2010 Tournament of Champions quarterfinalist: $5,000.
Season 26 4-time champion: $68,703 + $2,000.
Wife of writer Len Wein, the co-creator of Wolverine (and several other X-Men), Swamp Thing, and writer and editor of numerous comic book titles.
Blog at mcvalada.blogspot.com.
November 2, 2009
My name is Christine Valada, and I'm a professional photographer and attorney, originally from Walton, a small town in upstate New York. Growing up, my favorite place in the world was the Ogden Free Library, a grand stone building a few blocks from my house, where I spent many hours exploring the shelves and getting lost reading encyclopedia articles. All that paid off, because now I am a Jeopardy! champion. How cool is that?
I've lived and worked in Los Angeles for almost 20 years. The weather agrees with me more than that of the cold winters of the northeast and I know I never have to drive in snow out here. I'm married to a writer and I have one son. I love to cook and entertain, pamper and ride my Arabian horse, collect horse-motif jewelry and socks and play the occasional game of Chinese Mah-jongg. I tend not to take sports too seriously, but I'm very competitive when it comes to knowledge-based games.
In 1964, two important things came into my life: the Beatles and Jeopardy! It took me a while to concede I'd never marry Paul McCartney, but being a Jeopardy! contestant became a bucket-list item.
I was already a game-show watcher before Jeopardy! came on the air. When I was really small, the entire family, including grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, would watch the famous shows of the 1950s like You Bet Your Life, The $64,000 Question, Name That Tune, What's My Line, and, my pre-Jeopardy! favorite, College Bowl.
Since Jeopardy! aired around noon, I must have first seen it when I was on a school holiday or home sick. I was immediately hooked because there were a lot of clues that I, a young but dedicated bookworm, could answer. I would watch whenever the opportunity presented itself and eagerly participated in classroom exercises where the Jeopardy! format was adapted by teachers for instruction.
If there's anything a reader can learn from my story, it is "don't give up if you think you want to compete on Jeopardy!" I first tried out for Jeopardy! when I was a college student at Hofstra University and the test was given in New York City. I remember taking the Long Island Rail Road into Penn Station and slogging my way on a wet, wintery day to a location which may well have been somewhere in Rockefeller Center to take the written test. We sat in chairs very much like those in a college lecture hall to answer the questions. I hadn't told anyone I was doing it, so when I never heard about how I did, it was no big deal.
During the 1970s, Jeopardy! came and went and came again. I caught it when I could and missed it when it left the air. Soon after it began its current run in the 1980s, the VCR was a common item in most homes. Eventually, even I purchased one and watching Jeopardy! became an evening ritual.
Jeopardy! turned out to be an equal obsession with my husband, whom I married in 1991. I was in law school during our courtship and I once relayed an entire game by phone when he was waiting for a flight to Europe at LAX and I was having dinner in Cleveland. He refuses to try out because he thinks the categories will be "Things to Do with Lint" or "Left Handed Nuns' Shoe Sizes" if he ever goes on the show. Despite this, he would be a great competitor.
Soon after we got married, I saw an ad in the paper for Jeopardy! try-outs. I made an appointment and went down to Sony Studios where a large number of people were herded into the Jeopardy! sound stage seating area and we took the written test. It was hard. We waited for the results wondering who would get to go and play a test game. The contestant wranglers came back, somewhat stunned. No one had passed the test! We got the impression that didn't happen very often, and we were encouraged to try again after the requisite waiting period. Somehow, I just didn't get around to it again for a long time.
Four years ago, Jeopardy! announced the on-line test. Well, that was certainly a way to try out where no one would know if you failed. So I took the test and thought I answered a lot of the questions correctly. Apparently, I did, because within a very short time I got e-mail inviting me to a hotel a few miles from LAX for the next step in the contestant search. There we took another written test (to verify how we did on the on-line test) and got called up in groups of three to have a chance at play with the signaling device and to see how our personalities might come across in play. It was a lot of fun and it was my first introduction to the wonderful bundle of energy known as Maggie Speak. I recall there were a lot more men than women and one of the men identified himself as Rosanne Barr's ex-husband. There were a lot of lawyers in the room, but I guess there often are. We were told we'd be on the call list for about 16 months, but if we didn't hear anything after a year, we could try out again.
I got a call from Robert not terribly long after that. Jeopardy! wanted to use me, but I had indicated that I had a friend who was an effects editor who was working for a company doing special effects for Spider-man (3, I think), which was a Sony film. They were concerned about the appearance of impropriety (as we say in the law) and wanted me to call back as soon as she was off the film. Well, she wasn't off the film until my eligibility was up, as it turned out. I had to hope that she'd be working elsewhere the next time they gave the on-line test.
In January of 2008, I caught the part of Jeopardy! where they announced the on-line test was being given again and I had one day in which to sign up and take it. I managed to pull that off, less confident than the first time because I saw a couple of answers I should have gotten slip by (one of them being "Lars and the Real Girl," which we had just watched a few days before and I blanked.)
After my past experience with my previous on-line test, I figured I'd soon hear the results. Days turned into weeks turned into months, and suddenly, the whole year was finished. I started looking for information about the next on-line test, but right after the first of January, I got e-mail from the contestant search telling me I had passed the test and asking me to come in for the second round interviews in just a few weeks.
It turned out that a number of people who showed up at the same hotel off the 405 on February 11, 2009 thought they had failed the on-line test the previous January and were getting ready to take it again. As before, the room consisted of far more men than women, and a lot of lawyers. I might not have been the oldest contestant in the room, but I was definitely on that end of the bell curve. Maggie remembered me and my horse jewelry from our previous encounter-I was wearing a different, but large pin on my suit-and we went over some of the information on my forms before everyone went into the room for another round of tests.
There were around 40 people in a number evenly divided by three. During my play round, I slapped myself in the head so hard Maggie warned me to take it easy lest I knock myself out. We joked again about my house the Collyer mansion-if I won any money, it would go to expanding the space to have enough room for our books. I figured that I did well in the interview and went home to wait for a phone call which could come any time in the next 18 months.
It came the next day, from Robert. It was such a surprise, that it almost didn't register that it was from Jeopardy! Robert chided me about not showing enough enthusiasm. He was calling me to invite me to be an extra contestant on March 4, 2009 in case another contestant got sick or didn't make it. There was no promise I'd get on-I probably wouldn't-but I'm a good sport and I thought the experience would be helpful. Plus, I'd be able to bring along friends to watch the day of taping.
I made arrangements to stay with friends who live much closer to Sony Studios than I do-there would be little less fun than getting up at the crack of dawn to drive in from the San Fernando Valley in rain (which it did.) I was told to bring three changes of clothes and I got to the Studio relatively stress free, two and a half hours before my husband and friends were scheduled to arrive.
In the parking lot, I met a young woman lawyer from San Diego named Jessica Harry who was the second "extra" for the day. She already had an actual tape day scheduled at the end of the month, so she knew for sure she'd eventually be on the show (she played well on an episode that ran in July.) I felt we bonded for the day, probably because it was unlikely we'd ever play against each other except perhaps in the Tournament of Champions, about which I certainly was not thinking.
It is so much easier for me to remember things from that day than it is for the day I actually competed, which is more like being a bride at your own wedding where you have to ask others what happened and how things went. First, there was more paperwork to go over, IDs to be checked, Maggie giving an overview of the proceedings, Robert checking on stories to tell on camera and those Hometown Howdies everyone does now, plus everyone takes a turn with the make-up artist while paying attention to the conversation. There was a continental breakfast laid out, and lots of beverages. The green room has two bathrooms, perhaps not enough for 13 nervous stomachs on the day of a show.
The group who would appear on Jeopardy! the week of June 8-12 consisted of the previous week's champion, Andrew Schwartz, a filmmaker from Florida; Balthazar Pinedo, who went on to win two games; Jason Pratt, who also won two games, and A.J. Schumacher, who won the last game of the day. The other players were Cindy Wassouf, Kate Bilo, Tony Terry, Jennifer Yontz, Kyle Abello, Beth Ford, and Deb Ronning.
Before the audience arrives, the contestants, including those of us who were there for emergencies, get to learn how to sign in, place bets and get an opportunity to play part of a game on the actual stage. You get fitted with the mics, your height is adjusted with apple crates so everyone appears approximately the same size, you learn where your camera is, what the signal lights look like, and how to use the signaling device. You also realize just how smart and well-read everyone else who's made it this far really is and how much the luck of the draw on categories or who you play against figures into a Jeopardy! win.
During one of those test rounds, as I was answering questions about musicals, I saw the question, knew the answer, rang in, got called on-and the answer totally and completely went away. Deer in headlight look, empty brain. Embarrassing, but not so bad as it would have been on an actual show. Oh, well. It happens. It is a game, not brain surgery. Nobody dies.
I felt I didn't really have the hang of things during my first practice round. It got better during the second one, and by the third time up, at the end of our lunch break, using the signaling device at the right time to win the clue got a lot easier.
After the morning test round, we got herded back into the green room and two people got chosen to compete against Andrew (the boards can be seen on www.j-archive.com, if you are really interested.) They were all hooked up to mics and given a refresher round of make-up. The rest of us were taken to our segregated part of the audience to watch the competition and were given strict instructions to not make any contact, eye or otherwise, with any of the guests we brought along.
Jessica and I stuck close together throughout. Since all of the scheduled contestants got in from their far-flung parts of the country, we wouldn't be playing unless someone got sick during the day. It gave me an opportunity to really analyze the game and to actively read clues for the hints. One of the 60 categories we watched being played that day was titled with someone's name I had never heard, but careful reading of each of the questions allowed me to mentally answer all five of them. Careful reading of the clues is the biggest trick to getting things right on Jeopardy!
Between each of the games, we were all taken back to the green room so the champion could change and two new contestants could get the good word. Three games were shot before lunch, and two after. Those of us remaining after three episodes had lunch in one of the studio cafeterias, courtesy of the show. The players who didn't win signed papers and got a shoulder bag and a Jeopardy! game and I think they may have been given the opportunity to watch the rest of the tapings in a different part of the audience from those of us left behind.
At the end of the day, which went smoothly and ended a bit earlier than some, I gathered up my suitcase, said good-bye to everyone, and managed to catch a cart heading back to the parking-lot. I left with a plan to study hard while waiting for my next call, which I expected would not happen until shooting for season 26 began in the summer.
A month later, my study plans fell by the wayside when our house caught fire. Some of my reference material was in the smoke-damaged part of the house, but much of it, including Bob Harris' great book Prisoner of Trebekestan and the book by Alex Trebek about Jeopardy! with example questions were on my nightstand and burned beyond redemption, along with all of the clothes and shoes that would be appropriate for Jeopardy! The thought of studying for the show evaporated while we worked on getting our lives back on track.
Mind you, the fire did not end our ritual of watching the show. We stayed with our friend Gillian for ten days while we did the paperwork to get a rental house and sucked her into our evening ritual of playing along with the show (nobody says the Final Jeopardy! answer until we all agree we've got one or we don't have one.) After we moved into our rental house and things were somewhat more normal, we returned to watching the show and I made sure to watch the week with the contestants I had met and looked forward to seeing Jessica's turn a few weeks later.
In July, I got the call inviting me to be on the show for real. I would tape on August 5 for episodes running the week of September 28. August 5 was a Wednesday, so I might have to worry about a return date. It seemed to put the final nail in my coffin about whether I'd go back east for my high school reunion. It had been a long time since I made the trip, but Jeopardy! would be an acceptable excuse (as opposed to my general fear of flying) so I joyously said yes and started asking friends if they'd like to attend. I also worried about what I would wear. My wardrobe no longer had a good selection of "law suits," which are excellent attire for Jeopardy!
I also realized I had very little time to relearn all those things I've forgotten in a life-time of reading. For my birthday, Lisa Klink, a five-time Jeopardy! champion in Season 24, bought me a book called I Used to Know That. She had already lent me some of her study books (a few of which went up in smoke) and bought me some other things she found useful. She accepted my invitation to attend the taping.
Bob Harris, whom I've known for several years, also plied me with study materials and suggestions, and offered to be there for the shoot. My husband and son, and members of what we refer to as the Sunday Super Supper Squad (friends who come to our place to watch The Amazing Race and have dinner) would attend.
I went to work on my study plan, got all my paperwork into the show, and the last week of July I got a call from Corina, apologizing because they would only shoot 3 shows on August 5 and telling me I wouldn't be a contestant that day. She promised they would call again. I told her that if it wouldn't be within another week or so, I'd like to be able to go back east for my reunion. She said she'd mark my file so I wouldn't get called the week before or the week after the reunion date, and I did get to go to Walton for the first time in 15 years.
At the end of August, I got another call from Jeopardy! This time, I was invited in for September 29 & 30, for episodes planed for dates about which they were not yet sure. Yes, I said, yes, yes, yes. I estimated when the shows would run (fairly accurately, as it turned out), got my paperwork in (again!), and let everyone know who said they wanted to attend. I spent as much time reading, taking notes, and going over practice questions as I could. We watched the current run of the show as well as the GSN episodes. I was playing trivia on a team several nights a week and I made notes of answers that could show up on Jeopardy! And I shopped for a couple of suits, a selection of blouses, and some nice jewelry. The instructions said to come with three changes of clothing, but Lisa said to bring more. She wound up wearing Alex Trebek's shirt for one of the five episodes she shot in a single day.
Septemer 29, 2009
I spent the night at my friends' near Sony Studio again. The weather was nicer than it had been in March: no rain and a bit cooler than we'd been experiencing. But I was far more nervous than I had been back then because this time I was going to be on the show. When I parked the car, I called home and just screamed to let off steam. I could barely drink the chai latte I bought on my drive in and ate only a bite or two of the muffin. I got down stairs to find most of the contestants were getting on a shuttle to security, but four of us waited with Glen (he of the lovely "Southie" accent) for the last shuttle. My companions were fairly quiet. One was a grad student from South Dakota, who talked a bit. The only male turned out to be the returning champion, Johnny Forrest, a patent agent from my old stomping grounds of Washington, D.C.
The shuttle dropped us off for a security check, and my shoes set off the alarm. Fortunately, they didn't make me take off my shoes. Then we finished the short ride to the sound stage and the green room. Besides Johnny, the contestants who were there with me on September 29 were William English, Justin Gilbert, Ed Perez-Giz, Imran Arif Maskatia, Chri Rodrigues, Rob Severson, Jennifer Cutshall, Jamison Hedin, Sara Kniffen, Roopa Kalyanaraman Marcello and Melisa Pay-Mose.
As before, everyone went over papers they had sent in, talked to Robert about Hometown Howdies and stories they might talk to Alex about, and took care of make-up while Maggie went through the upcoming events. Maggie sent me into make-up immediately, saying I'd been through this, so I could listen while it was being done. At some point I heard her explain that because I had been there before, the card with my name was marked, so I would be guaranteed an appearance on that day. I think my stomach did another flip at that point, but it meant my friends were there for a purpose.
Soon it was time for a trip to the set. Apple boxes had been replaced with elevators in the floor, which raised and lowered us to different heights. The floor is scary and it is hard to see the edges. As clumsy as I tend to be, I was grateful for every hand offered to help guide us up and down.
There was an additional aspect to the day: ABC had a crew there to shoot a news magazine piece on the show. We might wind up on Nightline in November.
Everyone learned to use the writing screen and everyone got two turns at the board while Glen played Alex Trebek. I saw how accurate Johnny and several of the others were at the signaling device and despaired. I saw how much everyone seemed to know and wished my brain was 20 years younger and faster. I was comforted by knowing that my husband had said he'd still love me if I didn't win-that being on the show was a great accomplishment and no matter what happened, I'd make enough money to pay for the new clothes and study materials.
Then it was back to the green room where Johnny's two challengers were named-and one of them was me.
OMG! Like Lisa Klink, I got called for the first game. Like Lisa my overriding concern was to not make a fool of myself on national television. Too late, I supposed. Too many people I know, even those to whom I have not mentioned my possible appearance, watch the show regularly. They will see me. My husband and son are in the audience, along with the two five-time Jeopardy! champions I've brought along with four other friends. They already know I must be going on, because the non-players for this show have marched out to the audience and taken their places.
The sound guy hooks up our mics and Lisa from make-up dusts our faces and the three of us walk out to play Jeopardy! I'm in the middle slot, Johnny on my right, and I think it's Imran on the left. My brain has turned to jello and I don't concentrate on anything except my cue to give my Hometown Howdy. I realize that my notes for this bit of PR are sitting on my desk at home and whatever I said back in the green room has left my brain. It takes several tries, but I finally get something out they can use. It's a shout out to Walton and my childhood refuge, the Odgen Free Library.
Then it is the moment, the music starts and Johnny Gilbert's voice intones the famous opening. We are each introduced and then Alex Trebek comes on to much applause. He's handsome and confident, does his few words, and gets the game under way.
The categories come up. Don't ask me what they are because at this point I'm not sure I know my own name. I'm trying to keep my wrist attached to the desktop so I don't move around or shake. And suddenly, nothing matters to me but the exposed clue, Alex's voice, and the lights coming on by the board and then, I hope, in front of me with each answer I know-or think I know. I've gone into hyper-focus mode. I'm a sports shooter waiting for the unexpected and the peak of action. I'm Cartier-Bresson waiting for the decisive moment when those white lights come on so all it will take is one press of the shutter for me to win the clue.
The first half of the round finishes and there's a break where Alex talks to the audience. Then he comes to talk to each of us in turn and get back to the game. Imran talks about a play on his last name that made him and his brothers "The Three Musketeers." Alex asks me about being a lawyer and a photographer, with a query about the law part. I don't know what he asks Johnny. I don't know what the scores are-it's Monopoly money and it really doesn't matter. We continue on our way through the board, but I think we leave a few questions unanswered. Play money left behind. I can't get the hang of shortening the categories, but I do my best to move along.
I think Alex takes pictures with us during the break between rounds. At some point, that will arrive at my home, suitable for framing. Again, I wish I was younger, but I think Lisa did a good job with my make-up.
The second round begins: six categories Einstein wouldn't know. We make our way through them, trying to figure out what they mean. An instant later, the round is over and the scores are read. I've done better against Johnny's skills and experience than I thought I would and there's a chance I can win the game with the right bet and the right answer on Final Jeopardy! The category is Godesses.
I was a mythology fanatic when I was little. Greek or Roman, I knew it. Bullfinches, Iliad, Odyssey, Classic Comics, I read them. Of course, my knowledge of Hindu, Norse, Egyptian, or other mythologies isn't as extensive, but I didn't have the luxury of a runaway against a returning champion. I had to take the chance.
Bet in, pen down. Alex reveals the clue. It's a goddess with a two-letter name who pissed off Juno/Hera. Eris is too many letters. There's something about a sea in the clue. Who was Jupiter/Zeus sleeping with. The names start to run through my head and I think Io. Was Io a goddess or one of Zeus' mortal paramours? Time is running out, and the rule is go with your first impression-it's probably right-and, oh yeah, there's the Ionian Sea.
I'm right. I've bet correctly, the returning champion has lost, and I've won what turns out to be over $15000! Not bad for 22 minutes of work that took a life-time of preparation. I shake hands with both of my excellent competitors. I'm trying not to cry, because it will streak my make-up and I've got only a little bit of time to change my clothes. Oh wait, I've got to move to my mark with the other contestants to stand with Alex for the credit crawl. Then I've got to talk to the cameraman and say some words about how I feel. I'm just stunned and I'm babbling. Maggie makes some suggestions and then starts to usher me off. Before I go back to the green room she says "You're a Jeopardy! Champion. No matter what else happens, no one can take that away."
I get back to the green room and get a round of applause from my gracious fellow contestants. I change, break a necklace when I fumble with the clasp, and get my make-up fixed. I'm trying to keep my eyes dry. It is hard.
Two other contestants get chosen and draw lots for position. We all get hooked up for sound again and it is off to the stage. This episode will air on October 27. I think I wish everyone luck. At least, I hope I did. We go through the steps of signing in and doing Hometown Howdies. I have trouble remembering to say I'm a Jeopardy! champion. I'm going to break whatever records they have for the number of takes on this, I'm sure. We finally finish and things start rolling. The new competitors are introduced, I'm the emotional returning champion, and Alex comes out. The board is another six categories of jibberish, I get to pick first, and we're off. During the break, I think Alex asks about my photographic specialty, which happens to be science fiction and fantasy writers. I tell him that Bob Silverberg turned down my request for a sitting and then came to me and asked if I would do him after he saw the first collection of portraits. We finish the round. I have no idea where the scores stand.
During the mid-point, Alex goes to take more questions from the audience. By this point, people realize that Bob Harris is in the audience and so does Alex. Bob is a Jeopardy! super-star, even if he hasn't won as much money as Ken Jennings. He's funny, charming, and one of the nicest people you could ever hope to meet. And his book is just plain wonderful, even if you have no aspirations to be on Jeopardy! Alex plays off of Bob for a bit and then it is time for the next round.
Now, I personally cannot wait to see my shows on TV and the game boards up on j-archive because I'd sure like to know what I played. What I do know is that I went into Final Jeopardy! without a runaway and I think the category for that game was Landmarks. When the clue came up, I had a momentary blank, because none of the potential landmarks I'd thought about fit the answer. But clue was the right word, because Nazi Germany and Franco were in there, with the category of Landmarks I wrote down Gibraltar. I won my second game!
My fellow contestants congratulated me with hugs and we went to stand with Alex. I had another session in front of the camera babbling about what it meant to win. I figured my friends and family with deadlines they were ignoring were feeling the day was worthwhile. I wouldn't be embarrassed when people I knew back in elementary school saw me. I was tired, and a little hungry (who even knew what time it was) and I knew I had to find the energy for a third game before we'd get a chance to eat. I was glad I ate a hard boiled egg that morning.
Back in the green room, it was another quick change, powder, and time to replenish the lipstick. Two more competitors were picked and prepared to go on stage. Three more Hometown Howdies. Now I'm a two-time champion and I keep forgetting to say "on Jeopardy!" Maggie says I need to do one for Los Angeles, since I do live here. It only takes a couple of tries to get that right. Everyone is really nice, all the time. Even when I'm messing up on the promo stuff.
When I was a back-up contestant, no one won more than two games. It's hard to keep the energy up. Maybe the reason why lawyers do well on the show is that we've slogged through the two or three days of the bar exam, which is nothing more than an intellectual endurance race. Maybe it's because we're used to being in a competition almost all the time. Maybe that's what I didn't like about the full-time practice of law.
The director gives the word and everything starts again. Once that happens, it's me, the board, Alex and the red lights in front of me. I get some answers right, try to avoid guessing if I really don't know, but make a few mistakes where I thought I knew the answer but gave the wrong choice of two possibilities. It's o.k. It's just points. This time, Alex asks me about my 50th birthday present to myself, which he charmingly tries to imply happened this year. I only wish, but I talk about the Arabian Prince, whom I refer to as "my pony that I never got when I was a child." Alex asks who rides it. I'm a little surprised by the question until I realize that Alex is unlikely to ride the race horses he owns. I tell him "I do" and don't offer to show him the scar from my broken arm. It's easier to learn to ride when you are a kid, not an adult.
I swear the board is going to say "Left Handed Nuns' Shoe Sizes" because it is another scary set of categories for the second round. I can't remember the Final Jeopardy! question, but the game has been competitive and I don't have a runaway again. I think that probably makes it good entertainment. What I do have is a good bet and the answer and suddenly, I'm a three-time Jeopardy! champion. It's a good thing I followed Lisa's advice and brought more than three changes of clothes.
We get a break before game four for some lunch. I'm hungry, thirsty, and too wound up to eat much. We get to go to a new cafeteria where the food is much more plentiful and has greater variety than my previous visit to the Studio. I get a piece of chicken and some salad and locate a bottle of Perrier. I couldn't get much down, but tried to eat enough to get through the next game.
I sat with Maggie, Glen and one of the players I'd soon go up against. I complained that the category "Hughs We Love" was missing the most important Hugh of all: Hugh Jackman. (It turns out my cheering section also noticed that category and were quite dismayed that I didn't get a chance to answer "Hugh Jackman.") We discussed plays and movies a little bit, and then all the remaining contestants went back to the green room so I could change again and take a bit more of a break.
My lunch companion and the graduate student from South Dakota came up against me on Game 4. At the half-way point of the first match, Alex brings up the fire and how the money I've won will help but our lives back in order. One of my friends thinks that makes me a little more human than the juggernaut the audience might perceive. The other contestants heard about the fire earlier in the day and they've all been great about it. During the break between rounds, an audience member who recognized Bob Harris wanted to know why he was there. Alex finds out the answer and says "Bob's a friend of our returning champion. I just learned that myself."
The game consists of twelve more categories I can't remember, but a Final Jeopardy!, I do. It's about "Pulitzer Prize-winning Plays." Not only do I not have a runaway this time, I'm going into Final Jeopardy! in a way that could wind up in a tie if I bet everything and win and so does another player. It takes me a while to place my bet, which will put me in second place whether or not I get the answer and my competitor does, but I could conceivably still win if I get it and he doesn't. It is a calculated bet, but I cannot bring myself to bet the entire amount. I've already gotten three Final Jeopardy! answers, which is probably about average for a week of watching at home. I'm well aware of how many players don't get the Final Jeopardy! answer. I did make lists of recent Pulitzer Prize winners, and I frantically try to remember Tracy Letts' name in case August: Osage County, in which my niece and name-sake made her Broadway debut, factors into the answer. It doesn't, but I do remember the playwright's name.
The clue asks for one of two one-word titled plays that won the Pulitzer recently. I know Meryl Steep is in the filmed version of one as a nun, but the name doesn't come to me (Doubt.) The one filmed with Gwyneth Paltrow comes quickly, and I write down Proof. Alex frames the answers by saying "If you've got one, you don't need the other, if you don't have one, you want the other" and I mentally breathe a sigh of relief. At least I knew one of the answers and if I lose, it's because I wasn't brave enough to bet the band, as we say at home.
Amazingly enough, I win again because my potential tie-or-beat-me player has bet everything and didn't get the answer. The English grad student from South Dakota got Doubt but could only win if I didn't get the answer. Eight worthy competitors and I find myself a four-time Jeopardy! champion. Oh, wow.
I feel like I'm in the Bataan Death March as I face Game 5. I've just been through another round of post-game interviews and a frantic clothing change. It does occur to me that the ABC team might notice I've won four games. There haven't been many five-time champions this year, so the pressure is pretty high. When I came off the stage at the end of three games, Maggie said something that sounded like "Tournament of Champions." She repeated that after the fourth game, and I realized the odds might favor me, because four-time champs do get on that rollercoaster. In my wildest dreams, I didn't factor that in, but somewhere I know I thought about the Holy Grail of five appearances.
My feet hurt and I laugh in the mirror of the green room when I recall that I watched all of the previous weeks' games back to back while standing up. I probably should have done more weeks like that for practice. I'm hoping to keep my adrenaline going, but it's tough, really tough. I knew it was tough for Lisa to win five games in one day and she's much younger than I am.
Chris Rodrigues, who hates flying more than I do, took the train from Massachusetts in coach to be a contestant. Roopa Kalyanaraman Marcello, a newly-wed whose recipe for eggplant caught Mark Bittman's attention, is from New York. They are my final competitors for the last game which will tape that day. Rob Severson and Melisa Paye-Mose will come back the next day to meet this game's winner for shows that will air the week of November 16. They will get a chance to meet new people who will be coming in to shoot only three shows on Wednesday.
I need to do two more Hometown Howdies, one for Walton, and one for Los Angeles. Now that I'm a four-time champion, the L.A. channel might actually run it. It's harder for me to get through it and I want to ask my five writers in the audience to cobble one together for me. Maggie helps.
Five episodes, sixty categories, and the only two I actually liked were the ones about national parks and state quarters. I suppose the "When" and "Moon" categories weren't too bad, but each game felt harder than the one before it. There are some wicked writers on Jeopardy! this season. I noticed this at home as we watched the games airing since the season began. Things were really challenging and there's not enough time to parse clues when you're up against two other people with signaling devices in their hands.
During the contestant interview, Alex asks Chris about the train and Roopa about her blog and then gets me to talk about my blog and how it put me in touch with my best friend from childhood. Gloria moved away when we were in junior high, but we had been in touch until college. The last time I saw her was right after we graduated high school. We lost touch. I had written about her in my blog on a day when I realized it was her birthday. She lives and works in Puerto Rico, and one day she was testing new software which prompted her to do a search on her own name. Unbelievably, my blog entry came up and we've been in touch for over a year. Remember that high school reunion I mentioned? Her parents moved back to our home town, so she managed to come back for the reunion as well. It was amazing to see her and she was one of only three people at the reunion to whom I mentioned I might be on Jeopardy!
It was a tough game, and at no point did I feel I was in control of the board. After the second round I was in third place. The Final Jeopardy! category was "Presidential Names." I made a strategic bet, again unwilling to intentionally end up in third place. With Chris and Roopa so close in score and ahead of me, I could pull off a win if I got the answer and they didn't. Or I could come in second depending on how they each bet.
We always talk about the thirteenth President of the United States using a phrase Bob Harris did in his book. I can't use it here. As well as I knew all of the Presidents in order, I could not come up with his name to match the clue asking for the only President with the same double letters in his first and last name. I got as far as William Henry Harrison and then started running names backwards from Obama. If I had taken a breath and started over, I might have gotten past 10 to 13, where the single, simple answer was. If I had just started swearing at the Presidents, I would have gotten it. Millard Fillmore now haunts my dreams and wakes me up. There's small consolation in knowing that it stumped my fellow players as well, and it stumped Bob Harris sitting in the audience (Alex called out and asked him), although Lisa Klink and my husband both got it almost immediately.
I gave Chris a big hug for congratulations and I'm glad his cross-country trip in coach paid off. I've looked up Roopa's eggplant recipe and I intend to make it some night. ABC interviewed me for Nightline, and I think I said something about wishing my brain was younger but I had fulfilled a life-long wish by being on the show. I suggested that some people should be sorry we didn't field a team to It's Academic when I was a senior in high school. I was glad my husband, son and friends were there to watch.
Maggie said a few things about what I can and can't do, pending the Tournament of Champions. "Call us if anyone wants you to be a life-line on Millionaire," she said. I laughed. I had a lot of paperwork to take care of when I finished and Corina waited while I packed my clothes. Then I went outside and my posse awaited me with applause and many hugs. Lisa Klink and Bob Harris let me know that I had played well. My family was proud of me and I hoped I had won and lost with grace and good humor.
10 great competitors, 4 wins, 1 place. I had to wait until I got home to add up the money-just over $70,000. It's nice, and I have some idea of how to put it to good use, but it wasn't really ever about the money, it was about playing the game. And I had a great time playing the game.