Who is George Saunders?

I don’t precisely blame the author for the brain freeze that cost me $10,000 or more on “Jeopardy!” And yet…


About a year ago, the episodes of Jeopardy! that I had taped in August 2012 aired. I won over $30,000 across three days, including a second-place prize on the third day. I blame my loss on George Saunders — but not really.

Jeopardy! typically tapes five episodes in a row across two consecutive days every other week. I played games 4 and 5 on a Tuesday (which aired as Thursday and Friday episodes) and then returned on Wednesday morning to scare the 12 new contestants as a two-day returning champion. (The show has two alternates on hand plus a returning champion in case someone passes out, is disqualified, or can’t make it at the last minute.)

They needn’t have been frightened. Whatever brain chemistry allowed me to eke out my first win with a fingernail-biting correct Final Jeopardy response (see below), and have a complicated second win with an incorrect Final Jeopardy answer, was depleted by Wednesday morning.

Glenn’s first, and best, win.

Still, I could have won that third game if it weren’t for that rat fink George Saunders.

The question came up in the category of 19th Century Female Authors. Not an area of focus among my memorization or studies earlier in life, but I performed well enough in it. I hit a Daily Double, which makes or breaks many players. You can pay from $5 (the secret minimum) up to your entire current balance.

I bet my whole stake, $5,000—“Let’s make it a true Daily Double, Alex”— because I was far enough behind that there was no chance to win without extremely good luck in Final Jeopardy. I was tired. My brain was empty. I went for the gusto.

There’s a play-by-play of the episode here. Had I bet, say, $1,000, I could have finished on top and won.

The clue?

Amantine-Lucille-Aurore Dupin was the real name of this “manly” authoress whose love life scandalized Paris.

My thoughts raced through the following in about three seconds:

I know there was that movie with Emma Thompson…there was a French author who had a male pseudonym…I have no idea…no idea…wait, was it George Saunders?…no, he is a contemporary author…I am just going to say George Sands, as that is probably wrong but at least close enough that I sound intelligent.
Who is George Sands?

“Ooooo…surrey!” says Alex. “The correct answer is George Sand.” No s. I did my best to look disappointed, even though I was pleased that I hadn’t said something ridiculously off-base. Alex even looked sympathetic.

I hit another Daily Double, and considered my actions against two of Jeopardy’s rules, both of which are exercised relatively infrequently. First, you can’t go to Final Jeopardy unless you have a balance of $1 or more in your game account. Second, if you have less than $2,000 when you hit a Daily Double, you can bet the highest value on the board, which is $2,000. I had nothing; I bet $2,000; I got it right.

But the leading player was no fool. She bet enough to win even if the other competitor, who had more money than I, bet his entire stake, but not enough to come up short if I managed to double my stake. (I call this “threading the needle,” and I did this in my second game. The wrong wager is to bet everything, because then the trailing player—me, in this case—could have a correct answer or bet nothing at all, and win the game.)

The Final Jeopardy category was Kings, one of my worst memorized categories. I wagered nothing. This might seem surprising, except I wasn’t playing to win. I knew the player with slightly more money than I would bet enough that if he were wrong, I would finish in second place; and that the leading player, if wrong, would have over $1,000 more than I were I to double my stake.

Since I thought I would be unlikely to get the right answer, I played for second place. It’s not a secret, but the second-place finisher receives a $2,000 price and the third-place finisher gets $1,000. I wanted that extra $1,000.

Amazingly, I had the correct answer, even though I didn’t know the specific fact. The clue?

The last British monarch to be buried outside the U.K., he was interred in 1727 in the land where he was born.

Too easy. German, of course, because of the history of the monarchy in England at that point. Couldn’t be George III, because George was alive in 1776 and for a bit thereafter. George III’s father was George II and would seemingly have been alive in 1727, as age difference would otherwise have been too severe. Had to be George I.

Alex was mystified that I’d bet nothing. (Oddly, a German was the final answer on my first win: Karl Marx as in Karl-Marx-Stadt, the temporary name of Chemnitz between WWII and the fall of the Berlin Wall.)

If I had any regrets of my entire time on Jeopardy, it was George Sand/s. I had studied novelists, but just not well enough. Even with all the other missed answers, I could still have won day 3, another pile of money, and been a three-time winner, which qualifies one to be picked for a championship tournament (though you also have to win sufficient cash overall). But I simply didn’t know the right answer. I was stunned to get within spitting distance.

I don’t really blame George Saunders. He was an innocent bystander. But I still feel like he owes me $10,000. If we ever meet, I’ll be big about it, and buy him coffee when I present him with my bill.