Jonathan Competes on Jeopardy: Playing the Game

How the Game Works

The show follows a very rigid script:

(1) Before filming starts, each contestant writes their name on their little electronic pad (for the front of their podium). And they hook up your microphones. Then the two challengers film their “Hometown Howdies”. (The returning champion already did theirs on thier first day.) They double check your make-up, etc.and filming starts.

(2) The announcer Johnny Gilbert introduces each of you by name as you stand at the podium, and then intruduces Alex Trebek as he enters. Alex says a few sentences of introduction, and then reads the categories for the first round (the Jeopardy round). The returning champion picks the first category and clue, and the first round is underway.

(3) After the fifteenth question (half of the first round), Alex cuts away to commercial.

(4) When we return from commercial, Alex spends a little bit of time meeting each contestant, from left to right. He has cards with a few interesting facts about each person, with one highlighted. (The staff suggests that he use the highlighted fact, but he’s free to talk about whatever he wants!) After chatting with the champion, we pick up our buzzers and play the rest of round 1. At the end of the round, there’s another commercial break.

(5) Round 2 is the “Double Jeopardy” round, with twice as much money at stake. We’re back from commercial, Alex reads the categories, and the person in third place picks the clue. This round is played straight through without a break. As we near the end, if we’re running out of time, Alex will mention it (something like “There’s one minute left”). At the end of Double Jeopardy, Alex reads the scores, reveals the category for Final Jeopardy, and cuts to commercial.

(6) During the break, the crew sets up dividers between the podiums so that you can’t see others’ wagers or answers. You get scratch paper to help figure out your bet, and all the time you need. When you’re ready, your little electronic writing pad says “Write bet here:” and has a little box. The crew looks over your shoulder to be sure that your bet is legible, and to write down your bet (so Alex and the scorekeepers actually know your wager before it’s revealed.) After everyone has bet, the crew tells you the first word of the answer (I mean, question) – who where, or what – and has you write it down in advance. And then we proceed to the Final Jeopardy round.

(7) Alex reveals the clue, and you write down your response. The pens are active from the beginning, so you don’t have to wait for the question to finish. After your 30 seconds (as the music finishes), your pen stops working. They warn you that if your answer is incomplete, they’ll mark it wrong! Alex reveals the answers and the wagers, we see who’s won, and we cut to commercial.

(8) The last segment is for under the credits – the only part of the show that the contestants emerge from behind the podiums. You stand with to Alex at center stage (the champion is right next to him) and chat as the credits roll.

My Game

The main thing I recall is how fast the game goes. They film in real time, more or less, and the game moves very quickly. I had to be totally focused on the game board and the questions, with no time to think about how nervous I might be. Because the display of the scores is very high up and off to the side, I couldn’t really watch the scores while playing, so I wasn’t really aware of the scores, except when we paused for a commercial or for a Daily Double.

I started off slowly. At first, I had a lot of trouble buzzing in first, and Joshua beat me in a lot. We did “The 2004 Elections” first, then “Advertising Mascots”. After two categories, I’d answered just two questions, and the scores were:

Joshua Jonathan Alex
$3,400 $1,200 $1,400

Then we did “Film Criticism”. At the first commercial break, Joshua had a big lead.

Joshua Jonathan Alex
$5,400 $1,800 $1,800

After the break, I did a little better. I got a Daily Double right, and got three answers (I mean questions) in the dreaded “Cockney Rhyming Slang” category (see sidebar). The round ended with me solidly in second place.

Joshua Jonathan Alex
$7,400 $5,800 $1,000

Alex, in third place, got to pick first to start the Double Jeopardy round. She started with “Guitar Player” and ran the category, buzzing in on all five clues and getting them all right. This was a huge boost for her – adding $6,000 to her score and putting her near the lead. I didn’t have the faintest idea on any of the guitar-player clues, and I suspect that Joshua didn’t either. After this run, I was trailing:

Joshua Jonathan Alex
$7,400 $5,800 $7,000

The next couple of categories went pretty evenly. I got a couple of questions under “Writers Journal” and “Daily ‘Bread'”, and pulled closer to the lead. Just past the halfway point of the round, I hit the Daily Double. At that point, the scores were:

Joshua Jonathan Alex
$13,400 $12,600 $9,000

I wagered $2,500, got it right, and pulled into the lead for the first time since the beginning of the game.

The final two categories went pretty evenly. Alex got the second Daily Double and won $2,500 with a skillful guess, and with one question left on the board I was trailing Joshua by $1,100. I buzzed in, successfully figured out what “national” opening is abbreviated “DD” on architectural drawings, and pulled into the lead going into final Jeopardy!

Joshua Jonathan Alex
$17,400 $18,300 $13,500

The player with the lead has a huge advantage in Final Jeopardy. The most common outcome has all three players getting the answer right. The category was English Royalty – one that I know pretty well, so I felt cautiously optimistic.

During the break, we got scratch paper and as much time as necessary to calculate our wagers. Because the scores were so close, I had to bet enough to cover Joshua (so that if he bet it all and got it right, I could still beat him).

The question was not easy (see sidebar). If I had remembered Edward/Harold/William in 1066, I certainly would have remembered the date. I might have remembered about the boy princes in the Tower (I didn’t), but I would probably not have known the year. I did remember the Duke & Duchess of Windsor, and I knew it was in the late ’30s. I thought it was an even number, and was vacillating between 1936 and 1938. I was really torn between the two options, but I had to write down something as the music was winding down.

Alex guessed 1789 (wrong) and wagered $6,700. Joshua guessed 1553 (wrong) and wagered everything ($17,400). I guessed 1938 (close, but wrong) and wagered $16,501. The final scores:

Joshua Jonathan Alex
$0 $1,799 $6,800

So, I came in second.

If I had guessed differently, I would have won $34,801. If I had wagered less, I would have won even by getting it wrong, as it turns out. So, do I have any regrets? No – no regrets. If I had it to do again, I’d do the same. I bet on getting it right, not on getting it wrong. I can live with losing by answering wrong; I don’t think I could live with losing by answering right. I bet what I had to bet, and I didn’t know the answer – that’s the way the game goes.

All in all, I had a really great time, and even coming in second I would do it again in a heartbeat. (Of course, I wouldn’t have turned down the $35,000 if I had won!)

Postscript (January 31, 2005):

It has just come to my attention that, had I answered Final Jeopardy correctly, not only would I have returned as the champion, but my total of $34,801 would have been tied for 56th on Jeopardy’s list of all-time biggest one-day totals (or 24th, if you don’t count Ken Jennings!)

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