The last time I was in Boston, I was chatting with our VP of Product, Will, about games and sports and things, and he mentioned that he watches a lot of Jeopardy, and he can impress his in-laws by calling a lot of the answers. But, he said, knowing the answers on Jeopardy is less impressive than it initially seems due to something called "the Michael Jordan effect" – in other words, the answer in any given category is often as well-known or "mainstream" as Michael Jordan is to basketball. In other other words, you don't need a lot of deep knowledge to be good at Jeopardy; you just need shallow knowledge in a lot of areas. The Michael Jordan of architecture is Frank Lloyd Wright, the Michael Jordans of Russian literature are Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, etc.
I knew exactly what he was talking about because years ago, my brother and I discovered "the Wilt Chamberlain" effect in Trivial Pursuit. At least for whatever edition we had at the time, the answer to any basketball question, something like 4 out of 5 times, was Wilt Chamberlain. So whether or not you "knew" the answer, it was always a safe guess. Similarly, Winston Churchill was always the answer to British history questions. In general, the more Trivial Pursuit you play, the easier it becomes to guess correctly, partially due to the Michael Jordan effect, and partially because the questions often contain little clues as to what kind of answer they'd be looking for. The thing is, Trivial Pursuit writers are mad about irony. For example, when a question seems to suggest a high number based on assumption, the real answer is almost always 0 or 1. And if you get a question like "What is the 17th windiest city in America?" you don't have to know the top 20 windiest cities in order; you only have to know that Chicago is known as the Windy City, so ha ha that it's not even in the top 10.
Scrabble and crossword puzzles are the same way; there's a perception that you have to be really "smart" to do well at these games, but they're actually specialized skills. Someone who plays Scrabble all the time is going to do better than a very smart person with a good vocabulary who has never played before, because really short basic words often lead to higher-scoring turns, if you know how to play them. With crosswords, the same words tend to pop up over and over again, and as in Trivial Pursuit, the clues have their own conventions.
What other games/skills are prone to the Michael Jordan effect?
In unrelated news, I'm always shocked by which women men do and don't find attractive. There's a woman in Denver who I think of as quite obviously one of the most attractive in our larger social circle. Last night John said he's never even noticed her, that she's "pretty" but fades into the background. In this case, I guess I can see that she's the kind of woman who would be more attractive to other women than men, because she's very small and wears good clothes. But it seems like every time I mention a woman that I find attractive, some man in the room will comment that she's nothing special. In fact, I can remember another time recently that I remarked on another woman in Denver, who again I find obviously beautiful, and two men in the room said something to the effect of "She's the kind of woman only other women find beautiful." But I can't figure out if there's really so little overlap in what I find attractive in women and what men find attractive in women, or if it's just that men have impossible standards – at least when it comes to the abstract question of who is quote-unquote attractive, as opposed to who they might end up sleeping with.