Steve Bahnaman just might be the smartest guy in America.
Consider that the Campbell University librarian won $110,000 on ABC-TV’s “500 Questions” this past May. That was the best of any of the contestants who appeared on the game show, which billed itself as a seven-night event “where the smartest people in the country” tried to answer as many questions correctly as they could through multiple rounds of 50 questions, winning money along the way. If they missed three questions in a row, they were out of the game.
Bahnaman was the only contestant to clear at least three boards of questions before getting knocked out at question 168. So that makes him the smartest among us. Right?
“No!” he says, laughing.
A genius, at least? “Geniuses,” after all, is what “500 Questions” called its contestants.
“I don’t know,” he says, chuckling. “I guess it’s flattering and fun, and I get to wear ‘the genius’ label for the rest of my life. But it also means that for the rest of my life, people are going to want to find out things I don’t know or make fun of things I don’t know.”
A self-described “hardcore trivia nut,” Bahnaman was recruited for “500 Questions” through websites for trivia hobbyists. He chose to compete on the show because “I wanted to prove myself in a place where everyone can see it.”
Prove himself he did. And though summer break already had begun when “500 Questions” premiered, the Campbell community noticed. Students, faculty and staff attended live-watch parties Wiggins Memorial Library hosted. Many stopped by the library to offer their congratulations in person. And thousands posted their support on social media. It’s no coincidence that #500Questions trended on Twitter in the Research Triangle area only on the nights Bahnaman appeared on the show.
The attention? “Very, very, very flattering,” says Bahnaman, who became a librarian because he likes research and helping others conduct research. “It’s the exact thing you’d want out of a TV appearance. People recognize you at work – the place you care about – but then the rest of the time, you’re able to wander anonymously through life like you always have.”
Bahnaman talked with Campbell Magazine about his appearance on “500 Questions,” how he got interested in trivia, and what’s next for him.
What was it like to watch yourself on TV?
I did the show back in March. At that time, I felt like I did well and I was happy with everything. But it had time to sink in for about two and a half months before it aired on TV. So when I watched it, I was suddenly confronted with, ‘Oh, yeah I lost.’ The things I thought were, ‘How come I didn’t know that? Geez.’ Or ‘Wow. I couldn’t come up with a better guess.’ There is a little bit of regret that settles in because you have had so long to think about it.
Have you gotten over that little bit of regret?
When I got to question 39 or so, I started getting really emotional. It was because I was finally believing that I could do it. It’s one thing when you’re at question 12 and you just have to keep plugging through. But when you reach a certain point, it dawns on you that you might win $40,000 and that would be almost like a vindication for an entire life’s work. It would have felt like a dagger if I lost on the first board. But as soon as I won that first board, the rest was all gravy.
What didn’t we see or hear on TV?
I was on TV for about three and a half hours, but we were in that studio for about 15 hours to film. It’s quite the marathon. There was a lot of talking. Probably about 8 percent of what I said made it on air, and that was every moment when I was actually funny or something memorable happened. I talked about Campbell, but it didn’t make it on the show. I talked about loving my job here. I talked about how Campbell was a small enough college that it might be fun for the students to watch.
And how about that reaction you got from students?
It makes me excited that people cared so much. I think a lot of that had to do with Campbell and people here wanting to root for somebody whom they might have encountered at the library. I hope, ultimately, it made people think, ‘Those librarians sure do know their stuff.’
How did you get interested in trivia?
I was always drawn to books that had a lot of facts in them. In college [at Emory University], I was on the Quiz Bowl team. That’s when I started doing what’s called quizzing. Trivia to most people means going to the bar and answering questions with your friends. Quizzing is more taking written tests, doing crazy trivia games, competing against people from England, and going to conventions. It’s the equivalent of being a crossword nerd; but instead of being a nut for words, you’re nuts for knowledge. The good news is that it helps my work as a librarian.
I get all kinds of questions about all different kinds of things. It turns out that knowing a little bit about a lot of things helps me do my job.
What is your daily trivia routine like?
I wake up every morning and have six trivia questions waiting for me from LearnedLeague.com. Most of them are on the difficult end. With that comes a message board with other recommendations for trivia. On there are people who write for companies that run trivia questions, former “Jeopardy!” champs, ex-quiz bowl champions, and people who just love trivia. We have Facebook groups, too, and play different kinds of games over Google Hangout. We do these hangouts for two hours about four times a week. After the kids go to bed and my wife goes to bed, I stay up trivia-ing.
Why have you stayed with trivia?
Part of it is the social aspect. A huge percentage of my friends are trivia people one way or another. The other part of it is that trivia is an amazing hobby when you have children who are 3 and 1. It’s way better than other hobbies you can have. It’s free, mostly. It’s portable. And it’s routinely interesting.
Do you ever get tired of answering questions?
Are you kidding?! I’ve answered 500 questions in a day a ton of times. I frequently do 14 rounds of 40 questions each, and half of those are three-parters. It’s just the thing I’m most excited about. If you ask someone who loves college basketball, if they ever get tired of basketball, they’ll say no. It’s the same with trivia questions. You just want to do it again.
What’s next for you?
My wife and I are going on an Alaska cruise and will probably go to England for our 10th anniversary. I’ll be at the Trivia Championships of North America in August. I’m also going to be writing more, and I’m playing with the idea of a one-off podcast. But, really, it’s right back to it. I’m still playing trivia, but now for a lot of less money.
Librarian and trivia enthusiast
- Where he studied: Master of Science in Library Science, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Master of Theological Studies, Emory University; Bachelor of Arts in Religion and Political Science, Emory University.
- What he does at Campbell: Manages the library’s electronic resources, serves as liaison for the Divinity School and Department of Religion, and has taught a Campbell University Freshman Seminar (CUFS). Also hosts trivia nights at Wiggins at least once a year. The event this past spring drew around 70 students.
- His claim to fame: A trivia hobbyist who won $110,000 and reached question 168 on ABC-TV’s game show “500 Questions” this past May – the best of any contestant. The question that knocked him out of the game? “Originally built for World War II, what kind of corrugated metal structure was named for the Rhode Island location where it was first manufactured?” The answer: Quonset hut.
- His other game show appearance: Appeared on NPR’s “Ask Me Another” in January when the quiz show broadcasted in Durham. The topic? College sports teams. And yes, he mentions Campbell is home to the only Fighting Camels in the world.