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How I Won $8,000 Stumping (And Pissing Off) ESPN Trivia Guru Howie Schwab

In the 2011 book, “Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN,” Howie Schwab recounts his experience as the reigning in-house opponent for the network’s short-lived game show, “Stump the Schwab.” The show lasted from 2004 to 2006, anointing Schwab, a former ESPN researcher, as the World Wide Leader’s “sports trivia guru.”

Hosted by Stuart Scott, it required three contestants to face off against each other; the winner then got a crack at Schwab, a middle-aged man with a goatee and potbelly.

His was not the job for the humble — and on the continuum of gurus, Schwab proved himself to be far more of a prima donna than a sensei. I came to know this personally after I whipped him twice, as a college student, and won $8,000 for it.

In the ESPN book, Schwab told authors James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales about two particular losses that still nagged at him years later. One came after he failed to correctly answer a rather obscure question about the Maori tribesman. But the real festering wound came, he said, at the hands of a college kid who “really pissed” him off. Schwab thusly recounted:

As soon as the show started he was mouthing off — “I’m gonna beat him” — and I just stared at him. Then, at the end, he beat me on stupidity. I don’t think he psyched me out; I just missed a couple questions. I remember saying to myself, “I can’t believe I’m going to lose to this fucking asshole!”

I’m not positive, but I think I’m the “fucking asshole” — although, as you could imagine, I would quibble with the characterization. But yes, I beat Schwab, beat him bad. And no, he did not take it very well.

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Here’s hoping Howie has grown up a little since then: Starting tonight, he will be reprising his smarty-pants role for a new weekly college student trivia challenge on the ESPNU late-night show, UNITE.

Back in the summer of 2006, I was heading into my senior year at the University of Missouri’s journalism school. Instead of interning at some major metropolitan newspaper, like many of my fellow classmates, I was spending my break as a janitor at Northwestern University, cleaning up after the rich kids in the school’s summer program.

Sometime that June, I heard about “Stump the Schwab” tryouts at the ESPN Zone in downtown Chicago. I headed down and waited in a very full room, and nearly left a few times before my name was called. Contestants were required to take a written and on-screen test, and I found the questions in each to be pretty easy. I didn’t think much of it afterwards — I assumed I was one of hundreds of contestants who had cleared an easy hurdle.

But two weeks later, I got a call from a producer inviting me onto the show. The catch was I had to fly to New York on my own dime. And because of the time I’d need to take off for it, I had to quit my janitor’s job. That was fine by me.

When I got to ESPN’s studio in Manhattan, Schwab wasn’t exactly welcoming. He wasn’t the friendly sports fan you play trivia games with at the bar. He was an acerbic know-it-all, somebody who looked down at his competition — in my case, a college student 20-some years his junior. The two other contestants seemed to get along just swimmingly with Schwab. But I was the one who had his number.

I beat him twice.

And he didn’t like that.

Or me, as it turned out.

He accused me, through a producer, of flipping him off during the pre-show introductions. This was an absurd charge. I was a nervous kid who was trying to loosen himself up by getting the audience going. I remember at one point  “raising the roof,” but never did I give Schwab the one-finger salute.

Then there was the time he snapped at me. That was before our second one-on-one trivia encounter, when I had already locked up a spot in the championship show. I told Stuart Scott that this round felt like an exhibition: I was already going to advance and had already beaten Schwab once; the pressure was off.

“Whhhaaaat?!?!?” Schwab screamed in response. “An exhibition?!?!?”

Anyway, I beat him that second time and was a heavy favorite entering the championship show. But, alas, I flamed out in the first round of the finale, blanking on the name of a National League stolen base champion from the 1980s. Or something.

I expected Schwab to gloat at my elimination. But he was surprisingly gracious in this moment of triumph, shaking my hand as I walked off the stage and telling me how good of a player I was.

“Hmmm,” I thought.  “Maybe it was all just an act.”

I spent the prize money on a car, a laptop, tuition, and beer. I put the experience on my resume and would talk about it when asked.

But then somebody alerted me to the passage in “Those Guys Have All The Fun.” So much for the act.

No, I don’t know for sure if I’m the “fucking asshole” that Schwab can’t get over, but I certainly could be. And part of me hopes I am. Yes, I was a cocky college kid, but only in the fake-it-till-you-make-it way. I don’t remember if I actually came out and said I would beat him, but it sounds like something I at least went in thinking. 

Occasionally, a friend tries to pay me a compliment by comparing me to Schwab, but it makes me cringe. I don’t know why I retain sports trivia easier than anything else, but it’s not something I care to fashion into my identity. I’d also like to think I handle defeat much better. But then, maybe he’s found some solace in the last six years. I guess we’ll all find out soon enough.

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