Wednesday, May 19, 2010


I went into the game with Terry and Dave. I was happy to get the Yankee Stadium category out of the way first. But then my first ring-in was to name a pope who said Mass there in 1965. I took a guess at a '60s pope, saying John XXIII, and I was wrong. I've been wrong on $1,000 clues before, but this was my first ring-in of the game, and in my eighth game, it was the first time my score was negative. I managed to get back up to $0 by the first commercial break and put it behind me.

In Double Jeopardy, I hit my first Daily Double of the tournament. I had $3,600, and I had planned to wager half of it, but when Alex prompted me to wager, $1,600 came out of my mouth instead. No matter, it's only $200. It was easy enough, and I got it right. I continued playing as it went, and at the end I was at $13,200 to Terry's $17,200. Dave was still a factor at $7,800.

My initial thought on Final Jeopardy wagering was that I would have to choose between keeping my score high enough to beat Terry if he and I got it wrong (assuming Terry bet to beat me by $1), or staying above Dave if he and I got it right (assuming Dave bet everything). When I calculated how much I'd have to wager to beat Dave ($2,401), I realized that I could have it both ways (if wrong, I'd fall to $10,799, and I expected Terry to fall to $7,999 on an incorrect response). Then I got scared that Terry might expect me to wager small just to beat Dave, and also wager small to counteract that. So I considered the largest wagers I could make. To stay ahead of the $7,999 I projected Terry would fall to if he answered Final Jeopardy wrong, I could wager up to $5,200 (I cut it down to $5,199, just in case) and stay ahead of Terry if we were both wrong. I realized that this was more than enough to get ahead of Terry, and decided I could just wager to barely surpass him. Going for $4,001 seemed the simplest, and it was guaranteed to win me the game if Terry was wrong and I was right.

After locking in my $4,001 wager, I thought about the scenarios in which I would win or lose, given my wager and the ones I predicted for Terry and Dave. I lose to Terry if he gets it right, no matter what else happens. I win if I get it right and Terry gets it wrong, no matter how Dave does. I win if everyone gets it wrong. I lose to Dave if he gets it right. I figured we were more likely to get one that stumped everyone than we were to get one that I'd get and Terry would miss.

When the clue was revealed, I tried to think of any 20th century Frenchmen I could. Proust was the first to pop into my mind, but it didn't seem right. Camus didn't seem right either, because I thought he might already have been dead by the time mentioned in the clue, but I stopped thinking there and wrote down his name anyway.

Alex went to Dave first. "Who was Sartre?" was correct. I started enjoying my final moments on the Jeopardy stage, sighing and being happy for Dave beating me—then his wager of $213 was revealed. He had wagered to beat Terry, but I knew at that moment he wasn't going to beat me. I was stunned. Alex came to me, revealed the response I knew was wrong, and revealed the wager that I knew would at least keep me in second place. Dave was at $8,013, and I had $9,199. Then he came to Terry, sounding doubtful. Terry hadn't gotten it either, but he did make the wager I expected from him, dropping to $7,999. In the moment Alex announced me as the winner, I almost smacked my podium, but I stopped myself because I had done that at the end of my fifth game and I didn't want to be caught doing the same thing twice. Terry hugged me (which is as incredible an experience as winning on Jeopardy), and I caught the hugging bug and turned and hugged Dave. "It should have been you" came out of my mouth, and I immediately wondered whether it was the appropriate thing to say. (Dave took it well, not the way I worried he would.)

I was herded (can one person be herded?) to a row of seats in the audience all by myself, where I would sit and watch the other two semifinals and try to let it sink in. Half an hour later, Jason joined me. We went to lunch with contestant coordinator Robert and the last semi-final winner. Two more games.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Morning of the Semifinals

I was able to sleep a little longer, because our time to meet in the lobby was later (presumably, with six fewer people, and with everyone having already been briefed, there was less contestant prep time). But I got a wake-up call sometime after 6 am, which wasn't what I wanted. I still managed to asleep for a while longer after that, until the call came at the time I had intended.

I got dressed, ate my sandwich, grabbed my extra clothes, and headed down to the lobby to meet everyone again. Christine was there, just to say hi to everybody and wish us luck. I liked that.

The rest, I can't quite work out the timeline in my head. Here are a few things that happened, not necessarily in the order they occurred.

I ran a category (I think against Dave and Andy) in the rehearsal game.
I had a terrible coughing fit in the makeup chair (it seemed like every breath I took coated my throat in flesh-colored dust). Lisa had to get a water bottle for me.
It was announced that I was playing against Terry and Dave. I noted that the three male five-time champions were together.

What I know came last: on the way out of the green room, I said "see you in the finals" to Jason, then Andy, then every contestant my eyes fell upon. I think including Terry and Dave.

Quarter-Final and Afterwards

Jason, Vijay, and I finally got up there. I went in believing that I could at least rack up a wild card score, and that I'd be happy and have fun. My plan was to be jubilant when introduced, and that went off without a hitch.

There isn't much I can say about the game, but I lived with my bum ear, and focused enough on the game that my head didn't bug me. The rest just whizzed by. I was in the lead for quite a bit, and noticed as the last $800 clue came up that I was $400 behind Vijay, and I could guarantee myself at least a tie for the lead if I got it. Then Jason beat me to it. And as the last clue, worth $400, was revealed, I figured I could tie Vijay. Then Vijay beat me to it. So it goes. The lead wasn't necessary.

I had $14,800, and I had gone in thinking I needed to be in the $12,000-$16,000 range for a wild card. Then I bumped my minimum to $12,225 just in case someone else had the $12,000 plan. And decided I wouldn't let myself fall below $13,000 if I got above it before Final Jeopardy. So with $14,800, I decided it was best to attempt to clear the $16,000 mark, so I wagered $1,225, which was fine because I'd be safely above $13,000 still if I got it wrong.

The clue was revealed, dealing with a state whose rainwater drained to the Pacific, Atlantic, and Hudson Bay. My only strategy was to name a midwest state I thought would have a river that went to New York (I read Hudson Bay and thought Hudson River, a mistake I didn't realize until I told my brother about the game that night).

Jason was in third place, and his response was revealed first. He was right (Montana) and bumped his score up to $11,500 (an amount I worried about). I was wrong with Ohio and fell to $13,575. Vijay, who had been $800 ahead of me, got it wrong, but only wagered $500 and won. He walked out and joined Alex on the stage, and Alex said, "And here are the wild cards, the four high scores among non-winners..." followed by the consternation of the people running the show. Alex was supposed to introduce the four winners of the previous games.

Jason and I remained in suspense as Vijay returned to his podium. (I was afraid that Jason, who could have won with a bigger wager, would fall short with his score. I was more concerned for him than myself, although I let doubt creep in about my score too.) They taped Vijay walking to Alex again, and Alex said, "Vijay will be in the semifinals with this week's other winners..." and the victorious faces introducing themselves appeared on the monitor (this was from when we said our names and hometowns before any of the tapings). And now at the appropriate moment, he introduced the wild cards again. Nick and Dave Belote appeared on the monitor, and then Alex started talking. That was the moment of realization, and then Alex said that Dave's score had been $4,999, and Jason and I knew that we were both through as well. I celebrated, being relieved not only at having done what I came to do, but also at Jason's low wager having turned out well for him.

The worst part of winning the games in my original run was knowing that I was depriving my opponents of their only chance at the same. I think I apologized to more than one person in my moments of victory. There was nothing to apologize for this time; we were all successful, and moving on.

All fifteen contestants gathered on stage to take a group picture with Alex, and yell some stuff for promotional material. As the previous contestants came on stage, it dawned on me that not everyone had been as successful as the trio I was in. Ryan was the first one I remember seeing who I realized hadn't shown up as a winner or a wild card. Then Stephen, Christine, Patrick, Joey, and Regina Robbins. Stephen was in a daze, alluding to what happened to him. (He wagered $16,350 out of $16,400 from a tie for second place on Final Jeopardy, and got it wrong.) I fear I reacted with an exclamation mark and a question mark, and Stephen added, "I don't want to talk about it." The happiest moment of my Jeopardy career was followed by wishing we all could have moved on.

After everything was done on stage, we left the studio. I greeted my cheering cadre and hugged everyone I could. Then I saw 1997 (and onward) Jeopardy champion Bob Harris. I thought he might be there (Christine's Winner's Blog mentioned that he was a friend of hers, and I was hoping he'd be back for her ToC), and had brought my copy of Prisoner of Trebekistan (his book on his Jeopardy experience) and a Sharpie. I accosted him and asked if he could sign my book, and he seemed pretty thrilled about it. I shook his hand and hurried off to the van back to the hotel.

My head hurt again, and I thought I might crash the moment I got into my room. But I didn't. I stayed up, watched Regina's first Jeopardy episode, and ate a big dinner at the hotel restaurant. I ordered more than I could eat, and had half my sandwich boxed up. I went back to my room, showered, shaved, and tried to sleep.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Meeting Contestants, Sitting in Green Room

Tuesday morning I woke up, got dressed, brought an extra shirt, and headed down to the lobby. I was early, but not the first one there. I can't remember who showed up in what order, but I remember the atmosphere: it was like a high school reunion. One where you remember everybody, with the strange detail that you're actually meeting all of them for the first time. I remember Liz Murphy, beyond conversation distance, smiling and waving and saying, "Hi, Stefan!" I said, "Hi, Liz!" back to her. That was the first thing we said to each other. When Ryan Chaffee showed up, I heard him say hello to Stephen Weingarten (who defeated him in December), and I thought he sounded like an evil character greeting his arch-nemesis. (But his voice sounds like that all the time. Maybe he was injecting further evil, or maybe I was just hearing what I wanted to hear.) He asked me if I was nervous, but I felt pretty okay. I was just enjoying the experience.

When we had everybody, we piled into a van. I sat next to Terry Linwood (who looked like the picture of cool in his hat and shiny suit). I can't remember what we all talked about, but it was a pleasant ride.

At the studio, we went into the green room for the usual briefing by Maggie. We were all seasoned professionals, so it didn't go as long as at regular tapings. Therefore we got to ask all sorts of questions, mostly pertaining to our various curiosities. Vijay Balse revealed himself to be as well versed in the little details of Jeopardy history as I was.

I can't remember where it fits into the timeline, but two or three of us at a time went out from the green room onto the stage, where we were interviewed for the website. They also had us force a laugh. (Some of these laugh shots, but thankfully not mine, can be seen in the ToC promo, also on the site.) I may have babbled a bit, but I mostly had good things to say.

When the time came, the first three (Ryan, Liz, and Patrick Tucker) left to play the game. The rest of us were left to watch a movie in the green room, and Talladega Nights was quickly chosen.

Time went by, groups of three left the room, and I was still in there with diminishing company. Talladega Nights ended and Tropic Thunder was started. The lunch break came, and the seven of us remaining (Justin, Christine Valada, Vijay, Joey Beachum, Jason Zollinger, Kevin, and me) had to stay in the green room, eating sandwiches, salad, and fruit. I started realizing that I wasn't fully recovered from being sick, and my early morning and ear weirdness was doing funny things to my head. I tried to relax after Christine, Joey, and Justin were called. I'd be playing against Jason and Vijay in less than an hour.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Further Prologue: Hotel

After going to a clinic the Sunday before the Tournament of Champions taped, and learning that at least my ear wasn't infected (although I had felt pressure in it to the point of pain earlier that day), I packed for the hotel. I was local, but I wanted to enjoy the hotel for as long as Jeopardy had reserved me the room. Sunday through Thursday was the plan, and I was sticking with that.

I didn't know what kind of amenities there would be, so I brought a few things with me. An alarm clock came along, because I knew waking up on time would be paramount. I brought my mp3 player, and because I didn't like the idea of shoving a little speaker into my poor ear (not to mention falling asleep with it there), I brought some small computer speakers as well.

I arrived at the hotel and checked in. I went to my room on the 18th floor, which, due to hotels' convention of not having a 13th, was really the 17th floor. Some have heard about my affinity for the number 17 (in my first two games, my winning totals contained three 17s: $19,917 and $17,017), and I was taking what I could get. I know that if I had been on the floor actually called the 17th, I would have ignored the fact that there was no 13th. As it was, I ignored the fact that two subterranean floors were also counted, even though they went by names and not numbers.

I got to my room, and discovered immediately that not only was there an alarm clock, but it also had a jack for mp3 player input; it plugged right in where headphones go, and I could listen to my music on better speakers than the ones I had! Being in the hotel room made the whole thing real for me. I jumped up and down, leapt onto the bed several times, and ran back and forth between the door and the window (which, by the way, had a little balcony on the outside).

That night and all of Monday, I spent mostly not knowing what to do with myself. I ate a big breakfast at the hotel restaurant Monday morning. While I was sitting at the table, I saw fellow ToC-er Justin Bernbach being led to a table. I think we noticed and recognized each other at the same time. We shook hands and chatted a bit; he asked me if I had studied, and looked surprised when I said I hadn't. He ate at his table, and I stayed at mine and relaxed after deciding I'd had enough of the breakfast buffet, reading poetry and waiting for him to finish so we could talk for a little while longer. He pointed out another ToC contestant, Christine Valada, sitting at another table, but she was reading and we decided not to accost her.

In the afternoon, I took a bus into Beverly Hills and ate at a Chipotle. (A ritzy hotel near Beverly Hills, and I take a bus and eat at a fast food chain. I savor the incongruousness. That's what L.A. is all about.)

I hung around in the lobby some more. I recognized the most recent College Champion, Nick Yozamp, and called his name. I don't know if he had seen me on the show, so I introduced myself to him and his parents. We talked about how exciting it was, and he laughed a lot. Dude's got a perpetual smile on his face.

I did a lot of going up to my room, going back down to the lobby, exploring the grounds, and engaging in general aimlessness. I wanted to meet more champs, but talking to Justin and Nick, having a brief glimpse of Christine, and recognizing three-time champ and alternate Kevin Joyce (with enough uncertainty that I didn't attempt to talk to him) was all I got that day.

I watched that night's Jeopardy in my room (playing along, as had been my routine for about a year and a half at that point—and doing quite well, I might add), went back down to the hotel restaurant and had a good dinner, then went up to my room, showered, ordered a wake-up call, and tried my best to go to sleep (it seemed that whenever I was doing nothing, I would be seized with fits of coughing).


After I lost on Jeopardy, I was unhappy about it. I thought maybe I could channel that unhappiness into something better, perhaps by throwing myself into studying for the Tournament of Champions I felt I'd inevitably be invited to. I got a five subject notebook, and I was sure I'd fill it with anything and everything I thought of or noticed around me that I felt would be useful on the show. And when I was told my job would be ending in two weeks the Friday after my losing show aired, I was glad to have tons of time to fill it.

All I ever wrote in it was a handful of subjects I thought would be good to study, and Gold, Sword, Juno, Omaha, and Utah. And on the last page months later, when I started working again, some bus times.

I got called near the end of February (in fact, on the anniversary of when they first called me last year), and learned I was indeed invited to compete in the ToC. My time had wound down, and I decided that since I hadn't studied at all, this was no time to start. I became determined to have as much fun as possible with the whole experience, and to just let it happen.

Two Saturdays before the taping, my family had a St. Patrick's Day party. We ended up leaving my aunt's house late. I didn't tell anyone, but I had hoped to get to work Sunday morning; I had called myself a "maybe" for overtime work that day (I originally gave a categorical "no," but changed my tune when I got scoffed at by my supervisor), and I made sure to get up really early so I might get over there for 8:30. (This happened to be the Sunday morning that clocks were set forward.) I awoke miserable, realized that there was no way I could get to work on time with Sunday morning buses, and gave up, but I didn't go back to bed.

After surviving that day tired, I didn't think much about it until that Tuesday night. At choir practice, I sang in falsetto at a part that our director encouraged the men to sing with the altos, and discovered a rasp to my head voice. By the end of that night, my throat hurt.

I felt worse on Wednesday, and worse on Thursday. I was better on Friday and Saturday.

(Speaking of Friday, something else that was nice that day was getting Chinese food. In my fortune cookie was this slip of paper:
I put it in my wallet, and it's been there almost continuously since.)

And then I woke up Sunday hardly able to hear in my right ear. This would last for weeks, and the taping was two days away.