My Life in Jeopardy!

Ever dreamed of being a Jeopardy! game show contestant? Think you could sweep the board? Yeah, I did too.

"All right," Lionel declared when I reached him by phone that afternoon. "So when do we start studying?"

Immediately of course, but not before I plunged headfirst into the unabashedly brainy Jeopardy! subculture that flourishes on the Web. The recent monster success of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? notwithstanding, Jeopardy! remains the Everest of quiz shows, the one mountain that all intellectual showoffs hope to conquer.

Sir, you have a frog in your throat
Sir, you have a frog in your throat
Show me the money: The redoubtable Robin racks up the bucks
Show me the money: The redoubtable Robin racks up the bucks

In my search for tips to augment Lionel's wisdom, I found dozens of sites detailing behind-the-scenes accounts of past contestants, mostly winners. I also discovered that there was such a thing as a hard-core Jeopardy! fan, the kind of person who knows the names of legendary past champs such as Chuck Forrest, Frank Spangenberg, Dave Sampugnaro. Most devotees, like Lionel, are former contestants themselves. (Lionel, I learned, occupied 124th place on the all-time money-winners' list.)

Fascinating as all this was, my number one priority was filling my trivia quiver with as many arrows as possible. I began delving into The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, An Incomplete Education, and The New York Public Library Book of Popular Americana. I watched Jeopardy! religiously, keeping track of my score. A half-dozen times I watched the show while on the phone with Lionel, which was fun (what with the Jack Kerouac anecdotes and all) but of dubious training value. Jen drilled me with Trivial Pursuit cards -- and of course, the questions in the Book.

How to Get on Jeopardy! and Win! by Michael Dupée has become the unofficial bible of Jeopardy! geeks. Dupée, an attorney from Gainesville, Florida, won the 1996 Tournament of Champions; he now operates a trivia Website. His book, published in 1998, contains thousands of practice questions in the kinds of categories Jeopardy! loves (Presidents, Shakespeare, food and drink, holidays).

But as the summer wore on, I began to doubt I'd be getting the call. Meanwhile my mid-October wedding day was approaching. By September my Jeopardy! fantasies were fading, and my training regimen was flagging. By the time Jen and I set off for our European honeymoon in early November, I'd all but given up hope.

Two days after our return to South Florida, I found myself staring at a duffel bag, trying to remember if that was the one with the clean clothes or the dirty clothes. The phone rang.

It was Grant.

Grant from Jeopardy!

He wanted to know if I would be available to fly out to L.A. for two days of taping, December 14 and 15.

I said something blindingly witty like: "Um, sure."

First I called my wife. Then I called Lionel. "Wow, congratulations," he said. "We've really got to get on the ball now."

What followed was six weeks of cramming. I concentrated on plugging the yawning gaps in my knowledge. My blind spots were (and still are):

• any prose literature originally written in English

• any poetry, period

• classical music, opera, and dance

• the Bible

• prime-time network TV shows

I kick ass in history (especially wars and Presidents), geography, basic science, and German or Russian literature. And all things Muppet or Star Trek.

It was crucial that I bone up on my weak areas because, as those of you who watch Jeopardy! surely know, the show is designed to test breadth of knowledge as much as depth. Every game consists of two rounds of 30 questions, divided into six categories per round. The clues in the first round are worth $100 to $500. In Double Jeopardy, the dollar values… um… double, and the clues generally are more difficult. The game ends with a single Final Jeopardy question, on which players may wager as much as they've earned.

My wife and I carpooled everywhere, with me driving and her reading questions to me out of the Book. My lasting impressions from that work: Damn, Charles Dickens wrote a lot of novels, and the ones you've never heard of sound like you'd never want to hear any more about them. (What is Barnaby Rudge? And who the hell cares?)

I spent a few more sessions at Lionel's cramped condo watching episodes on tape. Even before he became my training guru, he would tape every episode, every day. Lionel also provided me daily updates on his attempts to get on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, which most Jeopardy! devotees, of course, consider to be pathetically easy.

By my final week of practice, I was averaging 48 correct answers out of 61 per game. According to the Book, that was good enough to give me a fighting chance for a big payday.

And I was going to need it. You see, Jeopardy! neither pays for your flight nor puts you up in a hotel. And appearing on a game show was not the kind of activity that prompted my bosses to give me a week off. So Jen and I had to book an early-evening flight, which meant arriving at one in the morning, 4 a.m. Eastern time. We then had to drive to my uncle's place in the Valley. Four hours later we got back in the car in order to beat the rush-hour traffic to Culver City, where Jeopardy! is filmed.

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