A gift card production designer from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania...

Alyssa McRae

Hey, Philly, I'm Alyssa McRae from Antioch. Watch me on Jeopardy!

Season 25 3-time champion: $50,402 + $2,000.

Jeopardy! Message Board user name: amcrae09

Alyssa McRae - A Gift Card Production Designer
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
July 13, 2009

As is probably the case with most JEOPARDY! Contestants, people have been telling me to try out for the show for years. I didn’t put much thought into it until they offered the online test and I really didn’t have a reason not to try. I took the test for last season’s contestants and thought I did OK, but never got the call. When I took this year’s test, I thought I bombed it. I didn’t expect anything to come from it and made a plan to keep an eye out for next year’s test.

By the time late summer rolled around, I had put it out of my mind and was shocked to get the invitation to an in-person try out. I drove down to DC the night before and stayed at my parent’s house. The next day I headed into town with my husband Calum, brother A.J.and two nieces, Fiona and Sinead. Before the tryouts, we all went to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Before I left them to head to the St. Regis, I remember the last thing I looked at was the Albertasaurus, found in Calgary. I wondered, “Should I have reviewed Canadian geography more?”

As they went through the names, Maggie was able to place some faces- a lot of people had made it through to the in-person stage before. I felt out of my league. I think the coffee I downed right before I got there helped me with the practice game. Of course I can only remember the questions I got wrong, especially the one about paleontology in Calgary and its province. What are the chances? I knew I should know it and buzzed in, but my mind went blank. It begins with a vowel… I know this…. “What is Ontario?” ARGH! Oh well, I had a good time and did what I could. I headed back up to Philadelphia that night and chalked it up to experience.

My in-person tryout was in late summer, so by New Year’s, I figured I wasn’t going to be called. Once again, JEOPARDY! shocked me- I got the call at the beginning of March, “Can you be in LA March 25th for taping?” Yes, I can and wow- I have some catching up to do.

I started with the best intentions of establishing a disciplined routine for review. However, life got in the way. Numerous events unrelated to JEOPARDY!- some bad, some good and most just exhausting- took my time and concentration away from reviewing. It all came down to a moment where I was staring at my trusty almanac, pressuring myself to open it but just to exhausted to do it. I made a decision then and there, “I cannot do this anymore. Something has to give and this is it.” I put the books away and left it to my brain and chance.

I arrived in LA the day before the taping feeling like I had been hit by a truck. I went to sleep for hours and woke up sore from sleeping in chairs, cars and a plane. I woke up at about 8 PM and Calum helped me review some general topics like presidents and Shakespeare. Then, I went to bed.

I think the thing that helped me more than anything was the time difference. I woke up the next day at 5 AM and felt great. I had no expectations for the day, but I was excited that, win or lose, I made it. I went down to the lobby to get the shuttle and could pick out most of my fellow contestants. Nerves kept me from chatting. I’ve always been a shy person around people I don’t know, and on that day, my brain was moving so fast that my mouth wouldn’t have been able to keep up anyway.

The pre-game orientation seemed to take a long time. When we got to the practice games, I just could not get in sync with the buzzer. It was bad. I tried everything and it just wasn’t happening. Everyone says that, along with the categories, the buzzer is one of the great unknowns of the game, so I took this as sign. I had been looking for some sort of indicator of how the real game would go and decided, “So, this is it. This is how it will go.”

I took my seat with the rest of the contestants and peeked over to see Calum and my friend Mary in the audience. (But obeyed strict orders not to communicate with them.) Before the first game, we’re told Johnny Gilbert is sick today, his voice will be added later. It’s a big disappointment but I imagine hearing his voice saying my name for the first time as I watch it on the air date, just like everyone else, and that adds some excitement.

Watching them tape the first game, I felt confident with the questions but the little voice in my head said “It doesn’t matter! You can’t get the buzzer!” I decided it was the nervous energy and that watching one more game would help calm me down. I had a few scary thoughts of “That will be me eventually” but there just wasn’t enough time for them to really get to me. I didn’t think so at the time but it was lucky that I was drawn for the next game.

The moments before playing are a whirlwind. Its go go go and then all of the sudden… STOP. Once you are on the podium it all slows down. I did my “Hometown Howdy,” perfectly to script because, as I was told, Philadelphia is one of “those” markets that insists it is to formula. The game started and I was still having buzzer problems. I didn’t get in for most of the easy questions. The break came and I spoke with Alex, and it was actually fun. I think having that out of the way relaxed me too. Once we started again and the questions got harder, I was first more often. The next thing I knew, I was right there in the middle of it for Final Jeopardy!

One of the plans for my preparation was to practice, practice, practice wagering for Final Jeopardy! I just wasn’t confident with it. However, like all my other plans, that was out the window and I had to wing it when the time came. I went for the win, not the big payoff, even though I was fairly good in the category. I probably did the math 10 times and if Glenn had not asked “Are you ready?” I would have kept doing it. I clicked to submit my bet.

When I saw the answer, I knew the question right away- What is Transylvania? I wrote it and could not wait to see if my competitors knew it, too. They didn’t. I had won around $22,000. It was unreal. Its still unreal.

No time to ponder, I stand at the front a while, then I’m whisked away to change and makeup. People are calling me champ.

My second game played pretty much the same as the last, slow and steady. No luck with the buzzer until the questions got harder. Because of this, I remember my competitors and the Final Jeopardy! for each game, most of the specifics have gotten confused in my mind.

I think it was this game when I realized I had a strategy. When I play at home, I shout out answers like everyone else, because it doesn’t matter if its wrong. Once I found out I was going to “the big show’ I tried to stop this. I told myself, “Don’t ring in unless you are ABSOLUTELY SURE.” This would serve me well. It wasn’t just a helpful hint, it was a key to my game. There may have been a few “triple stumpers” which I could have grabbed, but because I had trouble with the buzzer, I couldn’t afford to lose cash with stupid mistakes. Believe me, its hard when the question is hanging there and you are 99.9% sure you know it- the seconds last forever!

I came into Final Jeopardy! in a good position and had my wager ready to go. Same as the last game, I was betting safe for the win. Or so I thought. I can still see the number written on my scratch paper. Its $2501 or 2499, I can’t remember exactly which. I did the math and it was ready to go. At the absolute last second for no clear reason, I wrote down “$10,000”. And stare at it for ages. Once again, Glenn asks me if I’m ready and I realize everyone else has been done a while. I looked at the paper, and then the screen and submitted my wager. Yikes.

My luck held out and the answer was “Who is Prince Phillip?” Good old Prince Phillip. I lived in the UK, so he was a familiar figure, known for his tendency to speak first and think later, but outside Great Britain; he keeps a much lower profile than his wife. Like my first game, no one answered correctly. I won the game and my last minute blip earned me about $7,500 extra dollars. Up to the front and I’m whisked off the change and makeup again….

I’m back up at the podium and ready to go again. They tell me I can change my “Hometown Howdy” and identify myself as a two-time champion. “Watch me go for three!” That sounds good, but strange.

This game is tough. It’s a battle, the scores stay close and low. At one point, I end up buzzing in (I think I had a thumb spasm, because I was surprised when Alex called me name. Did I even buzz in? ) and spelling C-H-A-T-T-A-N-O-G-A correctly. I knew how to spell it but it felt like I was spitting out letters indiscriminately. Somehow it was right, and its one of my favorite moments of the whole experience.

Final Jeopardy! came around and it was close. VERY close. The topic was musical terms and I was NOT confident at all, but I had to answer correctly and bet smart. It was a small amount. $601? I can’t remember exactly. It was luck (again) that the answer included one of my favorite topics, baseball. Being familiar with at least part of it allowed me to focus rather than panic. What musical word could I also picture baseball announcers throwing around? Thanks, Harry K. (RIP)

This was the only Final Jeopardy! I actually figured out while the music was playing and didn’t know I was right until Alex told me. He revealed my wager and when he saw it was low, I caught a look of doubt in his eyes. It said “Ooooo… too bad….” . I knew everything had to fall in place, but if it did, I would pull this one out. As the other responses were revealed the smile on my face grew. The audience reaction when Alex revealed the final wager and they realized I pulled it out was fantastic; it was the same thing going on in my head. I had a great time during that game and even though I won the least amount, it is by far my favorite.

Swooped to makeup again, I have to wear one of my sweaters again because I only brought three. (And I kept the tags on those because I didn’t expect to need more than one!) The past few weeks are starting to catch up with me and I don’t think I breathed the whole last half of the third game. I was getting tired. I jokingly told my competitors Peter and Kathleen “I would really like to just crush you guys! These close games are starting to wear on me.” I hope that didn’t come off wrong. It wasn’t trash talk, more like an inside joke between me, myself and I. I just didn’t think I would be winning games in Final Jeopardy! I never felt like I had the hang of wagering and thought my only chance would be a runaway, but by then it was clear to me that runaway games are much easier from your couch!

As my fourth and final game unfolded, I was treading water. Peter was very quick on the buzzer. Kathleen and I had to work to keep him in striking distance. It just seemed he was first for everything.

When Final Jeopardy! came up, I felt miles behind, even though I wasn’t. I bet enough to take me ahead of Peter if he bet to cover me but got it wrong, but still enough to take second place over Kathleen. When the answer popped up, I knew, my time on Jeopardy! was done. The question wasn’t really that difficult, the knowledge just wasn’t there and it wasn’t coming to me. I wrote down “What is Thanksgiving?” but knew it wasn’t right.

Alex revealed the answer and confirmed this. Peter had played a fantastic game and deserved to be the champion. Plus, he was a nice guy to whom I didn’t mind losing. I look forward to finding out how he did in his next game.

I was sad to lose but it felt right, my whole experience was neatly wrapped up in one day. After the last game, I signed all my papers and said goodbye to the staff. I was excited to see Calum and Mary, and I was excited to be out of the studio and start processing what had happened. I gave them both big hugs and everyone was smiling from ear to ear but I don’t think any of us really knew what to say. Since then, we’ve talked about it and it’s clear that watching your friend or family member play is MUCH more stressful than actually playing!

Calum and I said goodbye to Mary and went back to our hotel. That’s where it started to sink in. We both paced around the room for a while. At one point I said “Congratulations!” He said “I didn’t do anything!” but I had decided that morning that after the last few weeks we had, making it to California was a victory for both of us, and we would be celebrating regardless. We went down to the bar to have a drink and spoke with a man there. He only knew that I was in town to tape Jeopardy! and he REALLY wanted to know more. It was my first experience in the JEOPARDY! closet- when he asked, I didn’t answer and let Calum handle any questions. It was tough because he was playing detective “Well, you’re at the bar, so you must be celebrating…” then he watched for our reaction. When he couldn’t read it, he said “Unless, you’re drowning your sorrows…” and watched again. I figured I would need to get used to it.

It is a cliché, but I woke up the next day and the whole thing felt like a dream. I looked at Cal and said “Did that just happen?” . It still feels like that. The games haven’t aired, I don’t have my prizes, and after people got the picture I wasn’t going to let them know what happened, they stopped asking. So, for now, life is the same. My Scottish in-laws are in the States for the first time and I watched JEOPARDY! with them last night. I think they were impressed. My father-in-law keeps joking that once my episode airs, my days of anonymity are numbered and that some day soon I won’t be able to enjoy meals out in peace. I’m not sure what to expect, but I can guarantee that’s not it!

Thanks to my family, Calum, Mom, Dad, Megan, AJ, Brendan, Fiona, Sinead, Iain, Beatrice, Eilidh, Barry, John, Siobhan, Emily and of course, Gunther. Thanks to all my friends, too (especially Mary for being in my cheering section) and thanks to all the JEOPARDY! staff for making this such a great experience. I encourage everyone to take the online test and give it a try!

Alyssa appeared in the following 4 archived games:
#5735, aired 2009-07-10 Alyssa McRae vs. Peter Wiscombe vs. Kathleen O'Day
#5734, aired 2009-07-09 Alyssa McRae vs. Tyler Crosby vs. Daphna Atias
#5733, aired 2009-07-08 Alyssa McRae vs. Henok Kebede vs. Clare O'Keeffe
#5732, aired 2009-07-07 Joe Webb vs. Alyssa McRae vs. John Hashop Ask Alex #23: Name.

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