It's a strange thing, to walk among giants.
Some 2 years after my College Jeopardy! championship, I received a FedEx package in the mail from the show - a rather thin affair that I thought might contain a late birthday card and maybe a "Where Are They Now?" type questionnaire. For the most part I was vindicated, until I read one of the last questions on the sheet: "Would you be interested in appearing on Jeopardy! again?" I marked a resounding "Yes", but it was more out of default than any real anticipation. I mean, I love trivia. Playing Jeopardy! is like ultimate trivia. Forget the money, we're talking some mean competition here.
I didn't think much of it at the time - I even put off mailing back the form for over a month - and shortly thereafter I received a phone call from Bob Ettinger, one of the lovely production managers at the show, who asked me to clarify some of my answers. He finished our conversation with the very cryptic, "See you soon" - something I had no real intention of doing.
Until the package arrived.
As you have no doubt been watching Jeopardy! over the past few months, you have watched as Ken Jennings won 74 consecutive games on our regular show, breaking many long-held game show records along the way. Many people are asking us, 'Is Ken the best player ever?' and, more importantly, 'How would Ken do against some of the best players from the past?'
With that in mind, we would like to announce an Ultimate Tournament of Champions in which 145 of our best players from the past 21 years will come together to face off in a chance to win $2 million.
Whoa, whoa, whoa, timeout. How much?
That's what I thought you said. Okay, go on.
Please read the provided information, fill out the contestant application, and return it as soon as possible. Thanks and we hope to see you soon!
There's that phrase again. And in the blink of an eye, I was going back to the greatest game show of all time, to face off against the greatest champions of all time - to walk among giants.
A strange thing, indeed.
The last time I played regular Jeopardy! (in the 2003 Tournament of Champions) I got creamed and a half by a very smart and dapper businessman from Georgia named Alan Bailey. I sucked at the buzzer, the categories were awful (for me, anyway), and I guessed wrong a whole bunch of times. Alan, on the other hand, got all of the hard questions and took advantage of his one Daily Double to put me away for good. It was, needless to say, disheartening.
This time around I decided to study a bit more. I learned all the world capitals again (they've changed since the early 90s!) and re-read the Nobel Prize winners, the President bios, the periodic table, the Oscar nominees, everyone who died in 2004 - any list I could get my hand on. And, while I love you guys at e2, I defected for a while to Wikipedia, where said lists are standard for a lot of good topics.
I flew out to LA with a desk encyclopedia in my hand, my fiancee by my side, and frankly, not a lot of expectations. I had watched a few of the UTOC games which had already aired, and between you and me, I would've sucked on those, too. Occasionally they threw me a bone - "Actual MLB Announcer Quotes", "Wordplay", "The Supreme Court" - but for the most part I was screwed.
We arrived in town on the redeye at 9 AM and jumped on a tour bus of the City of Angels. We saw Venice Beach, Santa Monica, Rodeo Drive, and the Sunset Strip. The day we arrived (February 27) also happened to be Oscar night, and Hollywood was packed with limousines and gawkers. We took a few pictures ourselves, and we had a really fun time sightseeing - and not thinking about the game that lay ahead.
The next day we were even more ambitious and got up at 7 AM to bus ourselves off to Disneyland, where we had perhaps the best time ever in the history of mankind. From the Matterhorn to the Haunted Mansion to sitting on a park bench eating ice cream and people-watching, Courtney and I really enjoyed the atmosphere of the Happiest Place on Earth. When we got back that night, I didn't even bother to crack a book. It was do or die.
See, they trick you with compassion.
You get up at 6 AM, shower, shave, brush your teeth, put on your suit, and head downstairs to face thine enemy. And then you get on a small shuttle with 9 other people (mostly older white guys) and you introduce yourselves and then you start cracking wise and before long they are your friends and if you beat them, you are simply going to feel awful in the morning.
It's a mean trick, is what it is.
Quickly, I learned that unlike last time, these people were not simply very smart. These people had proven themselves on the Jeopardy! stage in ways I could only imagine. I had Bob Blake, a quiet, uneffacing Canadian actuary who at one time held the record for most cash winnings in a 5-game total and had won the 1990 Tournament of Champions; Eugene Finerman, a charming nebbish writer from Chicago who had beat one of the Jeopardy! legends, Frank Spangenberg, and had pretty much dominated the show in 1987; and Bill Sloan, a real estate agent with 5 big wins under his belt. You may be saying, "Who?" to yourself, but we're talking Ruth, Aaron, and Koufax here. The all-time greats.
And there were more of them waiting at the studio.
We got into hair and makeup (they airbrush us now!) and went out to shoot some promo material and make sure we looked good for camera. I got to meet all of the other lovely contestants, from two former teen champions to Bernie Cullen, who not only dominated on Jeopardy! but also sat in the hot seat and won $1 million on Who Wants to be A Millionaire?. Brad Plovan told me about his job at the IRS and his 100-year-old house; Tom Nichols told us the story of the lady who tried to psych him out before going on the air; and Pat Healy (a rather large and boisterous guy) gave us comic gold involving the two (!) Camaros he won on the show - "one for his left foot, and one for his right." That trick is a mean one indeed.
Now the format of this tournament is kind of complicated, so I'll just give it to you from my perspective, which is the same perspective for every other contestant.
It's a "win or go home" tournament with 145 players - no double elimination, no money winner backups, nothing. Ken Jennings gets a pass to the finals (more on that later), 9 randomly selected people get byes into Round 2, and we begin Round 1 with 135 players, or 45 matches.
If I win Round 1, I get $15,000 and a trip back to LA for Round 2.
(45 + 9 = 54 + 1)
If I win Round 2, I get $20,000 and Round 3.
(18 + 1)
For Round 3, $25,000 and Round 4.
(6 + 1)
Round 4 is a two-game cumulative match for basically a shot at the finals.
(2 + 1)
And the last round is a three-game slugfest against the other Round 4 winner and the stormin' Mormon himself, Mr. Cingular.
As you can imagine, this is a daunting task from every angle.
Finally, around noon, the shows begin to tape, and we all got to sit in the audience. Game one began, and within 2 minutes, I was in over my head. I knew exactly 1 of the first 6 questions before the contestants did, and they were flying through them like so many hot knives through butter. And then it got ugly. I managed to make myself feel better by knowing the lyrics to Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited" but that was about all.
By the time the game was over, I was literally shaking - both from the subzero temperature in the studio and my nerve-addled brain. The second game was called, and thankfully my name wasn't on it. I would've been a wreck.
After the third game, we took a break for lunch, and I was still waiting to play. It was down to 6 of us, and we chatted amongst ourselves at the studio cafe, recalling movies that made us cry, obscure Simpsons references that no one gets, and how we studied for the show. When we returned to the set, they called out the fourth game contestants - and I wasn't on the list. So now I knew I would be playing last, against Pat and Bernie.
It was about now that I began to hum The Doom Song to myself.
At the Jeopardy! forums, one bright person made reference to Alex's asking me if I played a lot of video games growing up. He called it the "Kyle Hale syndrome", as it earned me the nickname Buzzsaw and apparently put me in Alex's good grace. Buzzer skill is very important for Jeopardy! of course, and during the practice rehearsal I was really clicking well with the lights. I felt good about my chances with the signaling device - it was the material that was going to kill me.
The game started, and Pat beat me to some easy ones, but I caught back up with a bit of knowledge of my own. The categories themselves weren't overly difficult, and a few were right up my alley ("Toys & Games" and "Mixed Dog Breeds") so by the time the round was over, I was right in the thick of it with Pat - Bernie, surprisingly, was nowhere in sight, comparatively.
Round 1 Questions (Note: all questions are paraphrased, unless there's some specific wording within the clue)
The President Who Said ...
U.S. Capitals of the World
Toys & Games
I'm On Cloud "Nine"
Mixed Dog Breeds (anagrams of dog breed names)
Round 1 Scores:
First place at the break! I was freakin' ecstatic.
And in part I have e2 to thank for that.
When I first joined the site way back in 2002, I was a bit daunted by all the good articles and prose floating around. (I can't even imagine what a newbie today feels like.) I threw out a few brief articles on bands I liked, mostly because I could get by with a little less information than the normal thing. Finally, I decided I would make a splash and write about something I knew nothing about. I scanned the CRT and found ... Gerald Ford. Well, I knew just about jack about Jerry, and so I tackled him full on. Got me 3 C!s for my effort.
So when the "Presidents Who Said" category popped up "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe", I knew I had heard that before. The back of my mind compelled me to buzz in. And then I had a bit of time to think about it - out of the blue, it dawned on me! It was that Gerald Ford I had nodeshelled in order to expand on but never had! (You can actually watch me re-node this entire writeup in 2 seconds in the back of my mind on camera.)
And that's how e2 earned me $800. Anyway, on to Round 2, where the scores can really change ...
Round 2 Questions
Found in Space
Will & Disgrace
One facet of taping Jeopardy! is that the taping lasts exactly 30 minutes 95% of the time. The breaks between taping are exactly the same as the actual commercial breaks at home. During this time, Alex sometimes re-dubs an answer he stumbled over during the live game, but in general, he schmoozes with the studio audience, and the contestant coordinators and makeup artists come and fawn over us, telling us what a good job we're doing, to speak slower or louder or to smile more or whatever we're not doing right, fixing our tie and our hair and in general being the good cheerleaders they're paid to be.
Sometimes however, there is a technical glitch (usually with regards to Video Jeopardy! clues) and the taping takes a little while longer while everything is reset, recalibrated, and retested. Most of the time, they simply make the contestants face away from the board and the judges while all of this is going on. Other times, when the judges are making a ruling on a questionable or ambigious decision, they let the contestants meander over to some offstage chairs. It's very rare, but it seemingly happens more often at the championship level - a lot of times for honest ambiguity, but also because champions know that it only takes the minimum information to get a question right, and will often deliberately be coy with their answers. Notice what I did on my daily double in the second round - I knew the play was called Titus Andronicus, but I just said, "Who is Titus?" first, because I didn't know if Andronicus was his actual last name, or a Shakesperean nod that Titus was a man. Then they prompted me for more info, so I gave them the title.
This kind of feeling out leads to a lot of stoppages. So when they told us they were making a judgment call at the end of the break, I didn't think much of it at the time. Slowly 2 minutes turned into 5, and they offered us the chairs. Then 5 turned into 10.
10 into 20.
20 into 30.
30 into 45.
Finally, after nearly 45 minutes of waiting, they came and told us the news: Bernie's incorrect response of "shooting stars" was being ruled correct. In short, he was being awarded $3200 - enabling him to pass me for the lead.
I wasn't really sure what to do. After all, I had 90% known the Coriolanus question, but didn't buzz in in case I was wrong, which would've sent me down below Bernie for the lead. And Jeopardy! isn't played in a vacuum. For my refusal to buzz in, I was now in second place instead of tied for the lead - how ridiculous was that! I asked the contestant coordinator what the deal was about that, and they said, "the question came up, no one answered, it's done" - and that, as they say, is that.
To make matters worse, we had had 45 minutes to mull over the Final Jeopardy! category ("Historical Plays") and, while I knew very little historical plays not written by The Bard, I imagined Pat and Bernie were well-versed in at least studying those types of things and had a full repertoire ready to go by the time the answer was revealed.
In short, I was screwed.
A few years ago, a columnist for Slate revealed to the world what a few enlightened Jeopardy! players had already known: the 2/3 rule.
Basically, it is stated as such: The first-place player should always bet to outwager an all-in bet by the second place player by at least one dollar. In other words, the first-place player should bet by assuming they will get the question right. In fact, if the first player gets it right, the game's over. First place wins. Everybody go home.
But what happens if first player gets it wrong?
Well, it just so happens that if second place is within 2/3 of the total of 1st place, then an incorrect bet by first place means they're going to have less money than second place started with before the final round. So, for a second place player in this position, it is possible to bet an amount that, even if second place gets it wrong, they will still have more money than first place and will still win.
For example, if first-place has $10,000 and second-place has $8,000, first-place should bet $6,001 (to beat a doubled bet by second-place, $16,001 to $16,000.) If they get it wrong, they'll have $3,999 ($10,000 - $6,001.) So second place could bet as much as $4,000, and if they get it wrong, they still win ($8,000 - $4,000 = $4,000 over $3,999.)
Now, the only major problem with this is that second place is essentially at the mercy of the first place player. It doesn't matter if second place gets the answer right or wrong - if first place gets it right, game over; if not, second place wins. It is, needless to say, no fun to hinge your tournament fate on the premise that the guy next to you will get a question wrong.
But that's what I did, choosing to bet $2,001 (so if Bernie bet $0, and I got it right, I would win) as the absolute minimum. The answer came up:
"If I were to dress as a woman, they would think of me as a woman ... what would become of me?" is a line from this 1923 play
And I felt kind of good. It wasn't a Shakespeare play, so it was something at least a bit more esoteric. It was probably written by Eugene O'Neill or George Bernard Shaw (two outstanding men whose plays I have never read, seen, nor could hardly name), and well, I just didn't know it. It was out of my knowledge set, plain and simple. So I wrote down the only O'Neill play I could think of at the moment ("The Iceman Cometh"), knowing full well that wasn't right. Right after the bell, "Mourning Becomes Electra" popped into my mind - maybe that was it.
So Pat got it wrong, and I got it wrong, and it came down to Bernie, who wrote, "Some Like It Hot?" (my favorite Billy Wilder screenplay and film) and, sure enough, he had wagered a crap-ton of money. So I won by default - the 2/3 rule rides again! - and they even turned my $14,999 into an even $15,000 winnings.
Not too shabby for an hour's work.
So the next round has already been taped, and it airs April 13. I faced a Berkeley professor named Dan Melia and a New York pianist named Rick Knutsen. They were both very big, very funny, and about ten times nerdier than all of us put together. Hope you watch, thanks a lot,
PS Okay, so the torrent thing was bupkus. There are about 5 downloads remaining at http://s22.yousendit.com/d.aspx?id=39M39BGBZ6GHO21RVCY7L52KE2, and then maybe one of you will be kind enough to set up a torrent of it that actually works. I'm just saying.