Andrew Maly has this gift.
He can tell you that in 1846, the settlers in California staged the Bear Flag Revolt. He can name the capitals of Sri Lanka and Cyprus. He can tell you that Leon Spinks beat Muhammad Ali in 1978 to win the heavyweight title in one of the biggest upsets in boxing history.
Perhaps even more impressive: He can listen to a three-second snippet of a cartoon voice and tell you, with absolute certainty, that it belongs to Woody Woodpecker.
"I'm blessed," says Maly, 34, an environmental engineer from Bel Air, "with the ability to retain useless knowledge. And the ability to recall it immediately."
Now put yourself in his place.
You have all this stuff floating around in your head like wind-blown seeds from a dandelion, all this minutiae about wars, presidents, world history, pop culture and so on.
But outside of dazzling your friends in Trivial Pursuit and taking your wife for a few bucks in Scrabble or whatever, where can you use it?
Andrew Maly found a use for it.
He decided to play "Jeopardy!" and make some money. And he did so well on the popular quiz show that if you turn on the TV at 7 tonight (WMAR Channel 2), you'll see Maly, an intense, pleasant-looking man, appearing in the show's "$100,000 Tournament of Champions."
The saga began last fall, when he flew out to the "Jeopardy!" studios in Culver City, Calif., swept five shows in a row and won $44,100 in cash, plus a 1999, fully loaded Chevy Tahoe.
He was Hurricane Andrew, blowing through the competition to the point where other competitors watching in the studio audience could feel the sweat leaking from their foreheads as they muttered: "I don't want to play this guy."
Even veteran host Alex Trebek seemed impressed. If you watch the tapes of those shows, the dapper Trebek looks alternately amused and delighted when Maly goes on one of his Sherman-through-Atlanta runs in categories such as Classic Catch-phrases. (Answer: "Good night, John-boy." Maly: "What is 'The Waltons'?")
The performance earned Maly a chance to compete, starting tonight, for the show's Grand Prize: a hundred grand in cold cash.
But 14 others are also entered in the Tournament of Champions, and this is the elite of the "Jeopardy!" world, the creme de la creme of the general knowledge set, 10 men and four women with alert eyes and confident demeanors and vast, shiny foreheads that fairly radiate with intelligence.
The collective brain wattage is so high that tournament officials probably shouldn't allow them all in the Green Room at the same time, for fear the place could catch fire.
But there's no doubt that Maly, a specialist in spill planning and spill response at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Edgewater, belongs in such heady company.
In fact, the more you get to know him, the more it seems his destiny.
"Jeopardy!" is the most popular TV quiz show in this country.
It was created by Merv Griffin in 1964 and emceed by the avuncular Art Fleming until 1975. In 1984, "Jeopardy!" returned to the air in syndication, the urbane Trebek took over as host and its popularity took off, earning it 19 Daytime Emmy Awards.
Now, some 34 million viewers tune in daily. For years, one of those viewers has been Andy Maly. In fact, during his senior year at the University of Missouri-Rolla, Maly and a fraternity brother devised an elaborate hoax that centered on the show.
In Rolla back then, "Jeopardy!" came on at 3 and 3: 30 in the afternoon on two different stations. Maly and his frat brother, both of whom lived in an apartment, knew about both shows; the brothers who lived in the frat house thought the show aired only at 3: 30.
So Maly and his pal would watch the 3 o'clock show at their apartment, then, armed with the correct answers, they'd rush over to the frat house for the 3: 30 show.
There, surrounded by their brothers, they'd casually rattle off the answers, as jaws dropped all over the room and the brothers reacted as if Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking were in their midst.
"We never let on as to what the trick was," Maly says now, laughing.
But even without cheating, Maly was a gifted "Jeopardy!" player.
He tended to absorb great chunks of information on a vast variety of subjects, even the most arcane. He has an excellent memory, although not a classic photographic one, and doesn't know his IQ, although he doesn't think it's extraordinarily high.
He just knows stuff.
"If you ask my wife, I did not study for my professional engineering exam," Maly says with a soft smile, sitting in the dining room of their two-story colonial.
"Not in the true sense of the meaning of 'study,' no," explains Mary Ellen Maly, also an engineer. "He's the kind of person I probably would have hated in college. Because he might have gone to all the classes, but he probably didn't do any of the reading until the night before the test, if at all."
For years, Maly excelled at Scrabble, crossword puzzles, war and historical games. One of his favorite board games is Advanced Squad Leader, which has a rule book 200 pages long. It looks like the operating manual for a nuclear reactor.
"He reads [it] for fun!" says his wife. "We played Risk one day. Risk games go on for, like, days practically. He beat me in a half-hour and totally took over the world."
Over the years, she constantly urged Maly to try out for "Jeopardy!" Finally one night, after putting their two young children, Alexander (33 months) and Nicole (18 months) to bed, Maly got on the Internet and applied to be a contestant.
And so, on a spring morning last year, Maly found himself in a Washington hotel conference room with 60 other would-be contestants. Twenty-five thousand people from all across the country audition to be on "Jeopardy!" yearly. But with only 400 slots, the competition is intense.
Maly and the other auditioners took a quick, 50-question general knowledge test. Those who answered at least 35 questions correctly then played a mock "Jeopardy!" game.
Maly was like the rookie who comes up to the big leagues looking like he belongs right away. He was the Natural. When it was over, the "Jeopardy!" people told him he'd made the cut.
"He was so happy when he qualified!" Mrs. Maly recalls. [He] didn't even care if he was on the show. He had proven to himself that he could do it." And, in fact, Maly forgot all about "Jeopardy!" for a few months.
Then in late August, after getting off a plane at BWI airport, he went to a pay phone and checked his voice mail.
"Hi," began a message, "this is Glen Cagen from 'Jeopardy!' You've been selected to appear on our show. "
"I was freaking out!" Maly recalls.
On an overcast afternoon in October, the Malys flew to California for the taping, leaving the kids in the care of his mother. ("Jeopardy!" contestants, at least those appearing on the show for the first time, pay their own airfare.)
On the flight, as the plane flew high above the clouds through a dazzling blue sky, Maly was calm. There was no last-minute cramming, no frantic windmilling of the arms for more coffee from the flight attendants.
"The way the game is structured, you either know the information or you don't," he said. "You can cram on particular subjects, I guess. But there's no guarantee they'll actually be [asked.]"
There was nothing to do but wait. Wait for show time.
On the show
Here's what they tell you when you're a contestant on "Jeopardy!": Bring three changes of clothing.
All the taping is done in one day. If you win, you tape another game 15 minutes later -- in a new outfit. Win that one and you go again, in another outfit, and so on. Keep winning and you could tape as many as five shows in a single day. After the third game, you have to mix and match clothes from the three outfits, which is why you don't take, say, a Nehru jacket.
What they don't tell you is how you'll react when you're first introduced by announcer Johnny Gilbert and the studio audience bursts into applause and the white-hot television lights smack you in the face.
"That's when the adrenalin started," Maly recalls. "That's when the nerves, and the reality, hit."
But Maly knows all about nerves. He served in Operation Desert Storm and followed the 1st Infantry Division around Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, when a soldier didn't know if that was morning mist he was seeing or enemy nerve gas.
As he took his place on the podium for his first game, he thought: " They're introducing me and I know I have this goofy look on my face, but I'm on 'Jeopardy!' and this is so cool!"
The game quickly assumed its trademark brisk pace. Thirty seconds in, from the category "People Eat That?" Trebek read: "The book 'Fashionable Food' tells how to make a truly awful salad with a banana and this cinema snack."
Maly hit his signal button. Answering in the form of a question, as the rules call for, he said: "What is popcorn?"
Hits a streak
And from there he was off, nearly running the table in the sports category and doing the same in a category about the 50 states. The game was a Maly runaway.
Which was a good thing. Because even the Lords of Trivia have a brain-circuitry meltdown every once in a while.
In the Final Jeopardy round, from a category called "Bands," the answer was: "This band's last surviving brother lives and records in St. Charles, Ill., far from the ocean."
"It was a classic case of over-analysis," Maly recalls. "Everything leads you to say: 'That's the Beach Boys.' But I'm looking at it and I [think]: 'Mike Love was an original member of the Beach Boys. And he's not a brother. He's not one of the Wilsons.' So I went on this tangent."
Instead of jotting down "Who are the Beach Boys?" Maly wrote: "Who are the Surfers?"
But he was up $6,800 and had wagered only $700. In the next instant, Trebek was congratulating the newest "Jeopardy!" champion: Andrew Maly from Bel Air, Md.
"After the show," Maly says, "I was literally so wound up I couldn't unbutton my jacket to change."
Something of a challenge
Game 4 would prove to be the toughest, by far, of the five games he played. In that one, he went up against Jayne, a demure-looking schoolteacher, and Marc, a businessman so lightning-quick with the answers you wondered if he had a Pentium chip for a brain.
Going into Final Jeopardy, Maly clung to a slim $6,100 to $6,000 lead over Marc.
The category was "Holidays." And what happened next might have been the defining moment of his trivia career, the moment in which Andy Maly announced himself as one of the Hall of Famers of the game.
"It's observed on March 7 in California, March 26 in Spain and April 22 in Nebraska," Trebek intoned somberly.
As the annoying "Jeopardy!" theme played, the two men hunched over their podiums, scribbling.
When time was up, Marc had scrawled: "What is statehood?"
"No, I'm sorry," replied Trebek, looking truly stricken.
Then it was Maly's turn to answer. His card read: "What is Arbor Day?"
"Yes!" shouted Trebek. And if you watch the tape, you see Andy Maly reel backward in disbelief, a stunned look on his face as Marc pumps his hand and the audience bursts into applause.
"I'm bass-ackwards in my logic here," Maly says quietly, sitting at his dining room table, remembering the moment. "People asked me: 'How did you know?' I looked at it and I [thought]: Nebraska? Only thing I know about Nebraska is that's where Arbor Day originated. But I thought Arbor Day was in the fall, and [those] dates are all in the spring."
Oh, it was a beautiful moment on the "Jeopardy!" set, and a golden moment for Andy Maly.
Tonight at 7, he returns and goes for the big iron: a hundred grand in cold cash.
You may want to tune in.
The great ones only come around every so often.
Pub Date: 2/11/99