One Memorable Night: I Lost on (Sports) Jeopardy!

06 May 2020


Yep, that's me as a contestant on Sports Jeopardy!  May 17th, 2016 to be exact.  The culmination of a lifelong passion for sports and a longtime love of trivia brought me to the set of the short-lived show that beautiful spring day, and it was a day I'll never forget.  I was living in Culver City, California - home of Sony Pictures Studios, where the Jeopardy! shows are taped - and was even able to walk to the taping.  But in a way, it actually look a long time to get there...

THE BACKSTORY

As far back as the 1980's, I can remember my parents and I watching Jeopardy! while we ate dinner, which I've long credited with giving me a ridiculous amount of trivial knowledge and pop culture information.  Our family bonded over that dinner table, and I can remember my parents occasionally supplying extra facts during the commercial breaks if we had any questions about one of the clues presented earlier.  They began my love of trivia, and I'll always be grateful.

Then there was this very funny and clever music video, also released during my formative years:


I was a HUGE "Weird Al" Yankovic fan, and this song was one of my favorites.  The ironic part is that the first contestant in this video is from Carbondale, Illinois - a town where I went to college 15 years after the song was released.  But the first college I attended (Northern Illinois University in DeKalb) also gave me a chance to flex my trivia muscle as I would join several of the my fellow classmates in our dormitory lounge to watch Jeopardy! nearly every night during my first year in school.

After finishing up with my film degree at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, I decided to move to Los Angeles in 2003 to pursue a job in the film industry.  My first roommate and I lived very close to Culver City, and he suggested I try out for the show not long after I moved in with him.  It seemed simple enough, but there was a lengthy process to it...

THE PROCESS

Given the popularity of the show and the amount of people with useless information in their brains, it only seems fitting that the producers of Jeopardy! are somewhat selective in trying to find prospective contestants for the show.  The mechanism in place is as follows:

1. Participate in an online test via the show's website, which is held approximately once a year.   The test consists of 50 questions, and should you score high enough on the test, you would move on to...

2. Take part in an "in-person audition".  You and your fellow hopefuls take another 50-question test and if you score high enough, you stick around for a mock version of the game show.  This leads to...

3. Competing on the show during a taping at the Sony Pictures Studios.

There can be a considerable amount of time between each step, but given the amount of entries and the complexity of recording the required amount of shows, I completely understand the length of the process.  Luckily for me, the online test was being administered soon after my arrival in California, so off I went...

THE FIRST ATTEMPT (November 2003)

I scored high enough on the online test to be invited for my first "in-person audition", which would be administered at a very large hotel ballroom not far from the Los Angeles International Airport.  In addition to completing a form with all of your personal information, you are also asked to provide FIVE interesting facts about yourself, so that host Alex Trebek can conduct his contestant interview should you appear on the show.  I showed up with my forms and nervously entered the massive ballroom...

It was daunting: there was a gigantic screen at one end of the room, with hundreds of chairs filled with my fellow applicants.  The 50-question test soon began, with the questions shown in the recognizable Jeopardy! "white text on blue background" font, and we each had exactly SEVEN seconds to guess the answers.  It was nerve-wracking to say the least, and there was a sense of relief when it was over - though the waiting that followed was the worst part.  The producers would then score the test, which seemed to take forever, before announcing the names of those lucky enough to get to stay for the mock version of the show.

Sadly, my name was not chosen and I left the ballroom with the rest of the also-rans, but hopeful that this wouldn't be the last time I would be in this position.  Of course, life has a tendency to get in the way and I spent the next several years trying to get both my personal life and professional career in order before applying to the show once again.  But they did let me keep the "interesting facts" sheet as a memento, as well as the ink pen that I used to take the test, which was shaped like the hand buzzers that the contestants use on the show.


THE NEXT AUDITION (June 2013)

I'd been working in Los Angeles for nearly a decade, and the time had come for me to give Jeopardy! another go.  I aced the online test and soon received an e-mail inviting me for an audition at the same hotel - but this time, there would only be about 20 of us and we would be congregating in a much smaller meeting room.  In the years since my first attempt, the producers had changed up the process slightly, having all of the prospective contestants essentially "survive the first cut" to do the testing and mock version of the show on the same day.  What a relief!

The 50-question test commenced at the designated time, and when it was over they gave us another 50-question test to keep us busy while they graded the scores of the first test - in my opinion, a MUCH better way to spend that time than simply sitting around and waiting.  The mock version of the show came next, as we were called up to the front of the room in groups of three to participate.  They allowed each contestant to take control of the game board at one point, also making sure to see how well we enunciated while answering questions.  They even did a mock version of the interview segment, to lighten the mood and give us a chance to introduce ourselves to the others in the room.

The whole thing took a couple of hours, and we were all told that we'd be in a "contestant pool" for the next 18 months, from which the producers could pick and invite us to be on the show at any time.  In a weird stroke of luck, my call came early in 2014, and I was asked to be a contestant at the end of February.  However, I had a long-planned oral surgery taking place that same month which involved having my jaw broken and wired shut, so I feared that I would still be in the recovery process during the scheduled date.  I contacted the producers to ask if I could postpone my taping and was told that I would go back into the "contestant pool" for the rest of the year as a result.

I'm glad I had the surgery, but I wondered if it was a missed opportunity.  That call never came as 2014 ended, but something interesting happened soon after...

THE NEW SHOW (July 2015)

Early the following year, I got an e-mail from the Jeopardy! producers asking if I wanted to take an online test to be a contestant on their new spinoff show, Sports Jeopardy!  The show had only been on for a few months, and I wasn't overly familiar with the new series and its format, but it seemed right up my alley - I easily got the required score on the online test to be invited for an audition that summer.  By now, I knew the routine and knew exactly where the hotel was located, and combined with my preference for sports trivia I arrived as a very confident contestant.

I whipped through the 50-question tests, charmed the room during the interview process, and left with the hope of appearing on the show in the very near future.  The first season was wrapping up, but I was placed into the "contestant pool" for the upcoming second season.  I went about my business and was delighted to receive an e-mail early the next year with detailed information for checking in at the studio lot.  I was finally going to be on some iteration of Jeopardy!...or so I thought.

THE FIRST TAPING (February 12th, 2016)

As a rule, the producers of the show will generally invite more contestants to the taping than required, just in case anyone has to cancel.  They would be filming four episodes of Sports Jeopardy!, which would require the presence of nine contestants, though ten of us were invited and each one showed up.  Eight of the ten in our group were from out-of-state, and were given preference over me and Patrick, my fellow Californian.  We were told that the first three episodes would feature non-locals exclusively, with the fourth and final taping reserved for two visitors and one California resident.  But no matter who was chosen between us, we all got to take part in the day of shooting.

It was incredibly fun from the moment I arrived: I quickly made conversations with my fellow contestants as we received the game instructions backstage.  From there, we got to walk out onto the famed soundstage and take part in the rehearsal process, which involved every one getting their own moment behind a podium and participating in a practice game - the show's host, Dan Patrick, would not be there for the practice, but it was still a surreal experience to buzz in and answer a question when called upon.  The first two tapings were up next!

We returned backstage to get makeup applied while the audience filed in, and it was quite magical to come back to applause and see Dan Patrick awaiting our arrival.  In keeping with the sports theme, we were all placed into a "bullpen" to await the random drawing that would determine who would appear on which episode - but since I knew I wouldn't be chosen until the end, I just sat back and enjoyed the show.  The first two episodes came and went, and we wrapped for a lunch break before returning to the soundstage to complete the day's work.  The third episode quickly completed it's filming, and me and Patrick nervously followed the producers backstage.

It was another random draw to determine the final contestant and it did not turn out in my favor, as Patrick got the nod.  I was told that even though I would not be a contestant on this day, the producers assured me that I would be invited back for the next taping and guaranteed that I would be chosen.  It was a little disappointing, but still a great time - and since I knew I was going to be on the show for sure in the very near future, it was just a matter of the inconvenience of using another vacation day from work.  (To this day, I'm still friends on social media with two of the contestants I met on this day, both from Florida, named James and Megan)

THE SECOND TAPING (May 17th, 2016)

The e-mail appeared in my inbox in early May - I was to return on the 17th for my guaranteed appearance on the show.  Like the auditions before, I had the routine down and made the confident stroll to the Sony lot that morning ready to do my best.  There would be a new crop of contestants to meet, although one looked familiar - as luck would have it, Patrick had won the final episode from the previous taping and was now back to compete again.  I wasn't nearly as nervous this time around, yet I found myself a little more focused on the task at hand, and didn't really get to know the other contestants as much as I had during my last appearance.  As an added bonus, my buddy Chad (who accompanied me for most of my hockey road trips) came along to support me from the audience.

Patrick was defeated on the first episode, and I got word that I would be appearing on the second.  All of the nerves suddenly rushed back as I gathered myself and prepared to go in front of the cameras.  No more studying, no more practices - this is what I was here for, and I didn't crumble under the pressure.  It did take a few questions to get the timing of the buzzers down, but once I did I started rolling, going neck and neck with the defending champion, Eric.  The other contestant, a very nice guy from Tennessee named Cameron, was a worthy opponent himself but quickly fell to third place and never recovered.

The interview with Dan Patrick was fun and light-hearted, as he joked about how I attended college in a town that shared my last name (DeKalb) and asked about my quest to see a game in every NHL arena (you can see the interview in its entirety on the About page of this website).  The first round had gone quickly, and it was time to make my move in the second.  Eric's lead soon evaporated as I grew more confident, answering questions about sports movies and former NBA players, but then I got lucky and had my turn with a Hockey Nicknames category and ran the whole thing!  Just before the end of the round, I hit the Daily Double and got it right, finally overtaking Eric with one question to go.  But then fate intervened, as Eric correctly answered the final question right to take a minuscule lead going into Final Jeopardy!


It was frustrating to be so close and have the defending champion grab that lead back at the end.  The only way I could win now was if he was unable to answer the question and I got it correct OR if we both missed the right answer and I bet fewer points than he did.  With that in mind, I went conservative and bet a very small amount and took my chances - the main thought I had was that I didn't want to bet it all and miss the question to fall into third place, which would mean I would only win $1,000 instead of $2,000.  The whole experience had been fun regardless, so I wanted to preserve the higher amount of winnings while hoping the champion would falter.

Sadly, Eric proved to be a strong champion as both he and I correctly answered the final question and he walked away with his second straight victory.  It was memorable to say the least, as both Dan Patrick and several crew members mentioned that it was one of the closest matches they'd seen on the entire series.  I decided to stick around for the final two episodes after the lunch break, as I really didn't want the experience to end.

I went home with my consolation prizes (a water bottle and a drawstring backpack, both emblazoned with the Sports Jeopardy! logo, as well as another buzzer-shaped ink pen!) and tuned in later that summer when my episode finally aired on the Crackle website on July 6th.  It was fun to re-live the memory through my television, especially to have the chance to finally show my new girlfriend (we had just met in April) and my sister (who had just moved to California that June) about the show they'd heard me talk about so much.

Me and host Dan Patrick

POSTSCRIPT

Sports Jeopardy! gained a higher profile when the NBC Sports Network began to air the episodes on television during the 2016 Summer Olympics.  I spoke with James and Megan and we patiently waited for our episodes to appear, but I never did see myself and my thrilling battle with Eric.  As far as I could tell, the episodes that aired on NBC Sports Network were all from Season 1 - even worse, Crackle would go on to cancel the series by the end of 2016 and subsequently remove all of the archived episodes from its streaming service altogether.  Thankfully for me, my girlfriend ripped a copy of my episode so that I could watch it anytime.

My interest in Jeopardy! may have waned slightly as the years passed, but I still found myself taking part in nearly every online test that was administered.  In fact, I even had to do one of the online tests from a bed-and-breakfast in the English countryside during my honeymoon in 2019, quietly typing away at my laptop just after midnight on the night before my 1st wedding anniversary.

I took one final online test for Jeopardy! in January 2020, and did about as good as I could ever remember - just as I hoped, I was invited for an in-person audition in March.  It was so charming to see that same hotel and that same meeting room, not to mention seeing Corina, the same producer who had recognized me from each audition and taping since 2013.  The COVID-19 pandemic was sweeping across the world at the time, so the crew would wipe down all of the buzzers after each round of our mock game.  We were told that they might try to tape some episodes as soon as possible, but the plan was halted once the State of California instituted its "Stay at Home" quarantine measures the following week (and given the health of host Alex Trebek during his cancer treatments, this was an easy decision for them to make).

As of now, I'm still in the fabled "contestant pool", so I guess there's still a chance that I could finally be on Jeopardy!, should it return in a timely manner before Alex Trebek's pending retirement.  Wish me luck!


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