An actuary from New York, New York...

Tom Toce

Hey, Greater New York!--and what could be greater than New York? Watch me, Tom Toce, on Jeopardy!

Season 26 2-time champion: $39,200 + $2,000.

Last name pronounced like "toast" without the final "T".

Tom became interested in Jeopardy! six years before his appearance when his friend, Season 20 Julia Lazarus, became a first victim of Ken Jennings.

Jeopardy! Message Board user name: elnino

Tom Toce - An Actuary
New York City, New York

March 3, 2010

What is a bucket list?

Years ago, I read an article in the Utne Reader that deeply impressed me. The author recommended making a list of 50 things you really want to accomplish in your life. And periodically checking the list to see whether you're making any progress towards your goals--and asking yourself what you're doing with your time if you're not.

My initial list included win a Tony, visit the moon, and a few other big things that aren't that controllable day to day. How you measure your progress depends on your perspective, though. I do work on shows and songwriting regularly, so I'm certainly pursuing that Tony. As for the moon, my best shot would be living long enough to see tourist space travel at an affordable price. I am healthy and intend to live forever, so I feel I'm doing as much as I can, moon-wise.

Everyone calls this a bucket list now, after the Jack Nicholson movie of a few years ago. I've accomplished outright a few of the items on my list and partly accomplished some others. I've also added things. In 2003, I added "appear on Jeopardy!" to my list, after a friend auditioned. It struck me as the coolest thing in the world. Two weeks ago, I got to cross one more item off my bucket list. After nearly six years of trying, I flew to California to tape my appearance on Jeopardy!

What is four-tenths of one percent?

It was really fantastic. I've taken seven tests over the past six years, only failed one. I've been in the pool most of that time and could have been called anytime. It's all a numbers game, though, and I had recently begun to despair of ever getting on the show.
I'm an actuary, and I use spreadsheets to estimate various probabilities, so it was natural for me to calculate my chances of getting on Jeopardy! I'd heard that more than 100,000 people take the on-line test each year now. Jeopardy! tapes 46 weeks each year, but because of teen tournaments, Celebrity Jeopardy! and other special shows, a full season includes fewer than 200 regular games. Since winners now keep playing till they lose, there are only two new contestants per game (or even one, if there's a tie) and so fewer than 400 new contestants each season.
Those are the odds: less than 400 out of 100,000, four-tenths of one percent. Even if you pass the on-line test--which is hard, with only about a 10% pass rate--the odds are still just 4% (400 out of 10,000). I don't know how many of the 10,000 they call for an in-person audition (and thus put into the contestant pool), but I would guess about 1,000 or maybe 2,000. The pool needs to be larger than just the 400 they'll use. I've been in the pool several times without getting on the show, and I know many others in the same position. No one knows how they pick 'em. But being in the pool is no guarantee, that's for sure.

What is you gotta get a gimmick?

Jeopardy! invites its players to recommend others who might be good on the show, and I got recommended by my friend Julia Lazarus, who played against Ken Jennings in his first game. Julia did well and was one of the few who had more than 2/3 of Ken's score going into FJ. Two-thirds is a significant level, because it gives the second-place player a very good chance to win. Well, in an average situation it does, but not when you're playing Ken Jennings! I think their scores were $20,000 and $17,000. Before Julia went on the show, I advised her to bet low if she found herself in that position. The leader is going to bet enough to cover your bet doubled, so you can't win unless the leader gets FJ wrong. So it's not a good idea to bet all you have (which a surprising number of second-place players do). Julia did bet low ($3,001) and therefore would have won if Ken got FJ wrong, regardless of whether she was right or wrong. The category was the 2000 Olympics, and the correct answer was "Who is Marion Jones?" Julia didn't know it; Ken wrote, "Who is Jones," which was judged sufficient; and the rest is history.
The decision could have gone the other way, since Jones is a common last name. Good players provide the least possible amount of information, because extraneous data can get you into trouble, but Ken took quite a risk by writing only Jones and not M. Jones or Marion Jones. Anyway, this provided me my angle for trying to get on the show. I was hoping to avenge my good friend's famous loss.
My first tryout occurred in 2004, before on-line testing. I passed and got into the pool, but no luck. I emailed Maggie Speak, then the Jeopardy! contestant coordinator (now her title is contestant producer), a year later and got another tryout in Nov. 2005, but I didn't pass that test. I was so disappointed-but determined to keep trying.
I took the on-line test in January 2007. I passed, but didn't get an in-person audition at first. I learned via the Jeopardy! website's message board of several NYC people who did get auditions, and I was so depressed. I wrote to Maggie again--always careful to remind her who I was and that I wanted to avenge Julia's loss--and voila! At the last minute, weeks after everyone else's invitation, I got called for an in-person audition in June 2007. I would be in the pool for another 18 months!

I didn't get called then, either. So I took another on-line test in January 2009. And the same thing happened. I passed, but no invite. Then on June 4, 2009, again weeks after everyone else had heard, I got an invitation. I wrote to thank Maggie, and here's what she wrote back:

"Tom, you don't have to thank me, they had already planned on inviting you!!"

At least I was on their radar! Who knows how they do what they do? No one knows the criteria for getting The Call. I had three live auditions, and I wasn't any more charming in 2009 than the two previous times. It's not about getting the highest score on the in-person audition test, because I'm sure others scored higher. Demographics plays a part, as I bet they go for as much diversity as possible. Anyway, I think having a gimmick helps. Mine was vengeance. (Although in truth, that's ridiculous, as my friend Julia doesn't care about revenge against Ken Jennings, nor does she think anything I could do on Jeopardy! would achieve it, even if she did!)
All I know is that I beat the odds. In November of 2009, I got the call from Glenn Kagan informing me that I had been chosen to be a contestant on Jeopardy! and that I should make plans to be in California on December 7th and 8th.

What is atrophy?

Playing Jeopardy! well requires a bunch of different skills: good general knowledge, sound betting strategy, good reflexes, ability to recall things quickly, ability to process information quickly, and poise. Some of these skills I have, others I'm not so strong at. If you were to make one generalization about the best Jeopardy! players of all time, you'd say, "Guys in their twenties." Some exceptions, but not too many. So those were the players I was most afraid of, young men who looked as if they'd been playing video games in the womb.

Yevgeny, the reigning champ that first morning, was one such. I think he's still in college. Watching the first game of our taping session, I remember saying to Elizabeth Galoozis (who later that day would win two championships) that I hoped someone would knock Yevgeny out before I had to face him. She agreed. This kid was amazing. No one could beat him at the buzzer. And he knew a lot. So he had a commanding lead, though not a lock, going into Final Jeopardy!
All he had to do to win his second game was avoid WR (getting FJ wrong while the second-place player got it right). But that's exactly what happened--because the question he faced was one much more likely to be known by an older person than a young one. The FJ required you to know-or more likely guess--the only non-human on the AFI's list of 100 all-time movie heroes. A hard question for anyone, but maybe especially so for a young person.
Bye-bye, Yevgeny.
I congratulated him for his terrific play right afterwards, and he told me, "I just never associated Lassie with the movies."

What is Topps?

It's the company that made baseball cards in the 1960's, when I was a kid. They still do. In my first game, there was a category called Major League Baseball Hall of Fame Players by Team. Talk about a gimme! Well, for me, but thank god not for Stewart Yeargin or Ginny Bartlett, my competitors. I got beat on the buzzer pretty badly the first half of the first round, but finally I rang in on something or other, and got it right. And then, time to play baseball!
I ran the category, which is almost as much fun as winning. If I had lost, I would still have taken some comfort in telling people that I ran a category on Jeopardy!
First up was Roy Campanella. I threw Alex a bit by saying "What is Brooklyn?" I guess he was expecting "Who are the Dodgers?" Not that I had much time to think, but I said Brooklyn for a reason. If I had started to say "Dodgers," I might very well have said "Los Angeles Dodgers," and I wasn't sure that Campanella ever got to play in Los Angeles. (He didn't.) "What is Los Angeles?" or "What are the Los Angeles Dodgers?" would be a wrong answer. So I steered clear and went with the safer choice, Brooklyn.
Then came two answers that were a baby boomer's dream, Willie Stargell and Brooks Robinson. No way I could miss those. Would the category really be this easy? There are a few Hall of Famers I might stumble on--Goose Goslin, Paul Waner, Nap Lajoie-but not Willie Stargell and Brooks Robinson. I had their baseball cards when I was kid! The fourth answer was the only one to give me pause, Bob Feller. He was way before my time, but still, he's one of the most famous pitchers ever, and so I was able to say, "What are the Cleveland Indians?" without too much trouble. The last answer was Al Kaline. Al Kaline! The youngest player ever to win the batting title-you mean that Al Kaline? This one was maybe the easiest of all for me, much easier than the first one, Roy Campanella. Jeopardy! can be funny that way. "What are the Detroit Tigers?"

What is betting strategy?

I led Stewart going into FJ by $15,800 to $12,600. The returning champion, Ginny, ended DJ with a negative score, so FJ would be a two-person contest. The only wager I would consider making in this situation is $9,400 exactly (not $9,401, as a lot of leaders might).
A right answer would leave me with $25,200, twice Stewart's score. So if I got FJ right, I couldn't lose. I wouldn't bet $9,401, because a common strategy for players in Stewart's position is to bet $6,200 and win by a dollar, $6,400 to $6,399, if I bet $9,401 and got FJ wrong. I didn't want to risk that.
I've analyzed a lot of actual Jeopardy! betting. It's important to observe what players actually do, as opposed to speculating about what they ought to do. Second place players don't always make optimal wagers (thank god!), so first place players should adjust their bets accordingly.
There may be a slight statistical advantage to betting $3,000 or $3,001 rather than $9,400. I didn't analyze enough two-person FJ's to say for sure, I'm only inferring from my observations on three-way FJ's in which the third place player was far behind. A $3,000 bet by me would cover RR if Stewart bet $6,200 and let me win on WW, too. But second-place players frequently bet more than their optimal bets, and Stewart could easily bet more than $6,200. Nobody wants to go home from Jeopardy! saying, "Yeah, I was leading going into FJ, and I got it right, but I just didn't bet enough." The statistical advantage to the $3,000 bet in a two-person FJ wasn't clear and wasn't large, so I went with the $9,400 wager.
Stewart did bet more than $6,200. She bet all she had-or nearly all. There are only four outcomes in a two-person FJ: RR, RW, WR, and WW. I did need to bet the $9,400 in order to win RR. RW would be mine no matter what, and WR would be Stewart's under all but the most peculiar pair of bets, so the big consideration for betting is WW.
FJ is hard. In my analysis of the current season, the leader got FJ right only 37% of the time! With optimal betting and a score at least 2/3 as high as the leader, a second-place player actually has a better chance of winning than the leader does (as long as the leader isn't Ken Jennings). Jeopardy! players have big egos, though, or something, because their betting strategies often fail to recognize how hard FJ is. The Triple Stumper (WWW) is by far the most common outcome of FJ.
Needless to say, Stewart and I both got FJ wrong. I ran into her at the hotel bar that evening, and she told me the reason she bet so much was that she "felt really good about the category." Who is Lucky Tommy?

What is Macy's?

This is where Maggie sends you if the clothes you bring are deemed unacceptable for the camera. The Jeopardy! folks only let me wear one of the three outfits I brought, so I had nothing for the next day. That evening, my wife and I went to Macy's, and in a fit of optimism and celebration, I bought four shirts and four ties for the next day. I intended to be a five-time champ. May as well dress the part!

What is floating on air?

The best game to win is the last one taped on a given day, because you get to come back the next time as returning champion. The first day, the passengers on the shuttle bus from the hotel to the studio were like a bunch of cattle being taken to slaughter. I was nervous, everyone else was nervous, and no one talked. The second morning, though, I was much more relaxed. I didn't initiate conversation, because I thought that would be inconsiderate, but once one or two others did, I joined in. And when I told them I had been at the taping the day before (we saw George Clooney at lunch!), they kind of figured out I was the returning champion. And it felt great.
That feeling persisted all morning. I didn't have to practice my "Hometown Howdy," didn't have to work out my anecdotes for Alex, didn't have to do much of anything in the green room except relax, eat a decent breakfast, and get made up for the first game. The whole Jeopardy! staff knew me by name, and I was a little something of a celebrity. During practice, I always got to stand at the returning champion podium, which was the only slot I would occupy from now on until I lost.

What is mush?

That's what your brain can turn into under pressure. I practiced against Ashouk that second morning. He was much faster at the buzzer than I was. The only way I could beat him was on some old fogey question (I'm 53) that he didn't know the answer to. One must have come up, because it was my turn to pick a category. I picked Math (I'm an actuary). The first answer was, "It's 156 divided by 6."
And that's when my ability to do simple arithmetic abandoned me. It's a hazard of Jeopardy! for everyone, maybe more so for older people. Buzzer speed is not the only reason young people tend to be the big winners. I think suppleness of mind, the ability to assemble familiar information quickly, is equally important. It was the most surprising thing to me about the game. In the pressure of the moment, my brain turned to mush, and I became unable to do simple arithmetic quickly. Ashouk had no such problem. He buzzed in and said "What is 26?" before I could even begin to understand what was being asked.
Well, that was just practice, but I think my weaknesses were beginning to show. Slow buzzer speed and slow-wittedness could undo me. I began to wish I had spend less time with almanacs over the past six years and had instead found a high school quiz bowl team to practice with. Jeopardy! is a game, after all-and yet I had never really approached it that way. A lot of Jeopardy! champions played quiz bowl in school or got regular practice with bar trivia games, and I have never done any of that. I was an experienced passive watcher of the game-not the same thing.

What are compensating skills? (Also acceptable: What is it's not all about the buzzer?)

I was very worried about my second game. My opponents were Leslie Hurd, one of the returning contestants from the day before, whom I knew to be very smart, probably quicker than I was on the buzzer, and knowledgeable about theater and some of the other categories I'm strong in, and Graham Norris, who seemed to be in his late twenties, maybe early thirties, which scared me, and he also seemed to have an edginess, which scared me even more. He was competitive, too. Just before we went out to play, I wished them good luck. Graham looked at me like I was crazy, and said, "You don't really mean that," which I took to mean that he wouldn't have meant it and wasn't wishing me good luck. I liked winning, that's for sure, but I didn't particularly enjoy having to beat people. Everyone there wanted the same thing I wanted-to win as many games as possible. In wishing them good luck, I didn't mean good luck and I hope you beat me; it was more like, good luck, I hope you play well, I hope I play well, and whoever wins wins. Graham challenging me on that unnerved me a little. It also really made me want to kick his butt.
The game itself is a blur. I remember the FJ question and not much else. I felt slower on the buzzer than either Leslie or Graham, but somehow I opened up a lead, and it must have been because I knew some things they didn't know. On the lower-valued questions, it's common for all three players to know the answers, so that part of the game is indeed "all about the buzzer."
"It's all about the buzzer" is one of those cliches that people throw at you when you tell them you want to be on Jeopardy! Fast reflexes really do help, and I had a hard time beating certain players at the buzzer (particularly Ben in my third, and final, game). But ringing in fast when you don't know the answer is a good way to lose a lot of money, so it's not "all about the buzzer" or at least not only all about the buzzer.
Some of the other skills can bail you out. I've prepared pretty extensively for Jeopardy! the past six years. I know the presidents, the vice presidents, British royalty, state capitals, world capitals, opera, Shakespeare, and many other recurring categories. I must have been able to go deep in a category or two and rack up a lot of points. I don't remember what they were, though. I ended up with about $19,000 going into FJ. Leslie did very well, too, so I didn't have a lock. I didn't even have enough of a lead to guarantee me a win on WW, because Leslie had more than 2/3 of my score. Leslie bet wisely, perhaps influenced by the bet she saw me make in the previous game. She knew I would likely bet upwards to exactly her scored doubled, so she wagered just enough to beat me by $1 if we both got FJ wrong. That's what my analyses told me was her optimum bet-and good for her for making it.
Well, maybe not so good for her. The FJ category was Academy Awards, a strong one for us both. All three of us got it right. (Graham was not a factor in FJ.) Especially because she had just seen me bet to tie on RR in the previous game, she maybe should have bet it all. If she had, we would have been co-champions. But instead, she made the percentage play with a smart downside bet, and unfortunately, it cost her.
Unfortunately for her, that is. For me, it meant I won a pile of money. That's one of the advantages to a close game-the leader has to bet big. With a bigger lead, the leader is foolish to bet big. FJ required us to know that the Best Actor of 1987 had been nominated in 1961 for the same role, the later movie being a sequel. Somebody up there likes me: I had studied the Academy Awards pretty extensively, and I knew Paul Newman's career fairly well.

What is a buzz saw?

Besides Elizabeth Galoozis, Ben Auer was the other Day 1 contestant I became especially friendly with. All three of us won games-Elizabeth won two the first day, I won the two I've described, and Ben won . . . well, Ben beat me, that's all I can really say here. You can read Ben's blog for details about his performance after our one game together.
I couldn't beat Ben at the buzzer. There were plenty of questions in round one I knew the answer to, but I just couldn't ring in. When you're fast, you not only score a lot of points, but you also set yourself up for the Daily Doubles. Ben may have gotten all three, I'm not sure. I know that he blew a lot of money on one of them, a question about Epiphany that required knowing that Twelfth Night was the Shakespeare play named for that holiday. I once read that Twelfth Night was originally called What You Will, which was deemed an unacceptable title by TPTB in Elizabethan times, and so Twelfth Night was substituted because it was to be performed on the twelfth day of Christmas, or something like that. Ben lost $5,000 on that Daily Double.
Whew. Can you imagine if he had gotten it right? Ben skunked us anyway and couldn't lose as we faced FJ. He was helped by some real stupidity on my part, especially in Double Jeopardy, when I panicked. I answered a couple of questions incorrectly even though I knew the answers. And I hesitated and failed to ring in on a couple more I knew, including one about Louis XIV. I had studied my monarchs! Besides, Louis XIV reigned for about 75 years, so even if you know nothing about French history, you should still ring in and say Louis XIV and you'll be right most of the time. I also rang in once or twice when I didn't really know the answer, and that cost me. I was losing and I panicked.
We all got FJ wrong. It was about Science Mnemonics. I have a bias, I guess, and it's that I think of physics when I think of science, maybe sometimes chemistry, but hardly ever biology. I majored in Geophysics in college. There's a famous quotation from Ernest Rutherford ("All science is either physics or stamp collecting") that I probably have become a little too fond of. The problem is, the FJ answer mentioned systems, and I should have thought about cataloguing things-about stamp collecting!--but I was stuck in physics, counting the letters to see if the FJ was one of those mnemonics that give you the digits of pi or something-or the colors of the rainbow. But no, it was Kingdom/Phylum/Class/Order/Family/Genus/Species. If I had realized that, I would have gotten Linnaeus, but I was stuck somewhere else, and I wrote Copernicus, which I didn't really think was right, but I had to put down something.
It didn't matter. Ben had a lock. I was in third place. Rhonda Scarborough and I competed for second place. I followed the betting strategy I mention above. I probably wasn't going to win second place if Rhonda got FJ right, because why wouldn't she cover me doubled? So the only way I could take second place was to bet low. A lot of players don't wager that way, because it feels pessimistic and seems to take control of your destiny away. The thing is, if a player has more money than you going into FJ, they can always beat you if they get it right. That's what you have no control over. Betting low actually gives you more control, because it gives you the opportunity to win not just on WR but also WW.
FJ was another Triple Stumper. Rhonda and Ben were at least in the right branch of science. Rhonda said Hooke or Leeuwenhoek or something, and Ben picked Darwin, I think.
I thought Ben might go on to win twenty games. He was smart, fast, and would only get better with each game he won. He was a buzz saw. I thought he might be the next Ken Jennings and that I had just suffered a fate similar to my friend Julia Lazarus's. That's where my ego comes in: I wanted to believe that the guy who could beat me had to be magnificent. I liked Ben a lot and would wish him well just because of that, but if he could also go on to be the biggest winner of all time, it would take some of the sting out of my loss.
But here is where my story ends. Read Ben's blog to learn what happened next.

What is the Tournament of Champions?

That's where I wanted to end up. There was indeed sting to my loss. I wanted to win 5 games and join the Jeopardy! elite, those players I have come to admire so much over the past six years-- Brad Rutter, Ken Jennings, Tom Walsh, Larissa Kelly, David Madden, and so many others. But in the end, I just didn't have it. I came to Jeopardy! later in life than most of the very best players. Brad Rutter said that "a lifetime of paying attention" is what's required to do well, and for the first 47 years of my life, I kind of half paid attention. For the past six years, I've paid much more attention to the kinds of information likely to come up on Jeopardy! I've gotten so much out of the experience. Two wins and more than $40,000 for starters. A bucket list dream come true. A few new friends from the taping. My air dates are still two months away, and I expect to revel in the attention when my shows air. Jeopardy! reaches 12 million people every day, so I bet I'll hear from some unexpected corners of my life. I also feel grateful that my preparation for Jeopardy! hasn't quenched my thirst for knowledge. I loved studying for Jeopardy! and not having it is going to leave a hole in my life. But the more you know, the more you want to know, and I'm going to return to my bucket list and find the next big project to pursue. And I think I will find ways to keep acquiring knowledge, because through Jeopardy! I've learned how much I love doing that.

What is life?

It has joys and it has sting. I wanted to win 5 games-and didn't. Boo-hoo. I aim high. If I had intended to win only one game, I may very well have won none. If only I hadn't rung in and answered incorrectly on so many questions against Ben, if only I could have ended up with 2/3 of his score going into FJ, I could have won, because betting well was one of my best skills. But I didn't. Too many holes in my game, I guess.
But let's end on a high note. I am a two-time Jeopardy! champion! You can't be unhappy about that, no matter how high you aim. I found something at age 47 I really wanted to do, added it to my bucket list, and achieved it. I persisted when the odds of getting on the show seemed remote. I came out on top a couple of times in a young person's game. I feel as if I can try anything-why not? I hope that's the message anyone who reads this far takes from my voyage: keep trying. Never give up!

Tom appeared in the following 3 archived games:
#5864, aired 2010-02-25 Tom Toce vs. Rhonda Scarborough vs. Ben Auer
#5863, aired 2010-02-24 Tom Toce vs. Graham Norris vs. Leslie Hurd
#5862, aired 2010-02-23 Ginny Bartlett vs. Tom Toce vs. Stewart Yeargin

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