I lost on Jeopardy!
There isn’t a better feeling than having one of your dreams come true. And when it turns into embarrassing yourself in front of your family, friends, entire college, and a national television audience, well that’s my story.
Growing up, it was a huge dream of mine to get on Jeopardy! (note the exclamation point is part of the name, not just that I exclaim a lot). I got started with trivia early — one of my favorite books as a kid (and I still have it) is “Fabulous Facts About the Fifty States”. I memorized it. By high school, I was captain of our Knowledge Bowl team. Yes, I was that nerdy back then too. My team went to the state tournament all four years, and won the last three of them.
I had applied yearly to the Jeopardy! teen tournament, and then the college tournament and finally was selected at random to come take the test for the tryouts in 1995, my sophomore year in college. My parents surprised me with a ticket to LA to take the test and insisted I go even though I had a major exam the day after. So I flew down to LA and went straight to the Jeopardy! studio to give it a shot. About 200 people from colleges all along the west coast/mountain states sat in the studio audience and took a 50 “answer” test which we had to write responses in the form of a question. After an hour of scoring, they came out and called about 15 of us down to the front. I can’t express my gleefulness at being one of them. They said we had scored the highest on the test, turned on some cameras, asked us to introduce ourselves, and then do a few mock questions against each other. I was incredibly hoarse from screaming at Big Game the day before so I talked about that during my introduction. I did well on the mock questions and was first in on most of them. About 45 minutes later it was all over.
Maybe 3 months later, I got a Fed Ex package and call that they wanted me to come join the 1995 College Championship. I mean wow - a true dream come true. I started watching Jeopardy! marathons, bought the home game, studied a few trivia books, and still tried to get through finals before the taping in March.
Jeopardy! put us up at the Beverly Hilton which was the fanciest hotel I had ever stayed at. But I hardly noticed. When I got to taping the next day, it was all a blur. They had to tape the entire competition - two weeks worth of shows (10 total) over two days so it was pretty tightly run. We sat in the green room waiting for our shot. Finally my name was called.
I walked on to the set and it felt like I was living the dream. There was Alex Trebek, the big screens, the familiar sounds, and a buzzer. I was up against a junior from North Carolina and senior from Wisconsin. Then it started.
Uh oh. I found that when I knew the answer and was buzzing in, I wasn’t getting in first. You have to time it just right when Alex Trebek stops reading the question. I just wasn’t getting the hang of it. Half the first round board had gone by and I’d maybe answered a couple of times. I then kept trying to buzz in and got in a few times even when I didn’t know the answer and got it wrong. The girl from North Carolina was taking off and well ahead of me. Got to catch up!
After the first round, Alex Trebek came and talked to each one of us. We had written some things to talk about. He asked me about my major - Symbolic Systems, and then not from my cheat sheet he asked when I got my first computer and laughed when I said I was 5.
All I wanted to do was get ready to get the buzzer timing right. So the second half started and well nope, I wasn’t doing any better. I started coming in on more I didn’t know and entered negative territory. Oh, and then I got one right and was slightly positive. And I got to pick the next clue - and it was a daily double. An Audio Daily Double. I wagered $1000 (more than I had). The answer was about a song at the Grammys and identifying the artist. My limited rock music knowledge was taunting me. I guessed “Who are the Counting Crows”. The audience groaned. My fellow competitors groaned. I even think Alex Trebek groaned. It was “Crazy” by “Aerosmith”. At this point it was pretty much over for me. The girl from North Carolina had more than $10000 and I had bubkis. I threw caution to the wind and luckily got a few more right at the very end to come out of negative territory and end with $1500.
My one claim for fame is that I was the only one to get Final Jeopardy! right. The category was “The Elements” and the answer was “The highest numbered element with a single letter symbol”. I guessed “What is Uranium” and was right, while the guy from Wisconsin wagered everything ($5000) and got it wrong, and the girl from UNC wagered just a few hundred since she had already won and also was wrong. I doubled my money to $3000 and came in second. I slunk away from the stage during the closing credits.
I got to watch the rest of the shows and was slightly relieved when the girl from Harvard did even worse than I did and ended in negative territory. We commiserated later.
It was a few months before the show finally aired. So many of my friends and family knew I had been in the college tournament Jeopardy! and were excited to watch. I tried to avoid it. For weeks after the show finally aired, I was prank called by friends with Crazy by Aerosmith playing when I picked up the phone or on my answering machine.
On the plus side, I received a nice package of parting gifts including a years supply of Klondike bars, Hooked on Phonics, and Natural White tooth whitening (which I still have as my reminder of this not being a dream).
And I learned that if you can survive losing badly and confusing Aerosmith with Counting Crows on national TV and in front of your family, friends, college and more, then there is no reason to be embarrassed trying most anything else too.