Season 26 3-time champion: $76,998 + $1,000.
Jeopardy! Message Board user name: hackistan
October 26, 2009
Over the years, I've written reams of copy, but nothing has been harder for me to write than this here. In the simplest terms, it's hard to find words to describe the experience. In the end, it's an odd made-up word that really does my experience of being a Jeopardy champion justice. 'Moventous'.
The word came to my wife as we made our way out of the studio after my first win. In a sense, moventous is that space where 'momentous' and 'overwhelming' meet up, and it comes close to describing what I'm still trying to digest.
I first began trying out for Jeopardy three years ago, but the show has been a continuous presence in my life for all of its current run, and even before in the old Art Fleming era. When I was little, my mother and I would watch it together. She passed away two years ago, and I'm sure that she will be hogging the TV wherever she is now, absolutely tickled that her baby is now a three-time Jeopardy champion.
I first took the online test in January 2007, in many cases just to demonstrate how difficult the thing was to my wife, who'd grown tired of hearing me shout out questions at the TV every night and figured if I was such a smarty-pants, I'd might as well try and make it pay off for us. As the succession of answers began flying fast and furious, I got rattled and completely bombed the test.
When I took the test the following year, I knew better what to expect and didn't get as rattled. While I didn't pass, my score improved dramatically, and passing seemed a real possibility. In 2009, the third time was the charm and I knew as soon as I finished that I'd scored at least 40 out of 50.
Then, things went quiet in Jeopardy-ville for a few months, five to be exact. Then, the darndest things started to happen. On May 1, I turned 40. A few weeks later, just as my unemployment insurance benefits were running out, I got a new job that paid nearly double what I'd been earning in my previous field of journalism. Then, in late May, there was an email in my inbox inviting me to take the Jeopardy audition in New York City!
Life, apparently, really does begin at 40.
My wife and I went to Manhattan in June, making book-ending an extra day on either end of the audition weekend and turned it into a mini-vacation. For both of us, it was our first trip to the Big Apple, and we loved every minute of the shopping, sight-seeing and especially the eating. But in the end, I was there to do the audition, and on Sunday made my way to the lower level of the Sheraton in Times Square for my date with destiny. There, about 20 other hopefuls and I got acquainted with a few of the amazing people who put the show together. In very short order, we filled out forms, had Polaroids taken and found ourselves being put through another 50-question test, followed by a brief question-and-answer session and a mock round of the game.
The test was tough, but I felt I'd done at least as well as I had on the online test in January, and it felt like I'd done okay on the mock round, but I remember feeling like I hadn't made a connection with the contestant coordinators, Robert and Maggie. They seemed to like the 20 or so other people in the room more than I had. When it was done and over with, Maggie thanked us all for making the time to come to the audition, and told us all we'd know sometime in the next 18 months whether we had been selected to appear on the show.
As we waited for our flight to take us to Buffalo, I turned to my wife and said, "Well, that's that. At least we got to finally visit New York."
Both of us put our noses back down to the grindstone and tried not to think too hard of how much fun we'd had in New York City. Eighteen months was an awfully long time, and I seriously didn't think I'd passed muster with the contestant co-ordinators.
Three weeks later, I discovered how truly wrong I was.
The first inkling I had that anything was up was when a call came into my cell phone. I was in the middle of a meeting and couldn't answer, but the 310 area code struck me as unusual. I didn't have time to check messages, but then my office phone rang. Michelle, my wife, was on the other end, sounding breathless.
"You've got to call this number. It's Jeopardy!"
I don't think my fingers have ever flown across a phone more quickly.
Hands shaking, I called Michelle back a few minutes later.
"We're going to California. I'm going to be on Jeopardy!"
It was my first trip to California, and unfortunately, it was a whirlwind without much tour. Our late flight into LAX was delayed, making it even later, and I needed to make sure all my suits were pressed before I turned in for the night. It felt like my head had just hit the pillow and then I had to get up for the big day.
In the hotel lobby, my fellow contestants were easy to pick out, laden down as they were with garment bags containing the required three changes of clothing. As we boarded the shuttle, I struck up a conversation with Nathan, a pleasant young man from Washington State. When he learned I was Canadian, he promptly began a discussion about hockey, which he loves. Me, I'm a fair-weather fan, and when my beloved Montreal Canadiens are doing poorly, I'm generally not paying much attention to our second national sport (Little known fact-Canada has two national sports-hockey and lacrosse). The more and more Nathan and I chatted, the more I worried about facing off against him. He was clearly a very smart guy, and a huge fan, both of Jeopardy, and hockey.
A few minutes later, we were at the studio gates, along with Terry, who had stayed somewhere else and made his own way to the studio. A few minutes later, when we reached the green room, we all learned his true identity.
"Hey Champ," Robert boomed out to him when we walked through the door. He was Terry Linwood, and he was the returning champion. Over the next hour or so, Robert, Glenn, Maggie and Corina walked us through the process, as we all took turns slurping down coffee, eating pastry and getting our makeup looked after. Then, came the moment of truth--walking out into the empty studio! It really was one of the more surreal moments in my life, as I reflected on how many times I'd tuned in and watched. I was actually going to stand behind one of those podiums! How many people had been there before me over 26 years? Together, we were entering the realm of Ken Jennings, Frank Spangenberg, Stephen King, Jason Alexander, Regis Philbin, Rosie Perez, Dorothy Zbornak and Cliff Clavin.
I confess I got a few chills at the thought.
All of us got a chance to go up on the stage and do a few practice rounds. I had consumed far too much coffee and other liquids (solid foods were making my stomach do somersaults) and in more than one way, it was a huge relief when we got to go back to the green room.
Suddenly, it was time. Nathan and Tammy went up first, and while they put up a good fight, Terry still came out on top. We ran through two more games before lunch, and Terry bested another four contestants. All of our names were placed on index cards and randomly drawn to determine who played next, and I kept waiting for the call.
A small piece of advice--if you are selected to be a contestant on Jeopardy! and your name isn't picked before lunch, don't, under any circumstances, eat anything fried from the commissary. I learned it the hard way. I'd been running on caffeine and fumes all morning, and a side from the fry-o-lator was a bad lunch choice. We headed back into the green room to learn who would go up next.
Please let it be me, please let it be me, I kept on saying over and over in my head. It wasn't. I'd be in the final grouping. My mental pleas fell on deaf ears, and as two more people went up to face Terry, my energy levels crashed. Nearly comatose, I watched Terry demolish another pair of challengers, his fifth consecutive win.
One of new set's features is a huge Sony flat-screen TV facing right into the contestants' seating area and as Alex announced the win, Terry was caught up in the emotion. His chest puffed out, his nostrils flared and his facial expression told the story. Anyone who wanted to occupy the real estate he currently occupied would have to get through him. In that moment, he reminded me of LeBron James, Charles Barkley and Larry Johnson doing his 'Grand Ma Ma' character, making it clear to any forward planning to make a drive to the basket that they'd be going into 'their house.'
As I prepared to climb up to the podium, I was officially 'Terry-fied'.
Since receiving the invitation to audition, I had tried not to impose too many expectations on the whole Jeopardy thing. "Have fun and enjoy the experience. It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience and anything beyond that is gravy," I would tell myself. As the theme music cued and Johnny Gilbert's voice boomed out the intro, there was a moment where I could do just that. How awesome is this, I asked myself. That's me Johnny's calling out there! How many times have I dreamed of hearing that? It was, and will always remain, one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life.
Alex got the game started, and for the first little while, it seemed like the only thing I'd get to celebrate was hearing Johnny call out my name. Terry continued to dominate on the buzzer, and by the first commercial break, I was way behind. At least I wasn't in negative territory, but there would be a lot of catching up to do here if I wanted to be a contender.
After the break, I started to pick up some rhythm. I found the daily double, and wagered small to get myself within striking distance of Terry. Alas, my brain couldn't come up with the question, but I began to get more confident with the buzzer and had a respectable score at the end of the first round.
One of the things that doesn't translate well on television is how much of a tempo and momentum game Jeopardy! is. Terry was a master at controlling tempo. He was super-quick off the buzzer, but would then provide his response in that slow Texas drawl, which made it very difficult for opponents to build up any momentum of their own.
As the Double Jeopardy! round started rolling, I was holding my own, chipping away at his lead. Then, something that hadn't happened much at all occurred. On a $2,000 clue about Japanese food, Terry incorrectly responded to a Clue Crew-supplied answer about a type of buckwheat noodle.
"What is ramen?"
"No," came the reply from Alex.
I was furiously hammering away at my buzzer for the rebound and correctly responded, "What are soba noodles?"
That clue alone ate up $4,000 of the difference between us, and suddenly I seemed to have the momentum. I picked up another big clue and started to pull away. At one point, I glanced over at the scores and saw that I had the potential for a lock game, but Terry wasn't about to go quietly.
Slowly, methodically, he regained his buzzer touch and began chipping away at my lead. With only a few questions left, Terry hit the first Daily Double and got it right, nearly pulling even with me. With two questions left on the board, he then nailed the other Daily Double! I'm pulling things from a very unreliable memory here, but Terry's wager would have put him ahead of me. Again, he was right. Unlike the first round, we'd managed to clear the board this time, and Terry had a little over $2,000 more than I did! Inwardly, I cursed my inability to finish the thing off. When the final Jeopardy category came up, I knew I had to go big or go home, and my hands shook a little as I wagered all but one dollar of the $15,600 I'd managed to scoop up, based on my knowledge of 'Scientific Firsts.'
Meanwhile, Alex came up and had his picture taken with us. While I still run to the mailbox every day to see if it's arrived, I expect there's a slightly dejected look on my face. I'd started shaky, but picked up and threatened, but I was still behind! It was going to take a miracle to not face the fate of the four sets of competitors before me.
Oh well, at least you kept it close, my internal voice told me by way of comforting. Though I wasn't supposed to make any sort of contact with Michelle, I looked up and saw her in the audience. She didn't see me. Her eyes were closed and her face was all scrunched up like she was trying to will the outcome to be different.
Then came the clue, which isn't nearly as fuzzy as some of the other stuff.
'These celestial objects were the first ones discovered through the use of a telescope, in 16?? (I can't remember the actual date used in the clue). My first impulse was to write down moons. I knew immediately that the clue referred to Galileo, and that he'd discovered the moons of Jupiter, but he'd also discovered the rings of Saturn. So, as the 'Think!' music played, I had to make a choice. Moons seemed to be the more logical of the two, so I did the thing I hate more than anything in the world and made a commitment.
Alex first went to Evelyn on my left, who was in third place. She had also guessed moons. Too easy. There was no doubt in my mind all of us were going to have the Final Jeopardy answer and that would be the end of my Jeopardy Journey. I tried to keep my poker face as Alex revealed my response.
"You picked moons too," he intoned, and revealed my big wager, giving me the lead for the time being with a VERY respectable $31,199 total.
Terry kept his poker face, but he had answered 'comets.' No matter what the wager, I was the new Jeopardy! Champion!
I can't wait to watch the episode. I remember gripping the sides of my podium and nearly disappearing behind it. The whole thing was captured on the Zerg-cam, and the camera operator kept capering at me to get a bigger response. He needn't have bothered. I'm sure my face told the story. I was stunned, gobsmacked, you could have knocked me over with a feather. Insert whatever cliche you feel is appropriate here.
I shook Evelyn's hand, then turned to Terry. I think we actually hugged.
"You are an amazing champion," I told him, and I completely mean it. To have won against such an incredible competitor--a five-time champion--was and remains absolutely beyond comprehension.
From there, things became a bit of a blur. It was the last taping of the day, and Michelle and I needed to be on a plane, first thing in the morning. Once I'd gotten my stuff out of the green room and made my way outside, Michelle, along with Nathan and his wife, were waiting for us outside. There would be another five weeks until I did the next taping, and my earlier sluggishness had vanished, replaced with the ultimate adrenaline rush.
The four of us caught a cab and made our way back to the hotel, where we ran into Carin House, who had been in the match prior to mine, and her family. Between Nathan, Carin and all of their supporters, we practically had a little party underway, but I excused myself to change out of my suit and get all the makeup off my face. In the mirrored solitude of the hotel elevator, I looked at my reflection, then did a ridiculous fist-pumping dance, putting myself back together just in time for the doors to swing open.
Later, after a few mojitos, Nathan's family joined Michelle and I for dinner at a Cuban restaurant. It was a time to reflect on what had just happened, and for me to bask a little in the afterglow of an extraordinary day. Afterwards, as we waited for a cab to take us back to the hotel, Nathan and I struck up a little conversation. While he was happy for me, Nathan was also a little bummed out things didn't work out for him. I'm hoping that, given the number of times he's thumped me in online quiz games since we first met that he knows that winning on Jeopardy is not necessarily an indicator of overall trivia genius-hood, or basic smarts for that matter. More than anything, I hope I cheered him up a little, because Nathan is an amazing young man who probably would have administered a whupping to me had the draw gone differently.
For a moment slightly longer than we might have liked (you try waiting for a cab at 11 p.m. in LA), it seemed as though at 40, for the first time in years, my life had changed for the better, for the first time in ages. I had a great new job and just had an extraordinary experience that would stick with me for a lifetime. Even better, I'd made some amazing new friends, one of whom was standing right beside me.
Five weeks later, Michelle and I returned to LA to resume tapings. We tweaked the flight times to give ourselves a little more time to rest up before and after, and I hoped I wouldn't be a victim of the same curse that seems to befall so many other people who defeat a five game (or longer champion).
And while I tried not to think too hard about it for fear of putting a jinx on things, objectives started to take form. Getting to the audition had been the first one I'd completed, then making it on the show, and then winning. I'm willing to wager just about any champion who gets a moment to think about things probably goes through a similar process.
In my own mind, I didn't think it was too greedy to try for a few objectives--I really, really wanted to be in contention for the tournament of champions. That meant winning at least three games and ideally five or more. I also began harbouring fantasies of busting Doug Hicton's Canadian record of just over $84,000 in regular (tournaments excluded) Jeopardy winnings. And just for fun, I wanted the experience of rolling a category and getting the extra little bit of applause.
But mostly I kept trying to tell myself to continue enjoying the whole experience. It truly is a once-in-a-lifetime thing, visible on the faces of the next group of contestants in the hotel lobby on the morning of taping.
Everyone got a little bit acquainted, but I kept quiet about being the returning champ. Everyone would know soon enough. Soon enough came as we were being shuttled into the studio with Corina, one of the contest coordinators, who informed everyone that I was the returning champion.
Things seemed to move much more quickly this time. Makeup, Maggie, into the studio for rehearsals and then it was showtime!
A returning champ with a bit of time to do a post-mortem on their first performance has an advantage over their competition. They've played the game, gotten more comfy with the buzzer and aren't subject to the same 'I can't believe this is happening to me' feeling that seems to permeate the studio.
At least, that's how it felt for the next two games, as I secured locked games. I made a boneheaded mistake in the first game of the day, misreading a Daily Double clue that cost me a few grand, then missing Final Jeopardy!, which kept my score low. My third win was the one I'm proudest of. I nailed a Daily Double for an extra $5,000, had a correct response on Final Jeopardy!, and pocketed another $25,000! I also crossed off one of the objectives I tried not to think about, rolling the 'nonfiction' books category and getting a round of applause!
Afterward, Maggie took me aside and whispered something to me.
"You're doing great, but don't treat things from here on in like it's just gravy."
"Don't worry. I know what I'm going for here," I replied, then told her exactly where I was trying to go.
As I made my way up to the podium for my fourth match, I must have the stink of jinx on me, because things went very south, very fast.
At first, everything seemed to be going great. From the top of my head, I crafted my long-form Hometown Howdy.
"Hi there, Toronto. This is three-time returning champion Kevin Wilson. In Canada, we love three things--hockey, beer and winning, so watch me on Jeopardy. You can learn to love me."
The audience cracked up and spontaneously began applauding. They liked me! They really, really liked me! I basked in the applause and felt like a champ.
Two minutes later, after making my first selection, I felt like a chump.
The category was 'blank of blank'. Each response had the word 'of' in it, and contestants needed to fill in the blanks. My selection came up and the clue featured a German word and a reference to Nazi war criminal Joseph Mengele. Maybe it was cockiness, maybe it's the fact that the level of concentration and focus required to play the game are difficult to sustain over multiple rounds, maybe it was the fact I'd jinxed myself by telling saying aloud to Maggie the very things I'd been trying not to think of. Whatever the cause, I confidently rang in first and responded, "What is Doctor Death?"
Oy. I'll never forget the disappointment on Alex's face.
The answer, of course, was "Angel of Death," and things went downhill from there. By the time the first commercial break arrived, I had dug myself deeply in the hole. My fellow contestants in this round seemed much faster on the buzzer, and I was badly rattled. "It's all about the experience," I tried to tell myself, as I grimly tried to dig myself out of the negative. For a few minutes, things started to look up. I picked up a few clues, and even got into positive territory when I hit the first of the two Daily Doubles in the second round.
I had just under $5,000 at this point, and a correct answer would have put me close to the lead, at least close enough to claw back. Alas, it wasn't meant to be. I had no idea what the answer was, ventured an educated guess, and lost $3,000. I wasn't going to even be within striking distance, and had to content myself with a third-place finish in the final round.
So there you have it. In the end, a number of the things I'd set out to do got done. My big first-game win put me into the Hall of Fame for a high single game score. My overall winnings also got me comfortably in the Hall of Fame, and while I didn't surpass Doug Hicton's $84,000, my overall winnings are, to the best of my knowledge, the second-best showing by a Canadian in regular-season Jeopardy. Not quite the objective, but something I can still feel proud about.
With three wins, I'm also in contention for the Tournament of Champions, but the odds are extremely slim that'll I'll actually make it. If someone during the season does a Ken Jennings-esque run, or two or three people have David Madden-esque runs, or a comet wipes out a conference room full of four and five-time champions from this season, you may see me in the Tournament! And I rolled a category!
And while I will cherish all of these achievements, the friendships I've formed with people like Nathan Murphy and Carin House, and the respect I've developed for every single member of the Jeopardy team are infinitely more valuable than the winnings or any bragging rights I may have earned during my run as reigning champion.
And Mr. Terry Linwood, we haven't had a chance to speak since our time onstage, but I hope you know what an extraordinary champion you are, and how much I look forward to getting to know you better in the months to come. I truly hope we both get the honour of a rematch.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't extend a huge thank-you to a number of wonderful folks who cheered me on, encouraged me, and offered their support. My employer, CUPE, and especially my two big bosses, Brian Atkinson and Sid Ryan, were incredibly patient and generous with me during this experience. My dad and stepmother have been huge fans, and turned me into a bit of a minor celebrity in my hometown of Windsor, Ontario, especially among the over-55 set.
My mother, who passed away two years ago, also deserves a great deal of credit, for always making me go to the dictionary whenever I asked her what a word meant, and nurturing my love of all sorts of books. I'm sure the big-screen TV in heaven will be booked solid for a few days, and St. Peter will be sick of listening to her brag about her smarty-pants son in fairly short order.
Most of all, I have to thank my wonderful wife and partner Michelle, without whom this incredible experience would never have taken place. She always made me believe I could accomplish this, and was always by my side during this fantastically wonderful and 'moventous' time, just as she was during some of the harder times before I ever dreamed I would be a Jeopardy champion.
Finally, if you'll indulge me for one last moment, to all of you out there who are going through hard times of your own, I hope you'll believe me when I say that as hard as it may be to believe, good things can and do happen. When things are at their darkest, please know that they can and will get better.
I've gone on for far too long, but I've got lots more to say. I hope to see you around, and if you happen to be visiting Toronto, drop me a line!