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Secret Stuff: Trivia on Trivia

Crossing over from crosswords to trivia

There is a surprising crossover between the worlds of trivia and crosswords. Fans of one tend to be fans of the other. Ray Hamel learned this first hand.

When the librarian at the University of Wisconsin's primate centre went to a crossword-solving contest in Stamford, Connecticut, the host asked how many people in the crowd had tried out for Jeopardy. "Eighty percent of the people put up their hand."

He learned about the trivia/crossword connection in another way at that contest. "I'd been running trivia at college and word got around that I was the guy to go to if you needed help with a clue," says Hamel. New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz was one of the people who heard about Hamel, so he asked him to run a trivia event at the contest.

The New York Times comes calling

Some time later, the Times decided to add a trivia quiz to its new Web site and asked Shortz if he knew anybody. He did. Hamel ended up writing some 550 quizzes, called Noodle Nudgers, which the Times ran twice a week until 2001, at which point the paper dropped Hamel. "They decided that there were enough quizzes that they could rerun the old ones and nobody would notice."

On the other hand, he's written special quizzes for them since, and the Times did publish a book out of the quizzes (The New York Times Trivia Quiz Book) and a handheld trivia game. Many of the quizzes were recycled from radio shows he did, and his collected works since 1979 have been turned into a database, which he can mine to fill special requests from other people.

(By coincidence, his database consists of 15,000 and, as of June 2004, our consists of 16,000.)

“I was trying to write 100 questions a week, but now it’s more like 25,” he says. “I always carry a notebook with me and I’m always writing down things I read or see. I’m up to my 26th notebook now."

More crossword connections

Although the Times gig was the highest profile gig he's had, he started out writing for Games Magazine, which runs word and puzzle games. It was also owned by Penthouse. You can write your own joke here.

After that, in the late 1980s, he began publishing a 'zine of his own called Trivia Quotient, which consisted of articles about trivia, fresh quizzes and news about contests around the country. (His links page is still one of the best on the Web for news about trivia events.) At its height, the 'zine went out to about 400 subscribers, but for Hamel "it was a great calling card for getting work from other places, because I could send them what I do and ask if that's what they wanted."

Another crossword/trivia crossover, Random House's Stanley Newman, hooked Hamel up with the Smithsonian Institution, where he was the writer-presenter of a one-day program called "The Trivia Trove" in 2000. "The Smithsonian gig was giving a short lecture about the history of trivia games from radio of the 1940s through Millionaire, followed by hosting an hour-long trivia game as part of a brain-building lecture series put together by Stan Newman and Random House."

His crossword connections paid off in another way, too. Many of the Millionaire writers were drawn from the New York crossword community, and many of them were friends of Hamel's. He was offered a job and the salary was generous. "But I have no interest in moving to New York, no matter what the money is."

WWSP mega-winner

One of Hamel's ties to Wisconsin is the legendary WWSP trivia contest in Stevens Point, which 11,526 people played in 2004 as part of 443 registered teams. Because the questions are aired over the radio, and because everybody knows how to Google, the questions are extremely difficult.

However, Hamel's team, called Network, has won the contest 16 times since 1980, including a run of seven in a row that began in 1989. Remember, this is in a field of hundreds of teams, in a marathon event that runs day and night over three days. "The team was started by locals who were in high school together," says Hamel. "Now people fly in for it from all over the country and that's why I go … to see people again."

But the growth of the Internet since the late 1990s has taken much of the fun out of the radio game for Hamel. "The Internet will spell for the end of this type of contest. It becomes a race against the computer instead of a race against each other. I'd much rather play in 'memory games' where it's not about looking things up on a search engine. It's about what you know."

While still playing the WWSP game, he describes himself as "semi-retired," noting, "I don't work very hard; I just point people in the right direction and show them where to look."

Nevertheless, if you have the Times trivia columnist, a man offered a writing job on Millionaire no less, showing you where to go, a man whom even the Smithsonian calls on, then you know you're probably going in a lot of the right directions.

July 2004