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 Expedia.com.
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.