Season 26 1-time champion: $12,799 + $1,000.
Middle name pronounced like the word "connect".
Jeopardy! Message Board user name: Robert K S
JBoard user name: Robert K S
Robert Knecht Schmidt - A Patent Agent
March 16, 2010
March 12, 2010 does not mark my first appearance on Jeopardy! My first appearance came on February 7, 1987. I was six years old.
Jeopardy! premiered the week before my fourth birthday, and I have pretty vivid memories of watching it in those early seasons on a 13" color TV, the kind with no remote and separate knobs for VHF and UHF channels. Those bright blue clue screens, the beep-boop-beep of the clues popping in to the game board, the zz-zap, zz-zap, zz-zap! of the Daily Doubles being found, all these things marked the show as something excitingly high tech, while the Alex Trebek's hosting and the solemn competitiveness of the contestants lent the show the gravitas of a television institution. While I couldn't have articulated all of this as a kindergartener, my sense even then was that Jeopardy! was something permanent in television space, that it always had been (ironic in retrospect, given that the show was relatively new then) and always would be (not so unplausible after 26 years on the air). So on a Saturday morning in early February 1987 (the show would only have been in its third season) my friend Christopher Bricker and I turned up the cushions on the couch in my living room to make contestant lecterns and begged my dad to break out the home video camera and fashion a game board for us out of paper. Having no lockout buzzers, we took turns at the clues in categories SPELLING, MATH, and SCIENCE.
Cut to November 18, 2009, when I get "the call" from contestant coordinator Glenn Kagan. I'm about two years into a career as a patent agent, busy with work, etc., and looking at attending law school, so scheduled to take the LSAT in a couple weeks on December 5. "When it rains, it pours," I say to Glenn, and ask if there is any possibility that my invitation might be postponed to some more opportune time. But this is not how things are done, and I know the rarity and value of the summons I'm receiving, so I thank Glenn and accept the tape dates December 15-16, 2009.
It had been one year, five months and 8 days since my in-person audition at a downtown Cleveland hotel, and one year, nine months, 20 days since I took the January 2008 online test. Until I got the call, I was unconvinced I had passed either of these obstacles. After completing the online test, I was virtually certain I had come in underneath the popularly rumored threshold score, so I was surprised when I received an in-person audition by e-mail on May 2, 2008. Then, I made what I thought might be fatal faux pas during the interview portion of the audition, like interrupting contestant coordinator Robert James a couple times while he interviewed me, and even butting in on one of the other applicants' interviews when the urge to ask him a question of my own overcame all good sense!
It had also been five years since Ken Jennings's run, when Jeopardy! had become more religion than avocation for me, yet I still felt underprepared to go on the show. With the LSAT out of the way, I had only about a week left for Jeopardy! preparation. Jennings himself said it best when he noted that the best preparation for Jeopardy! consisted of "a lifetime of paying attention," but I knew how hard the game could get and that there were certain crucial gaps in my knowledge I had never filled. Despite a lifetime of wanting to be on the show, and despite that ambition having gelled into something serious since my first attempt at the test in Los Angeles in 2005 (prior to the advent of online screenings), and despite the years of reading advice on the Jeopardy! Message Board and in books by Michael Dupée and Chuck Forrest and Mark Lowenthal and Bob Harris, and yes, Ken Jennings, I still did not know, cold, all the U.S. state capitals, the countries of the world and their capitals, U.S. presidents and their order, British monarchs, current world leaders, Canadian provincial and territorial capitals, etc., etc.--all of the reasonably manageable lists of information that recur so frequently on Jeopardy! that any potential contestant neglects them at his or her peril. I could not reliably match Shakespeare's characters to their plays, or African country names to their outlines on the map, or element names to their places on the periodic table. Given Sporcle and enough time, all this could be solved--but there was not enough time. The more I realized I didn't know, and all the more shamefully since I had had so much time to conduct such preparation prior to getting the call, the more certain I was that I could not possibly win a game.
Then there was wagering. I felt I had a good command of wagering scenarios and strategies to a sufficient level of sophistication, but arriving at determinations of the proper bets still depended on quick and accurate arithmetic--since the days of my struggles with elementary school flashcards, never my forte.
And then, of course, there was the simple mental task of quick recall, also an innate weakness for me. My brain has always had trouble pulling even the names it knows well, as embarrassingly evidenced at parties when I can't dredge up the names of acquaintances whom I haven't been in touch with lately.
But I thought, at least, even with major gaps in my knowledge, and deficiencies of brainpower, I was sure to have one advantage--the buzzer. For years, playing Jeopardy! at home, I had been honing my ear-thumb coordination, the reflex timing which probably more often than not is the sole decider of scores going into Final Jeopardy! My sense of when the contestant podiums lit up in relation to when Alex finished reading clues had been, I thought, keenly developed and was ready to be put to the test.
I was disabused of that misconception at the first rehearsals on the Jeopardy! stage, with stage manager John Lauderdale filling in for Johnny Gilbert and veteran contestant coordinator Glenn Kagan subbing for Alex. Whether I got in ahead of opponents on the buzzer or not seemed to be a completely random proposition. Was I coming in too early and locking myself out, or just coming in too late? Even that, I could not tell for sure. When I was getting in, there didn't seem to be any temporal correspondence between the deactivation of the game board's trigger lights after their brief flicker, my pressing of the button, and my podium's red countdown lights coming on. What on Earth was I doing wrong? What did I need to do, to do it right?
There's not much to say about the pre-game green room experience that hasn't already been said by other contestants. The contestant coordinators--Robert, Maggie, Corina, Glenn--are each and all wonderful and amazing people who make what is a naturally stressful experience as fun and comfortable for the contestants as possible--but they can also be demanding, as during Hometown Howdy practice drills ("Let's hear it!... try it again!...") or when enforcing safety on the set ("Don't run on stage with your shoelaces untied... I mean it!").
Other past contestants have also remarked what nice, friendly folks their competitors are. Our group was no different, and while there wasn't a whole lot of time scheduled for socialization amidst the makeup applying and the gameplay briefing, it was a pleasure chatting with Kirby, a foreign service diplomat who'd just flown in from Peru for his appearance. But I couldn't resist the urge to try and size up the competition. I identified the contenders I thought had the potential to pose the most danger, and hoped not to face them. Vijay, a Ph.D. chemical engineer, had the advantages afforded by age and education, as did Jordan, an M.D. anesthesiologist, while Ryan, a senior in college, was freshly primed with eight years of quiz bowl experience. Becki was a teacher and linguist with MIT and Harvard on her résumé who came from a Jeopardy! family--her husband had already won on the show a few years before. Yep--I was in trouble.
Watching real games from the audience is an étude in anxiety control. Practicing air buzzer, and warming up the brain's quick-recall engine, and being given hints on what categories are not likely to come up again within the week are scarcely adequate distractions from the looming threat of being called up next, and particularly after watching a champ who's a master on the buzzer mow down pair after pair of worthy challengers. Throughout the day, I was praying not to be called next, offering yajnas not to have to face Vijay the Vijuggernaut, whispering novenas not to be matched against Ryan in a game. Ryan and I bonded that day, sharing glances with each other at Triple Stumpers we both knew as we watched Vijay's games, and nodding agreement with each others' hushed remarks on the gameplay, but these things only made me fear facing off with him more: Ryan knew the game and was ready for it. And darn it, why are all these Pavlovian responses that I know being used up in other people's games? Calder! A whole category about Nebraska, the writers' fave! I've been dreaming about getting a clue about Praxiteles for years, ever since I saw that special exhibition at the Louvre--that one should have belonged to me!
But there were two more contestants that first day than there were spots for challengers, and in the end, Ryan and I were sent home without playing. Speaking only for myself, it was a relief. There would be opportunity for one more night's good sleep, one more glance through the study notebook before heading up to the podium.
I hit the sack right after watching that night's airing of Jeopardy! (#5812), more exhausted after spending the whole day sitting down than if I'd been marching, and as I drifted off, one question echoed through my mind over and over--"How am I going to beat Vijay? How am I going to beat Vijay?"
Up the next morning and over a breakfast of yogurt and blueberries, I do a search and read over every archived clue about composers. Classical composers had been the one category I had been expecting that hadn't come up yet in any of the games played the previous day.
In the green room, there was a whole new batch of names to learn. Ryan and Vijay were still there, and there was also Kyle, a local who had earlier been an alternate and would thus, along with Ryan and I, be more likely to play one of the early games in the day. I tuned out most of Maggie's game rules briefing spiel--it was the second time I was hearing the hour-long lecture given in double speed--but there was one tidbit that pricked up my ears, which I hadn't heard the previous day--something about a past contestant who had taken a tip to try using the non-dominant hand for buzzing and, hallelujah, was suddenly able to get in on clues.
During rehearsal, I could tell Cyd had some massive buzzering skillz, and Nick got a clue about what namesake high school Regis Philbin's father had attended. (Later in the Green Room I noticed Nick's scarlet tie was emblazoned with the letters RHS, for "Regis High School"--how's that for serendipity?)
My worry about how I was going to beat Vijay sublimated when buzzer demon Cyd took charge of that task in the first game of the day. In the second game, Ryan led Cyd going into Final but got tripped up by what I thought was one of the meanest trick Finals I'd seen on the show in a long time (Cyd later told me how he had reasoned it out for the win). Having now watched seven games from the audience and gone through three rehearsals, and with the players I most feared facing eliminated from contention, I was ready to play. And that's when my name was called.
When I stepped up to the podium, John Lauderdale announced that I wouldn't need raising up on the little height-leveling elevator. "Robert towers over everybody", he said, a phrase I never expected to hear in my whole life. I decided to play my Hail Mary before the first clue was called. What the hell, right? I wasn't beating anybody to the buzzer during rehearsals, so it couldn't hurt! I passed the buzzer from my dominant right hand into my left. The first clue was called. I relied on my instinctual timing--glory be, my podium lit up!--that nanosecond slower relex in my left thumb kept me from getting locked out. "Robert", Alex called. That so-important first buzz of the game! At the bottom of the category 1961, I even managed to get in ahead of Cyd and Sarah on a clue about the Beatles (my faves). On the last clue of the round, I mouthed "eighteen-forties, eighteen-forties", but was too chicken to chime in. [J! Archive note: this was actually the 16th clue of the Double Jeopardy! Round, not the last clue of the Jeopardy! Round.] Alex called on me anyway and I got a correct response worth no money. No matter--by the end of the Jeopardy! Round, I was in the lead by a comfortable margin, and Alex praised my "impressive performance". Until the day I get married or have a child--best moment of my life. That commercial break, the champ turned and said to me, "You're tough!" Second best moment. While we waited for the next round, I asked Glenn to tell us a story of his days working on the Art Fleming version of the show. He only got halfway through the story before the game resumed.
In a clue about a the state animal of California, I played it too safe and gave the general responses of "bear" and then "brown bear" when prompted for more. I guess Alex only gives one "be more specific", because if he'd given me another, I'd have said "grizzly". But that clue didn't just cost me--it cost my opponents, too, who rang in with guesses of "black" and "golden" after being told that "brown" was wrong. If the camera's trained on the contestants when Alex announces the correct response, you might catch me looking over at the judges' table, hoping to see somebody reaching for a reference volume or a telephone or something, but there was no ado.
Cyd had a great rally late in the Double Jeopardy! Round, beating me to the buzzer on all of the closing clues, which were lower-value gimmes. I had been dreaming a lock; Cyd's reclamation of the buzzer was a splash of cold water in the face. He kept the game in contention going into Final. But when after Alex had finished reading the Final clue I could sense both my opponents staring into space the same as I was, I knew it was a Triple Stumper and that I had won the game. To be sure, the clue was valid and interesting Oscar trivia, if obscure enough to baffle all three of us. If I hadn't seen TCM's recent airing of Always Leave Them Laughing (1949), then I might have had a nice blank slate on the "washed-up comic" hint and that might have led me to Chaplin, but as it was, I waited until the last second and then wrote down my best but obviously wrong guess, which I finished just before the pen stopped working. My "namaste" gesture was a little peace and love to all watchers, as well as a nod to my yoga group back home.
At lunch, I sat down to the table with a spinach salad topped with pears and a little dish of chocolate soft-serve, and told the five contestants who remained that I thought the game was mostly luck and that any of them had the chance to beat me in the next match. On the way out, somebody pointed out that Matthew Perry had been dining at the table across from us. Regrettably, I didn't pick up on the significance of the omen: the Friends star Totally Looks Like John C. Breckinridge.
I hastened into my change of clothes, choosing my Beatles tie in honor of the clue I'd just gotten. I owe Gabe--a local contestant who ended up not being chosen to play that day--a pair of black socks that he lent me when I couldn't find mine, and thanks also for helping me get on my cuff links. Dear Gabe, please e-mail me and let me know where I can send you a new package of black dress socks.
The next game started and I was up against two players I knew would be superb. Nick, a Jesuit-educated financial journalist, had done some solid prep work for the show, and Rachel, a Ph.D. astronomer-turned-computer programmer, was about as bright as contestants get. As Alex read the categories, I picked up the signaling device and ritualistically transferred it from my right hand to my left. But I sensed I was going to be in trouble when I couldn't get in on the first several clues of the game.
I was relieved to discover that STORY PROBLEMS wasn't going to be a math category, and picked up one or two clues in that category. I was holding on to a slim lead going into the first break. My palms were dripping with sweat. Maggie offered me her skirt to wipe them on. I thanked her but opted to just blow on them.
I smiled to hear the audience chuckle at my interview story. Come on, I know I'm not the only one who fantasizes about cloning my own Johnny Gilbert. In a bit that I anticipate will be left on the cutting-room floor, Alex asked me my age. People invariably peg me a decade too low.
The challengers were killing me on the buzzer, but on one clue, I was happy Nick beat me to it. I was ready to identify a picture of a piece of coal as being "bituminous" when it was "anthracite". [J! Archive note: the coal clue was actually in the previous game and was picked up by Cyd Musni.] My correct response of "fitted sheets" in the LINENS 'N THINGS category must have been on the top of my head because of Kevin Marshall's blog entry. The category about HYBRIDS was a bit flummoxing. I had been beaten to the buzzer on "Grapple" and had negged with a lame guess on "tangelo", so when I hit a DD in the category, I was expecting an even more obscure fruit, and bet conservatively. Falk's law. The clue was about computers, not produce, right in my "element". I also foolishly rang in on a STORY PROBLEMS category when this time it was about math. That was costly. Miami Vice in Saudi Arabia?--what was I thinking? I might as well have said Ray. But the clue that hurt most was a Daily Double in a COMPOSERS category. This was a clue I was perfectly prepared for, had been waiting for. "The old chestnut about the 'William Tell Overture'--and the composer's name is--" Blank. I can see his fat face, as clearly as an old acquaintance's at a party. "Come on, Robert, this one's a classic Pavlovian. Maybe if I try my old trick of coming up with his first name, the last name will pop into place." I moved my mouth around trying to form something vaguely Italian, but all that came out was "Cavallo--Cavallero" instead of "Gioachino". Even after that I thought I might have a chance of getting back into the game, but there was one last neg that did me in, a guess on a high-value clue about a mid-nineteenth century "John C." politician who wasn't John C. Calhoun. Pretty narrow selection, and John C. Frémont springs to mind--I'll give it a shot! Well, this is where knowing my list of Vice Presidents down pat would have come in handy.
When Alex gave the "less than a minute to go" signal, I knew I was in trouble. I couldn't get in on the buzzer, and my opponents were chewing up the remaining time by selecting clues in the video category about the California Highway Patrol. I kept looking for a way back into the game--anything to wrest control--but kept getting outbuzzed. Finally, on a clue looking for an "Alert" named for an abducted child, instead of going to the correct response, my mind went straight to a Jeopardy! moment seared into my memory: Eugene Finerman's Ultimate Tournament of Champions Daily Double in which he couldn't pull "Amber Alert" (too easy, right?), and presto--rather than having "Amber Alert" on the tip of my tongue, I had only "Amelia" and "Amanda" and all manner of other girls' names, so I couldn't ring in to get control back. Rachel picked up the cash for that clue and called for a clue in the Dutch etymology category. Just then, John Lauderdale, the stage manager, halted gameplay and the contestants were asked to turn around in their spots. While we stood there for what seemed like about five minutes, I lamented "Rossini" aloud, earning me a scold from Maggie. I asked if she could refresh my memory on the scores and I considered strategy. At the moment, Nick had a lock over Rachel, and I contemplated giving up buzzing in at all for the rest of the game, just so Rachel could break Nick's lock. I calculated that I would at least try to buzz in on a $2000 clue because my score could break Nick's lock if I got one of those right. But, if I remember the last moments of the game correctly, my strategizing was for naught, since Rachel beat me to the buzzer for the rest of the game and the end-of-round signal sounded with what seemed like an inordinately large number of clues unrevealed. Dang!
The scores were set. The bad news for me was that I was in a distant third. The good news, though, was Nick did not have a lock.
The wagering figuring papers were handed out and I had my pen ready to start what I knew was going to be some time-consuming figuring. But I could not start writing until the dividers were in place. "I'm going to be a little while with this", I remarked to Glenn, and he said, "That's okay, take your time." I saw immediately that it was a crush position, and I calculated that Nick would have to bet $4,800 or more to cover Rachel. So, if I were to successfully double up, would I at least be able to have more money than Nick, should he bet the minimum to cover and supply a wrong response? I subtracted Nick's probable wager from his score and ended up with $11,000. This was more than my doubled score of $10,800. I sensed that something must be wrong, because I knew that my score was not less than the difference between the scores of the other opponents (the unfortunate position of a "screwed" third-place player with no chance of winning barring a wagering error on the part of another). I started the subtraction over, but could hear murmurs around me, from John Lauderdale, and from Maggie--they were ready to start, and I was the only one left who hadn't locked in a wager. "Finish up, Robert", Maggie said. When again my subtraction left Nick with more money than I could make even by doubling up, I cursed aloud. I started the calculation again. "We do need your wager now, Robert", Glenn said. I sensed I was making a mistake somewhere in my figuring, but without having found it, I couldn't depend on it, and more significantly, I thought that, given the string of difficult Finals I had seen in the past two days, it would be unlikely that I would be the sole solver amongst the three of us, and that in the event of a Triple Stumper I would be best off retaining as much money as possible and praying for a bad bet by somebody else. With Glenn hovering next to me and the audience and production crew waiting on my move, I wrote down $0, and tapped the accept wager bar--no going back. Glenn crumpled up my wagering figuring paper.
Alex revealed the Final clue and I began writing what I was certain was the correct response before he finished reading. Rachel got it also, but Nick faltered with the surname, erasing his pre-Final lead and giving the game to Rachel. While I regretted my mistakes in the game, they seemed to me to be less determining of the outcome than the superb quality of play by my opponents. Both of them were deserving of a win.
When I took my seat in the audience stands prior to the next game, Jerome Vered, who had been rooting for me from the studio audience, said he had only one regret about my gameplay--that I hadn't wagered to win in that last Final. I told him that I wasn't able to make the arithmetic work for me, that in the time that I had, I couldn't confirm that I wasn't in a hopeless wagering position from third. I was disappointed in myself that I had made such a blunder when it counted, and knew it was only a matter of time before my arraignment by the Betting Police. The mitigating fact that Rachel came up with the correct solution for Final saved me from losing any sleep over my bum wager.
Naturally, in the days and nights that followed came the woulda-coulda-shouldas. If only I hadn't negged on that Daily Double and maybe another a high-value clue, I might have been in a position to kindle a win into a streak. A couple days after I got back to Cleveland, I found sitting center on my desk, underneath a bank statement, the one 3x5 index card from my study stack that I had neglected to bring to California, pairing William Tell to Rossini.
A worry I had in the many years before coming on the show was that I might lose interest in Jeopardy! completely once I had taped my own appearance. Fortunately, that hasn't happened. The show's still just as fun to play along with from home, to try to beat the writers' material, to root for or against the champions or their challengers. My thumb still reflexively twitches after Alex finishes reading each clue. The only difference is, I now know what's going on in the nervous systems of those players as they compete for cash and trivia cred, what it's like to be behind the podium, what it's like to have Alex smile at you when you get a tough clue right, and, yes, what it's like to feel the stab of his reproach after supplying a bad guess on a high-value clue.
Shortly before I went on the show, I pulled out that old VHS tape of 6-year-old me and Christopher Bricker playing our own game of Jeopardy! on my living room couch, pretending to be, and dreaming of one day being, on the real thing. I'm grateful that Jeopardy! allowed me to make that childhood dream come true. Playing the real thing on the real set with the real Alex Trebek is the just about the biggest thrill ever.
Now, how do I hear the rest of that Art Fleming story from Glenn Kagan?