A Life in Jeopardy!

Ever dreamed of being on the brainy game show? Think you could sweep the board? Yeah, Ted B. Kissell did too.

On the other hand, when would the Jeopardy! crew come to Miami again? It might be another decade. Besides, Lionel had promised me that if I ever got on the show, he would help me prepare. "For my usual fee," he said. "Which is whatever you want to pay me." There also was an element of pride at work: I wanted to prove I could pass that dreaded test.

"Sure," I said. "What the hell. Let's do it."

Jen proceeded to the official Jeopardy! Website and signed up both of us for the tryout. Two days later a guy who introduced himself as "Grant from the game show Jeopardy!" called to confirm our test date, May 19. This meant we had about five weeks to prepare, which we did by watching the show every evening. We also stopped by Lionel's Miami Beach condo for some tips. "I'm not going to talk about betting strategy with you now," he sniffed. "You haven't even passed the test yet."

The author practices while his guru coaches
The author practices while his guru coaches
The author practices while his guru coaches
The author practices while his guru coaches

On the appointed morning, we showed up at the Wyndham Resort, on Miami Beach, both dressed to the nines -- as directed by the Jeopardy! staff. Before we could step inside the hotel, Lionel rolled up on his white beach-cruiser bicycle, wearing shorts and a T-shirt. He had a ratty-looking polyester bag of some kind slung over his back. It was light blue, with a faded, barely visible number 10 on it. "It's the gift bag from the tenth-anniversary tournament," he noted, sweat running into his eyebrows. I asked him why he had come, other than to wish us luck. "Oh, maybe I'll say hi to the contestant coordinators," he answered, "see if they remember me."

The three of us walked inside; a bellman directed us to the ballrooms straight down the marble-floored main hallway. There we joined a slowly growing pack of men in suits and ties, and the occasional woman. Almost everyone in the room looked like a lawyer to me -- except for the twitching, schvitzing poet with whom we'd arrived. A few of them engaged in nervous chitchat; Jen, Lionel, and I mostly just talked to one another. I took one last look at my blue invitation sheet to make sure everything was --

Holy shit! According to my paper, I was supposed to have taken the test at 9:00 a.m., not 11:00 a.m. I had read Jen's sheet and assumed we were both taking the test at the same time.

As is my wont, I began cursing myself for my carelessness. If I'd screwed up my shot to get on Jeopardy!, I would never forgive myself. Jen, as is her wont, tolerated my gratuitous self-flagellation for about nine seconds, then she shot me a look I recognized as meaning: Chill the fuck out. I did.

The contestant coordinator for our session was a diminutive woman named Suzanne Thurber, whom Lionel instantly recognized. I managed to keep from shaking as I handed her my invitation. She barely glanced at it. I moseyed right into the ballroom, my blood pressure slowly returning to normal.

The room was set up with dozens of rows of chairs facing a table flanked by two TV monitors. As Jen and I found our seats along with about 120 other aspirants, I saw Lionel talking with Thurber. As we settled in, Lionel stepped to the railing of the handicap-access ramp that led down into the room. Looking like a cross between a Third World dictator, a football coach, and a homeless guy, he entreated the assembled smarty-pants to kick some Jeopardy! butt. "Right now I still have the highest score of any player from Miami," he declared as Thurber politely shooed him toward the door. "It's only $35,000, and that's embarrassing. I know you can do better, so good luck!"

The test itself, a 50-question, fill-in-the-blank affair, was a blur. I honestly don't remember a single question. I do remember how I felt when the proctor called my name, though: somewhere between "I'm the king of the world!" (Who is Leonardo DiCaprio?) and "You like me, you really like me!" (Who is Sally Field?) About fifteen of us, a little more than ten percent, had passed. The Jeopardy! people were actually impressed by that showing, though they wouldn't tell anyone his or her score. Jen didn't pass -- missed it by one, we later figured out -- so she had to leave the room while the passers played a mock game.

This featured the coordinators holding up laminated cards and reading the questions. After the practice game, they took Polaroids of each of us, stapled the picture to forms that contained our vital stats, and then sent us out into the world to await their phone call, which might never come. Once you pass the test, it's just a casting decision.

"All right," Lionel declared when I reached him by phone that afternoon. "So when do we start studying?"

Immediately of course, but not before I plunged head first into the unabashedly brainy Jeopardy! subculture that flourishes on the Web. The recent monster success of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? notwithstanding, Jeopardy! remains the Everest of quiz shows, the one mountain that all intellectual showoffs hope to conquer.

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