My Life in Jeopardy!

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

I could tell Megan Green was going to be trouble from the moment she walked into the greenroom at Sony Pictures Studios. To begin with she had the Book tucked under her arm. More distressingly she spoke almost as much (and almost as chaotically) as Lionel himself. Within a minute of our introduction, she had told me the following: She was from Gadsden, Alabama. She'd considered trying out for the college Jeopardy! tournament before her recent graduation. She'd begun full-contact wrestling some six months ago and had actually met one of the Gracie family of Brazilian jiu-jitsu fame.

Along with her copy of the Book, Megan also was clutching a plastic three-ring binder.

"What's in there?" I asked woozily.

"Oh, this is all the trivia questions I've written," Green drawled, opening the book and leafing through it. "Every time I think of a new question, I add to my list." The pages were computer printed and three-hole-punched.

My ensuing thoughts might be best summarized thus: I am so dead.

And Green was just one of the dozen other contestants milling around waiting, like Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis in that movie (What is Spartacus?), waiting to take me apart in some brain-to-brain, thumb-to-thumb combat. Over the next five hours, we would be called, two at a time, to do battle against a returning champion.

Green was the biggest talker in the group. Aside from some pleasantries and a few rah-rah speeches by the contestant coordinators, the rest of us were doing a lot of nervous smiling and chuckling. I looked at Green, I looked at returning champion Susan Caylor (a very businesslike woman from Atlanta) and at the other men and women in their suits and skirts and all of a sudden felt totally out of my league. I thought back to my first journalism course in college, where I discovered -- quite quickly -- that I had somehow breezed through high school without having learned to type. My innards churned with dread.

It struck me that I was now in a room with a bunch of people who had spent the better part of their lives kicking their friends' asses at Trivial Pursuit and shouting torrents of correct answers at the screen every time Jeopardy! came on. Not only was I surrounded by people who were at least as smart as I was and probably smarter, they were the same kind of smart: totally-irrelevant-trivia- smart. And they'd been practicing, too.

After we'd filled out some paperwork, the contestant coordinators led us from the greenroom into the studio itself for our orientation tour and practice game. I was happy to be wearing my blue suit, because it was absolutely freezing in that studio. My first impression of the set itself was that it looked just as big as it did on TV, except there wasn't much room for spectators. We clustered around behind the podia as John Lauderdale, a calm-looking fellow wearing a headset microphone, gave us the rundown of how things worked, especially the buzzer, which we all took turns pressing.

The buzzer is the single most important aspect of Jeopardy! More important, actually, than your internal data bank. See, what you couch potatoes at home probably don't realize is that players can't simply buzz in the moment they know the correct response. No, no, no. Instead they must wait until Alex Trebek has finished reading the clue. At this point a set of little pin lights -- three on each side of the game board -- light up, indicating that a stagehand has activated the players' buzzers. If you get in first, little lights on your podium turn on. If you buzz in too soon, your buzzer is deactivated for a fraction of a second.

The contestant coordinators kept telling us to watch for the lights before buzzing in. But everything I'd read in the Book and elsewhere said the best players had tried to time their buzzing according to Trebek's voice. There is a tiny pause, in other words, between the moment Trebek finishes speaking and activation of the pin lights. The best players had been among the ones who hit the buzzer at precisely this instant.

The game board, the one with questions (in the form of answers) on it, was directly across the stage from the players, about 30 feet away. The key is to read the text to yourself -- faster than Trebek can read it aloud -- and get the correct response in your head, then wait to pounce on that buzzer when Trebek finishes.

Before any show got under way, we ran through a practice game in which a coordinator played the part of Trebek, and the players rotated in to get the feel of buzzing in and responding. It was tough to take a measure of any of the potential opponents, because, as soon as you answered a couple of questions correctly, you were rotated out.

Then we were herded back into the greenroom to wait. They were taping five episodes that day. Contestant coordinator Grant Loud, who -- like every other contestant coordinator -- was almost pathologically cheerful and supportive, shouted out the first two names: One was my pal Megan Green; the other was a very nice Dominican dude from NYC. Cool, I thought. I'd have a chance to watch at least one game. Nerves and caffeine still had me humming. I figured that I'd be at my best in either of the next two games.

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