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I Lost on Jeopardy. Baby.

Me & Alex

Last week I celebrated the 15th anniversary of when I lost on Jeopardy.  Actually, technically, we taped the episode several weeks before that, but it was a Friday night in February 1996 when my humiliation (and retribution) became public, so I consider that the anniversary.

I have been watching Jeopardy! for as long as I can remember, and, being fiercely competitive, at 13 years old I made it one of my life goals to be a contestant.  At one point, I had the opportunity to take the test for the Teen Tournament, though I didn’t pass the first round.  But during my Junior year in college, on a sunny day in October, I skipped class and took the 3-4 hour train ride down to New York City for the College Tournament test.  I walked into the ballroom of a Midtown hotel and was shocked to see well over 100 other college kids waiting–at least twice the field from the Teen Tournament try out.  But I felt comfortable that I was familiar with how the test would work; I took a seat toward the front and got ready to go.  I was happily surprised when they called my name after the tests were scored, and I stayed in the ballroom with a group of about 10 or 11 other kids, while the other former-hopefuls filed out.  At this point we were administered a screen test.  There were no right or wrong answers–we just read questions from a screen about 10 feet away and pretended to use the buzzer to ring in, all while being video taped.  After about a half hour or more, we were told by the producers that they were still administering 15 other tests in 3 other cities as well as New York, and that we would hear from them again only if we were selected to be a contestant or alternate.

I took the train back to school satisfied, but then more than 6 weeks of waiting began while I heard nothing from the show.  Finally, on the last day of classes before exams and Christmas break, I checked my mailbox to find a large envelope with the Jeopardy! logo across it.  I ran up to my Japanese History class where 2 of my friends were waiting, bounded in, and we ripped open the envelope and screamed.  (Looking back, I think this was definitely the most exciting moment in the first 20 years of my life.)  The College Tournament would tape in L.A. over Christmas break.  My parents and youngest sister decided to accompany me, but my appearance in the tournament was almost thwarted by a freak snow storm that grounded all flights for two days.  Fortunately, there was one other contestant coming from D.C., and since the producers only had one alternate lined up, they realized they would have to wait for us.  We eventually made it to L.A., and they only had to delay taping our episode by one day.

The morning of our taping, they ushered me and the other girl from D.C. (Alex) into the Green Room where we met our third competitor, Bill.  A big guy from the University of Washington, he had thick glasses and a distracting crystal earring, and he cockily declared, “I’m originally from Seattle, so if Alt-Rock is a category, I’m gonna own it.”  We small talked for a while, agreed we all loved to play Trivial Pursuit (nerds), and I shared an anecdote that one of my friends’ strategies in Genus I Trivial Pursuit was that whenever she didn’t know an answer to a “Pink” question, she always guessed “Mae West” and like 30% of the time would be right (nerds).  After about 10-15 minutes, we were ushered into the studio.

It was smaller than it looks on TV, by far.  The lights were bright, so I couldn’t see my parents and sister in the audience.  I took great care in writing my name for my podium.  They told us we only had one shot at it–wouldn’t be able to erase it and rewrite–which was something that made me really nervous for some reason.  Then Alex Trebek walked out limping.  He made some comment about his back problems, but, not to worry, Bob Barker had given him a book called “Sex with Bad Backs.”  I found that shocking and perverted to say in front of us youngsters and immediately disliked him for it.  Bill chuckled.  Then the game began.

Bill got to choose the first category/question, because he was first alphabetically.  When they unveiled each of the categories, my jaw dropped when I saw “Alternative Rock” come up as one, and I looked over to Bill who gave an excited little swagger.  (People ALWAYS ask me if contestants get the categories ahead of time, and they don’t.  To my knowledge, this was pure coincidence.)  Excitedly, Bill started off, “I’ll take ‘Alternative Rock’ for $100, please, Alex.”  The ‘answer’ appeared, and it was an easy one: something about a group with front-man Michael Stipe.  I rang in.  “What is R.E.M.?”  “That’s correct.”  BAM!  It felt good to be first out of the gate.  I took it over to “Children’s Literature.”  Bill beat me in on this question and headed back to “Alternative Rock” for $200.  Again, I rang in first.  “What is Pearl Jam?”  Correct.  Elated, I looked over at Bill and gave him a look that could only say, “Oh yeah!  Who’s from Seattle now, bitch?!”

That might have been my first mistake.  As I went back to Alt-Rock for $300, Bill started to hit his groove.  He ran the rest of that category and continued to work his way through most of the board.  I got in a couple more right answers, and the third contestant, Alex, was virtually silent.  I soon realized that all three of us clearly knew the answer to all of the questions, but Bill just kept beating us on the buzzer.  (Later Bill would tell me that, instead of watching for the light to go off that indicated we could ring in, he would listen for Trebek to say the 2nd to last syllable of each question, and that’s when he would react.  Smart strategy.)

At the end of the first round, I was in 2nd place, but trailing by a decent amount.  We paused for the contestant introductions.  I went first.  I was pretty sure what Trebek would ask me about, because we filled out questionnaires during the original screen test.  Sure enough, he said, “Rachel, it says here you’ve been to every continent except Antarctica,” I took a deep breath, about to launch into my prepared answer, but then he threw me with, “you seem rather young to have done that?”  In later years, a job-interview-prepared and media-trained Rachel would have continued with her canned answer, carefully side-stepping the actual question.  Instead, the 20 year old me stammered, “um, yeah, my family likes to take a big vacation every year…it’s really great.”  Total spoiled valley girl.  It got worse.  Trebek asked what was my favorite place I had been to, and I answered (still in a strange valley girl voice that I swear is not my own), “Africa.  Definitely.  Botswana.  Zimbabwe.  Incredible,” as I weirdly nodded my head with each word.  (My friends still make fun of that part of the performance most to this day.)

So we continued into Double Jeopardy, and since I had come to the realization that Bill was sitting on the buzzer, I switched gears and focused solely on ringing in.  “I’ve known all the answers so far,” I told myself, “if I just ring in, I’ll have plenty of time to read the question and still respond correctly.”  That was mistake number two.  When I did ring in next, I was only vaguely aware of the category (“Poles”), and I sped through the question, “although elected president in 1990…yadda, yadda, yadda…he had been arrested in the ’80s.”  Disoriented and under pressure for time, I answered “Who is Bill Clinton?”  Trebek didn’t say, “no, sorry, that is incorrect.”  He GUFFAWED.  And it caused the entire studio audience (minus my parents and sister, I hope) to join him in laughing at me.  I realized my mistake even before I registered the laughter.  (1990 as the election year tipped me off.  Frankly, I don’t think it’s THAT ridiculous to think Bill Clinton might have been arrested in the ’80s.)  As I realized I was wrong, on instinct, I hit my head and quietly said, “doh.”  This produced even more laughter.  Then Bill rang in, looked over at me, and, still chuckling, said, “ha, ha, who’s Lech Walesa?”

A couple questions later I picked myself back up.  “This date is Florence Henderson’s birthday, so you might want to give her a heart-shaped card.”  Lay-up.  I rang in.  “What is February 14th?”  (This is the moment of which my mom says she was most proud.)  I picked myself up from embarrassment and got back in the game.  Of course “back in the game” wass relative.  Bill was still master of the buzzer, tearing through the questions.  He hit on a Daily Double in the category “Poles.”  Something about a female Polish-born physicist winning the Nobel Prize.  (Marie Curie.)  Bill shook his head, making it clear that he just couldn’t come up with the answer and threw out a wild guess.  “Who is Mae West?”  He winked at me.  I didn’t find it cute.  Trebek chuckled and said, “Ha, ha, ha, no that is incorrect.  It’s almost as good as Rachel’s ‘Bill Clinton’ answer!”  More laughter ensued.  That’s when it became personal.

I think I got one more correct answer in before Double Jeopardy ended and we moved in to Final Jeopardy.  The category was “Actors and Actresses.”  The ‘answer’ popped up:  “This actor’s name is Hawaiian for ‘cool breeze blows over the mountains.’”  Doodoodoodoo, doodoodoo….  The jingle started.  The first thought that popped into my head was “Don Ho,” but I knew this was wrong and I dismissed it.  I considered something for a few seconds, then smiled to myself and took a deep breath.  I very deliberately wrote down my answer.  I looked over at the other two and knew they were struggling for an answer.  I leaned back satisfied.

The game at this point was such a runaway, it didn’t even matter if I had the right or wrong answer.  I smiled and shook my head when Trebek came to me.  He revealed my answer and read aloud, “‘Who is Jo Momma?’  OK.”  The audience laughed, but the joke was on him.  Trebek stood there dumbfounded, as the nuances of a “your mother” joke soared over his head.  (For the record, the correct response was Keanu Reeves.)

that's "Bill" - far right, back row

About 6 weeks later, on a Friday night in February, I sat in the crowded Tap Room at the Colgate Inn, where all my friends and other curious students assembled to watch my appearance.  I had tried hard to keep the whole experience a surprise, so everyone cheered when I got answers right, booed at Trebek when he made fun of me, and my Final Jeopardy answer solicited surprised laughter and high fives.  I realized that, at a school like Colgate, a performance like the one I gave garnered far more appreciation and respect than a straight-up win would have.  (Maybe not from faculty and administration, but from my classmates at least.)  For that I felt thankful.

Despite the ups and downs, I wouldn’t change a second about my experience on Jeopardy.  It taught me three of my most important life lessons: to always be willing to laugh at myself; to never again cut my hair in a bob above chin length; and to not be afraid of failure, because some of life’s most embarrassing failures make the best cocktail party stories.

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