Trivial Pursuit: a McGill student competes on Jeopardy!

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In 1856, John C. Fremont ran for President as the first candidate of the newly created Republican Party. He lost to James Buchanan, the 15th president of the United States and the only lifelong bachelor to have ever occupied the White House.

I relate these facts from memory. Anyone can re-construct them quickly, so long as they memorize the connections between the various parts. It isn’t a particularly special ability, and not a sign of superior intelligence; some people are simply better at it than others.

Last August I had the opportunity to test my capacity for retention as a contestant on Jeopardy!. Throughout the taping, it was the name John C. Fremont, out of everything I had studied in the two months since receiving the call to come to Los Angeles, that emerged from the cobwebbed recesses of my memory, illuminated before me in a blinding light.

The process for becoming a Jeopardy! contestant begins with a 50-question online quiz, which is offered twice each year. With only a few seconds to read the category and clue and type your answer, it can be a very stressful few minutes. I felt good, though, about my performance that night. In late April I received an e-mail requesting my presence in Philadelphia on the morning of June 21 to audition for a spot on the show.

Much of Jeopardy!’s success can be attributed to the limitless breadth of material its questions cover. I knew I’d be fine with most literature, history, or—please, God—philosophy questions, but I didn’t stand a chance with any post-1999 television shows or ladies’ magazines questions. My preparation for the Philadelphia audition consisted of making myself more receptive than usual to the world around me and pouring over my father’s 1975 People’s Almanac as we drove south on the Jersey Turnpike that sunny June morning.

The live audition included another 50-question quiz. The other candidates and I waited as the quizzes were marked by the Jeopardy! contestant coordinators. They also conducted a personality interview to filter the personable needles from the dense haystack of trivia dweebs. I did alright, at one point drawing smiles after answering a question on Percy Shelley that nobody else knew, and pushed myself against my own insecurity to just relax.

I received a voicemail less than a month later: “Hi, this is Robert from Jeopardy!. Please call me back when you get this.” The room around me transformed. My friend Sam gave me at least one bear hug, maybe three. I phoned my mother, who didn’t believe me at first. I phoned my father—who had unsuccessfully tried out for Jeopardy! twice, and whose mother tried out for the original Jeopardy! in the 1960s—who then cried. I found the experience overwhelming and surreal.

In the days I spent in Los Angeles before the taping, I tried to both relentlessly mush facts into my brain, and keep my mind clear in the midst of such tumult. At one point, I remember standing at the edge of the Santa Monica pier, a crisp blue day, looking out across the ocean surface to the edge of the horizon, and thinking of only one thing: John C. Fremont.

I slept terribly Sunday night. Hurriedly dressing in my suit and downing what I hoped would be a decent breakfast of everything the Marriott offered, I rode with my dad to the Sony Pictures Studio lot, and was dropped next to the crowd of milling contestants, standing in a circle and mostly not talking. The youngest person in the group by at least 15 years and hoping to assert my confidence, I tried to break the ice by asking where everyone was from. My motives were probably obvious, and my attempt therefore counterproductive, but at least I got to know my potential opponents. If anything at all eased my nerves that morning, it was the friendships, though embryonic, that I forged with some fellow contestants, and the sense that we were all dealing with the same dread.

Each contestant is given a few minutes to practice their buzzing-timing at the podiums, and to get comfortable standing on the stage. This made me much more nervous because I was consistently not buzzing in first, even on practice questions I knew. I tried to change my buzzer-holding style, but nothing worked. I realized I was in for trouble.

Five episodes are taped each day. The two contestants who face the returning champion on any given episode are chosen at random just before their own show starts. They have about five minutes to transition from passive observers watching from the audience to active participants in the game, standing behind the podium, interacting with Alex Trebek, and trying hard, despite the cameras, the audience, and the sheer incredibility of the whole thing, to concentrate on the questions and ring the buzzer before the others.

Watching from the comfort of home, I saw Jeopardy! as a trivia game. As a contestant, however, I experienced Jeopardy! as a buzzer ringing game, and only secondarily as a quiz show. At home, you know the answers, shout them at the TV, and convince everyone that you would be a good contestant. But on the set, you compete with two intelligent people who want just as badly to ring in first. The questions to which you know the answer may not be the ones you ring in first for, and those you ring in first for may not necessarily be questions you actually know the answer to.

For contractual reasons, there’s a lot that I can’t reveal in writing about my experience. All I can tell you is what it felt like psychologically and emotionally to be behind that podium, both playing the game and being aware that you’re playing the game. To feel yourself being picked apart by millions of eyes. It was very lonely. Afterward, I felt slightly traumatized, and not especially due to my performance. My first reaction after the taping was that I’d had no fun whatsoever.

But it didn’t take me long to revise that assessment, to realize that it was really an incredible experience, and a unique one. It’s embarrassing to talk about having been a contestant on Jeopardy!, but everyone gets so excited by the whole thing, and their excitement gets me excited to the point that I no longer think of it as my own experience. And that doesn’t scare me nearly half as much as it would have a few months ago.

Watch Ricky Kreitner on Jeopardy! on October 29 on CBC at 7:30.

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