ST. CLOUD – The books were lined up, the laptops plugged in. Several team members had donned white sweatbands. Just before 5 p.m., someone upped the volume on the radio: “It’s starting!”
“Please give us the name of the alum and his father …”
The first few answers came easy for this team, Stefan’s Dream, whose two dozen members had trekked, as they do each year, from as far as Los Angeles, Seattle and Washington, D.C., to this basement in St. Cloud. But in this trivia contest, more than 400 questions remained.
Over the next 49 hours, the friends would call in thousands of responses, watch dozens of YouTube videos and get too few hours of sleep in their quest to win Trivia Weekend, put on by KVSC, the radio station at St. Cloud State University. Champions for two years running, they knew that a victory this year would make them the winningest team in the contest’s 36-year history.
But the sixth question, worth 70 points, had Stefan’s Dream stumped. “Everyone knows that Elvis Presley died on August 16, 1977,” the DJ read. “At the time, he had a couple of unfilled Las Vegas shows to do. What celebrity artist stepped in and finished the shows?”
The team members, eyes drawn close to their computer screens, had scanned newspaper articles, googled artists popular in the 1970s and dug into a PDF of the book, “Elvis: His Life From A to Z.” Alison Feigh, a team captain, called in guess after guess after guess: Tom Jones. Bobby Vee. Neil Diamond. Incorrect. Incorrect. Incorrect.
Nearly a half-hour later, the DJ announced the answer: “B.J. Thomas.” Several people sighed.
‘364 days a year’
In a basement on campus, the people who fashioned that question traded high-fives. They had stumped all 64 teams.
“It’s not our goal to stump them on all the questions,” said Chad Schmitz, 46, sitting in a small office with three fellow question-writers, who spent years competing before signing up for this volunteer gig. “But it’s kind of nice to see that — even with all the resources at their disposal — we get them sometimes.”
That stumper came from Sue Petersen, who had seen an interview with B.J. Thomas. There’s no online transcript for that interview, Schmitz noted. “Since it’s an older video, it’s something tough to search for.”
Like some of the teams, the writers plan for this weekend “364 days a year,” Schmitz said. Petersen and her husband, Bruce, constantly pocket pamphlets, magazines and books that might contain the perfect trivia question. A smiling cartoon bobber the couple spotted in Georgia taunted teams during this year’s visual round.
“There are some teams that literally try to find out where Sue and I went on vacation this year,” said Bruce Petersen.
Upstairs in Stewart Hall, dozens of volunteers sat before secure laptops, answering the constant phone calls. Teams got two guesses per phone call.
“That’s correct,” Prof. Debra Japp told a caller, giving her code name: Colorado. “By the time the weekend is over, I know the voices,” Japp said, smiling. “We have a little relationship.”
‘Some idiot 16-year-old’
Two players on Stefan’s Dream have competed on “Jeopardy.” But the game is perhaps best suited to the group’s librarians. One member who works in IT builds a network worthy of a small business. A woman who’s a police dispatcher by day types each question asked into a shared document.
“People say, ‘I’m not good at trivia because I don’t know anything off the top of my head,’ ” said Feigh, 37, who loves calling strangers in search of answers. “This is for people who like to research.”
A few of these 30-somethings started playing together as teenagers at Apollo High School in St. Cloud and formed Stefan’s Dream in 2000. They struggled in the age of a single Internet line, said Charlie Gallagher, 35, a team captain. But as the Web grew, he said, “pretty soon some idiot 16-year-old with a Google box was better than somebody with a giant library of books.
“The game sort of changed, and we came in on that wave.”
Traditions sprouted alongside the team’s trophies. The “perfect hour lights,” switched on after nine correct answers. The rap dedicated to each year’s theme. Espresso chili, served by the next-door neighbor at 2 a.m. Sunday.
On Sunday morning, Stefan’s Dream was still leading.
Then the scores disappeared.
‘All it takes is one whoops’
At Stewart Hall, volunteers rubbed their eyes Sunday as they ate food from Dickey’s Barbecue Pit, one of many meals donated. Phones kept ringing as teams called in their answers. But they could no longer see where their competitors stood.
“Blackout,” explained Jim Gray, KVSC’s director of operations. While Stefan’s Dream had led the race, Sunday afternoon was known for questions worth hundreds of points. “All it takes is one whoops in these last hours,” he said.
That evening, the team missed a question worth 250 points. Someone groaned. “We’re still good people,” Feigh said.
Then came a 250-pointer, tied to a photograph. “This thoughtful gentleman can be found on the back cover of the album of the band he is in. What is the name of the band?”
Eric Hamus, of Stevens Point, Wis., opened a database he adds to daily, with notes on comic books, commercials, magazines, movies. Hamus, 35, began flipping through album covers. Others scoured the Internet. One teammate called a friend for help: “It’s the one that’s going to make or break the contest,” he explained.
Cellphone in hand, Feigh started down the team’s list of words that fit this year’s theme, most related to “Game of Thrones”: Queen. King. Fire. Ice.
“Red Wedding?” Feigh called in from the other room. A pause. “We got it!”
“What?” someone responded. People started clapping. “We got it!”