Season 26 1-time champion: $12,000 + $2,000.
Rachel Pildis - A Software Developer
Oak Park, Illinois
March 22, 2010
I'm Rachel Pildis, an astronomer turned computer programmer and native plant gardener. I'm originally from Des Moines, Iowa but am now living in Frank Lloyd Wright-dominated Oak Park, Illinois. I've always been a geeky brainiac sort, so Jeopardy's been on my radar for as long as I can remember. At one point, I was thinking of trying out as a reward for finishing my Ph.D., but right as I finished up my thesis I started dating my (now) husband, so I decided to spend my vacation funds visiting him rather than Alex Trebek.
Inspired by a blogger's account of his Jeopardy! experience in December 2008, I got back on the Jeopardy! bandwagon and signed up for the January 2009 online test. The test happened to coincide with the gut rehab of the only bathroom in our house. The test was strangely relaxing: not knowing which state is the Yellowhammer State (Alabama) seemed pretty minor compared to not having a toilet! Since there's no immediate feedback on how you do with the online test, I went back to worrying about grout colors and other pressing issues.
I was pleased to get the e-mail in April saying that I was invited to in-person tryouts in Chicago in late May. I started watching Jeopardy! again in earnest with a pen as my buzzer and reading up a bit on areas I knew vaguely but weren't at the top of my head (geography and English history, specifically). I figured that there was no way I could spit out brand-new knowledge in a Jeopardy! situation, but I should darn well remember my former Soviet republics.
The in-person tryouts were filled with people from near and far: some people drove hours to be there, so I felt quite fortunate that I was able to get there via the El. We got a nifty Jeopardy! pen to take the written test (Flo-Rida? who the heck is that?) and then the 20 of us ran through 3-person mini-games with the dreaded buzzer. As is always the case, I was so smart while sitting down with science and architecture categories, and then so clueless standing up trying to guess which of 3 John Grisham books was published first (jeez, I don't know the publication dates of the books I do read). On the way home, I was thinking that it was an interesting experience, but that I shouldn't hold my breath for a phone call in the next 18 months.
Nearly 6 months later during a really busy work day, I got "the call." It was such a wonderful surprise! I texted my husband Don immediately, and asked if he wanted to come along to LA. My next step was getting my days off arranged and buying us airline tickets. I got very serious with my pen-assisted Jeopardy! viewings, and tried not to wince when perfect categories for me (a whole category about my hometown of Des Moines, for instance) popped up. I did keep reading history and geography stuff, but didn't specifically study. I figured it was more important to be relaxed and to remember that it was a game: either the categories I got would be good for me or not, and the one thing that would make this a bad experience would be to freeze up.
It was fantastic to escape Chicago in December to the sunny skies and blooming flowers of LA. I was a bit intimidated when first meeting my fellow contestants since several of them were there the previous day and were far less disoriented than I was. Both the contestants and our wranglers were very kind, though, so the intimidation disappeared underneath the paperwork and makeup (yikes!). It made a return, though, when I encountered the dreaded buzzer. Who knew: the cool Jeopardy! pen that I got in the in-person test and in the green room was designed to replicate the buzzer, and here I was practicing all that time with a cheery yellow pen from a recycling company. Buzzing in was very frustrating for me, but the practice games did help me feel more comfortable being on stage and looking at the game board. The set was surprisingly small!
I wasn't called up for any of the three games filmed before lunch. I broke the rules slightly by looking over at Don in the guests' section of the audience, but he kept a proper poker face. None of the categories were a slam dunk and I was clueless for all the Final Jeopardies; the combination of this with my buzzer issues started to worry me a bit. This only escalated after lunch when I appeared to get even worse at buzzing in during the afternoon practice. Would I disgrace myself on nationally syndicated TV? My name was called for the first post-lunch show, so I tried to convince myself while being made up that even third place would pay for our plane tickets.
It now escapes me what categories showed up in the first round of Game 1, but I remember being immensely relieved that I had over $4000 by the first commercial break. Obviously the buzzer issue had been solved; I believe it was Maggie's hint to keep my thumb resting on the button that got things working for me (along with the adrenaline that comes from standing on stage and hearing Johnny Gilbert announce the show!). Alex dissed my grad school dwarf galaxy project, but then what was he going to say about them? Ask about their V-I colors? Good thing I didn't mention my thesis work, since I don't know if any chitchat at all can be made about multi-wavelength galaxy group imaging.
I made some of the silly mistakes that I swore I wasn't going to do: buzzing in for questions I had no clue about (Jamie Foxx movies?), freezing up for questions I could reason out, and so on. But I stayed focused on the game, and was still standing in time for Final Jeopardy. Since I was not even close for the earlier ones, I bet conservatively aiming for second place, and in such a way that I would end up with a nice round final amount if I got it correct. When the clue was revealed, I knew that they were looking for the founder of Christian Science, but I could not recall her full name. A few moments of "NA na, NA na, NA na NA" helped me remember Mary Baker Eddy's last name. That's what I entered, and when the dust settled, I won! I was shocked and was likely incoherent in my post-game interview.
Game 2 is just as much of a blur as game 1. I was definitely more shaky and tired, and I think my performance reflected it. None of the categories in either game were slam dunks for me (hey, writers, more science!). I did get my Final Jeopardy! question right again ("late 1920s...man in the air....ah, Lindburgh?"), but was too far behind Amanda to do better than second place. But hey, second place pays twice as much as third place, so I was just happy to not have fainted or otherwise embarrassed myself.
Telling everyone my air date was fun, but I think I'll get a lot more feedback once the show airs. Don is tickled pink and calls me "Jeopardy! champion" when no one else is around to hear it. I'm still watching Jeopardy! every day, but now I can sit back on the sofa and leave that dang yellow pen by the phone.