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Trivia mania: the triumph of useless information

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Perhaps the next Ken Jennings is in this room.

Among the bodies jammed shoulder to shoulder in The Kinsale, an Irish tavern in downtown Boston, there are plenty of possibilities. Like the computer programmer at the corner table who knows that Tom Hanks once starred in a film called "Volunteers." Or the gentleman seated to his right who confidently proclaims that a person's height squared divided by weight is called the "body-mass index."

True, they have a long way to go before they can match Mr. Jennings, the Utah techie who has become a minor pop-culture deity by winning more than 30 rounds of "Jeopardy!" and pocketing $1 million. But they are his kindred souls - and from the looks of the packed house on Trivia Night here, they are not alone.

Once the province of the pocket-protector set, trivia has become a national pastime. First, there were the scandalous TV quiz shows of the 1950s, "Twenty One" and "The $64,000 Question." Then came "Hollywood Squares" in the late '60s and '70s. The board game Trivial Pursuit took the know-it-all craze to new heights in the '80s. At its peak in 2000, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" dominated ratings with 30 million viewers a week.

Now local charities are bouncing Bingo for "Braniac Balls," pubs are ditching darts for weekly "jeopardy!" wannabes, and one airline even holds in-flight trivia tournaments.

This is Trivia Nation, and for now, Ken Jennings is king.

America's fascination with the arcane has been occurring for a while now. On one hand, it builds on a primal human need that emerged only shortly after fire and cave-painting: "People like to feel smart," says Toby Maloney of Mental Floss, a magazine that devotes itself to eclectic trivia, such as "Six Tricky Song Lyrics You'll Never Get Wrong Again" and "Eight Brilliant Science Screw-Ups" in its current issue.

Yet the arc of modern culture has offered a unique take on the Renaissance man. For a world on fast-forward, trivia has become the Cliff's Notes for a liberal-arts education - genius attenuated into Tollhouse morsels of pure information. "People can get news in bite-size chunks," says Mr. Maloney. "People don't have to wade through a 2,500-word story."


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