It’s trivia night at The Boat Club, a restaurant/bar below The Whitefish Lake Lodge, and teams are gathered around tables in a row waiting for the next question. The host of the regular Thursday night competition looks at his list—topics cover history, pop culture, sports and literature—and speaks into a small P.A. system: “Name the historic artifact that commemorates the Battle of Hastings.”
The room, in general, is stumped. Players at the table of Special Team Challenge Force Beta get a “Yeah, right” look on their faces. That is, everyone except for 32-year-old Whitefish resident Corey Burke, who signals a teammate to pass him the answer sheet. He writes “Bayeux Tapestry,” and his teammates chuckle. No one is even sure what this means, but they know it’s probably right.
It is. Later that night, smoking a cigarette outside, Burke tells a teammate the tapestry depicts the Norman invasion of England in 1066 and the Battle of Hastings, where the Normans conquered England. He says it also contains the image of Halley’s Comet, which passed by the Earth that year, and was considered a bad omen by the English.
Burke has an unusual aptitude for trivia. With it, he helps his pub trivia team coast to an easy victory, answering 20 more questions correctly than the second-place team. In the previous round of trivia at The Boat Club—every eight weeks a new round of competition begins—his team won so often that Burke says he began feeling bad, and stopped attending. His teammates say other pub trivia contestants have complained that it’s not fair having Burke on their team.
“We get frustrated, and he’s on our team,” says Justin Koller. “We never get a chance to answer anything.”
Another teammate, Jason Farris, says Burke answers at least 70 percent of the team’s questions.
But, Koller admits, “It’s fun to watch. It’s literally anything—he knows the most random type stuff that nobody should know.”
Burke’s abilities have taken him far beyond The Boat Club. In 1997, he appeared on “Jeopardy!” where he was a three-day champion. In 2001 he went on the now defunct “Weakest Link,” where he won $133,500, the largest jackpot the game had seen at the time. He still regularly applies to game shows hoping to cash in.
But, as Koller notes, “It’s not like any of this knowledge translates into everyday life.”
Burke has never had a day job that capitalized on his knack for trivia. He’s currently a carpenter, landscaper and part-time wedding DJ. He also helps build sets for the Whitefish Theatre Company, and recently acted in a play.
Within the last year he began working toward an English degree at Flathead Valley Community College, but prior to that his education didn't extend beyond high school.
“As soon as I find an actual, marketable use for knowing random stuff, I’ll jump right on it,” he says. “Right now, I can’t think of a way it’s really useful at all.”
Except for the quick money and relative fame of game shows.
“That’s a fact, Alex”
Burke applied to “Jeopardy!” in the spring of 1997, when he was 22 years old and living in New Jersey, after his mom alerted him to tryouts being held at a nearby casino.
“Jeopardy!” was a favorite of Burke’s family when he was growing up; he remembers them watching the show together and shouting answers at the television.
“We were all pretty good at it,” Burke says. “My parents weren’t real educated folks, but we just always watched that sort of thing. When the chance came up, I just figured I’d take an afternoon off and give it a shot.”
The first tryout consisted of a 10-question test on which applicants had to score 70 percent or higher to qualify for the second round. When testing finished, the answers were read out loud so applicants knew if they’d advanced to the next tryout.
“When they’re reading off the answers to the different test questions,” Burke says, “you’ve got people standing around, shouting out the answers like it’s a big event, like they were waiting their whole lives for their chance to show off that they know it was Lady Aster who did that, or that Zimbabwe is the correct answer.”
Burke passed and shortly thereafter passed another 50-question test in his second audition. Then seven months went by without Burke hearing anything. He went back to his regular life at the time, building sets for the George Street Playhouse, a regional theatre in New Jersey, and he stopped anticipating a response.
Then in November of 1997, he showed up for work, and no one was there.
When he checked the messages on his cell phone, he first heard an angry call from his boss—he was supposed to have been at work early, and at a different location. The next message was from “Jeopardy!” notifying him he’d been accepted as a contestant, and that taping would begin in a few weeks.
“Sorry I’m late,” he told his boss when he finally got to work, “but I’m going on ‘Jeopardy!’”
Burke’s excitement was tempered by the fact that, at the time, “Jeopardy!” did not fly contestants out to L.A., nor did it pay for their stay in the city. To save money, he arranged to sleep in a youth hostel in Santa Monica, a long cab ride from the “Jeopardy!” studio in Culver City.
“I had to get some help from a couple friends to get the plane ticket,” he says.
A few weeks later, he sat in the “Jeopardy!” greenroom, waiting to be called on stage with a group of contestants.
“The whole group was talking about different previous ‘Jeopardy!’ episodes, and guys that had put together a string of wins, celebrity episodes…” Burke says. “I hadn’t watched the show in years at that point. I had nothing to say. I just drank a lot of coffee until it was time to go on.”
Drinking coffee, Burke says, became his only pre-game preparation. He did no mental exercises, no crossword puzzles, no meditation. He just drank coffee and waited.
Things didn’t start smoothly. Before taping, “Jeopardy!” staffers expressed disappointment with Burke’s bio. He asked if he should make something up.
“They were like, ‘sure, make something up,’” he recalls.
So Burke told them he could juggle and ride a unicycle at the same time. In reality, he can only do one at a time.
During taping, host Alex Trebek approached him and said, “So I understand that you can juggle and ride a unicycle at the same time.”
“Well that’s a fact, Alex,” Burke responded in a cocky tone.
“[Trebek] got all mad,” Burke says. “I just thought I was being kind of funny, but he was like, ‘You don’t want to talk, you don’t want to talk,’ and he moved on. In postproduction, they [recorded] a snappy comeback [for Trebek]. It makes me look kind of like a jerk.”
Despite the uncomfortable beginning, Burke did well that first game, winning $8,200, more than double his nearest opponent’s score.
“It went pretty well, I think not just because of what I knew, but because I was very fast, reflexively,” Burke says. “I was juked up on coffee, staring at the little monitor that tells you when it’s okay to ring in.”
He nailed clues like: “Her daughter Tracy Reiner appeared as a test market researcher in her film Big.”
Burke’s correct answer: “Who is Penny Marshall?”
In the next game, filmed immediately following the first, one of Burke’s two opponents was an adjunct professor at Georgetown University who negotiated contracts and resolved disputes for international oil suppliers, ocean shipping fleets and governments. Burke says the professor made an attempt to psyche him out in the greenroom before the game, acting condescending about Burke’s background and profession, but it didn’t work.
“I kicked his ass,” Burke says.
And he advanced to the next day of taping.
Burke showed up the next day feeling “supremely confident.” In the first game he won again, earning $6,900, compared to his closest opponent’s $1,700. With a win in the next game, his fourth, Burke would have had a chance to go to the “Jeopardy!” annual championships.
But the fourth game started with Burke in the hole $100 by the end of the first round. He came back in the Double Jeopardy round, solving clues such as, “Colorful name given the random movement of tiny particles suspended in a gas or liquid.”
Burke’s correct answer: “What is Brownian motion?”
By the end of the round, Burke had put himself $200 ahead of his nearest opponent, with $3,900 going into Final Jeopardy. In that round, he decided to bet big, putting all but $10 of his winnings on the line.
“The ones you get wrong you remember forever,” he says, recalling that Final Jeopardy question almost exactly: “Category being Native Americans, this great chief prophesized, ‘I will return to you in stone.’”
“And of course,” Burke says, “if you’ve ever driven through South Dakota, and gone by Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse monument is there and it’s being hewn out of stone. Well that makes sense, right? But I didn’t know that.”
Burke answered, “Who is Geronimo?” and lost his chance to advance to the fourth game. Still, he had $24,400 in total winnings, more than his salary that year.
“It was thrilling,” he says, adding, “I wish I would have been smarter.” Burke then pauses, thinking for a moment before saying, “Well I don’t know. I don’t really regret not being smart about that first big check, because I had a lot of fun. I sort of knew what I was doing. I was like ‘I don’t really want to plan for the future with this. I would like to have a good time—and get a good car.’”
He got himself a Subaru, paid back his friends who helped him get to L.A., and, like most 22-year-olds, paid lots of bar tabs.
“A question of how you read or watch”
On April 24, Burke is sitting on the couch in the living room of his Whitefish home, watching “The Simpsons” on his flat screen television and looking tired after a day of landscaping. On the coffee table sit copies of Harper’s magazine next to Modern Drunkard.
One of the amazing things about Burke’s ability for trivia is that he says he does no studying for it. He doesn’t read encyclopedias, almanacs or general trivia books.
“I’ve always had really good general knowledge,” he says. “I think mostly it comes from watching lots of TV and reading lots of comic books when I was a little kid.”
While most people may say these activities stunt mental capacity, Burke applauds them.
“It’s a question of how you read or watch,” he says. “I remember Mad magazine, in every issue that came out there were all sorts of broad, pop culture references, most of which I didn’t understand, so I’d ask, ‘Mom? What does that mean? Who is that person? Who’s Henry Kissinger?’ And for some reason I just kind of retained all that stuff.”
Besides Mad, Burke says he learned a lot from watching “Looney Tunes” when he was younger. Later, he read collections of Doonesbury and Bloom County, and started watching PBS; these days he’s into reading fiction and watching late-night cartoons on Adult Swim. He won’t say how many hours of television he typically watches.
“Oh God, let’s not get into that,” he says. “It would sound awful.”
Pressed harder on how these things could have possibly taught him all the trivia he knows, Burke maintains, “I don’t think it’s a question of what you watch, but how you watch it.”
He says he’s always looking for the tidbits of information inevitably woven into crass entertainment. For instance, he learned about the Bayeux Tapestry from reading a Time-Life book he’d ordered, although he adds, “It’s kind of common knowledge.”
Burke’s wife, Rachel, is part of his team at The Boat Club and she can attest to his lack of studying. She says when people at the local pub where she works are trying to answer some random question and get stumped, someone always demands that she call her husband. He just knows these things.
Margaret Barwikowski, Burke’s mother, suspects that he has a photographic memory.
“I think it’s stuff all of us have heard,” she says. “Corey just retains it.”
She also professes that Burke taught himself how to read at age 4, and had an unusual ability for spelling words backward.
Burke finds the story about teaching himself to read a bit dubious, but he does recall a childhood instance when his mother approached him with flashcards, and asked him to read the words on them. He remembers he knocked out the task quickly so he could get back to watching cartoons.
“The strongest link”
Four years after his “Jeopardy!” appearance, Burke was still building sets in the New Jersey area when a friend of his, an inspiring actor living in New York City, decided to try out for the game show “Weakest Link” under the advice of her agent. Burke decided to go with her to keep her company, and, unlike his friend, was invited to be a contestant.
“I was never really a huge fan of that show, but it went pretty well,” Burke says. “I really hate the reality TV influence on game shows now. It’s hard to find one that’s just straight-up trivia, like ‘Jeopardy!’”
“Weakest Link,” which was cancelled in July of 2002, is the epitome of how modern game shows reflect the age of reality television. It includes eight contestants who have two minutes and thirty seconds to answer as many questions—starting easy and getting harder—as they can. Beginning with $1,000, each correct answer by a contestant doubles the money they can win, up to $125,000. Players can “bank” the money, which puts it into a pot, but also puts the group back at $1,000. At the end of each round, the pot is saved.
Between rounds, players vote for the “weakest link,” whichever player they thought was either dragging the rest of the team down, or posed the biggest threat to beating the rest of them. The game continues until all but two players are eliminated—the remaining two then square off in a final round of questions and whomever does best out of five questions wins. Unlike “Jeopardy!” “Weakest Link” was winner-take-all. The losers went home with nothing.
The game requires a balance between individual skills and, like any reality show, a level of backroom politics. Before Burke’s appearance, another contestant named Dave Reiter, a nonprofit director, approached him about creating an alliance—neither would vote the other off.
Anne Robinson, a former British journalist who mocked and belittled the players between rounds, hosted. In Burke’s appearance, he was first to receive her questions.
“Burke, what is the name of the U.S. national anthem?” Robinson barks.
Burke is stunned for a moment, like he’s about to freeze up, then spits out, “Star Spangled Banner.”
The game moves quickly, and the first round ends with Burke as the “strongest link,” the contestant with the most correct answers.
Despite the pressure, Burke doesn’t miss any questions until the fourth round, when he gets a mathematics question wrong. But he makes up for it, answering a difficult question later in the round, at literally the last second.
“Corey,” Robinson shouts. “What American playwright wrote Long Day’s Journey into Night?”
“Eugene O’Neil,” he responds.
Burke is again the strongest link and Robinson addresses him for the first time.
“Oh yeah,” he answers, in a confident and casual tone. She glares at him for a moment, and he starts nervously bouncing from foot to foot.
“Now remind me of what you do.”
“I’m a carpenter.”
“Are you? What sort of carpenter?”
“I build scenery mostly for off-Broadway productions,” he says, as his bouncing gets more pronounced.
“Do you sway while you’re carpentering?” Robinson asks, to laughter from the audience.
Cory stops moving.
“Sometimes,” he says.
She asks if he ever builds actual homes, and Burke tells her “No.”
“So yours is a slapdash carpentry?” she asks.
“Quick and cheap?” Burke offers, shrugging his shoulders to one side as if asking her to move on.
Robinson instead imitates the shrug, making it look mopey, and Burke changes tactics.
“Well, maybe after we’re done here I could construct you a more pleasant personality,” he says.
“Okay,” she says. “So you’re a slap dash carpenter who can’t count.”
“That’s one way to look at it,” he replies.
Burke continues nailing difficult questions in the following rounds, including, “What British spy novelist wrote The Tailor of Panama?”
He answers, “John le Carré.”
And, “What musical includes the songs of ‘If I Loved You’ and ‘June is Bustin’ Out All Over?’”
“Carousel,” he answers.
Eventually the game comes down to Burke, Reiter and a middle-aged stay-at-home mother. The three work the pot up to $114,000, nearly twice that of a normal game. And then it was time to vote one off.
“Sure enough, it came down to me, this guy Dave, who I’d made the deal with, who had degrees from both Harvard and Stanford, and a housewife from Queens,” Burke says. “So naturally, given the possibilities, I didn’t trust him to hold up his end of the pact. Hasn’t he ever watched a TV show like this? You’re supposed to screw the other guy. And sure enough, I screwed him, and he stuck to the pact. How am I going to feel bad?”
“I hoped Burke would honor his agreement,” Reiter told the Independent in a recent interview. “But given what was going on, that I was answering a lot more questions right than [the mother] was, I wasn’t surprised that he didn’t.”
Burke went on to defeat the mother and take home a total of $133,500.
The winnings came at a good time in his life. After paying about one-third of the money toward state and federal taxes—a sober reality of game shows is paying taxes on all prizes—Burke and his wife used it to pay off debts, buy a new Ford Explorer, and move to Whitefish, which they had fallen in love with after visiting a college friend in the area.
“It was great,” Burke says. “We were kind of burnt out on living in the city. We decided to pull up and get the hell out of town.”
It’s now the fifth week of pub trivia at The Boat House. Before the games begin, Burke is talking about his day running a brick saw, cutting bricks into pieces that will build a new patio for an upscale Whitefish home.
It’s hard work, and Burke shows how his left hand is bright red and he’s lost the skin on his knuckles. He seems almost proud of the injuries.
Tonight, there are only three groups competing at game time (two more join later) and so Farris, Koller and a few of Burke’s other teammates split off from his group and form another team for the night. For the rest of the evening, whenever an obscure question comes up, one of them will shake their head, smile and say, “Fuckin’ Corey.” Or, someone else will do an imitation of how, as soon as a question is read, Burke cocks his head and wrinkles his eyebrows in a way that suggests the answer has just been transmitted to his brain, then signals for the answer book by pointing a finger and raising his eyebrows.
His fellow contestants are all in awe of his ability, but after talking about it, they’ll often joke, “and yet he’s unemployable.”
It sounds mean at first, until they note the label came straight from Burke himself, who, when his friends were teasing him during a stretch without working, told them, “I’m not unemployed, I’m unemployable.”
Since 2001, Burke has applied to other game shows, including “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?”, but he never heard back. He most recently applied to “The Power of 10,” a game show that CBS plans to launch next season, and is awaiting a response. He says he’ll keep trying to get on shows, always looking for a new outlet.
“I suppose it’s probably the lure of easy money,” he says when asked where his interest in game shows comes from. “If I could do that sort of thing without being on television I certainly would.”
In the meantime, he plays at The Boat House for prizes like hats, T-shirts and gift certificates.