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?"
I mulled over the idea for a minute. My first instinct was to wait. With a few exceptions, I'd noticed, successful Jeopardy! players seem to be mostly in their forties or fifties. I was thirty. If I waited a few years, I might have a better shot. I could watch more TV, read all those Dead White Males I avoided in college, and surf the Web for esoterica.
On the other hand, when would the Jeopardy! crew come to South Florida again? It might be another decade. Besides, Lionel had promised me that if I ever got on the show, he would help me prepare. "For my usual fee," he'd said, "which is whatever you want to pay me." There also was an element of pride at work: I wanted to prove I could pass that dreaded test.
"Sure," I said. "What the hell. Let's do it."
Jen proceeded to the official Jeopardy! Website and signed up both of us for the tryout. Two days later a guy who introduced himself as "Grant from the game show Jeopardy!" called to confirm our test date, May 19. This meant we had about five weeks to prepare, which we did by watching the show every evening. We also stopped by Lionel's Miami Beach condo for some tips.
"I'm not going to talk about betting strategy with you now," he sniffed. "You haven't even passed the test yet."
On the appointed morning, we showed up at the Wyndham Resort, on Miami Beach, both dressed to the nines -- as directed by the Jeopardy! staff. Before we could step inside the hotel, Lionel rolled up on his white beach-cruiser bicycle, wearing shorts and a Tshirt. He had a ratty-looking polyester bag of some kind slung over his back. It was light blue with a faded, barely visible number 10 on it. "It's the gift bag from the tenth-anniversary tournament," he noted, sweat running into his eyebrows. I asked him why he had come, other than to wish us luck. "Oh, maybe I'll say hi to the contestant coordinators," he answered, "see if they remember me."
The three of us walked inside; a bellman directed us to the ballrooms straight down the marble-floored main hallway. There we joined a slowly growing pack of men in suits and ties and the occasional woman. Almost everyone in the room looked like a lawyer to me -- except for the twitching, shvitzing poet with whom we'd arrived. A few of them engaged in nervous chitchat; Jen, Lionel, and I mostly just talked to one another. I took one last look at my blue invitation sheet to make sure everything was --
Holy shit! According to my paper, I was supposed to have taken the test at 9 a.m., not 11 a.m. I had read Jen's sheet and assumed we were both taking the test at the same time.
As is my wont, I began cursing myself for my carelessness. If I'd screwed up my shot to get on Jeopardy!, I would never forgive myself. Jen, as is her wont, tolerated my gratuitous self-flagellation for about nine seconds, then she shot me a look I recognized as meaning: Chill the fuck out. I did.
The contestant coordinator for our session was a diminutive woman named Suzanne Thurber, whom Lionel instantly recognized. I managed to keep from shaking as I handed her my invitation. She barely glanced at it. I moseyed right into the ballroom, my blood pressure slowly returning to normal.
The room was set up with dozens of rows of chairs facing a table flanked by two TV monitors. As Jen and I found our seats along with about 120 other aspirants, I saw Lionel talking with Thurber. As we settled in, Lionel stepped to the railing of the wheelchair access ramp that led down into the room. Looking something like a Third World dictator, a football coach, and a homeless guy rolled into one, he entreated the assembled smarty-pants to kick some Jeopardy! butt. "Right now I still have the highest score of any player from Miami," he declared as Thurber politely shooed him toward the door. "It's only $35,000, and that's embarrassing. I know you can do better, so good luck!"
The test itself, a 50-question, fill-in-the-blanks affair, was a blur. I honestly don't remember a single question. I do remember how I felt when the proctor called my name, though: somewhere between "I'm the king of the world!" (Who is Leonardo DiCaprio?) and "You like me, you really like me!" (Who is Sally Field?). About 15 of us, a little more than 10 percent, had passed. The Jeopardy! people were actually impressed by that showing, though they wouldn't tell anyone his or her score. Jen didn't pass -- missed it by one, we later figured out -- so she had to leave the room while the passers played a mock game.
This featured the coordinators holding up laminated cards and reading the questions. After the practice game, they took a Polaroid of each of us, stapled the picture to a form that contained our vital stats, and then sent us out into the world to await their phone call, which might never come. Once you pass the test, it's just a casting decision.
"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.
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
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.
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.
As taping time approached, those of us still waiting to go on were led out of the greenroom, where Megan was doing tai chi breathing exercises, to a front section of the audience. Zero hour had arrived. The three players were lined up off stage left. The theme music rolled, and they entered one by one as Johnny Gilbert announced them. Then Trebek emerged, and the game began.
During commercial breaks Trebek would saunter over to the audience to take questions and play the witty raconteur -- with mixed success. I think his first crack was about Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Yes, yes, I'm sure of it. Someone gave a correct answer, they went to commercial, and Trebek quipped, "Is that your final answer?" It was probably the funniest thing he said all day, and it seems even funnier now that his disdain for that show in general and Regis Philbin in particular has become public. (What is professional jealousy?)
In Double Jeopardy Megan and Susan began to pull away from the man in the middle. Megan was in the lead going into Final Jeopardy. And then the generation gap reared its ugly head. The category was "Singers." The clue was: "Popular 1950s vocalist who has written the autobiographies Girl Singer and This For Remembrance." The correct response was: "Who is Rosemary Clooney?" -- which I sure as hell didn't know. Susan knew it, Megan did not, and there was your game.
I headed back to the greenroom with the other challengers. When I walked in, Megan was in the arms of a contestant coordinator, sobbing. She had confidently swept into the greenroom just an hour before, the Book under her arm. Now she was a blubbering mess. Megan was nearly ten years younger than I, and now she could never be on Jeopardy! again. I wondered how I would handle defeat if it came. I mean, this was it. My one and only shot. I was relieved they didn't call me for the next game.
Jeopardy! can be cruel, but it also contains moments of genuine humanity. In the next game, Brenda was in second place going into Final Jeopardy, behind a transit cop from Long Island named Rocco. Then Rocco pulled a really classy move. Instead of betting enough to beat her by a dollar if they both got it right, he bet enough to tie her. If they tied, they'd be co-champs, but as it would be her fifth win, she would be retired, she'd get a car, she'd get an automatic berth in the Tournament of Champions -- and he still wouldn't have to play her again. The gesture was for naught. Rocco got it right. Brenda got it wrong.
By the end of the day, only two players were left in the bullpen: me and Robin Carroll, a quiet yet amiable woman, also from the Atlanta area, with round spectacles and a bright smile. She gave her profession as researcher, but she told me she was really a fiction writer. Robin and I both knew we were done for the day; the coordinators told me I didn't have to stay in contestant quarantine. So I took my leave of Robin and sauntered over to the general population to watch the last game with my wife.
Jen looked over at Robin sitting all alone in the contestants' area. "She looks so sad sitting there by herself," she said.
The more appropriate gerund: lurking.
I didn't sleep much that night. Nonetheless I felt pretty good the next day. I said a cheery hello to Robin and to the returning champion, Charles Hubert, a developer from Atlanta who had won two games already -- the last one handily. Charles looked tough, but I thought I could take him. As for Robin I didn't give her much thought.
As we took our marks before the game, I met my wife's gaze and winked. I actually was a lot less nervous than I had been when I'd realized I'd shown up for the wrong testing slot back in May. I knew I could beat the champ if I got into a groove on the buzzer.
Johnny Gilbert announced Robin first, and she stepped onto the stage then up onto her box. (As the tallest of the threesome by far, I was the only one not on a box.) Then I strode out, "A journalist from Miami, Florida, Ted Kissell," at your service. Then came Charles. Finally Trebek bounded out in a snappy, dark blue suit.
He rattled off the categories for the first round, which included at least one strong one for me, "Oh What a Year." I hoped to get out of the gate quickly. I did not. In fact Charles and Robin fired back answers to the first dozen questions while I stood there, in the middle, looking, well, stupid. The problem wasn't above my neck, though. I actually knew most of the answers. The problem was below my wrist.
I was following the technique Dupée had described in the Book: letting my right hand rest on the podium as I tried to buzz in. But Robin and Charles were getting in first, and they were nailing every question. A tiny voice in the back of my head started whispering. Skunked, it whispered. Blitzed. Steamrollered. Sandbagged. Bitch-slapped. Buried. Humiliated.
Then Robin selected the $500 clue from the "TV Theme Song" category, and Trebek read the answer: "Jane, his wife; daughter Judy."
I pressed my buzzer. To my amazement I heard Trebek say, "Ted."
I looked him right in the eye. "Who are The Jetsons?"
He looked straight back. "Good for 500."
I scanned the game board. I needed a strong category, something like "David Bowie Albums of the '70s," or "Women of Star Trek." The best I could do was "South American Beauty," which seemed likely to involve geography, one of my specialties.
Like it mattered. Charles gobbled up the first question and Robin the next two. I was still coming in late.
On the $400 clue, Trebek directed us to the big TV monitor to the left of the game board. It displayed a shot of terraced fields on the side of a mountain, which I recognized from some sixth-grade history book. Trebek asked for the "usual term for the agricultural levels seen here, used by the Incas."
I pressed frantically. My lights came on.
"What are terraces?"
No one rang in on the next clue, and then we'd reached the first commercial. I only had $900 ("Nicely on the board," Trebek offered encouragingly); Robin was leading with $2100, and Charles had $1300. Not too bad, and it was still early. Besides, Double Jeopardy, where the clues net up to $1000, is where champions are made. We turned around and faced away from Trebek as he bantered with the audience about a horse he owned. I imagined Jen cringing at his banter. A stagehand brought me water, then one of the coordinators offered me some buzzer advice. I was coming in too late rather than too early, he said. He showed me how I could apply slight pressure to the button without triggering it, which should give me a better chance to get in.
After the first commercial comes the "chitchat" segment, in which Trebek reintroduces the contestants and prompts each to tell an interesting (and predetermined) anecdote. The prospect of this terrified me almost as much as the game itself. After dispensing with Robin's tale of dressing as Elizabeth Taylor at a costume party, Trebek sidled to the front of my podium and consulted his index card.
"Ted Kissell, a journalist who says that Kermit the Frog was a big influence on an important career decision you had to make."
"Well, it was becoming a journalist," I said, praying I wouldn't blow it. "My favorite part of Sesame Street was always the 'Muppet News Flash.' Kermit would come on screen in his trench coat and fedora and say -- " I paused, then summoned the frog in my throat. " -- 'Hi-ho, this is Kermit the Frog, with Sesame Street News.'" I struggled to keep a straight face. "I was hooked," I declared in my normal voice. "I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up."
"You could be a standup comic," Trebek said unconvincingly as the audience chuckled. "That was a very good impression." I think I caught him a little off balance.
"I'll save the tape," I said for some reason.
Then Charles told some boring story that involved no funny voice whatsoever.
When play resumed I nailed a couple of quick answers. But my buzzer woes returned; I got shut out of the "Raise Your Glasses" category, which was all about booze. "Oh What a Year," the last remaining category, treated me a little better. Each question consisted of three events; we had to name the year in which they occurred. I snagged the $100 and $300 clues in the category, then picked the $400.
Trebek read: "Johnny Carson retires, L.A. riots break out following Rodney King verdict, Hurricane Andrew hits Florida."
OK, so here I was, a journalist from Miami, someone who had actually lived through Hurricane Andrew. Obviously this was my question for the taking. Right? I jabbed at my buzzer furiously. Right?
Trebek said, "Robin."
"What is 1992?"
This was the equivalent of failing to hit a slow-pitch softball on national TV. I could already hear all the shit I'd be catching about this from my colleagues back home: How could you miss such a gimme, Ted? You have brought shame to South Florida's entire press corps.
I wanted to scream: It's not me! I knew the answer! It's this goddamn buzzer!
But I had bigger problems at the moment. Robin -- sweet, petite, brutally unflappable Robin -- had control of the board with one clue remaining, which was the freakin' Daily Double. If I'd gotten in on Hurricane Andrew, that Daily Double would have been mine. I could have bet my entire $1900 and vaulted into a tie for the lead.
Instead Robin put down $1300 of her $3800 and, of course, nailed the question. The score at the end of the round: $5100 for Robin, $2300 for Charles, $1900 for Hurricane Ted.
Even so, I was relatively calm as we waited through another commercial break for Double Jeopardy to begin. Lots of money up there for Ted, I told myself. Two Daily Doubles up there for Ted. And because I was in third, I'd get to pick first.
I quickly assessed my prospects in each category: "Literary Heroines" (not bad); "Foreign Words & Phrases" (strong); "Actors & Movie Roles" (not bad); "Former City Names" (very strong); "Yes, Mast-Er" (confusing; stay away); and "Woof!" (something about dogs? confusing; stay away).
"Ted, you're in third place, select."
"'Former City Names' for $200, please."
Robin got in first. Of course.
"What is Constantinople?" she replied.
I buzzed in but I was rattled, amazed that Robin had missed -- the first incorrect answer by any of us in the game.
The seconds ticked down. Did they want the old name or the current name? Then I remembered that wonderful old swing tune They Might Be Giants covered a few years back. It's called, "Istanbul, Not Constantinople."
"What is Istanbul?"
I went for the $400 clue next.
"Tenochtitlán," Trebek said.
Then he said my name again.
"What is Mexico City?"
Jeopardy! is often a game of streaks. The real key is to find a groove with the buzzer in a category that you have down cold. I sensed this might be happening. Was the tide turning? Was Hurricane Ted finally ready to roar? Might the good name of South Florida's journalists be redeemed?
Even though I knew the responses to the next three cities -- a combined total of $2400 in clues -- Charles beat me to the buzzer on all of them. The Robin and Charles Show continued. Robin nailed another Daily Double, this one for $2000. I was slipping to a distant third.
And then Trebek read the $1000 clue in "Foreign Words & Phrases."
"This rhyming Chinese word for acting in a servile manner literally means 'to knock one's head.' Ted."
"What is kowtow?"
Here is where I made my only real tactical error of the game, but it was a killer. I was in third place, more than $5000 behind little Robin. It was time to start fishing for that second Daily Double, which is nearly always at the bottom of the board. The way Robin was playing, I couldn't count on beating her to the buzzer, ever. But when you pick a Daily Double, there's no buzzing involved. The player in control of the board is the only one allowed to answer.
But I didn't go fish. Instead, inexplicably, I went to the top of the "Actors & Movie Roles" category. I answered the $400 clue but didn't know the $600. Charles got that one, then picked the $800 clue and uncovered that final Daily Double. He had $5700; Robin had $10,100. He needed to bet aggressively to get back in the game, and he did: $5000, which would have given him the lead.
The question: "The mysterious title character Ralph Fiennes played in this 1996 film was actually Hungarian."
A gimme. Who the hell hadn't seen The English Patient?
But Charles scrunched up his doughy face, hesitated, then offered, "What is Schindler's List?"
Now I was in second place, and I knew there was enough money left on the board for me to get within striking distance of Robin for Final Jeopardy if I got on a late run.
Robin had other plans. She had led virtually the entire game and had missed only one question. Her buzzer technique was impeccable, her knowledge supreme, and she now showed another essential quality of a champion: an instinct for the jugular.
She proceeded to grab the $1000 clue in "Actors," then went to the mysterious "Yes, Mast-Er" category, which turned out to have a nautical theme. She ran the whole category, adding another $3000 to her lead and earning a round of stunned applause from the studio audience.
By the time she picked from the top of the "Woof!" category, it was all over. I saved a little face by nailing the $600 and $1000 clues. In fact I hadn't gotten a single question wrong. The problem was I'd had the chance to answer only 13. Charles' big gamble had left him with a paltry $900 heading into Final Jeopardy. I had $6300, a sum which, I couldn't help noting, would have given me the lead in several of the previous day's games and a chance to win in every one. The problem was that I was up against a human buzz saw. Robin had $14,500 to her name. In other words a 100 percent drama-free Final Jeopardy.
I emphasize that my final answer didn't matter, because I got it wrong. The category was "Sports Stars." The clue: "Born in 1980, this world-champion figure skater was named for a Beatles hit." To give you an idea how far in the tank I was, I actually thought, "OK, so that would make her 29?" I couldn't think of any figure skaters named Jude or Eleanor Rigby (though "Ta-ra Li-pin-sky" works great as an alternate lyric for the latter song), so I gave up and wrote "Witt," because I always thought Katarina was kind of cute, for a communist. It was Michelle "Ma Belle" Kwan, of course. And of course only Robin got the right answer.
Robin bet $500, giving her an even $15,000 payday. I leaned over and shook her hand. Then we all filed out from behind our podia to stand with Trebek, at which time our true heights were revealed. I may not have beaten her, but I proved to be at least a foot taller.
I then signed for my pretty-darn-nice consolation prize, a week's vacation in Banff, Canada, and hurried out the door, along with Jen, Charles, and his girlfriend. We could have stayed and watched Robin continue her run (not surprisingly, she went on to become a five-time champ), but I just wanted to get the hell out of there. My feelings were sort of confused. I was drained, a little excited still, kind of embarrassed. But mostly sad. The game had been fun. I realized that what I wanted, actually, was to play again, to bust into the studio, lean menacingly over Robin, look her dead in the eye and growl, "Two out of three!"
But it doesn't work that way. I'll never get to play Jeopardy! again. Ever. The adrenaline began to dissipate. With my wife holding one hand, my garment bag with its five-day champion wardrobe clutched in the other, I strode out the front gate of the Sony Pictures Studios. I now had a new goal: I wanted to sleep for a very long time.
My life in South Florida had pretty much returned to normal by the time the show aired a month ago. As I gathered with about a dozen friends at a local pub, I noticed that my hands were sweating and my pulse was thumping again -- retroactive performance anxiety.
Watching myself on TV was uncomfortable but thrilling at the same time. I seemed to be scowling the whole time I was on. My friends gave me the appropriate rations of shit when necessary, especially during my deafening silence at the beginning of the game. A rousing cheer erupted after my first correct answer. Half of them laughed and half of them hid their faces in shame at my Kermit impression. And as I suspected they would, my pals let out a collective groan when I whiffed on the Hurricane Andrew clue.
My buddy Robert took a liking to the way I enunciated one of my responses in the "Six Pack" category. To this day he'll just look at me and intone, "What is the Six Million Dollar Man?"
Overall my performance looked less galling on the tube. I didn't feel as embarrassed as I had standing there in front of the cameras. Everyone agreed that Robin Carroll was a ringer and that I had acquitted myself well.
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When we returned home, there were several messages on my answering machine, one from my father. His comment: If I hadn't smoked so much pot in college I might have done better on the buzzer. The last message on the answering machine was from Lionel Goldbart.
"You played very well," he said. "That girl was one of the best I've ever seen, but you looked great, you didn't miss any when it mattered." He paused. "I'm very proud of you."
Contact Ted B. Kissell at his e-mail address: