Season 25 2-time champion: $46,242 + $1,000.
Last name pronounced like "MAY-hew".
Jeopardy! Message Board user name: SDmike
Mike Maheu - A High School Teacher
San Diego, CA
October 29, 2008
What is the hardest part of being a winner on Jeopardy!? It is thinking about the mistakes that you made on the show and how you could have done better. Once over that, you can just relax and enjoy the fact that you have achieved one of your, or at least in my case, my life long dreams.
A little bit about me
To say that I am lucky to be on the show would be an understatement. Two years ago I should have died from some severe heart problems that have left me with a pacemaker and defibrillator. I still am having some problems but the fantastic doctors, nurses and staff at Scripps Clinic Torrey Pines have kept me going so far.
I am a teacher at Mira Mesa High School in San Diego and am the coach of the Academic League team which gives me a great advantage for keeping brain fresh and fast. I have been married to my lovely wife, Kelly, for 17 years and we have two daughters, Samantha and Haley, and two golden retrievers. I enjoy riding my motorcycle, kayaking, woodworking, surfing, astronomy, reading and going to my daughters' sporting events.
People ask what you should do to prepare for Jeopardy! The best answer is to keep doing whatever you were doing before you were called to get on the show because, obviously, you were doing something right to get that far. Once you know you are going to be a contestant, go on the web and research what others have done to prepare. From the web, I borrowed the idea to create a practice buzzer (I made mine from a PVC tube and click pen) and podium (I used a stack of books on the back of the couch) to practice for the show.
My best resource for studying was Campbell's High School/College Book of Lists and other resources from Patrick's Press. The Dummies and Idiots series are also great study guides for Art and Music. The Jeopardy! Archive site was useful for practice on the questions and categories. I read so much in books and online that I developed a kink in my neck that lasted months. My wife threatened to burn my books once the show was over.
Nothing, but nothing replaces the practice of watching and playing the game just as if you were there.
When I was in high school I was on the Academic League team and earned the title of "Master of the Obscure and Inane". Why? Because I have a weird brain that can remember pretty much anything that I read. It was then that I made it my life's goal to get on Jeopardy!
I first tried out for Jeopardy! while in college at UC San Diego in 1988. I drove up to the old Burbank studio and took the written test along with an audience full of other possible contestants. This was back in the day of the test on the studio monitors and, to be quite honest, I was not well-rounded enough to have been a good contestant, mainly because I knew nothing about opera, classical music, art or other cultured topics being a the troglodytic college student I was.
I did not try out again until many years later. I qualified through an online test in March of 2006 (I believe), though I did not do as well as I would have liked. I thought at the time that you were only kept in the files for one year and, because I had not been called, I decided to take the online test again.
I signed up and put the date and the time on the calendar. The date came around and I told the wife that I needed the computer to take the test at 8:00pm. Around 7:00pm, I went into my workshop to fix some furniture. Though it seemed like little time had passed, my wife leaned out the window and said, "Aren't you supposed to be taking the Jeopardy! test?" I dropped my work and sprinted into the house to log on just as my computer clock turned to 8:01pm. The message, "Sorry unable to connect," appeared. I won't repeat here what I said then, but, needless to say, it was not very appropriate for small children.
In person audition
To say that it was a miracle that I made it on Jeopardy! is an understatement. When I received the call to go to for the in person try-out, I was so sick and weak that I could not drive. My wife took the day off and drove me up to Culver City. When we arrived at the Radisson, I changed into my dress clothes and concentrated on not passing out. Kelly gave me a smile and a kiss and said, "You can do this!" Going into the lobby it was not hard to tell who was trying out as they all looked as nervous as long tail cats in a room full of rocking chairs. I made pleasant conversation with a few people there, especially Daniel, the Art Garfunkel look alike from Season 24. I tried hard to remain conscious and focused. When we were called into the room to take the test, we had our pictures taken by Robert, met the other contestant coordinators and sat at long conference tables facing a video screen at the front of the narrow room. Robert and Maggie did their best to make sure that we were relaxed yet enthusiastic. They kept repeating the mantra, "Smile, have fun and be loud".
When we were given the test, I did not believe that I was going to do well as I was sweating and not thinking clearly due to poor blood flow. But luck was on my side. One question I never would have been able to answer just one day earlier happened to match what I had read in the morning paper. After cinching that one, the rest of the test flew by. The crew left to grade the tests and, while they were out, everyone began comparing answers and sharing their fears of failure.
When the Jeopardy! crew returned, they called for three contestants to come to the front to begin playing a mock game. It was at this time we were introduced to the dreaded/coveted buzzers. Over and over again they instructed, "Wait until the clue is over and then press and keep pressing!" While the first three people played, I sat in my seat and kept jamming my thumb onto an imaginary buzzer thinking to myself, "Why couldn't I be up there?" The coordinators kept reminding the contestants to, "Speak Up!" After a few minutes, the mock game stopped and the contestants were asked questions about what they did, where they were from and if they had special interests. It seems like 80-90% of all Jeopardy! applicants have cats because that was what most of them talked about. It seemed as though there were people who had been all around the world, had discovered cold fusion, were awaiting beatification by the Pope, had won multiple Nobel prizes and the like. Meanwhile, I was thinking to myself, good grief, here I am a teacher, who has been out of the country only to Japan, Canada and Mexico, has a nice quiet family life and two dogs! Things were looking bleak.
Eventually I was called to the front with two others and we began the simulation. I answered four of the questions right and two wrong. I thought I was sunk. Luckily, I received a compliment, "Nice voice," from Maggie. I guess being a teacher and a coach pays off in some ways. Eventually Maggie and Robert began asking the personal questions. For the life of me I can't remember much of what I said. I believe I said that if I won enough, I would pay for a trip to Paris for Kelly's birthday and to reward my oldest daughter for getting A's in French and then I would use the remaining money to by a BMW 1200GS motorcycle.
By the time I finished, I was pretty well drenched with sweat and my head was spinning but I had made it! Once all of the applicants were done, Maggie, Robert and the rest of the Jeopardy! crew spoke about what to expect and to be proud for making it as far as we had. They explained the odds of making the show, how long you were kept in the contestant pool and what to do if you were not contacted within a year or so. Then we were dismissed and everyone gathered their new Jeopardy! pens an filed out. I stopped and thanked Robert and Maggie, said goodbye to Daniel and wished him luck on his Ph.D.
I went out to the car where Kelly was waiting and we drove home. We talked about how if I had not had that spark of inspiration from the morning paper, I probably would have failed. Kelly wanted to know if I had shown any personality in the interview that would have left an impression. I could quite honestly answer that I had tried my best. Now it was the waiting game.
On a Thursday in late March 2008, while in the REI store in San Diego, my cell phone went off. And, yes, for those of you who know me, the ringtone is "White and Nerdy" by Weird Al. The call surprised me because I am not a huge fan of phones to begin with and only a few family members and close friends have my number. The number was from the 310 area code and I thought that it was an automated call or a wrong number. Instead it was Robert asking if I wanted to come up to be the local alternate in April. Of course the answer was yes! He explained that I most likely would not be a contestant on that day but I didn't care, I had received the call!
Now comes the irony. Two days before I received the call I was lying in a Cardiac ICU bed just having undergone the day before a cardiac ablation procedure. Half in jest, I joked with Kelly that, "Just watch, they will call me now to be on Jeopardy!" Right about that time, I did not feel much like a Jeopardy! contestant. I was getting intermittent blood flow at best and felt stupid and tired. I guess life just likes to throw challenges your way for the fun of it. Luckily, I have great doctors and nurses and I was healthy enough to go be the alternate the next month for the last show of the 24th season.
As the alternate I got to go through all of the steps that the regular contestants do but without as much pressure. I was just there in case one of the contestants did not arrive or could not play, but everyone made it. I was quite fortunate to watch Mark Wales become a five time winner and this helped me out immensely. After a confirming, "Yes, you will be on in the future," from Robert, I headed home to begin torturing myself through study until my turn came.
When I found out I would not be on for many months, I began to study my brains out until I suffered brain overflow and had to stop for a while. Throughout the summer I joked with Kelly that I would get the call to be a contestant on the first day of school. I really need to learn to stop making jokes where the fates can hear them because, sure enough, the day I was called to be on was the first day I was to return to school to prep for the new term.
The night before the taping, Kelly and I drove up and stayed in the Radisson in Culver City. However, it was almost a no go for me as I was once again having some heart rhythm problems. I was feeling so poor that I almost called to see if I could be a contestant another day. It was either Jeopardy! or Emergency room. Fortunately, recollecting my experience as an alternate, I thought I could muster enough energy to make it through the day.
On the morning of the show, I headed down to the lobby of the hotel and met the rest of the contestants who looked just as nervous as me. We went outside, loaded our bags on the van and took the ride over to the studios. I learned there were contestants from all over the country and from various professions, including a large number of teachers and other educational professionals. Everyone was very excited and anxious. After skirting the metal detector (pacemaker exemption) and entering the building, Robert was there again with his welcoming smile and infectious "How ya doin'?" The crew's ability to remember details of each contestant is amazing. I had not seen them since April yet it was if they had just seen me the day before.
Tony Pandolfo came around and confirmed with each contestant what interesting fact they wanted to use for their chat with Alex during the game. When I told him which one I wanted to use, he chuckled and said something to the effect of, "This ought to be interesting."
Once we were all ensconced in the green room (thank god for coffee and pastries), the new contestants filled out legal forms and were shuffled off to make-up. As I had already completed the paperwork during my stint as an alternate, I caught up with Robert and chatted with the returning champion. It all felt familiar except Maggie was absent. But then, much like Hurricane Katrina hitting the coast, Maggie Speak hit the room. Once you have met her you can never get over her. She is one of the most energetic and friendly people you could ever meet. She does not light up a room, she incinerates it. We all rehearsed our "hometown howdies" while visiting the make-up chair. The make-up ladies, Cheri and Sandy, had their hands full trying to make me look good. Luckily, they are experts at their art.
After about an hour of preparation, we went out to the stage to the refrain of "watch your step" (inside joke) and were introduced to the podium and signaling devices. Everyone was nervous but excited as we practiced our writing and were instructed on which camera to look into for the opening and the howdies. While the crew was preparing the set, it did not seem to have the same cathedral-like atmosphere that it did the first time I was there. The crew kept reminding us to keep on ringing and to watch for the lights on the side of the board.
We rotated through some practice questions with Glenn acting as "Alex". The practice helps with the timing and loosens up the players. Every time someone hit a daily double during practice, you would hear, "Go for it!" and we would all cheer from the audience.
I felt as if I were in a fog and did not perform as well as I had during my alternate appearance. The question for my Final Jeopardy! question in the practice round should have been, "What is the Air Force?" The answer being, "Which branch of the military uses the most fuel." I had written Army and crossed that out and then guessed Navy. What is most shameful is that I grew up in the Air Force, was born on an Air Force base and both my dad and brother were career Air Force. Not a good beginning.
As we filed out to the green room, some of the guests were already in the audience and I managed to give a surreptitious smile to my wife. We had repeatedly been counseled not to talk to, signal, or even think about your friends/family in the audience. Kelly had not noticed my sly smile anyway. As it turns out, the guests had received a similar warning prior to entering the studio and she managed to look the other way.
The outside auditor/contestant representative came in and explained her role and the first contestants were selected. I was glad I was not on the first show because I probably would have passed out. I grabbed a soda and went with the other contestants into the contestant section of the audience (this time not smiling at the wife). Watching the game from the audience helps calm you down because you get to distance yourself a bit. This time, because they had changed the theme music and announcer Johnny Gilbert was out ill, the show intro was less fear inducing than a few months earlier. Jimmy from the Clue Crew read the introduction (incidentally, my wife thought he was fabulous and thinks he should take over the announcing post after Johnny retires) and the taping began. In the end, the champion had a lock game and won her fourth game in a row, most impressive.
After trekking back to the green room at the end of show one, I grabbed some water and learned it would be my turn in the next match along with Eli and the returning champion. I drew the second spot which made me feel much better as that way I could hide from the audience. The other contestants who were not playing left the room. The sound man came in and wired us up and, after a minute or so, out we went.
Walking on stage for real, I felt like I was in a fantasy land. It was as if we were all in a little bubble. Robert and Glenn came around to make sure we had signed in and pointed to the cameras we would be using. I managed not to mess up my hometown howdy, though I think it sounded pretty lame in retrospect. It went something like, "Hello San Diego. Eat a fish taco while you watch me on Jeopardy!"
Then the audience was quieted, the "This is Jeopardy!" came on and the introductions began. When it was my turn to smile at the camera, my right eye began to twitch and I could not control it. I felt as if I looked like some homicidal maniac. Not a good start! Alex came out, we applauded, he introduced the categories and away we went.
To be quite honest, I do not remember much of this game very clearly. The longer I was standing, the harder my heart was working and the more my brain function seemed to taper off. When the show airs, I am sure that most of the experience will come flooding back to me, but now it seems as if it happened a long time ago in a place far, far away.
When the game commences, the world disappears except for the board (the lights, the lights!!!), Alex's voice and your fellow contestants. It seemed we went into break almost instantaneously and Robert came up with water and talked me down.� Cheri came out to try the impossible--to make me look better. Thus began our standard break routine: Cheri would show up and I would bend forward so she could apply more cover to my vast and growing forehead. She is the nicest person around.
After the break, it was time to chat with Alex. After he did his chat with Eli, he approached me, looked at his card and then asked about "strip Jeopardy!" which began with a bottle of wine, a "This is Jeopardy!" and ended nine months later. I'm sure this will be a topic of continued discussion. But what can I say? We were young, we didn't have a lot of money and you have to entertain yourself somehow so why not combine two things you love. I will not reveal which one of our daughters was conceived this way, just let it be known that we are positive that it did happen on that night. (Alex used this story as the basis of many of his one-liners during taping breaks throughout the day.)
After the interviews were over it was back into the game and at some point I hit a Daily Double. I had always planned that if I hit it early enough in the game, I would make it a True Daily Double. I was fortunate on this one (though for the life of me I cannot remember what the actual answer was) and I was in a good game with a great champion. Eventually, after another visit from Robert and Cheri, we headed into double Jeopardy!
At some point I hit another Daily Double and made my wager. The amount was not even or round. I figured everyone always uses round numbers, why not be different. Alex seemed bemused by this and asked why and I answered "Why not?" I thought it also might help me by confusing my opponents in final wagering. The question was from the category countries beginning with M. The clue was about a nation in the Pacific and the first answer that came to my mind was Micronesia, but then I remembered that Micronesia is not a nation so, struggling to come up with an answer, I went with the Marshall Islands. When Alex said I was wrong, I was disappointed. Later in the game, before Final Jeopardy!, the contestant representative came up and indicated that my answer, while not being correct, created a problem because the answer Micronesia was also not correct. The real answer was the "Federated States of Micronesia" which doesn't fit the category. Alex explained the correction and I was credited my wager back. (Every game I played in I seemed to involve some glitch.)
We were working our way down the last category when the $2000 answer came up along the lines of "the oldest brewery in Canada". I knew it was Molson but I just wasn't sure of myself. If the lights had stayed on for one more second I was going to ring in. But the champion, to her credit, was more gutsy than I and answered correctly. I faced going into Final Jeopardy! trailing. Oh great! Come on Jeopardy! and lose because you didn't have enough guts! When the Final category came up Presidential Firsts, I thought to myself, just what I need, even more pressure. I am pretty good on the Presidents but, as I know, so is every other Jeopardy! contestant. I also knew that if I missed the question I would face a ribbing from both my students and staff for being an AP U.S. History teacher and missing a U.S. history question.
During the break I wagered all but $7 and thought to myself, it would have been nice if I had won all that money. Alex revealed the final answer and it immediately came to me, Woodrow Wilson. The clue for me was "other world leaders". It came so fast I was sure that the other players had also figured it out. It is amazing how long and yet how fast the "Think!" music goes. When the lights came up, Eli went first and, unfortunately for her, missed. Alex came to me, indicated I was correct and that I had doubled my money (less $7). It was at this moment that the champion, much to her credit as a classy lady, said "Congratulations." I thought she had missed. She answered Wilson but had only bet about $4000 dollars. Alex told me I was champion and I was in shock. The former champion had not answered any of her four other Final Jeopardy! wins correctly but she had still won. Here she had answered correctly and lost. Such are the quirks of fate I guess.
We walked to the front of the stage, made chit chat until the taping ended. I gave my wife a thumbs-up and then followed Tony back to the green room to change.
Game 2 Oct. 22nd show
Wow! I had won! It was great. A quick change of clothes, another trip to the bathroom, another attempt by makeup to make me look good and off I went again to the stage with two new contestants. If you return as champion you don't have to do a long howdy but you do have to tape another short greeting. Once again mine was lame.
This time when the introductions were made, I managed to not look like a homicidal eye-twitching maniac. The grin came a little easier. Alex came out and away we went. The first round categories clearly had a Night Ranger song lyric theme and I mentioned this to Robert during the break. I should have kept quiet though as this might have been a clue for the next board. Once again, the game was a blur. I do remember getting Helio Castroneves as a race car driving/Dancing with the Stars winner. I never watch the show and go out of my way to avoid it, so I cannot explain why I knew that one. It is amazing what you can remember and what you can forget when you get up there.
The most memorable moment for me was when Alex asked me about the goat on the mountain story. Everyone laughed when I explained how I got behind my wife to take the goat's picture instead of doing the macho "protect the wife" thing. More makeup and more zoning in on the board. The other contestants were doing well and it was a tight game. In Double Jeopardy! one of the questions was about eating oysters and the answer I gave was, "What are months with the letter R in them." What I meant to say was, "What months end in R". Alex indicated that I was incorrect. Then there was a stoppage of play while the judges conferred. It turned out that the answer I gave was correct after all. It was during this time that I looked at the scores and realized that if I did not answer any questions incorrectly, I would have a lock game. This kept me from making some money as I knew "Blue Point oysters" in another category, but I just could not bring myself to push the buzzer in case I got it wrong and one of the others got it right. My wife has given me much grief since then as we had recently eaten at a San Diego restaurant called "Blue Point Coastal Cuisine". But, hey, a lock game is a lock game.
The Final category came up in my weakest area, the Emmys. I made a very conservative bet. If I had answered correctly, my final amount would have included the digits of my youngest daughter's birthday (points for Daddy). But as soon as the answer came up, I could not get my thoughts off of Alan Alda. One of the other contestants answered correctly and I did not, but I still got to repeat as champion. Again, we moved to the front of the stage for end of game chit chat with Alex. He explained that he had added a part to the Final Jeopardy! answer to give us all a better chance and then we were off to lunch.
When you are a contestant and you have to remain for the two shows following the lunch break, you are given a $10 voucher and taken to the studio café. The food was quite nice and the conversation was great, mainly consisting of favorite movies and television shows. Everyone was laughing and having a good time and I was trying not to eat too much. By this time, I was beginning to really throw some bad heart rhythms and was not getting good blood flow and did not want to try to digest a lot of food. I guess I was living on borrowed time.
Game 3 October 23
Once again in the green room, another change of clothes, another shot of makeup and the fog was starting to close in. I do not think I was on top of my game early on. My feet were hurting. I never wear dress shoes if I can avoid it and all I wanted to do was get my feet up and sit down for a while. But, hey, when you get a chance to be on Jeopardy! come hell or high water you play. By the end of the first opening round I was behind and not feeling good. I do not remember much of the game as the blood was not flowing well to my brain and it was almost as if I was in a daze.
At the end of the first round I was behind and sweating profusely. Cheri once again tried her best to make me look good but it was getting harder and harder to do so. For the first time, I was able to select the category for the beginning of the second round, not where you want to be because it meant I was in last place. I think it was in this game that the Daily Double question came up about world leaders and I quickly ran out of options for any answer other than "Ukraine". Correct. At one point the blood began to flow for a while and I was fortunate enough to run the category on Economics. I guess teaching Government and Economics every four or five years helps. One of the funniest occurrences in this game was that one of the answers was straight from our lunch time discussion. All of the contestants got a good chuckle out of it.
At the end the Final category "Literary Characters" came up and I made my wager. I was behind and made a large enough wager to win, but also one that would have included the digits of my wife's and my anniversary if I got it right. I figured winning another game would give me more money, but impressing the wife would be priceless. The answer came up with an 18th century character named for "eye of pine". I fixated on Phileas for some reason. I do woodworking for a hobby and I know a lot of the scientific names of trees, heck I even know that the name for pine is Pinus, but I could not get my brain to go beyond Phileas. I don't know why, I just fixated on it. At the last second, I wrote, "Who is Phileas Fogg?" and knew I was done. In some ways it was almost a relief as I knew that I really was starting to lose my ability to think clearly. Oh well, the money from the third win would have been nice, but it was not meant to be.
A little more chit chat with Alex at game's end and this time it was me getting the nice Jeopardy! tote bag and signing the final prize forms before heading to the green room one last time. I grabbed my clothes, said some goodbyes and then returned to the audience to join the wife.
We sat in the audience for the taping of the last game of the day. I was glad I was not in it because I would have been toast based on the categories. My daughters would have loved it, however, as one of the categories was "Project Runway".
On the way home it struck me that this life long dream I had was now over and that I should be happy that I was a two-time champion. All I could do for a while was lean the seat back, put up my feet and think about how I had screwed up on Pinocchio. I am quite sure that once the show airs I will be getting all kinds of gag gifts from my family, friends and co-workers at the school. I know that if I had the chance to send a gag gift like that I would.
My wife and I have not told anyone how I did, not even the kids who are hoping I won enough to buy them new cell phones. We just tell everyone to watch on October 21st. I let people know that I was happy that I didn't throw up on the podium. We have particularly enjoyed tormenting my in-laws who have tried every trick in the book to get us to spill the beans.
My final thought is that it was great to be on the show but what was even better was meeting such nice people, both the contestants and especially the crew of Jeopardy!
PS Due to the addled state of my brain all of the events did occur on the shows, but maybe not exactly on the show I think they did. Sorry about that.