Monthly Essays

Jeopardy

Like many others, I’ve recently gone back to watching Jeopardy because of the success of James Holzhauer, the professional gambler who is breaking records on the game show with winnings over two million dollars.

And like many others, I’m a little slow on the answering end of the questions as I match wits with the contestants.

It’s not that I lack trivia knowledge. I’m the most annoying person at a party because I’ve written so many almanac articles on various subjects, and I can lecture for fifteen minutes on a topic. Call me the Cliff Clavin of Cheers fame.

For example, want to know why we didn’t have an official flag change in 1912 to 47 stars after New Mexico came in as a state? Because official flags are adopted only on July 4st after a state has entered the union. New Mexico entered on January 6, and Arizona was admitted on February 14, just over five weeks later. On Independence Day, 1912, the new flag sported 48 stars.

Come on, Alex, ask that question under a FLAGS category.

But here’s my problem. I’m slow to retrieve the answer from the databases in my mind. Others have compared our brains to computers with slow Internet connections. But the best analogy I’ve heard came from a passenger sitting next to me on a flight to New York.

She’d read a newspaper column where the writer said all her knowledge was stored in filing cabinets in her brain. But her file clerk, she named him Rusty, took his sweet time getting up from his chair and limping over to the right cabinet and tugging out the drawer and then dragging out the correct file and opening it to the information. That’s an accurate analogy of my brain, and I wish I could attribute this to the correct writer.

Jeopardy James told a reporter for the New York Times that he attributes his vast assortment of trivia knowledge to reading children’s nonfiction books, where facts are presented in an interesting way. I’ve written lots of children’s nonfiction books, mostly biographies. I know some interesting facts:

President Thomas Jefferson had red hair. (Category: Famous Redheads)

Former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno was 5-foot-11 when she was 11 years old. (Category: How High)

Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was confirmed by the Senate in a vote of 99-0. One senator was absent. (Category: SCOTUS)

Singer Selena’s personal philosophy was “Be at your best at all times.” (Category: Grammy Winners)

When Langston Hughes was five, he was in an earthquake in Mexico City, where his father lived. (Category: Poets or Category: Mexico City or Category: Earthquakes)

Now I’m thinking that maybe-a-maybe Jeopardy James read one of my children’s books for some facts. If so, “James, where’s my cut?”

But as fun as it is to play along with retrieving trivia information, it’s just that—trivia. It’s not very important.

What impresses me are skills, the ability to assess situations and come up with a plan to solve real-life problems. Now that’s intelligence. Whether it’s how to re-contour my backyard to alleviate getting water in the basement or how to stack a rick of wood so it’s as solid as a fence or how to plant a tree with a pipe sticking up beside it so I can water the roots or how to stop bleeding, how to rescue someone trapped in a car, how to move cattle from one pasture to another.

Yes, these are learned skills. Some are innate, but most are taught with lots of training. We rely on the knowledge of people who have come before us to show the way, and then figure out how to improve it with even more modern tools.

Oh, I admire Jeopardy James since I don’t have the ability to memorize all that trivia, but he’s playing a game. A fun game to watch, but just a game, just entertainment.

 

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