Friday, April 29, 2005

Can history repeat? Find out tonight on the Jeopardy! Ultimate Tournament!

Ready to watch your favorite blog-spewing Swan compete in tonight's Ultimate Tournament match?

Call out for a pizza, crack open a cream soda, park yourself in front of the set at the time listed in your television guide of choice, and root, root, root for the home squad.

Before we get to the actual game, though, a few quick notes about the 14 Jeopardy! champions with whom I was privileged to share this incredible experience.

NOTE: If you've been following the UTOC to this point, you've already seen the first two games played on my taping day, so what I say here about the contestants in those games should not be considered spoilers. If you've been out of town and haven't seen Wednesday's or Thursday's episodes, and you don't want to know what occurred in them because you're planning to check them out later on VCR or TiVo, read no further. For the rest of you, I will be extremely careful not to reveal the outcome of tonight's game, or of those that will air Monday and Tuesday of next week.

On the morning of the taping, I headed down to the lobby of the Radisson Culver City to catch the shuttle to Sony Pictures Studios. On the elevator ride from the ninth floor, I was joined by...

Grace Veach. When Grace and her husband Steve entered the elevator, I recognized her immediately and introduced myself. Grace was a very warm and friendly person, who seemed ever so slightly nervous. (But then, weren't we all?) She's a librarian at a religious college in the Tampa area, where I know some folks associated with another religious school, so we immediately had common subjects to talk about. I remembered, though, her impressive performance in her first round game, and knew that beneath that unassuming exterior beat the heart of a lion. From the moment we met, I had the sense that we would be facing each other on stage. And I was right.

When our elevator reached the lobby, Grace and I joined a group that already included...

Mark Dawson. Seeing Mark in the lobby of the Radisson Culver City on the morning of the taping was the first shock to my system. I considered Mark one of the toughest players in the Round Two field of 54, for two reasons: (1) he'd already won a Tournament of Champions by beating one of the favorites in this event, Brian Weikle, and (2) he was one of the players I judged as being closest to my playing style and skill level, which I thought would make him particularly tough against me. We'd won almost identical sums in our original five-game runs, and had remarkably similar career statistics overall. Mark had won from behind in Final Jeopardy! in two of his first five games, yet always did what he had to do to win. I was pleased to find him a personable and funny guy, but I didn't look forward to playing against him.

Lan Djang. Lan appeared in the Radisson lobby wearing his infamous black "Intimidator" suit and an almost impassive demeanor. Seeing him was something of a surprise, since his Round One game had not yet aired, so I didn't know he had advanced to the next level. Nice young guy, quiet and self-effacing yet noticeably confident, and with a wicked sense of dry humor. Little did we know the nuclear power hiding behind that inplacable façade, as J! viewers witnessed on Wednesday night. My wife KJ spent most of the day sitting with Lan's family in the audience, and found them quite charming.

Arthur Phillips. The soft-spoken best-selling author from my Round One taping group was back, although one look at his drawn, pale countenance signaled that he wasn't feeling well. It turned out that Arthur had become ill after arriving in L.A. the day before, and for a while was concerned that he might have to withdraw from the taping. But he soldiered on through the day, and probably got sick (no pun intended) of the J! staff and his fellow contestants asking him how he was doing. Arthur rode back to the Radisson at the end of the taping day with KJ and me, giving me more of an opportunity to get to know him than I'd had at our first meeting. Fascinating fellow. Some day soon, I'm going to take a stab at reading one of his books.

Pam Mueller. The belle of our contestants' ball, Pam showed all the sparkle of youth -- namely, being far more energetic and enthusiastic at an early hour of the morning than her elders (pretty much all the rest of us), who were casting furtive glances about for coffee. Pam was easily the conversationalist in our little band, engaging each of us in turn, but especially Lan, whom she knew from their common TOC.

When we boarded the shuttle, we all commented on how small our group was. On my Round One taping day, almost the entire contestant group was staying at the Radisson, and we packed the shuttle to the gills -- this trip, there was plenty of room. Several people speculated that our flight must include quite a few local residents, and indeed, this proved true.

Upon our arrival at the studio, we were joined by...

Bruce Naegeli. Seeing Bruce awaiting us at our debarkation point was a treat, because (a) he and I had been together in both the 1988 TOC and in Super Jeopardy! in 1990, so he was one of the people in the J! universe whose path had crossed mine most often, and (b) his Round One game hadn't yet aired, so I didn't know he had advanced. Bruce is as delightful as they come, and I was very glad to see him again. He didn't appear to have changed much in 15 years -- he was still carrying his lucky can of sardines in his coat pocket.

Jeff Richmond. Jeff was another veteran of Bruce's and my Super J! group. I remembered him as a quiet, serious young law student from the 1990 event — though he can't be more than a handful of years my junior — today, he's a successful attorney. Like Bruce, he appeared glad to see a couple of familiar faces in the crowd. We chatted mostly about how surprised we both were to be back in this position after all these years.

Eric Terzuolo. Like Arthur, Eric was a member of my Round One group. We had spent a fair amount of time that day talking, so I was pleased to see him again. Eric lives in the Netherlands, which meant he'd made another transglobal trip for this second round. He's a very droll, professorial sort, and a scintillating conversationalist. I discovered in the course of the day that he reads SSTOL, so I was relieved that I had said nothing but complimentary things about him in reporting my first round experience here. (See, Eric? Nothing's changed!)

John Beck. Most people seem smaller in person than they appear on television. John seemed infinitely larger — a tall, solidly build man with an imposing physical presence despite his easygoing manner. Likeable and engaging, John would be the guy I'd send into a smoke-filled room to make peace if my enemies were lurking in there.

Tad Carithers. If there was anyone who had appeared thus far who made me more nervous than Mark Dawson, it was Tad, who had slain the dragon named Leszek Pawlowicz — one of only two players in the UTOC who had never lost a game previously — in the first round. (He had a number of interesting things to say in the green room about his battle with Leszek, none of which I'll repeat here. Some things should stay in the clubhouse, as they say in baseball.) Tad, a darkly serious and laconic guy, reminds me very much of someone I know, though (typical me) it took me the better part of the day to remember who that person is.

Brian Weikle. You already know, if you've ventured over to the official J! site, that Brian would turn out to be my second opponent, along with Grace, in my game. As one of the "Nifty Nine," the seeded players whose past accomplishments earned them a free pass to Round Two, Brian's arrival turned a lot of heads. The tension in the atmosphere escalated palpably when he appeared. I had only seen him play once or twice — as with many of the newer champions, I missed many of his performances because I haven't watched the show as rigorously in recent years — but I knew from the J! discussion boards that he had a reputation as an unstoppable opponent. People spoke of being "Weikled," a verb meaning "crushed without mercy on the field of Jeopardy! battle." But he seemed pleasant enough.

Bob Verini. If I can be said to have Jeopardy! heroes, Bob Verini would be foremost among them. Bob had won the TOC the season prior to mine, combining with Eugene Finerman and Dave Traini to form the most memorable troika of TOC finalists the game has yet produced. A stage actor, director, and playwright, Bob not only knows everything about everything, but has a rollicking sense of humor. His impression of the late Julia Child is the stuff of legend. Upon seeing him, I felt I should begin bowing at the waist and crying aloud, "We're not worthy!" But I settled for introducing myself and shaking his hand. He actually knew who I was, and even complimented my past play. If I gain nothing else today, I thought to myself, I've met Bob Verini. Life is good.

Chuck Forrest. For you kids who only know Ken Jennings as the pinnacle of Jeopardy! stardom, you should have seen Chuck Forrest. Winner of the '86 TOC, Chuck was the first true J! superstar; the first player to make opponents' blood run cold at the very mention of his name. I first met Chuck in 1990 during Super J! and was amazed to discover that he was not eight feet tall with laser eyes and flame breath. He's a soft-spoken, very slight fellow who's shorter even than I am, and unfailingly polite. At the time of Super J! he was working for the State Department, stationed in the United Arab Emirates — today he's a private consultant living in Bosnia. Chuck speaks about a zillion languages, including Klingon, I think. I was amazed that he remembered me from 15 years before, and that he made it a point to come over and say hello to me. To my boundless joy, Chuck told me he was only the alternate for our group — the person on stand-by who can step in and play if one of the scheduled contestants keels over, as poor Arthur looked as though he might — and would actually be taping his game on the following day. On this day, he would be a spectator, as Bob Verini had been for the previous taping session.

John Cuthbertson. One of the biggest money winners in J! history before the increase in dollar values a couple of seasons ago, John had been heavily favored to win the 1994 TOC, but had lost in a stunning upset in the semifinals — that tournament eventually went to Rachael Schwartz, my opponent in Round One. Knowing that lightning never strikes twice in the same place — mostly because the same place isn't there the second time — I hoped against hope that I wouldn't have to play against John. (Then again, as I glanced about me, there wasn't a single champion present at whom I looked and thought, "No problem; easy mark." As eager as I was to play again, I wasn't eager to face any two of these folks while doing it.) John turned out to be an extremely pleasant gentleman, and was one of the people with whom I spent the most time conversing early in the day.

At this point, there were 15 of us, but with Chuck as the alternate, someone was missing. When we were settled into the green room, along came our last compatriot...

Brad Rutter. Like Brian Weikle, Brad is one of the players whose name has become a verb in the annals of Jeopardy! fandom. If you watched last night's match, you understand what it means to be "Ruttered." (So too, unfortunately for them, do John Beck and Bruce Naegeli.) Brad, who hosts his own TV quiz show and is, like Ken Jennings, a veteran composer of material for college trivia competitions, possesses encyclopedic knowledge and tachyonic reflexes on the signaling device. Three years ago, he stormed through the Million Dollar Masters tournament, leaving bodies scattered in his wake. If you took a secret poll of UTOC competitors and got honest predictions about the finals of this event, I would not be surprised to find Brad's name on a preponderance of the ballots. And yet, he fit into the group like just another member of the fraternity. I didn't have much chance to get to know Brad, but he seemed like a regular guy, and one of the more outgoing personalities in our group.

There we were. Unlike my first round group in the UTOC, where everyone was simply glad to be asked back and took the events of the coming day in relative ease and good humor, this group of players settled into an intense hum of rising anxiety almost immediately upon entering the green room. By the time rehearsals were over, you could have powered Las Vegas for a night with all the electricity in the air.

And what happened in my game, you ask? You’ll just have to tune in this evening and see. I'll have some follow-up thoughts to share with you afterward. See you back here then!

2 insisted on sticking two cents in:

Blogger Joel offered these pearls of wisdom...

WOW. Sending best wishes vibe your way.

10:24 AM  
Blogger Lynda offered these pearls of wisdom...

Hi! I just watched your episode, but won't "spill the beans" in case your other readers haven't had a chance to view it yet... it was great to "see" you!

1:56 PM  

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