It's 9:36 a.m. Could be 3 a.m. or 10 p.m. Matters not. Round the clock, the game rolls.

Category: Indiana. Question, worth $800: Writer whose last name is Dreiser. Woofer rings in: Theodore. Host: That is CORRECT!

You can almost hear applause.

At 9:43 a.m., the category is '70s Superhits, and the wagers fly.
Host: A true adventurer. Orville has bet the farm. Question 4 ... Name the artist: Lady Marmalade.
Blades: Lady Marmalade?
Orville: Labelle.
Host: That is CORRECT!

If all this sounds vaguely familiar, forget it. There's a disclaimer, see? Right there on the monitor, in black and white. Or black and green.

"This is not Jeopardy!. (Jeopardy! is a registered trademark of Jeopardy Productions Inc.) Any similarities are purely coincidental, and this game is in no way related to or sponsored by the producers of Jeopardy! the TV show. Amen and Praise the Lard."

Welcome to Risky Business, or in the shorthand of cyberspace #riskybus, a second-generation Internet game conceived by Kenrick Mock, a grad student at the University of California at Davis.

Mock, who's studying artificial intelligence, was perfectly content to stick with his original on-line variation of "Jeopardy!," hosted by a mercurial character he named AlexBot.

But after nearly a year of enlivening the net, Jeopardy! and AlexBot were killed off by the big boys at TriStar-Columbia-Sony, owners of the authentic (and, they want the world to know, the one-and-only) "Jeopardy!"

In September, a week after a story on Mock's look-alike game appeared in The Wall Street Journal, he got a letter. Not the casual, friendly e-mail sort, either.

It was from Columbia-TriStar, Mock says. "They say they value what they've done in their TV show, and they feel the game (Mock's version) is an infringement of their copyright and trademark."

So the big J! and Alex are out, and Risky B and RobBot are in, proving a game by any other name is ... well, you know. And Mock, once a fan of the popular TV game show, no longer watches it.

If you haven't connected since the transition, don't expect a kinder, gentler host. Like his sometimes witty, sometimes mischievous predecessor, RobBot cuts players short with lines like: "I think you're sick. Leave me alone."

An added option with the new guy is the ability of players to steal each other's winnings. Hence the name, RobBot.

Jackie Kelly, a student at the University of South Florida in Tampa, stumbled upon the game in March, while putting in time in the university computer lab.

"I'm addicted," she says, admitting to logging as much as three hours a day in game time.

Beside the intellectual challenge, there's the camaraderie, she notes, sparked in large measure by the chatter slipped in between questions. "It's just a big network of friends," she says.

She and a player nicknamed Normzart, a student at the University of Florida, have progressed to talking by phone.

Alex/Rob sprang from a "pet bot" creation affectionately dubbed AutoMock. "Automatic Mock, automatically me," the 26-year-old creator explains. "He just sort of sat there, and I could give him some kind of command. He was like a pet dog. Eventually, I put in some of the routines to make him say witty things. Then I got the idea for the game show part."

It took Mock about a week to put it all together.

"The time-consuming part was putting in all the questions. I went through books and almanacs."

And came up with an initial 4,000 questions, which he launched onto the cyberspace chat channel.

From the beginning Bzzt!, the show drew on-line players, mostly university types (University of Florida students are among the most active players), vying to ring in __make that type in__ first with the right answers. Unlike the TV version, you score points with answers, not questions.

"After a while, other people began sending me categories," Mock says. "I now have 25,000 questions in the database."

And he adds an additional 10 to 15 categories each week. They range from the expected __heads of state, geography and history__ to the wacky, such as a reverse-order typing contest.

Mock keeps a record of top game winners, and gives away make-believe prizes, such as trips to a cement factory, 5,000 Twix bars and a trip to Amsterdam (you wish). He estimates 200 people a day connect with the game.

"It's all just for fun," says Mock, who receives nothing __not even college credit__ for the hour or so he devotes each day to programming, monitoring and maintaining the pretend quiz show.

He must be ever alert for saboteurs intent on co-opting or deep-sixing RobBot. "He gets killed off, probably once a day," Mock says. "Some people just like to be disruptive. They try to get control of the channel and kick everybody off."

Like the real world, he says, the Internet is populated "with some deviants, but mostly nice people."

Lately, a friend, Michelle Hoyle, has helped Mock monitor and maintain the game. Together, they recently introduced a new challenge called Chaos. Dare we say it's reminiscent of the board game Outburst?

In this one, players, attempting to be first to score 30 points, compete in teams. Typical question: Name the ingredients in Chunky Chips Ahoy Cookies.

For those wanting to locate the games in the cyberspace clutter, try the channels #riskybus or #chaos on Internet Relay Chat, or telnet to 6677.

-0- By Margo Harakas Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel


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