May 17, 2011

In His Own Words: An Ocracoke teacher’s story of his big win on “Jeopardy!”


I’ll try to record my experience with “Jeopardy!” while it’s still fairly fresh in my mind, especially because I can’t really talk about it beyond just saying, “We had a great time.”

I had known for a year and a half that I was on the list of possible candidates, and I was pretty sure that I had only missed two questions on the test at the try-out.  Still, I hadn’t gotten a call, and my 18-month window of opportunity was about to close.  I knew what the taping schedule was like, and I had given up on hearing from the studio in this round, figuring I’d try out online the next time it came up and give it another shot. 

So when a call came in after school on a Friday from a 310 area code, I was not expecting to hear Corina announce that the show was considering me for a Teachers Tournament.  This was some time in November of last year.  She said they’d choose the list in early March, and tape in late March. 

I got excited, then put it aside for the winter, figuring that I’d only worry myself into distraction if I thought about it.  By early February, I was about ready to start thinking about it again.  Before I got a chance to get nervous about the possibility, I got another call asking if I was still a teacher who was neither a convict nor a political candidate.  As I met all of those criteria, Corina offered me a spot in the tournament.

So, with a month and a half to think about it, and a whole town sort of talking about it, I started trying to get ready.  I thought about what I always think I know but don’t, like the boring presidents between Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, and the stuff that I know I don’t know, like anything about architecture.  I checked “Jeopardy!” champion Ken Jennings’ book out of the library and started working my way through it. 

At the same time, though, I was trying to get a play going at Ocracoke School.  I was going to be gone for five days in the middle of the rehearsal schedule, and trying to cram as much rehearsal time as we could into the time we had took most of my attention.  I was only getting home in time to watch the show about two days a week.  Worse, I hit a stretch of Final Jeopardy clues that I had no chance at.  

In the week before my girlfriend, Chrisi Gaskill, and I headed to Los Angeles, I got only one final clue.  I tried to tell myself that each clue I didn’t get was one that I wouldn’t see myself on the show, improving my chances of knowing the answers.

People kept asking me if I was nervous, and I told them honestly that I wasn’t, at least not about playing the game.  I was a bit antsy about the trip, a condition my family calls being “journey-proud,” but I didn’t worry too much about the show itself.  I figured that you know what you know, you cram what you can, and the scope of the show will eventually expose your gaps.  If you can keep those gaps from beating you, all you have to do is answer the ones you feel good about. 

As I once put it to Ocracoke School’s coach, “Do you feel nervous when you play basketball?”  That’s how I felt.  I was born to do this, to answer widely diverse questions quickly.  It’s not about being smart.  It’s about having really quick access to lots and lots of different, varied information.  I see the world as a web of connected information, and every new fact or event fits somewhere in that web.  A lot of the time the important thing is to track down the thread that will lead you to the tidbit that you want.

The trip to Los Angeles went smoothly, and we got to the Hilton Universal in time for a big buffet dinner.  We amused ourselves trying to pick out other possible contestants in the crowd, then collapsed, exhausted.   The next day, we rented a car and drove around pretty much all of L.A.  Down to Hollywood, out to Santa Monica for a cup of coffee, up to Malibu, with a stop to dip our toes into the Pacific, up Topanga Canyon, an abortive attempt to take Mulholland Drive, then to the Getty on the mountain top, and a wander around Griffith Park looking for the Observatory.  We finally found it, and watched the sun sink toward the mountains and down to the ocean.  On the way to the Getty, we stopped at a Thai place for a mid-afternoon meal, and that served us both for dinner.  In the hotel, we added pork rinds and cold beer.  High-falutin’, we are.  

I actually managed to sleep pretty well the night before the game and woke up feeling good.  I had a couple of hours before the bus picked us up, and I spent it going over old “Jeopardy!” games on the online archive.   It seems now that I picked up something that I used in the game, but for the life of me, I can’t remember what.  I got dressed, packed up an extra outfit, and headed for the elevators, where a very tall, very friendly Dan was holding an extra shirt over his shoulder.  I introduced myself as a fellow player as we rode down to the lobby, where the other 13 were waiting.

After signing a bit of this and that, we piled onto the bus where Maggie talked the whole way to the studio, giving us rules and regs and other things that made us all feel a little bit unreal, riding as we were to go on TV, on a show that we’ve all watched for years.  The ride through L.A. traffic was untroubled, and we rolled up to the studio gates in what seemed like a few minutes.  Then, it was into the green room, with just a glance at what looked like the actual Jeopardy studio, right down that hall!

We got some makeup on, and Robert, another of the contestant coordinators, gave us mock interviews, loudly trying to loosen up a dozen or so very keyed-up teachers.  We tried to eat something, tried to relax, wished it would start, and finally got called out for rehearsal.  We got sent to the podiums in sets of three, with the game board in front of us, a couple of cameras testing out ties (I had to change mine.), and a rank of read-outs with $3 amounts—our scores. 

The real trick is getting the timing right on the buzzer, and nobody looked comfortable right at first.  There are two rows of lights framing the game board, which you can’t see on TV, and when they light up, you can hit your buzzer and ring in.  Different people have different styles of getting in first.  Some wait for the lights, others try to anticipate the lag between the end of the answer and the lights, trying to get it just right.  During practice, I seem to have found the touch after a few misses and false starts.  Pretty soon, I’m ringing in first when I want to and get treated to the comfortable sight of my right-hand opponent mashing his button in frustration as I answer another practice question. 

Once you get the hang of it, they pull you off the podium and send you back up to sit and wait.  I sit back among my new acquaintances, teachers all, growing now to be friends, and try to see if they’ve noticed that I’ve gotten the hang of the game. 

We’re all sizing each other up, and so far I really don’t want to face Dan, who is quick and smart and confident.  Judd is smart and looks like a tough player, though he’s also a hell of a nice guy.  Larry, who initially struck me as stiff, is affable and funny, but his timing is off so far, and I’m not terribly concerned.  John, whom I barely noticed at first, is much tougher than I had expected once we get to the podiums.  Charley has some game, and he stays calm under pressure, refusing to get rattled while he fishes for an answer.   We get another round on the buzzers, but after I hit four or five in a row, I get pulled and won’t get back, I think, until it’s time to play. 

It’s back to the green room for some more fruit and pastry, a badly needed pee break, and eventually the call for a trio to go play the game.   Maggie keeps the patter going, Corina is steady and calm in the corner, and then Robert comes in with three cards, the dumb stories for Alex to talk to John, Dan, and Cathy about.  I breathe a little easier.  Two of the people I didn’t want to face have just got set up against each other.   We sit back and wait, trying to be relieved and calm down.  The next game is close to an hour away. 

There’s a movie on, mostly to keep us from hearing what’s happening outside.  We have to be sequestered, because the top four scores from non-winners will move on, too, and they want to keep anyone from having an unfair advantage, like knowing where the wild card cut-off is.  “The Princess Bride” is charming enough, but we all know it from start to finish, and as we hear the final round of applause through the walls, whatever attention we were paying starts to slip. 

Robert finally comes back in, and calls Charley, Viki, and Caitlin.   It looks like I’ll be seeing the rest of the film, but I’d just as soon skip it and go play.  We end that movie and, just as we’re starting “Moulin Rouge,” Robert comes in and calls the third game.  I’m not in it, and there are only six players left.  We all agree that, jitters aside, it would have been better to go in the first round than to be stuck in this room for another hour.  By this time it’s mid-afternoon, and I’m starting to get really hungry.  The problem is that there’s nothing to eat but fruit and pastry, and I don’t really want to have a sugar crash in the middle of a game, so I just drink some water. 

And then there’s lunch.  I’m starving, but I really don’t want to eat.  I really don’t want to wait another hour to play.  I’ve done the crossword, I’ve read the paper, and I eat some pizza and pasta salad, but I don’t relish it much.  I’m getting a little closed in, when Maggie comes in and announces that we’ll be starting in 15 minutes.  I hear Johnny start to warm up the crowd as Robert comes in, and Sally, Larry, Grafton, Elizabeth, Judd and I look up expectantly.  The names come out, and I’ll be playing Grafton, a quiet Spanish teacher, and Sally, a special ed teacher from Cincinnati.  Chrisi caught a ride from the hotel with Sally’s husband, Ed, and I kind of hate to think of facing her.  But I’m ready to go.

We get a little more makeup, and then we’re off, back to the podiums, which feel strangely homey after all that time in the ready room.  I find Chrisi in the audience and throw her a quick wink.  She looks like she’s had a long day, too.  I forget the audience and focus on the board, thinking about being quick and smart.

As it turns out, I’m neither as the game opens up.  I hit an early clue about geography, but then start ringing in early, watching for the lights and trying to time it from that.  This is not how I played in rehearsal, and it is not working.  By the time we get to the break, I’m in third place, having spent some time in the red.  This is not how I wanted to start.  But during the break, Glenn, a producer, comes over to calm me down, and when we start back up, I ignore the lights and start timing the end of the clue, and it gets better. 

I’m beating Grafton to clues, though Sally’s still getting in ahead of me some and still has the lead.  By the end of the first round, I’m in second place, I think, and feeling pretty good.  We take a break, and when the second round starts, I hit my stride.  I hit a daily double at some point, and suddenly I’ve managed to extend my lead.  I’m feeling very relaxed as I bounce around the board, looking for the categories I like. 

I can see Grafton trying to ring in, but I’ve got him beat, and the clues fall into line.  A few minutes whiz by, and when we go into final Jeopardy, I’ve got a locked game.  I don’t get the clue, about Gorbachev, but I tell myself I wasn’t really focused because I knew I had the game won. 

I relax a little and go up into the stands.  I’m not allowed to talk to Chrisi yet and don’t see her face-to-face until we get back to the hotel.  I find out who the other winners were.  I’m surprised to find out that Dan and John lost to Cathy, but then see that they’ll move on with strong scores, in the $20,000 range.  It’s enough to get through to the next round, and they’ve played it smart.  Lori is through to the next round too along with Charley and Elizabeth and Matt.

In the last game, Larry plays well, showing a touch on the buzzer that makes him worrisome.  There’s a weird moment when he forgets to phrase his answer in the form of a question, a mistake we’ve all sworn never to make, and Judd picks the next clue down in a relatively easy category.  It’s a daily double, and, down by a chunk, he bets all but $400.  The question is nasty, something nobody sitting near me knows, and Judd swings and misses. 

All of a sudden, one of my picks for a threat in the later rounds has hamstrung himself with a bold move that didn’t pay off.  We’re all a little stunned.  If Larry hadn’t flubbed the phrasing on the easy answer, he would have hit that clue, in all likelihood, and he would have paid the price.  But that’s how it goes, and Larry moves on, while Judd is the alternate for the second round.

We gather our stuff, swap hand-shakes and slaps on the back, and get on the bus back to the hotel.  I’m whipped, and after a shower and a drink, Chrisi and I run down the road to play some pub trivia and have some comfort food.  It’s just what the doctor ordered, and by 10 p.m., I’m fast asleep. 

I actually got more sleep the night before, when I didn’t really know what to expect.  Tonight I spend a lot of time worrying about not recovering like I did in the first game.

But when morning comes, I feel pretty good.  I gather all my remaining fancy clothes and head for the bus.  There are only 10 of us on the bus this time, and there’s no lecture from Maggie.  We’re quieter. We’ve started becoming friends, and today we’re going to start knocking each other out of Jeopardy for good, so we’re not sure how to act.  We get into makeup, which doesn’t take as long, and skip the stage manager’s briefing, because we got the point yesterday. We run through a board’s worth of material for rehearsal, and then it’s back to the green room for an hour while we wait for the audience. 

We get to watch today when other games go on, since there are only winners moving on, and no advantage to seeing the games before yours.  We all sit off to the left, with our families unacknowledged across the aisle, and Johnny doing the same crowd warm-up as the last two warm-ups for the drop-in audience on the other side of the theater. 

The first game has been called. Larry, Dan and Elizabeth face off, and Larry is quick on the buzzer and right on a tough final clue, so he moves on.  Dan had the last clue right, too, but was trailing Larry and he’s knocked out.  I wonder if it’s presumptuous or premature to be relieved. 

The second game is a doozy.  John plays very well, and Lori is holding her own. But John is looking good going into Final.  Just then, Matt, Cathy and I get pulled out to get ready, so we don’t see John’s correct answer revealed, nor his bet, which is missing a 1 in the ten thousands place, and is thus not enough to cover Lori’s aggressive bet.  John’s out on a mistake, and Lori moves on to the finals.   Robert tells us this in the green room, and we all consider what kind of pressure there must be to make a guy as sharp as John make such an elementary mistake. 

Then we’re out, back at the podiums, and ready to go.  I’m in the middle spot, and by the end of the first round, I have a lead.  I run through Double Jeopardy without any major snags, and at the end, I only need to bet a couple of thousand to cover Cathy.  The final clue will be in 20th century novels, and I like my chances.  Before they reveal the clue they tell you to write either “Who” or “What” in the top corner of the screen, and then Alex goes through his routine, and the clue pops up.  I know it.  Dr. Zhivago.  I’m 99 percent sure, and that’s good enough for me.  I write it down quickly, so I check my work and notice that I’ve left out the verb “is,” so I squeeze that into the response, and I relax.  I’m through.

Alex reads Matt’s response, then Cathy’s.  She’s bet enough to cover my score, but I’m not concerned.  Alex moves to me, reveals my response, and a voice yells, “Stop.  We have to stop.” 

I’m relaxed.  I don’t know what the problem is, but I’m assuming it’s to do with the tape or something technical.  Maggie comes over immediately and puts her hand on my back in a comforting show of support.  I’m not sure why, since my answer is correct.  Isn’t it? 

I look again.  Zhivago.  Wait.  Zivago -- Z, not Zh.  Is that what the burly, bearded researcher is gesticulating about over there?  They aren’t looking at me, but I can feel pretty much everyone else in the studio staring.  I’m strangely relaxed.  I’ve made a stupid mistake, not checking my spelling of a Russian name, and it might cost me.  It might not.  Either way, there’s nothing I can do about it. 

Cathy looks stricken and puts a hand on my arm as she assures me that she thinks I should win, that she would give it to me, and that she doesn’t want to win like this.  A class act all the way, that is Cathy.  Maggie looks like she’s waiting for me to freak out, start crying, ruin the take that we’re going to do eventually.    I tell a joke, and soon all of us are laughing through the tension while the judges pick up an honest-to-God RED PHONE.  Are they calling Russia?  Seriously?  Anyway, about a year later, Alex confers with the judges and comes back on to the stage. 

Let me offer a piece of advice here: Don’t play poker with Alex Trebek.  His poker face is excellent.  He waits for the audio playback to cue through his reading of Cathy’s response, then turns to me.  Gulp.  He reads calmly, “You said Dr. Zhivago, you left out the ‘h’ but that’s close enough, and how much did you wager?”

I’m in the finals. 

It’s only after the game that it starts to hit me, how close I came to blowing it with a dumb mistake and how badly it’s shaken me.  As a finalist, I can’t talk to any of the people who have been eliminated once the camera turns off, not even on our way off the stage.  I sit with Larry and Lori (We all thought Charles and Charley would be the tricky name combination.), and try not to shake too much.  We go to lunch, but I’m not hungry at all.  I work through about half of a sandwich and eat a pear, but that’s just about all I can manage.  We’re talking about our stories for the finals, but I’m still standing at the podium watching the judges.  I was ice water while it was happening, but now I’m a wreck.  I want to take a nap.

We head back to the green room, dress for the next game, and try to act like we’re not going to try to beat each other.  We’ve become friends, and it’s weird.   We get a little more makeup on, and then it’s back out on stage.  I knew that someone was going to have to play three games in a row, without much of a break.  It’s me.  I’m glad to be playing, but I’d like to sit for a spell.

We get rolling, and it’s clear that we all belong here.  I miss a daily double, and don’t put together what I’ve started thinking of as my signature Double Jeopardy run.  At final, Lori’s got a bit of a lead, and Larry’s right there behind me.  We bet, I take a stab and get the clue right, as does Lori.  I bet half my total, while she bets very aggressively, so she’s got the lead by $7,500 after the first final round.  Larry missed Final, so he’s in a tough spot, and he’ll need some help in the last game. 

We run back to the green room one more time for a costume change and a touch-up from makeup.  We talk about the game, but at this point, we’re more like performers back stage than contestants, or that’s how it feels to me.  It has taken almost no time at all to get used to the glare of the lights, the music, the applause, the cameras.  I just want to get back to the board, for the clues to flash up so I can mash my button like a rat hoping to get the treat.  It’s that addictive.  I’d play all day if they let me. 

We go back out, and although I can’t remember much of the game, I know that the fact that it went flying by means that I was doing well.  I crush Double Jeopardy, and when I look at the board before Final, I’ve got a commanding lead.  Time to do some math.  I try not to glance at poor John in the stands while I start trying to figure my bet to cover Lori, who trails by a bunch.  I start jotting down numbers, with the unbelievably mellow producer, Glenn, lounging by the podium.  I do some more number crunching, but I can’t make them come out right.  Hang on.  Why is there a negative?  Why can’t I get this to come out right?

Answering fast-paced trivia questions uses a very different part of the brain than doing five-digit subtraction problems does, and it takes me a while to phrase the question in a way that makes sense.  I was down $7,500 to Lori after the first game.  I’m up $20,000 near the end of the second game.  What do I have to do to make sure my total is higher?  Umm, do I have this right?  Am I locked?  Have I won, as long as I don’t do something dumb?  I do the math again.  I look at the board.  I mutter to myself, until Glen tells me not to say anything out loud. 

It should be some indication of how fast the game goes, of how completely the players concentrate on the board, when I say that it took me a full three minutes to realize that I had locked up the tournament before Final Jeopardy.  So I bet small, hoping that I hadn’t overlooked anything or made a fatal error, and go into Final, which I whiff completely.  It doesn’t matter.  I take a deep breath, shake hands with Larry and Lori, and go to meet Alex at center stage. 

There are cameras.  I remember that.  Lots and lots of cameras.  There are promos to shoot and business cards and lots of other stuff that kept me from finding Chrisi and sitting down for a minute.  There is a glass of champagne, which I can’t have on stage, and a cake to cut with all the other contestants gathered around, and finally I get to sit and relax.  If they want to congratulate me, they could walk up a stair or two, I figure.  

I was drained, and nothing had really started to sink in.  We said goodbye to the crew, loaded up on the bus, and headed home.  Spirits were high on the bus, since most people felt like they’d played pretty well to get to the second day, and all were gracious in offering their congratulations.   I called my folks and my brother and told them, then took a shower, had a drink, and went to dinner.  The next morning we were up before dawn and flying home. 

Now there will be a month when I can’t tell anybody anything, and by the time it hits the TV, I will have processed the whole week.  I’m trying to decide how to be smart about the money, and looking forward to the Tournament of Champions, but that’s about it.  My house didn’t get cleaner, nor my desk more organized while all this went on, and the same aggravations apply.  Life goes on.  I just hope I can get a copy of the game on DVD.

Further thoughts on Jeopardy

So, the show has aired and the secret is finally out.  We had one day this month when we could schedule prom for the high school, and, of course, it was the same night as my last game, so we fired up the bus and took the whole high school to the restaurant where the viewing party was being staged.  I’m something of a local celebrity, recognizable in Home Depot, among other places. 

All of the attention has been humbling, believe it or not.  I’m no different from the nerd who did all the reading that got me on the show in the first place, and this grand achievement took place six weeks ago, for me.  Most of my energy has been focused on keeping the secret in a town where secrets are about as common as hens’ teeth.  I’m delighted by the excitement that has enveloped the town, but I won’t be sorry when it subsides and I’m just another attraction to point out to the visitors. 

The thing is this: Playing the game was an exercise in concentrated activity.  Watching the game has been like the longest poker game ever -- with me holding all the aces.  You just can’t let anyone else know that.   Weird. 

Anyway, the Tournament of Champions will be filmed sometime in the fall, and I’ll be back in L.A. for that, with a shot at more money and more attention.  There’s certainly no guarantee that I’ll do as well again. 

As I hope this has conveyed, luck played a big part in the proceedings, and if we started it all over again, I could just as easily have ended up going home earlier.  As it stands, though, I’m still cramming useless little facts into my head, storing the up in case they come in handy.  Max Planck.  Fidelio.  Eero Saarinen.  You never know.

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