Friday, April 29, 2005

Writing my own Jeopitaph

There's nothing quite so humbling as being thoroughly and inarguably smacked around in front of 15 million of your closest personal friends in the U.S. and Canada.

Trust me on this.

Have you ever seen the movie Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead? There's a scene in which Treat Williams launches a surprise attack on an assassin, played by Steve Buscemi, who has arrived to kill him. With Buscemi sprawled on the floor at gunpoint, Williams screams, "I am Godzilla! You are Japan!"

I have met Godzilla, ladies and gentlemen, and his feet are named Grace Veach and Brian Weikle.

In the wake of his outstanding regular season run on Jeopardy! Brian Weikle proved himself such a devastating opponent that the experience of having played against him became known among J! fanatics as "getting Weikled." Allow me to introduce you to the only person in J! history who got Weikled by Weikle while simultaneously getting Veached by Veach.

Talk about getting caught between Scylla and Charybdis. Just call me Odysseus.

Fortunately for me, this wasn't the first time in my Jeopardy! career that I've had such an experience, so there was at least a sense of "been here, done this" flitting through my brain as the game flashed before my eyes.
  • In my semifinal game in the 1988 Tournament of Champions, my score was in negative figures at both the first and second commercial breaks. In that game, I rallied in the second half to lead the match going into Final Jeopardy! (I missed the final answer and lost the game to Mark Lowenthal, who went on to win the Tournament — and its $100,000 top prize — in stellar fashion.)
  • In 1990's Super Jeopardy! tournament, the first of the show's periodic invitational blockbusters, I led at halftime in my quarterfinal match over the legendary Bob Blake. Then I believe I answered all of one clue correctly in the second half, while Bob ran away with the game.
This was, however, the first time I've had a game in which I played so miserably in both halves of the match. Not exactly the most auspicious way to end my Jeopardy! career.

I felt absolutely helpless against the signaling device throughout the game. (Could you tell?) The activation timing was completely different from the first round of the UTOC, when there was what seemed like an interminable pause between the end of Alex Trebek's reading of the clue and the manual initiation of the buzzers. In this game, no such pause existed, and I -- who had spent two months practicing a different strategy in anticipation of conditions mirroring the first round -- simply could not adjust. That's not an excuse for my lousy performance -- Grace had to face the same challenge, and Brian, one of the seeded players who had been granted a bye in Round One, was equally disadvantaged, since he last played a couple of years ago. Both of them made the necessary adjustment effortlessly, while I wrestled with my buzzer as though it were encased in amber. Despite receiving a lecture on proper signaling technique from contestant coordinator Glenn Kagan — actually more humiliating than getting torched in the game — I never could master the timing. I tried ringing in faster, slower...nothing worked. The longer the game went, the more frustrated I became. KJ says she could see steam rising from my cranium by the end of the match.

At this point, I would like to be able to tell you that, were it not for my woes on the buzzer, I would have come on like gangbusters and mopped the floor with Grace and Brian. I would like to — but it wouldn't be remotely close to the truth. This game's category boards, particularly the Double Jeopardy! board, were the toughest I've ever faced, and were completely outside my realm of...well...not expertise, because I'm not really an expert in anything. Proficiency, maybe.

When I won my first five games in 1988, the winner of the game immediately following my involuntary retirement was a fellow named Stephen Lebowitz. Stephen won $50,000 during his run of four consecutive victories — sadly, he lost his fifth game, or he'd have qualified for the UTOC — and was a fine player in his own right. When we met again in the '88 Tournament of Champions, Stephen told me he had a recurring nightmare that every category in the game he was about to play was entitled, "Things Stephen Doesn't Know." (It may well have happened — he lost his quarterfinal match in the TOC.)

My second UTOC match will forever be known as my Stephen Lebowitz game. For all the good I was able to accomplish, every category from the start of the match through Final Jeopardy! might as well have been titled, "Things Michael Doesn't Know." For a reasonably intelligent guy, I stood there feeling awfully stupid for 22 minutes, while Grace and Brian ran riot on either side of me. I could have been spotted a half-second ring-in advantage on every clue, and it wouldn't have been sufficient. I simply didn't know enough of the material in this game to win, even if I'd been first to ring in on every answer I did in fact know — which I rarely was. And there just weren't enough of those this time, as the incredible number of triple stumper questions proved.

Or, to put it another way, this was Grace and Brian's universe. I was merely a rogue asteroid floating aimlessly about in it.

Truth to tell, the agony started during rehearsal. Not only was I struggling with the signaling device even then, but I figured out rather quickly that I would be facing Brian Weikle in my game. During pre-taping rehearsals, the contestant coordinators had been careful not to position players against one another who would actually be competing in the scheduled matchups (which aren't revealed in advance of play). Because I was the last of the 15 contestants to enter the second rehearsal game, it was easy to review whom I'd stood next to on stage and whom I hadn't, and thereby narrow the field of potential opponents. The final tip-off, though, came while I was waiting for my second and last rehearsal opportunity. The contestant coordinator who was cueing us when to go on stage made the mistake of telling me, "Wait until Brian is sent back down before you go up there." The only possible reason for such an instruction at that point would be to prevent Brian and me from rehearsing together, which meant he was slated to be one of my opponents.

I'd only seen one or two of Brian's previous games, but I'd definitely heard about people getting Weikled. I also knew that he had been the five-day money leader before a certain Mr. Jennings came along. Given that my Round One game, even though I'd won, had made me all too aware of how much my always-suspect buzzer skills had eroded, I knew that a match against Brian — especially with a third great player in the mix — would be very tough. I sighed, and resolved to just do the best I could.

And, as lackluster as it was, that's exactly what I did. On that day, with those categories, and against two spectacular players of the caliber of Brian and the amazing Grace (you knew I would work that in eventually, didn't you?), that was the best I had. I wasn't going to beat either of those folks that day. I'd be a little surprised if I could beat either of them on any day, but anything's possible.

I was excited for Grace, a very nice person and a gritty competitor whom I suspect some in our taping group underestimated. (I was not among them.) And I was disappointed for Brian, whom I truly expected to go deep in this tournament — I think that was his own expectation, too — but who showed commendable character in defeat. Both of them are truly lovely people, and I was honored to share their stage for a few moments.

(A little inside scoop: The blue necktie Brian wore during the game was one of my spares. The pattern on his own tie wreaked havoc with the television cameras, so I loaned him this one. Had he won the game, I fully intended to let him keep it for good luck. Alas, it was not to be, and I don't suppose it would have looked as well on Grace.)

Did I mention that this just happened to be the 13th game of the second round, and it aired on a Friday?

So ends my fabulous Jeopardy! career, in all probability. But what a long, strange, and wonderful ride it's been, over these past 17 years. I have been so blessed, and I am so grateful, that I've not only been granted the opportunity to do something millions of people only dream of doing, but also have been asked to do it again and again. I've met some incredible people, won a fair sum of money, and had a number of irreplaceable adventures, the memories of which I'll treasure the rest of my life.

In the end, I'll walk away with the knowledge that, on a good day, with the right material, I'm still among the (right now, anyway) 54 best players in the history of Jeopardy! How many people will ever get to say that?

As I close the book on this riveting chapter, I’d like to extend my sincere thanks to the following worthy folks:
  • Sony Pictures and the Jeopardy! production team, for inviting me to participate in this amazing event, and for the $41,601 of their stockholders’ cash they allowed me to cart away. I thank you, the IRS thanks you, the California Franchise Tax Board thanks you, and Brad, my CPA, thanks you.
  • The Jeopardy! contestant staff — Maggie Speak, Glenn Kagan, Tony Pandolfo, Ayesha Black, Bob Ettinger, and the nonpareil Susanne Thurber (who sails off into long-overdue and richly deserved retirement after the UTOC ends), along with stage manager John Lauderdale — for always treating me with the utmost kindness and respect. A nicer group of people you will not find anywhere else in show business, search though you may.
  • Five marvelous people whose paths I was privileged to cross yet again in this lifetime, each of whom reminded me again why I was so honored to meet them previously: Dave Traini, Leslie Frates, Bruce Naegeli, Jeff Richmond, and the Legend himself, Chuck Forrest. That this event afforded me the chance to see each of you again made it all worthwhile.
  • My fellow champions in both of my taping groups. I was humbled and honored to bask in your reflected brilliance. I enjoyed many memorable moments chatting with each of you, but my special gratitude to those of you who didn’t allow me to plaster my socially-inept self in a corner, but actually engaged me in conversation, despite my instinct to run and hide: Arthur Phillips (hope you’re feeling better, Arthur!), Michael Galvin, Eric Terzuolo, Tom Cubbage, Frank Epstein, Melissa Seal, Janet Wong, Mark Dawson, Tad Carithers, John Cuthbertson, and the delightful Bob Verini, whose words of genuine empathy after my Round Two match will remain one of my most cherished Jeopardy! memories.
  • My Round One opponents, Rachael Schwartz and John Genova, for their graciousness when the luck went my way, and my Round Two opponents, Grace Veach and Brian Weikle, for their graciousness when it didn’t. When you see Ken, Grace, give him a sound Veaching. And Brian, what I said to you on the way to the commissary still holds true.
  • The families and friends of my fellow champs, who were all so kind to my wife and made her feel part of the group.
  • All of the good people who called or e-mailed to wish me well. I hope you weren’t too disappointed.
  • My loving and resourceful wife, who dutifully trekked back and forth to L.A. with me, and my darling daughter, who tolerated my heightened level of insanity during this hectic period, and also made sure all the UTOC games were videotaped. Without the two of you, this tournament — and indeed, life itself — would have been a pointless exercise.
  • Alex Trebek, just for being Alex.
  • And you, gentle readers, who have tolerated my yakking about this darn thing for the past few months.
My final tale of the Jeopardy! tape:
  • Total games: 11.
  • Win-loss record: 8-3 (.727).
  • Games led going into Final Jeopardy!: 8 (72.7%).
  • Final Jeopardy! correct questions: 6 (54%).
  • Total career winnings: $103,699, plus a prize package worth $7,700 won in the Jeopardy! Battle of the Bay Area Brains.
  • Lucky guesses: Countless.
  • Unsolicited adulation: Infinitely more than I deserve.
  • Memories: Priceless.

3 insisted on sticking two cents in:

Blogger Sam offered these pearls of wisdom...

I'm proud oif you, man. You did your thing and whether you won or loss, you did your best. Congrats.

1:53 AM  
Blogger Joel offered these pearls of wisdom...

So KEWL. No matter the outcome. What an awesome experience.

7:30 AM  
Anonymous Brian offered these pearls of wisdom...

Michael, what a thoughtful and well-written recap. It was a privilege to share the stage with you.

I regret that I didn't spend more time talking with you afterwards. I'm sure you can understand that I was not exactly in a chatty mood.

Best of luck in the future, and I hope to see you if they run another of these crazy tournaments.

9:25 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home