An investor originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania...

Carl Brandt

Hello, Pittsburgh, my name is Carl Brandt. Watch me on Jeopardy! and I guarantee the Steelers will win the Super Bowl.

2009 Tournament of Champions quarterfinalist: $5,000.
Season 25 4-time champion: $70,799 + $2,000.

My name is Carl Brandt. I’m thirty years old (chronologically—more like eight mentally), and I live in Florida, a place with nice beaches, great tax laws, and a lot of people fleeing subpoenas. I was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, spent my early childhood there, and also passed some time in Florida and South Carolina. I went to college at the University of Montana, spent a year in New York City, and then got an MBA from the University of Miami.

I’m the laziest person in the world, meaning I could never handle a 9-to-5 job, and my 22-inch neck does not take kindly to the noose you have to wear EVERY DAY for the “office.” I have a li’l bit of money squirreled away, which I acquired because I was frugal, smart, and, most importantly, LUCKY. (I’m not a trust-funder, nor did I ever inherit any money.) This nest-egg allows me to sleep in Monday mornings, eat three (or more) meals per day, and travel a bit.

I’m not really an ambitious person in the sense of wanting to “leave a mark.” (This has to do with my overall weltanschauung—I feel that life is pretty much killing time, and I want to minimize stress and maximize pleasure in my eye-blink of an existence.) I WOULD like to eventually have a comfortable house in Kauai, a four-wheel-drive Jeep that rides effortlessly on the beach, and a six-foot blonde Canadian wife (preferably from Vancouver Island). I reckon these goals are attainable, but I’d need two million in the bank to make it feasible. (Hawaii is frickin’ EXPENSIVE.)

I’ve watched Jeopardy! for over twenty years, and consider Alex Trebek to be a cultural icon (and a national treasure). TV is such a godforsaken wasteland (you don’t need me to tell you this), but there is always the palm-fringed oasis of Jeopardy! to offer a refreshing draught of cold, thirst-quenching entertainment. It’s a show that really MATTERS, and it offers such welcome relief from the mindless pap that, unfortunately, constitutes most of television programming.

I always thought I had the store of knowledge necessary to compete on Jeopardy!, but getting on the show took effort, which was problematic for me. However, when I saw the online test being offered, I signed up. I took the test and felt that I had done OK…but whether I had gotten thirty-five questions correct (which I assumed was the cut-off) was another matter.

A few months later I received an email telling me that I had been selected for an audition, to be held in Washington, D.C. I was pretty happy, as you can imagine, and I decided to dovetail the audition with a trip to Baltimore, Maryland. I flew to Baltimore, saw the sights, and took the train down to D.C. on the appointed day. The audition was held at the St. Regis hotel, a snooty place about a block from the White House. I arrived along with maybe twenty other people, and noticed I was—by far—the most casually dressed.

All prospective contestants were told to fill out forms, and then we had individual pictures taken. After that, we were marched into a conference room and placed at the mercy of the appositely named Maggie Speak. Maggie has a tough job, which I don’t envy: dealing with socially maladapted eggheads, and trying to find a few that will appear more or less human on camera. After Maggie gave her salutation, we took a fifty-question written test that was MUCH easier than the on-line test. (Though still no cake-walk, by any stretch.)

I probably got forty-five questions right, and only left one completely blank. (It was a Shakespeare question.) After that we were called up in threes to play a mock game of Jeopardy. This wasn’t to gauge your knowledge: this was to see how you might appear on TV. No mumbling, no dithering, no pants-wetting.

It was at this juncture that I became aware of the paramount nature of the BUZZER. The BUZZER is a bitch-goddess that must be supplicated, propitiated, and sacrificed to. It is 95% of the game. Knowledge wasn’t the primary issue: we all were smart, and knew most of the answers. But who would be able to time the buzzer to GIVE the answer…that was the question.

I did very poorly on the mock game, because I would press the buzzer as soon as I knew the answer—but before the question had been read in its entirety. This completely screwed me, and I knew that I had to make an adjustment, and practice my timing, if I was to have any chance on an actual game. After the mock game, we were dismissed with Jeopardy! pens as souvenirs, and I spent a few hours ambling ‘round D.C. before heading back to Baltimore.

I never really thought I’d get the actual “call” to be on the show…the odds are something like one in a thousand, since only four-hundred people are needed per season. And I NEVER thought I’d get the call within a month of the audition—but that is what happened. I came home one night, saw the red light on my phone blinking, checked my messages, and nearly had a heart attack when I heard a guy say: “Carl, hi, this is Glenn Kagan from Jeopardy!...please give me a call back at this number.”

I called Glenn back, and he told me what the score was: I’d been invited to appear on Jeopardy!, and my taping would occur on September 23rd. There was some travel and logistic stuff to go through, and Glenn informed me that a large packet of info would be arriving in the mail. Then he congratulated me and hung up. I was pretty nonplussed. You never think it will actually HAPPEN.
Normally, most people would tell their friends and family at this point. I decided that I would keep it a secret, and surprise everyone on the date that my show actually aired. (“Hey mom…there’s some guy we know on Jeopardy! tonight…why don’t you tune in?”) A couple times I almost spilled the beans, but I am blessed with superhuman self-control, and managed to keep my mouth shut.
After I got the call, I went to Maine for a week with family and friends, and acted like nothing had happened. But as soon as I returned home, I began brushing up on Shakespeare, the Oscars, the U.S. Presidents, the Olympics, and UN Secretaries-General. (The latter really paid off for one question.) I watched the show every night with a clickable pen, to work on my buzzer timing.

Before I knew it, I was in Los Angeles, on the Sony lot, being ushered to the first “green room” I’d ever seen. The other contestants looked serious, sober, and pretty damned intelligent. I was nervous. After a couple hours of paperwork and instruction from the inimitable Maggie, we were marched out onto the Jeopardy! set. This was SURREAL. You’ve watched the show for years, and now here you are. We played some practice games to warm up, and I felt I had a better handle on the buzzer…but I had not mastered it by any means. It is inexplicable, the buzzer…you have to get a rhythm, a zone, an almost extra-sensory connection with the sound of Alex’s voice and your thumb.

We were marched back to the green room after the practice session, and two contestants were drawn at random to face the returning champion. The rest of the contestant pool was then directed to the audience. We sat and watched the champ match wits with an extremely good player named Randy Gold. The game was competitive all the way, but then Randy missed the Final Jeopardy question (by over-thinking it, I thought) and the champ survived. (Randy had been trying to get on Jeopardy! for YEARS, and looked especially crestfallen--he was a guy who could EASILY have won multiple games.) One minute after his victory, my name was called by Robert, the contestant coordinator, and I was hustled to the make-up room. After my mug was as suitable for the cameras as it was ever going to be, I was miked-up and led on-stage to podium #3, and told to sign my name on the screen.

I couldn’t believe the situation. I also thought I was toast: my brain was spinning, and I was uncomfortable in the completely alien environment. (It’s a lot different when you’re lying on the couch at home with some chips and a drink, I can tell you.) The game commenced, I got my first good look at THE MAN (i.e. Alex Trebek), and everything was a blur after that. What I can remember is that going into Final Jeopardy! I was in either first or second place (not by a lot, either way), and the category was “Asian Nations.” I was overjoyed to see this, because I had been to Cambodia, Vietnam, and Taiwan for six weeks earlier in the year. But I held myself off from betting a lot--I bet enough to get the victory if the champ was wrong.

The clue was revealed and my heart sank: it asked for the two Asian nations whose names started with “A” but didn’t end with “A.” I was stuck in the Far East, and nothing came to me. The thirty seconds went by like lightning, and I finally scribbled a shout-out to some friends, certain that my tenure on Jeopardy! was to be brief. However, the champ was wrong, and had bet a bundle. I ended up winning with a little over four-thousand dollars.

I felt ecstatic. Never mind how long the odds were to get on the show…but you had to multiply those odds by a third to WIN A GAME. I had won a game, primarily by luck, and had not embarrassed myself. (That was my big fear…to be one of those poor people who end up waaaaay in the red after Double Jeopardy, and are “disappeared” during the commercial break.)
I didn’t have much time to bask in glory. I was whisked off-stage, told to change my shirt, and then back on the set—this time at podium #1—before I knew it. This game was also a blur, but I felt more comfortable, and had more success with ringing in first. It was still a close game, and once again I got lucky. I hit a Daily Double, bet a nominal amount and got it wrong. One of the other contestants, Tristan, a Princeton Phi Beta Kappa, knew the answer, and had he gotten it, the outcome of the game would have been entirely different. As it stood, I entered Final Jeopardy with a slight lead.
I bet enough to give me a one-dollar lead over Tristan if he bet everything (which he did). The clue was revealed, and I heaved a sigh of relief. It was easy, and we all answered correctly. I ended up winning by a buck, and I knew how lucky I was to have gotten that Daily Double—even if I answered incorrectly—instead of Tristan.

We took a lunch break at this point, which I was grateful for. I felt refreshed and ready to go for game three. This was a close, competitive game, and I entered Final Jeopardy with a slight lead. The category was Inventors, and I had a sudden urge to bet a lot. I restrained myself, however, and bet enough to win by one, should the second-place contestant wager everything. As it turned out, we all answered incorrectly, but my conservative wager secured me another victory.

Once again I changed shirts, and was back for the final game to be taped that day. My opponents were Edith and Anders, and I recall Alex Trebek noting that we were a particularly telegenic cohort. My brain works better later in the day, and I had developed a decent rhythm by this point. Edith and Anders, however, had been on ice all day, and were at a disadvantage. All three of us knew the answers—I could hear Anders to my left pressing his buzzer furiously. But for whatever reason, I had my timing down, and was able to do very well.

(Two strange things happened during this game: the board malfunctioned at one point, causing a ten-minute hiatus in taping; and a camera crew wandered out on stage DURING THE GAME and BLOCKED a clue which I was trying to read. I remember the stage manager walking backstage after them with a grim expression on his face.)
I ended up winning thirty-thousand dollars, my best tally. Taping ended for the day, and I went back to the hotel.

The next morning, the previous day’s events were repeated, only I was slotted to play as the champion in the first game. My opponents were Catherine Muldoon, a beautiful and fearsomely intelligent scholar from Boston, and a research scientist from North Carolina who was about nine feet tall. I managed to eke out a small lead going into Double Jeopardy thanks to a Daily Double, but the second round belonged to the scientist. He got both Daily Doubles, bet big, answered correctly for each, and pulled away. My timing was not up to par, and after Double Jeopardy, it was a question of whether Catherine or I would get second place.

The Final Jeopardy category was “Pulitzer Prize-winning Novels,” and I bet the farm, hoping against hope that the scientist would get greedy, bet more than he needed to, and answer incorrectly. That did not happen. We all got the question right, and the final scores showed me only a couple thousand behind the scientist, which was deceptive: he had won in a walk.
I left the podium for the last time, shook hands with the crew, gave Maggie a big hug, grabbed my bag from the green room, and hitched a ride back to the hotel with Catherine and her fiancée Tom. (I wish them a great time on Tyree Island, and hope they check out Monhegan Island at some point.)

I’ve had a couple days to reflect, and can give the following apercus about game-play: DON’T THINK ABOUT THE SCORES. You should only be aware of the category and the clue. The only time to be aware of the scores is when the game stops for a Daily Double or Final Jeopardy! You have to be in the moment, and you have to try and relax. Don’t get caught up in the “dammit, it’s slipping away” mentality. All that matters is the present clue. The game goes by so fast that if you dwell on something you are finished.

Also, you need to get a brain/thumb mind-meld going on. Pay attention to Alex’s voice, and RIGHT as the last syllable of the clue comes out, hit the buzzer. (Practice this at home with a pen.) Jeopardy is like the 100-meter dash: a tenth of a second is the difference between gold and obscurity.

Another thing to bear in mind (and you probably won’t want to hear this) is how important luck is as a factor. You were lucky to be invited to audition. You were lucky to pass the audition. You were lucky to be invited to tape the show. You were lucky to appear on the show. What categories pop up, and who gets the all-important Daily Doubles (especially in Double Jeopardy!) are both functions of random chance. You have to prepare as best as possible by knowing as much as possible, but the stochastic element is ever and always present, and you need to recognize it. Randy Gold was probably a better player than me, but I won four games and he won none—to a large extent because of sheer happenstance.

If you appear on Jeopardy! you’ll become aware of how talented Alex Trebek is, and how he makes a difficult job look EFFORTLESS. He banters with the audience during commercial breaks, cracks jokes, acts like a producer at times, and has to try and make the three Poindexters on stage appear interesting during the interviews. I can’t imagine anyone else hosting the show (think about HOWIE MANDEL hosting Jeopardy!...or RYAN SEACREST), and hope he has Johnny Gilbert-type genes for longevity.

The ultra-professional crew is also wonderful and is there to SUPPORT you. The circumstances of taping are rough on contestants…you can be cooling your heels for hours, or jerked out instantly and thrown to the wolves. You are like a racehorse, and Maggie and Robert keep you from bolting. During lulls in taping they will come up to you, smile, tell jokes, get you to relax and stay calm. They KNOW how weird, stressful, and foreign the experience is and will do whatever it takes to make you comfortable (especially when it comes to the unmitigated torture of the home-town howdies).

I haven’t told anyone that I appeared on Jeopardy! yet. It will still be a surprise when the show first airs, and I bet it will be a jim-dandy!

Carl appeared in the following 5 archived games:
#5556, aired 2008-11-03 Carl Brandt vs. David Skaar vs. Catherine Muldoon Carl Brandt game 5.
#5555, aired 2008-10-31 Carl Brandt vs. Anders Reynolds vs. Edith Kealy Carl Brandt game 4. Regular-play game in which DJ!-eliminated contestant...
#5554, aired 2008-10-30 Carl Brandt vs. Jen Weaver vs. Phil Fernandez Carl Brandt game 3.
#5553, aired 2008-10-29 Carl Brandt vs. Pat Thornton vs. Tristan Snell Carl Brandt game 2.
#5552, aired 2008-10-28 Mathew Safer vs. Becka Feighner vs. Carl Brandt Carl Brandt game 1.
Carl would later appear on Jeopardy! as Carl Brandt in the following archived game:
#5648, aired 2009-03-11 Carl Brandt vs. Dan Pawson vs. Cora Peck 2009 Tournament of Champions quarterfinal game 1. From Las Vegas.

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