I Lost On Jeopardy, Baby

Well, this is it – my Jeopardy Journal. Before I get started with the details of my whirlwind day in Los Angeles, I need to answer a few of the most common questions I’ve gotten since I got back:

How did you get on the show?
The audition process starts with the 50-question online exam, which usually happens in the spring. If you do well enough on that, they invite you to an actual audition; mine was at a hotel in New York in June. At the audition, you take another 50-question test, then play a shortened version of the game to see how well you’d show on TV. (It’s still casting for a TV show, even though you need to really prove how much you know also.) Once you get through that, you’re “on the list” for eighteen months; they called me relatively quickly, for example, but one of the other guys who was there on the same day as me had been on the list for sixteen months before he was called.

When did you tape?
Jeopardy tapes every two weeks, on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. They tape five shows – a full week – each day. If you win the last show on Wednesday, you have to maintain your silence and go back in two weeks to continue your run. (If you read Ken Jennings’ Brainiac, he says that was one of the hardest parts of his run – having to explain to people why he vanished for a few days every other week without telling them why.) Contestants are asked to bring a few changes of clothes with them to the studio; if you win your game, you have about fifteen minutes or so to breathe, change, fix your makeup, and get back out there for another game, which looks like it’s the next “day” when it airs. I taped my show in mid-October.

How did you get out of a week of recruitment travel?
Our Associate Dean of Admissions, Rob Pertusati, is wonderful. I told him I was going, and he told me that as long as I could find someone to cover my programs, I could go. Of course, it had to happen during some of the biggest events of the year: the CSCA Conference and the Wilton/Ridgefield and Greenwich High School college fairs… so I owe huge thanks to Sharon Brennan and Lisa Piquette from our office for covering for me while I was out in California.

What’s Alex like?
Honestly, I have no idea. The first time we saw him was the first time you see him – when he walks out on stage through his magic doors. You know how he hangs out and chats with the contestants after the show while the credits roll? As soon as the cameras cut, he’s gone.

Alex does, however, hang out during commercial breaks (the show is taped in “real time”), and he takes questions from the audience. That’s actually pretty neat. No earth-shattering revelations, but it was nice to see a slightly less formal side of Alex. Also – he seems so flawless on the final production, but he actually does flub a clue now and then. Sometimes during a commercial break they’ll have him re-record some audio on a clue.

Did they fly you out there and put you up in a nice hotel?
Ha! No. However, they’re guaranteeing you $1,000 – the third place prize – if you appear on the show. (Second place is $2,000, and the winner keeps his or her cash.) So in a worst case scenario, that $1,000 covers my cross-country flight and two nights in the Culver City Marriott, which is not a top hotel, but gets the job done. The show does provide a shuttle from the hotel to the studio on the morning of taping, which is nice.

How do they decide what to talk about during the chat segment?
The contestant wranglers ask you to submit at least five interesting stories. They pick what they think are the three most interesting, and put them on an index card for Alex. They highlight one, but Alex can go any direction during taping.

Do you know what categories are going to be on there? Do they tell you what to study?
Not at all. You have no idea. They have a compliance company hired by Sony who comes in every morning, takes the six games’ worth of questions they have prepared, shuffles them, and chooses five to be played, in order. That’s how it goes. It’s entirely the luck of the draw.

As far as what to study, you basically have to know everything about everything, ever, because anything can come up. You really have to get lucky on the clues, which you’ll see later. I spent six weeks compiling a spiral notebook of everything I could find; pages on presidents, world leaders, art, music, opera, sports, explorers… everything. I studied what I called my Big Book of Knowledge for the first half of my recruiting season, nights and weekends, and the whole plane ride out to LA; you just never know what’s going to come up.

So how does everything work?
Well, here you go! I woke up the morning of taping early (I was still on East Coast time) and ready to go. My dad and stepmother flew out for the taping, as did my sister Lauren. (My wife Emily was stuck home with the kids, unfortunately.) I had planned on going with the red shirt – gotta show that Stony Brook pride – but Lauren convinced me to go with the blue shirt first because it looked better. I put my good luck charms in my pocket – a Mets pin with a logo my late Uncle Tony designed and my Ken Jennings autographed baseball card – and headed down to catch the shuttle.

Down in the lobby, I was a little early, and saw a woman sitting at the next table also holding a garment bag and looking nervous, so I introduced myself; she turned out to be Sheryl Silverstein, who had driven up from San Diego for the taping. A few others shuffled in over the next fifteen minutes, until there were eight of us waiting for the bus:

• Kimberly, the returning champ who was already $22,200 richer
• Dave, an Air Force colonel and the base commander from Nellis AFB in Las Vegas
• Emily, who lives in Astoria and works for a charity in NYC
• Ryan, a rental manager from Myrtle Beach
• Sheryl, an attorney from San Diego
• Sidarth, a quiet, intense law student from DC
• Denise, from New Jersey, whose name I keep forgetting
• and me, Chris, your friendly Stony Brook University admissions guy

The best part so far: Kimberly couldn’t have been nicer. Everything I read about how incredibly friendly everyone is around the show is completely true. It’s imposing to meet a Jeopardy champion, especially one you might have to play against for money later that day. But Kimberly was great, giving us some tips on what to expect over the course of the day and really building a nice social atmosphere.

Once we got to the studio, we met the rest of that day’s contestants:
• Kathleen, a lawyer from Long Beach
• Todd, who had been the alternate on the previous day’s taping
• Alonzo, a film critic from LA, who served as the alternate
• Shawna, a political science PhD student

Once we got through security, we took another shuttle back to the studio, which is in the center of the Sony lot, right next to the Wheel of Fortune studio. When we walked in the side door into the green room, I got just the tiniest glint of the giant bright blue curtain that drapes the back of the set; it was so enticing.

They sat everyone down in the green room to go over all the details. We re-signed our contracts, went over our personal information and chat topics, and got through the first round of makeup. Then Robert and Maggie, the contestant wranglers, went through the day, step by step. They covered every tiny detail of the game and the production, sharing funny stories from past shows. Once everyone was ready, Glenn, one of the other wranglers, brought the group out on to the stage for the first time. Everybody got a chance to practice on the buzzer, and to practice using the light pen (to write your name at the beginning and Final Jeopardy at the end). Once everyone got a chance to play around a bit, they started with a group of three and ran through a live game. They swapped contestants out as everyone gets comfortable, but everyone got a chance to really practice in a live game setting.

A few observations about the stage:
• It’s both way bigger AND way smaller than you think. The aforementioned shiny blue drape is enormous; it must be more than thirty feet tall. And the new TV screen that they added this season between Alex’s podium and the contestant podiums – where the Final Jeopardy category shows up first – is huge too; I didn’t even realize they made TVs that big.
• The game board is larger than life. The individual screens need to be big enough to read clearly across the stage, so they’re pretty big; stack thirty of them in a big grid, and it’s big. Very, very big. I’m guessing it’s twelve or fifteen feet tall.
• Across from the contestant podiums, to the left of the board and very high in the air, are the score panels so we can see what you can see at home. You’ll see contestants glance up there from time to time, especially during breaks and at wagering times, like during Daily Doubles. They tell us to ignore them, but it’s tough to do. (As I watched my show, especially as it got late, I glanced up there a lot as I realized time was running out.)
• There is one other large-screen television to the left of the game board that you can’t see on TV. That’s where all of the video clues come up. Again, you can catch contestants look that direction, mostly when Video Daily Doubles are being read.
• The stage floor is shiny black tile. You want it to be marble or something, but it’s not.
• The judges/producers table faces the stage, right in front of the audience. (You can sometimes see it on the wide stage shots.) That’s where all the behind the scenes action happens, including the guy who presses the button at the end of each clue that activates the buzzers. (I’m not going to go into detail about the buzzers, because Michael Dupee covers it pretty well here: http://www.pisspoor.com/buzzer.html)
• The white lines on the floor aren’t just design elements; they actually mark steps or ledges. They’re lit very brightly on stage so you don’t fall.

As taping time got closer, they announced the first two players – Shawna and Ryan drew the first match against defending champ Kimberly. It was also announced that this would be the Tuesday show, December 1. (Usually they tape Monday through Friday, but adding their monthly celebrity games this season have messed up their regular schedule.) They brought the whole group back to the green room while the three players got ready. Once the live audience was seated – we were instructed very clearly NOT to attempt communication with our family members in the audience – we were ushered back into the audience, Kimberly, Ryan, and Shawna went on stage, and the first taping began. (I took them pretty seriously with the warning. My family was right behind me and across an aisle during most of the taping, and I had no idea they were there until I got on stage and finally looked out to find them.)

The first order of business before each show is the taping of the “Hometown Howdies,” which appear on the Jeopardy Web site and get farmed out to the local affiliates of each contestant so they can advertise their local presence during the week. (Apparently, I was on at least twice on the morning of my show.)

Once those are done, it’s GAME ON. The lights go up, the music starts, and Johnny Gilbert starts his familiar “This! Is! Jeopardy!” tag line.

The first round was simple enough, with chess-related category titles. But when the first category in Double Jeopardy was revealed to be T.S. ELIOT, I was glad that they didn’t pick me to play first. Early in the DJ round, Ryan “promised his friends” that he’d try a true daily double and missed an obvious Jeopardy staple… if it’s a female painter, odds are good that it’s Georgia O’Keefe. He worked his way back into the game, though.

It looked like a runaway for Kimberly midway through Double Jeopardy, but Shawna and Ryan kept chipping away, and a tough Daily Double miss by Kimberly followed by an easy follow-up by Shawna brought them within a few thousand dollars heading into the final. When the category – POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY – came up, you could almost sense Shawna, the Political Science PhD student, jump out of her skin. The answer was about “Principles of Political Right,” a French treatise from 1762. I couldn’t get Tocqueville’s Democracy in America out of my head, even though I knew that was wrong. That was Ryan’s guess, though, which dropped him down to a shell-shocked $1.

The correct answer was Rousseau’s Social Contract, which Shawna got – doubling her score – and Kimberly didn’t, which gave Shawna the first game of the day and $19,600.

(Interesting FJ Fact: You know how it looks like Alex is standing right next to the board when the Final Jeopardy clue is revealed? He’s not; he’s standing right in the middle of the stage, but the camera angle makes it look like he’s right up next to the board. I thought that was weird. Also odd – while the contestants are writing and the “think music” is playing, Alex just kinda wanders around the stage seemingly aimlessly. It’s funny, the things you don’t see on TV.)

Dave and Kathleen got the call in game two. I don’t know if I was quite ready yet, so I was happy to watch this one too. When the categories came up for single Jeopardy – including ACTRESSES’ ROLES and “W”ORLD HISTORY, I was definitely glad to be sitting this one out.

Kathleen came out strong, ringing in early and often – along with Colonel Dave – and had the lead at the first break. After the break, they traded questions and were separated by just $600 at the halfway mark, with the defending champ a distant third. DJ featured categories on sports and Tootsie Rolls, among other things. (The first clue, which asked for the principal ingredient on the label of a Tootsie Roll, got the response “What is paper?” from Dave, which got a chuckle from Alonzo and me, sitting in the audience. The correct answer, which somehow nobody got, is sugar.)

A couple of military questions (a 1918 Tootsie roll ad, a clue about ICBMs), an easy Daily Double about New Coke, and a run through the sports category got Dave off quickly, though, and rolled through the DJ round with a lead he wouldn’t relinquish. Kathleen got a big Daily Double midway through the round, bringing her within $200 of Dave, but he held tough, taking $20,000 and a $3,400 lead into Final Jeopardy.

The category, PHRASE ORIGINS, was pretty wide open. The clue, “Used in 1947’s ‘U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey,’ this 2-word term became widely used again in NYC on 9/11/01,” seemed pretty easy, especially to any of us who lived in the New York area. Shawna, from Rockville Centre, wrote “What is air defense?” ending her reign. Kathleen and Dave, the military man, both successfully answered “What is Ground Zero?”… and thanks to a waaaaay-too-risky bet-it-all wager, walked out with $39,999.

By this point, I was ready and itching to get in there. I thought Dave was a loose cannon who got lucky with a couple of military questions and risky wagers, and figured he wasn’t going to get lucky twice; I also thought I was due to get some favorable categories.

But it was not meant to be. “Todd and Emily! You’re up next!” At this point, I knew I was going to make it through lunch, which meant I was going to get another round of practice on the buzzer and the board. So I was actually encouraged; this was still a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I was happy to stretch it out as long as I could. (Besides, I also secretly wanted to win the last game of the day so I had to come back in two weeks for the next round of taping.)

So we sat down for Round 3, and I watched as some easy categories came up: “DOUBLE-LETTER WORDS,” “ALSO A U.S. STATE,” “COMMON LAST NAMES,” and “WOODSTOCK.” Double Jeopardy? “MATH” and “LETTER, PLEASE,” among others. Dammit! This was my game! No matter – all three contestants played tough games, with Todd taking a small lead into Final Jeopardy, “SHAKESPEARE’S WOMEN.”

The running joke at our house is that my answer to any Shakespeare question is “King Lear,” so before the question even came up, I had Goneril, Cordelia, and Regan in my head. (Ophelia hung in there too, just in case.) The final answer, “The name of this royal daughter from a tragedy is from a word meaning ‘little king.’” I knew it was Regan immediately, which made me 2 for 3 on FJs on the day. Dave got it right and, incredibly, bet just enough to win… IF Todd bet nothing and if Emily got it wrong… which Todd and Emily both did, respectively.

So going into lunch, Dave had more than $60,000 to his name, and there were four of us left to play: me, Sidarth, and the two women I really wanted to face, Sheryl and Denise. I figured as long as I didn’t get Sidarth, I was set, because I figured Dave’s luck was about to run out, and as long as I got one of the women, both of whom seemed to struggle with the buzzer during practice, I’d be okay as long as the categories were favorable.

On the way back from lunch, Dave and Robert (one of the wranglers) and I had a nice discussion about Dave’s THREE graduate degrees, which made me think that maybe it wasn’t juuuuust luck that played a factor in Dave’s two big wins. When we got back, they called me and Sheryl in to play. Finally, it was Go Time!

They brought us out, filmed our Hometown Howdies, and then that music started, and I could feel my heartbeat jump into my throat. Finally, this was very, very real. We applauded Dave, and applauded Alex as he came out and joked with Dave. (Not encouraging that Dave was already that comfortable on stage.)

So here were the first-round categories, as they came up, with my immediate thoughts on each one:

ART & ARTISTS – Dammit.
AMERICANA – Oh, Dammit.
MY SPACE – Don’t know what they’re going for here.
“FACE” BOOK – At least I get one “quotes” category. Good.

Sheryl jumped in with the first correct question in “FACE,” then went over to ART. Dave got that, then he and Sheryl took the entire rest of the “FACE” category without me getting in on the buzzer once… including Dave getting yet another military question (“What is about face?”) I looked up at the scoreboards to see Dave with $3,000, Sheryl with $400, and me yet to even get a buzz in – and started to panic, considering I didn’t like any of the categories left.

I woke up a bit, getting the next one (“What is a comet?” revealed that the MY SPACE category was about outer space, which I figured was good for me). We went back to ART again, revealing an answer about Frida Kahlo’s husband. I tried valiantly to picture the “art” page in my Big Book of Knowledge, where I wrote Frida and her husband right next to each other with a big bracket between them, hoping that I would remember them if it would come up… but the name Diego Rivera escaped me. (It didn’t escape Sheryl, who I realized at this point that I had severely underestimated.)

As we got to the first break, I was back alive, getting one more question (“What is a reebok?” for $400) and leaving me in a distant second place. I chatted with Alex about my Mets autographed baseball card collection, name-dropped my kids (which was awesome), and we moved on to the rest of the round.

Picked up “Puma” for $600 in SHOE BRANDS, and “Ultraviolet” for $800 in SPACE, and I was solidly in second place ($2600-$2000-$1000) with AMERICANA and the confusing MOVIE NAME DROPPERS left. Dave was quicker on the buzzer in Americana, though, getting yet another military question (“What is Memorial Day?”) and shutting me out heading into the movies category, which featured answers like “A FISH CALLED ____” (“What is Wanda?”) The $800 answer was “_____ GETTING MARRIED.” I thought “Rachel’s,” which is what I answered, and Alex marked it correct and moved on. I ended the round in second place:

DAVE $4400
CHRIS $2600
SHERYL $2400

However, it was not meant to be. My little “apostrophe-S” cost me that $800 AND another $800 for getting it wrong, which the producers told me during the commercial break. When we came back, Alex took the money away, leaving me in last place with $1200 and allowing me to choose first.

The Double Jeopardy categories, again with my thoughts:

PRIME NUMBER, PLEASE – Okay, we’re good here.
NONFICTION – Noooooooooooo.
“LING” O – Good, another “quotes” category.

It was too tempting – and I said so – so I went right into POLKA for the first clue, which nearly caused my dad to have a seizure in the audience. (“What is he doing? He doesn’t know anything about polka!!”) The clue asked for the first four words to the Beer Barrel Polka. Dave buzzed in incorrectly with “What is barrel?” and Sheryl followed up with “What is ‘roll out the barrels’?” which Alex marked correct, so Sheryl chose POLKA for $800. Just as the clue came up – and this is the part you don’t see on TV – the director jumped onto stage and cut, because Sheryl had a little case of Chris Disease and added an S.

Because the next clue was temporarily revealed, they had to reset the board, so they asked the three of us to turn around while they fixed everything. Unfortunately for me, because they had already inadvertently revealed the correct answer (“What is ‘roll out the barrel’?”), I was not allowed a shot at it; they turned us around, rolled tape, and Alex buzzed Sheryl as incorrect and buzzed out the clue so I didn’t get a chance.

(If you still have the show on DVD, check it; it doesn’t look like there should be any reason why I don’t get a chance to answer.)

My other highlight was also in the polka category. The answer asked which of 2/4, 3/4, or 4/4 was the genre’s time signature; Dave guessed 4/4, Sheryl guessed 3/4, and then with a jubilant “Yes!” I correctly answered 2/4.

Dave, however, kicked it into overdrive in Double Jeopardy. A Nevada question (“Harry Reid”), a gun question (“rifling”)… it seemed like everything came up Belote, and he ran away early and made it stick, taking a runaway lead into Final Jeopardy:

DAVE $25,600
CHRIS $6,000
SHERYL $6,400

The category came up: THE 13TH CENTURY. Dave was uncatchable, unless he did something silly. My only hope was second place and the extra $1,000 bump that comes with it, but in order for that to happen, I needed Sheryl’s help. I figured she was likely to bet just enough to guarantee herself second place if she was right, which meant if I bet nothing, I was safe; I was already guaranteed third-place money, so there was no point in risking any money. I had to hope Sheryl was wrong.

They tell you whether or not FJ is going to be a “Who?” or a “What?”, which is actually very helpful. They don’t want anyone to forget to phrase it in the form of a question, so you write “what is” or “who is” at the same time you write your wager. So I knew going in that it was a “Who” – which meant my mind went immediately to Genghis Khan. I thought I was set! I mean, who the heck else was there in the 13th century, right?

So the question comes up – asking for an explorer – and I knew immediately ol’ Genghis wasn’t the answer. Problem was, I spent the first eight or ten seconds panicking that it wasn’t ol’ Genghis, and so I didn’t have a whole lot of time to come up with the answer. I knew Vasco da Gama was wrong, but he was the earliest explorer I could think of. As soon as Sheryl’s correct question – “Who is Marco Polo?” came up, I kicked myself, because I should have known that.

(I went back to my Big Book of Knowledge and checked out the “Explorers” page, to see if, in fact, I should have known Marco Polo. When I looked, though, it turns out I left him out of my list, because I was confident that his exploration was so distinctive, both in time frame and location, that I’d know it immediately. Dammit.)

The turning point, really, was my “S” on “Rachel Getting Married.” (I apologize to the lovely Anne Hathaway for not knowing the correct title of her movie, and I promise to make it up to her in person someday.) If I don’t put that S there, then Sheryl goes first in Double Jeopardy and the whole game unfolds probably very differently, because maybe she doesn’t start with the polka category.

Ultimately, success on “Jeopardy!” comes down to three things: first, getting lucky on the categories and the questions, which I didn’t; second, getting the timing right on the buzzer, which I didn’t – you can see me get frustrated midway through the DJ round when I got outbuzzed on six or seven clues in a row that I definitely knew; and third, not facing an Air Force colonel whose entire career depended on pressing the button on a fighter jet in life-or-death situations when seemingly all the clues have something to do with the military, airplanes, or Nevada. Which I very much did.

Congratulations to Dave Belote – he’s an extraordinary competitor who was a pleasure to face, and I’m glad to say we’ve stayed in touch since the taping. I wish him all the success in the world as he goes forward in his Jeopardy! career, and I’m going to root like hell for him when he gets the call for the Tournament of Champions at the end of the season.

(And I look forward to the day when they call me for the Tournament of Nice Players Who Lost to the Colonel Dave Belote Juggernaut.)


on “I Lost On Jeopardy, Baby
8 Comments on “I Lost On Jeopardy, Baby
  1. Did the producers say anything about the leader going into final jeopardy betting enough to avoid a tie? I've always thought that it would be better to have a tie because then more than one person would walk away with money.

  2. Hi Chris, thanks for "underestimating" me! You're right, it was ALL ABOUT THE BUZZER! Congratulations to Dave, he deserved the win, and I hope he won many more after our game. In retrospect, I should have spent less time reviewing stuff like U.S. presidents, and more time playing the Wii with my kids. But, I still couldn't compete with the trigger finger of a Colonel pilot, way to go Dave! At some point, I decided to randomly guess, if I managed to buzz in at all, as long as I stayed in the positive. And "shoe brands" stumped me as my brain had jumped to designers, and by the time I figured it out, it was too late to beat you two. By the way, I have two graduate degrees too: Ph.D. and J.D. Too bad I didn't have a science or law category, though. It was great meeting you, and I wish you all the best with your family. Thank you for writing such a detailed and great description of the day!

  3. No, they didn't say anything about avoiding ties. You're on your own when it comes to betting, but they do allow you to use scratch paper if you need time to figure out the math.

    Sheryl — Hey, I just called it like I saw it; and you're right, I was definitely wrong about you! (I think I forgot you were an attorney at the time… we had a couple of attorneys there that day.) You and Dave were both tough cookies, and I finished third for a reason. 🙂

    (It really is fun to watch Dave, though. We knew he won Monday's night's show — that was the last one they taped the day we were there — but the rest is uncharted territory. Go Dave Go!)

  4. Hey Chris, I hope Dave goes all the way this week, he's amazing! And, by the way, for days afterward, I kept singing that Weird Al song! It was great meeting you!

  5. Chris – great blog… shared it with my friends at work and my family. I think potential contestants need to figure out how to win the buzz-in battle – seems like that's the only thing that really separated Colonel Dave from you and Sheryl.

  6. We have a famous fighter pilot saying: "I'd rather be lucky than good"–and Chris is right; by the time we competed, I was comfortable with the buzzer, and the categories suited me to a tee (except for Marco Polo, who cost me about $8,000). My friends have accused me of living "Slumdog Millionaire," saying "Dude! You knew that because the military stationed you there!" At least I didn't get beaten by thugs after winning, and I made the friendship of phenomenal folks like Chris and Sheryl. Go to the Jeopardy! website and read my blog if you're interested in someone whose luck held when it counted–and then take the online test!

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