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Totally Off Topic: My Appearance on Jeopardy!

I’ve had several requests for details about the time I was a Jeopardy! contestant, since I mentioned it in passing the other day. So for the holiday weekend, I thought I’d provide the story. This was all back in 1995-1996, when I lived in New Jersey, and that’s actually how I got into the entire business. Coworkers had told me about how the Merv Griffin production people would be administering the test to get on the show down at the Resort International casino in Atlantic City (also owned by the Griffin company), so I drove down to try it out.
The test was only a short one, meant to be done quickly as a screen, and none of the questions seemed particularly hard. I spent the rest of my time in AC working on my card-counting skills at the blackjack table, which was not too lucrative. In fact, under the rules then – and I’m sure they’ve gotten no better – the same amount of time and effort applied to almost any other activity would surely have provided a greater return. (But at least they couldn’t throw you out, as opposed to Las Vegas).
Not too many days later I got the invite to come down for the longer test, which had many more questions, all of which, I think, were from the $1000 category on the show. This was at the same casino, and I knew that morning, on the drive down, that I was in trouble. I’d gotten a late start, it was rainy, and there was more traffic than I’d counted on. I pulled in a few minutes late, bounded up the escalators, and was met by a lady sitting at a long table in front of a closed door. “I’m sorry”, she said, “the test has already started”.
“But there’s another one in a couple of hours”, she said, to my surprise and relief, “so we’ll just put you down for that”. Just then, there was the sound of someone frantically taking the escalator steps two at a time. Into view came a guy who looked even more frantic than I had – shoes untied, shirt half tucked in, hair sticking up on one side. “Don’t worry!” I called. “There’s another test later!” He caught his breath while taking in this news, and it was then that I noticed that his hands were full of almanacs and trivia books and the like. We walked off together, and he said “Good, good. . .this will give me time to study up some more!”
“I’m pretty much done with it”, I told him. I had been brushing up over the last week on things that I didn’t have covered so well – opera, Academy Award winners, some sports records and American presidential trivia – but I wasn’t lying to him at all. I figured that if I didn’t know something by the day of the test, I was unlikely to remember it when I needed to. “No, I’ve got to read up on things,” the guy said, then turned to me and said “For example, what’s the capital of Uzbekistan?”
“Tashkent”, I told him, with no hesitation. Science, literature, history, and geography were my strong areas. He looked startled. “Oh s$%&!” he said, and sped off for parts unknown, there to clarify his map of Central Asia. After lunch it was time to take the test (much more challenging), and to wait around while the staff graded our sheets. They then called everyone together and read off the names of the people who had passed. Mister Tashkent did not seem to be among them, and I wondered if I’d fatally psyched him out. We did some dry runs of the game at that point, which served (from what I could see) to weed out the people who kept going “Ah. . .ah. . .um. . .” whenever it came time to answer a question.
And that was that, for a few months. They’d told us that we were on the list as possible contestants, and there was no way of knowing when or if we’d be called. But one day I had a message from LA, with the day of a taping, and I flew out for it quite happily. (I should note that the show covered not one penny of expenses, at least for the regular daily contestants). I showed up at the studio nervous but ready to go.
I got to see a couple of shows taped with some of the other crop of contestants before my turn came, and that gave me a chance to see some of the workings. The key to the whole thing was the moment of picking and answering. You had a chance to read the clue off the monitor while Alex Trebek was reading it out loud, and that was the time to figure out if you knew it and to prepare to try to answer it in the form of a flippin’ question. You could not press your contestant’s button too early, though – as they explained in detail, that locked you out for a delay period if you tried it, which would almost surely leave you without a shot. Timing was crucial. You had to wait for Trebek to stop speaking, wait about a sixteenth note of time, and then hit your button.
With the other two guys in my taping, that generally meant that all of us sat there poised while Trebek read off an answer, and then suddenly clickityclickityclickclick we’d all hit the buttons, so close to simultaneously as seemed to make no difference. There were a few times that I knew I’d reached out and snatched the right to answer a question, but others where I thought I had (but hadn’t), along with a couple where I was as surprised as anyone else when my light came on.
It all happened very quickly, and took a lot of concentration and fast thinking. The effort of reading answers and coming with questions, while simultaneously watching the timing, deciding which category to go for, and keeping up with the score of the game was plenty to deal with. I remember two parts of the game very clearly, though. At one point, the taping paused for the commercial break, and some staff members came out to reapply makeup. I needed quite a bit, and Trebek remarked to the guy “You don’t spend that much time on my makeup”. “You don’t sweat this much, Alex” came the response.
The other part I recall clearly was the Daily Double, which I was actively prospecting for whenever I had control of the board in the second round. I’d lost out on a few questions, and needed it to get back in the game. To my happiness, it came up in Geography, and I bet most of what I could. Up came the answer: “Lake Nasser sits on the border of these two African countries”. My brain immediately pictured a map, while I played for time. Nasser could only mean Egypt, but I was having trouble figuring out the second country. “What are Egypt and. . . .” I started, while thinking to myself that it couldn’t be Libya, that was a total desert out there. . .and the other side of the country, that was a coastline, the Red Sea. Trebek was looking at me, eyebrows raising a bit in anticipation, as if to say “You’re not going to blow this one, are you?”, as I finished with “. . .Sudan!”. He gave a quick smile, and we were off again.
By the end of the game, I was in second place by $200 or so, a close race. The final Jeopardy category was English Literature, which gave me great happiness. The clue was “Mellors is the gamekeeper in this novel”, and I immediately wrote “Lady Chatterly’s Lover” on the scraggly, time-delayed screen. My only hope was that the guy ahead of me didn’t get it, but alas, we all did. I lost, $13,300 to $13,100. The sensation was exactly that of coming off a carnival ride; the first thing I wanted was to go around again.
What valuable prizes did I win? Furniture, which I decided later to decline. I believe that a lot of it gets turned down like this, and probably for similar reasons to mine. I didn’t care for the style, and had no place to put it. I could have perhaps sold it to someone, but this was pre-Craigslist, and in the meantime I was going to be paying tax on the full retail value, both to the IRS and to the state of California (a state tax form had been included in my going-away packet). A couple of weeks after I got back home, a package showed up with some boxes of Miracle-Gro, various flavors of cough drops, and other “Some contestants may also receive. . .” items (but alas, no Rice-a-Roni, which my family never ate while I was growing up, and which I always associated solely with game shows).
So that was my Jeopardy! experience. I enjoyed it tremendously, and I told people when I got back that I would have liked to be a contestant on the show for a living. A diet of Miracle-Gro and cough drops might have eventually impaired my button-pressing response times, though.

22 comments on “Totally Off Topic: My Appearance on Jeopardy!”

  1. DaveK says:

    C’mon, you’re a scientist: does this really make sense to you?
    Q: What are Egypt and Sudan?
    A: Lake Nasser sits on the border of these two African countries.
    This is why I can’t respect Jeopardy!

  2. mittimithai says:

    This was a friday evening treat. You are such a great teller of stories.

  3. johnnboy says:

    Good story. I also had the good fortune to go on Jeopardy in my younger days, albeit the french canadian version (which strangely was also called Jeopardy, which doesn’t actually mean anything in french, but which was pronounced with a french accent). I was lucky to win for 4 shows (you get better at the button-pressing with practice, which kind of gives an unfair advantage to returning contestants), with the fourth being the last of the season. I was supposed to return on the first of the next season, but sadly the show was cancelled in the summer… I like to tell people that they had to cancel because I broke the bank. The winnings were definitely not on a par with those on the US show, but 8K $ (tax free in Quebec) was still a lot of money for a grad student in those days. Like you, I don’t think I could repeat the performance now, I my brain is not nearly as brisk today as it was then.

  4. RKN says:

    Engagingly recalled. Thank you for sharing. I guessed Iran & Iraq for the Lake Nasser question. Sorta close geographically speaking, but Jeopardy doesn’t award partial credit 🙁

  5. Anonymous says:

    @RKN: Iraq and Iran are not “African countries”, not in the right continent, or even close to it.

  6. RKN says:

    As many of my instructors used to tell me, “Read the question (answer in this case) carefully!”
    My bad.

  7. RKN says:

    As many of my instructors used to tell me, “Read the question (answer in this case) carefully!”
    I might quibble about the not even close part, but nevertheless my bad.

  8. Yancey Ward says:

    I was watching Jeopardy for the first time in years last week, and my brain is definitely slowing down. When I was in my 20s, I was probably good enough to win on the show (I keep an enormous store of useless info in my head), now I would finish third pretty much routinely, and all because my thinking gets slower and slower as the years pass by.
    Now, for an observation and question- if I had the lead going into Final Jeopardy, I would only bet exactly the amount I need to tie for first place if I and the person in second both got the question correct, and that person bet everything. Why is it that almost no one ever does this?

  9. johnnyboy says:

    @9: because it doesn’t make sense ? Presuming the runner up gets it right, If you too get it right you tie (and presumably split the money), if you get it wrong you lose. If you bet one dollar more and you get it right, you win. Or is it because you’d want to see what happens if there is a tie ?

  10. TOSG says:

    @9,10: Hmm, interesting – in the event of a tie, I’m pretty positive that both players keep their full total and go on to play the next day. So, I guess it’s just a question of whether you want to face that opponent or a new one in the next game. I’m not surprised that most people choose to try to win outright, but a little surprised that nobody takes the strategy that Yancey Ward suggested.

  11. Yancey Ward says:

    Yes, TOSG is correct- in the event of a tie, both players receive the full amount on their monitors and return as co-champions the next day. I can understand maybe wanting to dispatch a competitor that gave you a tight competition, but not wanting to dispatch one you may have bettered by a margin greater than 20%- you don’t know the quality of competitor you will compete against the following day if you do so.

  12. Yancey Ward says:

    And just to make it clear- you see lots and lots of competitors bet just enough to win by $1 in the situation I described, so it isn’t the case where they are betting to maximize their payout based on their judgment of their knowledge of the category for Final Jeopardy, but rather are betting just to send the second place competitor home with a LZBoy and coffee table.

  13. annonie says:

    What does it matter? If you bet to tie, you continue to the next show if your question is right. If you bet to win by $1, you continue to the next show, if the answer is right. The resulting difference is less than $1 in your pocket in winning or losing once the taxes are taken out of the winnings.
    WINNINg not tying is part of human nature and of most person’s phsycological make-up. Some undoubtedly try to win big, going into the game with the outlook that the risk to win bigger is better than in trying to tie for less reward. They often feel that they have less to lose and more potentially to gain as they’ve made it to that point. Hey, it’s not like playing roulette in Las Vegas where you win to take more money home than you came with, but if you lose you give the casino YOUR cash.

  14. rhodium says:

    I tried out in the California studios in the early 80’s and the system was slightly different. About 100 people took a written test (were the answers were just answers and not in the form of a question) then we waited while the tests were scored. Three or four of us were called back after an hour wand went onto the set. We were given bells of the sort used on old fashioned hotel front desks. We held them in one hand and used them to ring in to answer. The staff stood around writing things down as we answered. Afterwards we got to stand behind the contestant stations and take each other’s pictures but none of us (as far as I know) ever got called to appear. Alex was not around.

  15. newnickname says:

    So I’m wondering about other famous chemist contestants on TV game shows. I can’t think of any really big ones. Did RB Woodward appear on the Price is Right but lose everything on the Plinko board? Did bad luck get EJ Corey the Bankrupt spin on Wheel of Fortune? Any childhood or teenage contestants or TV cast members grow up to be famous chemists?
    Mayim Bialik, q.v., comes to mind but she’s neurosci PhD, not chem.
    Why is Paris Hilton more well known than, say, Steven Chu? Come to think of it, why is she famous at all?

  16. Anonymous says:

    “Why is Paris Hilton more well known than, say, Steven Chu? Come to think of it, why is she famous at all?”
    She’s more entertaining, and has bigger boobs.

  17. XIMIK says:

    @17: While Steven definitely loses in the boobs department, he is much more entertaining. In a different kind of way, though… 😉

  18. Toad says:

    As a follow-up, I think the story you told after one of the commercial breaks is also worth repeating to the masses. I seem to remember it having to do with you sneaking into a Budapest (?) military parade and getting a glimpse of the head of the Communist (?) state at the time. I hope your recollection is better than mine, but it definitely was a “this could only happen to Derek” story.

  19. Swapna says:

    Fantastic post, Derek. My husband and I participated in the online tests (as often as could), but never got close enough for qualifying. Jeopardy is the one show we miss now that we are out of the US. But, here in Europe, BBC and ITV have some terrific shows: Eggheads, Pointless, and University Challenge……..and not to mention Mastermind.
    Happy quizzing!

  20. Bunsen Honeydew says:

    @9-14 Yes, ties lead to both winners coming back for the next show. There was a three-way tie in 2007:

  21. Josh B says:

    Just plain hilarious.
    If I got up there and the answer was “Your first name” I doubt I’d remember it.
    I’m impressed.

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