Your RDA of Irony

My Epitaph

 January 26th could be remembered for the signing of the Treaty of Karlowitz or the birthday of Nicolae Ceausescu.  Of course, this day’s real historical significance occurred in 1987, when I played and won five games on Jeopardy!  This is the 20th anniversary of my claim to fame and, it seems a codger’s prerogative to bore you with the details.  Here is my game show memoir.


Although I am not quite ready for the tomb, I already have an epitaph. “He was on Jeopardy!” is how I am often introduced and usually remembered. At a wedding, the bride herself was introducing me to guests as a Jeopardy! champion. Being on the prestigious quiz show does have an undeniable glamour. People will gather around me, craving to hear about show biz, Alex and how much I won. I am also expected to live up to the intellectual image of Jeopardy!; everyone feels entitled to try stumping me with trivia questions.

Of course, I enjoy the attention and I certainly didn’t mind winning $80,000. My greatest pleasure, however, is a personal satisfaction. I love Jeopardy!, and it has held me spellbound for years, enticing and teasing me with one irresistible challenge: “Am I as smart as I think I am?”

Jeopardy! tests, taxes and occasionally confounds my intellectual pretensions. Each show confronts the viewer with 61 answers, and the exertion is to come up with the right questions. Consider this example: “This country is the most populous monarchy in Asia.” The correct response is–and remember to phrase it as a question–“What is Japan?”

The questions run the gamut of human knowledge. A typical Jeopardy! match might cover rock ‘n’ roll, presidential middle names, baseball, children’s television, inventions and famous Academy Award losers. If any subject is worth five coherent questions and can pass the censors, it would make a suitable category for Jeopardy!

Why would I want to submit myself to this intellectual gauntlet five times a week? First, it is therapeutic. After a typical day as a public relations writer, playing Jeopardy! is the only assurance that I still have a mind left.

Second, I am genuinely good at it. I have an unnatural aptitude for information. Do you know the name of the song that Major Strasser was bellowing in “Casablanca”? Do you even care? Evidently, I do: it is “Die Wacht am der Rhein.” I was born to be a Jeopardy! Jock.

My passion for Jeopardy! began 40 years ago. One summer day, a listless school boy was playing roulette with the television dial. Daytime programming offered me ample number of soap operas. A 12-year-old, however is not interested in adultery or detergent commercials; but with one more spin of the dial I found myself immersed in questions about history, movies, “colors of the map” (Greenland, Orange County) and 10 other topics that allowed me to test my wits against my vanity. I began watching Jeopardy! whenever I had the chance: on holidays, during vacations and as often as I could persuade my mother that I was too ill for school. The onslaught of puberty did not dilute my devotion. I was perfectly capable of thinking about both naked cheerleaders and the Punic Wars.

In the late ‘60s one went to college to “find yourself.” I found myself in front of the dorm television watching Jeopardy! I scheduled my classes so that I would never have to miss my obsession. There were others who shared my intellectual pallor and passion. We gathered Monday through Friday to shout answers at the television set. Among that shrieking intelligentsia, my voice was usually first, most frequent and loudest. My less envious rivals urged me to try out for the show. It was certainly a tantalizing thought, but I didn’t think that I was ready, yet. I intended to wait until I “grew up.”

Unfortunately, the show was cancelled before that happened. Jeopardy! became a memory, one of the great “if only’s” of my life. Because my theology does not include belief in resurrection or reincarnation, I did not expect a second chance. But, oh, ye of little faith.

Jeopardy! returned to the air and my life in 1984. The format had been updated from New York Talmudic to California Sly. The clues no longer appeared on sensibly priced cardboard. Now they were flashed electronically amid a barrage of neon. Whatever the show’s cosmetic changes, its intellectual allure was as seductive as ever, and I no longer was content to love Jeopardy! from afar.

I had to try out and in 1986 I did. My first step was to make a pilgrimage to Los Angeles. The show is based there, and it conducts contestant tests several times a week during the television season. On my date with destiny I found myself one of 43 aspiring contestants outside Merv Griffin studios in Hollywood. We were ushered in and then confronted with a 50 question test and a deadline of 13 minutes. As you would expect from Jeopardy! it was an eclectic inquisition, with topics including William McKinley, the Green Bay Packers and the Taj Mahal. Of the 43 initiates, only eight of us passed the test.

The survivors then underwent a simulation of the game. As we played, we were scrutinized and dissected by the production staff for “speed, accuracy and personality.” By personality it was meant that we projected our voices, seemed reasonably animated and actually enjoyed answering questions about Uriah the Hittite. Evidently, I was quite gleeful about Uriah; so were three others. The other four received perfunctory condolences and left.

I was a finalist. However, that did not guarantee my being on the show. There are twice as many finalists as contestants. In the words of the chief contestant coordinator, “We can call any of you, all of you or none of you.” The fate of the finalist is to buy an answering machine and wait. I spent five months dusting cobwebs from the telephone before Jeopardy! deigned to call.

The trip to Los Angeles was at my own expense but I was too infatuated to care. I had been told to bring along three changes of wardrobe. Although Jeopardy! tapes five shows a day, the fiction is devoutly maintained that each show is filmed on a different day. A victorious contestant has no time to savor triumph; you have 15 minutes to rush to the other end of the studio, change clothes and rush back. The frantic pace takes its toll. You can never look as good by the fifth game as you did in my first. In my case, my hair began to look like a very bad toupee.

I was one of 11 intellectual gladiators summoned to the show. A stage manager instructed us in the terrain and equipment of the set: where and when to walk, how and when to use the buzzer, how to speak into the microphone. We were at the studio for almost three hours before the staff was ready to trust three of us for the first taping. I was one of the three.

At this time we met Alex Trebek. Since you are eager to know, I will tell you: What is he really like? Even when the cameras are off, Alex is suave, clever and sly. He takes great pride in Jeopardy! and he understands that intellectual vanity rather than greed motivates the contestants. In fact, he seemed so much like a kindred soul that we were willing to overlook that he was so much better looking than the rest of us.

My first game began and I can recall every detail of it, including my nerves. (In a calm state, I would not identify Mexico as a European country.) Yet, somehow I won. My next four games are more of a blur. Without the benefit of my VCR, I would only remember the more obnoxious competitors. Although I did win five games, the maximum number permitted by the show, I was not some intellectual juggernaut, reducing my competition to tears or catatonia.

In one game, I actually was trailing in second place as we went into Final Jeopardy. The clue was “The century that the largest number of elements on the periodic table was discovered.” I didn’t know the answer but I could make an intelligent deduction. I assumed that it couldn’t be the 18th Century because Priestley was considered a genius for discovering oxygen, an element that everyone now takes for granted. Mendeleyev created the periodic table in the 19th Century, and I doubted that he had a number of blank spaces with the note: “Coming soon, an element near you.” I wrote down, “What is the 19th Century?” My two opponents, infatuated with 20th Century technology, picked that era. I was right.

As a five-time on Jeopardy!, I was invited to the annual Tournament of Champions, where the year’s 15 best players would compete for additional glory and a $100,000. As if I needed further incentive, the show now provided airfare and hotel accommodations. How did I prepare for the tournament? I didn’t. My more reckless admirers, most of whom were options traders, advised me to quite my job and spend months memorizing encyclopedias. That seemed a bit drastic. What I had yet to learn in a lifetime of reading, I was not likely to pick up in a few months of cramming. Furthermore, you cannot predict what you will be asked on Jeopardy! A clue could just as easily be about Howdy Doody as the French Revolution.

How did I do? I met my minimum standard for vanity. I won my quarter-final and semi-final games but I learned some humility in the finals. (Not really, I learned to hate Daily Doubles and not to wager $3000 on them.)

All in all, I have had a gratifying adventure on Jeopardy! My dream had been realized. Of course, dreams can recur. If Jeopardy! ever wants to have a tournament of now geriatric champs, I am available. Oh yes, I also available as a “phone-a-friend” for that other game show.

  1. SwanShadow says:

    Happy anniversary, Eugene!

    Rest assured that your “Jeopitaph” is worthy of the legendary status you’ve acquired. And of course, like most legendary figures, the stories get better with age!

  2. You have given me a gratifying eulogy to go with my epitaph.

    Thank you very much.


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