The final scores revealed and champion declared, we are ushered around the podia to our marks at center stage for the banter with Alex that plays behind the closing credits.1 Given the circumstances there is little room for substantive conversation, so we make light talk about some aspect of the game.2 This is to be the peak of our interaction with our host, who promptly heads backstage to prepare for the next go-round. As the winner I do not experience the same emotions as my fellow contestants—but I will soon enough, along with everyone who ever plays Jeopardy.3

When the music clears the sense of urgency quickly descends again. One may be the reigning champion but contemplating your status is not on the production schedule—the next minutes are purely practical. The audience is a blur as I pass by the coordinators’ desk and am intercepted by the supremely placid audio technician, back for his microphone,4 and am deposited back in the green room to switch outfits. This is one of the more comforting aspects of victory: at least the effort of preparing a spare camera-friendly ensemble will not have been in vain. A contestant coordinator proffers water and sees to it that the winner makes adequate progress in returning to the stage.5 The makeup artist goes about her task with the subdued competence of someone who has seen it all, and our conversation meanders to the transforming effects of cosmetics on Hollywood types. It is a minor joy to be back in the crisp light of the makeup room, which provides the lone moment of stillness before heading back into the mix.

Returning to the set I take my place at the first podium, a welcome promotion. I discover which contestants have been drawn for slots two and three, though our pregame conversation is minimal as staff scurry about. We engage in a ritualistic validation of the buzzers, seemingly designed as a centering mechanism for players as much as it is a technical check; before the game and at every break in action we go down the line in order: ring in once, lights on, good.

The studio darkens, the audience settles, and the machine starts up again. Within the narrow parameters of the host’s entrance there is little opportunity for variation, but after several thousand iterations Alex betrays none of this repetitiveness. He gives himself a vertical fist pound as he comes out, the first time I’ve seen that gesture without a second party involved.6

I start off with a word picture category, a format Jeopardy’s writers offer up only sparingly. This requires us to direct our attention to a floor-level monitor across the stage to view the images, and they blank me so thoroughly I may as well be staring at the ceiling through the first four clues. Both challengers are off to a solid start, and as we near the halfway mark of the round I have successfully rung in all of two times. There is a bit of laughter when I offer my name as a correct response, which has likely not happened often in Jeopardy history.7 This is inexplicably yet somehow obviously humorous to all present.

Extrapolating from my early performance does not bode well, but I have a strategy and will stay the course: play calmly, do nothing rash, find the Daily Double, and know when to go big. 22 clues in I find it, and after a second to steel myself I go all-in.8 While I read the clue Alex mentions “Africa’s peace bishop”; the fact that he was my college graduation speaker certainly helps,9 and just like that I vault into the lead, never to relinquish it.

Over the day’s shooting the number of glitches is higher than one might expect, considering the efficiency that characterizes the operation. The first-round game board freezes up during its checkered reveal, and since that forms a continuous shot with the opening the whole thing needs be redone. For the third show Alex starts his recap of the prior game, stumbles over a line, aborts it with a mild epithet and walks back behind the board to start again.

During one of these technical delays, while he waits silently at his opening spot near my podium, Alex does a spontaneous tap dance in his black loafers.10 It is a humanizing and touching thing—perhaps he has a more theatrical bent than he lets on? —but it lasts only briefly as the show restarts.

At one point during play a cell phone starts ringing, loudly and not far away, and I hear the tones slowly fading as its owner walks away with the device instead of silencing it. In the back of my mind I expect a halt to filming, but Alex keeps going as if nothing is amiss. We play on without a hitch. I later learned it belonged to one of the staff, which explains the lack of dirty looks that might have been sent in the direction of the audience.11

Contestants only get their photo with Alex once, during a break in their first show, so I stand idly while the publicity shots are taken for my competitors. Alex has perfected a certain non-smile which he reproduces with remarkable consistency, a sort of knowing glance with mouth slightly open, as if he was about to relate some choice bit of gossip just before the camera intervened.

At every break staff are back with water and advice and touchups. Glenn tells us to not use filler words (“I’d like,” “please,” “Alex”) and instead get straight to the point, which defies any instincts you may have towards politeness. Fast television is good television.

The second round starts off better for me as I ring in first on six consecutive clues, including a Daily Double, which collectively add $10,000 to my lead. Soon the arithmetic starts in earnest as I begin quickly assessing the amounts remaining on the board to see if I can be caught. By the latter half of the round victory is certain, so I do nothing for the last eight clues, half tempted to put the buzzer down, knowing that even if the leading challenger garners everything her score will not be sufficient.

I had promised myself that in case of a guaranteed win I would risk the highest safe amount in Final Jeopardy, no matter the category.12 This leads to a prolonged bout of calculation as I check and recheck some very basic math to ensure that in extremis the win will hold by a dollar.

The theme music and bumpers are heard in the studio exactly as they sound on the final broadcast.13 As the famous melody plays I think over the final clue, which is not instantly obvious but my response feels right, and having the win assured liberates the mind. The internets have already commented, but I couldn’t help but catch a whiff of shade-throwing on the part of Jeopardy’s writers towards Donald Trump.14

And just like that, win two comes in with a total nearly twice the size of the first. The process winds back to the beginning and quickly launches again.

This time around it is mentioned that Alex will come back out as soon as he has swapped suits, and given his level of practice we must be dealing with a Superman-in-a-phone-booth level of sartorial efficiency. The challengers are already prepared, meaning that the speed with which the champion gets ready is the bottleneck in the entire operation. Indirectly but nonetheless clearly I receive the bracing message that You Do Not Want to Keep Alex Waiting.

Back to makeup, microphone back on, back to the set to face two more from the group.15 A group of students from an extremely posh L.A.-area high school were for some reason occupying a plurality of the audience seats, but whether due to schedule contingencies or general lack of interest in the proceedings they are gone by the third game, leaving a large gap in the stands that adds to the intimate atmosphere, like playing in your living room.

This game seems messier for all involved, and I get off to a particularly sluggish start: after 19 clues I have rung in twice with only $1,000 to show for it. We end the round with six clues stumping all of us (and will add 11 more in Double Jeopardy, collectively missing almost a third of the game total). I am in last place after the break but intend to stick to my strategy, which requires an altogether different level of self-assurance when things are not going well.16

And gloriously, but alas all-too-briefly, it works: I find the first Daily Double and while plenty of time remains recognize I must make a hard move. I risk everything and once again take a lead that will hold for the rest of the game. Daily Double two follows shortly thereafter, and with it a large wager that prompts the most heart-stopping moment of this run, when it appears that everything is about to go off the rails:

A brief comment on the nature of memory, and the unreliability thereof: I distinctly remembered this response eliciting an immediate and dramatic “yes” from Alex, which incontrovertibly did not happen, a fact the broadcast months later proved to my surprise. It turns out I had taken an example from a game aired weeks earlier and through some unknown process conflated it with my own experience.17

At the end of the second round I have a reasonable cushion but no lock, yet I am still assured of a win with a correct response. “The Western Hemisphere” is the category, and I start visualizing the globe to help prefigure the answer.

But when the clue is revealed (island group on equator, famous visitor in 1835, you’ve probably already worked it out) this high-flying streak begins a sudden plummet.18 In quickly evaluating and discarding possibilities I do not come close to the right region. The only thing I can recall is Jeopardy’s predilection for the various exploits of Captain Cook, who looms large enough in my consciousness to crowd out any other response save his eponymous islands, and I am sunk.19

I have latched on to the wrong thing, and unease is creeping over me but time is up and I cannot write anything else, and my only hope is that both of my opponents are colossally wrong or have gravely miscalculated, given how close their scores are to each other’s and to mine, but then Alex refers to Darwin, and the correct response is blindingly obvious, and this is not going to end well, and the only thing left is to stand silently while this plays out.

The unwinding is inevitable but must be endured, and as soon as the first challenger’s response is revealed it is done, and the second adds her exclamation point, as both have beaten me handily. My baffling stab at an answer comes up, leading to a heartwarming flash of shock from the new champion, who edges out the second challenger for the win.20

A Jeopardy response impacts a contestant in different ways, given the interplay between clue difficulty, score implications, and one’s knowledge base and confidence level. The outcome can be more or less awesome, as in these examples:

I'll take hubris for $600 please Alex

In the hierarchy of results, this Final Jeopardy will go down as a BOATF.21

Immediately upon losing I am hustled over to a desk to sign forms documenting the cash payouts, which seems too casual given the circumstances, find a comforting hug from Maggie, diligent Jeopardy den mother to the end, and then merge into the dismissing studio audience. As a parting gesture I grab a donut from the green room on the way out, having scrupulously ignored the box while the prospect of competition lay ahead.22 In the stream of people spilling out of the building I am reunited with my family and emerge into the warmth and brilliance that is spring in Los Angeles, which agreeably albeit temporarily dulls the sense of loss.23

The last game before the break now complete, the remaining contestants are taken en masse to lunch under the watchful eye of Jeopardy staff. As I am no longer in their number, what culinary delights awaited me in the Sony commissary will remain beyond my ken.24

It is a safe bet that I will never be sadder to miss a corporate cafeteria meal.

Soon: But what does it all mean?  |  All Jeopardy posts

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  1. In some markets these credits are shunted to a corner of the screen in favor of a teaser for the local news, where assorted misdeeds are hinted at in such detail as to hook the Jeopardy viewer, who would otherwise move on.
  2. Imagine stepping off a roller coaster and going directly into a live interview.
  3. A rule broken only once, by a certain Brad Rutter, whose initial run occurred when win streaks were capped at five and who has since won every tournament to which Jeopardy producers dare invite him.
  4. His diligence is for the best, as many a career has been tripped up when the presence of a nearby hot mike was forgotten.
  5. The staff also miss no opportunity to address the winner as “Champ,” which is touching, like something a Little League coach would use to psych up his pitcher.
  6. This auto-dap is further enhanced by a rather chunky loose gold bracelet on Alex’s right wrist, said bling reportedly associated with his mother.
  7. A somewhat obscure distinction, though if an intrepid fan knows of other examples please let me know.
  8. The idea of gambling has never appealed to me, but I may understand the rush: there’s nothing like standing there in the silence, Alex and the specter of a few million prospective viewers waiting expectantly while you look up at the scoreboard, and finally just letting it all go. (A notable difference here, as staff are wont to point out, is that I am playing with house money.)
  9. Thus triggering a retroactive debt of gratitude to the University of Pennsylvania Class of 2003 commencement speaker selection committee for choosing Desmond Tutu, whose speech was notable mostly for an apparent endorsement of the Marxist dictum “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”, which went over with the assembled begowned bankers-to-be about as well as you’d expect, given the places they were about to assume in the economic pecking order.
  10. Unlike his suit these remained unchanged, on the safe assumption that even the most eagle-eyed viewer isn’t paying attention to his footwear. (A younger contestant might be tempted to ask: What are those?)
  11. It does puncture the aura of television sanctity, but this is a workplace after all, and people have dry cleaning to pick up, etc.
  12. This being the amount that could be lost entirely while the leading challenger doubled up and still leave me a dollar ahead.
  13. Including the invariable advertisement for the pain reliever Aleve preceding Final Jeopardy, suggesting that for reasons unknown the aches afflicting the geriatric audience peak just as the episode reaches its dramatic conclusion.
  14. Indeed Bernie Sanders’s callout of the Republican nominee used the exact response required by the clue, demagogue.
  15. After momentary dithering I choose to wear the tie from my wedding for this third game. This is for the best, as I am not to get another opportunity. Nota bene, to future Jeopardy contestants tempted to keep a favored outfit in reserve.
  16. Once again, as is the case for Jeopardy strategy, so also in the vicissitudes of life.
  17. Something to bear in mind the next time you are absolutely certain about something you’ve seen or heard.
  18. It’s the Galapagos Islands, which belong to Ecuador, which is the Spanish word for equator. (Of course.) 
  19. In this case, preparation turned out to be my downfall. The lesson of this experience is perplexing, as you might imagine.
  20. Drama, comeback, twist ending: great television.
  21. The clunky inelegance of this term corresponds reasonably well to the emotions these clues evoke in a contestant.
  22. Jeopardy has done away with non-cash prizes it once offered, so this consolation donut is all that remains.
  23. The human desire for ceremony to mark significant events finds little outlet during the production of a game show, so any reflection must be held for processing later. Perhaps on a blog.
  24. But not beyond the actual Ken (Jennings), who must have enjoyed an unparalleled bounty of comped sandwiches and fruit cups and suchlike during his 75-game run.