Pop Culture

Life after Ken Jennings on ‘Jeopardy’

As a “Jeopardy!” contestant in the post-Ken Jennings era, I got my first glimmer of hope when I arrived at the Sony Pictures Studios lot and met my fellow players.

Brice Sanderson, a burly high school teacher and athletic director from San Bernardino, Calif., introduced himself as the returning champion.

“How many shows have you won?” I asked. “One,” he said.

Yes!

Jennings’ record-breaking 74-game streak had just come to an end. I had feared that whoever beat him would be an intellectual powerhouse, poised for a run of her or his own. Now, for the first time since I decided to audition, I thought I had a realistic chance at winning.

I had dreamed of competing in “Jeopardy!” since childhood. While working the night desk in the Baltimore bureau of The Associated Press, I watched the show regularly — not that it distracted me from my job, of course — and found that my career had helped me answer more clues than ever.

I auditioned in June 2004 in Washington, D.C. and got the call in early November. A contestant’s life is not glamorous — “Jeopardy!” doesn’t pay your airfare or hotel costs, although they give you a discounted rate at a Radisson in Culver City, near the Sony lot. Prize money for second place is $2,000 and third place is $1,000, mostly to defray the costs of travel. So the only way you can make any real money is to win.

Walking on the set, it looked much the same as on television. During commercial breaks, host Alex Trebek takes questions from the audience. He’s goofier and more relaxed than he appears on the show, and he cultivates what fellow contestant Doug Meyer termed a “lounge lizard” persona.

“What do you do when you’re not hosting ‘Jeopardy!’?” a spectator asked.

“Drink!” said Alex, only half-joking. He loves California wine and has a clear affection for the “Potent Potables” category, which came up during one show that day.

Brice, the returning champion, was knocked off by Kevin Blackley, a smooth, confident automotive service consultant. Then Kevin was beaten by Daniel Granof, an associate producer on a reality TV show. Daniel won again before losing to Lisa Osterman.

The next day, I was picked for the first show, along with Patrice Escalle. At the first commercial break, halfway through the first round, I was in third place with just $800. Then, after a few wrong responses that briefly put me into red numbers at minus $200, I started to get my footing.

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“Jeopardy!” tests your knowledge, but also your hand-eye coordination. Mastering the signaling button can give you a big advantage, because if you’re fast, you can ring in first when all three contestants know the answer — a frequent occurrence.

You’re not allowed to ring in until after Alex has finished reading the clue. Out of sight of the cameras, there is a series of lights around the game board. When they illuminate, it’s OK to ring in. If you’re early, you’ll be locked out for a fraction of a second when the lights turn on — more than enough time for your opponents to swoop in.

As my game went on, I developed a rhythm. I wouldn’t really listen to Alex reading the clue — I would read it quickly myself, then focus my eyes on the lights. If I knew the answer, I could hit the button as soon as the lights came on.

I barreled through the first four clues in a “Sportsmen” category — setting myself up to run the category and get some well-deserved applause from the audience. The final, $2,000 clue was about Len Dawson, a Kansas City Chiefs quarterback from the ’60s and ’70s. I knew it, but I couldn’t retrieve his name. I answered, “Who is Ken Stabler?” — an Oakland quarterback from the ’70s with a similar-sounding first name.

Later, I blew a relatively easy Daily Double on which I had bet $3,600. Going into Final Jeopardy, I was tied for second with Patrice, with a relatively paltry $6,600. Lisa had $8,400. The category? “European Capitals.”

I bet it all.

The answer: “In an August 1989 protest, a 2-million-person human chain stretched from Tallinn to Riga to this city.” I knew it immediately: Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania.

How did I happen to know this? It was in the movie “The Hunt for Red October” — I’m a film buff — and I have an interest in Russian history.

I doubled my score to $13,200. Patrice got it wrong. And then things got weird.

The taping stopped. Lisa had written “What is Vilnuis?” — transposing the “i” and the “u.” Spelling is not a factor in the Jeopardy and Double Jeopardy rounds, when you respond verbally. But in Final Jeopardy, the rule is, you can spell the word wrong, as long as you don’t mangle it so badly that the pronunciation of the word would be different.

For five excruciating minutes, we waited. Finally, the judges came to a decision. Lisa’s answer was incorrect.

In the green room, I knelt to the floor and pumped my fists, allowing myself a moment of unbridled joy. But there was little time to celebrate. There’s only about a 10-minute turnaround between shows, and I had to change into a new suit and get my makeup touched up. This time, I was going up against John Smith and Missy Carlson.

As the champion, I had experience on my side and was able to jump out to a lead. But in the Double Jeopardy round, the categories didn’t play to my strengths — “Prehistoric Critters” was truly baffling. I went into Final Jeopardy with $11,600, trailing Missy’s $12,800. John had imploded and didn’t get to stick around for Final Jeopardy.

The category was “20th Century Athletes.” Again, I bet it all.

“In 1938, at age 25, she became the youngest person made a Knight First Class of the Order of St. Olav.” The only female athlete from that era whose name I could recall was Babe Didrikson. I wrote it down.

The correct response: “Who was Sonja Henie?”

Missy made a big wager and ended up with a well-deserved $23,300 payday. I left the studio with winnings of $15,200, before taxes.

Watching my episodes on television brought a mix of exhilaration and frustration. I couldn’t do anything about Sonja Henie, but I should have done better on the show I won. Just getting that Daily Double would have doubled my eventual winnings. And since I didn’t do well enough to be invited back for a future Tournament of Champions, I can never be a contestant again.

That said — I am a “Jeopardy!” champion.

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