A FIRE Staffer on His ‘Jeopardy!’ Near-Glory

By April 3, 2009

When the powers at FIRE offered me the chance to blog about my recent appearance on Jeopardy! for The Torch, I was immediately warm to the idea. I relished the chance to cut myself loose from the singular voice and sense of purpose that drives our blog’s content and let my inner Bill Bryson out, if only for a few hundred words. I so relished the idea, in fact, that my first stab at this reflection ran upwards of twice this length; if The Atlantic won’t have it, my mother will at least put it on her refrigerator. More importantly, though, writing on the experience offered the opportunity to find a bit of peace with my losing on the show, a fate both heartbreaking and ultimately insignificant.

I arrived in Los Angeles for the taping with a very certain set of fears well-known to any contestant-to-be. I constantly worried that I would never get the timing of the buzzer right and be continually beaten by the other contestants. I didn’t want to find myself so far behind at the end that I could do no better than play for second place or worse—the quintessential Jeopardy! nightmare—that I would play so recklessly and incompetently that I would have to watch Final Jeopardy from the wings. As a theater degree holder, I fretted at the possibility of being caught like a deer in the headlights on a Final Jeopardy question on Musical Theater (in which I am rather weak; naming the musical from the given song is an especially dreaded category) or Plays and Playwrights (one of my reliable strengths, which can be an even heavier crown under pressure).

Aside from the set, lights, studio audience, buzzers, and the fact that all of a sudden you’re playing for real money, there is a human factor to the experience that cannot be predicted or discounted. When I’m home on the couch with the clicker, I’m quite content finding petty and arbitrary reasons to root against a contestant, be it their general demeanor or perceived "smugness" or their hairstyle or choice of sweater or neckwear.

But sitting in the green room with the other contestants, making small talk, getting to know a bit of their life stories, had the effect of severely blurring, if not altogether erasing, those easily drawn battle lines. Within a few minutes of conversation I learned that my fellow contestant Meg, who is from New Jersey, went to college in Virginia, works as a senate aide in D.C., and like me paid her way out to California in the hopes that a victory would pay back the cost of our airfare and lodging many times over, is friends with two friends of mine with whom I graduated high school in 2001. As luck would have it, we would end up taping the same show (they filmed four shows that day, of which we were in the last), officially putting this chance encounter into the small world hall of fame.

That connection encapsulates what became the most unexpectedly difficult challenge of the whole enterprise: I was invested in my fellow contestants. They’re good people through and through. I was happy for those who won, but I felt genuine compassion for the ones who lost, and that was something wholly new. I didn’t want any of them to have to lose (though, having lost, I draw comfort from the fact that twice as many of us are destined to lose than win).

That being said, after watching three games from the audience (Final Jeopardy answers: Benedict Arnold, Lewis Carroll, Martin Luther), I was dying to get up there and take down the champ, "a structural engineer from Minneapolis, Minnesota" (sorry, channeled the announcer for a sec there) named Fred Beukema, who had run up the score on two sets of opponents, sealing his victory before the Final Jeopardy question was asked.

Two months after the taping, what comes most readily to mind about the experience is how fast it was. It took hardly more time to film the episode than it does to watch it at home. The pace was so quick that after the game was done I couldn’t remember what half the categories were; the answer to one of the Daily Doubles in the second round, which I answered correctly, took me three days to remember. Even watching it on TV with some of my colleagues it was breathtaking how quickly it went. "I can’t believe it’s already half-over!" one of them said at the commercial break. I couldn’t either. (You can, by the way, see a complete breakdown of the game at this fantastic fan site.)

The only time I got nervous during the game was when the Final Jeopardy category of "19th Century Construction" was unveiled and I had to ponder how much I would wager on knowing the answer. Meg, Fred and I had played an incredibly close game; we were evenly matched and quick enough on the buzzer that no one was able to ring off more than three questions in a row on the others, and by the time we got to Final Jeopardy the three of us were separated buy only $1600. I managed to get to the end leading by $600—clearing all three Daily Double questions along the way, including one on the play Bus Stop by William Inge. (Thank you, UPenn theater faculty! Though no, I never read it.) After doing the math at least twice, I locked in a wager of $10,201, the minimum to be guaranteed victory if I could just answer one more question correctly. If I ever live to place a larger bet I cannot fathom the stupidity, hubris, or desperation that would prompt it. After an awkward silence to leave space for a commercial sponsor to be added later, the final "answer" was revealed: 

It was first designed as "Egypt carrying the light to Asia", & its original intended site was Port Said in 1869.

Though nervous, I was cautiously optimistic seeing what I had to work with. I had tried during the break to come up with a list of 19th century construction projects, though I couldn’t really think of very many. In fact, I could really only think of one, and this seemed to line up with it. Tunnel vision comes very easily here and divorcing oneself from an answer that seems right can be prohibitively difficult, if the thought even occurs at all.

My mind went blank the moment Alex Trebek noted with satisfaction Meg’s correct answer of "Statue of Liberty" for the final question and I realized horribly, definitively, that the game would not be mine. Fred answered correctly as well and, having been ahead of Meg, he was champion for a third time, pocketing a little under $70,000 for the day’s work. My body language telegraphed to Alex that I did not have the right answer and indeed, when my answer, "What is the Suez Canal?", was revealed, my run was officially over. (Had you watched, you noticed that I had started writing, crossed out my work, and started again. Indecision? Nope. Nerves. My hand was shaking such that the curvature of the ‘S’ became very difficult to maneuver.)

Wondering how I could have ended up so far afield—for one, I’d lasted more than a quarter century on this earth in the belief that the Statue of Liberty dated from a generation earlier—I did a spot of research. It turns out that she had ended up here, courtesy of the French as a gift for our centennial, after costs overran and production fell behind on the Suez Canal, which was nearing completion during that same period. (I could be slightly off here as my research wasn’t all that thorough-this was all a bit of a painful process.) Long before she set down at the mouth of the Hudson, she had been intended for Port Said, near the entrance of the Suez, lighting the path from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, to the Indian Ocean and thus, to Asia.

So imagine my surprise to learn we’d been re-gifted by those scurrilous French! But I did learn something about the landmark I cannot claim to have known before. I only wish it wasn’t quite such an expensive bit of knowledge to obtain.

Of course, losing on Jeopardy! was a disappointment. But to call it a great disappointment would be an exaggeration. To be on Jeopardy!, to make it past tens of thousands of applicants for one of the coveted 400 spots per season, is to be playing with everything to gain and nothing to lose. Unless you’re Ken Jennings, you’re not going to retire off of your winnings, and sooner or later the money is gone and all you have are the memories of being there—not to mention a nice photo of you with Mr. Trebek. Plus, I got to watch myself in HD—how many people can say that?

The next time I am in New York’s Penn Station I will make a point of picking myself up a little version of Lady Liberty for my desk. She is now, and perhaps forevermore, permanently endowed with two meanings for me, the net effect being that I salute what she symbolizes to so many, the while shaking my head, wondering how I could have gotten her so wrong.