Season 25 3-time champion: $69,200 + $1,000.
Dan Smith - a Student
February 20, 2009
People have been telling me I should try out for JEOPARDY! for years. I vaguely remember trying to get into the College tournament when I was an undergraduate. I took the online test in 2006, but never heard anything. Then I spent a year living in Paris doing my dissertation research. (There is a French quiz show called "Questions pour un champion" that I really enjoyed watching while I was there.) I took the online test again in January 2008. I remember thinking I had done pretty well. When I got an email near the end of April inviting me to an audition in Chicago, I had completely forgotten about taking the test.
I went to my audition in the beginning of June and had a lot of fun. First we filled out some paperwork and then Tony took Polaroid pictures of us to attach to our applications. It turned out there were twenty-one people in my group. The contestant coordinators brought us into the testing room, where we would take the written test. Before we started the test, Maggie did her fabulous floor show to loosen us up and convey all the information we needed. After the test, we were called up to the front of the room in groups of three to practice with the buzzers and play a mock game. My mock game had a really fun category called "Jeop-poetry" in which the writers had replaced words in famous poems with the word "Jeopardy." (As a big poetry geek, I was disappointed that the clues in this category did not necessarily scan properly; in the one I got right, "jeopardy" replaced a one-syllable word.) But I decided to jump over to the very enticing "On Broadway" category, which elicited a "Good energy!" from Maggie. Then it was time for the interview, and I just could not shut up about dirty books in the eighteenth century. I figured I had either come across as a creepy pervert or as witty and amusing. I’m not sure which makes better television, but witty and amusing is probably a better fit for this show. In any case, I thought I would have a good story about the audition even if I didn’t make it on the show.
When Robert called me in November, my cell phone went straight to voicemail. It was a Monday evening, and I was at a staged reading of a friend’s play. I called back on Tuesday morning, but Robert had said that if we didn’t manage to talk on Monday it probably wouldn’t happen until Thursday because they are busy taping on Tuesday and Wednesday. (And they are VERY busy during tapings. Wow.) Thursday I was flying to Boston for a conference. But I got Robert’s call right after I checked into my hotel room. There were some things that still needed to be checked out with my application, so he called back to confirm the following Monday, which was exactly three weeks before I needed to fly to L.A. for the taping. But when he did call, he asked me where I was born and I said "Wilmington, Delaware." And then he asked me where I grew up, and I said "Wilmington, Delaware…oh, but I was born in Chester, Pennsylvania." And Robert said, "Dan, these are the easy questions!" Robert is funny.
I didn’t do a whole lot to prepare. I had practiced watching the show with a pen for a buzzer for a couple of days right after the audition, so I tried that again. I knew I would be useless in military history and most sports, but I figured out that my strong categories were literature, drama, opera (relatively speaking), and wordplay categories like Crossword Clues and Before and After. I went to St. Louis with friends for Thanksgiving, and we played several games of Trivial Pursuit. They had also bought a JEOPARDY! box game, which we played a couple of times. We had been planning to discuss betting strategy, but we never got around to it.
My roommate pointed out that my episodes would air in February, so we thought there might be some categories about Valentine’s Day or President’s Day. I did some studying about presidents. I learned quite a bit about Millard Fillmore, but he did not come up.
The timing of the taping was a little bit challenging for me, as my students were scheduled to take their final exam on the Friday after I was scheduled to tape. (I taught a course called Drama in its Cultural Context at the University of Illinois-Chicago during the fall semester.) But I did a review session for them on Monday. Actually, I made up Jeopardy categories to review. I didn’t tell my students I was going on the show until after I got back from the taping. They were really excited. I hope it didn’t distract them too much from their exam.
I flew to Los Angeles on December 1. It snowed most of the day in Chicago, and I was really worried that my flight would be delayed or cancelled. But we were only about twenty minutes late taking off. I got to the hotel and was very pleased to find an ironing board in the room. I ironed my shirts and watched some TV and went to bed.
We had a nice group on the shuttle from the hotel to the studio in the morning. Corina met us at the front of the studio and counted heads, then put us on a smaller bus that took us across the lot. We filled out some paperwork, and then I had some coffee and fruit. Robert and Tony and Corina did a great job of getting everyone relaxed. Then Maggie came in and got us all energized. Rehearsal was fun. I got up on stage for the first time at the interview portion, and Glenn decided that it would be fun to interview me about hot air balloons. I was terrible with the buzzer at first, but then I realized that I was trying too hard and you have to make it kind of an unconscious thing. I also felt more comfortable at the middle podium than at the first or the third podium, but I never did play at the middle podium.
At the end of rehearsal, we taped a promo for the online test, which was a hoot. I made the promo director crack up because I was so darn cheesy. He seemed to want me to be cheesy. I was happy to oblige.
I really enjoyed meeting the other contestants. I had a nice chat with Mark, the scenic designer from Ohio. We both hoped we wouldn’t be up against each other because we would be fighting over the theatre categories. (And then we were both very disappointed that we didn’t get to play "Musicals in Other Words.") I also enjoyed talking with Deepak over lunch, after he had won his first show.
Before the last show of the day, Robert reminded us that two people would have to come back on Wednesday. My name was not drawn for that show, so I prepared myself to come back the next day. I was pretty glad about this, since I knew I would get more rehearsal in the morning. But I also watched Diane beat Deepak, and knew she would be a tough opponent.
The next morning I did the whole thing again. I got on the shuttle bus with a different group of people, all of whom were excited. I remember having fun talking to Gavin and Matt in particular. Tanya and Diane and I had less paperwork to do than everyone else, since we had been there the day before. So we went into make-up first. Lisa and Sandy do a great job with the make-up, by the way. Then we listened to Maggie again, and we had rehearsal again.
And then Robert called me for the first game, along with Bing and returning champion Diane. Bing and I drew for position, and I got the third slot. I had kind of been hoping for the middle slot, but it really didn’t matter once the game started.
The only category I remember from the first round is "Seinfeld." Because the first thing I knew, I had run the "Seinfeld" category and people were applauding for me. Once that happened, I felt much more confident about my buzzing-in ability. And Alex Trebek said, "You must miss ‘Seinfeld.’" I couldn’t think of anything to say, so I just picked another category. But seriously, how could I miss "Seinfeld"? It’s on in syndication four times a day.
In Double Jeopardy!, I was very excited about the International Playwrights category. And I know it mostly went well for me. I only remember Ibsen and then eventually not getting Athol Fugard. I had a whole seminar on African Drama, but when I saw a clue about a South African playwright, the wrong answer jumped into my head and stayed there. "Wole Soyinka," I thought. "No, not Soyinka. He’s from Nigeria. Who’s the South African guy? Oh, he wrote ‘Sizwe Bansi Is Dead’ with those two actors. Winston Ntshone? No, that’s one of the actors. Well, it’s not Soyinka." And then time was up.
I think Bing got all of the Daily Doubles in that game. I was surprised to see that I was in the lead at the end of Double Jeopardy. Bing was very close behind. When the Final Jeopardy! category came up and was "Pop Culture," I thought I had a good chance of getting it right. I figured out how much I needed to bet if Bing were to double his score. And it was a lot of money. So I decided I was either going to win a lot of money if I got it right or come in third if I got it wrong, and I made the big bet.
When the answer came up, I was surprised at how calmly and lucidly I thought it through. The Russian photographs had to be in outer space. What could they be taking a picture of? The rings of Saturn? Well, that’s not an album. What’s an album? The Dark Side of the Moon. The Dark Side of the Moon? Is that a real astronomical thing? Well, I have to write that down because I’m not going to come up with anything else. Is there a "The" at the beginning? I decided to make the upper-case T into a lower-case t, just in case there wasn’t. When the other players were both wrong, I didn’t know if I was right. And Alex Trebek knew that I wasn’t sure I was right. He said, "You were thinking of the 1973 Pink Floyd album." And I should have said, "Yeah, you know, the one that syncs up with ‘The Wizard of Oz.’" But I was kind of terrified, so I just said "Yeah...?" And when he told me I was right, I couldn’t believe it.
This was the game with Lane and Annette, who were both very nice. I don’t remember much from this game. I’m sure there was a Literary Quotes category, and that I did pretty well in it. The first clue was an obscure quote from someone identified only as a "wit." I decided to guess that it was Oscar Wilde, and I turned out to be right. I also remember that Marcel Proust was one of the answers. I got a Daily Double about "Gulliver’s Travels." I definitely should have bet more than I did on that one. I knew it was a good category for me.
When I saw that the Final Jeopardy! was "American Business," I did not feel confident about it. I thought it might be some kind of Standard Oil or U.S. Steel kind of thing. I wrote down two possible bets: one was the amount I needed to surpass Lane if he wagered everything and was correct, and the other was the amount I needed to stay ahead of Annette if she got it right and Lane got it wrong. I wrote down $4199, but I definitely had second thoughts about it. I almost asked Glenn to clear my wager so that I could make the bigger bet. When I saw the clue, I was really disappointed that I hadn’t. U-Haul was pretty obvious. The only other choice was some competitor of U-Haul, like Ryder or something. When I found out that U-Haul was the correct response, I shook my head because I thought I had not bet enough. But then it turned out Lane had also bet conservatively, so I won again.
In my third game, I played against Tanya and a naval officer from Philadelphia who was totally delightful but whose name currently escapes me. I knew that Tanya would be strong in art and history. I started with the "Made-Up Chemical Elements" category because I had seen it on the show before and figured it really meant "ends in –ium." And I did pretty well with the first three of those, but then came up with "enthusiasm" instead of "delirium" and couldn’t come up with "equilibrium" for the Daily Double. I knew it wasn’t "tedium" but I figured it was better to say something. Anyway, then I was in the hole, but I tried not to let it get to me.
None of us did very well in the "British Royal Houses" category. I knew that Charles II was a Stuart. And I would have figured out that John was a Plantagenet, but there wasn’t time to process, "Oh, John is in ‘The Lion in Winter.’ He’s Richard’s brother. Their father is Henry II. Henry II is a Plantagenet. I’ve seen his tomb in Angers, France." But when the clue is just a name, you don’t really have time to do that kind of reasoning.
I knew I was not going to do well in Cy Young Award Winners. I don’t know why we went through that whole category before the Sandwich category. I knew all the sandwiches. I was torn about how much to bet on the sandwich Daily Double. I had intended to bet more, but I ended up over-thinking it.
I felt reasonably confident about "Political Terms" as a Final Jeopardy category. But I didn’t want to wager too much and get it wrong and end up losing. I needed to bet $1601 to beat Tanya, but I decided to bet $2600 so I would end up with $10000 if I got it wrong. Again, I worked out the answer: It’s not party. Is it smaller than a party? What’s part of a party? Caucus? Yes, it must be caucus.
I was pretty overwhelmed when I won my third game. I thought I might win once, if I got lucky. But three times?
Game four was after lunch. I should have had a French dip sandwich for lunch, but I wasn’t feeling very hungry. I was a little bit out of sorts after eating. Tony remarked that I seemed more nervous now than I had at any time before. He was right. I had felt much better in the morning, when things were moving faster and I didn’t have a chance to think.
This game was against Matt and Jeannie. I was pretty far ahead after the Jeopardy round. But in the Double Jeopardy round I saw that Shakespeare category and got cocky. Also, Matt saw the Shakespeare category and made it his mission to keep me away from it. This was excellent strategy on his part; it had never occurred to me to play the board with that kind of strategy. Of course, I messed up in the Shakespeare category. I seriously over-thought the question about baptism. There was no way the answer was "the coronation of Queen Elizabeth I." (As it turns out, that was six years earlier anyway.) But I really had no business trying to answer the $2000 clue in Pro Football. Once I got that wrong, I realized that Tom Bosley had played Father Dowling, not Father Murphy. Maybe I just needed one more reminder from Maggie that you have the option of not buzzing in if you don’t know the answer. The $1600 clue in Shakespeare was about Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford. I knew it right away, and I decided it was vital to ring in first on that one. So naturally Jeannie got in before me, because I was trying too hard and wasn’t just relaxed and having fun.
I had said that I wanted to pay off some student loans, which I will certainly be able to do. At the end of my last show, Alex was telling me that I should do something fun with some of the money, like go on a trip. So I am thinking about where I might like to go on a trip.
Since the show airs at 3:30 in Chicago, I lucked out that my first airdate is Presidents’ Day. Most of my friends have off from work and can come to a daytime viewing party.