Playing the Game

A Year of Jeopardy!—Part Two

I had taken my place at the center podium, P.J. to my left and the returning champion, George, to my right. Johnny Gilbert had warmed up the audience and the director called for starting the show. Up came the lights and that famous music, and Johnny’s voice intoned, “This is Jeopardy!” He introduced us, and then Alex Trebek. Alex welcomed the two new contestants and returning champion George, and the game was underway. There is no need at this point to recount the full details of the game to you. In my last post I mentioned the J! Archive, a website dedicated to Jeopardy! Among its features is a record of every game in the 33 seasons of Alex Trebek’s hosting the show. You’ll find my debut game here, with all the details ones needs to reconstruct the play. You’ll note that each clue has a number in its top right corner, indicating the order in which the clues were selected. Clicking on the clue will give you the correct response, as well as tell you who offered a response and whether they were right. You can even replay the game, as if you were watching it on TV, by selecting “Toggle game style” in the menu bar above the game board. Go ahead and give it a try! Your ability to do this should tell you that as there are sports statisticians who track every player in every professional and college sport, likewise there are Jeopardy! statisticians.

J! Archive is a work of love by those statisticians/archivists, and if you scroll to the bottom of the help page you’ll find their names. Among the founding archivists are Kenneth Jennings, Jr., father of Ken Jennings, the record-setting 74-game winner. Another founding archivist is Andy Saunders, also known as The Jeopardy Fan, and the proprietor of his namesake website. There, Andy tracks games in nearly real-time, compiles player statistics, calculates the likelihood of contestant success, and provides news about the show. He also hosts a video podcast with contestants, and I’ll say a little more about that in my next post.

Now that you know how to replay my game, I’ll comment on a few of the clues. At the start of the Jeopardy! round I was excited to see the “Marine Life” category; this was because I was fascinated with fish when I was growing up in South Florida. In fact, I had planned to become a marine biologist before I changed my mind and decided to study law. What a thrill it would have been to run the category. Of course, anybody familiar with the show understands that knowing the answer to a clue is only half the battle. To earn the opportunity to offer the response, one had to be the first to “ring in” with the signaling device. And the show has an ingenious way to keep players from simply leaning on the button while Alex reads the clue. Off-stage a staffer keeps the devices locked until Alex finishes, and then releases the lock-out. Contestants see a light at the bottom of the board and know they can ring in; if a contestant tries ringing in before that happens, the device is locked out for 1/4 of a second. Just as Wayne Gretzky famously said that he “skated to where the puck would be,” really great Jeopardy! contestants get in sync with Alex’s cadence and begin their button push fractions of a second before the lockout ends. I was not one of those players, so I did not get all the opportunities I had wanted on the clues that were surefire ones.

In fact, during one of the Q&A sessions during breaks in the taping, Alex remarked that he felt players his age were at a disadvantage when playing against younger players, because younger ones have better reflexes. Though I am somewhat younger than is Alex Trebek, I was by far the oldest player during my two games, and I’d have to say that I agree with Alex. Part of the preparation of any player who wants to do well at the game is to practice ringing in while watching the show on TV. I did this for a couple of weeks before my taping, and while I did not become great at it, I do think doing so helped me.

In addition to the marine life clues, and my particularly fortunate choice of a Daily Double on “krill,” the $600 and $800 clues in “Women of Note” were in my wheelhouse. Justice Sandra Sotomayor, of course, because I’m in the law, and Hedy Lamarr, not only because of the hint to the Harvey Korman character in “Blazing Saddles,” but because I managed computing technology for most of the past 25 years and it is well-known to that community that Lamarr patented the channel shifting technology used in both cell phones and WiFi.

After the first few minutes of play, Alex interviews the players. We provide facts to the producers prior to the show, and Alex chooses among five facts provided by each player in asking his questions. Mine was the circumstances of how my then future wife, Lisa, knew I really liked her — I had given her a bumper sticker from my unsuccessful 1973 run for Hialeah city council. We resumed play, and at the end of the first round I was leading by $700.

One thing I miss about the original show was that at the beginning of the Double Jeopardy! round, host Art Fleming would say, “It’s time to play Double Jeopardy, where the amounts are doubled, and anything can happen!” After a break of a couple of minutes, we started the round. My most memorable clue, and miss, of the game was my blurting out “Cyrano de Bergerac” to the $2000 clue in “The Playwright Writes” because I blanked on Rostand’s name. But I would have a more embarrassing miss in the next game.

At the end of the round, our scores were George in the lead with $10,400, me in second with $8,500, and P.J. close behind in third with $8,000. The Final Jeopardy! category was announced as “British Pop Music,” and we broke to consider our wagers. Although we do not have calculators, contestants are given pencil and scrap paper, and we pretty much have all the time we need to figure out our wagers. We’re also told which interrogative preposition is best suited to the clue, and we write it down right away, so no one on Final Jeopardy should fail to answer in the form of a question.

One can do a lot of studying on Jeopardy! wagering strategy. Several of the terms in the J! Archive glossary discuss particular situations, and are based on expressions of mathematical rules that can help one wager intelligently. I had done a little studying ahead of time, but I was by no means an expert at the wager. In this case, I figured that two young men might know quite a bit about the category, so I assumed they would both get it right. I knew that I could not cover George’s bet if he were to be correct, so I decided to cover P.J.’s and cross my fingers that George would get it wrong.

We placed our wagers into the scoring system, and the round began. “This song released on July 11, 1969 to coincide with the Apollo 11 mission was used in the BBC’s coverage of the Moon landing.” While I was watching television that night, and I knew for sure that neither George nor P.J. had been, our bets were locked in, and besides, that was before ubiquitous cable television and BBC America. I had no first-hand knowledge of what the network had played, so I made an educated guess. The first thing I thought of was Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” but I knew that his first hit was “Your Song” and that was released after I had finished high school in 1971. Then Bowie popped into mind, and I had to work my way past the lyrics – “Ground Control to Major Tom” – to remember the title, “Space Oddity,” a parody of the title of one of my favorite films, “2001: A Space Odyssey.” I finished writing it in the nick of time.

In the end, P.J. and I were right, and covering his bet by $1.00 put me in a winning position if George were wrong and bet to cover mine. He had begun writing “Space Oddity,” but changed his mind and answered “All You Need Is Love.” I was champion! During the wrap-up when the contestants are chatting with Alex, I started singing from the song. Next, I was hurried off stage to change clothes for the Friday taping, the last one of the day.

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