Emigres compete, make friends in Russian-language trivia fests

Last Saturday night, the sleepy, rainy Richmond District of San Francisco turned into a battleground.

When the sun went down, 36 young emigres from the former Soviet Union met for a fierce rumble. Their weapons? Architecture, Russian poetry, 14th-century France, physics, Chinese horticulture and American history.

These students put on their mental gloves and stepped into the "Brain Ring," a facsimile of a popular television game show in the former Soviet Union. In the Bay Area version last weekend, half-a-dozen six-person teams from Stanford University, Hebrew Academy (where the game was played) and San Francisco State University went head to head in the contest, which was conducted in Russian.

Here's how it worked: Boris Vladimirsky, assistant emigre coordinator at the Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto, played host, posing 15 questions to the six teams, which had one minute to confer on an answer.

At the end of a minute, each team captain delivered an answer in writing to Vladimirsky, who tallied up the results, alerted the audience to the score, and threw in dozens of one-liners and Stalin jokes to the delight of nearly 100 audience members. Spectators also had a chance to test their skills with less complicated questions:

Who was the first U.S. president to be born in a hospital? (Jimmy Carter).

What animal has the highest blood pressure? (giraffe).

What was Tchaikovsky's middle name? (Ilich).

Vladimirsky, who has been hosting monthly matches of "Brain Ring," or "Chto, Gde, Kogda," (Russian for Who? What? Where?) at the ALSJCC for a year now, said, "It's a fun game where people can show off their knowledge. It's for intellectuals — like `Jeopardy,' but on a team basis."

At ALSJCC, crowds have grown to more than 100 people a month, with about 10 teams and 40 spectators. That's why Hebrew Academy, the Northern California Hillel Council and the ALSJCC decided to co-sponsor a San Francisco version.

Vladimirsky says the game is not only an excellent way to challenge the intellect, but a way to help young emigres form community here. An Internet World Wide Web site keeps local players in touch with those across the country, at universities such as Columbia and Harvard.

"It's an excellent opportunity for people to meet each other. We always have parties after. It's their social life," he says.

Rabbi Pinchas Lipner, dean of Hebrew Academy, said he is glad the live game show provides a social and intellectual setting for so many emigre graduates of the high school when they get to college.

"I was excited. This is a follow-up for them when they leave here," Lipner said.

Before last week's contest, Hebrew Academy student Irene Linetskaya said the game gave her a chance to test her mettle against more advanced students.

"I want to see where this game puts me with college students," said Linetskaya, who will be starting college next fall.

Breaking from a pre-game huddle, Linetskaya's friend and team mate Julia Reykhel described the "Brain Ring" as "very difficult. It's exciting though, it really tests you."

For a group of high-schoolers pitted against college students, the young team held their own. While they only answered two questions correctly — tying with the SFSU team — even that is impressive considering the level of the query; even the winning teams, both from Stanford, walked away victorious after answering only seven of 15 questions correctly.

When was the last time "Jeopardy," or any American game show, quizzed contestants about a theater of anatomy built in Italy in 1544, or the subtleties of Edgar Allan Poe's essays? "Brain Ring" not only requires esoteric knowledge about historic figures, from Leo Tolstoy to Albert Einstein, but also forces contestants to answer questions usually phrased as riddles.

In one question, emcee Vladimirsky quoted a scientist as saying that American labs were so clean, if the scientist worked in America, he would not have been successful. The host asked the six teams, who was that scientist?

It was Alexander Fleming, of course, the man who serendipitously discovered penicillin growing in his petri dish.