Monday, February 07, 2005

My fifteen minutes of fame add a few extra seconds

At last, I can divulge part of the Big Secret to which I’ve alluded a time or two.

If you follow this blog regularly, one of the facts you know about me is that a long, long time ago, in a television studio far, far away, I was a five-day champion on Jeopardy! (Five consecutive victories was as many as the show used to allow, until a rules change a couple of seasons ago.) And if you follow J! (as we insiders call it) even a little, you’ve probably heard about the Jeopardy! Ultimate Tournament of Champions (or “The Quest for Ken,” as some have termed it) — if you haven’t, go read the official press release on the J! site, then rush right back.

So anyway, now you know that I’m one of the army of former J! champs — 144 strong — brought in by the show’s producers to duke it out for the right to challenge the nonpareil Ken Jennings for a $2 million grand prize. (See? I have an official bio and everything.) That’s where I was last Monday — at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City (the old MGM lot) with 14 other legends of J! (plus two alternates, who will play later in the tourney), taping the first five games of the tournament’s first round.

As you can see on the J! site, I’m playing in Thursday’s game. So go right now and set your Tivo for the appropriate time and channel in your broadcast market. If you don’t have a Tivo, slap a Post-It on the TV to remind yourself to watch.

Due to a voluminous confidentiality agreement I signed, I’m not at liberty to tell you how any of the games in my taping session — including the one in which I played — turned out. But come on, people, you only have to wait a couple of days. In the meantime, since the lid’s off the pot and you already know who the other competitors in the first week of the tournament are, please allow me to introduce you to these 14 fantastic Jeopardy! superstars. I’ll list them — just for the sake of variety — in order of their original appearances on the show. (And no, nothing you’re about to read will even so much as hint at the outcomes of any of the five games in Week One. Just watch the show, willya?)

John Genova (Season 1, $ 50,595 in original winnings; lost in the quarterfinals of TOC #1)

John, if I’m not mistaken, was J!’s first $50K winner. He’s a sixth-grade teacher from the L.A. area. He and I spent a fair amount of time chatting, and I found him a delightful fellow. As the old-timer in our group — both in terms of age and distance from his first J! appearances — he voiced a touch of concern about the mechanics of the competition. But he seemed genuinely glad to be invited, and was a friendly, jovial character in the green room. I enjoyed meeting John and talking with him.

Michael Galvin (Season 3, J!’s first Teen Tournament champion; a wild card in the quarterfinals in TOC #3, he lost to the great Eugene Finerman in the semis)

I remember Michael very well from his 1987 Teen Tourney victory. It’s fair to say that of all the champions in our group, he’s changed the most since his original J! experience — the bushy, shoulder-length hair he sported at 17 has largely abandoned him in his mid-30s. But he still possesses the same quiet confidence that made him a champion. He’s also a remarkably nice guy — I think he’s some kind of marketing consultant in civilian life — and one of the people I most enjoyed getting to know this round. KJ sat next to his father in the audience, and found him quite pleasant also.

Dave Traini (Season 3, $54,502 in original winnings; finished second to Bob Verini in TOC #3; finished third behind Bruce Seymour and Verini in Super J!)

Dave is one of my all-time favorite J! players, and is also one of my favorites among the people I’ve met in my various playing flights. He is perhaps as intense about the game as anyone I’ve ever seen, but he’s also very warm and friendly. Although we never played against each other, Dave and I were in the same flight during Super J! This time, he recognized and greeted me immediately. It was terrific to see him again. As usual, he was extremely focused and a bundle of nervous energy before his game, but we had a very nice conversation after he played.

Tom Cubbage (Season 5, the first College Tournament champion to win a TOC; lost in the Super J! quarterfinals)

A tall lanky guy with an aw-shucks demeanor, Tom was the one person — other than Dave Traini — who made me a trifle nervous when I saw that he was among my potential competitors. I remembered Tom as a dominating player in both his College tourney and TOC, in which he’d beaten a couple of good players named Rich Lerner and Brian Wangsgard in the finals. A true gentleman, though, as I discovered when I chatted with him briefly. He’s now a lawyer in Oklahoma.

Eric Terzuolo (Season 6, $ 64,302 in original winnings; lost in the semifinals of TOC #6)

Although I remembered Eric as a J! champion when I saw him, I couldn’t recall what kind of player he’d been — a pretty darn good one, actually. I had a chance to get to know him a bit in the green room, and found him a fascinating study. Now a retired diplomat, he’d been a professor at a college in the Netherlands until fairly recently, and is preparing to retire to Rome. He’d definitely traveled farther than anyone else present. He’s a Stanford alum, so we swapped a few Bay Area memories.

Leslie Frates (Season 7, $ 56,099 in original winnings; lost in the semifinals of TOC #7, in which she was a favorite going in; third behind Frank Spangenberg and Tom Nosek in the 10th Anniversary Tournament; lost to eventual winner Brad Rutter in the semis of the Million Dollar Masters tournament)

Aside from Dave Traini, Leslie was the other player in my flight whom I already knew, and the only person present I’d played against — in Battle of the Bay Area Brains in 1998. As I’ve written previously, Leslie was the toughest opponent I’d ever faced because of her lightning proficiency with the signaling device. She’s a real J! legend, not just for her great game play, but also because she’s a real personality and effervesces on camera. Leslie is the kind of character you usually see on other game shows, but with colossal J! talent.

Frank Epstein (Season 8, $73,400 in original winnings; got steamrolled by the unstoppable Leszek Pawlowicz in the quarters of TOC #8)

Frank Epstein is a funny guy. From his hangdog expression, gravelly bass voice, and LAPD badge, you wouldn’t think so, but he is. I really enjoyed meeting and talking with Frank. He’s another of those people who might lull you into thinking he’s not much of a player because of all the one-liners, but as his cash total shows, he’s one sharp cookie. For whatever reason, I kept thinking during the course of the pre-taping shenanigans that we’d end up playing each other. We didn’t. So much for my career in prophecy.

Rachael Schwartz (Season 10, $37,499 in original winnings; in TOC #10, she overcame a loss to the favored John Cuthbertson in her quarterfinal game to become the first woman to win a TOC; eliminated by Bob Harris in the quarters of Million Dollar Masters)

Rachael was probably the toughest read in a green room full of tough reads. Her cool demeanor and laser focus made her difficult to approach for conversation. (She definitely would have won a fashion contest among the 15 of us, however, had we staged one.) As a TOC winner, you knew she was an outstanding player; she’d been a real dark horse in a tournament field that included several excellent players (Cuthbertson, Amy Fine, Jean Grewe and Brian Moore had all won over $60,000 each) and emerged victorious.

Arthur Phillips (Season 13, $ 63,003 in original winnings; eliminated in the quarters of TOC #13)

Like Rachael, a tough read. Inscrutable, even. Now a best-selling novelist, Arthur seemed reserved and perhaps even a little shy. I didn’t remember seeing him play — he came in during a period when I wasn't watching the show all that scrupulously — so he was a complete cipher to me.

Bob Harris (Season 14, $ 58,000 in original winnings; finished a distant third behind Dan Melia in TOC #13; lost to Eric Newhouse in the semis of Million Dollar Masters)

Probably one of the more memorable characters in J! history, most people probably think of Bob, a one-time stand-up comic, as one of the show’s class clowns. He’s that, but he’s also an exceptional player, as his record attests. J! seems to attract a disproportionate number of actors and other entertainment types — the champion I unseated to win my first game was an actor named Jack Koenig — and Bob is definitely part of that proud tradition.

Melissa Sexstone Seal (Season 15, Teen Tournament champion in 1999; eliminated in the quarters in TOC #15)

Another of my favorite people in this flight. Former teen champ turned married law student Melissa was heavily pregnant with a baby that threatened to dwarf her tiny frame. Despite her obvious discomfort, she maintained a sunny disposition, and truly was a delight to talk with. Everyone — contestants and J! staffers both — hovered over her making certain she was doing okay throughout the long taping day.

Janet Wong (Season 16, College Tournament champion in 2000; eliminated by Eddie Timanus in the quarters of TOC #15)

A veteran of the same TOC class as Melissa, Janet was accompanied to the taping by a small army of family members and friends. I’m fairly certain she had a larger personal cheering section than the other fourteen of us combined. A pleasant young woman, rather quiet and more than a little awestruck by the proceedings. Very sweet, very charming.

Babu Srinivasan (Season 17, $ 75,100 in original winnings; eliminated by India Cooper in the quarters of Million Dollar Masters)

A history professor from a college in Texas, Babu was another champ I didn’t look forward to playing against. Soft-spoken but funny and immensely likable, Babu is a favorite of many J! fans, myself included. It was a genuine treat to meet him at last. KJ enjoyed getting to know his family in the audience.

Alan Bailey (Season 17, $ 61,501 in original winnings; lost in the semis of TOC#19 to eventual champion Mark Dawson)

The amazing thing about Alan’s J! career is that he probably waited longer to play in a TOC than any other champion. He won in a year when Sony was moving the TOC from one sweeps period to another, so he qualified before one TOC (in which he was an alternate) but didn’t actually compete until the next year’s TOC rolled around. Interesting guy — a playwright and director, there’s a markedly theatrical air about Alan. Unfailingly courtly and charming to everyone — and not in a phony way — and runaway winner of the Best Dressed Award, Masculine Division.

This collection of competitors proved once again something I've discovered time and again over the years of my J! experience — most of the folks who've been successful on Jeopardy! are not only brilliant, but nice too. Go figure.

So enjoy the Ultimate Tournament, and be sure to drop by and comment after Thursday's show.

5 insisted on sticking two cents in:

Blogger sunShine offered these pearls of wisdom...

I will be watching. I love J!

1:34 PM  
Anonymous MG offered these pearls of wisdom...

Thanks for the nice words. I enjoyed meeting you, too. Look forward to seeing you on again in a few weeks.

10:44 AM  
Blogger Janet offered these pearls of wisdom...

Somehow stumbled across this blog ... and wanted to say thanks as well for the kind words. I also wanted to add that my family and friends had the nicest things to say about you and your family (as I believe they were sitting near each other in the studio!), so may your audiences know what a warm and friendly person you are yourself. Best of luck in Round 2!

3:41 PM  
Blogger SwanShadow offered these pearls of wisdom...

Well, thanks, Michael and Janet. I hope that both of you realize how very special you are just for being in a position to be invited to participate in the UTOC. You're among the greatest players in the 21-year history of Jeopardy! Take pride in that.

It's a genuine honor for me to be associated with you both. You accounted for yourselves brilliantly against very tough competitors, and more importantly, you're delightful people. I know that your families are extremely proud of you, and rightly so. May you continue to enjoy success and happiness.

4:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous offered these pearls of wisdom...

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10:05 AM  

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