DATE: MONDAY    December 26, 1994
 SOURCE:  Yardena Arar

             Smart Alex-y RobBot engages netters in Risky Business

Somewhere in cyberspace, there's a free trip to Davis and an Acura automobile waiting for me. I won them fair and square in a ''Jeopardy!''-like Internet game show that anyone can play any time of day or night.

The name of the game is Risky Business, and just to make things perfectly clear, it's in no way related to the TV show hosted by Alex Trebek. An announcement at the beginning of each game - and there's a new one about every 15 or 20 minutes - says so: ''This is not 'Jeopardy!' . . . Any similarities are purely coincidental.''

Now, it's true that the game, created by University of California, Davis, grad student Kenrick Mock, was once called Jeopardy! and moderated by a ''bot'' - a program that functions as a sort of on-line robot - known as AlexBot. It also rewards correct answers with $400-$800, penalizes incorrect ones similarly, and concludes with a final round in which players secretly wager their winnings on a question they answer in private.

But ever since the legal eagles representing Sony Pictures Entertainment, which owns ''Jeopardy!'' threatened legal action shortly after the game was written up in the Wall Street Journal, it's been Risky Business. The moderator is now called RobBot, and there are other differences, too.

For one thing, players must answer questions - in ''Jeopardy!'' they supply the right questions. For another, in two special random ''Desperate Danger'' questions directed to the last player who answered questions directly, you can either bet your own winnings or try to steal somebody else's.

And then there are the categories, some of them obviously geared to the internet's large community of students and academics. When was the last time you saw questions about Discrete Mathematics or Industrial Music on TV?

Other offbeat categories include Famous Bobs, Mach's Room (identify common household items found in the game author's lodging) and Typing Test (type ''supercali-fragilisticexpialidocious'' with every third letter deleted - accurately).

The game, which is found on an Internet Relay Chat channel called #riskybus (you can also reach it by telnetting to 667 or 7766), can be played by as many people as join the channel. You can participate as soon as you join or just chat with the other players; RobBot only registers those answers that are prefaced by his nickname, Rob.

In regular rounds of the game, there's no time limit for submitting answers; the game simply will wait for a question to be answered correctly, or for at least one player to type ''rob we give up'' before revealing the correct response.

Players are also known by nicknames that can be changed in midstream; these range from monograms to colorful handles - for example, alamo, wallaby, Najanaja, Shasha, WhtKnight or ganz (a player who beat me roundly quite a few times).

At any given time you may find yourself competing against players from across town or overseas - recently I've bumped into students from Turkey, Canada and Australia.

''It's sort of addictive,'' said Jeremiah Rothschild, a 15-year-old high school student from Kokomo, Ind., who said he plays at least a few hours a day every day, under the handle iP.

''You can be sort of stupid on it, but you can also learn stuff,'' Rothschild added. ''It's neat that it's on line.''

The regulars goad each other on when they're not answering questions. When someone gets a Desperate Danger question, it's not uncommon for the others to raise the chant, ''Farm! Farm! Farm!'' to urge that player to bet all his money - i.e., bet the farm.

Mock, using the handle Mach, drops by frequently to police the proceedings, which occasionally are disrupted by hackers who flood the channel with gibberish or disconnect other players. On the other hand, regulars have helped by contributing to his database of questions and answers, which now exceeds 25,000 entries.

An annoying and uncontrollable aspect of Risky Business, for those who take their trivia games seriously, is the occasional incident of serious net lag, a delay in transmission which can cause even the most quickly typed answer to take precious extra seconds to register with the game.

But don't complain to RobBot - or Rob, as he is familiarly known. He's been programmed to respond to such grousing with remarks like ''Net lag or brain lag?'' In fact, Rob has a repertory of smart alecky - if not necessarily responsive - comebacks to any remark that include his name (''Are you just babbling?'' ''I saw a girl put a nail through her tongue.''). Of course, remarks that begin with his name are treated as answers to questions and can cost hundreds of dollars in wrong answers.

If Risky Business isn't your cup of tea, there are other options. Chaos (on IRC channel chaos) is reminiscent of the board game Outburst; you join one of two teams and type in as many answers as quickly as you can that satisfy a category dictated by the ChaosBot - for example, ice cream flavors or geographic localities that begin and end with the letter A.

Boggle, on IRC channel boggle, is an on-line version of the popular word game; the BogBot creates a four-by-four grid of letters and keeps score as you type in words created using touching letters. It's a bit complicated to play because you have to split the screen to keep a copy of the grid visible while you are typing in answers; instructions are in a help file that can be obtained when you join the channel by typing /help.

MEMO: Techno-Babble welcomes reader input on consumer electronics and new technology. Yardena Arar can be reached via e-mail at or by writing: Techno-Babble, L.A. Life, P.O. Box 4200, Woodland Hills, Calif. 91365-4200.


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