2010 Tournament of Champions semifinalist: $10,000.
Season 25 7-time champion: $155,001 + $2,000.
Jeopardy! Message Board user name: jbernbach
Justin Bernbach - a Lobbyist
Brooklyn, New York
June 1, 2009
THE BACK STORY
I always figured I would be on JEOPARDY! at some point. The trick was to determine the right time to make my move. Any time I watched the show with other people, they would tell me I was good enough to be on. I agreed, but figured that wasn’t the point. I may have been good enough to appear but I didn’t think I was good enough to win. I knew that I would only have one bite at the apple, so I figured I would bide my time until I thought I actually had a chance to win a game.
Thus, my early memories of the show had less to do with dreams of fame and fortune than with the simple enjoyment of the mental challenge and the show’s fast pace. From 1984 until 1989, I mostly watched at the kitchen table in my house while eating dinner – I’m very thankful to my parents for not enforcing that “no TV at meal time” edict that held sway in many of my friend’s homes.
In college, a group of us watched the show most nights and began to tease out the finer points of Final Jeopardy! betting. My friend Brian and I independently arrived at what would eventually become known as the “2/3 rule.” Had there been a peer-reviewed journal of game show science, we would have published our findings. We dreamed of developing a grand unified theory of JEOPARDY! betting, that would allow any contestant who entered Final Jeopardy with even a single dollar to employ a complex array of game theoretical maneuvers and mind control to prevail every time.
In graduate school, while living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I was thrilled to find that I received a channel out of New Hampshire that broadcast the show at 5:30. In addition, to the regular Boston broadcast at 7 pm, this gave me a valuable second opportunity to watch. (This was in the days before Tivo and DVRs and I wasn’t quite obsessive enough to set my VCR timer to tape the show every night.)
It was another ten years of watching before I finally tried out. I never actually crossed a threshold at which I was convinced I had a prayer of winning. But all of a sudden, I found myself paying attention to news about online tests and contestant searches.
I took the online test in early 2008. I remember opting for the West Coast test time even though I was in New York. I knew that unless my highly distracting two-year-old daughter was asleep at the time, I wouldn’t have a chance of passing. Afterwards, I figured I had aced it, but had no idea how competitive the field was or how likely I was to get to the next level.
I had my in person audition in Manhattan smack in the middle of Memorial Day Weekend 2008. I was a bit surprised at just how much fun the JEOPARDY! crew was. I was expecting a grim affair – kind of like a college final exam crossed with a trip to the DMV. I could not have been more wrong. But while I enjoyed the experience, I came out thinking that it was a near miss. And when I didn’t get a call in the first few months after the audition, I started looking forward to the date at which I could try again.
When Robert called me on a Thursday at the end of January, I was surprised and a bit confused. I returned the call, but in the back of my mind I was sure it was a prank. Only when he made direct references to my in-person audition did I realize that the call was legit. I remember answering a bunch of questions clearly and concisely and then being asked, “Do you want to be on the show?” to which I replied, “Whuh?” Thankfully, he asked again and the second time, I said I did.
I spent the next 48 hours in a haze of denial. It was obviously time to decide whether and how I would study, but it took me until that Sunday to come to any decisions. Finally, I made my way to the bookstore and picked up a few general knowledge books. I put my regular reading on hold and determined that I would not read any magazines and would only pick up a newspaper to take in the bare essentials and to do the crossword.
Eventually I plowed my way through a handful of reference books and spent any other free time reading through an atlas and an almanac. I reread the relevant parts of Bob Harris’ “Prisoner of Trebekistan.” I also blew through all of the JEOPARDY! episodes I had saved on my DVR.
I watched the show differently than I ever had before. In the past, it was primarily a nightly 61 question quiz that I enjoyed taking. I didn’t pay a lot of attention to who was winning and losing other than to critique Daily Double and Final Jeopardy betting decisions. Now I really watched the flow of the game and found it enlightening. I realized that almost every player, even those who started slowly, would have at least one stretch in the game where they were in complete control of the action. It eased my mind about a couple of things: first, I realized that if someone is picked to be on the show, they deserve to be there and will likely be competitive; second, I realized that working the buzzer is more art than science – each contestant’s timing would come and go over the course of a show and, conversely, that it was very rare for someone to figure it out and dominate the buzzer throughout.
As I once learned on JEOPARDY!, the best laid schemes of mice and men “gang aft agley.” Thus it was for me on the Tuesday morning of my taping.
I had convinced myself that, far from being a negative, the time change from Eastern to Pacific was an advantage for me. I could rise at 5 am – which would feel like 8 am – do some studying, eat a hearty breakfast of bacon and eggs and drive myself to the studio in style. Other than waking up at 5, none of that happened.
Clearly, the sketchiest part of my plan was the idea of driving myself to the studio. After all, the hotel had a shuttle bus for contestants. Still, I had rented a car and I wasn’t too clear how I would get back to my hotel after taping, so I decided to drive. The directions I had printed out told me I could get from the hotel to the studio in eight minutes, but this was LA in rush hour so I figured I’d give myself a half hour. Building in more time for a couple of wrong turns, I ultimately came to the conclusion that I should leave at 7:15, fifteen minutes before the hotel’s JEOPARDY! shuttle.
But things started to go awry (agley?) right away. Instead of ironing my shirts, I decided to use my typical approach – bring them into the bathroom while I showered and let the steam do its thing. Unfortunately , the once foolproof method failed me and I had to resort to the iron. I remembered quickly why I chose to avoid ironing – I’m not very good at it. What should have taken five minutes was soon pushing a half hour. It also made me forget to order room service until almost 6:30. When 7:00 rolled around, breakfast hadn’t arrived and I still wasn’t ready to leave. So I killed both my room service order and my plan of driving to the studio. Instead of a full belly and a leisurely morning drive with the radio blasting, it was a granola bar and a ride on the bus.
I met more than half of the day’s contestants in the lobby and on the ride to the studio. I was struck immediately by the utter lack of hostility between the players. I felt far more tension in my New York audition than I did on that bus. I figured it was because everyone had the same mindset I did. At the audition, I was on offense, determined to go into the room and outclass all the other potential contestants . But now, I was clearly playing defense, just praying that when my time came and the cameras rolled, that I would not collapse into the fetal position behind my podium. I think what pervaded that bus was overwhelming empathy, because we all knew that utter panic could strike any one of us.
Having seen the contestant crew in action in New York, I knew that the early parts of taping day would be enjoyable. And they were. The crew really conveys an enormous amount of information to the contestants while somehow keeping them loose. The on-stage rehearsal is effective in getting everyone comfortable with their surroundings. Even the dreaded “hometown howdies” seem to be a key part of the finely tuned machine that gets the contestants ready for taping time – everyone spends so much time stressing over two seconds-long promos most people will never see that they don’t have time to get stressed about the actual game.
I was relieved that I was not chosen for the first game of the day and thus had an opportunity to watch from the audience. I sensed that I would wind up playing in either the third or fourth game of the day. When game three came up and I wasn’t called, I became certain I would be in the next game, so I watched especially intently to see who I would need to beat. In the second and third games of the day, Andy was dominant on the buzzer and sprinted out to big leads in the JEOPARDY! round. I have to admit I was rooting against him in Game Three. But despite coughing up a lead on the last clue in Double JEOPARDY!, he pulled out the game in Final JEOPARDY!.
In retrospect, I was very luck to play in game four, immediately following lunch. After that lunch break, the remaining contestants get a second chance to rehearse in a game situation. It was at this point that I started to feel comfortable with the lockout device (“buzzer” to laypeople). I got the timing down in a way I never had earlier in the day. But what was truly amazing at this point was that my heart rate still hadn’t increased. This was clearly a good sign. In real life, I can often be uneasy standing up and speaking in front of groups of people. But somehow, the overwhelming nervousness I had been expecting for almost four weeks just never came.
My memory of the seven games that I won is mostly a blur. In writing here, I was asked to divide up my blog post into entries for individual games, but I’m just not able to do it. The only set of categories I can pinpoint from any round I played was Double Jeopardy in my second game (“The Super Bowl,” followed by five categories named for NFL teams). Other than that, I can barely remember a single category or the exact wording of any clue. I do remember everyone I played but have trouble recalling who I was matched against when. This is probably a testament to the very fast pace of taping day. But I think it also demonstrates what it takes to win at JEOPARDY! – simply put, your brain has to be so attuned to rapidly digesting clues and recalling responses that it fails to properly process some of the other sensory information it is receiving.
Also, while I must have had nearly ten correct responses for every incorrect one, the incorrect ones are far more memorable. For instance, I’m still kicking myself for answering “What is Facebook?” when I should have answered “What is Twitter?” – something I will certainly hear about on Facebook when that show airs. And while there are many reasons to be disturbed by the image of Lance Bass winning “Dancing With the Stars,” for me it is because it came to me at the very moment I was incorrectly saying “Who is Joey Fatone?” The incorrect Final JEOPARDY! responses were even worse. Asked to come with the first actor with two posthumous Oscar nominations, my response of “Who is Heath Ledger?” was pretty lame…and Alex made sure I knew it.
I do remember some of my correct responses and many of the pivotal moments in these seven games. Mostly, I find it humorous that I will be on television in front of 12 million people saying things like “Who is Nebuchednezzar?”; “What is Martin Chuzzlewit?”; and “What is Timbuktu?”
- Robert asking me during lunch what category I most wanted to see and telling him recent American politics…then seeing “20 Century American Politics” pop up as the Final Jeopardy category in my second game.
- Seeing the category “What a Knockout!” in a single Jeopardy round, hoping it would be about boxing and being disappointed when it was only about glamorous actresses and models…only to see the category “What a Knockout!” come up again in Double Jeopardy, this time about boxing.
- Pulling out a difficult Final Jeopardy by figuring out what “BRIC” meant in an acronym related to rapidly developing countries. All three of us came up with the RIC (Russia, India, China), it was the B that was tough. When I ultimately came up with Brazil, it may have been my best moment, but luckily my reasoning will be hidden from the TV audience: I blatantly forgot the category (“Big Countries”) and was on the verge of writing down some countries that are decidedly not big and decidedly not emerging economic powerhouses (Bangladesh, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Belize).
One other thing that came through the haze was the Alex interviews. To be blunt, I dread seeing them on TV. Alex is a true pro at getting the most out of these interviews, but I’m not sure I gave him enough material to work with. It can be a challenge to come up with anecdotes that will appeal to the young demographic JEOPARDY! is trying to reach while not scaring away the seniors and the youngsters. And never in my wildest dreams did I expect I would have make small talk with Alex eight times. But in retrospect, I probably would have given a lot more thought to this part of my appearance.
To sum up, taping those first seven shows was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life, but because success required my mind to operate on a strange, special setting, large chunks of memories seemed to disappear into the ether. Still, while the shows themselves are mostly fuzzy, I have many fond memories of the times between and before the tapings. For instance, it’s a lot of fun walking around the studio and being called “champ.” I knew I wasn’t much, if any, better than the other contestants I played, but if somebody had to be “champ,” it might as well have been me.
I knew losing was inevitable but when it happened, it still stung. What made it worse was that I lost in the first game of a new taping week after flying home to New York the previous Thursday then fighting a massive New York snowstorm to get back to the West Coast. In many ways, I feel I performed as well in my loss as I had in any of my wins. I don’t believe I rang in incorrectly all game. I handled a clue about Diane Arbus with confidence and poise even though I’m pretty sure I had never heard of her a month earlier. My Alex banter verged on coherence. And at the end of Double Jeopardy, I had a very respectable number ($17800) that was better than in several of my wins.
The problem turned out to be the competition. I played well but Sara played better. While I didn’t respond incorrectly, neither did either of the other players. And Sara beat me where it counted: on the $1600 and $2000 clues. At the end of an earlier game, Alex commented on how impressive it was that the three contestants combined for more than $60K. But here we were, before Final Jeopardy, and we already had $50K between us. Given the likely bets, if we all got Final Jeopardy right, we would be pushing $80K in aggregate.
For the first time in my run, I trailed after Double Jeopardy and had to put a little thought into my wager – it was time to put the 2/3 rule into effect. It made no sense to bet everything. The play was to bet enough to cover Steve in third place and to hope for a miss by Sara. So for the first time, I was looking for a hard clue. The category – Cartoon Science – seemed promising enough. Who in the world knows how cartoons are made? Unfortunately it wasn’t about the science of making cartoons but about science as portrayed in cartoons. It was possibly the easiest Final Jeopardy I had seen in weeks. Not only was it a slam dunk for anyone who had ever watched a Road Runner cartoon but even the obvious default guess, for those who never had, was the right answer. Sara appropriately bet big and was a very deserving champion.
Dissecting my loss ultimately made me realize how fortunate I was in my wins. I cursed the categories in game eight. I knew there was nowhere to hang my hat in single Jeopardy when I started with, of all things, the subtraction category. Art and Poetry categories back to back in Double Jeopardy were intimidating. And while FAO Schwarz was a New York category, it was not a particularly good one for me. But that just pointed out how comfortable I had been with the categories in games one through seven. Also, I had some key rebounds in earlier games, capitalizing on other players’ incorrect answers. But in game eight there were no wrong answers to be had. The other contestants knew virtually everything and when they didn’t, they had the wisdom not to ring in.
But what was really against me in my last game was The Box. In order to get the heads of the three contestants at roughly the same level, some have to stand on boxes. Despite being a not especially tall 5’11”, I had managed to avoid The Box in my first seven games. But when big Steve drew the first game, I knew that streak was over. I can’t say for sure whether The Box contributed to my loss, but next time I won’t be taking any chances. If I’m lucky enough to play in the Tournament of Champions, I will be wearing lifts in my shoes.