Season 25 3-time champion: $69,401 + $2,000.
Last name pronounced like "BYOO-kuh-muh".
Jeopardy! Message Board user name: fbeuks
Fred Beukema - A Structural Engineer
April 1, 2009
As I think it is for many contestants, being on Jeopardy!, was a lifelong goal. This goal formed around the time I was on the quiz bowl team in high school, watching the show on a daily basis. My drive towards that goal fell off in college along with my watching the show. In January '08, my friend Lacey, who holds game show contestantship as a life goal herself and with whom I had recently stood in line in single-digit temperatures for 7 hours for a different program’s tryouts, alerted me to the Jeopardy! online test. I took it, and felt good about my answers. A few weeks later I was invited to an audition. Conveniently, there would actually be one in Minneapolis this time, so I only needed to take an afternoon off.
I prepared by reading a former Jeopardy! champion’s very funny book of his experiences on the show, and by playing a lot of the Jeopardy! video game. I also started writing up short trivia quizzes on my blog as I worked on reviewing subjects online. On the audition date, I left work with time to go home and eat some lunch first (no good being jittery!) before heading downtown.
There were a couple dozen other apparent auditioners in the sitting area outside the Jeopardy! meeting room. We were each given a clipboard full of contact and biographical forms to fill out, including a handful of sample stories that could be used for Alex’s biographical chatter cards on the show. They took an unflattering Polaroid of each of us, and ushered us into a conference room set up with long tables facing a projection screen. There were twenty of us in a room that could hold twenty seven. I wondered if some other folks were in Lacey’s unfortunate situation: passing the test but succumbing to Minnesota’s late-winter cold & flu season immediately prior to their audition.
After contestant coordinators Glenn and Corina explained the afternoon’s schedule and how the game board worked, we were administered another contestant exam, this time written, with questions projected on the screen. That it was written was extremely helpful for me, as it took about ten questions for my brain to get up to speed, and I was able to jot down a few notes on my test to go back and fix once I figured out who wrote Moby Dick if not Daniel Dafoe, which was the only name that was coming out of my skull.
While our tests were scored, Glenn answered every question anybody had about the show. Lastly, and most excitingly, they picked us three at a time to play a rolling mock game of Jeopardy!, picking clues from the screen and using the buzzers (officially, signaling devices). They gave everyone a chance to respond to questions, and encouraged good game show behavior like speaking up and pressing their signaling devices repeatedly when ringing in. I got a little round of applause from the group when I got an obscure one right. Glenn and Corina asked us some questions about ourselves and what we’d do with the money (they got tired of “buy a house” and “travel,” incidentally). After everyone had gone through, they sent us on our merry way. If we’d passed the test, and they wouldn’t tell us whether we had, we’d be in their active files for 18 months. Don’t call them, they’ll call you. And if after a year and a half you haven’t been invited to the show, they invite you to test again. A few of us exchanged blog addresses, and went on our way.
BECOMING A CONTESTANT
I got busy keeping my Jeopardy! expectations low. My wife Melissa and I bought a house. I changed engineering firms. These happened in the same week, incidentally. In early December, I got a call on my cell on my commute from work to mentoring at an after-school program. Robert from Jeopardy! was calling to ask me some questions. Did I still live at [old address]? No. Did I still work at [old company]? Nope. Was I interested in coming out to Los Angeles in late January to try to win some money? Absolutely! After getting back in touch with him to talk details when I wasn’t driving, and sharing the news with anyone who’d listen, I started studying.
The most important pieces of information you need to know about becoming a contestant, based on what most people have asked me, are: the show tapes five shows a day, two days a week, months in advance; they don’t pay your way to LA unless you’re returning for another week; and they don’t tell you what to study. What you’re supposed to study is Everything. Sort of.
There is a bunch of good information online and in print from former contestants about what to study. I reread the former champion’s book while on a trip with Melissa. His approach to preparing for the show depended somewhat on not being employed, so I knew I couldn’t be that hard-core about it. I also knew that I would drive myself insane if I tried to cover everything.
I decided to put together a Jeopardy! notebook, that the act of copying information into lists, tables & synopses would be more effective for learning than just reading. I also decided to focus on areas of study that I had a pretty good grounding in, but could stand to brush up. So I concentrated on US and world history and geography, primarily, with some other stuff thrown in. I made lists of presidents and their elections/ascensions, Vice Presidents, current world leaders, UN Secretaries General, Shakespeare’s plays in order with major characters and short summaries, English and British royal houses and monarchs, and major Prime Ministers. I printed blank maps of the continents and filled in nations & capitals, seas, bays, straits, and lakes. I wrote out a periodic table of elements. On my to-do list, two large items never got crossed out: Literature and Art. So it goes.
I also watched the show daily in the weeks leading to my tape date. I carefully examined the Final Jeopardy! betting strategy of the five-day champion the week before I flew. His wagers were not obvious to me, but twice he won by $1 or $2 despite getting the question wrong. I studied other strategies from the major online Jeopardy! fan site, and tried to internalize them. As I approached my flight, I finally decided to lock down what I’d studied and work with what was already in the notebook, without adding new information. I was as ready as I felt I realistically could be.
The night we got in, the night before my tape date, I was reasonably nervous, but trying to stay frosty. We met Sonia, another contestant, and her boyfriend on the shuttle from the airport. She seemed nice and also frostily nervous. Melissa and I stayed at the Culver City Radisson, the recommended hotel for the show. Her parents drove down from California’s Central Valley to cheer me on, too. After we checked in and said hello, I went to bed earlyish. In the morning I assembled my multiple changes of clothes for potential back-to-back tapings, ate some breakfast (still no good being jittery!) and we went down early to gather with the other contestants for the shuttle bus. Sizing-up the competition was inevitable.
Our contestant group was mostly around my age (30, give or take), and on the bus ride over revealed themselves to be whip-smart, well-traveled and generally worldly. Here’s where I started to worry. I figured I was probably screwed but continued to force myself to let go of expectations. I’d come to LA prepared to bounce out with the $1000 third-place consolation prize and the experience to talk about. I recommend this. At the same time, I wanted, really badly, to win at least one game.
There are a handful of basic concepts that I feel are the most important things to know about being on Jeopardy! The first is that everybody involved with the show is really, really nice. You may learn this during the audition process, but it’s really driven home in the morning meetings, after the contestant pool is herded into the green room. The contestant coordinators are there to prepare you to win money from their bosses, and they love their job. Maggie, Robert, Tony, Corrina, Glenn, and everybody else were warm, friendly, and funny.
After the morning talking-to, I could now say I’d had my makeup applied by Vanna White’s makeup artist, and we were moved to the stage to rehearse. My nervousness grew, as I was about to see the stage for the first time and be sort-of tested in a way other people could see. The stage is big and blue and cold. Happily, the individual panels of the game board are bigger and closer to the podium than they seem on TV. They taught us how to use the light pen for writing our names and playing Final Jeopardy! (write big and slow). We went through a full game in real-time with Glenn as host and with contestants rotating in and out to give everyone a feel for the flow and the signaling device (keep your thumb on the button and eliminate any wind-up motions when you ring in; I liked bracing the bottom of the buzzer against the desk).
Upon our return to the greenroom, two contestants were announced to face Inta, our returning champion from Ontario. I was not one of them, so I joined the rest of the pool in the audience, scrupulously avoiding making contact with my family and friends in the audience. Watching the first episode was a blast. Playing along with the show from this part of the audience is exciting in a way watching at home isn’t, as you watch categories you wish you’d get and you’re glad you didn’t fly by.
At the end of the episode, Dana from Georgia had won, and it was announced that fellow contestant Beth and I would be facing her. Ten minutes later in real time (two weeks in air time), we were behind the podium.
Everybody says this, because it’s true, but Alex Trebek is as nice and as dryly goofy in person as he is on TV. As a contestant, you don’t get much chance to interact with him beyond what’s shown on the show. As far as we can tell, he lives in the corner of the studio behind the game board. I’m very much looking forward to seeing the photo of me and him together.
The game itself is fast, addictive, and fun. Play accordingly. I had to immediately laugh off any incorrect response or any longer stretch of getting beaten on the buzzer. Otherwise all I could expect would be a tail-spin. I was still pretty nervous, and I think that nervousness gave me an edge on the buzzer, although I found that the toes in my right foot went slightly numb during the game, which was distracting.
It is also important to know that your fellow contestants, and their families, are probably also awesome. My group cheered each other on from game to game, and the families did the same. At some point, while my wife was nervously leaning forward, watching my game, Sonia’s father patted her on the shoulder: “It’s gonna be ok. He’s doing well!” I managed to build up some momentum and by Final Jeopardy!, I had a lock game: as long as I wagered sanely, I’d won, and I did, with $21,800. That’s ridiculous, I thought, and imagined bills disappearing.
Ten minutes later, after a change of jacket, I was at it again, this time against Sonia and Mark. I got on a roll again, although I don’t think I maintained a consistent lead in this game, and ended up with another lock, and $28,000. I had now earned about a year’s paycheck in an hour, something I don’t think sunk in until much later.
Now it was lunchtime, and the remaining contestants were cheerfully competitive. They had come up with a nickname for me (“The Hammer”) and jokingly took out contracts with each other to take me down. Peter, Meg, Heather and John, the remaining contestants, had all seemed particularly formidable in the rehearsals, and this was reinforced by our brief after-lunch practice. My adrenaline was starting to wane and I was losing on the buzzer more often. The last show of the day was against Meg and Peter, and it was close. I was only able to pull it off in Final Jeopardy! John and Heather had given me a new nickname (“Twin City Terror”) and promised to kick my butt the next morning, and I left the studio with my family.
We celebrated with a nice dinner in Santa Monica, and the surreality of what had just happened slowly dawned on me, resulting in periodic bursts of manic laughter and synchronized hopping from me and Melissa.
Early to bed and rise, breakfast, and I was back at it, with a new group of contestants in the lobby. John and Heather and I were now the grizzled veterans, sharing with the new group what to expect as we went along.
In the first game of the day, I was matched against John and new contestant Anne, and it was a see-saw game. Each of us was in the lead at some time or another, and rarely was there only one person trying to ring in on a clue. I hope that my under-the-breath expletive when I got the second Daily Double in Double Jeopardy! wasn’t picked up by the mic. If I remember correctly, I was leading going into Final Jeopardy! The category was artists or painters or some such, and the big, circled, not-crossed-out “ART” in my notebook’s to-do list came to mind. Here’s a pro tip: study the dates of the shows you’ll be in town for taping. As it is, I forgot about the existence of Vincent Van Gogh, who shared a March 30th birthday with Goya, got the question half right, and fell to Anne, taking second place.
Melissa and I saw several contestants from my group and their families in the hotel bar that night, and we exchanged email addresses. As John and I would discuss at length that day and the next morning, when we ran into each other in the airport, there are always going to be incorrect responses that you kick yourself for. But the takeaway is the experience and the people you meet, and the friendly competition (John has called for a rematch to happen someday. Any time, any place, John). I hope to be able to keep up with this group, and the wonderful contestant coordinators, in the future, because they are what I will remember first and foremost about the experience on the show.
I write this two weeks after my taping date, looking forward to reliving the shows when they air and hunkering down to keeping my mouth shut for the two months before they do. And working on my next life goal.