Not Ken Jennings, But . . .

January 13, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

With Jeopardy running its Big Three Showdown (Jennings, Holzhauer, Rutter) last week, people were telling their own Jeopardy stories. Here’s mine.

In 1972, I had just moved to New York. Most of the game shows were still here, and there were a lot of them — Jeopardy, Pyramid, Match Game, and others. Two friends from college had taken the test for Jeopardy. So I called the show. A few weeks later, I was sitting in a room in a nondescript midtown building with forty other people taking the test — paper and pencil, fifty questions, fill in the blank. It reminded me of high school. The only question I recall now was one that I knew I had missed — the capital of Wyoming. I looked it up later. Cheyenne.

In late January they called and told me to show up on February 9.

The host in those pre-Trebek years was Art Fleming, and the contestants instead of standing, sat behind desks. The dollar amounts were 1/20th the current rate — $10 to $50 in round one, $20 to $100 in Double Jeopardy.

The board was mechanical not electronic. The dollar amounts and questions were on square placards, almost like the scoreboard at Fenway, where guys behind the board  replace the 0 tile with a 1 when a team scores. When you selected a category and amount, “History for $30" for example, the $30 square would be mechanically (and often audibly)  yanked up to reveal the question on the card underneath.

Most important, you could ring in at any time. You didn’t have to wait for Art to finish reading the entire question. But finish it he would. So even if you rang the bell two seconds into the question, you would have the full reading time to think of the answer.

They taped a week’s worth of shows in a day.  My episode was a Friday, the last show they would do that day. The returning champion was a woman from Virginia. I had the middle seat, and to my left the other challenger, an Italian-American woman from Bloomfield, New Jersey.

I did well. I was ringing in quickly and getting most of the questions right. I even had a couple of lucky guesses on questions I wasn’t at all sure of.  At the end of the first round, I had $420, the champ had $40, and the woman from Bloomfield was at minus $10. (Remember, $100 then is like $2000 today.)

During the long commercial break before the Double Jeopardy round, assistants came out to adjust our make-up and give advice. “Try to ring in faster,” one of them said, trying to encourage the woman from Bloomfield. To me they said, “Could you try to smile a little bit more. People watching you win all this money want to think that you’re happy about it.”

(Please excuse the less-than-ideal photography. My girlfriend took pictures of the television.)

Going into Final Jeopardy, I was still way ahead — $880 to $160.  ($17,600 to $3200 in today’s Jeopardy dollars.) The woman from Bloomfield had rung in on only a few questions, and had gotten more wrong than right. She finished in the red. So it was just the two of us. Neither of us knew the Final answer (Joseph Lister), and I finished as the winner with $760.

I returned a week later as defending champion. “Did you tell your students?” asked Art in our 20-seconds of human interest. “No,” I said, “but I expect that word will get out.” I was wrong.

The competition was tougher this time, mostly in the person of Mary, born and raised in Oklahoma and now living in Pelham. Going into Final Jeopardy, she had $740 to my $560. (Again the third player had finished below zero.) The category was “state capitals,” but the question was really about theater. “The Western state capital that figures prominently in the musical ‘The Unsinkable Molly Brown.’”  

I had no idea. But I remembered the state-capital question I’d missed months before on the qualifying test. Maybe the Jeopardy producers had a thing for Wyoming. So I guessed Cheyenne. Mary also guessed — Denver, “the only Western capital I could think of,” she said later. I was wrong. She was right. Thus ended my career on Jeopardy.

That’s not quite the end of the story. There’s a sociological coda, which I hope to get to in the next post.

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