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In pursuit of trivia, Howard residents reap fun and profit

Clyde Wheeler, of Silver Spring, left, Vaughn Winchell, of Columbia, and Megan Barnes, of Columbia, match up facts with guests of the David Letterman Show during Trivia Night at the Frisco Tap House Tuesday night. Wheeler was featured in the Jan. 29 episode of "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" Winchell is a five-time Jeopardy champion. Barnes, also a Jeopardy champion, is a contestant on a new game show called "500 Questions."
Clyde Wheeler, of Silver Spring, left, Vaughn Winchell, of Columbia, and Megan Barnes, of Columbia, match up facts with guests of the David Letterman Show during Trivia Night at the Frisco Tap House Tuesday night. Wheeler was featured in the Jan. 29 episode of "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" Winchell is a five-time Jeopardy champion. Barnes, also a Jeopardy champion, is a contestant on a new game show called "500 Questions." (Karen Jackson, Baltimore Sun)

Megan Barnes is at it again.

For the fourth time in six years, the 33-year-old stay-at-home Columbia mother is appearing on a television game show, a hobby-obsession that has earned her $127,403 in prize money ... as far as anyone knows, anyway.

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Barnes isn't permitted by ABC to discuss the outcome of her appearance on "500 Questions," a new hourlong program that's in the middle of a seven-night premiere. The network is presenting it as "the toughest game show ever devised."

She got her chance to challenge the "Resident Genius" on Friday's episode and will return at 8 p.m. Monday to complete the faceoff.

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Though she's a self-proclaimed "attention hog" who craves the spotlight, she said she found the experience "terrifying."

"I would say '500 Questions' is like 'Jeopardy' on steroids," said Barnes, who can be seen victoriously pumping both fists in one of the commercials for the show, which was taped in March.

Barnes should know. In March 2011, she won $105,203 on "Jeopardy" as a three-time champion.

She and her husband, Matthew, used some of those winnings to buy a townhouse in Longfellow, where they live with their two young sons. She also received pretax payouts of $16,000 from "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" in 2009 and $6,200 from "Wheel of Fortune" in 2014.

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As a contestant on "500 Questions," Barnes said she felt intense pressure to perform. Players get 10 seconds to answer — with no helps, no saves and no multiple-choice questions. They also can't get three consecutive questions wrong or they're eliminated.

"There's a lot of trash talk going on and a lot of strategy involved," she said, noting that the set is dark and dramatic. "It's gladiatorial, in that you're watching for your opponent's weaknesses."

Barnes, who has a degree in English, is far from the only local person to find success on the TV game-show circuit.

Vaughn Winchell, a Harvard graduate and stay-at-home father, earned $104,103 in January in six appearances on "Jeopardy." As a five-time champion, the River Hill resident has a good chance of qualifying for the show's Tournament of Champions, at a date yet to be determined.

"I didn't go on 'Jeopardy' to win $100,000; I didn't dare to have that dream," said the former math teacher and father of two. "I just didn't want to do anything humiliating."

David Greisman, media relations specialist for the Columbia Association, also won on "Jeopardy," earning $13,600 in two games in November.

Steve Kaltenbaugh, a Columbia native, won $250,000 on "Millionaire" in 2014 and $35,000 in 2013 on "The Chase," a Game Show Network program where players face a physically imposing trivia expert called "The Beast." Kaltenbaugh lives in Odenton, where he's a defense contractor and hosts a pub trivia night.

"Winning on 'The Chase' was actually more fun because I did the best I could do," said Kaltenbaugh, who also appeared on "Jeopardy" in 2005 and came in third.

"On 'Millionaire' I knew my $500,000 question but chickened out," he said, noting that he took the lesser amount of money instead of risking it for a chance for the $1 million. "That sort of thing stays with you. Every day I wonder if I could have gotten that million-dollar question."

A couple dozen more "Jeopardy" contestants hail from Howard County, according to j-archive.com, a fan-created website about the show. A search of the site turns up 11 other players from Columbia and 14 from Ellicott City.

"Columbia's a hard-core trivia town," said Barnes, who moved to Columbia from Baltimore. "Since there are so many smart people living around here, we all get together to play pub trivia at least once a week."

Greisman, who has joined in the local pub competitions, thinks a lot of people in the area have what it takes to become successful game-show contestants.

"It shouldn't come as a surprise that there are a lot of very intelligent people in and around Howard County and the Baltimore-D.C. area," he said. "Many of them have been represented on game shows, and yet I feel as if those we've seen compete on television are but the tip of the iceberg."

Some of the local contestants make a point of reaching out to new ones after their TV appearances, drawing them into their close-knit circle of trivia buffs.

Winchell, 50, said his friendship with Barnes in the aftermath of his "Jeopardy" appearance has been "one of the luckiest things" that could have happened.

"There's a whole level of quizzing culture that I never knew about until I met Megan," said Winchell, who has degrees in geology and English and is earning an online master's degree in mathematics so he can return to teaching.

"It's like we all went to sleep-away camp and then bonded after the intense shared experience," he said of all the work required to be on a quiz show.

At Barnes' suggestion, Winchell joined a local trivia team. Some of the group's 10 members travel to Columbia from Virginia, Odenton, Silver Spring, Annapolis and Mount Airy, Barnes said. She tallied up the players' collective game show earnings to be $800,000.

The team can often be found competing on Tuesdays at Frisco Taphouse and Brewery on Dobbin Road. Wednesdays used to be a Greene Turtle Sports Bar & Grille get-together, but the Columbia eatery switched to a Thursday night trivia game that not everyone on the team can attend.

In a way, Barnes has been preparing for these competitions her whole life.

The eldest of six siblings from upstate New York, she and her brother Liam competed in nearly everything. When he fell short of her 1560 SAT score by 10 points, he retook it just to beat her — and earned a 1590.

Barnes' husband is a software engineer who isn't into trivia, so there isn't much in-house competition these days. She likes to say they have a mixed marriage: "He's a geek and I'm a nerd."

The local game nights that Barnes and the others play are the antithesis of most TV quiz shows. The rules at one local pub allow teams three minutes to huddle while a song clue plays. A winning team of six or more people splits a $25 jackpot for its efforts.

It's obviously not about the money but about fun and camaraderie, and ... mostly winning.

"It's about pride and bragging rights," Barnes said. "Now that we're all adults, it's like we're asking, 'How can we be judged now?'"

Winchell said Barnes also invited him to join learnedleague.com, an online trivia league where the likes of players such as 74-game "Jeopardy" champ Ken Jennings show up. "Jeopardy" and "Millionaire" message boards at jboard.tv and wwtbambored.com,are also popular virtual hangouts.

Asked if he studied before his game show appearance, Winchell said his wife, Celia, "kept quizzing me long after it stopped being fun" because the level of play on the show is so high.

"A handful of the contestants are prodigiously good and a handful are contestant-search errors," he said. "But most players are good enough to win."

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Books the pair said were helpful in prepping for their appearances include "Prisoner of Trebekistan: A Decade in Jeopardy!" by Bob Harris and "Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know" by E.D. Hirsch.

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Also, more than 280,000 questions from more than 7,000 "Jeopardy" games that have already aired are available for practice on j-archive.com.

Though former contestants don't actually live to play trivia, it ranks right up there.

In case game-show fanatics haven't heard, "Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?" will be returning to Fox after a hiatus, Barnes noted.

Winchell said that may prove to be a boon to Barnes, since contestants are barred from reapplying to shows on which they've appeared.

"Megan," he said jokingly, "is running out of ways to make trivia pay."

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