Season 25 1-time champion: $12,700 + $2,000.
Inta Antler - A Retired Computer Programmer
March 11, 2009
The decision. I first thought about auditioning for Jeopardy! about 10 (or was it 20?) years ago. A columnist for the Toronto Star had written about his audition experience, and I recall being surprised that there had been auditions in Toronto. I thought, “I might have liked to try that”. On that occasion, the audition had been announced on a local radio station, and you only heard about it if you were a faithful listener. I did not think about it again until 2007, when I heard that the process had been democratized via an online test. However, when I checked out the website I found that I would have to take the test at a specific time (8:00 pm – rather late in the day for me), and I would need to register with my real name and real email address. It seemed like far too great a commitment, so once again I dismissed the thought.
In January 2008, my daughter suggested that I try the online test. I was ambivalent. I was curious to see how I would measure up but also acutely aware that if I were to actually get on the show, the risk of public humiliation was extremely high. While my knowledge base is broad, it is also very shallow, and the random storage and retrieval mechanisms are deteriorating rapidly. I was persuaded by the reminder that if I didn’t want to continue afterwards, I could always drop out later.
So the journey began. I registered and took the online test in January, thought I was probably borderline, and soon forgot about it. In September, just before leaving for a vacation, I was astonished to receive an email inviting me to an in-person audition in Toronto at 12 noon, on Saturday, October 11. While we would be back from our trip by then, a couple of issues bothered me.
First off, contestants were responsible for travel and accommodation costs, but there was no guarantee that you would actually get on the show, even once you were in the studio. The $1,000 3rd place money would not even cover expenses if anyone accompanied me, and surely they invited more people than they could use to allow for no-shows or last-minute emergencies. However, it would only cost $5 to take the GO train into the city for an audition, and if I got past that and still felt uncomfortable, I could always drop out afterwards.
The second item was more problematic. I was to fill out a form before the interview, listing 5 (GASP!) interesting and upbeat facts about myself. The one remotely interesting thing about me is the fact that 15 years ago, I was diagnosed with leukemia, and underwent a procedure called an autologous bone-marrow transplant. I was lucky to survive both the disease and the cure, and although I personally consider this to be an upbeat story, it did not seem like suitable material for a 30-second chat with Alex Trebek. After a great deal of anguish, consultation and brainstorming, I managed to come up with 5 marginally interesting one-liners, so I filled out my form and waited for October 11.
The audition. The audition was held in the Toronto Convention Centre/Hotel. I expected that there would be a large group of applicants meeting in an auditorium, and the first item of business would be a super-difficult test to separate the sheep from the goats. Those who did well would be interviewed and invited to play a mock game, and the rest of us would be sent home. However, when I arrived, there were no visible signs pointing to Jeopardy! so I inquired at the desk. I was directed to one of the smaller rooms which was still closed, with perhaps 15 people waiting outside. There was another form to fill out, and a sign on the door listing 3 session-times for that day. Corina came out to greet us and put me partially at ease with an offhand reference to our “quote-unquote interesting stories”. Maybe I was not the only one who was concerned about this part of the process. After roll-call, Robert took Polaroid photos of us to attach to our forms, and we went inside. There were 19 applicants, with 2 no-shows.
We lead quiet lives. I was unprepared for the blast of personality that hit us from the audition team. Fortunately, the other applicants helped to absorb the shock waves so I was not completely bowled over. We introduced ourselves, using our loud, clear public-speaking voices, and informally fielded a few warm-up questions. I was a little intimidated as I saw hands flying into the air before I had even decoded the question. After some instructions, Robert gave us a 50 category Jeopardy!-style test, one question per category, with a few seconds to write down each answer. My retrieval mechanism seemed to be working that day, and I found this test a lot easier than the online one. I thought I had missed perhaps 5 questions, but I did not see anybody scratching their head so I assumed that everyone had done well. This was confirmed afterwards, when we all agreed that this had been considerably easier than the online quiz. Maggie then spoke to us in her inimitable style about the buzzer, about how many people audition each year, how many people are selected (roughly 10%), and how long your name remains in the contestant pool (18 months). She also explained that the caveat about not getting on the show once you got to LA was to legally protect the producers in case of exceptional circumstances. If we received an invitation and showed up at a taping, as long as we had been truthful in filling out the application, we would almost certainly get to play. Mostly she kept reminding us that this was a game, and we were supposed to be having fun!
Then came the mock games & interviews. I was in the first group of 3 called up to play and to chat. I expected that the interview portion would centre around our 5 “interesting” items, and again was unprepared for the open-ended question, “So, tell me about yourself”. I thought of the old jibe “I asked him his name, and he was stuck for an answer”, but eventually I muddled through. After all 3 of us had had our moment in the spotlight, we played the game. I only had to be prompted once when it was my turn to select the category, and after that, obediently tried to keep the game moving. Afterwards, I sat back and enjoyed the other stories and games. In my group, it seemed that everyone was knowledgeable and possessed good game-playing skills. A few people even had interesting stories. I assessed my own chances of getting called for the show as “if I’m lucky, maybe a year from now”. I knew I had scored well on the test, passably well on the interview portion, and thought that my chances would hinge on demographics….how many Canadians would get called, and how many older women had already been invited?
Preparation (part I). Because I thought I might be called eventually, I decided I should start to shape up. Since retiring 10 years ago I had not strayed far out of my comfort zone. That is a fancy way of saying I had become intellectually lazy. I was only scanning newspaper headlines, rarely went to movies, and only managed to stay awake regularly for 3 TV shows: Jeopardy!, The Daily Show, & the Colbert Report (the last 2 taped for next-day viewing). I did read a lot of fiction, but could never remember how the stories ended.
I realized that if I wanted to make a respectable showing, I would need to tune into the world again. I began to actively read the newspaper, noting random items that might make good Jeopardy! questions: world capitals where something newsworthy was happening (Conakry, Guinea), obituaries of famous people (Betty Spandikow, founder of La Leche League; Gary Gygax – inventor of Dungeons & Dragons), or significant entertainment items (Guns’N’Roses – Chinese Democracy). I decided I would study one American President and one Shakespeare play each day. Whenever I finished a book, I would explicitly summarize it in my mind, so I could remember the conclusion. I borrowed CD’s from my daughter and listened to them in the car. After a couple of weeks, my brain had gone into information overload. All I could remember was that Zachary Taylor grazed his horse on the White House lawn, and Blinded by the Light and Dancing in the Dark were Bruce Springsteen hits. I would persevere, but if things did not go well, I could always drop out if and when the call came.
The call. Perhaps around the 9th or 10th of December, my husband answered the phone. He did not recognize the male voice asking for me, but the caller had pronounced my name correctly so it was not a telemarketer. My recollection is that when Robert told me why he was calling, although my gut screamed “I’m not ready…..I’m only up to Millard Filmore!” I nevertheless replied in a sophisticated, albeit genteel manner, “Why, yes, thank you, I would be delighted to attend a taping on Jan. 21”. I understand that in actual fact, I giggled like a teenager throughout the conversation. I was to call Luci on Jan 15th, Thursday before the taping , to to reconfirm. If I still felt unprepared, I could always drop out then.
Preparation (part II). What now? Besides the aforementioned presidents and Shakespeare, I knew next to nothing about American history - Jamestown colony? American Revolution? Civil War? War of 1812 - was the US version different from the one I had learned growing up in the Niagara Pensinsula? What about all those American authors I hadn’t read - Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, William Faulkner? What about the Constitution & all those amendments, the Chief Justices, major Supreme Court decisions, pro sports, a million NCAA teams, and just where was Gonzaga anyway? Recently, the questions seemed to be getting tougher. Instead of just knowing presidents, you also needed to know about the campaigns, the vice-presidents and also the losers. If they asked who defeated Stevenson & Kefauver, I might have a chance against anyone born after 1980, but otherwise I was probably dead in the water in any of these categories.
I thought I might be competitive in some categories. Depending on the strengths of the other contestants, I might do OK on world geography, opera, languages (if they ever repeated the “Let’s speak Latvian” category I’d kill), and I would probably be the only person who could identify Nunavut as Canada’s newest territory, but it seemed that even topics that I considered to be my strengths were encased by a thick layer of rust. Why hadn’t I studied more English & History? Do I remember any Latin? What about Greek & Roman mythology? Why had I not bothered reading the Harry Potter books? And when did the capital of Nigeria become Abuja, and not Lagos?
So much to learn, so little time. With Christmas coming, I would not get down to any serious studying until the New Year. I decided I would concede outright any categories dealing with team sports or pop culture. I probably wouldn’t beat anyone to the buzzer in those categories anyway, so it was not that great a concession. I checked to see what events, celebrations or anniversaries would be coming up around the 1st week of March. There was an ongoing 250th anniversary of the French & Indian War, Barbie was celebrating her 50th birthday, the Oscars would be just past, and St. David’s Day was on the 1st of March. Anytime I came across a name or phrase that I had heard of, but could not quite pin down, I would make a note of it & look it up later. I made a plan: - 1 week to compile information, 1 week to learn it, and 1 week to review and sharpen it. The plan was impeccable but lacked something in the execution. You never realize how much you don’t know until you start cramming for Jeopardy! I was still compiling on January 15 when I had to make the final decision. Every cliché I had ever used to encourage others came back to mock me. “You only regret the things you don’t do”. “What’s the worst that can happen?” “It’s not about the money, it’s about the experience”. “Don’t be a wuss”. I put on my headset and skyped Luci to reconfirm.
Preparation (part III). I had my hair trimmed and “brightened”. I checked out my wardrobe. I gave myself the Mom talk: Stand up straight on both feet; be polite; don’t make faces; speak only when spoken to; don’t make gratuitous remarks, no matter how clever; have a good time. If I wasn’t going to be brilliant, at least I would try to look good and act classy.
Meeting the Competition in LA. I met most of the other contestants on the shuttle bus from the hotel to the studio. By the time I got downstairs, everyone else was already on the bus as I sauntered on, a few minutes before 7:30. I hoped I looked laid-back and confident, and not as frazzled as I was. A few more contestants joined us at the studio, and we were taken to the green room to be prepped for the show. This included make-up (thanks Barbie, you made me feel like a million bucks), thorough and hilarious advice from Maggie on what to expect and how to play the game, reviewing and selecting our preferred anecdotes with Robert (one story is highlighted on the card given to Alex, but he does not necessarily choose that one), and practising our home-town howdies. We were escorted onto the set, introduced to the equipment (signalling device, electronic pen, game board, microphones, steps, booster platforms to put everyone at roughly the same height, cameras), and got to practise playing the game on the set, with Glenn standing in for Alex Trebek. I’m fuzzy on the details, but I remember that it was very cold on the set, and we all laughed a lot during the 3 hours before the taping. Without exception, the staff and the other contestants were congenial and so much fun to be around. When I mentioned this to my family afterwards, I remember my daughter’s comment: “Of course, mom. They were your kind of people.”
Waiting for the game. Except for the returning champion, the order of the contestants is selected randomly, as is their podium position. Those who are waiting to play, watch the game from the audience across the aisle from family and friends, studiously avoiding any verbal or eye contact with them. I was not selected for the first game, and watched Rachel and Sanders battle each other and champ Edie. I remember not knowing a single answer in the Short Stories category. Good thing I didn’t have to play that game! I did not get selected for the second game either, so I watched Kara fly through history questions, and a General Pershing category. Pershing???...glad I didn’t have to play that game! And so on, until game 5, when Stephanie and I remained to play champ Sarah. Up to this point, the contestants had been a sharing group, with a new winner on each show. Would the pattern continue?
The game. I knew how strong Sarah was from watching her pull out the previous game, and I expected that Stephanie would be tough to beat on the buzzer once she got into the groove. I would have to be lucky just to stay close. The games went by in a blur, and I scarcely remember how they went. I remember being thankful that none of the guys were playing when the beer and car categories came up. I remember waiting in vain for the ‘All in the Family’ song to come up in the sitcom theme songs category. And when I missed the daily double in the ‘Georgia’ category (something about its official prepared food), I remember thinking how I saw lots of pralines but never any grits in the I-75 souvenir shops. As Maggie had predicted, what stayed with me were my incorrect responses and the missed opportunities: the times I did not ring in when my first thought turned out to be correct.
What I remember most distinctly is flubbing the chat. I had been sailing along, doing the hometown howdies without a hitch, and not feeling any nerves during the first part of game 1. The chat with Alex was going well too, until the very end when I had a brain spasm and said ‘wet’ instead of ‘warm’. I immediately corrected myself and said exactly the same thing again. Alex Trebek was staring at me from just a few inches away, his expression betraying no sign of either impatience or irritation as I tried for the 3rd time. I knew he must be in pain, having injured his foot a few days earlier, and it was near the end of the day. I’m sure he just wanted to get this last show over with and get home, but there I was, mumbling and stumbling. I did get the words out correctly the 3rd time, but I wonder how Alex, pro that he is, would have bailed me out had I muffed it again.
A technical malfunction occurred during the loading the second game. Sarah, Stephanie and I had to turn around and face the wall while the problem was resolved, in case any of the clues or categories were exposed in the process. One of the categories in the second game was “‘it’ happens”, and apparently at one time during the malfunction, this phrase appeared in every box on the board. My daughters were speculating that this might be a standard part of the recovery routine – a sort of Jeopardy! code for a similar but more explicit phrase.
It was still anyone’s game at Final Jeopardy! Sarah was in the lead, I was in second, and Stephanie was in third. I knew I could not win if Sarah answered correctly, and if I missed but Stephanie didn’t, I would end up in 3rd place. However, if we all missed, I could guard against dropping into 3rd, so I figured out my wager and checked it on paper using the felt pen and scrap paper that was provided for us. Not trusting myself, I settled for a round number rather than maximizing the amount I could bet, and promptly wrote it onto the screen using the felt-tipped pen in my hand rather than the light pen. It seemed to me that a blunder of that magnitude should disqualify one from becoming a Jeopardy! champion, but Maggie kindly reassured me that it was not the first time this had happened, and very likely would not be the last. One of the crew cleaned my screen, I wrote down my wager again, getting it right on only the second try, and we waited for the final segment. The category was Celebrations, and when I saw the clue, I knew instantly that the answer was Robbie Burns. I could sense that Stephanie started writing her answer immediately as well, and assumed that I would end up with a respectable second place finish. I was surprised to learn that Sarah had not managed to finish writing down her response, and I ended up in first. Unfortunately for her, even though she knew the answer, she had to work a little harder to extract it, and realized afterwards that had she just written “Burns” instead of trying for “Robbie Burns”, she would have been a 2-day champion. There are lots of things that can go wrong, or right, during the course of the game, and I was indeed fortunate to become a Jeopardy! champion that day.
Return trip. Since I won on the final show of the session, I would need to return the following week to play my second game. Everyone at home was curious, of course, but we had decided not to divulge the results. The game had been close and the result depended on the outcome of Final Jeopardy!, so we thought the element of suspense would make it a lot more fun to watch on the air date. When people asked, I would tell them “It was so much fun” or “Well, after Barbie did my makeup, I looked really good.” We did dole out a few crumbs, such as telling about my flubbed interview, or writing on the screen with the wrong pen, and we also gave out the date when it would be aired. Some people figured out that I had been on the Friday show, and that if I had won, I would be heading back to California the following week. Through the miracle of modern technology, we checked our voice-mail from LA, and found that there had been some calls, but no messages. We subsequently sent an email to family and friends, advising them that we were lying low and not answering the phone that week, and if people wanted to get in touch with us, they should leave a message on our answering machine. Miraculously, the calls stopped.
A new week, a new set of contestants. It seemed that most of the new group were from the major eastern seaboard cities: New York, Boston, Washington DC, Philadelphia. They were all bright, personable, friendly and fun. As returning champion, I did not get to hang around with them as much as I had with the previous group. I was having my make-up done while they were going over their stories and howdies. I was first to play the game and did not get to sit with anyone in the audience after the practice rounds. And after the first game, I was gone. Again, the game was a blur. I played against Dana and Barry, and vaguely recall that at one point, I was in the lead. I had expected that Barry would be quick to buzz in, and that he would play aggressively, but an impossible daily double unnerved him a little. However, I expect that he will be subjected to more razzing for knowing that Skipper was Barbie’s sea-faring friend. I kicked myself for not remembering Ruth Handler’s name (inventor of Barbie). I knew I had written it down on a crib sheet and even saw where it was, near the top of the page, but I could not pull up the name. This time, a lot of my first thoughts were not the right ones (that famous female sonneteer Emily Dickinson? Really?), and I recall missing quite a few high-value questions near the end. Dana played a strong game, and I can’t remember her ever giving an incorrect response. At the end of the game, I was once again in second place, this time behind Dana. Again it would come down to Final Jeopardy!, and when the final clue came up, although I didn’t know that he had died in 1801, and although I was not familiar with the PBS series “Of Triumph and Treason”, I could only think of one name associated with treason and wrote down Benedict Arnold. Fortune would not smile on me twice; all 3 of us were correct, Dana was the new champ, and it was 2nd place for me.
While it doesn’t matter if you win or lose, etc., it’s definitely more fun if you win. However, it was another beautiful day in California, we went out for lunch, planned an evening trek to the Griffith Observatory, and prepared to return to life as we had once known it.
Parting thoughts and random memories
-Mitch the sound guy being ever so respectful as he put his hand up my sweater to attach the microphone.
-the biggest bargain in LA: travelling on the Metro from Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood to LAX for the off-peak senior fare of 25 cents.
-having my daughters re-arrange their work schedules to watch me compete – according to them, small payback “for all the school concerts”.
-hearing about their pounding hearts during my first game, reminiscent of how I felt during their piano exams.
-emails from Maggie appearing in my GMail as “Speak Maggie to me”.
-marvelling at how Maggie and Robert managed to remember everyone’s name, and keep the presentations fresh.
-sitting between a police detective who occasionally arranges armed security for visiting stars and an experienced stuntman on my return flight to LA and having them think I was “cool” for being a Jeopardy! champ.
-even customs & immigration officers smiling when you told them you were going to or returning from an appearance on Jeopardy!
Thanks to everyone connected with the show.
It was a blast.