Brain Bus and smart car photo courtest of Suze
Today marks the beginning of my sixth month of eligibility in my latest dip into the JEOPARDY! contestant pool.
Even though as a kid in the ’60s I’d been an avid fan of the original version with Art Fleming, and I’d been pretty successful in an intermural high-school version of a College Bowl-style game, I never tried out for JEOPARDY! until 1996, when I was visiting my brother in Los Angeles after writing my first book.
Back then you pretty much had to go to LA for the tryouts. I hadn’t had much opportunity to travel, and I don’t think I’d been in the area since I was a kid, even though my brother had been living there for a decade. So when I knew I was going down, I made a point of getting on the list for tryouts. At the appointed hour I drove to Sony Studios and assembled with my comrades-in-hope, they marched us through the lot to the JEOPARDY! stage, and we took a fifty-question-test. They played a series of “answers” on the monitors, you had a few seconds to write down your “question” (although it didn’t have to be in the form of a question, for brevity’s sake), and the next answer appeared. Then, for me, it was over, because as soon as they’d collected and graded the tests, I found I hadn’t made the cut. Fairly crushing after years of thinking that if I could just get down there to take the test that I’d get a chance to play some trial games on the real set.
Five or so years passed before I made another attempt. One year was mandatory, but the others were self-imposed. Maybe I wasn’t as smart — or as fast — as I’d once thought. Maybe I’d lost the edge that allowed me to win in one-against-four trivia contests in high school. That was bad, because with my wide-yet-shallow knowledge base, competitions of useless or at best semi-useful information were one of the few areas I felt in my own element.
I applied to JEOPARDY! a second time and flew to Los Angeles again. By then, they’d moved the tryouts out of the studio to a hotel ballroom. This time I passed the initial written test. I got to stand up with some other folks who’d made it through (including one guy who said it was his seventh tryout) and practice ringing in on the buzzers, as writers from the show conducted mock games. It didn’t go well, for me, at least. Bad responses, not remembering to call out my next pick, and — incredibly — being told to speak up. Usually people want me to tone it down. Supposedly, I made it into pool of potential contestants, but needless to say, I wasn’t called up.
2006 was, I believe, the first time they used an online test to do the initial screening of applicants from across the country simultaneously. Ken Jennings had drawn a lot of attention to JEOPARDY! at the end of 2004, and I got the impression that there were a lot more people trying out. The follow-ups were held regionally, and people from all over the Northwest who’d made it converged on the Westin hotel across the street from my old office in downtown Portland (Brad Hicks, Peter Sylwester, and could literally look into the windows of the rooms they used). Once again, I made the pool, but I think some continuing hitches in my mock game performance (and just the overwhelming odds of a lot of decent contestants) didn’t help.
I missed the early 2008 online test, and had sort of resigned myself to another holding pattern, but then there was an announcement last month that the JEOPARDY! Brain Bus was going to be at Chinook Winds Casino in Lincoln City. I committed to head down there, but was feeling increasingly foolish as the day approached. Everything I read about the Brain Bus road show mentioned that they gave a 10-question test to about 1,000 people, and that those who passed might get invited to California for secondary testing. Two-hour drive to Lincoln City, standing in line with a few hundred people (after all, how many people would make the drive that far?), and all for the chance to maybe take the test in California some day. It’s almost too sad to believe that I did it.
Stendahl the red and black smart car and I got on the road at 8, and we got down to Pacific City just after 10 (Barbara had more important things to do). The line already stretched from the side door of the casino near the Brain Bus down around the back of the building, so I crutched my way down. People just kept coming.
Because of the the “incident” in September, I was restricted from putting any weight on my left knee, so standing in line was a sort of yogic exercise, assuming your school of yoga included crutches. The door opened at 11, and the line started to move, but my line segment didn’t get inside until almost noon.
Where we discovered more line, snaking through the bingo hall/performance theater.
A couple of the JEOPARDY! Clue Crew were on the stage conducting mock games, giving out prizes, occasionally interrupting to let someone who had written a ditty to the tune of the show’s theme song (a contest of which I had been blissfully unaware) sing to entertain the crowd.
Then, finally, after about two-and-a-half hours of standing, it was time to sit down at the table. About thirty people were taking tests simultaneously, with each person given a sheet, filling it out, waiting for their score, then leaving to be replaced by the next person in line. A hole opened up for me, and naturally I took the wrong way around to the spot, having to crutch-sidle between the backs of a row of chairs and a railing. Intelligence test #1: FAIL. I was feeling ever more like this hadn’t been a good idea.
Then, as I was filling out my sheet — which took all of about two minutes, it’s that simple — I overheard one of the scorers telling another test-taker that they’d passed and that they would need to be at the Westin in Portland the next day. I started to feel a lot better. My own test got me a packet for the Westin, as well. I left the casino, looking around for Suze another smart car enthusiast, who’d had the bright idea that we should get pictures of “smart” cars with the “Brain” Bus, but we missed each other by minutes apparently, and since my camera battery was dead, her photo is what you see above.
The drive back home seemed a lot shorter than the drive out, despite more traffic and a brief stop to pick up a bag of killer hazelnuts for Barbara.
While we sat in the sun on the front steps that afternoon, our next-door neighbor stopped by. Naturally, the subject of my obsession/expedition came up. As we discussed the types of questions that come up on JEOPARDY!, he conjectured — being British — that they might be something along the lines of “Who won the Battle of Hastings in 1066?,” with the answer being “William the Bastard” (since “the Conqueror” was a title he won only after the battle). I had a laugh over that and agreed that, yes, it was precisely the level of question that could be expected.
The Sunday sessions at the Westin hotel — directly across Alder Street from where I had an office for three years — were staggered, and when I arrived one of the groups was already being processed. We’d been sent home the day before with a form for our contact information, which included space for several morsels of “interesting” personal information; the kinds of things that would be on Alex Trebek’s card in the contestant interview after the break in the JEOPARDY! round. After the first group was cleared out of the testing room, my group shuffled (or in my case, hopped) in and took our seats for a little presentation, chat, and then a fifty-question test similar to the first one I’d taken over a dozen years before: a simple sheet of paper with two columns and twenty-five lines, sequentially numbered. A video with the “answers” played on a monitor at the front, and we had eight seconds to write down the correct “question.”
The first item on the video was something like “He won the Battle of Hastings in 1066.” I had to stifle a laugh, and though I was tempted to write “William the Bastard,” I just stuck to the response that was more likely to get me through to the next phase.
Most of the questions were no problem, but there are always a group of them that end up blank or (most likely) wrong on the sheet. It’s just over six-and-a-half minutes; it goes by fairly fast. And just like that you’re passing your paper down the line just like in school again. Then it was a matter of waiting in our seats, getting some more entertainment from the staff until someone behind the scenes graded the quiz and decided who among the sixty or seventy of us got the chop.
Fourteen hundred people took the ten-question test at Chinook Winds on Saturday that weekend, we found out after the cut had been made. Of those, about one hundred forty were invited to take the fifty-question test. Nineteen of us made it past that screen to the point where we stood up in front of the staff and pretended we were in a mini-JEOPARDY! game. That’s a lot of work to winnow out a little more than one percent of a self-selected base of would-be players.
This time, I felt like the live test went well. Good questions, I remembered to keep things moving when I was supposed to pick a category, I kept my voice modulation up. I did it all standing on one leg because I was vain enough to lean my crutches to the side since they were videotaping the tryout. So I’ve been in the pool again for five out of the eighteen months they’ll keep me on file. Of course, they have several thousand names in that file at any one time, and only a couple hundred people a year go on the show between the Tournament of Champions, the Teen Tournament, any Celebrity Tournament that might run, etc. It’s still only a small chance that even if you make it as far as I have (three times now!) that you’ll get the call for an appearance on the show, where two out of three people every night are losers.
But I’m still hoping for that call.