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What Makes You So Smart, Jonathan Corbblah?

Jonathan Corbblah wants to be on more trivia shows than any other human being ever has. He talked to Noah Davis.
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(Photo: jurvetson/Flickr)

(Photo: jurvetson/Flickr)

When I arrived at Umani Burger on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan, Jonathan Corbblah was immersed in a trivia game on his phone. Just obliterating some poor unsuspecting soul, clicking the correct answer before I could even finish reading the question. Little did the person on the other side know that they were matching wits—make that: failing to match wits—with a man who has won money on Cash Cab, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, and Jeopardy!, and plans to set the world record for being on the most trivia game shows. In his spare time, Corbblah—a master-level chess player—coaches individuals and teams to national championships, gives Scrabble lessons, and dominates the New York City trivia circuit. We ate burgers and talked. Jonathan Corbblah is my favorite.

Was there a time when you realized you were smarter than most of your peers?

When I was in first grade, I didn't know how to read. Whenever I was presented with a word, I had a hard time sounding it out. Because of that, I was going to be held back. My dad was appalled. He thought I was too smart. I didn't understand why he kept saying that, but he took me out of the school because he was upset that they didn't recognize his son's genius. He drilled me for an entire summer, non-stop. He drilled me in math, up through division, and he's a preacher so he made me read the Bible front to back several times. By the time I started second grade, I was vastly ahead. I was like Matilda from the Roald Dahl book. I had read all the books and done all the math. I was helping other kids and looking out the window bored.

And that continued?

Yeah, that continued throughout my school career. I never really learned how to work very hard, but I learned how to use my intellect and hone my memory, my calculation, and my reasoning.

You're obviously very good at trivia. Do you have a memory that retains facts very well?

Trivia is three things. It's memory. It's recall. And then it's also being alert. I think you can work on all three of those things. You can train your mind to connect things. You already know a lot of facts and by continuing to connect those to others, your memory will improve. It's like how your neurons connect. But trivia is more of a test of recall. Whether you're at a pub quiz or a game show, the key is whether you can recall something immediately from your mind. I've done pub quizzes and game shows over and over again, and I've improved my power of recall. The things that I learn are foremost in my mind, especially when I'm motivated. I can really bring things back.

"I'm in my mid-30s now, which is the peak for brilliance in a lot of fields. For chess, it used to be the case, and now it's early 20s. As I get closer to 40, I feel like I'm going to lose a beat here and a beat there, but my maturity is there."

There's also alertness. Say you and I to go to a movie today. If someone were to ask us both a question about it six months down the line, I might be able to remember something a little more clearly than you. The reason is that things stay up in my subconscious. I don't know how it happens. It might be genetic, but I've gotten myself used to being able to recall facts and details, even if they might seem insignificant, because my subconscious knows to treat everything as valuable information.

It sounds like you pretty actively work on recall and other aspects of your intellect to make yourself better at trivia and games.

A lot of things come naturally, but because I'm such a competitor—because I compete at things that use it—I try to keep the muscles in shape. I already had a good background. I already felt like I had a grounding and a footing in knowing a lot of things, but because I like to win so much, I think that my competitiveness has made my muscles stay sharp. It's like any athlete who trains in any discipline.

Where does chess fit in? I would imagine a lot of the same skills apply.

The one thing that chess has taught me, aside from my self-esteem and the fact that chess is associated with high intellect, is how to learn. The process by which you improve at chess—analyzing your weaknesses, taking your time, thinking things through—and the way that you learn chess—openings, middle game, and end game—teaches you how to study. Because of that, I have been able to help myself in other games like Scrabble, Monopoly, and poker. I started getting better and better at Trivial Pursuit. I suppose the rubric that I learned while learning chess has helped me a lot in terms of getting better at any game I wanted to play.

When did you start playing chess?

I learned the rules around six or seven. I played informal classroom tournaments, and I started to compete when I was around 12 years old. I was terrible, but at the same time, I loved the game fiercely. I studied the game on my own, but I had so many losses that I quit for a bit in eighth, ninth, and 10th grade. In 11th grade, my friends were going past the park and told me that I should go play the guys playing there. I shot up in the rankings, and I moved up into the master level.

Do you make a living with trivia and chess?

I would say it's about half and half. I teach chess and Scrabble. I also play poker, chess tournaments, and the game shows. That's the other half. Every year I win a certain amount of money from game shows and random trivia competitions.

I can't imagine there’s exactly a career path that you have followed, but was this generally the plan?

It's just been a random set of occurrences that has taken me from one thing to another. I played chess a lot, and I loved it. I didn't know what I wanted to do when I was out of college. Someone suggested that I start teaching chess. So I did. I was looking through the newspaper one day, and I saw a pub quiz. I thought that would be fun, so I went. When I was a kid, the show Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? came to my school, and they were looking for kids. One of my teachers recommended that I interview. I did, and they took me on the show. Everything has culminated to this point. It's been a natural progression for me.

When did you start getting into Jeopardy!?

After Carmen Sandiego, my brother and I started watching Jeopardy! a lot. He's five years older than me, but we were both so competitive that we'd keep our scores. We both had a fantasy of being a five-time Jeopardy! champion. We weren't watching kids Jeopardy!. We were watching grownup Jeopardy!, and night after night I was getting a lot of right answers. I knew that when I got older I would be able to compete. Then they started having kids Jeopardy!, and I tried out for that. I tried out for teen Jeopardy!. I tried out for college Jeopardy!. Finally, after trying out about 15 times over the course of 20 years, I got on.

Have you gotten better at getting on shows?

I keep trying, and I've kept persevering, but it's because I've had the belief that I would be successful. I never was able to get down on myself. From this young age, I knew I could get onto a game show. It wasn't this foreign idea. It was something that I would be able to do. Before I had gotten on Jeopardy!, I was on a few other shows. Jeopardy! was the crowning achievement. I knew I could do it, but I realized there was a big divide between how ready I was and how I would be on the show. I didn't wonder why I wasn't on. I realized that I needed to get better, to get smarter, to try harder. That pushed me forward. I was never going to give up on that.

Do you think you're still getting smarter?

I wouldn't say I've plateaued, but I'd say that my high point was right before I stepped on to that Jeopardy! stage. I knew a ton. I don't have that crowning game show achievement to look forward to. There could be another one. Every time there's a new game show that's worth a lot of money, I hit the books.

I've learned a lot about paying attention. My capacity is still there. I'm in my mid-30s now, which is the peak for brilliance in a lot of fields. For chess, it used to be the case, and now it's early 20s. As I get closer to 40, I feel like I'm going to lose a beat here and a beat there, but my maturity is there. I'm probably doing other things better. For instance, when I was on Jeopardy! I was frazzled because I put so much emotion into it. I couldn't maintain that Zen focus. If I were on today, I would be a stronger competitor because I've faced more adversity, even though I might ostensibly be less smart now.

Do you read a lot?

I stay up with newspapers, magazines, and online news every day. I generally read non-fiction rather than fiction. Non-fiction is more leisurely for me. I'll pick up a biography or a social psychology book or whatever and read it leisurely. Fiction has to immediately hold my attention. If I can put the fiction down, it's rare that I'll be able to pick it back up. I'll read a fiction book in one day or over the course of two days. I want to find out what happens. It's like I'm tackling something. I don't read fiction for leisure. But non-fiction is part of my life. It's part of my fabric. It's facts. I'm in a rush, but it's the kind of thing that's a lifelong pursuit for information, so I can take my time with it.

Are there times where you are seeking discrete sections of information? Like you realize you know nothing about Russian history, so you go out and learn about it?

Regardless of how big your knowledge base is, everyone has their interests. For instance, mine was geography. At a young age, I loved geography. Flags. Political geography. World capitals. Landmarks. And also things like movies, television, music, and pop culture just come naturally to me. I wasn't good at certain humanities and arts, so I tried to get better. I dated a poet, so I was able to learn more about poetry. For a long time, I dated an artist, so I learned more about art. I've always been more attracted to people who had knowledge that they could teach me, rather than the hard sciences that I was more aware of.

The things that I studied before I went on any game show were finite sets of information. I wanted to learn things that come up from time to time but also that there was a certain limit to them. World capitals. Presidents. Vice presidents. Periodic table of elements. Academy Award winners. Things like that. I could go through a list over and over of dates, years, types, nomenclature, taxonomy. That was very easy for me. I could tackle it and conquer it.

Who's the smartest person you know?

Luke Harmon Vellotti. He is a 14-year-old college freshman/chess grandmaster/math whiz.

What Makes You So Smart? is an ongoing Q&A series.