I was on Jeopardy!, and I was going to lose. Not only that, but it looked like I was going to lose epically, disastrously, as bad as Wolf Blitzer had, but even worse, because I wasn’t playing for charity. This had the potential to be one of the worst Jeopardy! performances of all time.
At the end of the first round, one of my opponents had a powerful $8,300. The other had $6,800. I was at $600. You don’t have to know anything about Jeopardy! to deduce that I was way behind, as I deserved to be, considering that I lost $1,000 on one clue in a category called Starts With G by answering “What is an artichoke?”
All of that preparation—months of clicking the Jeopardy! pen they had given me at my audition, rereading Shakespeare, studying the essential facts of botany and geology, learning about birthstones—meant nothing. I had trained like an elite athlete, doing two hours per day of power yoga, putting myself through a week-long juice cleanse, committing to a daily intention-setting meditation, losing 15 pounds. In late August of this year, when I got to the crummy West L.A. Doubletree where all the Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune contestants stay, I requested a high-floor room away from the elevators and not facing the highway. And here I was, about to lose.
Randomly, I drew the podium in the middle. To my right stood Matt Volk, a tall, dudely financial analyst from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who won the last two games, pulling in more than 35 grand. He knew a lot about sports and business and also answered tough questions about the rock band Bad Company and Spike TV’s The Joe Schmo Show. Mr. Volk took away my guy flank.
On my left was Loni Geerlings, a freelance editor from Redwood City, Calif., who had long, blond hair and a shy smile that the nerd perverts who watch Jeopardy! really liked on Twitter when the episode aired a month later. I wasn’t afraid of her because she was pretty. I was afraid of her because she knew everything about literature, effectively removing another one of my category wedges, and had plenty of science and pop culture to boot. She was super smart and fast on the buzzer, and she was destroying me. They both were. Oh, Gawker is going to have a field day with this. Or worse, they weren’t going to notice at all.
I didn’t want to lose. I had seen what happens to Jeopardy! losers. The day before, I sat in the studio, waiting for the independent accounting firm that determines such things to call my number, watching five games without being allowed to play, feeling my soul drain into the earth. As they lost, my fellow contestants were disgorged onto the Sony lot two by two like animals not being allowed onto the ark during the flood, their dreams crushed, mostly by a merciless 24-year-old Austin, Texas-based health care policy analyst named Jared Hall. The contestant coordinators, who had been so kind all day, said to them, “We called a cab to take you back to the hotel, but you have to pay for it.” The entertainment machine was done with them. I wasn’t ready for it to be done with me.
But it looked like I didn’t have a choice. We went to commercial. Host Alex Trebek said, “Neal has a lot of catching up to do as we head into Double Jeopardy!” I was going down hard.
My impending defeat was made all the more humiliating because, honestly, getting onto Jeopardy! had been easy for me. In January, a friend in Austin, who won a game in 2012, posted on his Facebook wall that the online test was coming up soon. I took the test without studying. Soon after, I got an email inviting me to a regional audition in San Antonio, Texas, an 80-mile drive from my house.
Most of the 30 other people in my audition group at that conference room in a Downtown Westin had flown in from places like Denver and Nebraska. This had been an actual financial commitment for them, whereas I’d gotten to sleep in my own bed, and my wife had driven me to San Antonio so I wouldn’t have to worry about finding a place to park. The contestant coordinators gave us a written test, which seemed pretty easy. Then we played a few minutes of a sample Jeopardy! game, which seemed a little harder. But I got in on the buzzer a few times, and, when they gave me a little advice about timing, I made the adjustment.
It didn’t occur to me that I wouldn’t get onto Jeopardy!. I had been reading trivia encyclopedias for 35 years and rarely finish out of the running at a pub quiz. My knowledge is an inch thick but a million miles wide. Besides, I knew I could be a relatively interesting character. I’d been on TV before. But being a contestant on a game show, particularly one that requires Olympic-level intellectual dexterity, is a whole different animal from a current-affairs panel on Chicago Tonight.
We went to commercial. The makeup lady dusted me, and the sound guy adjusted my mike. Someone raised and lowered the platforms that all of the contestants stand on to make it appear that we were the same height. My hands were shaking, and my brain clouded with a strange fog. The Jeopardy! clue board stood in front of me, seemingly 40 feet high. Mr. Trebek came up behind, put his arm around my shoulder and grimaced at the camera. Everyone, win or lose, gets a picture taken with Mr. Trebek, and that’s about the extent of our off-camera interaction. He hides behind a thick veil of inscrutability at all times, presiding over the show with a cruel objectivity, like the Old Testament God.
Mr. Trebek moved on. I gazed at the audience. There sat my parents. My mother looked like she was about to have a stroke.
One of the contestant coordinators approached.
“You’re having trouble with the buzzer,” he said.
“No kidding,” I said.
The first category had been about sports statistics. Mr. Volk had crushed me, because I couldn’t buzz in. I only got the $1,000 question about RBIs. Then came a category about literary spouses, where Ms. Geerlings had taken me down. I didn’t get a single answer.
“You’re hitting it too hard,” he said. He stood between me and Ms. Geerlings. “Press it softly,” he said. “About halfway.” I did. “Good,” he said. “Now look at me and only me. Listen to my voice. The moment I finish speaking, press the buzzer.”
“O.K.,” I said.
“This is the name of the president who appears on the 20-dollar bill,” he said. I pressed the buzzer. “This is the name of the president who appears on the 20-dollar bill.” Again, I pressed. We did this a half-dozen times. “That’s the rhythm,” he said. “That’s what you need to do.”
The second round started. It got worse. Mr. Volk and Ms. Geerlings each racked up another $1,000. I trailed by almost 10 large, and there were only 27 questions left.
What happened next had little to do with my indefatigable will to win and mostly to do with luck. I hadn’t gotten anything on a Movie Villains category. Mr. Trebek had seemed enthralled by Mr. Volk’s Dr. Evil imitation when he answered “What is Mini-Me?” on the $1,200 clue. Then came the $2,000 clue: “The villain in Galaxy Quest was named this in dishonor of film critic Andrew.” I didn’t know the name of the villain in Galaxy Quest. But I did know a much-hated film critic named Andrew. I buzzed in.
“What is Sarris?” I said, and suddenly I had $3,400 to my name. Moments later, I got a $1,600 clue.
Then came the moment of destiny. “4-Letter U.S. Cities for $2,000,” I said. The answer was the Daily Double.
“You’ve moved up handsomely,” Mr. Trebek, himself still very handsome well into his 70s, said to me.
I had no choice. “Let’s make it a true Daily Double, Alex,” I said. I really said it! On national TV!
The question read, simply: “It’s the biggest city on the Big Island.”
But the answer didn’t come to me immediately. “What is Oahu?” I said to myself, but I knew that wasn’t right, because Oahu isn’t a Hawaiian city. I thought “Maui” and then “Hana” but knew saying either of those would be my doom. I took a breath. “What is Hilo?” I said.
It was correct, I was up to 10 grand, and I was in the game the rest of the way. By the time the buzzer sounded, mercifully leaving two hidden clues in “Types Of Fishing,” I had $14,000. Mr. Volk had $12,800. Ms. Geerlings was at $12,000. This one would be close.
The Final Jeopardy category appeared: Newspapers.
I had worked as a newspaper reporter for 10 years. My freelance writing had appeared in lots of newspapers, including The New York Times. I was going to win Jeopardy!
And I did, because I knew the answer to the clue: “On July 23, 2013, this best-selling British tabloid respelled its name on its masthead to honor big British news.” I wrote down “What is The Sun?” So did Ms. Geerlings. She finished with $24,000. So did Mr. Volk. He had $25,000. But I had $26,000. I pumped my fist and raised my arms to the sky. And then I danced around a lot.
I was in the green room. I had less than 15 minutes to change my shirt, take a piss and get my pancake touched up.
“Man,” one of the contestant coordinators said to me, “I thought you were going down in flames.”
“No such luck,” I said. “I’m the motherfucking Jeopardy! champion!”
Yes, that was an obnoxious thing to say, but I was excited. Suddenly, people treated me differently. I was still just entertainment chattel, but at least I was winning chattel.
“Good job, champ,” the stage manager said to me, as I took the stage to defend my title.
“Way to go, champ,” someone else said.
The second game was just as nightmarish. I went up against a lawyer from Atlanta who knew everything and a roofing contractor from Pasadena who was no slouch himself. I shanked a Daily Double on a Mark Twain question and lost all my money. Then I lost another 4 grand on a movie quotes question when I guessed Some Like It Hot instead of Seven Brides For Seven Brothers. Still, I clawed back into contention. But then the judges took $1,600 away from me at the commercial break, because I said “fatigued” instead of “fatigue” for “Stars With an Antonym of,” a category so complicated it’s not even worth explaining.
The Final Jeopardy category was 20th-Century Names: “Since his 1988 death, he has been inducted into the U.S. Hockey, World Figure Skating & National Inventors Halls of Fame.” The answer came to me instantly: “Who is Zamboni?” My opponents didn’t know. So I won again.
We had a lunch break at the Sony commissary, giving me an extra hour and a half as Jeopardy! champion. I ate a sensible spinach salad with egg and a bowl of chicken soup, sitting there in a very good mood, surrounded by the other contestants from my pool who hadn’t yet gotten a chance. We regarded one another awkwardly, because by the end of the day we knew all but one of us would be Jeopardy! dead. The contestant coordinators kept us under very tight watch, sequestered more rigidly than a murder jury. It was a glorious hour. I think we talked about our favorite TV shows.
Then after lunch, I won again, pulling in another 14 grand-plus on the strength of my knowledge about military academies and Oscar-winning screenplays and despite blowing an easy Final Jeopardy question about the Web browser Firefox. Now I was a three-day cash winner, with a total of more than $60,000, and was technically eligible for the Tournament of Champions, the grail for all Jeopardy! players. One more win, and I had basically clinched a spot.
By the end of the day, the green room, which had been so full of hope at 8 a.m., now felt like a corpse-strewn battlefield. The fruit plate had shriveled, the coffeepots drained. Someone—not me—dropped a huge deuce in one of the toilets. The place stank like the sewers of Paris. If I survived game four, they’d have to fly me back on Monday, this time on the show’s nickel, and the whole process would start anew.
But I didn’t survive. I was beaten by Sarah Zucker, a 27-year-old screenwriter and Internet entrepreneur from Los Angeles. Even though I played well overall, I missed a Daily Double about the March Of Dimes and stupidly said, “Home of the World Champion Dodgers,” after answering a question about Dodger Stadium. Alex gave me credit, but he clearly wasn’t pleased. At that point, even though I was several thousand dollars ahead, I knew I wasn’t going to win.
Ms. Zucker, meanwhile, knew a lot about country music and Shakespeare and had gotten some buzzer-coaching of her own at the break. We went at each other hard, back and forth, like Rocky and Clubber Lang. On the last question of the second round, she nailed a Daily Double about bears, and I was behind her by just a little. Then I overbet on Final Jeopardy and got smoked on a tough European geography question. I was beaten by “What is Bratislava?” Ms. Zucker got it wrong, too, but she had more money than me at the end. My brief but glorious reign as Jeopardy! champion, which would last on TV from Sept. 24 to Sept. 27 but was really filmed in about five hours, had ended.
I walked onto the lot $62,798 richer, put on my sunglasses and greeted my parents, who immediately started kvetching about how hungry they were. The world didn’t know what had just happened to me, and it wouldn’t know for a month. But I knew that I’d won pretty big, enough to be considered a member of the Jeopardy! Hall of Fame.
I wasn’t one of the greatest champions of all time, but I was one of the pretty good ones. Not only that, I’d come into an amount of money that, while not exactly life-changing, was still as much as I make most years, a huge bonus, a great gift, possibly enough so that my wife and I might actually be able to put a down payment on a little house that we can call our own, all because I answered some trivia questions about David Hasselhoff on TV. It felt like a miracle.
Being on Jeopardy! was the most fulfilling experience of my life, the ultimate realization and validation of all my dreams. It was also like taking the LSATs at my bar mitzvah while on acid—a brief, distorted gaze into a nightmarish dystopian future where the few remaining educated North Americans are forced to battle one another intellectually, on television, for what amounts to a petty amount of money for all but the biggest winners. Jeopardy! is a beloved family institution that also happens to resemble a sinister melding of The Running Man and The Hunger Games, presided over by a grumpy, cologne-slathered Canadian warlord.
I really hope I get to play again someday.
Neal Pollack is the author of eight books, including Stretch: The Unlikely Making of a Yoga Dude, Jewball and Alternadad: The True Story of One Family’s Struggle to Raise a Cool Kid in America.