Friday, July 11, 2008

Ellen Ripstein is a lovely lady and one of the best crossword solvers around (she won the US Open once and finished 2nd or 3rd innumerable times). I just came across a link to her experiences as a contestant on Jeopardy in 1991 (here) and thought, it being a lazy Friday afternoon at work and all, that I'd do the same for posterity (I've recounted it elsewhere, I'm sure, but....)

Like any self-respecting geek, I'd been a fan on the show (btw, I find it impossible to tag on the technically correct exclamation mark after the show's title) since I was a wee one, growing up with Art Fleming, pictured above, in the emcee role. He had a kind of gruff manliness that contrasted with the knowledge-based game, none of the occasional smarmy middlebrow-ness of Trebek. Somewhere in the back of my head was always the idea that I should try out for the show. For a long time, iirc, it was a matter of sending in postcards and suffering the randomness of the draw. Eventually, possibly due to the increased popularity of the reborn, Trebek-led program, score-based tryouts began to be held. In 1990, perhaps with some added confidence derived from my reasonable success in crossword tourneys, my friend Peter Cohen and I journeyed to Atlantic City, attempting to gain entry into this mythic kingdom.

It was a sleek operation, held in some large hotel there. They ushered groups of 80 or so into a big room (there had to be 7 or 8 such groups that day) and gave us the lowdown. We were going to be given 50 questions, roughly on a difficulty level equal to the harder Double Jeopardy questions from the show. We were handed a sheet of paper with 50 blank, numbered spaces and there was a large-screen TV on the room's stage. The questions would pop up, just as in the game, and remain for 10 or so seconds before proceeding to the next. They didn't tell you how many you needed to answer correctly in order to move on into the next "round", but the rumor circulating around the room was 37.

The host took questions from the gathered nerds. Some people were already asking about prize payouts. "Jeez", I'm thinking, "How about passing the test first?" One asked why the 2nd and 3rd place finishers weren't allowed to keep the money. Interesting reason: Going into Final Jeopardy, it wasn't uncommon to see someone in 2nd place with a substantial sum, quite possibly enough for them to be happy about and not risk on the last question, thus screwing up the drama of the game. The producers wanted to avoid that scenario, so instead you're sent home with a Barc-a-Lounger or whatever.

So I hunkered down for the test. The questions seemed to be grouped in categories and the first six or seven were all political or US historical in nature, not my favorite subject. I know I was unsure about every answer I wrote down. Then, however, there was a string of 10 or 12 that I was positive about, a bunch of art or music related items I knew easily, etc. After it was over, I was guessing (I'd never find out) that I was probably pretty close to the cut-off. They design the quiz so as to eliminate 90% of the wannabees and, in my group, this worked to a tee as eight of us passed, including yours truly. My friend Peter, alas, didn't make it as didn't those idiots asking about their prize shares.

They herded the octet into a smaller room where we were compelled to play a mock game. The purpose of this exercise, I think, was to determine a) if we were more or less presentable (a good thing about Jeopardy is that they don't care how bubbly or hyper-enthusiastic you are, but they like their entrants to be on the seemlier side of Ratso Rizzo) and b) if it seemed likely we'd freeze up due to nerves. There were clearly two or three in my group that had zero chance of ever getting on the show. That done, we were told, "Go home. If you don't hear from us in the next two or three weeks, feel free to try again." So home I went.

A little over a week later, I received the call. I was to fly to LA mid-February. They don't pay your way or put you up so we found some old friends of Linda's to mooch on and went out for four days, my first trip to Tinseltown. The city failed to impress, btw, living up to several of its worst stereotypes including smog and lack of pedestrians though a car trip up into the San Gabriel Mountains was very cool, the only place I've encountered where "Fallen Rock Zone" signs were accompanied by actual fallen rock in the road, including one boulder which, as I approached it coming 'round a curve, was still surrounded by a cloud of dust!

On the appointed day, I went to the TV studio. They taped (still do, I suppose) a week's worth of shows on a given day so there were 16 other contestants in our little group, two extra in case someone got sick or was overcome by stage fright. The rules were laid down: there were only certain staff with whom we were allowed to talk. If we happened to encounter Mr. Trebek in the hallway or astride a urinal, we were to ignore him on the off-chance we'd establish some kind of relationship (as if). In the mid-morning we got to play some practice rounds on the set to familiarize ourselves with the situation and, crucially, the clickers.

Now, we all (we Jeopardy geeks, that is) go to the event armed with certain areas of knowledge that we know inside out, that appear with some regularity as Jeopardy categories and that few other people seem to have a grasp of. In my case, this includes art, music (non-pop variety), science and math, etc. Chatting with some of the other contestants, I met a very enjoyable young guy from Boston (I forget his name!) who was a sculptor with a big science/math interest! We joked about facing off against each other. We were discussing recent shows and he mentioned knowing a very difficult final answer ("The Picture of Dorian Grey") because, as he said, "I've been reading a lot of Wilde lately." As it turned out, on the practice round, we were indeed up on the set at the same time. Not only that, but there were a few art and math-related categories which we zipped through, much to the consternation of the other lady up there with us.

Come the tapings, they select three people more or less at random (they like to mix up the sexes, if possible), the rest of us sitting in the studio, watching the goings on. As it turned out, I didn't get chosen until Friday's show, so I watched four games. Well. Not only did every one of "my" categories show up during those four shows but no one knew any of the answers. I was sitting out there cursing my head off. Moreover, no one was particularly good, the champion changing on each show, winning with a paltry amount of money. This sucked. My buddy from Boston was on Wednesday's show. He was in contention through Double Jeopardy then, the category being "English Literature", he hit a Daily Double and bet most of his money. The question was something like, "This author spent two years in Reading Prison" "Wow," silently exclaimed I, "The lucky dog!"

But he blanked out. He stood there, having the answer on the tip of his tongue, knowing he had just talked about the person in question hours before, but couldn't get it out! Aggh, I felt terrible for him. He lost.

The fellow who won on Thursday, a lawyer, was pretty good. I got picked for Friday. It was what I would call a "general interest" show, the categories being fairly broad and the answers not too difficult. However, getting the timing down on the buzzers proved to be tricky. Time and time again, all three of us would know the answer but the champion, having gotten the timing down very well, beat us out. It was rather frustrating; you expect to get edged out sometimes but this guy was up around the 90% mark. I blew a couple as well. To this day I get glasnost and perestroika confused; did then too. But things got better in Double Jeopardy and our scores got closer, though the lawyer still had a good lead.

My kick-myself-in-the-ass moment was a failure to guess on the $1,000 question as to which sense was accommodated by the Jacobson's Organ in snakes. Though I didn't know it offhand, going through the possibilities, it was (almost) obvious that it could only be smell. But I couldn't pull the trigger. Had I done so, when I hit my own Daily Double, things would have been different. The category was "Russian" (not something I know) and I bet about 60% of my winnings up to that point. The question was, "In 1957, this Russian term for 'comrade' became popular" Well I didn't know, but for me, 1957 and Russia equate to one thing, and I was correct. (I'll leave this open for others to guess) It was near the end of the round and had I ventured an answer on the snake question, I would have had to bet more, enough to overtake the other guy. Grrr...

So, we go into final jeopardy with the lawyer at $8,500, the other woman at $6,500 and me at $5,600. (Very similar, overall, to Ellen's experience). Now, I'd watched the show enough to know what my deal was: The woman would bet all of her dough, the guy would bet enough to cover her amount if she won (ie, $4,501). I have to bet a fairly small amount and hope that they each get the answer wrong. I'd seen many a show where the idiot 3rd place person unnecessarily bets all or most of his cash and needlessly lost. The category comes up: Broadway Musicals.

There are probably two Jeopardy categories that I both know nothing about and, further, have no desire to know anything about. One is British Royalty. The other is Broadway Musicals.

So, I bet $0. (I had a couple thou to play with).

The question appears: This 1955 musical featured the songs, "Shoeless Joe from Hannibal Mo." and "Heart"

Naturally, I knew the answer. So I write down "Damn Yankees", figuring if I knew it, these guys will know it. Alex comes to my lectern. "Brian wrote, 'What is Damn Yankees?' Correct! How much did he wager? Zero! Leaving you with $5,600" Yawn. He goes over to the woman and it seems she wrote, "What is 'Annie Get Your Gun'?" "How much did you bet?" "$6,500! Sorry, you're down to $0." I quickly crossed my fingers.

But, of course, the lawyer got it right and I was Jeopardy history.

Then there's the story of the prize, but this post is quite long enough.

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