At least I'll always have this awesome pic!
Now then, moving on! Once again, I had the wonderful experience of flying out to sunny California to compete on the greatest game show in history! Only this time, it wouldn't be 15 fans of the show who had never played before. This time, it would be 3 of us who had one tournament under our belts and 12 others who had won at least 5 games (and in one case, 20!). One of the first things we were told was that the 15 of us had already won a combined total of over $2.2 million.
Obviously, I was there because things had worked out for me last time. I don't consider myself very superstitious, but I did try to do as much the same as possible. I carried around the Superman backpack my kids had given me last year. I ate dinner at the same place on Sunday and lunch at the same place on Monday as last time. I ordered room service for dinner on Monday night, just like last time. I hit the hot tub and got to bed early each night, like last time.
I didn't meet up with Weird Al Yankovic in the airport this time around, but I really couldn't control that one.
When Tuesday finally rolled around, and all of the preliminary work was over, I was SUPER happy to play in the Monday game. That meant I did not have to wait in the green room, anxiously awaiting my turn. Because of the wild card spots in the Quarterfinals round, players don't get to watch any games before the one they play in. Since the four top non-winners get to advance to the next round, it wouldn't be fair if players in later games already knew what mark they needed to reach in order to move on.
Last year, I played in the Thursday game, which meant I had to wait through three games AND the lunch break before finally getting to enter the studio. This time around, I was out there for every game.
The thing I was NOT super happy about was who I had been matched up with in the first round. I wasn't going to say anything at the time, but now that it's over, I can freely admit that Ben Ingram scared me more than any of the other tournament players. I knew going in they'd all be fierce, but Ben struck me as super-intelligent, fast on the buzzer, and quick with a correct answer. Oh, and he had never missed a Final Jeopardy response.
The really strange thing is that Ben and Rebecca and I had all played cards downstairs in the hotel lobby for a few hours on Monday afternoon. Someone had joked about how funny it would be if the three of us wound up playing in the same Quarterfinal match. You know when somebody asks you,
"Hey, wouldn't it be cool to pee on an electric fence?" - and you nod and grin crazily, but inside your head, you're thinking, "NO, that would NOT be cool, not at ALL!!" Yeah, that.
Anyway, as you now know, the three of us DID get put into the same game. At least it was the very first game, so I didn't have to deal with the Green Room sequestering like I did last year. I'd say we all played a pretty darn good game, albeit some of us better than others. Those boards were NOT easy. And not to spoil anything, but nothing about this whole tournament was easy. Several fellow contestants mentioned to me that they thought this was harder than anything they had ever seen on the show (excepting the recent Battle of the Decades), and I definitely agreed with them. I spent a LOT of time studying over the past year, and I really feel that hardly anything I studied came up -- not just in my game, but in the whole tourney! I don't think I'm alone in that thought, either!
I want to talk a little about two of the crucial moments of the match for me. The first being the Book to Movie Daily Double.
This is the one that I will always kick myself about. Of COURSE I know that Apocalypse Now is based on Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad. In fact, about 3 weeks before we taped the tournament, I was at a pub trivia night with some buddies, and the category "Documentaries about Movies" came up. Before a question had even been asked, I said to my friend, "If Hearts of Darkness is one of the questions, the answer is Apocalypse Now, because it's based on Heart of Darkness."
But a couple of things kept me from getting it on Jeopardy, at that crucial moment.
First, it's true what they say, there's a HUGE difference between answering questions on your couch or at a pub and answering clues under the bright lights in an actual game of Jeopardy. I felt like a deer in the headlights (and probably looked that way too) when that clue came up, and the response didn't occur to me right away.
Second, my train of thought was WAY off track. We had already seen one clue from that category, and it was about The Fault in Our Stars. The movie was based on the book by John Green. (I knew that one, but once again, Buzzer Ben beat me to the punch.) So my mind was absolutely fixated on the thought that they will name a movie, and I will say the author who wrote a book by that title. The whole "based on" concept was completely out of my mind. When Apocalypse Now came up, I immediately panicked because I had no idea who had written a book called Apocalypse Now. It wasn't on my books and authors list that I had spent so much time studying! I had never heard of a book titled Apocalypse Now, and I sure as heck couldn't think who would have authored it.
When Alex began to say that the movie was based on Heart of Darkness, I felt miserable, because if I had taken half a second to actually picture Marlon Brando from the movie and think about the riverboat cruise Sheen took to reach him, I could have put two and two together.
Oh, and lastly, I should mention that it took nearly 15 minutes to complete that Daily Double. Thanks to the magic of television and editing, my complete mental collapse appeared to happen in real time, in under 30 seconds, but in actuality, it was much, much longer than that. I have a new empathy for field goal kickers who get iced now.
When I hit that Daily Double, the show's producer walked on stage and halted the filming. The three of us playing had to turn around (in case something popped up on the board that we weren't supposed to see), while the judges debated some issue or the production team fixed some glitch (we don't really know; they never told us). Maggie, the contestant coordinator, talked with us the whole time, while we all went through various states of hyperventilating.
After 10-15 minutes, they asked us to turn around and get ready to start again. When they break in the middle of a round like that, they always cue the audio back a few seconds and replay it over the loudspeaker so Alex can come in at the correct point and make it as seamless a transition as possible. So as I stood nervously behind my podium, I heard myself select the clue again, then the Daily Double sound effect, then recorded audience clapping, then REAL audience clapping, as the show caught up with itself. Alex looked over at me and (again) asked how much I wanted to wager, and I once again started to say, "I'll bet it all!" -- but then production was halted AGAIN!
Something hadn't synced up correctly, so we didn't have to turn around for a long delay this time, but we did go through the whole recue the audio bit again. For a third time (and second out-of-body audio), I heard myself select the clue, the sound effect, the canned clapping, then the REAL clapping. By this time, I was as close to LITERALLY champing at the bit as can be imagined, I knew I needed to bet it all, and, quite frankly, I could hardly hear Alex over the canned and real clapping together. So if it appeared that I shouted, "BET IT ALL!" at him in the middle of his sentence, well, now you know why.
That's the one I should have known and just flat out blew. That will haunt me for some time. The other turning point was the Final Jeopardy. And that was just plain bad luck, pure and simple. The bad luck of getting a wide-open category and a clue that you don't know the answer to.
I got to see all five Quarter Final games that were filmed that day (they'll air over the course of the week), and of the five Final Jeopardy clues, I knew the response to FOUR of them. It was just bad luck that the one I did NOT know happened to be the one I was on stage for.
Just a bit about my thinking process. When the clue came up about Secretaries of State, I tried to think of the early guys. I knew that a lot of them were from Virginia. I was born in Virginia and have friends and family who still live there, and I was pretty sure I had never heard of a holiday named after those guys (many of whom went on to be president). I wandered the country for a bit while thinking of Sec States, and I finally fixated on James Blaine. His presidential slogan, "Blaine from Maine," went through my head on a loop until the Final Jeopardy think music stopped. I knew that in addition to presidential wannabe, Blaine had been Sec State for TWO different presidents, AND I thought that Maine was a small enough and sparsely enough populated state to have a state holiday named after him.
Seemed like a good enough guess, until Alex said the correct answer had made a significant purchase. At that point, I knew it was over for me.
Later, Keith Williams (A former champion who runs the Jeopardy-centric site The Final Wager) told me that he had been sitting with several other top Jeopardy champions from years past, including Brad Rutter, who did not know Alaska was the correct response. I owe a small debt to Keith, because our talk really helped me feel better about my game and less like a complete moron who flamed out. He told me that my fatal all-in bet was the right move and not an idiotic blunder of epic proportions, and he even used nicer words than that.
I really did have a good time in California. As was the case with the Teachers Tournament, I got to meet 15 great competitors who have a love of trivia and information (I say 15, because there was an alternate as well, Mike Lewis, and he was great to talk to). We were all genuinely happy for the person who won the whole thing (no spoilers), and a large group of us even went out to O'Brien's in Santa Monica after the final game for their epic pub trivia night.
Still, it took me quite some time to get over the feelings of not living up to expectations. I was super bummed that I had lost, and in the first round at that, especially by missing a big clue I should have known. In recent days, though, I've started looking at the tournament like the big March Madness tournament. There can only be one winner each year, but the other 67 teams are no less awesome for having made the tournament.
So in that regards, I now view myself as the "Duke" of Jeopardy. It's only fitting, right? Like Duke, I've won at least one tournament, and I've been bounced from the first round of at least one tourney. If I ever get the chance to play in another, who knows what might happen?
In the meantime, I'm laying the blame for my loss completely at the feet of Weird Al.
(Go Ben and Rebecca!!)