Professors share harrowing tales of trivia


illustration by Andrea Nebhut, staff illustrator

What river is controlled by the Aswan Dam? If you said the Nile, congratulations! You just correctly answered a $32,000 question from an episode of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”

But if you didn’t know that answer, you’re in the same boat as John Adduci, friend and former high school quiz-bowl teammate of Dennis Ugolini, physics and astronomy professor. When Adduci was on the quiz show in 2000, he used his phone-a-friend lifeline to call the Trinity professor to help.

Adduci had called Ugolini before the taping to ask if Ugolini would be one of his potential phone-a-friend contacts, and Ugolini agreed. As instructed, the morning of the taping, Ugolini waited by the phone, let it ring exactly three times, and then picked it up.

“[In] 2000, by the way, Google was not a thing. So I had a globe in front of me, just in case, but I was fairly confident that I could [answer the question correctly],” Ugolini said.

A producer had warned him that he would immediately be on air once he picked up the phone — when he said, “Hello,” it would be host Regis Philbin on the other end of the line.

“There was no transition whatsoever, you’re immediately on the show,” Ugolini said.

According to Ugolini, that wasn’t even the most nerve-wracking part. After he picked up the phone and heard Philbin’s voice, he noticed a glaring omission from the TV host’s usual introduction.

“The thing that worried me was he didn’t say the money value, which he always does. He just forgot this one time, so it could be $100, it could be $1,000,000,” Ugolini said.

Luckily, Ugolini was confident that the correct answer was the Nile, which he immediately told Adduci. However, Ugolini gave the answer so quickly that there were still 24 seconds left on the clock. To fill this time, to the bewilderment of Philbin, the two old friends made casual chitchat.

“We hadn’t seen each other since we graduated from high school, nine years before, so he says, ‘Well, how’s it going?’ and we start having a conversation. Regis is just flabbergasted,” Ugolini said.

Adduci ended up winning $125,000, of which Ugolini got $500. Adduci sent him the money as a pre-paid Visa card so that he would have to spend it on something fun. Ugolini used the money to take his international summer research students to baseball games at Dodgers Stadium during his four years at Caltech.

Ugolini caught the game show bug, and has auditioned to be on “Jeopardy” eight times. Much to his chagrin, he hasn’t been cast yet.

Ugolini keeps up with trivia in the meantime, though. He started participating in pub trivia in 2010.

“It grew from, I suppose, game show frustration,” he said.

The pub trivia organization, called Geeks Who Drink, is both a friendly competition and a social event. Up to six people can be on a team, and there are different categories for each round. It’s mostly pop culture material, according to Ugolini, but he likes the fast pace.

“What I like about it is [that] there’s a lot of questions. You get 80 questions in the space of two hours, so there’s a lot of play in it,” Ugolini said.

Unfortunately, even a skilled player like Ugolini has his weak subjects.

“I’m bad at the music. I can do everything else but I need the rest of my team to get me through the music,” Miceli said.

Math professor Brian Miceli agrees with Ugolini’s self-professed knowledge gap.

“He’s really good at show-tunes. He’s pretty good at 70’s and 80’s rock, but if it’s anything modern, or even if it’s grunge stuff, if it’s not a rock band, he has no idea what it is,” Miceli said.

Like any good teammate, Miceli fills in those gaps.

“I’m much better at any rock from the last 20 years,” he said.

Miceli, unlike Ugolini, does not have any serious “Jeopardy” aspirations.

“I do it more just to go out, drink a beer and get out on a Tuesday night,” Miceli said.

Jennifer Steele, associate professor of physics and astronomy, also sees the events more as fun social outings than serious competitions. Though she is currently on leave, she has participated in trivia nights with the other professors in the past.

It’s just a fun thing to do on a weeknight when you don’t want to cook. The trivia is a challenge, but the questions are spaced so that you can also catch up with your friends. Unlike at a movie, you can actually chat, but there’s enough entertainment that you don’t feel like you need to talk the whole time,” Steele wrote in an email interview.

Ugolini also participates in an organization called the National Trivia League, a more competitive and real-knowledge-based trivia platform that incorporates answer-confidence into number of points awarded. In that respect, it is similar to “Jeopardy” in that players bet up to 20 points in the final round, which can make or break their score.

“There’s a lot more variance to it because the last question matters a ton,” Ugolini said.

Ugolini and his team, which does not include any other Trinity professors, have participated in regional and national competitions through the National Trivia League with a high degree of success, placing 28th out of over 200 teams at the national competition.

All three professors emphasized that there are many ways for college students to get involved with trivia. If you’re interested in Geeks Who Drink, National Trivia League or even starting a Trinity team to compete in college Quiz Bowl tournaments, contact Dennis Ugolini at [email protected]