I Lost on Jeopardy!
And it was okay
The artificial elevation of us Joes and Janes to grace TV screens to participate in a battle of our worth as humans (a slight hyperbole but knowledge is a much more fundamental trait to evaluate than say, Plinko) made a small tear in my 40-year understanding of society and reality.
No spoiler alert, everyone loses on Jeopardy sooner or later (except Hannah Wilson, who at the time of me writing this is on a 7-day streak). But in my case, I lost in my only episode that aired over a year ago (March 24, 2022) in the middle of Jeopardy!’s noteworthy 38th season. Noteworthy for me because I finally got to live out my dream of going on the Alex Trebek stage to test my knowledge and speed for money, but noteworthy for the rest of the world for featuring no fewer than four “superchamps” (defined by the show as winning at least 10 games). The most impressive of whom was Amy Schneider, who looked unbeatable in the anxiety-riddled days before my taping. On the night before my taping, I watched her win her 35th game. When I arrived at the Sony Pictures Studio lot the next day, she was not among the competitors for the taping week. Truly, anything was possible.
Of course my Jeopardy! experience was filled with tiny nuggets of passing interest, like getting makeup done a few feet from the Wheel of Fortune wheel (marked by a sign sternly warning “Do not touch or spin under any circumstances”), finding out about the electric box lifts they use to equalize contestants’ heights, or dealing with the grumpy wardrobe department. Then there was the somewhat unique experience of taping a game show in the midst of a particularly nasty wave of a pandemic. No studio audiences, stricter COVID protocols than the hospital where my son was born pre-Pfizer vax, and masking for nearly 12 hours except for the half hour of our show’s taping. Even the COVID stories are not unique, as many contestants enjoy recapping their experience in its entirety and have done a better job than I would.12
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What happened in my game is that I lost, after only holding a meaningless lead once before the eventual champ’s Final Jeopardy! response and wager were revealed. I managed to answer all of my attempts correctly, which sounds impressive until you realize I only got to buzz in 18 times. Contestants get coached on their buzzer effectiveness during the commercial break, I was told I was buzzing in too early and getting locked out.3 I also failed to uncover a Daily Double, in the case of my game I knew 3/3 of them but didn’t land them, but I also had no strategy to uncover them which is an increasingly large part of the game lately. Still, I was happy to get a rather obvious Final Jeopardy! clue after a few seconds of panic. In the end both the defending 1-day champ Tim and I lost to the very capable and quick Ciara Donegan,4 who was poised to go on a run herself before she ran into eventual Tournament of Champions contestant Jackie Kelly the next day.
It was all over so quickly, despite being the penultimate taping of the day. I tried to enjoy the moment, but as we were whisked off the stage and I was congratulating Ciara it dawned on me that I would never have a chance to even hope to play again.5 I wasn’t prepared for that downer. It was like being a kid and finally working up the nerve and height to ride the fastest roller coaster that you’ve been waiting to ride, getting one shot at it, and then being banned from the park.
Then there was the very real consideration of the lost prize money. While there are some hoops you need to jump through to be selected as a contestant on the show, there’s also a ton of luck—it’s basically a lottery. At one point in its history, Jeopardy! allowed contestants to keep prize money earned during gameplay. But the life-changing money that contestants racked up translated to uberconservative Final Jeopardy! wagers, which should ideally provide the most drama of the game. So second and third place began receiving $2,000 and $1,000 respectively (before taxes). You’re lucky if that covers the cost of your trip (did you know they don’t cover those costs?).
So lose a close game and you get $2,000, win and you’re usually walking away with somewhere in the neighborhood of $20,000 and the chance to double that in at least one more game. There’s a real The Running Man6 vibe to having contestants battle it out for enough money to get ahead, all for America's amusement. I tell myself I didn't lose anything and gained a hell of a lot other than prize money, but some house hunting days I think about the check that got away.
Weeks pass and I keep the secret of my game’s outcome, and share a special episode airing party with as many people as I’d seen in one spot since March 2020. It was surreal and overwhelming, and definitely a much bigger turnout than I’d been able to pull to any of my band’s shows booked in late weeknight hours in the dive bars that are cool to go to when my band isn’t playing there. But another very jarring feeling possessed me at the end of the night, after reading the live reactions from friends and strangers perceiving and judging our performance.7 It was a kind of physical withdrawal, or maybe compensation, from dealing with the unique human experience of being extremely visible. Notably, not for doing anything exceptionally special--the beauty of game shows is that they pluck from the ranks of ordinary people. But the artificial elevation of us Joes and Janes to grace TV screens to participate in a battle of our worth as humans (a slight hyperbole but knowledge is a much more fundamental trait to evaluate than say, Plinko) made a small tear in my 40-year understanding of society and reality.
I became moody and withdrawn. I comforted myself in my newly-adopted Twitter chat group with former contestants, a sort of Valhalla for trivia losers that I cherished like a bunch of VFW buddies. Not to trivialize real physical or severe emotional trauma, but that group were among the only people in the world that had been through what I had, silly as it is to consider a fun day taping my favorite game show as an ordeal. In truth, the dissonance between what I was feeling and what I thought I should be feeling was the source of shame. Get over it, I told myself, but I couldn’t—this feeling was not rational, but it was extremely visceral. I don’t know how much of it was because I lost; I like to think that it’s only the extraordinary circumstances of being thrust into the spotlight only to have it removed forever.
These days I consider myself “retired” from trivia, half-jokingly though there is definitely a “competitive quizzing scene” that works as hard at this as anyone else does with pursuits they’re passionate about. On the night of my airing party, after most of my friends filed out, the brewery that hosted us had a regularly scheduled trivia night. A few of us, not ready for the night to end, entered a team. Our team name? “I lost on Jeopardy.” We came in second place.
See Corey Anotado’s excellent account—I enjoyed reading this account posted mere hours before my taping from the Culver Hotel: https://www.buzzerblog.com/2022/01/17/the-day-i-ate-a-sandwich-cracked-a-joke-and-lost-on-jeopardy-again/
See Zach Gozlan’s impressively obsessive quest to use data to improve his chances—something that you might expect from someone much less interesting and personable than Zach: https://zachgozlan.github.io/jeopardy-prep-work/
There is much discussion about buzzer technique and importance, particularly in Claire McNear’s book Answers in the Form of Questions. McNear is also responsible for uncovering the less than savory past of ex-producer Michael Richards who unceremoniously crowned himself successor to Alex Trebek over any number of other qualified potential hosts. We all love Claire.
Ciara is the twin sister of Kristin Donegan, who appeared days after my taping on the Jeopardy National College Championship and did very well before losing a tie-breaker semifinal game. Later, the twins’ mother would appear as a contestant in Season 39.
Amazingly, shortly before my taping day Jeopardy! executive producer Michael Davies announced a first-ever “Second Chance Tournament,” which allowed me to keep some hope alive but the results from other contestants during the season made it pretty clear I had no chance to be selected.
By 2017, the United States has become a totalitarian police state following a worldwide economic collapse and the recent election. - Wikipedia entry on
Jeopardy! The Running Man.
I count myself as very lucky, not to have been hit with a Daily Double that I blanked on that everyone thinks is easy, not to have made a wagering error in Final Jeopardy!, and not to have gone viral with an incorrect response deemed worthy of online ridicule. Others that I was close to during our taping week were not so lucky, and are immortalized in mocking headlines from The Sun and other rags of ill repute.
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