Gregory Kirschling
October 29, 2004 AT 04:00 AM EDT

What country did the Romans call Hibernia? A.J. Jacobs, cheerfully nerdy author of the funny new best-seller The Know-It-All, turns this Trivial Pursuit question over in his head. ”Hibernia?” he muses. ”Caledonia was Scotland, Hibernia was your…Ireland?” Correct. ”You like that?” he trash-talks. ”All right!”

Jacobs must not lose this game of TP, because he will look ridiculous. The Know-It-All is about his experience reading the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica for six hours a day, 10 hours a day on the weekends, for 15 months straight. (”You can’t pull an all-nighter with this thing,” he quips.) All the while, he reported to his day job as a senior editor at Esquire, though he did give up a year’s worth of his beloved reality TV.

A pop-culture savant — and former EW editor — Jacobs embarked on the project, he likes to say, because he knew all about Homer Simpson but nothing about Homer. Yet all the encyclopedias in the world still can’t help him out with Trivial Pursuit sports questions. What’s the closely cut grass that surrounds a golf green?

”The shoulder?” he guesses. No, the apron! ”Oh, the apron! The apron! You’re gonna get me on sports.” He attempts to redeem himself. ”Mary Queen of Scots was charged with playing golf in her own country! The theory is that golf was invented in Scotland, but actually it wasn’t. It was invented…” — he blanks — ”elsewhere. Some people,” he adds sagely, ”believe it was, uh, Belgium.”

Many questions later, however, Jacobs is dominating. He knows the medical term for cancer of the blood, the origin of the word ”Ouija,” and who Corsica’s favorite son was. This question is for the win: How many gold medals did Mark Spitz win at the 1972 Munich Olympics?

”Oh, no!” cries Jacobs, who paid zero attention to Michael Phelps’ Olympic run against Spitz’s record this summer. ”I do know a couple Olympic facts. Get these down. One — in the 1896 Olympics, it was not a triple jump, but a quadruple jump. Two hops! So that’s something. And also, in the Melbourne Olympics of 1956, they had a quarantine on the horses, so they had to do the horse events in Sweden. But everything else was in Melbourne. So how’s that? But s—,” he says, returning to the Spitz question, ”I don’t know!”

Spitz took seven medals. ”I can’t believe it!” But his opponent has not read the entire encyclopedia, and soon Jacobs is barreling toward victory again. What’s the second full moon in a month called? He wants to guess harvest, ”but I think they’re going for blue moon.” They are. ”But I think they’re wrong because a blue moon is caused by lots of dust in the air.” He laughs. ”I am correcting the Trivial Pursuit question,” he booms with mock authority. ”I remember seeing another one they got wrong. They said Thomas Crapper invented the toilet. But that’s an urban legend. It was Sir John Harington — he was a godson of Queen Elizabeth, and a randy poet as well.”

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