The Los Angeles Chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association

Trivia Bowl X: KNBC Makes History in Meeting the X-treme Challenge of Our Annual Competition and Fundraiser

By Cynthia Furey

After an evening full of surprises and mind-stumping questions, there remains this one: How in the world did KNBC Channel 4 manage to become the first broadcast team to take the top prize in AAJA-LA’s annual Trivia Bowl?

Even KNBC team members were surprised with their performance, in which they correctly answered 77 of 100 questions during the competition Oct. 1 at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo.

“We’ve never been in the top three — we were just hoping to be the best TV team,” said Kim Baldonado, a reporter at the station, which relied on several new recruits to go over the top this year.

The 20 teams that competed in Trivia Bowl X, dubbed “The X-Games,” subjected themselves to collective humiliation when struggling to answer the “Jeopardy!”-caliber trivia questions, all in the name of raising money for student scholarships and chapter program development.

As in past years, media, community and corporate teams of as many as 12 players competed in five rounds: current events, history and geography, arts and entertainment, science and literature, and sports and California living. Each round had 20 questions, which were read aloud. After the questions in each round were read, the teams had two minutes to discuss and compare their answers and come up with a final answer sheet collected by volunteer game monitors and given to a panel of judges — actual members of the local bench — for scoring. The top team took home the Rice Cup; the team in last place “won” a case of Top Ramen noodles.

AAJA-LA Treasurer Matthew Chin, a researcher at KCET Channel 28’s “California Connected,” said the chapter’s signature fundraising event was expected to net a record once all the accounting was done. Chin also served as quizmaster for the first time, writing most of the questions, with assistance from chapter Co-President Henry Fuhrmann, an editor on the business staff at the Los Angeles Times.

“The Trivia Bowl questions are devoid of vagueness and ambiguity. For example, we will not ask, ‘Where did the government find weapons of mass destruction?’ ” Trivia Bowl Chairwoman Denise Poon said in her welcoming remarks, as those in attendance enjoyed the catered food from Wahoo’s Fish Taco and boba tea drinks from Relaxtation.

“Search your cranial caverns,” she advised. “Dig deep to remember irrelevant, inconsequential pieces of information.”

The event is known for its mix of high anxiety along with good-natured, half-serious ribbing among rival teams, especially those from broadcasting.

Illustrating the former, Brad Wright, a copy editor at The Orange County Register, expressed his fears: “I expect to feel extremely unknowledgeable. I imagine the questions are hard, because they have to stump a team of 12 journalists.”

As for the latter tradition, KABC Channel 7 reporter-anchor Denise Dador said: “We gather every year to ‘fun-raise’ for our valiant AAJA-LA efforts. However, we’re all serious in our pursuit…. I just don’t see how KNBC won. We always beat them in the 4, 5 and 6 o’clock newscasts.”

Her KABC colleague David Ono, the anchorman and chapter advisory board member who again emceed the event, continued the needling. He publicly suggested that the KNBC team had won because reporter Ted Chen had left early, leaving only the strongest members to pool their knowledge.

Chen, however, fired back with his version of events: “I left after all of the rounds were completed and only right before the winners were announced. I left because I knew we had kicked KABC’s … and didn’t want to rub it into what I knew would be David’s very distraught face.”

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Tomson Ong, who was part of the judges’ panel, was roped into the mini-controversy, noting: “I’m not sure about David Ono’s assessment — i.e., Ted Chen leaving as a reason for KNBC winning. I don’t know if Ted was a handicap for KNBC.”

Others were still trying to figure out just who Ted Chen was.

“Ted Chen? We thought that was Gordon Tokumatsu,” quipped Mark Yoshida, from the Asian Pacific American Legal Center team, referring to the Channel 4 reporter and chapter member. But Yoshida wasn’t laughing when APALC came in fourth overall after losing a tiebreaker with the Hollywood Reporter team, which claimed third place and the gifts that go with that distinction.

“APALC and the Hollywood Reporter both ended up with the same number of final points (71) after the 100-question competition, but a shortage of third-place prizes forced organizers to implement a silly tiebreaking system that yielded the bronze to the Tinseltown twelve,” Yoshida wrote in mock indignation in an e-mail to colleagues a few days after the event.

Richard Fruto, the former chapter president and treasurer who has served as scorekeeper for many years, responded: “The Trivia Bowl World Federation rules are quite clear if any teams are tied for any of the top three places in the overall standings after the last round. This year, the Hollywood Reporter team had higher scores in more rounds.”

As Yoshida wrote in a follow-up message: “We appreciate the organizers’ commitment to fairness and to the quality of the experience. No one at our table really cared about the tiebreaker — we’re just happy to be there.”

Said Ben Wong, senior member of the team from the Asian Pacific American Legislative Staff Network: “I have always approached Trivia Bowl primarily for the fun and as a way to support a worthy cause, and if we do well that’s just icing on the cake.” His team placed second, just one point behind KNBC.

About his team’s “silver medal,” Wong noted: “We had some last-second inspired answers. My only concern is that with our near-miss finish, there’ll be a lot more pressure to do well or even beat those nerdy news types next time.”

Unfortunately for the defending champions at The Orange County Register, which finished in a three-way tie for fifth, KNBC might have had all of the beginners’ luck this year.

“It’s a bummer — four of our players from last year couldn’t make it because of scheduling conflicts, but we recruited what I think is fresh talent,” said Iris Yokoi, a Register editor and former chapter board member. The team did get off to a great start, tying for first place in the initial round and maintaining the lead through Round 2 before running into trouble with subjects in later rounds.

Like clichéd humor, Elvis was again present. Every year, the teams are asked to give the date of Presley’s death — a “freebie” from the quizmasters to help teams score an easy point. Still, there were some teams at these games that didn’t have a clue (answer: Aug. 16, 1977).

If there was any chance to study effectively for the competition, reading the event e-mail notices would have been a start, as one of the same questions appeared in competition. Q: What’s the second-brightest star in the sky? A: The yellow-white supergiant Canopus or Alpha Carinae.

Two questions this year were difficult enough to stump the entire room. The first asked teams to name the outcrop of rock in British Columbia, Canada, that has yielded “perhaps the world’s most impressive source of Cambrian fossils” (answer: the Burgess Shale). The other asked teams to name the 19th-century German mathematician who had a famous hypothesis on the distribution of prime numbers named after him (answer: G.F.B. Riemann).

“The one about the German mathematician — our best guess was Matt Damon, ‘Good Will Hunting,’ ” Yoshida of APALC joked.

The evening may have been full of off-the-mark guesses, but in another Trivia Bowl shocker, one team earned a perfect score in the entertainment round. The Asian Business Association Online team, which included national academic decathlon student champions from El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills, was the first in Trivia Bowl history to answer all 20 questions in a single round. The team ended up tied for 10th.

“I feel that we watch far too much television,” said team member Laura Descher, a senior at the high school. “But it feels good that we beat the Hollywood Reporter” in that round. Her teammate Lindsay Gibbs agreed, adding: “We’re the ones who read all the stories they write.”

One of the most feared teams was able to avoid the ego blow that others endured that night: The Japanese American Bar Association, champions of Trivia Bowl VII and VIII, failed to appear.

“Usually the journalists have to fend off the attorneys, but this year, there’s an empty table,” Ono said, pointing to where the group was supposed to be sitting. After the lawyers lost their attempt at a three-peat last year, many observers figured that they simply weren’t up for another competition. However, Ono pointed out, the team members actually had to attend their own annual membership banquet that evening.

“But they’re attorneys, so we don’t care,” Ono said to applause from the journalists in the room. The panel of judges sitting nearby — Ong along with U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Lew, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judges Lisa Chung, Mark Kim and Rafael Ongkeko, Superior Court Commissioner John Ing and Glendale City Council member Dave Weaver — were good sports, feigning mild amusement.

Between rounds, game organizers auctioned off donated items and conducted a raffle of other prizes, with proceeds benefiting chapter programs.

Michael Cho of the Wahoo’s Fish Taco team won two of the raffle items: tickets to the gospel brunch at the House of Blues in West Hollywood and a KABC sports duffel bag. Cho’s lucky streak wouldn’t last, however, as he and his team would later find their Trivia Bowl team fortunes sink rapidly.

Other raffle items included tickets to the musical “The Ten Commandments” at the Kodak Theatre, Dodger stadium field seats, autographed books by chef Martin Yan, a Los Angeles Times authors book basket, 99 coupons from the 99 Cent Stores and memorabilia from KABC and KNBC.

Then there was the live auction, which drew spirited bidding for a variety of valuable items. Broadcast stations KTTV Fox 11, CBS2 / KCAL9 and KTLA 5 each donated four Staples Center luxury box seats, including food and parking. KTTV anchorman John Beard, who made his first appearance at the games this year, auctioned off four Staples Center suite seats for a Los Angeles Lakers game against the Milwaukee Bucks — to himself. Among other auction items were luxury box seats to a Los Angeles Clippers game; a Verizon BlackBerry color display phone; a “Take the Field” Dodgers experience, in which participants can meet players from the team; dinner for four at Sona; an autographed baseball from Anaheim Angels pitcher Bartolo Colon; a scenic framed photo of the Wudan Mountains in China by L.A. Times photographer Bryan Chan; and a black Tadashi evening gown.

“The most memorable thing for me was sitting in front of the mannequin with the dress being auctioned,” Judge Ong joked. “I was afraid the winning bidder was going to take the dress before the event was finished. I probably would turn red.”

Perhaps others seeing red were members of the two Los Angeles Times teams, who have had a long run of near-misses in their quest for the top prize and were still smarting a bit from their experience in Trivia Bowl IX. As emcee Ono reminded the returning Times players, they would have won last year but for a slip-up in one round, during which they put their answers on the wrong lines of the answer sheet (a violation of the published Trivia Bowl rules).

“We’re like the Michelle Kwan of Trivia Bowl — we always come in second place,” said Don Chareunsy, San Diego chapter president and copy editor at the Union Tribune; Chareunsy, a former L.A. chapter president, was invited to compete with one of the Times teams.

And just who were those WM Wizards, who in their Trivia Bowl debut ended up beating many of the veteran teams? They revealed their secret weapon.

“The reason we’re doing so well is because we have middle-school teachers on our team,” said Kit Cole of the Wizards, a group sponsored by Waste Management Inc. of Sun Valley. Sun Valley has the most improved school in the L.A. Unified School District, she noted.

Though at Cole’s school it may be true that “no child will be left behind,” her team finished eighth, despite finishing Round 2 tied for second and Round 4 in first.

“We were really sucking eggs in the sports [category], but heck yeah, we’ll be back next year,” Cole said.

In fact, many teams were already strategizing for Trivia Bowl Xl.

“The key to Trivia Bowl success is to staff your team with a diverse group. We had anchors, archivists, production assistants, engineers and a kid,” said Christine Eng, a member of KTTV 11’s team, which came in ninth.

When emcee Ono asked what everyone thought of the questions this year, he was met with a large volume of boos. But that didn’t faze the authors of the questions one bit.

“The questions will be much harder next year,” Matthew Chin promised.

Ono and other veteran Trivia Bowl participants did, in fact, credit Chin and Fuhrmann with compiling what they believed was the fairest group of questions they could remember. The surprising results — with broadcast and community teams finishing at the top — were perhaps proof enough of that.

Still, the competitors weren’t the only ones who struggled through the questions this year. The judges were also keeping their own scores.

“I tried to play along during some parts of the program. There were questions relating to science which were most difficult for me,” Ong said. “I’d rather be judging. I don’t think that I’m smart enough to compete with these folks.”

Other judges were having problems of their own.

“It’s a challenge, keeping up with the next judge in checking the boxes,” Judge Ongkeko joked.

Perhaps nobody felt more challenged than the players for Wahoo’s Fish Taco, which finished last among the 20 teams (though, to be fair, they suffered from having fewer than 12 participants to call upon). Team members playfully ended the evening by tossing their last-place “winnings,” picante shrimp-flavored Top Ramen noodles, into the crowd.

“Last year we sucked, but not this bad,” said Wing Lam of Wahoo’s, who also donated and catered the evening’s dinner. “Despite our notable final placement, we had a blast.”

As difficult as it was, there was one team that managed to climb to the top. Team KNBC will be back next year as defending champions in an effort to hold on to the Rice Cup.

“It feels great to win — everyone thinks TV people are dumb,” Baldonado said. “It’s vindication.”

Cynthia Furey, a 2004 graduate of UC Irvine and a former AAJA-LA scholarship winner, works as a news assistant at The Orange County Register.