A planning and evaluation manager from Rochester, New York...

Aaron Wicks

Hey Rochester, I'm Aaron Wicks, a planning and evaluation director. See if I have the right plan to win on Jeopardy!

Season 26 1-time champion: $18,001 + 1,000.

Aaron Wicks
Rochester, NY

July 13, 2010

A Planning and Evaluation Manager
From Rochester, New York
...Aaron Wicks

I started my Jeopardy! journey in fifth grade. We were journaling to develop our writing skills and I told my teacher, Miss Alfieri, that I watched Jeopardy! every night. When I got the right answer for Final Jeopardy! one night, it was the greatest triumph this fifth grader had ever accomplished. My teacher wrote back that maybe someday I would be on Jeopardy! for real.

Fast forward almost 25 years. Despite earning a reputation for being an archive of trivia -- I continued to watch Jeopardy! as a viewer, never really thinking I could be a contestant. But one night, for no particular reason, I saw a promotion for the online test and I thought "Well, I could do that -- if I don't do well, no one will ever know." I took the test and was surprised at how hard it was. Gone were the cute clues that would lead you to the answer; these were just hard-core straight questions -- and it wasn't east to try to remember the answer and type it in time. The test lasted only a few minutes, but I was exhausted. "Ok, I gave it a shot," I thought.

After what seemed like an eternity, I received an email asking if I was interested in participating in a regional Jeopardy! audition in Cleveland (about three or four hours from home). I still harbored no illusions about my chances. I would go, give it a try and see what happens -- after all, how many people even make it this far?

The trip to the audition got off to an ominous start: I drove a new car with a gas gauge I wasn't very familiar with. And since it was a hybrid, I was obsessed with trying to get 50 miles per gallon or better whenever I drove it. Somewhere on the New York State Thruway, just before the Pennsylvania line, I saw my gas gauge start blinking, then within a minute, the gas engine shut off and I realized I was out of gas. So there I was, standing on the side of the interstate, waiting for a tow truck to bring gas so I could audition for Jeopardy!. When I told the tow truck driver I was on my way to audition for Jeopardy! he gave me a look that said "well, I hope you know more about 'potent potables' than you do about driving..." He wished me luck, regardless of what he might have been thinking.

The audition was more intimidating than I thought. There were probably 20-30 people milling around, making nervous chit chat. They all seemed pretty smart and they all seemed to have more personality than I did. But then I thought of the variety of people on Jeopardy! and I realized they needed to meet their quota of quiet, shy, quick-witted short people -- so maybe I still had a chance.

The audition brought another test -- still a hard one with direct questions, none of which I can remember anymore. I thought I did well, but I wondered if the main purpose of it was to make sure I was the same person who took the online test, and not some imposter who had his genius brother take the test for him. The Jeopardy! staff were total pros -- they knew we were nervous, but they reminded us, "this is a GAME show, have fun!" We played some simulated games, participated in some brief contestant interviews and that was it. I remember a moment when the audition was done and we all looked at one another wondering "what now?" I think we expected them to point to us and say "YOU -- you're in!" or "Sorry, you didn't make the cut." Thankfully, someone asked on behalf of all of us, "So, when do we hear how we did today?" A staff member looked sort of puzzled then said, nonchalantly, "Oh, you're all in. You're in the contestant pool. You might hear from us, you might not. Just be patient and keep your fingers crossed. Thanks for coming out today."

I left the audition and went to find my wife who I believed was probably outside staring upward toward the top of the hotel where a pair of nesting peregrine falcons were raising their brood. For her, the real thrill of the trip was the falcons; Jeopardy! was nice too...to each their own.

So many months passed after the audition that I had begun to wonder if I should take the online test again. Then one night, our phone rang. The caller ID said "Sony pictures" -- we assumed it was my wife's sister because she worked in LA in the film industry and we assumed she was visiting a colleague and using their phone (hey, it seemed reasonable at the time). My wife answered and said, "Um, sure, hold a second." She gave me a puzzled look and handed me the phone and said "It's for you..."

I answered and a friendly voice said, "Hi Aaron, this is Corina from Jeopardy!. Are you still interested in being a contestant?" Within about two seconds I thought "Are you crazy? No, I've changed my mind" then I thought "Is this real? Wait, Sony Pictures, yeah, they're the Jeopardy! people..." I finally settled on a casual reply: "Sure." My wife could hear the conversation and she was watching with a look of shock, as if she couldn't believe this conversation was actually happening in our living room.

After confirming my interest, promising I still did not know anyone who would pose a conflict and then -- to my surprise -- having to swear that I was not running for office, I was told I would be on. Thus began a one month roller coaster of emotions.

The initial feeling I had was euphoria: what a unique opportunity, a once in a lifetime type of experience, something I could show my baby son for years to come. Then, like a lesser-known Dickens tale, the ghost of Cliff Clavin came calling.

For fans of Jeopardy! and the sitcom Cheers, you know what I'm referring to. Cliff Clavin, the know-it-all mailman who always had a ready trivia fact at hand to amaze (and often annoy) his friends, had appeared on Jeopardy! in an episode of the show. It was one of the best sitcom storylines every written, the perfect exploration of a secondary character and the accomplishment of his greatest dream. Throughout his "appearance" on the show, Cliff lives the dream -- the categories that come up are designed for someone like him and he sweeps them. Then, with his arrogance at full tide, he shoots the moon on Final Jeopardy! and draws a blank. In a brilliant move where he takes the rules of the game literally, he comes up with a question to cover for his failing: "Who are three people who have never been in my kitchen?" While technically true, it was not the question that was sought and he is ruled against, losing everything. He even argues with Alex (which everyone knows is a fruitless endeavor). In the end, he returns to the bar a defeated man: like the mythical Icarus, he flew too close to the Jeopardy! sun and fell to the sea.

For most of the month before my taping all I thought was "Don't pull a Cliff Clavin! Don't embarrass yourself." But my mind would not let it go. I thought of the multitude of ways one could embarrass themselves on Jeopardy!. You could have trouble ringing in -- people would say "I thought you knew those answers!" and all you would be able to say is "I did, I just couldn't get the signaling device to work!" Pathetic, no one would believe it.

Another way to fail would be to draw blanks on questions. I saw this as a real possibility. I knew that when I get nervous, things sometimes don't come to mind. Then I started thinking about every time I had forgotten something, anything, in the past month or two. At one point I had memorized the NATO phonetic alphabet -- the one aircraft and nautical vessels use: alpha, bravo, charlie, delta, echo, etc... I ran through it and kept getting hung up. Wait, what is "I"? What if they ask that? I KNEW that? Ok, let's try Canadian provincial capitals... which one is St. John and which is St. John's? I was starting to panic: I realized I had forgotten more facts than I wanted to consider. What would be the next fact to slip away from my mind?

Yet another potential embarrassment would be a foolish wager. Every day I watch Jeopardy! and see people who make a conservative wager on daily doubles. I scream at them "bet it all!" but they rarely do. When they smile and get the answer right, I shake my head and say "you should have bet it all.... I told you..." But what if I follow my own advice and I blow it? Or worse, what if I get a daily double and make the same wimpy wagers I always criticize others for?

There were other methods of failure I considered, but they were mostly variations on these themes.

Because of my anxiety, I chose an unorthodox strategy to prepare for my appearance (one that I'm sure Sony Pictures does not want to encourage): I stopped watching the show. The first night it came on, my wife said, "Hey, Jeopardy!'s on, do you think you should practice?" I watched for a second, but when the first clue came up and I couldn't think of the answer, I turned the channel. It was just making me more nervous -- I went on a strict, no-Jeopardy! diet for the three weeks before my taping.

I probably had a different Los Angeles experience than most out-of-town contestants. No hotel for me, I had the good fortune of staying with my sister-in-law, Erin, in Manhattan Beach. She is always a great host -- stocking the refrigerator with beer and the pantry with Oreos -- the perfect Jeopardy! brain food. I drove to Sony Studios on the morning of my taping just like an LA commuter going to work -- only my "work" would consist of trying to be the first to ring in and then remembering to phrase my response in the form of a question.

One thing that's easy to forget about Jeopardy! contestants: they are all really smart. When I arrived, the other contestants were there, making small talk, talking about past champions and categories. I was intimidated -- I could name, maybe, two past champions, and one of them was Ken Jennings (hard to forget they guy that took Jeopardy! for $2.5 million. But as we spent the day together, we realized we were all nervous, all had the same fantasy -- and all dreaded the idea of bombing out and having to wait for the show to air so friends and family could watch our implosion in front of a national audience.

After about an hour of green room preparation, make up for a dozen people, another review of the rules and some tips to remember, we were ready to head for the studio for rehearsal. Up to this point, there was little "magic" around the whole thing: we parked in a ramp garage and at pastries and fruit in a small room -- it could have just as easily been a dozen people visiting their friend in the hospital instead of an appearance on Jeopardy!.

But that changed when we walked in the studio. There was the game board, the three podiums for the contestants, the lights, the shiny floors, the cameras, the crew -- ok, this is the real thing. As I walked in with the other contestants I tried to act unfazed, but inside I reverted back to the little fifth grader that fell in love with the show, I just wanted to squeal wow! at every little detail I noticed.

Now, I have to concede that while Alex Trebek is clearly the star of the show, Jeopardy! literally could not start without the familiar voice of Johnny Gilbert saying, "This.... is.... Jeopardy!" When I saw Johnny Gilbert stride into the studio and heard his distinctive voice welcoming the studio audience, I knew even more than before this was the real thing. This wasn't some fake Jeopardy! set, this was the real one with Johnny Gilbert. If you read Johnny's bio, you will probably say "I THOUGHT I knew that voice from somewhere else!" He is a television legend -- and he was about to say my name!

As contestants, we watch the episodes that precede ours during that taping day. I knew we would tape five shows that day, but I didn't know if I would be on the first, the last or one in the middle. Since there were a couple of alternates who had been at a previous taping but not made it on, I knew they would be given priority. I watched as they competed on the first two episodes of the day. Each time an episode would tape, the contestants would parade into the section of the audience reserved for us -- careful not to look at anyone (the Jeopardy! staff work hard to maintain the integrity of the show). We would then watch as our fellow contestants had their turn under the lights and in front of the camera. Knowing we would soon be up there ourselves, I think we felt not a sense of competition, but one of camaraderie. We all wanted to in, but we also wanted the experience to be fun and memorable -- and most, if not all, of us were just happy to have this experience. We winced when our fellow contestants missed questions and I'm sure we all sat there, ringing imaginary buzzers, trying to get our timing down and get used to the pacing of the show (as if we all had not already watched the show a thousand times).

After the first two episodes, I got a bit of a sinking feeling. Superstition was telling me things were not looking good: I knew the Final Jeopardy! answers for the first two episodes -- one of them I got it when no one else did. I never do that well. I thought "Great, those were the ones I'll get -- with my luck I'll get Biblical Verses when my show comes up." After a lunch break we returned to the studio and I got the word: I was on.

By this point, I cannot even recall being nervous -- really. The process was clear to me, I knew how everything would happen (having watched three episodes tape before mine) and there was nothing else to do but just see how things would go. Would I be able to ring in? Would I remember answers? We would soon find out....

It might not be visible to viewers, but I had a nice laugh when the game board came up in Double Jeopardy! I joked with people before I left that the Bible is not my strong suit. I resisted studying it as a child and I never learned even the most fundamental facts. I know the names and some of the stories, but I do not have any confidence in being able to put them together properly. So I had to laugh when a Bible category (was it "Biblical quotes"?) came up. Well, so much for 1/6th of the game board.

Fortunately, I was doing well and my luck continued into Double Jeopardy! With just a handful of clues left, the reigning champion, who was trailing me, got a Daily Double. Despite the fact that I could see the dollar amounts we each had, I was more focused on just buzzing in and getting the questions straight. But Daily Doubles slow down the pace, and since this was just for him, I had a chance to think for a moment. To my surprise, he missed it. I looked at the dollar amounts and was surprised when I realized that I had an insurmountable lead. With just two or three clues left I told myself, "don't blow it!" The game-ending tone sounded and there it was: unless I wagered foolishly, I would win. Even before Final Jeopardy! came up, I smiled and thought "I did it. I'm a Jeopardy! champion!"

But Final Jeopardy! still needed to be contested -- the category was "Five Letter Literary Terms." I bet the maximum I could bet without losing. To me, the key as to preserve the win -- losing some money with an incorrect response was not a big concern. The answer was revealed and my heart raced: literary form.... five letters ... oldest example was (I can't even remember) ... and it is from the Latin for "straightforward". Uh oh. "Saga?" -- no, that's Icelandic in origin (and four letters). I racked my brain but nothing was coming. "Epic?" No, that's four letters too. Time was running out. I couldn't just leave my screen blank. That would be giving up. Quickly I wrote my response, all I could think of, "What is epic?" But I didn't want Alex to yell at me for not remembering the category (FIVE-letter terms) so, just for fun, I added an extra "c" to make it five letters. It got a good laugh from the crew and the audience -- i couldn't tell how much Alex liked my joke -- but who cares: I was a Jeopardy! champion!

The glow did not last long. After the win it was back to the dressing room to change outfits and then back on stage for the next episode. A part of me began to think: "What if I win again? Can I go through all this again?" Then I answered "Hell yeah!"

But my second episode started tough. My wife said she was nervous when I dipped into negative dollars (I didn't even notice it). By the end of the first round, I was in third place.

Then my second Jeopardy! dream came true. If someone asked me what I most wanted out of Jeopardy!, the first thing was to be a champion. I had done that. The second was to have a category that I could run -- one that I could say "That one is MINE." When the Double Jeopardy! board came up, my second dream became real: there in the first position was the category tailor-made for a PhD holder in political science, one who studied Congressional leadership and who collects the rubbings from gravestones of past Speakers of the House: "I'm Just a Bill on Capitol Hill." I jumped into the category with relish. Got the first one. Got the second one. Then I think the third, maybe the fourth clue, was a Daily Double. Ok, so for all my yelling at contestants on my TV for not making it a true Daily Double, here was one in my dream category -- how could I not bet it all. Without much thought, I heard myself saying words I never really thought I would, "Let's make it a true Daily Double."

Now, here's the funny thing about this: I answered four of the five questions in the category correctly (including the daily double) but it was only when I got home that evening and was relaxing with my family that I slapped my forehead and said "I just got it! That Capitol Hill category was about Congressmen named Bill!" Even without that helpful hint, I still did well in the category (but couldn't run it -- the $2,000 clue mystified me, I wasn't clear what type of response they were looking for).

The second episode for me was one where I actually felt tighter and more conservative. I felt like I had something I needed to defend, and in that sense it seemed harder to defend than to just go for it and win. Still, by the end of Double Jeopardy! I had a small lead -- it was mine to lose, if only I could get a good Final Jeopardy! category.

The category was "Actors"

I figured I have a better than even chance with a category like actors. It's not my strongest, but it's one I'm with which I'm quite conversant. I looked at the dollar amounts and thought about wagering strategy. All I could think was that I did not want to lose because I did not bet enough. That just is not the way I wanted to go down. So I looked at the second place contestant's amount and wagered just enough to beat him in the event we both got it right. This also meant that if he did not be everything and we both got it wrong, he might beat me by wagering more conservatively. But as I said, my assumption was that we would get it and I would not let him beat me under that circumstance.

The clue was revealed, and for a second I was optimistic: name the two African American actors who had been nominated five times each for Academy Awards. Ok, ok... Denzel Washington came to me instantly -- I could picture him in my mind holding his statuette. And the other, that would be, let's see... uh oh.... uh oh.... the names that came into my head made me panic. For no particular reason all I could think of were Spike Lee (I knew he wasn't nominated as an actor) and ... Bill Cosby. What? Bill Cosby? I don't think he quite got the nod for his performance in "Leonard Part 6!" I tried to clear my mind but nothing else was coming. The clock was winding down and my heart sank. It wasn't coming. I couldn't even think of a name to put down that was even plausible... I knew then it was over -- I just didn't think that my wager and my fellow contestants were going to allow me to eke out a second win.

The third place contestant guessed Washington and Sidney Poitier. I sighed, "Sidney Poitier, of course!" But she was wrong.... hmmm... now I was really puzzled. My nearest competitor's response was revealed: Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman. D'oh. Morgan Freeman. Morgan... Freeman.....

His voice haunts me now. When I hear Morgan Freeman's voice all I think is "Morgan, where were you when I had $28,000 on the line? Huh?" Morgan Freeman says, of one of the products he sells on TV "It's everywhere you want to be..." For the rest of my life, Morgan Freeman will be everywhere I don't want to be....why couldn't I remember him?

But two dreams realized isn't bad. A day with Alex Trebek and Johnny Gilbert, the crew of Jeopardy! and the contestants -- it was a wonderful experience. And a few thousand dollars for about an hour's work I probably the highest wage I'll ever earn. I think Miss Alfieri would be proud.

Aaron appeared in the following 2 archived games:
#5961, aired 2010-07-12 Aaron Wicks vs. Barbara Gayle vs. Saad Hasan
#5955, aired 2010-07-02 Dave Edwards vs. Aaron Wicks vs. Kim Platnick

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