2009 Tournament of Champions semifinalist: $10,000.
Season 25 4-time champion: $114,800 + $1,000.
At the time of his appearances, Ben was a senior at Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts.
Jeopardy! Message Board user name: BenBish
Originally from Seattle, Washington
December 15, 2008
Even though I had watched Jeopardy! on and off throughout my life, it wasn’t until my freshman year of college that I began to think about actually being on the show. I used to watch it every day with a friend of mine, heckling contestants who I thought wagered poorly or should have known the answers. Fed up with my complaining one day, she suggested I take the online test they had just advertised . I took it, and it humbled me. The questions came too fast and I didn’t know very many of them. I continued watching the show and came at the test with a more focused attitude my junior year – scanning each question for words that might give away the answer, saving me enough time to type. I was pretty sure I had done well. The chance to try out almost passed me by – I accidentally deleted the e-mail from Jeopardy! telling me when my tryout was, but I found it when looking for another e-mail in my deleted items folder. I was headed for the tryout in Boston!
I had a nervous moment when I had to tell my hydrogeology teacher that I would be missing our lab that week because it conflicted with my tryout (this was the same class I talked about in the Thursday episode). She was both happy and a bit angry: Happy for me that I got the tryout, frustrated because she also got one for the same time, but couldn’t go. After long deliberation, she decided she couldn’t cancel our lab for her tryout. She wished me luck and I took the bus down to the Boston Sheraton in mid-March.
The tryouts were fun – I enjoyed getting the Jeopardy! pen and taking the written test. I knew once I finished that I had done pretty well. I wasn’t worried about playing the game or the interview portion, and both proved to be fun. The tryout left me feeling confident about getting on the show, and I began to watch the show differently – particularly focusing on how much to wager in different situations.
I didn’t think much about Jeopardy! over the summer or the start of the school year, but it was always at the back of my mind. It was a fun possibility to have hanging around. I was quite surprised when I got the call – which actually took about five days. A friend and I were tutoring prisoners at the Hampshire County Jail, which we do every Tuesday and Thursday. When I got my phone back after leaving the jail, I saw there was a message. The message said something like, “Hi Ben, this is Glenn from Jeopardy! calling, call me back when you get this.” Since I picked this up at 8:30 Eastern time, I thought I might have a chance at catching Glenn at the end of his day. I called him back that night, and a few times Friday, but there was no answer. I was sitting in my Game Theory class on the following Monday when my phone vibrated with a call from the same number. I bolted outside the building and answered it. Glenn asked me a bunch of eligibility questions, then gave me my filming date – October 14. An ideal date, since it coincided with our fall break – I would be able to fly out to Los Angeles on Friday and hang out in the sun for a few days before filming.
I studied quite a lot – mostly refreshing my memory on names so that I wouldn’t be caught with an answer at the tip of my tongue. I focused on a few areas where a small amount of studying would help me in a whole category, such as artists and Shakespeare. The artist studying came very much in handy when I hit a daily double in my second game. My roommate keeps a lectern under his bed, so we pulled that out and set up a replica of the Jeopardy! set. I used the click pen from the tryout as a model buzzer – not as much to get my timing down as to force me to think about whether or not I would actually ring in during a game. My roommate helped me practice a lot – quizzing me on material I provided and playing the role of Alex using televised games and questions from the internet. This practice, while helpful for my Jeopardy! appearance, took a bit of a toll on both of our academic lives (so, um, thanks Garrett, and feel free to show this to any future employers who are curious about your precipitous GPA drop during your senior year). We also used this time to think even harder about wagering strategies – I ultimately decided that people were not aggressive enough on daily doubles (and no, I did not use any fancy Game Theory tricks – I just got that feeling).
I flew out to L.A. the Friday before my taping to play a bit of golf with my dad, get some sun, and finish studying a few things I wanted to know. I slept well Monday night and was excited for taping on Tuesday. When I woke up Tuesday, however, I discovered that I hadn’t brought any pants. I borrowed a pair from my dad, then got dropped off at the studio by my parents (who would come back later to watch the show). A note: All future contestants should be warned that “come dressed as you plan to appear on the show” means that you should not show up wearing a pair of jeans and a t-shirt.
The three or four hours before the first episode taping are entertaining for a variety of reasons. Robert and Maggie are incredibly nice and quite personable – they really help settle the nerves and guide the contestants through a whirlwind day. Meeting other contestants was a fun experience – each person has great stories about how they got there and fun things they’ve done (for example, one had flown in from Honduras for the taping and another came in full air force uniform). We were all in happy moods (we were on Jeopardy!!), and it was fun to find connections to other contestants – either similar interests or a common high school. Beneath this, of course, the contestants size each other up, scouting the competition. I looked around trying to figure out who I most wanted to compete against, but got the idea that Jeopardy! has very few contestants I’d want to go against: everybody seemed smart.
Walking out to practice on the stage was incredible. I remember having a dumb look on my face and a great big grin – like Charlie walking into the chocolate factory. It was just great fun to look around and realize where I was. Being on set also helped calm the nerves and get myself focused on trying to win. Watching the first show live was great – though of course all of us contestants-in-waiting cringed when we saw categories and questions that we would have done well in. I wanted to play in the next game and was excited to hear Robert announce my name. We picked numbers for podiums, and I got the one nearest the audience – I had preferred the middle. Five minutes until showtime: I gave myself a final pep talk and got excited to play the game.
First Win: I wasn’t too nervous for the games, but all remaining nerves dissipated when the third clue was revealed: It was about cotton, which I’ve studied a lot. I responded correctly with Egypt, and don’t really remember the rest of the round. The moment that I remember the most in the first game was when the categories for Double Jeopardy came out. It was like that scene in Cheers, where Cliff sees his dream board come out. I never guessed there would be two geography categories in my first Double Jeopardy!, including my favorite – VOWEL-LESS COUNTRIES. When the Final Jeopardy clue was revealed, I knew I had won (though I didn’t believe it until Trebek announced it) and that it was time to get ready for the next one.
Second win: In the second game I really began to hit my rhythm. Again, I remember very little about it, except that standing at the champion’s podium feels a lot different from being at the first podium. Since the clue board is just past Alex Trebek (both slightly to the right of the champion), the champion doesn’t really ever see the two challengers; he can focus on Alex and the game board. I played well in that game and got a lot of good luck, though it was unfortunate that my long-haired competitor, Zach, couldn’t stick around for Final Jeopardy! He was a good competitor and a fun guy to have around the green room.
Third win: My third game was definitely my favorite, and not just because it was my most (financially) rewarding. My opponents had already seen me win two games in a row, and their slight fear of me seemed to play into my favor (they also seemed to avoid me at lunch, but that may have been for reasons other than my winning). I don’t remember much about the game itself except for Final Jeopardy! I was winning but didn’t have a runaway, so knew that I basically had to get Final Jeopardy! right. I’m not sure why I bet all my money in Final Jeopardy! The category, COUNTRY NAMES, was right in my wheelhouse and I figured that sooner or later my luck would run out – the material would turn against me. I figured that if I got it wrong I would likely lose anyway – the second-place contestant could make a small wager so that she would for sure win if I missed it. I decided to try to maximize my winnings. The first twenty seconds after the clue was revealed were incredibly worrying. The question was about a country in Asia named after a European king, so I imagined a map of Asia in my mind. I worked across it geographically, west to east, but simply couldn’t come up with an answer. With about seven seconds left, and after switching methods to thinking of European kings, I realized what the answer was – and also why I had overlooked it in my mental map – the Philippines are well east of mainland Asia. I scribbled furiously and barely finished the last letter when the music stopped. My brain had bailed me out. The next ten minutes were surreal. In seven seconds I had made $41,000 big ones and given myself another opportunity to play.
I finished the day with a runaway win. My opponents were both very capable, but my timing on the buzzer was too much and all the clues were coming my way. As I left the studio, people were patting me on the back and cheering for me – it was incredible. My parents wondered why I hadn’t told them how much I knew. I just had a big grin on my face and was happy to wander off into the sunny California afternoon.
I had gotten four shows’ worth of lucky breaks and material that I knew. I lost in the next show because I didn’t know the material (for example, Barbara Streisand movies). I can only be thankful that this happened on my fifth show instead of my first.
The only people I told about how I had done were my parents (who were in the audience) and my sister, who threatened grievous bodily harm if I didn’t. Many of my college friends asked how I did, but my poker face has held steady so far. One practical reason for not letting my friends know how I did is that I don’t have to proffer more than my fair share of beer money.
I hope to go to the Tournament of Champions in Las Vegas, but even if I don’t, I’ll look back with pride on my Jeopardy! run. Being on set and playing the game has increased my admiration for the way contestants handle the pressures of playing the game. There is a lot going on – reading the clues, buzzing in at the right time, keeping track of the score, figuring out how much to wager, etc – knowing the material is only one of the necessary skills (though it is an important one). Jeopardy! was great fun – exactly what I’d always imagined the combination of trivia and competition would be.