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I lost on ‘Jeopardy!’

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BANGOR – I lost on “Jeopardy!”

On Oct. 30, a Tuesday, the episode – my episode - finally hit the airwaves. After over two months of vague answers to the questions asked by friends, acquaintances and strangers alike, I can finally say it: I lost. Despite playing what I considered to be a pretty strong game, in the end, it didn’t work out for me.

And it’s OK. Obviously, I would have loved to be a champion, but the truth is that the experience itself is what really wound up mattering.

My “Jeopardy!” history

I’ve wanted to be a contestant on “Jeopardy!” since I was eight years old. Watching these people stand up there and answer questions, some of which I knew the answers to – I was hooked and hooked early. It was a TV tradition in my house growing up – we watched “Jeopardy!”

Full disclosure: I was (and still am to an extent) an insufferable person with whom to watch “Jeopardy!” As a particularly quick reader, I spent a long time as the guy who would answer the question aloud before anyone else could read/hear the question. I recall recognizing that it was infuriating, yet never choosing to modify my behavior in any way – my mother and sister can verify that for you.

Throughout my childhood and teenage years, “Jeopardy!” remained with me. I remember bemoaning the fact that trying out for something like the Teen Tournament was a logistical impossibility at that time and generally feeling like I could take care of business in such a forum. But I watched and kept watching.

When I first went away to school, I became fast friends with the sort of college students that thought gathering to watch “Jeopardy!” was a good time. And so the love affair continued. And it only blossomed all the more (albeit tinged with a hint of jealousy) when my dear friend Andrea was selected to play in the College Tournament our junior year. She and I and a number of others all lived together and when the day arrived, we gathered in the house we shared and watched.

She lost, missing out on advancing to the semifinals by a few hundred dollars. At the time, I couldn’t understand why she didn’t seem more heartbroken, more devastated. I get it now.

The “Jeopardy!” dream was always alive after college. Whenever the show was on, I would tell anyone who was listening that if I could only get in front of the producers, I would make it onto the show. It was always my belief that if the door was opened – even a crack – I would walk through.

And so, when the online test became prevalent, I started taking it. At every opportunity, I sat down and took a swing. Once a year, I would sweat my way through the rapid-fire questions and hope for the best. I always felt like I did well, but there’s no way of really knowing.

Until you know.

My “Jeopardy!” audition

I got the email at the beginning of April. I made the cut! I was invited to audition for a spot on “Jeopardy!” My audition was scheduled to take place in New York City in just three weeks’ time.

Obviously, I was thrilled. I had never made it to this point – now was the time for me to see if my long-held faith that if I made it into the room I’d be on the show was well-founded. I sent along my biographical information and my various anecdotal cues and all the rest – it was happening.

On the morning of April 23rd, I – along with around two dozen other hopefuls – made my way into a hotel conference room on 43rd Street. We were asked to fill out some paperwork and get our pictures taken before being escorted into another room where the audition would take place.

After some introductory info from the folks administering the audition, we were immediately thrust back into test-taking mode. We were given another timed test, similar to the online exam that got us there. After what seemed like far too little time, our papers were collected and taken away for immediate grading, leaving us prospective contestants to our own devices. We nervously chattered and compared answers, feeling validated when others agreed and kicking ourselves when we blew an easy one.

After that, it was time to play the game.

Three at a time, we were given marks on which to stand and buzzers with which to … buzz. The game board was projected onto the same screen that showed our earlier test questions. We chose categories, we buzzed in, we answered – trying to give them what they were looking for. All the while, the producers were advising us with gameplay ideas and buzzer tips; it was obvious that they were genuinely invested in seeing us do well.

After a few minutes of play, they’d fire up the camera and work through the information we had provided them. They asked us about ourselves, about what we might do with any winnings and about our stories – all while the camera was rolling, so they could get a sense of what we might look like and how we might behave on camera.

We went through the entire room over the course of almost three hours. At the end, they thanked us and cheered us for the effort that we had made. As we filed out, each of us was handed some branded earbuds and some variation on the sentiment of “Thank you for coming; if we want you on the show, you’ll hear from us sometime in the next year-and-a-half.” And so, resigned to waiting as long as 18 months to hear from them, I headed home.

Only it was a lot fewer than 18.

My “Jeopardy!” experience

It was July 19 when my phone rang. The caller ID said Culver City, California … and I knew.

It was “Jeopardy!” contestant coordinator Lauri Janover on the other end of the line, informing me that they had liked what they had seen of me and that they would like to invite me to be a contestant on the show. She had been present at my audition and said she had enjoyed my energy; to be remembered out of hundreds upon hundreds of applicants felt gratifying (and even supposing she didn’t REALLY remember me, well … it was still a nice thing to say).

The biggest advice I received was to start watching the show with a pen in my hand, something I could use to practice the timing inherent to buzzing in. And so I did, spending the next few weeks watching the show and clicking away.

I was scheduled for filming on August 22 – a Wednesday - in Los Angeles; “Jeopardy!” films Tuesdays and Wednesdays every other week, doing five episodes each day. Due to other commitments, it was going to be a whirlwind of a trip – fly out Tuesday afternoon, return by noon on Thursday – but it would all be worth it, because I was going to be on “Jeopardy!” The dream was coming true.

The shuttle picked me up at just after 7 that morning. My bag and body were laden with the three shirts, two ties, suit jacket and sweater that I was prepared to mix and match in case I needed different looks for different episodes. And just like that, I was whisked away to the Sony lot.

I was one of a dozen or so on the shuttle. We said tentative hellos to one another, trying not to overtly size one another up (with varying degrees of success) as we rode to the studio.

We disembarked and were ushered into the green room. We spent the next few hours there, filling out paperwork and learning more about the mechanics of the show. We got stories about past champions and quiz show history. We all took turns in the makeup chair being made “HD ready” as one of the makeup artists told us – I was powdered and trimmed and the whole nine yards.

We were ushered into the studio so that we could have an opportunity to practice on the actual stage. And I’m grateful that we had that chance, because it was a little overwhelming. To have spent so much time watching this show, to have wanted to be a part of it for so long, and to finally arrive … it was pretty incredible.

The video board featuring the questions loomed. The lights were bright, but never harsh. We got to work with the buzzers, answering practice questions delivered to us by Clue Crew member Jimmy McGuire; it was a chance to experience it all happening firsthand. We finally got to see the lights that would serve as our visual cue to ring in. And timing would be key - buzz too early and you’re locked out. Not for long, but long enough to give someone else a shot.

We were walked through other elements as well. Our microphones were checked. We were shown how to use the light pens, where to sign our name and what the protocol was for Final Jeopardy. We got to see the hydraulic boxes behind each podium, used to ensure that the heads of all three contestants were on the same level to ensure smoother filming. Our spirits were lifted – both literally and figuratively. After that, it was back to the green room to wait.

It’s at this point that I want to note something that I found truly delightful about the “Jeopardy!” experience: the crew. This is a group of people that have been working together for 10, 15, 25 years; they are all incredibly competent. But more than that – they’re genuinely NICE. Like, every single person working on that set just brimmed with positivity. They all seemed to really like one another, with laughter and jokes flying every which way during the rehearsal session. I can’t speak for everyone, but I know that for me, that positive energy went a long way toward allowing me to be relaxed and comfortable.

And then – go time.

We were brought into the studio after the spectators were seated. Yeah – all your fellow contestants are there in the studio watching. We were told to sit together on the far side and to refrain from any attempt at communication with anyone we might know in the audience; there’s a strong commitment to maintaining the integrity and fairness of the process in everything that they do. They don’t want anything that could even be perceived as impropriety. That commitment is a large part of why the show is still going strong in its 35th year.

From there, the waiting game commences. New contestants are randomly selected from the group for each episode. The champion obviously carries over, with two challengers pulled from the pool. Then lots are drawn to determine which new player gets which podium, the middle or the end.

I was not selected for the first game, so I sat in the audience and watched. The reigning champion – a lawyer from Chicago named Tori – continued her success, eking out the win. But as the clock ticked down, I got the nod – I would be playing in the second episode being filmed. We drew our lots for position – I wound up at the middle podium – and headed back to the green room to wait.

Before I knew it, there I was, writing my name in laser pen. The reigning champion was on one side, a music professor from Pennsylvania was on the other. The audience was there, the cameras were on, hydraulic boxes were adjusted (I was the tall one, so I was flush with the floor) – the moment was fast approaching.

Then – the music. That iconic “Jeopardy!” theme played, the audience applauded and … there he was. Alex Trebek, the man himself, appearing as if by magic from behind the big video board. The categories flashed across the board and we were off to the races.

I’d be lying if I told you that I have a clear memory of what happened next. There are definitely gaps where I had clearly diverted all available brainpower from making memories to recalling them. I remember getting off to a fairly impressive start, getting into a flow as far as buzzer timing was concerned. My number at the first commercial break was a big one – I had jumped out to a significant lead. I hit the Daily Double in the first round. I was in a good place during that break.

And they do take those breaks during the filming. Sometimes, audio needs to be re-recorded when a word was mispronounced. Alex heads to the front of the stage and takes questions from the audience, giving them all lovely little glimpses of himself and this job that he still seems to love. Meanwhile, the producers are speaking to the contestants, offering guidance and pep talks. For instance, I was told that I needed to relax a little and make sure to have fun – for instance, I apparently came off as a bit intense to start, though I have no memory of it.

We did our individual anecdotes - mine was about the “Downtown with Rich Kimball” rap battle that I won a few years back thanks to the high praise of my flow by celebrity guest judge Coolio (he mused that I was “in the pocket” and that’s still amazing to me). I also have a vague memory of making some stupid remark at the end that can’t possibly come off as dorky and awkward as it felt at the time, although it turns out that they edited that out, much to my relief.

My lead waned after the break – I missed a couple of questions and lost my stride. It was mostly overthinking on my part, where my first instinct was correct, but I managed to talk myself into something else. Edward R. Murrow instead of Walter Cronkite, Johannesburg instead of Cape Town – that kind of deal. 

It was in Double Jeopardy that I really hit my stride, however. There were a couple of categories – one involving not winning Oscars, another featuring visual representations of dramatic works – that were right in my wheelhouse. I started to roll – I even landed on another Daily Double and answered correctly for a nice score bump (although much to my later regret, I did not make it a True Daily Double). I even got a question right thanks to an unrelated knowledge of Looney Tunes – my not-quite-sure tone in delivering “What is hassenpfeffer?” elicited a chuckle from the audience. I thanked Bugs before making my next selection.

Obviously, you don’t need me to go through question by question (although I totally will if you want me to.)

Suffice it to say, at the end of Double Jeopardy, I was in the lead, sporting a score of $17,700. My next closest competitor – the champ – was at $14,200. Third place sat at an even $10,000. Going into Final Jeopardy, the category was “Today’s Innovators.”

I did the math and made my wager during the break – I needed to wind up with no less than $28,400 to ensure my win. This meant a bet of at least $10,701. Being a bit of a romantic fool, I went with three sevens (my wife and I got married on July 7, so seven is a big number for me) and wagered $10,777. We came back from the final break; with no further ado, the clue was revealed and the music started.

And I didn’t know the answer.

It wasn’t something that I could have studied for. It wasn’t the kind of factoid that would have been interesting enough for me to file away. There was zero familiarity and no way to reason out an answer. I simply did not know. So I jotted down an answer that I knew to be wrong after scribbling out the beginning of a different answer that I ALSO knew to be wrong and waited for the inevitable.

The third-place contestant knew the answer (it was James Dyson – the vacuum guy – if you’re interested) and wagered just enough to get her to $17,701. The returning champion didn’t know, guessing Elon Musk (the answer I started and scribbled out). I wound up going with Richard Branson, an embarrassingly wrong answer, but what can you do? The wagering left me with a total of $6,923 – good for third place.

The closing music played. Alex came over and shook our hands, stopping to have a brief conversation with the new champion about her specialty – 18th century Russian opera – as the final fade-out came. And that was that. My “Jeopardy!” journey was over. I returned to the audience to watch the filming of the next episode – I stuck around more due to shock than anything else. And then, at the lunch break between the third and fourth episodes, I left the premises.

I went to the green room and gathered my things and left to go track down my loved ones in the audience – my wife Sheridan and my friend Nick – before we headed to the beach. We got on a plane that same night and red-eyed home. And just like that … it was done.


So yeah – I lost.

I wish I had won, of course. I would have loved to be a “Jeopardy!” champion, though I do think of myself as a sort of “regular season” champion – I was leading going into Final Jeopardy, after all.

And I got to share the experience with a whole lot of friends and loved ones, thanks to Abe and Heather Furth, who offered up their beautiful new Orono Brewing Company space to host a viewing party. It was remarkable – a room packed with people living and dying with every question right alongside me. Every time I answered correctly, the crowd roared. They cheered for me and (good-naturedly) booed my opponents. It was a beautiful outpouring of support – one for which I will be eternally grateful.

Consider me akin to the 2001 Seattle Mariners, a team that won a record 116 games during the season before bowing out in the ALCS. Or like a PhD candidate who has nothing left to do but a dissertation; instead of “all but dissertation” or “ABD,” I’m “all but Final Jeopardy” – “ABFJ.” Yes, I know it’s foolish, but it’s a gentle way to remind myself that even though I lost, I played a hell of a game.

At the very least, it feels good to finally be able to talk about it. I’m not built for secret-keeping and this was a big one to hold onto for two months-plus. I’ve come close to giving it up a few times, but for the most part, I’ve kept things close to the vest. A lot of people thought that I had won – maybe more than once. That’s not how it played out. I just hope that at the end of the day, I did my friends, my family and my community proud.

Tens of thousands of people take the online test for “Jeopardy!” every year. Thousands are invited to in-person auditions. And yet, there are a mere 400 slots available for a given season of the show. I have to remind myself that simply getting there in the first place is a fairly remarkable feat – an accomplishment in which I can absolutely take pride.

Yes, I lost on “Jeopardy!” – but I still feel like a winner.

Last modified on Tuesday, 30 October 2018 23:47


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