Discover more from Put Words Together. Make Meaning.
I'll take FAILURE for a Thousand...
Or I Lost on Jeopardy...Again
I had the opportunity to be a part of Jeopardy’s Second Chance Tournament, and my episode aired today, September 13.
My first appearance on the show was in the spring of 2021 with guest host Anderson Cooper, held under strict COVID protocols - no audience (so my husband had to wait back at the AirBnB), no green room, no makeup people, etc. I hadn’t had a haircut in months. I barely remember that game. I was so nervous, I shook the entire time I was at the podium. Although I may have looked composed on the outside, I can assure you that I was not. Not at all. The thing I remember most is the conversation I had (both on-air and between shots) with Anderson Cooper. He was funny and kind and human, and I needed that. And, although I played pretty well, I blanked on Final Jeopardy. (I was already retired at that point, but I remember thinking I should have never disbelieved a student that said they “knew it but just couldn’t remember.”) I came in third. I didn’t even win enough to cover the cost of the flights, the AirBnB, the meals in LA. Still, it was an achievement of a life-long dream to be on the show. A checked-off item on the bucket list.
I consoled myself with the numbers. Only about 4 percent of the original number of people who take the online test ever get onto the show. Pretty good stats. Something that most people, in their lifetime, won’t get to do. As my husband kept reminding me, a little like completing a marathon. Most people will never run one. (I’ve completed five.) It’s an achievement, no matter how slow you are or what place you finish.
Flash forward to two years later. I get a phone call from a Jeopardy producer (whose number I left in my contacts as a sort of souvenir). I am asked to participate in a second chance tournament, which I can hardly believe. Well, why not, I think? Maybe I’ll be less nervous. Maybe I can redeem myself. And who gets to go on Jeopardy more than once, other than winners? And this time, it would be the whole experience of a tournament. Airfare and hotel included! An audience! (My husband could be there!) Makeup! (This would be and probably will remain the one and only time in my life I have worn eyeliner…) A green room with other contestants to watch the matches backstage. All the things I hadn’t experienced last time. The structure of the day was similar - a whirlwind few hours of instructions, outfit checks, rehearsals where all the players got a chance to play a few warm up questions, rehearse with the buzzer, etc.
There were nine contestants - three first round games would produce three winners who would then tape a two-game final round. Yes, all five games for a week are taped in one day. You have to bring clothing changes in case you win for that reason. When I arrived and met the other contestants, I knew I was in trouble. This had nothing to do with the people in the room. Everyone was kind and friendly, excited to compete, cheering on the others, encouraging and calming to those who were nervous. (Raises hand.) But I felt clearly out of my league. Let me explain.
How did I prepare? Honestly, I didn’t. I did some review of the sciences and world geography (my weakest categories) and took some of the Jeopardy final question quizzes on Sporcle, but I knew that my 61 year old brain was NOT going to learn a whole plethora of new things in only a few weeks. But I soon discovered that several of the other contestants followed Jeopardy religiously (beyond watching the show), had been on multiple game shows, belonged to trivia leagues, entered crossword tournaments, were collegiate Quiz Bowl champions. They all knew about things like a Coryat score (I had never heard of it) and one person—-I still don’t know who—had a study packet the size of a ream of paper sitting on one of the tables.
So I decided to try not to pass out, to do my best, and to be bold. After all, the worst thing that could happen would be coming in third, which is no worse than the first time I played, right? (Well, not making final would be worse, but I didn’t think things would go that poorly…)
I watched the first two games from the green room with the other six players who were not on stage. We whooped and cheered and sympathized and enjoyed each other’s company. But then it was my turn and the nerves came on full force. I did well in the first round, getting both Daily Doubles correct and feeling pretty confident. (Not at first, though, because Hari nailed that terrible category about States of Congress. Wow.)
Double Jeopardy started well, but things got shaky with the Daily Doubles. Although I hit them both, I had one educated guess that was wrong (Milky Way when the answer was Starburst) and one terrible answer that was an example of what happens when nerves make you fixate on only ONE part of clue. (The novel titles category had a quote about looking down at a baby at the breast…I fixated on “breast” and could only think Steinbeck. The answer, of course, was The Scarlet Letter. That one will haunt me.)
After that, Matt took the lead, and mentally I faltered as soon as I heard Ken say, “And Matt has taken the lead.” My confidence plummeted. I mistakenly buzzed in on a question I had NO IDEA about (the Mexican city category) and had to guess. It was a terrible guess, and I was embarrassed, which threw me further into a nervous spiral. My legs were shaking behind the podium at that point. I recovered a bit, but was not as quick on the buzzer as I now doubted myself. Still, I was going into final with a chance. Then they revealed the category and my heart sank. ARTISTS.
Now, I’m pretty well-versed in art. Hell, I make art and visit museums every chance I get. But…ART was the category I had missed in Final Jeopardy in my first game, and I saw this as a sign that things were NOT going to go my way. And I was correct. I knew the answer, but not the ANSWER. Meaning, I knew exactly what sculpture the clue referred to, but could not pull up the name of the sculptor in 30 seconds for the life of me.
So, I wrote down a funny answer. One that showed I was on the right track but not quite there. (The clue was about the Statue of Liberty, but I could not recall the sculptor’s name.) I wrote “Who is Statue of Liberty guy?” It went over well with the audience, at least, and that laugh made me feel a bit better. After the show was over (congrats to Hari!), we had some conversation with Ken, I think for the sake of the audience, and then we were allowed to leave the stage.
I was trying to keep it together, but I just wanted to see my husband. I had to e-sign some papers and retrieve my extra clothes, get my little swag bag. It was the lunch break, but I was on the verge of tears and could not imagine putting on a brave face all afternoon, so I said my goodbyes to the staff and we did not stay for the afternoon taping. This was in no way sour grapes to the winning contestants. It had everything to do with my own disappointment in myself, to know I had been close, but had failed. AGAIN. I bet properly - if I would have known the answer to final, I would’ve passed Hari by one dollar. I played/wagered aggressively. But I missed the mark.
And I am okay with that. This is a GAME show, emphasis on game. It is not REAL jeopardy. Real jeopardy is an earthquake in Morocco. Fires in Hawaii. War in Ukraine. This is entertainment. It is an honor to have played twice, and a privilege that I was able to do so.
I used to always tell my students that all anyone can ask is that you do your best. And I did that. Was it good enough to be a winner? No. But I got to answer a question with my favorite candy bar (Kit-Kat), stun Ken Jennings that I knew who Dr. Dre was, and have a once in a lifetime experience. TWICE.
What is “awesome?”
Thanks for reading Put Words Together. Make Meaning.! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.