In a Category By Himself

Without question, Andrew Maly of Bel Air has a lot on his mind. 'Jeopardy!' was the obvious answer. Now, he's a champ.

February 11, 1999

Andrew Maly has this gift.

He can tell you that in 1846, the settlers in California staged the Bear Flag Revolt. He can name the capitals of Sri Lanka and Cyprus. He can tell you that Leon Spinks beat Muhammad Ali in 1978 to win the heavyweight title in one of the biggest upsets in boxing history.

Perhaps even more impressive: He can listen to a three-second snippet of a cartoon voice and tell you, with absolute certainty, that it belongs to Woody Woodpecker.

"I'm blessed," says Maly, 34, an environmental engineer from Bel Air, "with the ability to retain useless knowledge. And the ability to recall it immediately."

Now put yourself in his place.

You have all this stuff floating around in your head like wind-blown seeds from a dandelion, all this minutiae about wars, presidents, world history, pop culture and so on.

But outside of dazzling your friends in Trivial Pursuit and taking your wife for a few bucks in Scrabble or whatever, where can you use it?

Andrew Maly found a use for it.

He decided to play "Jeopardy!" and make some money. And he did so well on the popular quiz show that if you turn on the TV at 7 tonight (WMAR Channel 2), you'll see Maly, an intense, pleasant-looking man, appearing in the show's "$100,000 Tournament of Champions."

The saga began last fall, when he flew out to the "Jeopardy!" studios in Culver City, Calif., swept five shows in a row and won $44,100 in cash, plus a 1999, fully loaded Chevy Tahoe.

He was Hurricane Andrew, blowing through the competition to the point where other competitors watching in the studio audience could feel the sweat leaking from their foreheads as they muttered: "I don't want to play this guy."

Even veteran host Alex Trebek seemed impressed. If you watch the tapes of those shows, the dapper Trebek looks alternately amused and delighted when Maly goes on one of his Sherman-through-Atlanta runs in categories such as Classic Catch-phrases. (Answer: "Good night, John-boy." Maly: "What is `The Waltons'?")

The performance earned Maly a chance to compete, starting tonight, for the show's Grand Prize: a hundred grand in cold cash.

But 14 others are also entered in the Tournament of Champions, and this is the elite of the "Jeopardy!" world, the creme de la creme of the general knowledge set, 10 men and four women with alert eyes and confident demeanors and vast, shiny foreheads that fairly radiate with intelligence.

The collective brain wattage is so high that tournament officials probably shouldn't allow them all in the Green Room at the same time, for fear the place could catch fire.

But there's no doubt that Maly, a specialist in spill planning and spill response at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Edgewater, belongs in such heady company.

In fact, the more you get to know him, the more it seems his destiny.

"Jeopardy!" is the most popular TV quiz show in this country.

It was created by Merv Griffin in 1964 and emceed by the avuncular Art Fleming until 1975. In 1984, "Jeopardy!" returned to the air in syndication, the urbane Trebek took over as host and its popularity took off, earning it 19 Daytime Emmy Awards.

Now, some 34 million viewers tune in daily. For years, one of those viewers has been Andy Maly. In fact, during his senior year at the University of Missouri-Rolla, Maly and a fraternity brother devised an elaborate hoax that centered on the show.

In Rolla back then, "Jeopardy!" came on at 3 and 3: 30 in the afternoon on two different stations. Maly and his frat brother, both of whom lived in an apartment, knew about both shows; the brothers who lived in the frat house thought the show aired only at 3: 30.

So Maly and his pal would watch the 3 o'clock show at their apartment, then, armed with the correct answers, they'd rush over to the frat house for the 3: 30 show.

There, surrounded by their brothers, they'd casually rattle off the answers, as jaws dropped all over the room and the brothers reacted as if Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking were in their midst.

"We never let on as to what the trick was," Maly says now, laughing.

But even without cheating, Maly was a gifted "Jeopardy!" player.

He tended to absorb great chunks of information on a vast variety of subjects, even the most arcane. He has an excellent memory, although not a classic photographic one, and doesn't know his IQ, although he doesn't think it's extraordinarily high.

He just knows stuff.

"If you ask my wife, I did not study for my professional engineering exam," Maly says with a soft smile, sitting in the dining room of their two-story colonial.

"Not in the true sense of the meaning of `study,' no," explains Mary Ellen Maly, also an engineer. "He's the kind of person I probably would have hated in college. Because he might have gone to all the classes, but he probably didn't do any of the reading until the night before the test, if at all."

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