I Went On ‘Sports Jeopardy!’ And It Was Pretty Damn Fantastic

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From Crackle: Episode 11

I almost pulled a Cliff Clavin. That is, after all, part of the bloggers’ creed. If you can’t be successful, at least try to go viral.

It’s a terrible thing to draw a blank in Final Jeopardy!. Right when you need your brain the most, it deserts you in a moment of panic. And let me tell you something: that theme music you’ve known all your life sounds a bit different when you’re trying to find a solution to a very public problem. It almost sounds like it’s mocking you.

After 30 seconds of deliberation I decided to play it straight and write down a name I knew was incorrect, but at least showed a cursory knowledge of the topic.

So, I’m sorry, Reggie Jackson, for not remembering all your drink-stirring. It’s not you, it’s really me. If it makes you feel any better, I haven’t stopped thinking about how things could have been different.

* * *

I should probably start at the beginning.

For as long as I remember, I dreamed of appearing on Jeopardy! and having my own White Men Can’t Jump moment. I’d play along with the show, challenging everyone within ear shot, mostly without contest.

In my mind, I thought I was pretty good. In reality, I knew there wasn’t much chance to actually appear on the program. MENSA isn’t exactly begging for my membership. But at the same time, I enjoyed success at bar trivia nights and seemed to have an uncanny ability to remember obscure facts, good only, it seemed, for a game show.

I used to lament the fact all the clues weren’t based in sports. If only they’d have something called, like, Sports Jeopardy!, I dreamed. Then I’d show everyone.

It seemed like a pipe dream.

It wasn’t.

* * *
Honestly, it seemed too good to be true. And that’s just when I learned of the existence of a new show I’d dreamed of so long ago, hosted by one of my favorite sports personalities, Dan Patrick. Like 30,000 other people, I applied online to become a contestant.

I harbored no expectations.

Despite a career where I follow sports, and a home life which finds me staying up until 2 a.m. to watch lower-level Division I football, I’ve long known my sports knowledge pales in comparison to many. Hell, I’ve seen the way some people treat it as a religion, ascribing life and death importance to games played by other men.

What I did know, however, that pure acumen is only one factor in making a good contestant. I’d been lucky enough to root on a few friends who appeared on flagship Jeopardy!, and they told me book-learnin’ is only part of the equation.

So maybe, just maybe, I had a chance.

And then an email appeared in my inbox, informing me I’d been selected to tryout when the contestant search came to New York City. I have no idea how I made the cut. To this day, I think it was blind luck.

It was the first indication Jeopardy! works in mysterious ways.

The in-person portion of the tryout was held on a Sunday afternoon just north of Times Square. I arrived early and staked out a place outside the hotel ballroom where my fate would be decided. One by one, other hopefuls showed up.

It became quite clear there was no dress code. Some gentlemen sported suits. Other dudes wore football jerseys. Everyone seemed to have some sort of backpack with them, which immediately threw me off my game. Was I supposed to bring something? I didn’t even have a pen.

It seems odd to say, but it was at that point I felt the most nervous. Sandwiched between a man wearing a Tom Tupa New York Jets jersey and a guy carrying literally half of Bill James’ entire catalog, I felt wildly out of place.

What made me think I actually knew sports? What type of hubris made me think a few pieces of rote knowledge put me on par with these people?

I briefly considered packing up and leaving. It was a nice day and there’s plenty to do in the area.

My moments of self-doubt were interrupted by a tornado of energy emerging from the ballroom. Her name was Maggie and she spoke as if she had been mainlining coffee from sunrise. (Later she claimed she didn’t drink caffeine — one of the more dubious claims I’ve heard during my three decades on this planet.)

Between sporadic bursts of shouting and laughter she explained what would happen next. We were to find seats and take a 30-question sports quiz. The answers would be shown on a large video board up front and we’d have 8 seconds to write our questions on sheets of paper.

There were 100 of us at the tryout. Only 20 would make the cut into the interview portion of the pageant.

The premise was simple enough.

The answers, it would turn out, weren’t quite as straightforward.

They came fast and furious. There was no time to think. One either knew it or not. As I wrote down my question for No. 30, I took stock of what had just happened — and realized it wasn’t a total trainwreck.

I estimated I’d known 20 answers for sure, been fairly confident on two others, and taken wild stabs three more. The remaining five, I knew, had no chance.

The Clue Crew retreated to a different room to grade our quizzes. Comparing notes with the guy next to me, I found his numbers to be about the same. We wished each other luck knowing full well one of us, if not both, would probably be disappearing out into the Manhattan streets to lick our wounds and wonder what might have been.

Knowing only 20 names would be called, I braced.

Lo and behold, mine was the first out of Maggie’s mouth. Stunned, I managed a smile. The next name belonged to my neighbor, which must have spawned some suspicion. I swear: we did not cheat.

* * *

As the dejected masses made their way out of the room, those remaining breathed a sigh of relief. Those sighs turned to smiles as the Clue Crew walked us through the next step. We were to play practice games so they could get a sense of our skills and general on-camera comfort.

Now, to me, I thought the hard part was over. It was the test I was most worried about.

Playing Jeopardy! was something I’d trained for my whole life. Except this time I’d be doing it in reality, not in my head.

* * *

It’s a weird thing to hold one of the Jeopardy! buzzers in your hand. It’s something everyone has pretended to do, but precious few have actually done. The amount of reverence I had for the signaling device surprised me, but also served as reminder of the absurdity of the situation.

The practice games, in comparison to the written test, were fairly simple. I ascertained this portion was more about seeing our personalities than another measure of our sports knowledge. Everyone was pretty relaxed and, honestly, the hour breezed by. The Crew and producers conducted some informal interviews and took our headshots. Paperwork was distributed.

When we left, we all knew there was a chance we wouldn’t be called to Los Angeles to play. Personally, I left with a great feeling about how it had gone down. I told my wife I thought there was a 60 percent chance I’d get an invite.

Two weeks later, a call from a 310 area code confirmed it hadn’t all been a dream.

* * *

When people know you’re going to be on a game show, one question keeps coming up. They want to know if you’re studying. There’s a common misconception that Jeopardy! gives the categories out in advance. I’m here to tell you that’s simply not true. Outside of trying to keep one’s brain sharp, there is no way to prepare. Games are selected at random to make sure everyone is on equal footing.

The only thing I did in advance was to re-familiarize myself with some niche sports (thanks, Wikipedia) on the off chance I got a figure skating category.

A better use of my time would have been practicing buzzing in, but I’ll get to that later.

* * *

Sports Jeopardy! is filmed on the same lot as its big brother, Jeopardy!. 

We were briefed on the rules of the game and conducted a few practice games aimed at getting the deer-in-headlights look out of our eyes once filming began. This, I must say, was a fantastic idea.

Makeup was applied and an order was drawn. All I wanted was to not go first. I needed to see someone else play to get a sense of the game and to ease into the day.

Of course, my name was the first called. I was too self-absorbed to even hear who I’d be playing against.

As it turns out, it was Larry Salomon and Nikhil Ramakrishna, two cold-blooded assassins with tremendous buzzer skills. Thanks, Universe, for that pairing.

Walking on set felt surreal. The game board, which in reality is probably no more than 18-feet tall, looked like the Green Monster at Fenway Park. The studio audience looked massive, when in reality no more than 200 people were watching.

Oddly, this didn’t make me nervous. There was some sort of bizarre comfort in the familiarity. It didn’t matter that I’d only seen it on television.

Time slowed down, as it does in those moments in life requiring hyper focus.

* * *

The moment I selected the first answer, a calm came over me. Deep down, I still wanted to win. Closer to the surface, though, I knew I already had.

To be one of the 160 chosen from a pool of 30,000 — that was the hard part. The actual game was just icing on the cake.

In retrospect, I probably could have done better to not have this realization at that precise moment. If I hadn’t been so busy basking in the moment, I’d have listened to Patrick’s voice and, you know, actually been able to buzz in.

* * *

I thought I knew about awkward moments. God knows I’ve had a few. Getting locked in a bus bathroom on a seventh-grade field trip to Chicago. Failing my first road test in drivers’ training. Rooting for the Detroit Lions.

But none of these prepared me for the immediate terror and shame I felt when the first clue went unanswered. The tape will only show a few seconds of dead air, but in real time it felt closer to an hour. With it came the realization we not only let ourselves down, but we let down the show as well.

One of the unexpected things to happen was the sense of loyalty I felt toward the show. I wanted the game to be entertaining, for it to be fun to watch. What people watching at home don’t realize is that the contestants are responsible for the watchability of each episode.

Patrick, much like Trebek, is the consummate pro. His ability to entertain has been honed for decades. The three people on contestants row, however, are usually noobs. But they are the ones trusted to ensure the action is compelling.

It’s going to sound weird, but if I didn’t know the correct response for a particular clue, I wanted either Larry or Nikhil to answer it. Clearly, this was not in my best interests when it came to winning money. This is a very weird admission to make, especially for a competitive person but it speaks to the impeccable way we were treated from start to finish.

Everyone from the Clue Crew to the producers to Patrick to the makeup team to the people behind the scenes went out of their way to make sure we felt comfortable. The best way to describe it is like a very unromantic wedding day. Your every want and whim are attended to and in return all you have to do is look pretty and say a few words in front of a crowd of people.

It is not a bad tradeoff.

Now you may think I’m just saying all of this because I have to. And I can assure you I am not. If I had a terrible time or subjected to any type of annoyance, I’d let you know. I’ve already been on the show and received my prize money so it’s not like they’d have anything to hold over my head.

No, I’m saying all of this because these people deserve recognition for their professionalism.

* * *

As you can quickly deduce from watching the episode, both Nikhil and Larry were tremendous competitors. Before our game, the high score was somewhere around 17,000 points. It became quite clear that number would be bested by one, if not all three of us. This ratcheted up the intensity and, I think, made for some hot gameplay.

Now let me address my slow start. On many clues you can see me frantically attacking my buzzer, only to have someone else ring in first and get the points.

Ringing in, I found out, is as important — if not more — than actually having the right question. Here’s how it works:

After a clue is selected, the written words pop up on a video monitor. All three contestants scramble to read it as quickly as possible, but must wait for the host to read the prompt. When he’s done reading, the game board will flash to signify it’s safe to ring in.

Here’s a little secret: if you waited for that flash, you’d accrue zero dollars and never get to speak on the show. Instead, contestants must take an educated guess when the prompt will finish and ring in then. That’s not to say it’s not a skill. Learning Patrick’s cadence and how he’d read a clue was just another part of the game. I must give credit to my two competitors, who clearly figured out the timing before I did.

There was some terror that I wouldn’t get a single point. After about seven clues without participation, I began to feel pretty bad about myself. I was acutely aware of just how devastating it would be to post a zero or, God forbid, dip into negative integers and be ineligible for Final Jeopardy!.

Once I did get some points, I loosened up a bit but still lagged behind Larry and Nikhil. Luckily, I was able to snag a Daily Double shortly before the round ended and doubled up.

Something happened before Double Jeopardy!. I don’t have an explanation. Suddenly I pulled a Florida State and awoke from my slumber to get on a roll. Thanks to knowing a few state capitals and a more aggressive approach, I vaulted into second place and felt I had a real shot at challenging Nikhil.

Those two minutes where I got hot were amazing. I really felt like I was in a zone and was doing something special. If nothing else, I was redeeming myself for a slow start and proving, hey, I actually know a few things.

It’s extremely corny but I’ll keep that memory for the rest of my life.

* * *

OK, so that’s the good. Let’s address the bad. In this show, you’ll see me get a few questions wrong. Not only did these blunders thwart my chances of winning, they have stayed with me for four months as I waited for this to air.

I’ve really beat myself up over them, and wondered how things could have been different. But seeing the errors now, I realize they were made in the heat of the moment. So I don’t mind discussing them.

It’s tough to really explain the multitude of things going on during filming. There are 30 things to pay attention to, and actually playing the game sometimes gets lost. Clearly the competitors who are able to block everything out do the best. My inability to do that from the start contributed to my downfall.

This is a reason I think the defending champion has such an advantage. The second time around, the lights aren’t as bright and the experience isn’t as new. Familiarity, as it often does, eases the tension.

* * *

In addition to the incorrect responses, I made a strategical error down the stretch, holding off on ringing in because I wanted to stay within shouting distance of Nikhil. The worst thing I did was not ringing in on the penultimate clue.

It’s been more difficult to watch football this fall for fear the announcers say two little words. Two little words to describe what had always been a benign part of my life.

Chain gang.

I bristle whenever a first-down measurement is needed on the chance the color commentator uses this slang. Yes, it’s a weird affliction but that doesn’t make it any less real.

The worst part is, I did it to myself.

I should have rang in and guessed — especially because I knew the last Daily Double.

I’ve stewed on this a long time, even though I did blow Final Jeopardy. Seeing it on film actually helps. I think … I think I’m ready to move on.

After we shot this, I was asked how I did by hundreds of people. For legal reasons (I want my prize money), contestants aren’t allowed to give away the outcome of a show. Otherwise, who would watch?

What I would tell them is that I had a great time. And that’s the honest truth. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I’d gladly do again.

* * *

One last thing ….

Can I please tell you some facts about Reggie Jackson?

If you think you have what it takes to do better than I did on Sports Jeopardy!, register to become a contestant today. Then you can subject people to a 3,000-word blog post if you don’t win.