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Trivia mania: the triumph of useless information

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In Maloney's eyes, trivia is the gateway to greater knowledge, sparking new interests. To others, though, it is simply the mental flotsam left over from hours of "Googling" the Web for stock quotes and watching "Shark Week" on the Discovery Channel.

"We all have a lot of stuff bouncing around in our heads," says pop-culture critic Ed Robertson. "This is an outlet."

These days, there are plenty of outlets. On the airline Song, passengers can use personal entertainment consoles to hold live music-trivia competitions. And in pubs across America regulars flock to weekly trivia showdowns.

On such a night in Boston, The Kinsale was packed. Music by U2 and Radiohead throbbed from the speakers as a DJ handed out rules, answer sheets, and pencils to 10 teams.

Nearby, the computer programmer, Mike Allen, sat with friend Mark Trefethen. They call their two-man team M Squared. As they munched on ribs and fries they dipped into the furthest reaches of the obscure.

Q. What bright orange spice is the most precious in the world?

A. Saffron.

Too easy. How about...

Q. Who is the only US president to have ever been divorced?

A. Andrew Jackson?

No. Ronald Reagan.

Trivia night is more than just a gimmick to boost meal tabs on slow nights. In many places, trivia contests have become community events.

For 13 years, Family and Children's Services of Tulsa, Okla., had held a Black Tie Bingo fundraiser. This year, organizers tried a "Brainiac Ball." They raised a record $124,000.

"The most we ever raised before was $92,000," says director of development Susan McCalman. "In an economy in Tulsa that's not actually booming, that's pretty good."

Still, she has a ways to go before she reaches Jennings' "Jeopardy!" total, which is nearing the record of $1.15 million. In this, the first year that "Jeopardy!" has allowed champions to stay until they lose, Jennings has become a phenomenon. (Before, winners were limited to five shows.) This is not "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" Jennings didn't win $1 million in one sitting. His run began June 2.

In other words, he has earned it - as much as you can earn anything on a game show. Steve Calechman knows that. The Boston-area stand-up comedian once played "Jeopardy!" - and finished second despite studying Shakespeare, the classics, and presidential history for 3-1/2 weeks straight to prepare.

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