tend to become quiz bowlers."
Tom Waters, a Savannah, Ga., golf shop owner widely considered the grand master of the game, changed his view of TV game shows, which he held in disdain despite his own $12,500 win on "Jeopardy!" nearly 20 years ago.
"There was a split in the community. Some of us thought 'Millionaire' was beneath ourselves. Some would swallow pride and prostrate ourselves."
At first, Waters took what he considered the higher ground.
"Then they came back with $10 million and I thought, 'I'm less a purist than I thought,' " said Waters.
He passed the tryouts but his fingers were too slow in the first round to get into the so-called hot seat and compete for the big money.
"The biggest hurdle is blind luck," he said. "The hardest part is getting drawn. I'm amazed at the number from the quiz bowl community that got on. One night's episode, there were two people I knew on it."
When veteran quiz bowlers and NAQT members gathered this summer in Minnesota for the wedding of Hentzel and fellow player Emily Pike, it was a given that people would show up with portable buzzers, timers and packets of questions as well as wedding gifts, like the black nightie Emily received with a pink question mark on it.
At the picnic after the ceremony, Hillemann began to discreetly spread the word: Pickup game, 11:30 that night, back at the motel.
Chad Kubicek, NAQT's chief financial officer, offered his room.
"It's Number 1077," Kubicek volunteered. "My wife will kill me, but . . . "
Hillemann furrowed his brow.
"What happened in 1077 so I can remember?"
Kubicek instantly had an answer.
"William the Conqueror was enjoying his 11th anniversary."
Hillemann nodded happily.