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.

"Ted, you're in third place, select."

"'Former City Names' for $200, please."

"Byzantium."

Jeopardy! veteran Lionel Goldbart shares his wisdom
Photos by Steve Satterwhite
Jeopardy! veteran Lionel Goldbart shares his wisdom

Robin got in first. Of course.

"What is Constantinople?" she replied.

"No."

I buzzed in but I was rattled, amazed that Robin had missed -- the first incorrect answer by any of us in the game.

"Ted."

The seconds ticked down. Did they want the old name or the current name? Then I remembered that wonderful old swing tune They Might Be Giants covered a few years back. It's called, "Istanbul, Not Constantinople."

"What is Istanbul?"

I went for the $400 clue next.

"Tenochtitlán," Trebek said.

Then he said my name again.

"What is Mexico City?"

Got it.

Jeopardy! is often a game of streaks. The real key is to find a groove with the buzzer in a category that you have down cold. I sensed this might be happening. Was the tide turning? Was Hurricane Ted finally ready to roar? Might the good name of Miami's journalists be redeemed?

Nope.

Even though I knew the responses to the next three cities -- a combined total of $2400 in clues -- Charles beat me to the buzzer on all of them. The Robin and Charles Show continued. Robin nailed another Daily Double, this one for $2000. I was slipping to a distant third.

And then Trebek read the $1000 clue in "Foreign Words & Phrases."

"This rhyming Chinese word for acting in a servile manner literally means 'To knock one's head.' Ted."

"What is kowtow?"

"That's it."

Here is where I made my only real tactical error of the game; but it was a killer. I was in third place, more than $5000 behind little Robin. It was time to start fishing for that second Daily Double, which is nearly always at the bottom of the board. The way Robin was playing, I couldn't count on beating her to the buzzer, ever. But when you pick a Daily Double, there's no buzzing involved. The player in control of the board is the only one allowed to answer.

But I didn't go fish. Instead, inexplicably, I went to the top of the "Actors & Movie Roles" category. I answered the $400 clue but didn't know the $600. Charles got that one, then picked the $800 clue and uncovered that final Daily Double. He had $5700; Robin had $10,100. He needed to bet aggressively to get back in the game, and he did: $5000, which would have given him the lead.

The question: "The mysterious title character Ralph Fiennes played in this 1996 film was actually Hungarian."

A gimme. Who the hell hadn't seen The English Patient?

But Charles scrunched up his doughy face, hesitated, then offered, "What is Schindler's List?"

Double Doh!

Now I was in second place, and I knew there was enough money left on the board for me to get within striking distance of Robin for Final Jeopardy if I got on a late run.

Robin had other plans. She had led virtually the entire game and had missed only one question. Her buzzer technique was impeccable, her knowledge supreme, and she now showed another essential quality of a champion: an instinct for the jugular.

She proceeded to grab the $1000 clue in "Actors," then went to the mysterious "Yes, Mast-Er" category, which turned out to have a nautical theme. She ran the whole category, adding another $3000 to her lead and earning a round of stunned applause from the studio audience.

By the time she picked from the top of the "Woof!" category, it was all over. I saved a little face by nailing the $600 and $1000 clues. In fact I hadn't gotten a single question wrong. The problem was I'd only gotten the chance to answer thirteen. Charles's big gamble had left him with a paltry $900 heading into Final Jeopardy. I had $6300, a sum which, I couldn't help noting, would have given me the lead in several of the previous day's games and a chance to win in every one. The problem was that I was up against a human buzz saw. Robin had $14,500 to her name. In other words a 100-percent drama-free Final Jeopardy.

I emphasize that my final answer didn't matter, because I got it wrong. The category was "Sports Stars." The clue: "Born in 1980, this world-champion figure skater was named for a Beatles hit." To give you an idea how far in the tank I was, I actually thought, "Okay, so that would make her ... 29?" I couldn't think of any figure skaters named Jude or Eleanor Rigby (though "Ta-ra Li-pin-sky" works great as an alternate lyric for the latter song), so I gave up and wrote "Witt," because I always thought Katarina was kind of cute, for a communist. It was Michelle "Ma Belle" Kwan, of course. And of course only Robin got the right answer.

Robin bet $500, giving her an even $15,000 payday. I leaned over and shook her hand. Then we all filed out from behind our podiums to stand with Trebek, at which time our true heights were revealed. I may not have beaten her, but I proved to be at least a foot taller.

I then signed for my pretty-darn-nice consolation prize, a week's vacation in Banff, Canada, and hurried out the door, along with Jen, Charles, and his girlfriend. We could have stayed and watched Robin continue her run (not surprisingly, she went on to become a five-time champ) but I just wanted to get the hell out of there. My feelings were sort of confused. I was drained, a little excited still, kind of embarrassed. But mostly sad. The game had been fun. I realized that what I wanted, actually, was to play again, to bust into the studio, lean menacingly over Robin, look her dead in the eye and growl, "Two out of three!"

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