I got the call on my birthday. My “Jeopardy!” episode would tape in November, less than six weeks from a day that was already shaping up to be a memorable one. It was 2014 and I would be turning 28, the age baseball scouts describe as a young man’s “athletic prime”. Here’s hoping I wasn’t peaking too early.
The mid-October weather patterns in Santa Cruz, CA can best be described as incorrigible. This day in particular is sunny and bright, but an unyielding barrage of wind forces me into the shell of a covered bus bench to take the producer’s phone call. I’d be lying if I told you I remember a single word of that conversation, but I’ll assume in my politeness I said “Thank you”. Wind gusting and fists pumping, I finish the walk to work. There I’ll clock in and manage a busy swing shift, only to clock out five hours later and host trivia at the very same establishment. My dream had just come true.
Quick caveat: All of this is from memories of events that happened nearly six years ago. I speak in this article with great confidence, as someone who has told the same stories over and over tends to do. But just know that there are things I’m certain to misremember, ironic considering memory is how I got here in the first place.
Leading up to that phone call was a series of felicitous but ultimately random events that led me to the chilly blue studio in Culver City. In the fall of 2013, an ex-girlfriend was invited to become a “local alternate”. Since Jeopardy culls contestants from across the country, it isn’t always easy for these folks to appear in Southern California on short notice. Family emergencies, cancelled planes, you get the idea. So to get around this, the production team tabs a series of LA-based trivia geeks to fill out their pool of players. That way if someone needs to re-schedule, they have someone just a 3-hour, 15-mile drive away. The best part about being an alternate is that you don’t know when you’ll appear, but you are guaranteed to eventually be on the show. Tip #1 for Getting on Jeopardy: Live in or near Los Angeles.
The rest is history for my former paramour, who decimated her opponents in the first game before falling to some bad luck as the “Returning Champion”. Upon exiting the premises, she is given an email address to refer future Jeopardy players. Who would know better who could handle the rigors of answering questions from Alex Trebek in two pounds of HD make-up better than someone whose clothes are still caked with that chalky pink substance which resembles nothing else on this planet? After years of taking the Online Test, this is my “in”. I will never be able to thank her enough.
Even with a referral, the Online Test looms. Fifty questions, rapid-fire and open-ended. Jeopardy doesn’t mess with multiple choice, and is better off for it. I take the test and continually check my inbox over the course of several months. Finally, achingly, I’m invited to audition. Tip #2 for Getting on Jeopardy: Know another contestant.
The first trip to LA I take alone. A short flight from SJC to LAX and headed to a friend’s house to crash. At 28, it was still socially acceptable and economically imperative to sleep on a couch the night before a life-changing audition. The first thing you learn at *insert hotel chain I can’t recall* is that it’s not an audition, but a series of auditions. First, Jimmy from the Clue Crew — an energetic five-foot-five man who looks just strapping in his business casual attire ironed neatly below his TV smile — takes your picture and sits down with you for an interview. I’d like to say I impressed Jimmy off the jump, but you’d have to ask him. Next is a “written” test, where producers cycle through 50 questions on a projector while the (mostly bespectacled) prospective players follow along on an answer sheet. I answer a question incorrectly about Macklemore, which even in that moment I was proud to do.
Part Three of the audition is my time to shine: The Simulated Game. From the tone and excitement levels of the production team, I knew this was the “can you hack it” part of the process. Theres are several boxes to check on their list of requirements beyond “do you know things?”. Theres “how will they look on TV”?, “Can they hold up to pressure?”, “Will the signaling device be their downfall?”, and even “do they understand how to play the game?” That last one haunts me. Not because I did poorly in this section. I did great. I mastered the buzzer, was able to plow through a few categories, and brandished my wit to keep the producers from hating their jobs. It was this one woman that keeps me scratching at my eyeballs to think of her. It was clear she was brilliant. She was addressed with her formal title of “Dr. ___”, which put my BA in European History from UC Santa Cruz to shame (Thomas Todd, Bachelor of Arts sounds okay I guess). Stanford, if I had to guess her alma mater. The doctor answered every single question posed to the group that day correctly, and without blinking. We had a killer in the room. But there was one problem — she could not grasp the flow of the game. In the simulated contest — buzzer in hand — every correct answer you give should be immediately followed by calling for a new category and dollar amount. Half a dozen chances, and she doesn’t do it once. My heart breaks for the work of this staggering genius. To my knowledge, she has never appeared on the show. Tip #3 for Getting on Jeopardy: Be someone you’d want to see on TV.
Now we’re back to the toppling winds of October in Santa Cruz. I get the call I knew was coming. No one in that nameless, corporate hotel had the charisma I did. I made them pick me.
The second trip to Southern California I’ve got back-up. My family drives down, ready to sit in the studio audience and cheer me on. My full-time friend, part-time trivia nemesis Andrew agrees to travel down with me. He wears many hats, among them his role as the greatest trivia player I’ll ever know. He’s six-foot-eight, or five-foot-twenty if you ask him. I’m not sure if I’ve played more trivia nights on his team, or hosted more of mine that he attended. Math is hard. Either way we’ve got a night to spend in another nameless hotel, at a discounted rate thanks to Sony Pictures Studios. We decide beer and whiskey are the only recipe for getting to bed in anticipation of a 5:45 AM call time, and walk nearly two miles to the liquor store to make our purchases. The next morning, I am likely the only contestant nursing a hangover. Tip #4: You’re not David Wells.
A van ride to the studio with your 12ish cohorts is next, where one’s hometown is regarded as the only acceptable topic of discussion. The studio itself is imposing from the outside. Single-story buildings but they’re tall, like movie theaters or auditoriums. The Wheel of Fortune studio is not ten steps from its neighbor Jeopardy, and each only has one unassuming door that carves out a small fragment of the large edifice.
We’re shepherded inside by our friends the producers and taken to a side room with mismatched furniture and little else. There’s a tray of snacks but they all seem to have been left there by accident, like someone intended to take home leftovers from an event but forgot. One of my fellow contestants finds a mini-fridge, exclaiming in his charming Tennessee drawl, “You know they got Capri-Suns in here”. A fine feast this is not. There’s not much to chew on for the next 150 minutes, which is spent going over the rules and regulations of the game to ensure that there is no misunderstanding about the buzzer or the concept of “wagering”. We’re told there will be five episodes taping that day, with lunch served after Episode 3. At this point I want to win, but the promise of a free lunch is extra motivation to do well or at least not to be chosen. I beg they don’t pick me right away, but it’s time to draw names and there it is: I’m to go against Ramona Bartos and the Returning Champion Vaughn Winchell.
So I’m up first. The tone-setter. We all get a few rounds of practice behind the actual lecterns, and a male producer reads practice questions from the board. We’re informed of the process for ringing in — an intern lifts their finger when the host stops talking, lighting up a series of bulbs around the game board. Then and only then can contestants ring in. Any earlier and you’re locked out for a 1/4 second. No time at all, but crucial in a game where milliseconds matter. We do another rotation or two on the lecterns, and it’s time to play. Striving to be that person they saw in the audition, I’m cracking jokes at the expense of the production staff. They eat it up. I want them on my side, rooting for me. I think they are, but they could also just be really good at their jobs.
I’m assigned to the middle spot, Ramona on my left and Returning Champion Vaughn on my right. Each of their platforms are raised slightly so our heads more or less align on television. We write our names with the stylus, I choose my own handwriting for the font. We are introduced in order of importance: Ramona and myself (“A restaurant manager from Santa Cruz, CA”), Vaughn, and then Alex. There’s an important reason no one has seen Mr. Trebek all day, and it’s not because he’s a celebrity and we’re not. Alex not only has advanced knowledge of the questions but assists in their curation. There can be no interaction between contestants and anyone with any knowledge of what will be asked. To answer a common question I get: no, there are no study materials and no, you don’t know the categories in advance. You just go up there as you, a person who is hoping to have read the right books and watched the right programs on television.
Trebek’s entrance is grand and unsettling. I wasn’t ready for it and it’s all happening too fast. He greets the audience like a pro, settles in, and starts announcing the categories. Vaughn goes first in selecting, but I buzz in first. The question has something to do with Frodo Baggins, but for the life of me my brain is seared shut — cut off from oxygen, thoughts, or even the ability to make sounds. Oh no. I lose $200 and give my friends a hilarious screenshot to show me for the next several decades. Fortunately, I snap myself out of it. The first round — Single Jeopardy — is good to me, and I close it with a lead. I very nearly ran a category called “Razzie Movies”, but forgot that Al Pacino was in Gigli. Forgive me.
During the commercial break before Double Jeopardy (Razzie movie?), I decide to punk Vaughn a little. I lean over and say the following, “Vaughn, I don’t know if you know this about me but Cash Rules Everything Around Me, dolla dolla bills y’all.” Now Vaughn is upwards of 50, so I’m not thinking he’s getting my Wu-Tang Clan reference which suits my needs perfectly. He’s more confused than anything and I’ll take it. But I misjudged. Ramona was the sleeping giant. The best player out of the three of us, she simply hadn’t figured out the buzzer until the second round. Then she was No. 1 with a bullet. We all traded blows not unlike a wrestling Royal Rumble, jumping up and around the scoreboard with our dollar totals. When the dust cleared, I’d answered a few questions wrong and hit zero of the three Daily Doubles. I was behind, but not cripplingly so.
It’s not a great glorious math problem trying to figure out what to wager for Final Jeopardy. Category aside (Book Dedications, what?), there’s only a few scenarios you need to prepare for when deciding your wager. If you’re in the lead, you’ll need enough money that the players trailing you can’t catch you if they double their money. If you’re in second, shoot for the moon and try to double up. If you’re in third, there’s an extra scenario to consider. Since your opponents are likely trying to double each other out of the building, you leave open the possibility of the “Triple Stumper”. There’s no reason to bet every dollar, when you can wager less and pray for a question that no one knows the answer to. So I make my modest $4800 wager, enough to put me above the leaders if I get it right and they wager $0, but not enough that if we’re all wrong I won’t be the winner. I’m finally explaining this in print because my basketball buddies seem convinced that if I’d doubled up I would have won. This is incorrect.
When the question is asked, I am hopeful. I know it right away, and I can feel a tense binder of nerves stuffed into a suit to my right in Vaughn. He isn’t sure. But after a few seconds pass, I sense a relaxation radiating from his person. That’s it. I’ve lost. My answer (or question, really) is revealed first, I’m correct. But so is Vaughn. Now it’s up to Ramona. A correct answer and she’s the new champion. But no. She’s wrong. Vaughn wins again. The next five minutes occurs in about 30 seconds, very much the opposite of the end of an NBA game. We briefly chat with Trebek where he informs us he tweaked the Final Jeopardy question to make it just a tad easier. This is not good news for our friendship. If only he could have stumped Vaughn, I’d be sticking around and maybe getting that free lunch. And tens of thousands of American dollars.
Flash forward another thirty minutes that occur in 45 seconds and I’m sitting in a California Pizza Kitchen (go figure) in Culver City surrounded by my friend and my family. I’m embarrassed but am told there’s no reason to be, that I did well. But it’s hard to being an intensely competitive person, where losing stings more than winning salves. Over the years, the stings have subsided. A little. Friends still recall one or all of the four questions I missed, resurfacing a wound that’s never fully healed. I achieved by dream, and then was sent home thirty minutes later with the promise of a $2,000 check and my copy of an NDA. Now what? Tip #5: Have more than one dream.
5 Pieces of Trivia You Should Absolutely Know:
-Cambodia’s Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world, covering 402 acres
-Since 2008 Anheuser-Busch and its Budweiser products have been sold by the beverage conglomerate AB InBev, run out of Belgium
-The highest US state capital in elevation: Santa Fe, New Mexico (Elev. 7,199)
-The Star-Spangled Banner takes its lyrics from a poem called “Defence of Fort M’Henry”
-Taco Bell, KFC, and Pizza Hut are all owned by Yum! Brands
5 Things I Learned This Week:
-The extraordinary life and work of Mary MacLeod-Bethune
-Added “stroll down the Avenue of the Baobabs” to my Bucket List
-There are only three women in the National Sports Media Association’s Hall of Fame (Sally Jenkins, Lesley Visser, Linda Cohn)
-There was a Woodstock ‘79 and it was (gasp) indoors
-Lucille Ball gave birth the same night her character Lucy Ricardo did: January 19th, 1953