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Ray Hamel: The Answer Man
Trivia master Ray Hamel earns his national reputation the hard way
Hamel is a throwback to a time when, in order to know more, you had to read, watch and engage more than everyone else around you.
Hamel is a throwback to a time when, in order to know more, you had to read, watch and engage more than everyone else around you.
Credit:Timothy Hughes

Ray Hamel knows more than you do. He knows more because he's watched over 5,000 movies, read over 6,000 books and published over 1,700 crossword puzzles. He knows more because he's written the trivia quiz for The New York Times and turned down a job writing questions for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

But not every answer comes easy. Ask Hamel how old he is, and he'll have to pause. Ask him how long he's been married, and you'd best hope his wife isn't in the room.

The correct answers are: 47, and 17 years. Ray knows; it's just sometimes he has to think for a moment.

In a revved-up digital age where the answers to our most arcane whims are a Google-click away, Ray Hamel is an anachronism. A throwback to a time when, in order to know more, you had to read, watch and engage more than everyone else around you. Hamel still does.

Does he think himself obsessive? Maybe a little compulsive?

"Yes," he says, quietly and without hesitation.

But he's also not afraid to reveal vulnerabilities in his unique quest for knowledge - a quest that makes him one of the people Hasbro seek out when they want an addition to the board game Trivial Pursuit. It also makes him one of the people that 74-time Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings uses as a primary source when writing a book about American trivia culture.

"My wife, son and I recently went to see Ratatouille," Hamel says. "It was probably the first time in 25 years I went to a movie and didn't take notes. I'm almost 50. I don't have to do this all the time anymore."

Apparently some impulses die hard.

When I met with Hamel he was sitting in the living room of his far-west-side home, notebook at his side, reading an article about Japanese anime in Geek Monthly magazine. He starts from the front of his notebooks and writes down trivia questions. He also works from the back forward, writing down crossword puzzle themes. When the ideas in Ray's brain meet somewhere near the middle, he begins a new notebook.

At 5'7", Hamel isn't an imposing figure. He's wearing reading glasses and a loose T-shirt, and his thin brown hair and quiet eyes imply a more self-effacing than pedantic air. But when he speaks, he has a commanding presence. Even though his voice is soft, he talks with measured confidence. In this precision comes a palpable feeling that what he's saying and scribbling in his notebooks matters.

And there's always a notebook. Hamel reads and takes notes. He watches movies and takes notes. He admits that probably the only time he completely stops is when he's playing disc golf. He's fascinated by what he doesn't know, and always has been.

"In high school I was a straight-A student," he says. "As a senior I didn't have anything to do in study hall, so I started trying to solve the crosswords in the Saturday Review and Atlantic Monthly. Then I decided to write my own."

Shortly after his high school graduation Hamel sent three of his crosswords to Penny Press Magazines. Editor Janis Weiner told him they were in the wrong format, but he'd be welcome to submit them again. He reformatted and resubmitted. Weiner promptly accepted one. In the ensuing 28 years, Hamel's puzzles have run in all major newspaper outlets, and he's achieved the rare feat of having a puzzle published on each day of the week in The New York Times. The New York Times is the pinnacle for most crossword constructors, and the puzzles become progressively harder as the week goes on. He's also co-written six crossword books and had his work anthologized countless times.

Will Shortz, longtime New York Times crossword editor and founder of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, first published one of Hamel's puzzles in 1994. As America's best-known puzzle maven, Shortz acknowledges Hamel's rank in the crossword subculture.

"The website Ray maintains is one of the most important in the world of crosswords," he says. "He does it for no pay; he just thinks it needs to be done."

Hamel also garners respect among the very few trivia junkies who can call themselves experts. He's been asked to lecture on the subject at the Smithsonian, and when Ken Jennings first met him while writing Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs, he discovered a rare connection.

"I felt I'd finally met someone who spoke my language," Jennings said of their discussion about writing trivia. "There were only a handful of people in America I could have had that specific conversation with."

Hamel's preoccupation with esoterica started at an early age, in Nekoosa, Wis. His mother told him she didn't need to buy a TV Guide because he had the television schedule memorized. But it wasn't until he was an undergraduate at UW-La Crosse that he started to earn his stripes in the world of hardcore trivia. After participating regularly in a pub trivia contest hosted by a friend, he was asked to take over. In order to write the 200 questions needed every other week, he began spending countless hours in the library researching subjects to which he previously had little exposure. He found the immersion addicting.

Since then he's penned more than 17,000 questions, which he keeps in a searchable database. He's also been a 25-time participant in the World's Largest Media Trivia Contest, held every April in Stevens Point. The contest is a 54-hour event that includes such obscure questions as: "What was the song featured on the cover of the first issue of Sing Out magazine?" (Answer: "The Hammer Song.") Last year more than 11,000 people competed on 441 teams. Amazingly, Hamel's team, Network, has bucked the odds of a flattened playing field - due to the accessibility of online information - and finished in the top three every year since 1980.

Barry Heck, one of the founding members of the Network team, calls Hamel a legend. He recalls one question about what movie was playing within the movie Rain Man. Hamel immediately knew it was The Barkleys of Broadway.

"We all stared at him in disbelief. And then, to explain why it was so easy, Ray just kind of shrugged and said, 'It's the only Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie that's in color.'" Heck laughs, and adds, "As if that should have somehow made it more obvious to the rest of us."

Each workday Hamel is surrounded by reams of information. For the past 24 years, he's worked as the reference librarian at the Lawrence Jacobsen Library at the Wisconsin Primate Research Center. While the parallels between his day job and lifetime passion may seem obvious, writing trivia involves far more than the simple regurgitation of facts. It's most definitely a craft.

"A good trivia question is like a work of short fiction," says Ken Jennings. "It has to do everything a joke or short story does. At the end it has a twist; an element of humor or surprise."

Hamel feels that a well-written trivia question should be answerable. He's found that coming up with the hardest possible question serves little purpose. Even if people don't know the answer, they should feel a connection to the world around them when the buzzer goes off. The result should be a pleasurable "aha!" rather than a muttered expletive.

Hamel has his own view of what trivia is. While many are familiar with the stock Trivial Pursuit categories - Geography, Entertainment, History, Arts and Literature, Science and Nature, and Sports and Leisure - Hamel feels that only pop culture truly qualifies as trivia.

"Geography, history, Shakespeare - that's stuff you're supposed to know," he says. "It's important in life. Knowing that Rootie Kazootie is a 1950s television puppet won't help you get a job, it's just something fun."

But is it just fun? Since 1927, when the first trivia quiz appeared in wide distribution in the book Ask Me Another, trivia has been ever-present in the American consciousness. This can be seen in the popularity of the radio and TV quiz shows of the 1940s and '50s, the Trivial Pursuit craze of the '80s, and now in the recent resurgence of television game shows.

Hamel's fan mail testifies to trivia's importance in people's lives. A man recently sent a letter saying that Hamel's trivia-loaded crosswords helped ease his wife's pain as she was dying of cancer. He was unsure how to respond.

"To me it's a frivolity, and then to have someone say that," he says, his voice trailing off. "Then I think about the 2 million people who are working one of my New York Times puzzles. Bill Clinton's working on it. It kind of blows my mind."

There's one at every party - the egghead who makes a point of interjecting and correcting without invitation. This is not Ray Hamel.

Humble to the point of being overly gracious, Hamel is quick to point out that being a trivia expert by no means makes him smarter than anyone else. Categorizing himself more as a jack-of-all-trades, he says he just has an unusually large curiosity for nearly everything.

That's not to say he doesn't strive to be the best, no matter how arbitrary that designation may be when it comes to trivia. He looks at Ken Jennings and believes that, given the right set of circumstances, he himself could achieve the same level of success and recognition. Hamel has qualified for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire more than 40 times, and recently made the cut to be included in the contestant pool for Jeopardy! His name has yet to be called. He's undoubtedly good enough, just maybe not so lucky.

Hamel worries less about this than about what will happen to the nearly half-century of observations contained in his notebooks once he's gone. He may downplay his contributions, but it's clear he recognizes their long-term importance.

"I have a lot of information that can't be found anywhere else. Maybe someday I'll post it all to my website and add it to the world's knowledge," he says.

The footer on Hamel's emails is a line from the 1970 movie The Secret Life of Sherlock Holmes: "Some of us are cursed with memories like flypaper. Stuck to them are scatterings of insignificant data - mostly useless."

Not even Hamel would argue that knowing an obscure fact is vital in any traditional sense, but there's no doubt we often discover connections with others through those things capriciously deemed nonessential. Hamel says he's never bored when meeting new people because he can always find commonality. Everyone has a favorite movie, or song, or book - and chances are no matter what it is, he'll find common ground through trivia.

"Each of us has an interest in something," he says, "and I know a little bit about everything."

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