A radio show production intern from St. Paul, Minnesota...

A.J. Schumacher

Hey Twin Cities, it's A.J. Schumacher from St. Paul. There won't be any "Minnesota Nice" when I battle it out on Jeopardy!

Season 25 1-time champion: $10,800 + $2,000.

AJ Schumacher
Saint Paul, MN
June 16, 2009

It was 7:30 in the morning and I wanted to regurgitate my breakfast all over the dashboard of the rental car. I was driving to Sony Studios to tape my show for Jeopardy!, and I was beside myself with anxiety. Now, I've been nervous before. I've had the butterflies, the damp palms and dry mouth, the feeling of the blood leaving your body as you walk into a situation completely unprepared. This blew them all out of the water. All of them; the first dates, the SATs, job interviews, college tests. They were all unpleasant, but just passing showers of nerves; this was a downpour. I was completely terrified. My mouth was bone dry, all the moisture apparently redirected to my feet. My simple breakfast of eggs and toast had evidently found my stomach an inhospitable home and was trying to crawl out again. I wanted to keep driving past those famous white gates at Sony Pictures Studios and hole up in a donut shop; to just tell everyone it had all been a terrible misunderstanding and slink back home on the flight to Minnesota.

I hadn't told many people that I had been asked to be on the program. I wasn't expecting to do very well on the show, so I told family members and a few close friends. Those friends and family were substantially less discrete however, and word crawled around to what seemed like just about everyone who had ever met me. Shortly before I left I received a call from my sixth-grade teacher. He had heard from another teacher, who heard from the mother of my sister's boyfriend. Apparently, word had spread. So when I was sitting in my rental car, I wasn't so worried about making a fool of myself in front of a television audience of millions of strangers, it was the scores of friends, acquaintances, ex-classmates and ex-girlfriends that I imagined gossiping about what I was sure would be a debacle:

"Did you hear? He never rang in once. He just stood there, slack-jawed and twitchy.”
"I heard he said the river running through Saint Louis was the Zambeze.”
"It was terrible, Alex asked him his name and he said blankly muttered, 'What is Virginia Woolf'.”

These were the same people who had, after all, encouraged me to try out for the show. As a kid, I had been good at trivia. My mom likes to tell a story about me playing Trivial Pursuit at a family reunion when I was 12 or 13. I ended up beating all of my cousins who were twice my age. Outside of watching Jeopardy! and the occasional game of Trivial Pursuit, I didn't spend a lot of time on trivia. I never did quiz bowl in high school or college. Before I came on Jeopardy! the only thing that I've ever won from trivia was a set of bar glasses and a Trivial Pursuit game from a high school bet. I was always very curious though, a voracious reader. In conversations with friends, I would inevitably mention some obscure fact that I'd picked up in a magazine or on the internet.

I hadn't really thought about trying out for Jeopardy! or any other game shows, but as another bit of arcane trivia would drop from my mouth, it would often be met with, "How do you know that? You should go on Jeopardy!” I heard it enough that it sat like a seed in some sheltered corner of my brain.

People eventually stopped playing Trivial Pursuit against me; or they would want the teams to be be six against one. In fact, until I started studying up for the show, it had been a couple of years since I had faced off against anyone. Sometime during college, buoyed by the encouragement of my friends and family, I thought that I'd give Jeopardy! a try. I signed up for the mailing list so I would know when they came into town. The brain bus rolled into town but I couldn't make it. I signed up for one of the first internet tests that they offered. It was tough. The questions were rapid fire and my hunt-and-peck typing was just barely up to the task. There were some serious stumpers and even with my wife leaning over my shoulder and furnishing the answer to the 19th C. English Lit question, I knew that it wasn't good enough. It was fun though so I figured I would try again.

Then about a year ago, I saw a note in the newspaper saying that the Brain Bus was going to be making its annual visit to the Mall of America. I was supposed to be leaving town for the weekend, but I decided to delay my trip by a couple of hours and try my luck again. I arrived early, because I was anticipating a big crowd and I wasn't disappointed. The line was already spilling out of the rope line that they had set up. I turned my attention to the book I had brought and tried not to think about the test. Eventually small groups began to be brought over to a separate testing area. My turn came and I sat down at the long tables and was given one of the versions of the first test. I filled in the 10 answers with the new Jeopardy! pen that they gave me. I was pretty confident in my answers, but there were a couple I lingered over, double-checking in my head. I handed over my answers and was surprised when they can back to tell me I had passed. What had seemed like a lark and a flight of fancy in my head had started to become alarmingly real as they handed me my information packet for my tryout the next day. I headed home, stopping only to try out the actual buzzer system that the Brain Bus had brought for fans to try out.

I still was not too nervous, after all, the worst thing that could happen would be to fail the test and be on my way. The next morning I dressed up as requested by my info packet and wandered around the labyrinthine Convention Center until I found a hallway with a group of people, conspicuously well dressed for a Saturday morning, quietly reading almanacs or politely exchanging nervous smiles. I triple-checked the room number and grabbed some real estate on the carpet to wait. One of the Jeopardy! team members showed up and ushered us into the room for the test. I sat down in the the back at one of the parallel tables. I set down my pen and my back-up pen next to the blank answer sheet (ok, I admit it, I actually brought three pens). They gave us a very enthusiastic welcome and started giving us the low down, talking about Jeopardy! and giving us explanations of the test and type of questions we would be seeing on the test. It was time for the 50 question test. It was very similar to the online test; 50 questions, 8 seconds a piece before the next question was flashed up on the screen. The only difference was that you could go back an fill in answers that you couldn't come up with the first time around, which I think saved me in the end. The questions started flashing up on the projector. I felt pretty good as we finished the first dozen. The were a few simply didn't know and wasn't going to come up with. Much more frustrating were the questions that I knew, but were inexplicably frozen in my brain. "The author of Moby Dick!? I can't come up with the author of Moby Dick?” The questions kept coming; relentless. Those empty blanks kept staring at me from the rapidly filling answer sheet. Just as we were reaching the end of the test, my brain experienced an equally mysterious thaw and a couple more answers tumbled out and onto the page. There were still several questions I knew were wrong and more that I had guessed at, so I was genuinely astonished when the testers came back into the room and the first name they called was mine.

Altogether there were nine of us who passed the test of the approximately fifty people who had taken it. As the others shuffled out of the room, we made our way up to the front in a slight disbelieving haze. Judging by the expressions of my cohorts, I don't think that any of us had shown up that morning actually believing that they would qualify to be contestants; but Glenn and Corina offered us warm and enthusiastic congratulations. They then filled us in on the specifics as we wrote down our vital information on the provided forms. After completing our contact forms (and the first draft of the 'questions' that Alex might ask us about) we got to play practice games against each other. They had already spent some time explaining the technicalities of game play and how to interpret the different categories. The practice game was an opportunity for us to get used to the clickers and the actual flow and tempo of the game, as opposed to yelling at out TV screens at home. More importantly, it gave the Jeopardy! contestant team a chance to see us in action and get a hint as to whether we might be interesting to watch should we ever be invited to Culver City. A relatively significant part of my job is screening callers to decide who should make it on the air at the radio show I work for, so I was very interested to see the well-oiled Jeopardy! machine in action.

As I left the try-out, I was exhilarated to have qualified to be a contestant, but it still seemed very distant. As we were told, not all people who qualify to be contestants actually get called to be on the show. It was fun and exciting to tell people that I had qualified to be on the show. It was especially fun to tell my 89 year old grandmother, who watches Jeopardy! with almost the same fervency as she practices Roman Catholicism. She was very happy with the Jeopardy! pen I gave her.

Jeopardy! was more or less completely out of my mind when I received the call some 10 months later. I took down the necessary information about my recording date and was told that I should look for a packet coming in the mail with more info. As soon as I hung up the phone, it was totally surreal. A part of me felt like it was all a daydream. I waited until the package arrived in the mail before I told anyone outside of my family.

There were only a couple of weeks before my tape day. I bought my plane ticket and arranged to stay with a dear friend in LA. As part of the paperwork I needed to supply Jeopardy! with anecdotes about myself to chat about after the first commercial break. I have never felt so boring in my life. I think I've lived a relatively interesting life, but it was very hard to come up with funny or interesting stories that work as short anecdotes.

I didn't do a lot of studying. I'm not great at rote learning; I need contextual information to remember things. I did study the "classic” Jeopardy! categories: Shakespeare, World Capitals, the Bible.

The nerves didn't really hit until I was getting ready to walk out the door. I was trying to breathe deeply as I drove, but it wasn't helping much. I wasn't allowed to bring my cellphone into the studio, so I wanted to call my Grandma before I went in. I got her answering machine and left the most ridiculous, blubbering message; barely able to speak. I got out of the car, composed myself and went to meet the other contestants.

One of my worries about being on the show was that the other contestants would be aggressive, trying to psyche each other out. Between trying to remember the material, finagle the clicker, wager wisely, and not make a mistake in gameplay, I didn't have the brainpower or the energy for Machiavellian scheming. Thankfully, my fears were completely unfounded. All of my fellow contestants were really nice genuine people. We were all in the same position, all a little nervous and excited, and I really got the feeling that everyone wanted everyone else to do well, which is really remarkable considering it's a group of people competing against each other for thousands of dollars.

They brought us back to our green room where we would prepare and change. There was a nice spread of fruit and pastries and juice and soda, but I was too nervous to have anything. Maggie led us through an exhaustive rundown of the game, it's rules and tips. It was peppered with fun anecdotes from shows and contestants past. We practiced doing our "Hometown Howdies”. The most interesting was listening to everyone talk about their anecdotes. We had each submitted a list of stories and facts about ourselves and the show producers chose five. Robert ran through them with everyone, it was very funny to find out these quirky stories about all of the other contestants. As this was going on, we were taking turns going to makeup. After that, it was out to the set so we could familiarize ourselves with the equipment and practice games.

The set struck me as smaller than I thought it would be. I had been worried that the set lights would be shining down on us like the interrogation room in a TV cop show, but they weren't that bright at all. We got to test out the legendary clickers, practicing our timing. Following that we got a chance to practice using the pen to enter bids and answers for Final Jeopardy! Then we switched off playing practice games. They are just like the actual games except the questions aren't as difficult and there aren't any video clues. Also, the practice games are ably hosted by Glenn, the contestant coordinator. The practice game was a ton of fun; it made me wish I had a full-size Jeopardy! set in my house to play with friends.

After the practice game, it was time for the real thing. I was very relieved when I wasn't picked to play in the first game. I sat in the audience watching my fellow contestants compete. I played along in my head, trying to lubricate the trivia mechanisms in my brain. After the first two games I felt warmed up. I was feeling good about my ability to answer the questions. I hoped to be on the third show, because it was scheduled to air on my wife's birthday, but I wasn't picked until the final show of the day. By that time, I was fairly relaxed. The Jeopardy! "contestant wranglers” have their jobs down to a science. Their friendly, welcoming attitudes and all of the preparation we had done in the morning had made me much more relaxed. When I was actually playing, it felt like I was playing a game. You almost forget that when you wager $3000 dollars on a Daily Double, you are talking about real money, honest to goodness genuine U.S. currency and not just points in a videogame.

The actual game is partially a blur. I remember trying to smile when they first announced me and feeling my cheek tremble. That was a little disconcerting. When I was preparing to be on the show, I had a conversation with my wife about the categories that would sink me if they came up on my board. The three I mentioned were the Bible, Tennis, and 19 C. English Lit. My heart sank as the first two categories revealed we The Bible and Wimbledon Champs. Things looked pretty ugly as we started out. I didn't know any of the first half dozen questions. I knew I couldn't get anxious; that I needed to not force it and wait for "my” questions to come. I was pretty scary in the early going, I remember thinking that me qualifying was some fluke and I didn't belong. Finally I knew one. It was very scary to buzz in the first time. I remember how surreal it was to hear Alex call my name, to hear myself answer, and to pick my first category. After that first question, things started to flow. I lost myself in the game and enjoyed myself. I only looked at the score a few times; I tried not to pay attention to how I was doing.

Before my game, I had been speaking with some of the contestants about what categories or questions would get us in trouble back home if we made a mistake. I said that unlike some of the contestants who were teachers, that wasn't really an issue for me. I qualified my answer by saying that because I worked on a radio show about food, if I dropped a food question, I might be in hot water. Murphy's Law was again proven, not only did I screw up a food question, but I mispronounced "balsamic vinegar” on a Daily Double worth three thousand dollars. My boss is one of the country's leading experts on balsamic vinegar. You could hardly have written it any better.

I was trailing going in to Double Jeopardy!, but I wasn't too worried, I knew that I had time to catch up. Double Jeopardy! went pretty fast. I was lucky enough to hit a Daily Double again. In retrospect, wagering $5000 was a big risk, but it felt natural at the time. I had known the answers to all the questions in the category, and before the game I had decided to play aggressively. Going in to Final Jeopardy! I felt good. I was in second, and I knew that if the leader got it right, she would likely wager to cover my score, so it was impossible for me to win but, I figured that I could wager so that if she got it wrong, she would fall below me whether I got it right or wrong. I wasn't too confident in the category, so I figured it was best to wager relatively low in any case.

Now, I finally get to defend myself: I do know how to spell "Kerouac”! What I didn't know until I learned it the morning of my show was that in Final Jeopardy!, if you misspell the correct answer, they will still accept it if you spelled it phonetically. So I had a dilemma, I was 95% sure that I had the correct spelling, but if I was wrong, I wouldn't get credit. So I decided to purposely misspell it, but spell it phonetically. I knew I would look like a Philestine, but I didn't want to risk it. It does have to be the correct answer, however, so in the end, it didn't matter. Strangely enough, after the answer was revealed, I actually remembered having heard within the previous month that Steinbeck had first christened Route 66, the "Mother Road.”

Listening to Alex reveal [opponent's] wager was completely surreal. It started to dawn on me that I had won even before I had finished doing the math in my head. I could hear an outburst from my wife and my family in the audience; all I remember is trying to smile as my brain was swimming. When we came down to speak with Alex while they ran the credits, I didn't talk much; I was still in a daze.

The less said about my second game, the better. I knew before I taped that eventually I would have to lose, but you want to go down playing well. In my second game I didn't play well. I was doing fine in the Jeopardy! round until I got the Daily Double. I went into it planning on being aggressive, but I hadn't known most of the answers from the category. I knew it was a mistake to be aggressive, but I just have to admit, I wanted to say "Let's make it a true Daily Double.” I figured that even if I got it wrong, I would be able to catch up in Double Jeopardy! as I had during my first game. I think that after I got the Daily Double wrong, I got a little anxious, which caused me to start jumping the gun on ringing in. Let me tell you, I have never experienced anything on this earth as frustrating as listening to one of your fellow contestants answer a question that you knew. I was excited to see the current events category in Double Jeopardy!, because I'm a news hound. I knew every single answer, but Jean-Michel ran the category. It made me want to pull my hair out. I think I let my emotions get the best of me in the second game, which I regret. Even if I had been playing at my peak, I think Jean-Michel still would have bested me, but maybe it wouldn't have been a runaway at least.

All-in-all, it was a great experience. After 25 years, the Jeopardy! team runs an amazing operation. I really owe my victory to the Jeopardy! "contestant wranglers”; I showed up at Sony Studios a complete nervous wreck, but they were so warm and reassuring that by the time the cameras rolled, I was able to relax a little and enjoy playing the game. Being behind the scenes, you could see that the Jeopardy! cast an crew really enjoyed their jobs and working with each other. It was a great experience and an amazing couple of days.

A.J. appeared in the following 2 archived games:
#5716, aired 2009-06-15 A.J. Schumacher vs. Francois Dominic Laramée vs. Jocelyn Certner
#5715, aired 2009-06-12 Jason Pratt vs. A.J. Schumacher vs. Deb Ronning

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