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Secret Stuff: Trivia on Trivia

Trivia World

A six-letter word (and a 10,000 entry encyclopedia)

He may have written one of the definitive resources for trivia fans, but Stanley Newman says he "feels like something of an interloper" when told that he's becoming as much of a brand name in the trivia world as he already is in the crossword world.

In fact, Random House, his former employer, is even putting his names on books he hasn't written, as a sort of endorsement badge, much as Tom Clancy or Isaac Asimov gets their names above the marquee of books that their names alone can sell.

Newman became a crossword legend when he won the 1982 US Open (that's crosswords, not golf or tennis). Since 1987, his crossword puzzle in Newsday has been syndicated and now reaches more than 100 newspapers. Next May will see the publication of his 100th book for crossword puzzle enthusiasts.

In 1996, after Random House had hired him as the publishing director of its puzzles and games division, it arranged to have Newman's skill at cruciverbalism tested under fire. In front a TV cameras, he did the New York Time puzzle a day in advance of publication. It took him just 2 minutes and 14 seconds.

Trivia and crosswords: a natural fit

Since then, he has moved on to trivia, having co-authored 10,000 Answers: The Ultimate Trivia Encyclopedia. But for Newman, this is a natural fit. "There is more crossover between trivia and crosswords than you might think."

He explains this crossover with a brief history of crosswords. In the 1950s, crosswords were written by what Newman calls "English majors and people from literary backgrounds." Their puzzles emphasized vocabulary and for them, "putting trivia in crosswords puzzles would have been blasphemy."

But in the 1980s, Games magazine began producing puzzles that incorporated knowing facts rather than simply words and, in a genre-shifting move, the New York Times turned its venerable puzzle over to Will Shortz, who was part of the "New Wave" of puzzle writing in which, as Newman explains, "you could use references from movies or TV or advertising or whatever else was around you."

For Newman, the love of facts goes way, way back. "The first book I remember reading was the 1962 Information Please almanac. I found a copy recently at a garage sale and I went straight to the photo section. It really took me back. I remember reading everything. Well … I wasn't that interested in aluminum production in Kenya, but state capitals, baseball statistics … I read everything else!"

How a new trivia encyclopedia was born

In the 1970s, Newman found himself devouring Fred L Worth’s trivia encyclopedias. “But I thought there were a few flaws, especially the choice of information. Like all the license plates. If you want to know the license plate of the car that James Mason drove in A Star is Born, you'll find it there, but how interesting is it?"

As a crossword writer, Newman was also frustrated by the difficulty in finding information. "It was organized by trivia answer instead of by subject, which made it interesting browsing. But I could never find anything. It needed an index."

It was these ideas that led to 10,000 Answers. Newman's book avoids lists you can find anywhere, such as state capitals, and goes instead for hard-to-find lists, such as New York ticker tape parades, or Jelly Belly jelly bean flavours. Instead of listing college sports team by college, it organizes them by team names. "That way, you can find all the colleges whose teams are Tigers."

Next up for Stan

The book is now a trivia reference staple, selling 40,000 copies. An updated hardcover edition has also been published. The book inspired Newman to do other trivia products. In 2005, for example, Random House will publish Assorted Trifles, a book modelled on Schott's Original Miscellany and marketed to look like a box of chocolates. "It includes some of the best of 10,000 Answers and some new material based on things I've been reading."

And in August 2004, Newman replaced LM Boyd as the author of his Trivia Bits daily trivia column. Boyd started his column in the 1960s, writing as Mike Mailway in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He retired in 2004.

A sample Trivia Bits column

Thursday, December 30, 2004

French artist Toulouse-Lautrec was 4 feet, 6 inches tall.

There are only "three degrees of separation" between Rudolph Valentino and Reese Witherspoon. Valentino costarred with Gary Cooper, who costarred with James Garner, who costarred with Witherspoon.

The middle name of George Grinnell, who founded the Audubon Society in 1886, was:
A) Bird
B) Eagle
C) McFly
D) Wing


The middle name of George Grinnell, who founded the Audubon Society in 1886, was Bird.

Newman's Web site is http://www.stanxwords.com/.

January 2005