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Jeopardy! was revered in my household. My mother, a fan since the Art Fleming days, would watch every night. When I was young, I started chiming in with answers and insisted she let me try to respond first to clues I thought I would know.
When I was 30, I started playing pub trivia and took the Jeopardy! online test. I was ecstatic when I was invited for an audition, and prepared by studying U.S. history, world capitals and Shakespeare, amongst other topics. Everything I learned was recorded in a black notebook that I could carry with me to review.
I didn’t get past the audition that year, but I persevered. My notebook filled up, and I expanded to flash cards and chart paper. I watched the show every day. Any random fact I learned would be filed away, possibly for future use. I learned about the show’s “Pavlovs,” clues that indicate what the question is referring to. For example, any time you’re asked about a Chinese-American architect, it’s most often going to be I.M. Pei. I also studied game theory to help me figure out wagering strategies and thought about how to effectively use the buzzer.
I was determined to make it to the holy grail of quiz shows and would audition three more times over the next seven years. It was never about the money or fame, but about proving that I could do it. There aren’t many Canadians on the show, but I didn't know if that would work for or against me. After all, Alex Trebek was born in Canada, right?
I was at work when I finally got the call. The staffer read through a bunch of legalese, and ultimately asked if I would like to be a contestant. I was almost in tears and practically shouted, “Of course!”
I had a month before my show taping in Los Angeles. I still had my trusty study materials, which I added to and updated. My father made me a mock buzzer out of wood, which I could practice pushing while watching the show on TV.
During that month, I ate, breathed and slept Jeopardy! My only social outings were to pub trivia nights, and I replaced socializing with study sessions. A friend who had appeared on the show several years ago helped me run through categories and quizzed me. I played along with every online video of old episodes I could find and almost developed a callus on my thumb from the wooden buzzer.
I flew down and checked into a nearby hotel at my own expense. When the morning of the taping finally arrived, to my chagrin (but not surprise), I barely slept the night before. I was running on adrenaline. In the three hours before the cameras rolled, we were given paperwork to complete and had our makeup done but not our hair, so I treated myself to a blow-dry the day before. The contestant co-ordinators also helped us choose an anecdote to share on air with Alex Trebek.
When the contestant co-ordinators took us out to the set, I was in awe. It was almost exactly how I pictured it. During our practice games, I was excited to find out the real buzzer’s circumference was similar to my wooden one. But my co-contestants were fast. I barely answered two questions in each mock game. I knew the answers but couldn’t ring in first. I started to get nervous. And was relieved when my name was not chosen for the first game. Or the second.
But then, it was go time. Before I knew what was happening, it was my turn to select a podium position. On stage, we had to write our names with a special pens so they’d show up on our podium screen for the cameras and Alex. This was one of the moments I had imagined – would I print or use cursive? (Print won.) Would I add any embellishments? (No.) And from then on, I was in full contestant mode.
I revelled in the experience (even when Alex Trebek surprised me by choosing a different get-to-know-you anecdote than the one I prepared). I realized I might as well enjoy it since, win or lose, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Until I watched the game on TV months later, I couldn’t recall the first question I answered right, or even what most of the categories were, except that I got lucky and had both an anagrams (my favourite) and operation (medical) category in the same game.
What I do remember is a moment from after the second commercial break, when I was trailing the other contestants by a lot. I looked at the scoreboard and thought: “Remember where you are right now and all the effort it took to get here. You have made it. You are living your dream.”
And I was. I had been smiling the entire day. I couldn’t remember a time where I had been so happy, so in the “zone,” and so immersed in something that I had forgotten about everything else.
After my pep talk, something kicked in and I began to play a lot more aggressively. I figured out a better way to work the buzzer, I took a lot more chances and I made some gains. Suddenly, the game was over – it was a close one – and I had won $27,601!
I played two more games, all taped on the same day. In my second game, I thought I messed up Final Jeopardy when I answered “What is the Alamo?” after being asked what U.S. landmark was sold to the state of Texas by the Catholic diocese. But I was right and got to play a third game, which was the toughest. I had a lot of trouble ringing in, and couldn’t gain any traction, not to mention my cringe-worthy miss of a Daily Double at the end of the game. (The question: “Pompeia, who married him in 67 BC and must be above suspicion?” was an easy Pavlov for Julius Caesar. But in my head, Caesar’s wife was Calpurnia, and I didn’t know he had more than one.)
But it didn’t matter. I can myself a Jeopardy! champion. I got to meet and chat with Alex Trebek and announcer Johnny Gilbert, who graciously signed the late 1950s record I’d brought of him singing tunes on Music Bingo.
When my episodes aired two months later, I relived the experience all over again and held a viewing party for friends and family. I had been sworn to secrecy so very few of them knew how it would turn out.
Many people have asked me what I’m going to do with the prize money. I still haven’t received my cheque but I have heard California claims 38 per cent for taxes. I hadn’t given it much thought beforehand, but there’s one thing I know for sure: I really want to visit the Alamo.
Evelyn Rubin lives in Toronto.