LOS ANGELES - As a "Jeopardy!" contestant in the Ken Jennings era, I got my first glimmer of hope when I arrived at the Sony Pictures Studios lot the morning of Nov. 30, 2004, and met my fellow players.
Brice Sanderson, a burly high school teacher and athletic director from San Bernardino, Calif., introduced himself as the returning champion.
"How many shows have you won?" I asked. "One," he said.
Jennings' record-breaking 74-game streak had already come to an end. I had feared that whoever beat him would be an intellectual powerhouse, poised for a run of her or his own. Now, for the first time since I decided to audition, I thought I had a realistic chance at winning.
I had dreamed of competing in "Jeopardy!" since childhood. While working the night desk in the Baltimore bureau of The Associated Press, I watched the show regularly - not that it distracted me from my job, of course - and found that my career had helped me answer more clues than ever before.
I auditioned in June 2004 in Washington, D.C. I decided not to study or prepare other than by continuing to watch the show. The written test consisted of 50 "Jeopardy!" clues - nothing tricky, underhanded or terribly obscure. Like the show, the test looks for the broadest knowledge possible.
Contestants aren't told what they score on the test or what's required to pass. But I'm confident I missed no more than five. After that, we lucky ones participated in a mock version of the game to get a feel for what it's like to ring in with the signaling button and banter with host Alex Trebek. We were told the show wanted contestants who would look comfortable and confident, not jittery or spastic.
As I later found out, it's much easier to be cool in a hotel conference room than on the "Jeopardy!" set.
Passing the test is no guarantee of making it on the show. So I waited, only half-expecting to get a call, while watching Ken rack up victory after victory. I rooted against him futilely, not wanting to become another one of his anonymous victims.
In early November, I got the call. "Jeopardy!" tapes five shows a day, two days a week. I was asked to be in Los Angeles on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1. If I got on the first show, I was told, could win ten times in one trip! Yeah, right.
A contestant's life is not glamorous. "Jeopardy!" doesn't pay your airfare or hotel costs, although they give you a discounted rate at a Radisson in Culver City, near the Sony lot. Prize money for second place is $2,000 and third place is $1,000, mostly to defray the costs of travel. So the only way you can make any real money is to win.
Walking on the set, it looked much the same as on television. During commercial breaks, Alex takes questions from the audience. He's goofier and more relaxed than he appears on the show, and he cultivates what fellow contestant Doug Meyer termed a "lounge lizard" persona.
"What do you do when you're not hosting 'Jeopardy!'?" a spectator asked.
"Drink!" said Alex, only half-joking. He loves California wine and has a clear affection for the "Potent Potables" category, which came up during one show that day.
Contestants go through about three hours of orientation, including standing on the set and practicing with the all-important signaling buttons. Once the taping starts, the future contestants sit in the studio audience, and we were told not to talk or even make eye contact with our friends and family, sitting several rows above us - the better to avoid any accusations of cheating.
Brice, the returning champion, looked vulnerable. He was knocked off by Kevin Blackley, a smooth, confident automotive service consultant. Then Kevin was beaten by Daniel Granof, an associate producer on a reality TV show. Daniel won again before Lisa Osterman beat him with some clever betting strategy - she went into Final Jeopardy in third place but didn't risk any money, allowing Daniel and his closer competition to cancel each other out when they got the answer wrong. In the next game, Lisa did the same thing and won again.
All this time, I waited patiently, but my name wasn't called. I would have to return the next morning for my chance.
That night, I joined Lisa and one of her vanquished opponents, Omar Shokeir, in the hotel bar to watch Ken's defeat at the hands of Nancy Zerg. As remarkable as his run was, his loss followed a predictable pattern: He missed two particularly difficult Daily Doubles and a tricky Final Jeopardy clue. (For the record, I knew the answer: "What is H&R Block?")
Then a surprising thing happened: On the next show, Nancy lost. "Jeopardy!" quickly returned to a state of normalcy, with contestants struggling to win even two games in a row. Omar told me he wasn't surprised, saying the laws of probability favored that sort of outcome.
And he was right, because in the five shows I had seen, no truly dominant player emerged. So I was pumped up when I left the studio at the end of the day. I did my best to take my mind off what was coming, but excitement combined with jet lag resulted in a largely sleepless night.
The next day, a new group of contestants came in. I was picked for the first show, along with Patrice Escalle.
As well as I had done practicing with the signaling button, the actual competition is much more intense. At the first commercial break, halfway through the first round, I was in third place with just $800. Then, after a few wrong responses that briefly put me into red numbers at minus $200, I started to get my footing.
"Jeopardy!" tests your knowledge, but also your hand-eye coordination. Mastering the signaling button can give you a big advantage, because if you're fast, you can ring in first when all three contestants know the answer - a frequent occurrence.
Watching at home, you can yell out the answer at any time. As a contestant, you're not allowed to ring in until after Alex has finished reading the clue. Out of the frame of the cameras, there is a series of lights around the game board, and when they illuminate, it's OK to ring in. If you try to ring in early, you will be locked out for a fraction of a second when the lights turn on - more than enough time for your opponents to swoop in.
As my game went on, I developed a rhythm. I wouldn't really listen to Alex reading the clue - I would read it quickly myself, then focus my eyes on the spot where the lights were. If I knew the answer, I could hit the button as soon as the lights came on - and if I kept my focus, I was rarely beaten to the punch.
The lack of sleep, though, took its toll. When you're tired and full of adrenaline, your mind can play tricks on you. It's much tougher to come up with the answers when you're under the lights: Your brain is a step slow.
I barreled through the first four clues in a "Sportsmen" category - setting myself up to run the category and get some well-deserved applause from the audience. The final, $2,000 clue was about Len Dawson, a Kansas City Chiefs quarterback from the '60s and '70s. I knew it, but I couldn't retrieve his name. I answered, "Who is Ken Stabler?" - an Oakland quarterback from the '70s with a similar-sounding name.
Later, I blew a relatively easy Daily Double on which I had bet $3,600. It was about the first country "entirely within Asia" to have a railway system. For some reason, my addled brain interpreted the phrase "entirely within Asia" to mean a landlocked country. I hemmed and hawed and answered, "What is Nepal?" - knowing immediately that I was wrong. The answer, of course, was India.
I had overcome my slow start to barge into the lead, only to backslide. Going into Final Jeopardy, I was tied for second with Patrice, with a relatively paltry $6,600. Lisa had $8,400. The category? "European Capitals."
I bet it all.
The answer: "In an August 1989 protest, a 2-million-person human chain stretched from Tallinn to Riga to this city." I knew it immediately. Tallinn is the capital of Estonia, Riga the capital of Latvia. The clue was looking for Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, the southernmost of the three former Soviet republics on the Baltic Sea.
How did I happen to know this? It was in the movie "The Hunt for Red October," and I have an interest in Russian history - the Soviet Union was breaking up not long after the movie was released.
I was first to reveal my question, doubling my score to $13,200. Patrice got it wrong. And then things got weird.
The taping stopped. There was some dispute about whether Lisa had gotten the answer right. For five excruciating minutes, we waited while the judges decided what to do. Lisa told me it was "50-50" whether they would give it to her. The contestant coordinators swirled around us, trying to calm us down.
Finally, the judges came to a decision. Lisa had written "What is Vilnuis?" - transposing the "i" and the "u." Spelling is not a factor in the Jeopardy and Double Jeopardy rounds, when you respond verbally. But in Final Jeopardy, the rule is, you can spell the word wrong, as long as you don't mangle it so badly that the pronunciation of the word would be different. Unfortunately for Lisa, that's what she had done.
I was the "Jeopardy!" champion.
In the green room, I knelt to the floor and pumped my fists, allowing myself a moment of unbridled joy. But there was little time to celebrate. There's only about a 10-minute turnaround between shows, and I had to change into a new suit and get my makeup touched up. This time, I was going up against John Smith and Missy Carlson.
As the champion, I had experience on my side and was able to jump out to a lead. But in the Double Jeopardy round, the categories didn't play to my strengths - "Prehistoric Critters" was truly baffling. More than usual, I had to sit tight because I just didn't know the answers.
After leading for much of the game, Missy overtook me. I went into Final Jeopardy with $11,600 - much better than in my first game - but trailing Missy, who had $12,800. John had imploded after the show's judges reviewed the tape and found that his pronunciation of a previous response was incorrect, costing him $4,000. He ended up in the red and didn't get to stick around for Final Jeopardy.
The category was "20th Century Athletes." Again, I bet it all. But this time, the clue writers got the best of me. "In 1938, at age 25, she became the youngest person made a Knight First Class of the Order of St. Olav." It had to be someone European - maybe the woman who swam the English Channel? - but the only female athlete from that era whose name I could recall was Babe Didrikson. I wrote it down, sealing my fate.
The correct response: "Who was Sonja Henie?" I had heard her name before, but I had no chance of coming up with it. The clue was perfect for Missy, an ice-skating fan. She made a big wager and ended up with a well-deserved $23,300 payday.
I left the studio with the promise that eventually - contestants aren't paid until 120 days after each of their episodes is broadcast - I would earn $15,200, before taxes, for my victory plus my second-place finish.
Watching my episodes on television brought a mix of exhilaration and frustration. I couldn't do anything about Sonja Henie, but I should have done better on the show I won. Just getting that Daily Double would have doubled my eventual winnings. And since I didn't do well enough to be invited back for a future Tournament of Champions, I can never be a contestant again.
That said, I am a "Jeopardy!" champion.