Adam's run for Jeopardy!

Audition #3!
Jul 1, 2015

So I auditioned for Jeopardy! again. This is the third time I've been invited to the in-person audition after completing the online test. When the e-mail came and said that I was scheduled for another tryout, I honestly couldn't remember what city I'd put down on the form and was worried that it was on the wrong side of the country from where I'd hoped to be vacationing over the summer. Thankfully, the location was Kansas City on July 1. Danyel and I had already planned on driving out to Rocky Mountain National Park for their centennial celebration and then over to Utah to visit the Grand Circle of National Parks before heading to Las Vegas for the PowerSchool User Group National Conference. As an 11-month employee, my annual vacation begins on July 1, and we could surely be to Kansas City by 3:00 on that date.

I'd like to say the leadup to this vacation was smooth, but it was not. Several projects at work were delayed for various reasons and needed lots of hours in those last few days. Also, I had two chapters of my dissertation due to a professor right in the middle of this, so there were some long days and late nights toward the end of June. In the end, most of what needed to happen got done, and the remaining pieces could be finished from the road. I didn't exactly go into this audition well-rested and feeling super optimistic about the whole deal, but I also wasn't thinking about it constantly and worrying about how I'd do. I'm not sure if that makes it net negative or positive.

We left home in the early evening on June 30 and drove to Moline to stay with Danyel's grandparents. We were able to get a good night's sleep before the longer drive on the 1st. We woke up early in the morning and hit the road for Kansas City. I spent quite a bit of time on the laptop during the drive, which was good. I was able to get some last-minute work done, and I was able to keep my mind off of the audition. There is a tendency for me to be a spazz about these kinds of events, and while I wouldn't say my nerves have gotten the best of me, I know I could have done better in the past if I were calmer going into the audition.

We made it to the Kansas City Westin with about a half hour to spare. I did the last lookover of my remaining dissertation chapter and fired it off to my professor. It was now time to do this.

I bid Danyel goodbye at the hotel entrance, and she began her search for a Panera at which to sit and read. I had sort of let the last few minutes get away from me, and I found myself hurrying up the stairs to try and find the room. The hotels have been pretty poor at putting out signs or even acknowledging that Jeopardy! auditions are taking place, and Kansas City was no exception. The Westin is one of those hotels where you walk in, and the front desk is nowhere to be found. You might as well hit the elevator and start pushing all the buttons and hope that you end up on a floor where somebody knows something. Fortunately, after I plowed past the lobby (and I use that term loosely, as lobbies are usually helpful places full of information), I found one of those scrolling monitors that lists the day's activities and their locations. Jeopardy search: Shawnee Room. What wing of the hotel? No idea. How about what floor? There wasn't even a map of the place nearby. Even the NIU Library, one of my favorite mazes in the world, has maps all over.

I went up a flight of stairs and saw a sign that had Shawnee and an arrow on it. Now we're getting somewhere. When I found the room, it was already packed with Jeopardy! hopefuls. It looked like I was about the last person to arrive. There was a sign above the table outside the room that said to take a couple of sheets of paper and a cardboard and to go into the room. I walked in, and they were taking some of the last instant photos of us. Maggie actually had the camera this time, so I made my way over to her, said it was nice to see her again, and she took my picture. It was again the Say Cheese and Die Camera. Maggie said it was good to see me too, and she commented on my beard. I have no idea if she actually remembers me from the other two auditions in Chicago and Detroit, but the important thing is that she liked my beard.#winning

There were only a few seats left in the room. This was the biggest group I'd seen at an audition by far, and there were more people from Sony Pictures Entertainment than in past auditions. We soon found out why, as a woman named Lori sort of scanned the room and asked a few people to move from one side to the other. It soon became clear by how they were talking that they were going to split us into two rooms. After a quick, energetic introduction, 18 of us left our seats and went next door to do the three phases of the audition. Thankfully, Maggie went with my group to the other room. I'm not sure what I would have done with myself had she not been the person running the show for my group. We were handed out official Jeopardy! pens that we used as test buzzers. They make a great clicking sound and are roughly the same size as the buzzers used on the game show, so they are pretty great for this. Lori also gave us a set of lightweight earbud headphones in a little Jeopardy! drawstring bag. She introduced us to the question format, how to pick from the categories, and, the lockout buzzer system. Some people have a really hard time with the concept of a lockout buzzer. These people are ridiculous. You can't buzz in until the question is finished. As Maggie is reading questions off of the board, you hear people start clicking their pens before she's even halfway done. It happens at every audition, and repeatedly. Finally, she starts reading questions and asking for hands to go up from people who think they know the answer. These are pretty typical questions from the show, so I knew some and didn't know some others. People raise their hands and forget to phrase their response in the form of a question. Some people raise their hands and give answers so softly that they can barely be heard. She said they'd been in Kansas City for going on five days, and this was the end of a three-week road trip, so I'm sure she was pretty punchy and had seen it all. I was again in the front row and laughed with Maggie with each derp move that someone made. I'm also amazed at how people fail so hard at the word play categories. These are supposed to be people who watch the show, or at least ones who want to be on it. There was a before & after-type question where the response was "What is the Loch Ness Monster truck?" I can't remember the exact prompt, but I was the one who raised my hand and answered it. There was a lot of "huh" and "ohhhhhhh" across the room, like they finally understood how that category was supposed to work now. Maybe these people should be auditioning for Wheel of Fortune instead. You know, the one with the letters.

The funnel numbers were a bit different this time. 70,000 auditioned online, 3,000 were invited to audition, and they were planning on using 400 in the next season's tapings. They tape usually Tuesdays and Wednesdays, five shows a day. If you are the last winner on the second day, they fly you home and back and put you up in the hotel. She shared this time that they also have local standby alternate contestants who can jump if in someone has travel troubles and can't make it to LA in time for their audition. That was something I hadn't heard before. Maggie took questions from the field about the process, and all answers pretty much lined up with answers from before.18 months in the contestant pool. Usually a month of lag between "the call" and tape date. You can't take the online test again next spring. Stuff like that.

We were suddenly at the written test time. As stressful as 50 questions spaced out by 8 seconds seems, it's actually a little better than the online test. For one, you can go back when it's on paper. There were a few questions I didn't know right away but remembered within a few seconds of the prompt disappearing from the screen. Another, and this may seem weird, is that when you're alone with that piece of paper, if there's one you are sure you won't be able to get, it's kind of liberating. With the online test, there's always this thought that if you could just Google quickly enough, you could find the right answer in those 15 seconds. It's kind of frustrating, in the same vein of Is Google Making us Stupid? In person, that's clearly not an option, so the ones where you have no clue, you get about 4 seconds of quiet where you can just prepare yourself for the next one. And finally, you can continue writing after the 8 seconds are up. Taking the test online, if you're mid-word when the 15 are up, you're screwed. In person, you can bleed into the next prompt without a problem, except that you're taking away from your own time on the next prompt. These are simple differences, but it does make the paper test kind of easier or at least a little more enjoyable. I was probably in the upper 30s or low 40s for right answers. I can't share any of the questions, but they're exactly the same as what you see on TV. Just imagine that in silence, except for the sound they use in the game when the Final Jeopardy questions appears. Imagine 50 Jeopardy!-type questions up on the board, spaced by 8 seconds and the FJ ding.

We handed in our answer sheets with our photos and service agreements and took a short break. I headed straight for the bathroom to get a little quiet, knowing that the other candidates would want to talk about what they got for certain questions, and I needed a minute or two to shake out some questions that I was frustrated not to remember. When I came back in, people were discussing the questions, and hearing the answers to a few I missed just made me mad. Before long, however, I found myself in a discussion of how to use integration to create the formula for the volume of a certain solid, and all was well. I can't even remember if that was related to one of the questions on the test, but if you get enough geeks together in the same room, the discussion inevitably ends up at calculus or Battlestar Galactica, and I was happy that this nerdfest landed on the former.

We returned to our seats and moved onto the mock game and interview phases. The mock game is just like the real deal. Lockout buzzers, choosing clues from the board, and answering in the form of a question. The only thing that is missing is the Daily Double. A young ginger named Patrick worked the technology, Lori checked the responses for accuracy, and Maggie gave constant feedback on people's task performance. The mock game went much better than in the other two auditions. I felt like I got a terrible shake the other two times. The first several questions in Chicago and Detroit were ones I just didn't know, and I'm sure it looked like I froze. This time, I answered one of the very first ones, and I never got one wrong in our whole game. The mock sessions are probably around 20 questions each, but it seems to depend on how well the three players are doing. If all three are answering a lot and doing well, she moves on more quickly. We moved into the interview portion, and it got even better. Maggie was really comfortable with me, and when she asked me about my career and my thoughts on assessment in education, we had a nice little chat about how much were testing and why we're doing it. It was a really smooth exchange, and I think it went really well this time. I didn't put anything on my list of five facts that would be boring to talk about, so that probably helped too. She saw on the information sheet that I was working on a doctorate, so she asked about my dissertation topic. I shared with her the importance of freshman year of high school and how I'm going to study our school's efforts at keeping kids from dropping out of high school, and I think that was pretty well-received too. I'm not going to detail how some of the other interviews went, but some people just bombed it. You'd think after hearing ten or so people answer the question about what they'd do if they won a bunch of money, you'd have a better response than investing in low-risk mutual funds. Bzzt. That's like Samir from Office Space. Maggie clearly likes cool answers, and that's not it. For the record, I said I'd buy a small plane and fly it all over the country on weekend trips.

Three more groups went after mine. I stood in the back of the room for a bit and drank water from the pitchers. I was decidedly more at ease this time, and I felt like moving around instead of paying attention to every little detail of the rest of the groups. The sixth group of three finished their game and interviews, and Maggie gave us some parting reminders before sending us on our way. Someone wanted a picture of the whole group, so we posed for that. I really just wanted a picture with Maggie, and she was happy to oblige for a selfie.

I can't stress enough how fun this process is. They really make you feel like you're already on the show, and the contestant search team is a blast. I'll keep trying out as long as is necessary to make the show.

Danyel and I drove to Jack Stack Barbecue and had an amazing meal to celebrate the audition. If you're ever in KC, go there and get a dinner with at least one Crown Prime Beef Rib in it.

That's the rundown for audition number three.

Online test
Apr 15, 2015
There are three certainties in life: death, taxes, and taking the online Jeopardy! test. I did two of these today.
No dice
Jan 13, 2015
Booted from the pool again. I had a really good feeling about it this time, but it looks like I didn't make it. Hopefully online tryouts are next month again.
The live tryout
July 13, 2013

So here we go again. Having tried out online unsuccessfully something like 5 times, I had not expected to receive an invite to an in-person audition. Detroit is not incredibly close, but it was closer than Louisville and the other cities where they were hosting the in-person phase. When I first received the e-mail notifying me of this invite, we made some plans to stay in Michigan for a few days after the audition and enjoy some of the national parks in the area. However, with the couple of projects I have going on at work and on the side, there ended up just not being time to do that. So, Danyel and I woke up really early on Saturday morning, hopped in the car with our camping gear and a suit, and pointed the GPS to the Westin Hotel in downtown Detroit.

The drive was pretty uneventful. We entertained ourselves with our usual road-trip fun, including pointing out unusual license plates, listening to XM, and talking about math. You heard right, math. We made it into Detroit a little after 2pm and drove straight to the Westin. It was easy to find, and we were able to park about a block north of the hotel and feed the meter. If you have not been to Detroit in recent years, you may have heard about how the city is falling apart, everything is abandoned, and the downtown is scary. Let me tell you, what you have heard is completely true. Seriously. I feel really bad for you, Detroit. There are some really awesome-looking old buildings, and you can tell that the city was a major deal back in the day. Unfortunately, some of the older hotels look a lot more like the Tower of Terror than the Tower of Trump. Every single window is knocked out, there is huge graffiti down the sides of the buildings, and not a whole lot else is going on. Sketch level: medium to high. I don't know what the answer is to getting the economy back up and running there, but whatever we're doing, it's not working.

After we parked, I wrapped up filling out the questionnaire and tried to quiet my mind a bit before walking to the hotel. I failed. All I could think about was making a good impression, remembering my world capitals, and trying not to wet myself. I got to the point where even my self-talk was being phrased in the form of a question, and I knew I had to give it up and make my way to the conference room. We climbed out of the car and started to walk toward the Westin entrance. A guy came up to us and asked if he could trade us a bus pass for a sandwich. I needed a Detroit bus pass about as much as I needed a migraine, so we tried to keep walking. We ended up trapped at a red crosswalk, and the guy was pretty straight with us. I told him we didn't need a bus pass, but that we'd buy him a sandwich anyway at the corner store. Danyel said she could handle it on her own, so I made a beeline for the hotel and walked in the front door.

There weren't any signs up about where to go. In fact, there isn't even a registration desk when you first walk in the door. I kept walking further into the main lobby and past two wedding parties before I found the first sign: Jeopardy! Auditions--Third Floor. I walked toward the escalators and rode them up two floors to meet the rest of the nervous waiters. There were about ten people sitting uncomfortably in some overstuffed furniture near the entrance to the conference room. I made my way over to the group and tried to make some small talk. One guy had been to five in-person auditions, but the rest were new at this. I asked if they had seen any sign of the contestant search team, but no one knew where they were. I walked over to the door and saw a sign that said auditions were at three different times today, with the last one at 3:00pm. Since they were undoubtedly out for lunch, I went for a brief walk and found myself at the other end of the floor. This calmed me down some. I think I needed to see the room and the other candidates to know for absolute sure that I was in the right place at the right time and to get my head to quit racing. I decided to go back downstairs to find Danyel and make sure she and sanwichman were square. I didn't see her out on the sidewalk, so I called her and found that she was already inside. We met up and walked back upstairs to the area where the others were waiting. She snapped a picture as we waited, and then a few minutes before 3:00, she headed out to find a quiet place to read.

Within moments, I could hear Maggie's boisterous laughter coming up the escalator. I was really glad to see her again. I have said this before, but the Jeopardy! audition process is an absolute blast. This contestant team is pretty engaging, and they try really hard to make it fun for everyone. Seeing Maggie reminded me how good of a time I had back in 2008 and sort of set the tone for how I knew the rest of the day would go.

Maggie went into her talk about how the point of today was to have fun and learn about the game show. She introduced the other members of her team, including Rob and Keith. I remembered Keith from the 2008 audition, especially because he was from Pella, Iowa and had attended Iowa State University in Ames. I didn't recognize Rob, and Tony was noticeably absent. I stuck close to Maggie as she gave her speech to the group, and when I had a chance, I asked if Tony was still around. She said that he was now working for Wheel of Fortune, but she didn't share what his role was there. Maggie explained the paperwork and all of the items we had to initial, sign, and read. As she rattled off directions, Rob was rounding us up and taking instant photos of us with a device that looked a lot like what I imagined the camera from R. L. Stine's Say Cheese and Die to look like. I was a bit apprehensive of finding out how I would perish from this earth but decided it was a risk I was willing to take if I had a chance to be on Jeopardy! before it happened.

Once we all had our packets together and our pictures taken, we went into the actual conference room and seated ourselves at the rows of tables. There were 20 potential contestants, and the three members of the search team sat at the front and faced us. We went around the room and introduced ourselves, with Maggie reminding people time and again to use their game show voices so they could be heard. I had made note of this at my last audition and was sure to be loud at every opportunity. There were people from as far away as Texas, which surprised me. A few people had scheduling conflicts with their local site, so they found themselves in Detroit.

After we finished introductions, they played the introduction video with Alex explaining some of the intricacies of the audition process. It was probably the same DVD from the last time. He started by saying that he was sorry he couldn't be with us today, which I again found hilarious. Next, Maggie gave us some data on the auditions, which was information that had not been shared with us the last time. 200,000 people signed up to take the online test in January. 100,000 actually completed the test. Of those, 2,500 were asked to attend one of the in-person sessions at the regional sites. They shared that they were doing three days of three sessions each in Detroit. I guess that explained the hoarseness of Maggie's voice. They end up using about 400 contestants in a season. That puts the odds at about 1 in 6 to get on the show at this point in the game. Those aren't great odds, but it could be worse.

The team handed out official Jeopardy! pens and explained the lockout buzzer system. What you can't see at home is that there is a guy off-stage who listens to Alex read the questions to the contestants. When Alex finishes, he hits a button to open up the buzzers. Excuse me, signaling devices. When he hits that button, yellow lights flash on all 4 sides of the displays that the contestants can see. With our pens in hand, Maggie demonstrated how to wait for the lights to go on and to click the pen in rapid succession to try to buzz in. If you buzz in too early, you are locked out for a quarter of a second. We loudly clicked our pens for a few questions, and they explained how the categories work as we practiced. The two most important things to remember are the category you are in and what they are actually asking for. I know this advice sounds obvious, but when the questions are in front of your face, and you are actually trying to answer them in competition with others, it's really easy to forget and end up being the fool. For example, if the category is something like "G"lobetrotting, you should probably answer something that starts with a "G." They also talked about how important the word this is. Most clues have that word in them, and it is usually right next to the title, noun, person, or phrase that they want you to answer. It would be a bad idea to buzz in and say "Who is Sally Ride?" when the right response is "What is the Challenger?" These two pieces of advice comprise the short self-help essay "How Not to be a Derp" on Jeopardy!, and it's required reading for all potential contestants.

The actual in-person audition consists of three phases. First, there is a written test. This is taken via the super-shiny Jeopardy! software that they take on the road. I cannot overstate how impressive this little Flash game is. You really feel like you are on the show with this board flashing in front of you. During the written test, the questions come at you every 8 seconds, so there is pretty much no time to think, and barely enough time to write. The rumor is that 35 out of 50 is a passing score, and I remember in my 2008 audition being pretty close to 35 confident answers, but probably below that threshold by a few. This time, it was completely different. I had my own little Slumdog Millionaire going on this time. Every question was something that I had studied, visited, read about, or seen on TV. It was ridiculous. At the midway point, I had two blanks and maybe one guess. In the second half, it was slightly worse, but still amazingly good. I figured that I had iffy answers for about 7 of the questions, with good guesses on about half of them. I couldn't believe the difference this time. If it was a literature question, I had read the book. If it was a historical site in the US, I had been there. I honestly can't remember more than a few of the questions because of how quickly they came and how quickly the papers were collected from us, but I couldn't share the questions anyway. They use the same questions for the written test all across the country, so we sign a non-disclosure agreement and lock it up when walking out of the room. At the end of the 50, I'm sure I was grinning from ear to ear. I just couldn't believe how well the clues fit with my interests and expertise. The person next to me, an IT guy from Pittsburgh, nailed it too. He wrote something down quickly after every clue, and while I couldn't see what he wrote, he answered with confidence and generally seemed satisfied with how he did.

Maggie grabbed my stack of paperwork and used it as an exemplar for everyone else to follow. I tuned out and let the buzzing in my head subside. She gave us a minute to discuss our answers with others. I was surprised to overhear some of the clues that had given people trouble, but people probably would have said the same thing about my answers at my last audition. This is where I was feeling pretty lucky to have matched up so well with this year's question pool.

The second phase is the mock game. Three players stand at the front of the room with signaling devices and play the game. A new addition to this phase is the camera that they use to record it all. Maggie explained that they were going to try a new practice this year of getting background stories of the people who are on the show. I could see it being something like American Idol where they have interviews with contestants all the way back to the first audition day when they pan the crowds of 100,000 people at a tryout site. I tried to ignore the camera and focus on the task at hand.

I was in the third group to play the game. Before I was at the table, I was able to answer most of the clues that were selected from the board. It all changed when I was up there. The first five were ones where I had absolutely no idea. I couldn't even guess something. When I finally recognized the language they were speaking, I signaled quickly, was recognized, and gave the correct answer. Maggie, who seemed to enjoy giving me the business all day, exclaimed, "Welcome to the game, Adam!" I laughed and picked another clue. Every time I signaled, I was recognized, so I must be quick on the draw. I gave two incorrect answers, but probably four correct ones.

The final phase happens right after your group of three plays the game. Maggie does a little interview with each candidate, based on the application and questionnaire. Some people really fell apart here, and I wished I had done better myself. Of the five facts I put down, Maggie asked about the least interesting one--the Rubik's Cube. Not only that but she failed to bring up that I'd just finished teaching 25 fourth graders how to solve. No, she wanted to know about the competitions I'd been to. That's not only super nerdy, but not even all that interesting. I tried to dig out of it, but it just didn't go anywhere. She actually moved on really quickly in asking me questions and had us sit back down to send up another group.

I don't know what to make of the interview, honestly. Maybe my written test was so good that she just needed to make sure I wasn't a total drip. Given the amount that she and I had talked back and forth during the other phases, she probably wouldn't have to ask about much during the actual interview. Who knows? I know I performed better than some of the others in this part, so I can't be too disappointed in my interview. I just pictured it going a little better than it did.

Another three groups went after my threesome, and before I knew it, we were done. They had to pick a random person to fill out the last group, since there were 20 people in our audition time. Once we were all done, they whisked us out of the room with a final "Good Luck!" and a reminder that we were now in the contestant pool through January 15, 2015. That seems like a long time from now, but The Call could come at any point between now and then, or not at all. Sony tapes Mondays and Tuesdays, August through April. Contestants need to bring several outfits to maintain the appearance of shows occurring on different days, and I must say they do a pretty good job. When you watch the show, it really looks like everyone is packing up to go home at the end. In reality, people probably mosey over to the green room, snag an apple, and come back in like it's tomorrow. The final winner on Tuesday is flown home and back to LA on Sony's tab. Everyone else, however, is responsible for getting out there, staying in a hotel, and all other expenses. Since the third place finisher earns $1000, I suppose it works out.

After I left the conference room, I found Danyel in the lobby, and we headed back out to the car, only to find a parking ticket under the windshield wiper. Thanks, Detroit. Maybe use my $20 to fix a window or something. It took me quite a while to piece enough of the afternoon to share a cohesive picture with her, but by the end of dinner, I think I had it back together. I was pretty fried by the experience, but also relieved to know that I had given it all I had and done pretty well. That's it. Now we wait. Again.

Thanks to everyone who has supported me and my addiction to trivia over the years. Special shout-outs go to my parents who instilled in me early a love for learning, John Rabideau and Jim Schoepski--my junior high and high school scholastic bowl coaches, and the entire Hawk Yeah! trivia team from Oregon High School. Most of all, thanks to my dear wife who tolerates all of the mental training, word play, mind games, and inane before-and-after clues that only I seem to find riveting.

I've been invited to an in-person audtion again!
May 20, 2013

I've tried out a couple of times online in the past several years, but this is the first time since 2008 that I have been invited to the in-person audition again. While I was sitting in a school board meeting, Sony sent me an invitation to the live tryout in Detroit for July 13th. I had to contain my delight in this serious setting, but I was able to sneak a tweet out right way to express my excitement. My next post will be after the audition has taken place, so stay tuned!

Another chance already!
Jan 11, 2010

Well, that didn't take long at all. Only a month after suffering the final disappointment, SPE sent an e-mail announcing they they will be holding in-person auditions again in Chicago this spring. I've already registered for the CST timeslot, which is on Wednesday, Jan 27th. In the coming next 2 weeks, I'll be brushing the dust off of world capitals and Oscar winners lists.

Dec 6, 2009

Well, I've waited out my 18 months and ... nothing. :(

I'll be watching my e-mail to see if Sony Pictures does another online audition this spring.

Finally, the in-person audition
June 5, 2008

Today began with a drive to the Elgin Metra stop at Big Timber Road. Not knowing how long it would take to get to the depot, I half-heartedly aimed at the 11:22 departure. If I missed this one, I could hop on the 12:22 and have no problems getting to the hotel in time, even with a bus ride in between. As I neared Elgin, it was clear that I would miss the 11:22 by just a few minutes, so I made a loop through the parking lot to familiarize myself with the layout, and then I drove down the block to the Subway to have lunch. I was starting to feel pretty nervous, both about the audition and about relying on public transportation to get me all the way there. If Metra had a problem before I boarded, I could still drive into Chicago and park at the hotel, even though it would cost me more money. Once on Metra, however, I would pretty much be at the mercy of the system, and that's what made me nervous. So, I ate a leisurely lunch in my green shirt and tie and black suit. It helped calm me down a bit, as I thought about what I would say to the contestant coordinators and reminded myself that this was all supposed to be a fun time.

I drove back across the street to the Metra station to wait for the train coming back out from Chicago. As soon as I sat down on the south side of the depot, a woman who was sitting on the ground near me asked the only dumb question that can be asked of a man who is wearing a suit and looking anxiously down the long track. "You waitin' for th' train?" she asked. I replied, somewhat sarcastically, "Yes." She answered, with her eyes squinted and her hand at her brow, "Train's gunna be late. Sumthin' 'bout police activity." As she finished, she gestured with her other hand toward the news ticker that was displaying the same message. 22 minutes late. Nuts. I was only giving myself about an hour to get from Union Station to the Westin Hotel, not knowing the exact frequency of the bus route, nor how long they would wait at each stop. With this delay, I would be cutting it really close. I yanked the laptop out of my backpack and plugged in the broadband card. When the Metra news page loaded, it displayed a similar message as the news ticker did, with one exception—the train would be arriving 26 minutes late. Double nuts. I panicked. I was nearing the point where driving would just get me there in time as well, with the added bonus of adding more stress to the trip without any time to decompress before arriving at the hotel. I quickly looked at the printed schedule and saw that the train had about a 25 minute layover at the depot, so I figured that it would pretty much stop and head back in within a few minutes, thus getting back on schedule. As the color returned to my cheeks, I heard the train's horn as it pulled around the corner and began to slow to a stop.

Once aboard, I was happy to remember that the cabins were air conditioned. Wearing a suit and carrying a backpack in 85° weather was already taking its toll on me, even though I had only sat on the bench at the depot for a few minutes. The ride into the city was uneventful. I talked with a nice couple who had just flown in from Windsor, Colorado. Their town had been hit by a tornado a few days before, and, rather than deal with all of the mess in the town, they decided to visit Chicago for a few days and enjoy some time away. I can't say I blamed them. In about an hour and a half, we pulled into Union Station.

We filed out of the train, and I was on my own again. After hitting the street and gaining my bearings, I began to look for the 151 Sheridan bus to take me north to the Westin. It was counterintuitive, because according to the map, the bus went south first, and then headed in the desired direction. I spotted the bus across Canal Street, facing south. After crossing the street, I was soon on the hot and humid bus. This trip was definitely not air conditioned. At the first stop, an older-looking urban cowboy got on and sat down next to me. He asked me where I was headed and where I had started the day. It turned out that he worked for Metra, so when I said I had taken the train from Elgin, he told me he'd work to help us get service from Rockford so we didn't have to drive as far to get into the city. I laughed and said I'd hold him to it. He hopped off and another older gentleman sat down next to me. We chatted a bit about gas prices and how more people were on the buses, which made our ride fairly miserable. He was a lawyer, and he became pretty excited when I told him I was heading up to the Westin to try out for Jeopardy! He said the Westin was one of the nicest hotels in all of Chicago, due to much recent renovation that had taken place. The gentleman helped me watch the cross-streets so that I could exit the bus at the right time, which I appreciated.

As I climbed off the bus, I felt pretty dumb. I had been worried about missing the stop and not having any landmarks to watch, but there, right in front of me, was the John Hancock building. Its unmistakable architecture would have been easy to use as a target, had I realized from the map that it was right across the street from the Westin. It didn't matter, though. I had arrived at the hotel, and it was only about 2:15. I had 45 minutes to find my way in, cool off, fill out my information sheet, and walk to the audition room.

Once I entered the hotel, it became clear just how nice of a place it was. It definitely didn't have the old-fashioned feel of, say, the Waldorf Astoria, but it looked like this chic, business-class, always-buzzing, fast-paced lobby. I wandered around for a few seconds before I found the bulletin board with the day's activities posted on it. Jeopardy – Third Floor, Michigan Room, 3:00. I was in the right place at the right time, so I found myself a comfortable couch and pulled out my information sheet. Sony Pictures Entertainment had asked all of us to fill out a sheet with 5 facts about ourselves. These presumably would be the facts that Alex would ask us about if we made an appearance on the show. I had been conferring with several friends and family members about what to write, and I spent a lot of my thinking time on the train deciding exactly what I should share. After a little more deliberation, I jotted down a funny story, some nerdy facts, and a few points of pride. I had cooled off sufficiently to make my trip upstairs, so I walked over to the elevator and rode it up to the third floor.

It was much quieter on this floor—the constant buzz of business was absent from this level of the building. I wandered down the narrow hall and saw the sign outside of the Michigan Room. I walked a little further and found a room full of very well-dressed, quiet, and nervous people. No one talked a bit. The sign on the table said to take a few sheets and begin filling out the informational paperwork. There was a sheet with 50 numbers and 50 lines on it—obviously the written test answer form—and another with spaces for basic demographic information. The rest of the people were sitting in chairs along the edges of the room, but there were no chairs left, so I sat at the table where the paperwork was sitting in piles. I began dutifully filling out my sheet with the requested data as more people timidly entered the room. A few people walked up and said their names to me as if to check in. I laughed and told them to read the signs like everyone else. Apparently, if you sit at a table, you are very important.

After a few minutes of continued nervous silence, I heard some people with confidence walking down the hall. It was obvious that these were the contestant coordinators, because their relaxed conversation and boisterous personalities gave them away. I immediately guessed that the loudest and most excited one was Maggie, who is the lead contestant search coordinator. Her reputation for being energetic and enthralling had preceded her on the Jeopardy! online forum. In the 2 weeks between being notified of my interview and today, I had spent some time studying up on what I would expect today, and most of it had focused on her. She began with a very emphatic, "Hello, how is everyone doing today?!" The responses were mostly murmured from the candidates, but she paid little attention to the lack of enthusiasm. As she sipped on her iced coffee from Dunkin Donuts, she plunged into a very rehearsed, but very engaging talk about what we were going to encounter over the next several hours. She gestured a few times to a door behind her, which led to the room where the process would take place. I think we all secretly wished Alex Trebek was behind the door, but she dismissed the idea quickly. She introduced the team – there was a thin, quiet woman named Karina, another loud guy named Tony, and the obvious tech guy named Keith. From there, Tony and Maggie tag-teamed the group as they laid out the important details. They handed us each an official Jeopardy! pen to use to complete our documents, although most of us were already done. As we finished writing, Tony began taking Polaroid pictures of each of us so that they could staple them to our packets and keep everyone separated in their minds. Since I was already seated at the table near where Tony was standing, I was second in line for having my picture taken. I made a concerted effort from the very beginning to stand out from the crowd, so I made conversation with Tony as he took the pictures next to me. It was recently announced that Polaroid would discontinue their instant film because of the widespread adoption of digital cameras, so I started with that. Nerdy, yes, but it was relevant. Tony actually responded with great concern, because he lamented over not being able print pictures in a matter of seconds, even with the best photo printers currently on the market. Tony took about 25 pictures (24 or 27 probably—I know it was a multiple of 3), and then Maggie announced that it was time to move into the next room to begin the formal auditions.

We seated ourselves at small tables, with all of us facing the front. The room was set up as a cross between a wide airplane fuselage and my high school chemistry classroom. There were two columns of wide, shallow tables that each sat 3 people. In the middle was a narrow aisle where a flight attendant might push her cart of cans of apple juice and bags of peanuts. I made my way to the front of the room and found a seat in the second row. Once we were all seated, Maggie continued with the talk about what we would be doing today. She stressed several times that we should try to relax and have fun, because that's what they were there to do as well. I suppose they were getting paid too, but they did seem to be having fun. Maggie asked us to introduce ourselves and tell the group where we lived. There were, not surprisingly, several people from Chicago and the suburbs, but there were also several people from much farther away. Two women seated near each other found out they had both come from the Denver area. A man in the back was from Cleveland. The woman on my right was from Swisher, Iowa, which is where my wife has some family. When Maggie heard that she was from Swisher, she looked toward Keith and said that he was originally from Pella, Iowa. Having gone to undergrad in nearby Ames, I made a note to chat with him after the audition if I had the opportunity. We snaked around the room and completed the introductions in just a few minutes. Maggie continued with her boisterous demeanor, making comments about people's hometowns and what they were known for. It was clear that she had traveled the country multiple times over, as she knew of many local restaurants and shops that only residents might have the opportunity to frequent.

Next, Maggie held up two boxes and said that they contained Jeopardy! mugs. She explained that she was going to warm us up with some Jeopardy! trivia and hand out the mugs to whoever knew the answers. Because I knew this was coming, I had familiarized myself with some of the more important records in the game as well as recent trends and players. Maggie began the clue, saying, "We had a wonderful female competitor on the show recently. She is currently in third place for regular season winnings, and she was on for a total of seven d—." I felt my hand shoot up quickly, even before Maggie had finished the question. When she recognized me, I stammered "Laris—Who is Larissa Kelly?" It wasn't a very impressive performance for my first response, but it was correct. I beamed as she handed me the box with the mug. She again turned to the room and began describing the next clue. "Ken Jennings is obviously the winningest contestant during regular season play. During his 74-game streak, Ken won over 2 million dollars on our show. Who is the player who is second on the all-time list for regular season winnings?" I was pretty sure I knew the answer, but I remained quiet because 1) I didn't want to be "that guy," and 2) I didn't want to be wrong. Someone raised their hand and said "Who is Brad Rutter?" Maggie grimaced and shook her head. "That's a good guess, but most of Brad's money has come from tournament play, and not from regular season play." Brad, of course, is the only person to have never lost a complete game on the show. His regular season performance was back when 5 wins in a row earned the contestant a car and a trip home. Only after this limit was lifted was Ken Jennings able to set the record at 74 wins. No one raised a hand to give another answer, so Maggie gave it to us. "David Madden," she explained, "won 19 straight games on his way to winning $432,400." Several people groaned as they remembered him from that season and the Tournament of Champions. Maggie began another question, "Alex Trebek is the second host of—." Several hands shot up. "Not Art Fleming!" she exclaimed. (Art Fleming was the first host of Jeopardy!; Alex is the second.) She continued, "Alex Trebek is the second host of a game show to have a moustache. Who was the first?" Some puzzled sounds emanated from the group, but Maggie soon recognized someone who answered, "Who is Groucho Marx?" There were groans again, and Maggie handed the mug to the contestant who was seated toward the back.

Maggie gestured toward Keith, the techie from Pella, and told us that we were going to be watching a DVD that would orient us to the rest of the day's activities. I was about oriented out, but when Alex appeared on the screen, I immediately snapped to attention. He welcomed us to the audition process and apologized for not being able to meet with us personally. I laughed at that, though no one else seemed to find it as funny as I did. After Alex's welcome, members from the clue crew described how the questions are typically laid out during a game. They also gave us some pointers about the 50-question test that we were about to take. Once the DVD was finished, they asked us to take out our answer sheets and prepare to write down our answers. We would only have 8 seconds to write an answer after each clue had been read aloud by Jon Cannon from the clue crew. Compared to the 15-second opportunity for the online test, it seemed a bit faster paced. Once the questions began, though, it was obvious that the 8 seconds began after the clue had been read, whereas the online test began the 15 seconds as soon as the clue was presented in text. This translated to the same amount of time allowed for most of the questions, by my estimate. The questions still came fast though. I can barely remember what they asked us, but several people have already asked me what some of the questions were. We actually signed a non-disclosure agreement as part of our paperwork, so I'm definitely not at liberty to share any of the content. Furthermore, Maggie said that they use the same questions across the country, so posting or sharing the answers would only work against us as far as our standing in the contestant pool. If you were to watch a week's worth of rounds, you would see about the same breadth and depth of questions as what we were presented during the test. There were 50 separate questions, and they came in 50 separate categories. The rumor is that 35 correct is the cutoff to be considered for a taping, so I covertly made marks to indicate which questions I had to guess. As I approached the 50th question, I was dangerously close to the 16 guesses mark.

After the 50th question, Maggie took control again and gave us instructions for handing in our paperwork. We were to place our Polaroid on top with the information and 50-question answer sheets behind it. We all breathed a sigh of relief as the packets were collected by Karina. She disappeared out the door at the front of the room, and our attention was turned toward the dynamic duo. My sequencing might be a bit off, but I think they described the buzzer system next. Maggie held up one of the "signaling devices" and showed us how to depress the button. On a small control box on the table, one of the three lights flashed to show that her button was pushed. The light doesn't stay on like a high school scholastic bowl buzzer system would. The light only stays on while the button is pushed, so the key is to press the button very rapidly. I imagine that there is a lockout system on the game show, but the goal here is to make sure that everyone is pushing the button rapidly, which is the most effective game strategy. This is because, as they explained, there is a person at the show who controls when the system becomes armed. His job is to listen to Alex as he reads the clue and then press a button to open up the three signaling devices. Maggie explained what while he has lots of practice reading clues with Alex and studying his oral cadence, he is still human. He might not push the button at the same moment the last syllable is uttered, so if a contestant signals prematurely, he or she is only locked out for about a quarter of a second. That is why it is good practice to click the button rapidly. If you are locked out for a moment, other contestants might be as well, and signaling rapidly affords you the opportunity to jump in before they are able to. This is far different from any other system I have used before, because high school buzzers only require you to click once before everyone else is locked out. (Although, we demonstrated in 8th grade that these "lockout" systems are not 100% effective. Right before a round of intraschool academic bowl, Zach Valleau and I asked Mr. Rabideau if it was possible to ring in at exactly the same time. Zach and I were both very competitive, and we were positioned on either side of the central control module for this particular round. He responded emphatically that no, it was impossible to do because of how the system was wired. Instead of agreeing with him, I think we both subconsciously took it on as a challenge to prove him wrong. A few questions into the round, he asked a question that we both definitely knew. We both hit our buttons at what appeared to be the same time, and it was going to have to be determined by the hyper-intelligent magic box just who rang in first. We both shot our eyes to the lights to see which side had won the race. Instead of the familiar chime and light sequence, the control box choked out a weak scream and dimly lit both lights. Zach and I looked at each other and burst out laughing as Mr. Rabideau leered at the device that had let him down in such a not-so-gentle fashion. We had defied the laws of physics apparently, and Zach and I waited for the representatives of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences to march in and hand us each our check for $500,000. Instead, Mr. Rabideau curtly reached forward and reset the machine, and the pathetically-lit lights were put out of their misery. He looked at us as if to say, "Let us never speak of this day again—the day when science failed me," and moved onto the next question, although with his voice dry and cracking. But I digress.... By the way, Zach, if you ever read this, please e-mail me. No one knows where you are or if you're even still alive.)

Once Maggie explained the signaling devices and the lockout period, she exited the room and left us with Tony and Keith. Tony stood up and began a painstakingly detailed description of how the categories are constructed on the show. He was a large, balding man who wore a wildly-patterned shirt and shorts. He had Los Angeles written all over him. He described the obviously-named categories, including examples such as Chemistry, Animals, and World Capitals, among others. He also explained how before-and-after clues work, what the writers are looking for when the category is Rhyme Time, and what the ever-important word this means. This ends up playing the central role in many of the clues on Jeopardy! The word immediately after this or these is what your response should be answering. For example, if the clue is "In 1708 Philip V & John V ruled these neighboring kingdoms on the same peninsula," then the response needs to be "What are Spain and Portugal?" The clue is looking for the names of the two kingdoms, not the name of the peninsula, even though the clue ends describing the peninsula. Contestants look pretty sheepish when they give a response that is not tied to the correct part of the clue, such as, "What is the Iberian Peninsula?" I had read and studied the writing styles of the staff fairly extensively over the last several years, including a couple of days with Michael Dupée's book. By now, I felt pretty confident that I understood how to read a question quickly and know what the writers and judges were expecting for a response.

Maggie returned with the (presumably scored) stacks of documents. She called out a group of three names. They all walked to the front of the room and took one of the signaling devices from the table. On the projector screen was a typical 6-column game board, but with only three clues per category. The categories were quite varied as usual, and the potential contestants worked through the clues, buzzing in and giving responses. Maggie harped on the participants to speak more loudly, buzz in more quickly, and continue pressing the buttons more rapidly. It was intense, and it was easy to see that it was a lot to handle right in front of the contestant coordinators. The three selected and responded to about 15 clues, with Keith clicking on the dollar amounts that had been chosen, and Tony belting out "Right!" or "Wrong!" after each response. The software, I should add, was beautiful. The colors were extremely vivid, the graphics were exactly the same as those used on the show, and the overall "feel" of the game was enough to make any high school social studies teacher salivate. It greatly surpassed the quality of the best PowerPoint Jeopardy! gameboard that had ever been made.

After the final clue was selected, Maggie asked the players to put their signaling devices down on the table and then turned to the first player to ask him some questions. This was most definitely unexpected. We all knew that we would be interviewed, but I had pictured a one-on-one private interaction in a quiet room. I had run through my conversation with Maggie dozens of times over the past two weeks, but it had not gone like this. Not only were these three coming down from the high of playing the game, but they were also standing about three feet from Maggie, Tony, and Keith, and they had their backs to all of the other potential contestants, with whom they were competing for a spot on the game show. I was so glad not to have been called up first. I don't think I would have been ready with my talking points had I been in the first group. They all did well in talking with Maggie, which was good for them. She asked about careers, hobbies, and what we planned to do with the money we won on the show. All that I had read online and in the books was that it was best to pick something fun to do with the money. Paying down debt was a boring answer that wouldn't stand out or seem like you really wanted to be on the show. However, probably 90% of the potential contestants responded by saying that they would pay off their student loans or take a big vacation with their families. I guess they didn't get the memo.

After several clusters of potential contestants completed their turns, I was finally called. I was the first name in my group of three, so when Maggie asked me what that meant, I excitedly replied, "I'm the returning champion, I won a whole bunch of money yesterday, and I'm ready to rock some more today." She laughed, and I picked the first question. Aside from signaling once and drawing a complete blank on a response, I remember almost nothing from the 15 or so clues we received. I know I answered several correctly, but I can only think of one or two of them now. The game moves really, really quickly. There certainly isn't time to dwell on a clue after it has been answered, because the next one is there within seconds again. I do remember answering very confidently and correctly on two clues in a row, and I looked at Maggie and smiled. She happened to be leaning over to Tony and whispering something while they looked at my paperwork. She saw me looking at her and smiled back. I'm pretty sure that the sheet they had up was my graded 50-question test, so I'm taking the interaction as a piece of positive evidence toward my selection as a contestant. I had watched Maggie closely during the other mock games for any signs of positive or negative feedback, but she had provided absolutely nothing during all of those rounds. Sure, she was friendly with everyone, but not a person in the group had received any other data that they could interpret. I could be analyzing it too much, but reading and understanding people is part of my job, and I'd like to think I'm good at it.

Once we finished our questions, Maggie again pulled out my paperwork and looked directly at me. They had asked some questions on the information sheet concerning out contact with previous players and champions. In the interest of full disclosure, I indicated that I had been in contact with several former players on the Jeopardy! messageboard. She asked me what I had been talking with them about, and I said, somewhat slyly, "Why, we've been talking about you, Maggie!" Her eyes grew wide, and I followed up with "Only good things, of course!" She smiled, and I continued, "In fact, I'd heard a lot about how energetic you are, and boy, they weren't kidding! Am I right?" I turned my head as I finished the question to glance in the direction of the people seated behind me, and I heard several chuckles.

She next asked me what I did for a living. I said that I was a school psychologist, a web developer, and a college instructor. She replied with a, "Whoa! OK, school psychologist first. What do kids like to come to talk to you about?" When I told her that the job is very little counseling and a whole lot of assessment, data collection, and meetings, she didn't appear to be very interested. I quickly rebounded and talked about how much I've learned about leadership and decision-making as we handle very important choices that affect kids' futures. She perked up a bit at that and then asked about the web developer job. I said that I'm working on my own web development company and that I've been writing programs and developing websites for over 10 years. This flopped even worse than being a school psychologist. Looking back, since Ken Jennings was a software developer, I'm sure that she had heard enough about this world and didn't want to hear any more about it. Furthermore, the title of web developer is becoming rather hackneyed anymore, and it doesn't evoke the same kind of surprised response as webmaster did back in the mid-90s. I jumped to the next field and said that I have recently been teaching introductory psychology at a community college. Surprisingly, she seemed a little more engaged in this endeavor, so I described how much I loved teaching and sharing relevant examples from my practice as a school psychologist. She appeared to find that rather intriguing, so I was happy again. She sarcastically asked, "So, what do you do for fun?" as though having 3 jobs would clearly be enough to keep a guy busy. I replied, "I run, play disc golf, geocache——." She broke in, "Geocaching? See? Now that sounds like so much fun!" She turned to Tony, who nodded his head with a puzzled look. I jumped back in, "Maggie, do yourself the favor and just buy yourself a handheld GPS unit. Get on the website, and find yourself the nearest location of a cache. You'll be amazed at the places you'll find." She beamed as she asked where it had taken me. I described finding a marker for the former northwest corner of Missouri that had been placed during the Honey War, a territorial dispute with Iowa in the 1830s. She leaned forward as I brought her into the story of driving along seldom-used dirt roads and puncturing a tire on my parents' Suburban on our way to the marker. Maggie asked the final question, "What would you do if you won a pile of money on our show, angel?" I responded that my poor wife had supported us through three years of graduate school and that it was time to buy her a great big house. It was different from the rest of the answers, but I think I could have done better with it.

Only two more groups went after mine, and Maggie was soon asking the last potential contestant their interview questions. The mock game portion had taken a great deal of time, probably over an hour, because Maggie asked many more questions of each person than Alex ever does on the show. I was glad that things were wrapping up. I glanced at my watch, and we had been in the room for about 2 hours and 45 minutes. Maggie thanked us and reminded everyone that we were all in the contestant pool for the next year and a half. We could receive "the call" anywhere from 1 to 18 months from now, so we all have to play the waiting game for a while. She explained that if the call does come, it will be about a month before our scheduled taping date. They tape 5 shows a day, but only on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. This means that 2 weeks of shows are taped in a week, and the whole season is completed in just a few weeks. The show goes to great lengths to maintain the illusion that the show is taped daily, even going so far as to require contestants to bring several days' worth of attire to the green room on taping day. If a person wins the last game on the second day, Sony flies the contestant home and pays for accommodations once they return for the next week. All other expenses are completely the responsibility of the contestant. However, the third place contestant receives $1,000, and the second contestant receives $2,000. Obviously, the champion receives the money on his or her board and the opportunity to play in the next game. So, if the call comes in, the contestant needs to book a flight, car, and hotel within a month. Sounds like a visit to

After the potential contestants filed out of the room, I walked up to Keith and struck up a conversation. I asked, knowing the answer, "You're from Pella, right?" He nodded, and I continued, "I went to Iowa State." He replied, "So did I!" We chatted about Ames for a bit, and he described how he had gotten into show business. He actually started his career working media for Hilton Coliseum, where Iowa State plays many home athletic competitions and hosts musical performers throughout the year. Having played in the pep band at Hilton for several years, we joked about the places of the building that the general public knows nothing about. It turned out that he had not graduated from ISU, but left Ames in about 1996, which was before my time there. We were having quite a fun chat when Maggie came back through the doors. I again thanked her for the opportunity to audition with her, and asked if I might have a picture with her. She smiled and said she would be happy to pose with me. Keith snapped our picture, and I was on my way down the hall toward the elevator. I skipped out of the lobby and began the long trek down Michigan Avenue toward Union Station. There was no way I was riding the bus again. I don't think I could have contained my excitement while sitting next to another stranger. I had given it all I had, and I hoped all of my preparation had paid off.

Now we wait.

An invite!
May 16, 2008
Just when I had forgotten completely about taking the online test, I received the following e-mail from Sony:
Congratulations! You have been selected for a follow-up appointment at an upcoming Jeopardy! contestant search for the Chicago area, exclusively for those who successfully passed the online test. This is the next step in becoming a Jeopardy! contestant. We have reserved the following appointment for you:

When: Thursday, June 5th Time: 3:00pm

Where: Chicago, IL

You must RSVP within two business days of receipt of this email to secure your place in the audition. When you RSVP via email, please provide the following:

1. Date and time of your invite
2. Your name
3. Your City & State
4. Your Phone Number
I have already RSVPed to the invitation, and I'll be going to Chicago to do the in-person audition. From what I understand, this is the last step before appearing on the show! There is apparently another 50-question test, a personality interview, and a mock game. Our last day of school is June 4th, so I will be able to go to Chicago without missing any obligations at work. I'll be boning up on world capitals, presidential facts, and British literature between now and then…stay tuned for more exciting updates!
Online Test
Jan 14, 2008
I received an e-mail today from the Jeopardy! contestant search. They are having another online test on January 30th, which is right in the middle of the annual Illinois School Psychologists Association conference in Springfield. I went ahead and signed up for the test, but I'm not sure if I'll be able to get to computer that evening, because who knows what will be happening that night. I guess I have nothing to lose, just like 2 years ago when I tried out and never heard anything from the officials.
Test Completed
Jan 30, 2008
I'm down in Springfield, IL for the ISPA conference, and I just completed the online 50-question test. It went pretty well, I think. I probably did a bit better than 2 years ago, so I think I have a higher chance of receiving an in-person interview than I did last time. My gang of grad school cronies returned to the hotel room about halfway through the test, but they were awesome and remained super quiet while I finished the test. Some of the questions were super hard, as expected...if I ever get on the show, there are definitely some areas I need to brush up on if I want to be competitive.