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I cannot for the life of me remember the first time I watched Jeopardy! I do remember a few games of Trivial Pursuit in which I mopped the floor with my family, my friends, and my family's neighbors, who used to be their friends until one night I whooped a little too loud after nailing a Sports & Leisure question for an orange pie piece. (The answer, I believe, was "succotash," which to my way of thinking is neither sporting nor leisurely, but I won the game, so who cares?)
I became a bit more attached to the show in college. Those lazy evenings in front of the tube at the tumbledown wood-frame edifice known affectionately as the Shithouse are a bit wobbly around the edges. (What are bong hits?) But I do remember watching my fair share of Jeopardy! And I remember that at some point, one of my roommates said something to the effect of: "Dude, you should go on that show."
I'd hear this exhortation, or some variation, for the next decade. But the idea never really took root. Like most folks with a talent for cultural trivia, I remained a latent Jeopardy! geek, content to soak up the adulation of my fellow viewers on an occasional basis. I never even bothered to find out how one goes about becoming a contestant.
And I was completely unaware of the fact that an entire subculture had sprung up around the quiz show, that there were literally thousands of people out there, just like me, who not only watched Jeopardy! but had spent a good portion of their adult lives trying to land a spot on the show.
That is, until Lionel Goldbart came along.
I first met Lionel a couple of years ago in a Chinese restaurant in Miami Beach. We were there to talk about local politics. But as anyone who knows Lionel will attest, conversations with him tend to stray. They become, in fact, prolonged manic riffs in which Rollerbladers on Lincoln Road lead inexorably to Samuel Coleridge, which leads to Gregorian calendar reform, the Dave Clark Five, Pres. James Buchanan's alleged gay lover, and so on.
Back then his shiny pate was fringed by an unruly hedge of salt-and-pepper hair, and he sported sideburns of Asimovian proportions. These days he's opted for the Mr. Clean look. But the rest of his distinguishing characteristics have remained intact: the intense gaze, the sly smile, the hands constantly flapping open and closed, like sparrows struggling to break free of their tethers.
His use as a source was, frankly, limited. But he was a fascinating character. The 65-year-old Brooklyn native had been a poet, mathematician, beatnik, speed freak, and TV talk show host before settling into his current niche as an activist/rogue/weirdo/ intellectual about town.
Sometime in late 1998, I happened to mention to Lionel that I'd always wondered how I might do on Jeopardy! He lit up.
As it turned out, Lionel has had what might be described as a Jeopardy! career. He first appeared on the program in 1986 and reeled off four victories. His total winnings, roughly $35,000, were enough to qualify him for that year's Tournament of Champions.
What happened in Goldbart's first game of the tourney has made him a tragic figure in Jeopardy! lore. Trailing by a hefty margin late in the game, he hit a Daily Double question, which allows contestants to wager whatever cash they have. He bet his entire pot, $3700. Host Alex Trebek read the clue: "Until reaching this milestone, stallions, geldings, and mares alike are known as 'maidens.'"
Goldbart thought about it, then uttered: "Until winning a race." In the silence that followed, everyone watching in the studio and at home realized he had broken Jeopardy!'s cardinal rule: He had failed to deliver his answer in the form of a question. There went all his money and the game.
Curiously, though this epic blunder defined his Jeopardy! career, he returned four years later for Super Jeopardy! -- a one-time tournament featuring four-player games -- and the Jeopardy! tenth-anniversary tournament in 1993. He didn't make much of a dent at either of these appearances, but he still claims the distinction of being the show's highest-totaling money-winner from the Miami metropolitan area.
Despite his success Lionel had some sobering news for me. I could forget winning. I'd be lucky even to land a spot on Jeopardy! To begin with you have to pass a killer written test. This puts you in a contestant pool, which is no guarantee you'll be selected. And unless you want to fly out to the Jeopardy! studios in Los Angeles, you can take the written test only when Jeopardy! decides to hold an audition in your city. The last South Florida tryout Lionel could remember was the one he took, back in 1985.
"They're coming to Miami," Jen said.
It was April of last year. My fiancée and I had just finished watching Jeopardy!, and I was in the kitchen as the credits rolled.
"Jeopardy! is having tryouts in Miami in May," Jen explained. "Do you want to do it?"