A bank teller from Louisville, Kentucky...

Elza Reeves

Hi, Kentuckiana. I'm Elza Reeves from Louisville. Watch and see if it's in the Cards for me to win on Jeopardy!

Season 25 1-time champion: $16,400 + $1,000.

Jeopardy! Message Board user name: emr


What can you say about winning on Jeopardy! except that it is an incredible rush? Maybe not quite up there with the birth of my children, or my wedding day, but close.

About me: married, 2 grown (or nearly-grown) children, 46 years old. I am a GRITS (Girl Raised In The South) and an avid football fan. I work part-time as a bank teller, and also as a church pianist. I love reading, cooking, playing the piano, and of course, Jeopardy!

As a child of the sixties, I grew up on Art Fleming and “Rice (ding!) a Roni, the San Francisco Treat.” As a fresh-from-college newlywed, the reincarnation of Jeopardy! in the eighties interested me but was not a consuming passion. Like many others, I often thought “I could do that!” when watching, but never made any serious attempt to get on the show. How did you do that anyway? I didn’t know, and had too many other things going on to worry about it.

So years – decades – passed before my first attempt. In 2003 the Brain Bus came to Louisville and I determined to take a shot at it. Although I couldn’t leave work until mid-day, I made my way to the mall and joined the line of aspirants on the sidewalk. Alas, the number had to be cut off just a few people ahead of me. Oh well. I tried, and it didn’t work out. Life went on.

I suppose it was the reality of middle age, when you start thinking about all the things you’d really like to do and the limited amount of time left to do them, that led me to try again. That, and the convenient innovation of online testing! When the online test came around in 2007, I signed up and tested away. The invitation to come to an audition in Chicago that August confirmed my desire to really give this a try. However, I still didn’t get too excited. One of my sons had auditioned for the Teen Tournament the previous fall and wasn’t selected, so that kept me from anticipating too much. I didn’t make a big deal about it or tell many people – after all, nothing had happened yet.

The audition day itself held such a range of events and emotions that, looking back, I still have a hard time processing them all. My husband and I drove to Chicago that morning (a 5-hour trip) and got to the audition in plenty of time. Yes, there were some butterflies, but they were mostly from not knowing what to expect.

Butterflies fled before the voice of Maggie Speak! She and the other staff brought energy, humor and a welcome light touch to the process, reminding us that this was, after all, “a game show – it’s not Masterpiece Theater!” I tried to project my voice and show some personality and give the staff what they were looking for, and left feeling that I had given this the best shot I possibly could.

As months went by without a call, I accepted that I was not going to be on Jeopardy! I had tried my best, and that was fine – no regrets. In fact, when visiting New York City in June of 2008, I thought that it would be fun if I got onto (or into) the “Cash Cab” since I assumed that the Jeopardy! thing was not going to happen.

Thank goodness that the “Cash Cab” never came my way, because just a couple weeks later I got the call from Jeopardy! I was at home alone – my husband and children were helping at an event at church, while I relaxed after an especially long day at work. When the phone rang and Robert James announced that this was “Robert from Jeopardy!,” I hardly even reacted. As he reviewed my audition time and contact information, however, it began to sink in that I had actually gotten “the call,” especially when I heard those magic words. “So do you still want to be on Jeopardy!?”

After that call, what else could I do? I jumped up and down and yelled “I’m going to be on Jeopardy!” Then I called my husband.

With just about a month’s notice, I made arrangements at work to move my vacation date up a week. My husband and I had planned a trip to visit family and spend a few days by ourselves at the beach to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary (July 23), but he was willing to go to California instead, so I could be on Jeopardy! What a sweetie. Our younger son loves the show and had auditioned for the Jeopardy! Teen Tournament twice. He traveled to California with us. Our older son was in the middle of a summer school class that prevented him from making the trip, but he provided transportation services to and from the airport and kept the home fires burning.

As far as preparing for the show, I watched it every chance I got and practiced with the “clicker pen” from my audition. Frankly, I think that was the most helpful thing I could have done and provided the most practical benefit when actually playing. A friend at church loaned me a number of resource books, and I perused those during the week or so before we left. I read about opera, architecture, Shakespeare, and art. Although I think that was a useful exercise, none of those topics came up in my games!

Once in California, we toured the Sony studios the day before my taping and enjoyed seeing the historic sound stages, along with the Wheel of Fortune set. Couldn’t visit the Jeopardy! set, since they were taping! That night I had some serious butterflies and just prayed hard. That had been my stress-relief technique ever since getting “the call” and it worked well for me. I tried not to pray that I would win (although I desperately wanted to!), just that God would take this opportunity and use it for his honor.

Wednesday morning I had too much to think about to be very nervous, with trying to get my hair “camera-ready” and packing outfits to take along. The others in the lobby waiting for the shuttle suddenly took on a new interest as I began to look at my competition. Everyone seemed calm and self-assured, although there was not much conversation. One notable exception was after we arrived at Sony and boarded another van to the Jeopardy! location. A young man asked if he could take the seat beside me. I answered, “Surely,” and as he sat down he said “Thanks – and don’t call me Shirley!” So I was already laughing when we arrived.

Robert James greeted us at the door – I recognized his voice from the phone call and was glad to put a face with it. Plus, I was so impressed that he knew us all by name. Maggie remembered me from the audition as well. Their people skills made a huge difference in keeping the atmosphere relaxed and tension-free. Robert, Maggie and Tony kept all of the contestants occupied over the next 2 hours with information on do’s and don’ts, an additional written test (what was that for?), reviewing our personal stories for Alex, and working on our “Hometown Howdies.” I stressed more over those personal anecdotes than over anything else. I even practiced what to say to keep them short and to the point. The worst part was not knowing which one Alex might ask about, and wondering if I would remember what it was I had written down.

Marie in makeup helped too. She was calm and encouraging and made me look great. I don’t normally wear a lot of makeup so I enjoyed just watching her work.

Going out to the set for a trial run helped a great deal. I could see how things looked (almost exactly the same as on TV!) and where to step up, how to write on the screen, where the cameras were and – most importantly – using the buzzer. When we came back out for the actual taping, I had an ideal scenario in mind, which was to watch the first game and be able to play in the second. And that is exactly what happened.

Tom (last name??) was an impressive champion. Mike (?) was a graduate student and science-type person, but at last I had my chance too. I remember thinking, as I stood behind the podium (on 2 boxes) that this was it – this was my shot – it was time to put up or shut up. I got through the Hometown Howdy without a hitch, and then it was showtime. And once the game started, I really didn’t feel nervous at all. I just enjoyed playing the game. It flies by when you are up there in the middle of it! The buzzer didn’t give me problems, I was able to ring in and answer correctly, and it was frankly kind of a blur. The main thing that I am looking forward to on the broadcast is seeing what the categories actually were and what I answered, because I don’t remember very many of them. Although there is one that was definitely memorable. A few days before, my husband had emailed me a YouTube video as “Jeopardy! preparation material” – the Cheers episode where Cliff the mailman appears on Jeopardy! I had to laugh on seeing “Five People Who’ve Never Been in My Kitchen” on the board!

When Final Jeopardy! arrived and I looked at the scores, mine was exactly twice as much as Tom’s. It took a moment for me to realize that even if he got the correct response and doubled his score, the worst I could do was end up with the same score as him and be a co-champion. And since the category was one I did not feel confident about (Tennis), I didn’t need to wager anything. I didn’t have to get the question right – I couldn’t lose. I felt totally empowered at that moment. I couldn’t lose. God is good!

Good thing, too, because I had no idea about the final clue. I wrote down something, but I knew it was not right. And it didn’t matter. The end result was that I was the winner, with a respectable amount of winnings. I don’t know how I reacted or even if I reacted at all. Mainly I felt relief, and a strong sense of satisfaction. Everything we had done to make this happen, the expense, the time, all of it was justified. I had won! “I paid for the trip,” I thought as we were hustled back to the green room.

One of the nicest things about winning is the special treatment. I do kind of like being fussed over, and as I quickly changed clothes, had my makeup touched up, and was miked again, everyone called me, “Champ.” I had heard them doing the same to Tom earlier, but it was a thrill to hear it myself.

Now we went through the same routine again. My competitors in the second game was Mr. “Don’t Call Me Shirley” – Brian, who kept us laughing during the whole show, and Rebecca (?), an attorney. This game was closer – Brian was very quick on the buzzer and although I got a couple of Daily Doubles, I didn’t get either one right. Overall, the categories didn’t seem to go my way with one notable exception: “Let’s Get Biblical.” And how embarrassing is this – I’m a minister’s daughter who has read and studied the Bible all my life. One of my fondest hopes for Jeopardy! was a Bible category. So here is it – I get the Daily Double – and I can’t come up with the answer! My mind went completely and totally blank. That hurt.

Then I had an answer that was reviewed by the judges and ruled incorrect. I knew when they stopped the taping and started conferring that it was about my response of “Herzegovina” instead of “Bosnia-Herzegovina” and that it was not going to go my way. So that was disappointing but not a surprise. And I still ended up very slightly in the lead (I think) at the end of the first round.

In Double Jeopardy!, though, there were too many that I just didn’t know. Again, the game moves so quickly that in the time it takes to think, “I don’t know these – I’m getting behind,” the other contestants are scoring. At the end, I was too far behind to catch up unless everybody else just totally bombed. I felt more confident in the category (Novels) but wasn’t willing to risk everything, so I wagered $3000 of my $7000. There was a feeling of resignation: “I’m not going to win again, but I did win once. It’s okay.” And this time everybody got the Final Jeopardy! right – in my first game, no one did. So I ended up in third place, Brian was the new champion, deservedly so, and my run was over.

I realized how quickly the game moves on when the staffer asked, on our way back to the green room, “Do I need to call you a cab?” Just that quick, I was on my way out. But my husband and son were proud of me and excited about my win, and it had been so much fun. We got back to the hotel and so there we were, back in the real world, after a few hours in La-La-Land.

There is a bit of a let-down after all the excitement, and there is a certain amount of self-indictment. What if . . . if only . . . why didn’t I remember this or think to do that. I actually found myself regretting that I only won $17,000. Hello! Only $17,000! Get over yourself, Elza!

But the biggest let-down for me is not being able to come back and play again, because it really was just such fun. Obviously I didn’t win enough, or often enough, to be a Tournament of Champions competitor, unless there is a special spot for “one-hit wonders” or maybe “Jeopardy! winners from Kentucky” – how about it, y’all? Maybe a Tournament of Women Champions? I would go back in a minute to do it again!

Back in Kentucky, we jumped right into normal everyday life. I had called our older son after the taping to let him know what happened, and I had a little fun messing with him. When he answered the phone, I sang “I lost on Jeopardy!, baby” and he immediately responded with words of encouragement -- that was okay, he was sure I did my best. Finally I told him that I did lose the second game I played in, but I won the first. That got a more enthusiastic reply: “That is awesome!” Friends and co-workers keep trying to get information out of me about how it went and if I won – one person asked if I was going to quit my job. I appreciate their confidence, but I’m keeping my job!

My husband’s co-workers have already planned a Jeopardy! party at his workplace for the night of the first episode – they’ll project it onto a big screen in their largest meeting room and have refreshments. I’m excited about it, but a little nervous too. And I look forward to seeing the subsequent shows because I spent some time in the green room with those folks – I want to see how they did!

I must thank all the great folks at Jeopardy! who made the whole experience fun and exciting. Alex Trebek impressed in every way. He was professional, knowledgeable, and encouraging. After having his picture taken with me before the first game, he said, “Take no prisoners!”

Maggie, Robert, Tony, Marie, the sound guy whose name I sadly do not recall, the director and all the crew on the set – every one was encouraging and upbeat and helpful and made me feel welcome. You all do a fantastic job and I thank you for it.

Elza appeared in the following 2 archived games:
#5528, aired 2008-09-24 Elza Reeves vs. Brian Levinson vs. Rebecca Molloy
#5527, aired 2008-09-23 Tom Witek vs. Mike Bindis vs. Elza Reeves

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