In His Own Words: An Ocracoke
story of his big win on “Jeopardy!”
By CHARLES TEMPLE
I’ll try to record my experience with
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,
18-month window of opportunity was about to close. I knew
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
last year. She said they’d choose the list in early March,
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
beating you, all you have to do is answer the ones you feel good
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
this, to answer widely diverse questions quickly. It’s not
being smart. It’s about having really quick access to lots
lots of different, varied information. I see the world as a
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
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
trying to pick out other possible contestants in the crowd, then
collapsed, exhausted. The next day, we rented a car
drove around pretty much all of L.A. Down to Hollywood, out
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
a mid-afternoon meal, and that served us both for dinner. In
hotel, we added pork rinds and cold beer. High-falutin’, we
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
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
the elevators, where a very tall, very friendly Dan was holding an
extra shirt over his shoulder. I introduced myself as a
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.
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
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
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
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
The real trick is getting the timing right on the buzzer, and nobody
looked comfortable right at first. There are two rows of
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
different styles of getting in first. Some wait for the
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
have found the touch after a few misses and false starts.
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
trying to be relieved and calm down. The next game is close
There’s a movie on, mostly to keep us from hearing what’s happening
outside. We have to be sequestered, because the top four
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
from start to finish, and as we hear the final round of applause
through the walls, whatever attention we were paying starts to
Robert finally comes back in, and calls Charley, Viki, and
Caitlin. It looks like I’ll be seeing the rest of
but I’d just as soon skip it and go play. We end that movie
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
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
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
eat. I really don’t want to wait another hour to
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
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
in, and Sally, Larry, Grafton, Elizabeth, Judd and I look up
expectantly. The names come out, and I’ll be playing Grafton,
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
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
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
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
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
in rehearsal, and it is not working. By the time we get to
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,
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
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
I’m in second place, I think, and feeling pretty good. We
break, and when the second round starts, I hit my stride. I
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
but $400. The question is nasty, something nobody sitting
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
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
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
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
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
of us on the bus this time, and there’s no lecture from
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,
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
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.
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
finals. Robert tells us this in the green room, and
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
middle spot, and by the end of the first round, I have a
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
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
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,
my response, and a voice yells, “Stop. We have to
I’m relaxed. I don’t know what the problem is, but I’m
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
I look again. Zhivago. Wait. Zivago -- Z,
Zh. Is that what the burly, bearded researcher is
about over there? They aren’t looking at me, but I can feel
pretty much everyone else in the studio staring. I’m
relaxed. I’ve made a stupid mistake, not checking my spelling
a Russian name, and it might cost me. It might not.
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
Cathy. Maggie looks like she’s waiting for me to freak out,
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?
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
playback to cue through his reading of Cathy’s response, then turns to
me. Gulp. He reads calmly, “You said Dr. Zhivago,
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.
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.
sit with Larry and Lori (We all thought Charles and Charley would be
the tricky name combination.), and try not to shake too much.
go to lunch, but I’m not hungry at all. I work through about
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
still standing at the podium watching the judges. I was ice
while it was happening, but now I’m a wreck. I want to take a
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
and then it’s back out on stage. I knew that someone was
have to play three games in a row, without much of a break.
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
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
lead, and Larry’s right there behind me. We bet, I take a
and get the clue right, as does Lori. I bet half my total,
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
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
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
the glare of the lights, the music, the applause, the
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
producer, Glenn, lounging by the podium. I do some more
crunching, but I can’t make them come out right. Hang
Why is there a negative? Why can’t I get this to come out
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
down $7,500 to Lori after the first game. I’m up $20,000 near
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
do the math again. I look at the board. I mutter to
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
hadn’t overlooked anything or made a fatal error, and go into Final,
which I whiff completely. It doesn’t matter. I take
breath, shake hands with Larry and Lori, and go to meet Alex at center
There are cameras. I remember that. Lots and lots
cameras. There are promos to shoot and business cards and
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
I was drained, and nothing had really started to sink in. We
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
told them, then took a shower, had a drink, and went to
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
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.
house didn’t get cleaner, nor my desk more organized while all this
went on, and the same aggravations apply. Life goes
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
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.
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
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
ever -- with me holding all the aces. You just can’t let
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 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
useless little facts into my head, storing the up in case they come in
handy. Max Planck. Fidelio. Eero