I Lost on "Jeopardy!"
I'm a "Jeopardy!" junkie. As a child, I watched the show whenever I was home from school and taped it religiously in later years. In my living room, I answered question after question and thought, "I can do that." I fantasized about someday uttering, "I'll take Potent Potables for $200, Alex."
The chance to realize this dream came in December of 1990. Inserted among the commercials preceding Final Jeopardy was the announcement of a week of tryouts in Atlantic City. After a day of busy signals at the designated number, I got through and made an appointment.
On a blustery Sunday, I took a bus to Resorts hotel, a world of flashing lights, slot machines, and no clocks. Scattered among the gamblers were nervous-looking people clutching almanacs. These were my fellow "Jeopardy!" wanna-bes, and 100 of us converged on a large ballroom to take a written test. Fifty "answers" were flashed on TV screens, with 8 seconds to write each response; luckily, this did not have to be in the form of a question. Topics ranged from Carter's cabinet to "F Troop" to the flag of Sri Lanka. I did not find the test difficult, but apparently others did. Only 11 people passed, and I was the only female.
We survivors moved to a smaller room for the next part of the audition, the practice game. At this point, the contestant coordinators were more interested in how we handled ourselves in a game situation than in our knowledge. While we were not expected to jump up and down and kiss the host, we were urged to have fun. The conditions were primitive - printed question cards instead of TV monitors, schoolbells instead of electronic buzzers. We energetically answered questions on Paul Anka, Burma and state abbreviations. The staff scribbled comments throughout.
Next we told about ourselves, including what we would do with our winnings. Our pictures were taken. In parting, we were informed that we could be called to appear on the show through the following March. If we didn't hear by then, we were welcome to audition again as the test changes every 3 months. I had no idea where I stood.
As time went by with no word, I was losing hope of being summoned to Hollywood Center Studios. One March afternoon, I found a phone message from Glenn of "Jeopardy!". Shaking with excitement, I called back and was asked if I could come out to California in six weeks to appear on the show. I would have come in six minutes!
I prepared as best I could. During my nightly viewing of "Jeopardy!" I simulated a game situation by keeping score and "ringing in" with a click pen. I frantically read various reference materials. I varied between visions of the Tournament of Champions and fears I would have a negative total and not be around for Final Jeopardy.
In mid-April, the day after my birthday, "Jeopardy!" gave me a present in the form of 4 months of extra study time. Some set renovations were going slower than planned, and taping was postponed until August.
Since I was despairing at my ability to learn man's entire body of knowledge in a few weeks, the delay was welcome news. Now I trained in earnest. I read the Dictionary of Cultural Literacy and most of the World Almanac, learned the Presidents, and tried to keep up with the 40 magazines I get monthly. I also went through 8 Trivial Pursuit sets, played the "Jeopardy!" board and computer games and tried Tetris-like video games to bolster my reflexes. None of this helped!
I was still studying on the plane to California. My father flew out from Florida to provide moral support. Arriving early at the studio gate, I was soon joined by 11 men and 1 woman, all carrying garment bags (5 shows are taped each day, and we had to bring changes of clothing in case we won). A staffer took us to a conference room, where we had breakfast and filled out forms. Cards were prepared for host Alex Trebek to use during the on-air chat. Makeup was applied (no Hollywood glamour job, just a slight touch-up of my own effort).
It was now time for rehearsal. Stepping onto the set was perhaps the most exciting moment of the day. This was it! Everything was new and shiny. We played brief practice rounds in order to familiarize ourselves with the equipment. Finally, 3 hours after we arrived, taping began.
By coincidence, the previous day's champion, Seth, had dated my sister years ago. Acquaintances cannot play against each other, so I had to wait until Seth's defeat before facing the cameras. I sat in the audience, forbidden to communicate with anyone but contestant staff and other players. Our guests were seated in another section, out of sight. The staff kept us as relaxed as possible, taking us for walks and bathroom breaks. We were served lunch after the third show.
After Seth lost his fifth contest to a librarian named Rand, I could finally go on. As we wrote our names on the podiums, I had trouble controlling the pen, but there was no time to redo my messy lettering. Returning to the area we were to enter from, I tripped. This was not an auspicious start. After assuring everyone I was uninjured, my taping began. "Now entering the studio..." boomed the announcer. My opponents were Rand and a college teacher named Gary.
The 22 minutes of airtime flew by. Once in front of the cameras, I forgot about the studio audience and the millions who would be watching. The game was all. Ringing in was tricky. Contestants' buzzers are not effective until the question is completed, when red lights go on at the sides of the board. You can press the button early, however, and not incur a penalty. My opponents pumped their signaling buttons up and down, hoping to hit the exact moment the light went on. This didn't work for me. Sometimes I buzzed in with what seemed like lightning speed, yet someone else was called on. However, we all got our fair share of questions.
The game started well. Alex has a soothing, yet very professional manner that keeps contestants at ease. He is also quite good-looking. When I managed to beat my opponents on the buzzer, I answered correctly. By the first commercial break, I was tied for the lead. During intermissions, players turn around in case an answer mistakenly pops into the board. Staff members approach and offer advice and encouragement. "Keep that energy up," they exhorted.
I bantered with Alex about my crossword prowess, and the game resumed. My opponents remained underfoot, buzzing in on categories like Cosmetics, which males aren't supposed to know. I did get a question about Cabot's Vitamin E cream, which I had not heard of until buying it days before. I remained ahead going into Double Jeopardy.
"Come on, Ellen. You can take these guys out!" cheered a contestant coordinator during the commercial. For a while, it seemed like I would. I hit a Daily Double in Literature, bet $1200, and fielded an easy question on Willa Cather. Soon after, I found the other Daily Double, in The 50 States, and bet $1500. Alex commented that I could put my opponents away. "Or myself," I replied, with unfortunate accuracy. "It's the smallest state in area west of the Appalachians." Hawaii immediately came to mind. But I wondered why the Appalachians were picked as the dividing line, decided the state had to be somewhere in that general area, and ended up guessing West Virginia. It was Hawaii.
I never recovered from that error. After knowing that Traverse City was in Michigan, I erroneously picked Pennsylvania as the primary coal-mining state. I tried ringing in on only 10 of the remaining 19 questions and was called on just twice. I might as well have gone home. Categories like Cattle didn't help; I wasn't about to guess how many compartments were in a cow's stomach. Rand and Gary surged ahead and at the end of Double Jeopardy had $6500 and $5000, respectively. I brought up the rear with $4700.
Victory often hinges on getting Final Jeopardy correct. Watching the show at home, I was successful only 51% of the time. During the last commercial interlude, we were given pencil and paper and as much time as needed to determine our wagers. Since I was trailing and could win only if my opponents missed, I bet little enough to still win even if I got it wrong. The staff checked our bets (which we also wrote on cards in case of mechanical failure) and had us enter the first word of the answer (nothing helpful, just "What").
Taping resumed and the question, on Southeast Asia, was revealed: "It's the only country in Southeast Asia with a Christian majority." The lights dimmed and the familiar music began. I had just read that Indonesia had a large Moslem population, so that wasn't it. Then I remembered that the Philippines were westernized and that Corazon Aquino had gone to a Catholic college in the US. Pushing hard on the glass slate with the electronic pen, I quickly wrote in my choice.
Alex went to me first. I was right! With $7001, I was now in the lead. Gary chose South Korea and lost all but $599. I prayed Rand was also wrong, but he chose the Philippines and won the game with $13,000.
We all shook hands, and moved to the rear of the stage to chat with Alex as the credits rolled. Still rattled by my geographical error, which ended up costing me the game, I babbled on about Hawaii and West Virginia. On the tape, I can see myself gesturing wildly, making a map of the US with my hands.
Only the winner gets to keep the cash. I won a trip to a golf and tennis resort (I play neither) near Palm Springs, luggage, food containers, detergent, accessories, hair products and a "Jeopardy!" game. I forfeited the Rice-a-Roni.
Rand went on to win the next game (which included categories I knew inside out), then lost in his fourth try due to a miss in Final Jeopardy. I was hoping he would be an undefeated champion so I could say I was beaten by one.
Even though I would have liked to win, being on television was a memorable experience. People have been tremendously interested in hearing about it, and I have not yet tired of telling my war stories. I notified about 500 people of my appearance, and have heard back from several, including elementary school teachers, long-lost friends and distant relatives. I was even recognized on the street by total strangers!
Now the hoopla is fading and life goes on. I still tape "Jeopardy!" every night, and have added "Wheel of Fortune." "I can do that," I think as I contemplate yet another game-show adventure.
Events that should be enfolding in the next several weeks will make this relevant. More later.