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Jeopardy! Makes Us Better People

03/19/2015 01:31 EDT | Updated 05/18/2015 05:59 EDT
Kris Connor via Getty Images
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 21: Alex Trebek speaks during a rehearsal before a taping of Jeopardy! Power Players Week at DAR Constitution Hall on April 21, 2012 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Kris Connor/Getty Images)

I'm probably the biggest trivia fan you are ever likely to meet. I found my calling at around 13 when I spent a few weeks staying with my grandparents. Every night promptly at 7:30 we would sit down to watch the game show Jeopardy! It became a ritual, and to this day I still PVR every episode.

The way many sports fans feel about the Super Bowl? I feel the same way about Jeopardy's annual Tournament of Champions. And I am not the only one. Do a little Googling and you will find a small but devoted group of Jeopardy fans who have sustained the show since its first episode aired 51 years ago.

And why do we care so much? At the risk of sounding like an academic elitist, I would argue that knowing pure facts makes us better people. As a symptom of my Jeopardy obsession I began studying and memorizing facts I enjoyed, particularly world capitals and U.S. presidents.

Knowing that the capital of Liberia is Monrovia, and that it was named after fifth American president James Monroe does not make me a better person in and of itself. But when you look at all these obscure bits of knowledge as a whole, being able to synthesize them makes a person more equipped to process and comprehend the world.

It is often said that trivia is, well, trivial. And it's true that most of the facts you'll find on Jeopardy are not useful, at least not in the traditional sense. But when people say that trivia is pointless, it stirs in me a genuine frustration.

It reminds me of sitting in high school history class and hearing other students say things like "I'm never going to need to know this." It's true that unless any of my former classmates become professional historians, they probably will never need to recall the primary causes of World War I as part of their career. However the fact that they know ultimately gives them a broader context in which to view society and how we choose to organize ourselves.

Having the right fact at your disposal at the right time cannot be undervalued. 74-time Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings touched on that topic while giving a talk at a TEDx event a couple of years ago.

He used the example of Tilly Smith, a 10-year-old British girl who was visiting Thailand with her family in 2004. She had recently learned about tsunamis in geography class, and was able to spot the signs of a brewing tsunami while vacationing on Maikhao Beach. Tilly alerted her parents and lifeguards of the impending disaster and the beach was evacuated.

Hundreds of thousands died in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, but thanks to Tilly Smith and her incredibly well-timed fact, a couple hundred tourists on Maikhao Beach were saved. I'll admit that Tilly's story is both astonishing and unusual, but on a day-to-day basis you can easily find examples of facts being deployed for the benefit of others, albeit with much lower stakes.

During his TEDx speech Jennings also talked about how important a knowledge of facts is when navigating major life decisions.

"A lot of the big decisions we make require the mastery of lots of different kinds of facts. A decision like, where do I go to school? What should I major in? Who do I vote for? Do I take this job, or that one? These are the decisions that require correct judgements about many different kinds of facts. If we have those facts at our mental fingertips, we're going to be able to make informed decisions."

None of this is meant to say that trivia can't be fun. Knowing that there is a basketball court above the Supreme Court of the United States that's referred to as "the highest court in the land" I find endlessly amusing.

I'll confess, part of the reason why I enjoy Jeopardy so much is because I'm not half bad at it. I was never outstanding at sports, so high-speed quizzing is a chance to show off my competitive prowess. I may be one of the only people who feels a giddy rush of joy when I hear the theme song; however I think after this many years of daily doubles, Jeopardy and what it represents is as relevant as ever.

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