Friday, March 2, 2012

Day 6: Playing against the best

As I mentioned the other day, LearnedLeague has the ability to make you look like a genius or a fool. It all depends on whether they ask questions that play to your personal strengths. Today, as the saying goes, I’d rather have been in Philadelphia:

1. What was the name of the plaintiff in the 1857 U.S. Supreme Court decision which ruled that slaves could not be U.S. citizens, and that Congress had no jurisdiction over slavery in U.S. territories?

You don’t have to have studied “jxn,” the law school shorthand for “jurisdiction,” to know the Dred Scott decision when you see it. The gimme of the day.

2. One of Giacomo Puccini's most famous works, this opera, which was unfinished at his death and completed by Franco Alfano, is centered around a Rumpelstiltskin/Lohengrin-esque name mystery.

I knew The Mystery of Edwin Drood was unfinished at the time of Dickens' death. That didn't help.

I’m no opera buff but I can distinguish with reasonable confidence the big Verdi titles (Aida, La Traviata, Rigoletto, the Shakespeare operas Otello and Falstaff) from the Puccini (La Bohème, Tosca, Turandot, Madame Butterfly). There are also opera composers — Leo Delibes, Bizet, Donizetti, Leoncavallo — that I think of as “one-hit wonders,” which surely speaks more to my general ignorance on the subject than to any shortcoming of theirs.

I figured the category of opera was hard enough on its own so the answer had to be one of the aforementioned big Puccini titles. The name mystery thing didn’t sound familiar, so I proceeded by process of elimination. I knew it wasn’t La Bohème or Madame (aka Madama) Butterfly because I’d seen the modern-day musicals based on them — Rent and Miss Saigon — and felt the name mystery wasn’t part of their plots. I also knew that Madame Butterfly’s given name was Cio-Cio San, but I didn’t think there was any big mystery about it. The big change from Madame Butterfly to Miss Saigon, other than the time and place, is pretty much that the American soldier character is a cad in the opera but a sympathetic figure in the play. Likewise, I’d actually seen Tosca with my dad, a major opera enthusiast, and knew there wasn’t any Rumpelstiltskinsanity going on there either. That left Turandot. I knew that was the name of the leading lady in the opera, but that was about all I knew about it. Lacking a better guess, I guessed Turandot and it was correct.

I would have liked to call it a day here, but there were four more questions.

3. Name the man who won the 54th running of the Daytona 500 auto race, which took place on February 27, 2012.

I haven’t taken a daily newspaper for years now. I turn my nose up at the Chicago Tribune and read some of the NYT headline stories emailed to me each day. Also, my interest in sports is fading at this point in my life; as I mentioned the other day, I don’t watch “SportsCenter,” nor did I ever much care about auto racing in the first place. Add it all up and it’s pretty random whether I’ll catch the result of as secondary an event as the Daytona 500. I did know it was delayed from Sunday to Monday this year. I think I learned that from a daily TV sports talk show that I watch intermittently because two friends of mine who work in Chicago sports media appear regularly as panelists.

All I could do was take a wild stab. I know there is a race car driver called Jimmie Johnson and felt pretty sure he drives NASCAR stock cars, not open-wheel Formula One cars (and with a name like that, he had to). On the theory that there might be another NASCAR driver or two named Johnson, I guessed Johnson hoping for a miracle result with its own nickname in the league, a “Lucky Johnson.” Sadly, it was not to be. The correct answer was Matt Kenseth, whom I know to be a big deal in racing circles (ovals?).

As it happened, I saw Kenseth give a victory interview on that very show a few hours after I played this set of questions. Had they had him on a day or two earlier, I'd have known the answer.

4. On the night of February 3, 1959, an airplane carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. Richardson crashed outside of Mason City, Iowa, killing all passengers; name the future country music superstar who had given his seat to Richardson, who had a cold and desperately needed rest.

Sigh. I knew Buddy Holly had died at 21 after marrying Maria Elena Santiago. I've talked about Buddy with his childhood neighbor and fellow musician from Lubbock, Texas, the longtime Rolling Stones sax player Bobby Keys. And as to this specific question, I just read a Wall Street Journal interview the other week with Dion DiMucci of Dion and the Belmonts (I also read the WSJ occasionally) in which he recounted how he gave up his seat on that fateful flight because he could not justify paying the $36 fare, which was a month’s rent to his family. In Dion’s version of events, nobody was ill and no future country music superstar gave up a seat. There was only Dion himself, a future star perhaps, maybe even a superstar, but not a country music guy as far as I knew. I thought of Dion, who sang “Runaround Sue” and “A Teenager in Love” with or without the Belmonts, more as the equivalent of Frankie Valli with or without the Four Seasons.

I couldn’t convince myself that Dion was the countrified answer to this question so I guessed Glen Campbell, a future country star who played with another rock group, the Beach Boys. Maybe he’d also played on Buddy Holly’s ill-fated tour. But no, the answer was Waylon Jennings, about whom the only trivia I knew was that he was the narrator on “The Dukes of Hazzard” and that when I was 7 years old, fellow camper Jeff Jennings at my suburban Chicago day camp claimed to be his son.

Once again, knowing a reasonable amount about the topic did exactly nothing for me. Put this one in the chord-sagitta file.

5. Give the first name of either of Jerry's parents on the sitcom “Seinfeld.”

My case for the theory that I’m not a complete walking stereotype rests on the fact that, although I’m a left-leaning, overeducated, secular Jewish city dweller who loves comedy and television, “Seinfeld” never did much for me. The snarky negativity, the contemptible characters, the smug self-congratulation, the smirk on Jerry Seinfeld’s face during his less than actorly line readings, it all turned me off. (For the record, I did talk with Mr. Seinfeld at a party a few years ago and found him to be perfectly pleasant.)

I do know a fair number of standard “Seinfeld” tropes, not because I actually watched the show but because everyone around me joyously repeated them ad nauseam for years: Soup Nazi, yada yada, close talker, jerk store, double dipping, master of one's domain. As for the elderly relatives, I knew there was an Uncle Leo, and that somebody or other lived in Del Boca Vista. But as for the first names of Jerry’s parents, no chance. I guessed Estelle even though I was pretty sure that was either the name of George Constanza’s mother or the actress who played her, and later, Mrs. Potato Head in Toy Story. (Yep: it's Estelle Harris.) The correct answer was Morty and Helen.

They couldn’t have asked about “The Larry Sanders Show”?

6. This organism, found in nearly all geographic climates on earth, is a composite plant made up of algae living in the threads of a fungus, the algae and fungus coexisting symbiotically.

A friend in the league inadvertently gave away the answer to this one during the day when he Gmail-chatted me something to the effect that “I’m not lichen my chances today.” He didn’t realize I hadn’t played yet and blurted the answer before I even typed anything. In fact, I’d gone in to work early because I’m always busy on the first day of the month, and had barely taken time to read the questions much yet answer them. So I had no choice but to recuse myself from answering this question. I hadn’t really thought about it yet but I would have probably ended up guessing something like moss because I think of a lichen as being more like a fern. So, marking the occasion of my first- and, I hope, last-ever recusal from a LearnedLeague answer, I instead guessed “(Friend’s name)’s endearing but unfortunate exuberance.”

I knew I had Dred Scott right, and maybe Turandot. I wasn’t too excited about my other guesses. Getting 1 or 2 correct answers isn’t good enough against too many people in the C division, much less today’s opponent, Tom Nissley, an 8-time “Jeopardy!” winner who also finished second in the show’s recent Tournament of Champions. The only drama in this contest was how badly he was going to drub me.

But I too was a “Jeopardy!” champion once upon a time. Although Tom knows more trivia than I do — as evidenced by his roughly 70% correct answer rate in this league to my roughly 60% — and I readily concede that he is the superior player, there were certainly answers (OK, questions) I knew during his rock star run on TV that he didn’t know. Not as many as the other way around, but enough that I knew I could be competitive against him depending on what was asked (and, for that matter, who was hot on the buzzer; “J!” questions skew easier than LL and we both knew the great majority of the answers).

It's all about the sample size. After three days in our current season, I had 13 correct answers to Tom's 12 and was in first place to his second, but over time, talent will out. In a 1000-question general knowledge test, he’d be the overwhelming favorite, yet in the smaller sample size of a 150-question LL season, what with the vagaries of defense and opposition, I have at least an outside chance. When our rookie season ended, for example, we were tied in winning percentage but he edged me with the first tiebreaker and I finished in 8th place to his 7th. Tom had a bunch more correct answers, but I had easier competition and hit a couple more 3-point answers and we ended up virtually tied, which supports my argument that a short season is a crapshoot. A fortiori, in the tiny sampling of a 6-question LL matchup or a single episode of “Jeopardy!”, I feel like I can give him a run for his (or Trebek’s) money.

To that point, I acquitted myself a lot better in my previous matchup against Tom a few months ago during our rookie season. I still remember I played it on a snowy night after getting home from my bank's annual holiday party. As I described it to fellow LL blogger Eric Berlin, it proved to be my most memorable match of the campaign due to a combination of my noteworthy opponent, my coming tantalizingly close to my first-ever sixpack (i.e., answering all 6 questions correctly), a well-written set of questions that Tom and I happened to be pretty strong on (one of them was about Torch Song Trilogy, I clearly recall, in my personal catnip of theater and pop culture questions), and the dramatic way it played out. Tom ran the table to go 9(6), meaning 9 points on 6 correct answers, and I literally changed a correct answer — to the question, essentially, what was for centuries the world’s tallest man-made structure? — from the Great Pyramid at Giza, which I typed and stared at for five minutes, to Stonehenge. In hindsight this was insanely stupid; there's no way a few druids could pile some rocks higher than an enslaved army could. Sure enough, I went 8(5), I think it was, to Tom’s 9(6). It would have been pretty elegant to tie with 12 correct answers, and I almost “drank the beer,” but only ended up with the bitters in a hard-to-swallow loss.

From the looks of things, Tom may be headed for a higher division than I am next season. But if I ever get to play you again, Tom, I hope to give you a better game than I did today.

Postscript: I was so sure that Tom was going to destroy me today that I wrote all of the above before the results came out. So guess what happened next? Lending further credence to my small sample theory, although he got 3 correct answers to my 2, the disparity in our defensive play was enough to give me a 3(2)-2(3) victory. We gave each other 0 on Dred Scott, he gave me 3 on Turandot, and I gave him 1 each on “Seinfeld” and lichen.

I hold Tom in such high regard that it never occurred to me I had a chance. I'll take it.


Anonymous said...

Ben--thanks for the kind words! After knowing how I did and how well you've been scoring this year I figured I was dead on Day 6 too, but I didn't realize it would be from my own bad defense. Classical music was your worst category, but theater was your best: I figured opera was closer to the former, so I put the points there, especially since I had no idea on this one. Noted for next time!

Hope we have more close battles in our future.


Robert Hutchinson said...

I am loving the narrative in your updates, Ben.

I think I knew Waylon Jennings cold because (as I just alluded to over in Eric's domain) I've heard him tell the story several times on TV shows about how, as friendly jibing, The Big Bopper hoped that Jennings' bus would freeze up, and Jennings in turn hoped that the chartered plane would crash. Talk about regretting your words.

Martin said...

Played poorly, getting only Dred Scott, and was rewarded with a win by forfeit. I'll take it! Then this morning I got a nice note from my opponent apologizing -- she really did have some bad luck that prevented her from completing the round. My take was, apologize to me? I got a cheap win! It's the league she should apologize to (which I'll be glad to represent by proxy, if that's the applicable term).

Ken Stern said...

Bummer about #6 - something similar (but more D-related) almost happened on FB today, from what I gather. The expanding network of people-who-know-each-other playing LL means it's more out there, and you have to beware this stuff. I pretty much start any IM with an LLer "are you in" if a match is on, and generally don't post publicly about today's match. Overcautious, perhaps... but I figure it can't hurt. Enjoying the recaps. See you in BK?

Ben said...

Thanks for the feedback, everyone.

@Tom, given the available information, you played it right. Turandot was the toughest question of the day with 22% correct leaguewide, and considered the toughest with average defense 2.3. And as you said, I backdoored the answer by using theater knowledge.

Sometimes the stats can be deceiving. E.g. until the other day I was 1/4 on Bus/Econ Qs, a category I feel very strong in, because I made idiotic rookie mistakes on at least two of those misses in LL51. I was also 1/4 in classical music but I don't feel THAT weak in it. E.g., I recently identified "Fur Elise" by the sheet music, but it was in Ken Stern's very fun One-Day so it didn't help my stats. The numbers can deceive in both directions too; as I mentioned here I have a decent geography track record that masks my actual ignorance in that topic.

Other times the stats are right on. I know my share of pop music and theater. I am weak in world history.

@Robert, maybe they interview Waylon more often south of the Mason-Dixon line. Every time I've seen the guy on TV he's shown from the neck down singing about how someday the mountain gonna get 'em but the law never will. Amazing, all the life-and-death fluke decisions surrounding the plane crash.

@Martin, exactly. In a real sense, she hurt everyone in your rundle except you, though she surely knows that as an honorable gladiator, you'd rather win on the field of battle.

@Ken, I often play early in the morning but between hectic workdays and these increasingly lengthy blog writeups, it's been getting away from me. I haven't even seen today's questions yet and it's after 4pm here. Avoiding Facebook and turning off Gchat before we play, of course, does sound like the wisest course.

As for BK, I think I am more likely to be in San Francisco that weekend, but what with all the LL excitement lately, I already miss everyone. Or did you mean "See you in bankruptcy?" :)

Ken Stern said...

I'm not saying to avoid FB or chat, just to be careful. I also have the advantage that I have my chat partners trained well since I've been playing longer :)

Sorry to hear if you won't be at the tournament - next year, I hope.