I've had several requests for details about the time I was a Jeopardy! contestant, since I mentioned it in passing the other day. So for the holiday weekend, I thought I'd provide the story. This was all back in 1995-1996, when I lived in New Jersey, and that's actually how I got into the entire business. Coworkers had told me about how the Merv Griffin production people would be administering the test to get on the show down at the Resort International casino in Atlantic City (also owned by the Griffin company), so I drove down to try it out.
The test was only a short one, meant to be done quickly as a screen, and none of the questions seemed particularly hard. I spent the rest of my time in AC working on my card-counting skills at the blackjack table, which was not too lucrative. In fact, under the rules then - and I'm sure they've gotten no better - the same amount of time and effort applied to almost any other activity would surely have provided a greater return. (But at least they couldn't throw you out, as opposed to Las Vegas).
Not too many days later I got the invite to come down for the longer test, which had many more questions, all of which, I think, were from the $1000 category on the show. This was at the same casino, and I knew that morning, on the drive down, that I was in trouble. I'd gotten a late start, it was rainy, and there was more traffic than I'd counted on. I pulled in a few minutes late, bounded up the escalators, and was met by a lady sitting at a long table in front of a closed door. "I'm sorry", she said, "the test has already started".
"But there's another one in a couple of hours", she said, to my surprise and relief, "so we'll just put you down for that". Just then, there was the sound of someone frantically taking the escalator steps two at a time. Into view came a guy who looked even more frantic than I had - shoes untied, shirt half tucked in, hair sticking up on one side. "Don't worry!" I called. "There's another test later!" He caught his breath while taking in this news, and it was then that I noticed that his hands were full of almanacs and trivia books and the like. We walked off together, and he said "Good, good. . .this will give me time to study up some more!"
"I'm pretty much done with it", I told him. I had been brushing up over the last week on things that I didn't have covered so well - opera, Academy Award winners, some sports records and American presidential trivia - but I wasn't lying to him at all. I figured that if I didn't know something by the day of the test, I was unlikely to remember it when I needed to. "No, I've got to read up on things," the guy said, then turned to me and said "For example, what's the capital of Uzbekistan?"
"Tashkent", I told him, with no hesitation. Science, literature, history, and geography were my strong areas. He looked startled. "Oh s$%&!" he said, and sped off for parts unknown, there to clarify his map of Central Asia. After lunch it was time to take the test (much more challenging), and to wait around while the staff graded our sheets. They then called everyone together and read off the names of the people who had passed. Mister Tashkent did not seem to be among them, and I wondered if I'd fatally psyched him out. We did some dry runs of the game at that point, which served (from what I could see) to weed out the people who kept going "Ah. . .ah. . .um. . ." whenever it came time to answer a question.
And that was that, for a few months. They'd told us that we were on the list as possible contestants, and there was no way of knowing when or if we'd be called. But one day I had a message from LA, with the day of a taping, and I flew out for it quite happily. (I should note that the show covered not one penny of expenses, at least for the regular daily contestants). I showed up at the studio nervous but ready to go.
I got to see a couple of shows taped with some of the other crop of contestants before my turn came, and that gave me a chance to see some of the workings. The key to the whole thing was the moment of picking and answering. You had a chance to read the clue off the monitor while Alex Trebek was reading it out loud, and that was the time to figure out if you knew it and to prepare to try to answer it in the form of a flippin' question. You could not press your contestant's button too early, though - as they explained in detail, that locked you out for a delay period if you tried it, which would almost surely leave you without a shot. Timing was crucial. You had to wait for Trebek to stop speaking, wait about a sixteenth note of time, and then hit your button.
With the other two guys in my taping, that generally meant that all of us sat there poised while Trebek read off an answer, and then suddenly clickityclickityclickclick we'd all hit the buttons, so close to simultaneously as seemed to make no difference. There were a few times that I knew I'd reached out and snatched the right to answer a question, but others where I thought I had (but hadn't), along with a couple where I was as surprised as anyone else when my light came on.
It all happened very quickly, and took a lot of concentration and fast thinking. The effort of reading answers and coming with questions, while simultaneously watching the timing, deciding which category to go for, and keeping up with the score of the game was plenty to deal with. I remember two parts of the game very clearly, though. At one point, the taping paused for the commercial break, and some staff members came out to reapply makeup. I needed quite a bit, and Trebek remarked to the guy "You don't spend that much time on my makeup". "You don't sweat this much, Alex" came the response.
The other part I recall clearly was the Daily Double, which I was actively prospecting for whenever I had control of the board in the second round. I'd lost out on a few questions, and needed it to get back in the game. To my happiness, it came up in Geography, and I bet most of what I could. Up came the answer: "Lake Nasser sits on the border of these two African countries". My brain immediately pictured a map, while I played for time. Nasser could only mean Egypt, but I was having trouble figuring out the second country. "What are Egypt and. . . ." I started, while thinking to myself that it couldn't be Libya, that was a total desert out there. . .and the other side of the country, that was a coastline, the Red Sea. Trebek was looking at me, eyebrows raising a bit in anticipation, as if to say "You're not going to blow this one, are you?", as I finished with ". . .Sudan!". He gave a quick smile, and we were off again.
By the end of the game, I was in second place by $200 or so, a close race. The final Jeopardy category was English Literature, which gave me great happiness. The clue was "Mellors is the gamekeeper in this novel", and I immediately wrote "Lady Chatterly's Lover" on the scraggly, time-delayed screen. My only hope was that the guy ahead of me didn't get it, but alas, we all did. I lost, $13,300 to $13,100. The sensation was exactly that of coming off a carnival ride; the first thing I wanted was to go around again.
What valuable prizes did I win? Furniture, which I decided later to decline. I believe that a lot of it gets turned down like this, and probably for similar reasons to mine. I didn't care for the style, and had no place to put it. I could have perhaps sold it to someone, but this was pre-Craigslist, and in the meantime I was going to be paying tax on the full retail value, both to the IRS and to the state of California (a state tax form had been included in my going-away packet). A couple of weeks after I got back home, a package showed up with some boxes of Miracle-Gro, various flavors of cough drops, and other "Some contestants may also receive. . ." items (but alas, no Rice-a-Roni, which my family never ate while I was growing up, and which I always associated solely with game shows).
So that was my Jeopardy! experience. I enjoyed it tremendously, and I told people when I got back that I would have liked to be a contestant on the show for a living. A diet of Miracle-Gro and cough drops might have eventually impaired my button-pressing response times, though.