July 16, 2008
“What is Nerdvana?” Lifelong Fan Gets on Jeopardy
If you read last month’s installment, then you’ve probably already seen me come in second place to a research scientist from the National Institutes of Health, mostly because I didn’t wager enough on the Final Jeopardy question. But more about that in a minute.
Most of the contestants stay at the same hotel, which runs a shuttle on taping days. It’s pretty obvious who the competition is as you loiter in the lobby… slightly geeky people carrying garment bags tend to stand out. Jeopardy doesn’t tape every single day; rather, they tape five episodes on each working day, which covers an entire broadcast week. If you do the math, it takes 11 contestants to fill a single recording day. Unbeknownst to us newcomers, the previous day’s returning champion was among our group, but she was acting as though she was a newbie like the rest of us. The group consisted of the usual suspects, including lawyers, housewives, students, a college professor and a few other professional types, all of whom were surreptitiously trying to size up the competition. The chit-chat was friendly enough as we rode through the front gate at Sony Pictures Studios (which looks remarkably like the backlot area at Disney Hollywood Studios in Orlando, minus the rides and shops) and were escorted to the Green Room.
The show’s producers and contestant advisors are all very gregarious, outgoing people, and the morning was devoted to some paperwork, pep talks,and makeup. Gotta look beautiful for our public, you know. After what seemed like several hours in the Green Room, we got to walk out to the actual studio and play a practice round before the audience was in place. The studio is a lot smaller than you may imagine, with a seating capacity of only about 150 people. The contestant podiums are also closer to the big board than I thought, although it turns out that’s a good thing – the only place to read the question is on the monitor on the board itself, and if your eyesight isn’t very good, then you’d be at a considerable disadvantage. There is also a bank of dim lights that runs up either side of the question board, and your signal buttons only work when the lights are turned on by one of the judges seated off-camera. This keeps you from preemptively signaling on every question and cutting off Alex as he reads them.
Following our dry run, it was back to the Green Room while the audience took their seats and the first show’s contestants were selected. I have no idea how they determined the order, but two of our group were chosen to challenge the returning champ, whose cover was blown as soon as we all walked in and the producers greeted her like an old friend. For the contestants who are “on deck”, seats are provided in the audience, and you’ve never heard more whispering and muttering in your life. Without exception, we all were using the game in progress as a kind of cram session, with some people even mimicking thumb movements. The result of the first show (which is a total blur in my memory) was that the returning champ won again, and I was selected to man the third podium in the next game.
There are only about 10 minutes between shows on the set, during which time we went back to the Green Room to “powder our noses” in makeup and for the champ to change clothes. You may have wondered why so many people wear sweater vests or go without a necktie on Jeopardy – it’s because those are easy ways to alter your outfit in a short amount of time. Then, it was back to the stage to sign in and wait for the theme music.
You’re already aware of the question-and-answer part of the show, and I don’t remember very many of the questions anyway. In fact, I really only remember the ones I got wrong. What you may not know, though, is that there’s almost no way to keep track of your score while you play, which is why so many players (including me) don’t just keep their mouths shut instead of guessing. The show is also taped in real broadcast time, meaning that the breaks in the action are the same length as the commercial breaks you see at home. In between the rounds and prior to the meet-and-greet with Alex, this isn’t a big deal, but trying to assess how much to bet on the final question, based only on the category, is tough to do in just a few minutes. And as for the usually awkward personal interview portion, I can only say that the producers ask you to provide about four nuggets of personal information, one of which gets highlighted on the card that is provided to Alex. He, however, can choose whatever he wants to talk about, which is why I got to discuss my needlepoint in front of millions of people.
I was in a pretty fast second place going into the final round, and I had to face the dilemma that the challenger faces nearly every night – do I go for it and hope that the champ doesn’t know the answer, or do I assume that she’s pretty sharp and I’m unlikely to catch her? There are perils with both courses of action. If you swing for the fences and miss it, then you wind up in last. I figured that either we’d both know it, or we both wouldn’t and I couldn’t catch her. At this point, you become acutely aware of just how short three minutes is…while the home audience is watching ads for new cars and pharmaceuticals, you’ve got to assess how well you think you know the topic and guess what your opponents are going to do. My hope was (believe it or not) that all of us would miss the question – I assumed that the leader would bet nearly all of her money to ensure that she would beat me if I managed to double my score by getting the answer right. Had she done that, all I had to do was make sure that the third place contestant didn’t come from behind with a correct answer and edge us both out. If this seems complicated, try doing it on the fly for real money sometime. Anyway, my preliminary assumption was correct – we both knew the answer. Had we both done the confident, reasonable thing, she would have beaten me by just enough. In this case, though, we both did NOT do the confident, reasonable thing, since neither one of us thought we were going to get the answer right. We both bet conservatively, trying to ward off coming in last place. I’m only consoled by the fact that when the first and second place contestants both answer the question correctly, second place almost never overtakes first and so the outcome wasn’t a shock. That helps me sleep at night, actually.
And so, I narrowly missed a very big payday by trying not to lose instead of trying to win. There’s a lesson in there somewhere, I think. It was a lot harder to watch myself on Jeopardy than it was to actually play the game, though, because I already knew that the guy who looks just like me was going to miss his big opportunity. Still, I got $2,000 for second place, bragging rights over everyone I know and a (hopefully) interesting story to tell. If I had only guessed “The Exorcist” instead of “The Sting” Rats.