A garage door company owner from St. Cloud, Minnesota...

Gary Bechtold

Hi Minnesota, I'm Gary Bechtold from St. Cloud. I own a garage door company. Watch my score go up, on Jeopardy!

Season 26 3-time champion: $42,001 + $2,000.

Last name pronounced like "BECK-told".

Jeopardy! Message Board user name: nanook

Gary Bechtold
September 23, 2009

"Nice game, champ," said someone from the Jeopardy! crew.

Champ? Me?

I didn't feel like a Jeopardy! champion. I had just walked off the stage with the highest dollar total, but I had won it by betting very little on Final Jeopardy!, guessing the correct answer, and watching the leader answer incorrectly. I felt like he had outplayed me throughout the game, but his bet put his total below mine, and suddenly I was the winner. I shook hands with Marcus and Judy, the other contestants, and then spent a minute chit-chatting with Alex, but I was still in an unbelieving daze.

As I was ushered off stage, I looked up into the audience and saw my wife with a huge smile on her face. That's when it hit home - I really had won my first Jeopardy! game and I was the champion. I thought, "Wow! This is cool!"

The Dream

Like every other contestant, it was always a dream of mine to compete on Jeopardy! I first tried out over ten years ago, at the Mall of America, with hundreds, maybe thousands, of others. I waited in line for a few hours, took the initial 10-question test, got one (or two) wrong, and was politely sent on my way. I still remember the clue I didn't know - "Who was the first high priest of Israel?" (The correct answer is Aaron.) In hindsight, I'm glad I didn't qualify during that tryout because I was a lot more prepared this time.

Fast forward ten years, to early 2009. I took the online test and thought I did pretty well - at least 40 out of 50 correct. About a month later, I received an e-mail inviting me to an audition in the Twin Cities. The Brain Bus was scheduled to be at the Mall of America, but thankfully I could avoid the crowds this time and go right to the audition.

The Jeopardy! audition was a lot of fun, thanks mainly to the contestant coordinators Glenn and Corina. First, they welcomed us and we had a brief orientation about what to expect. Next, we took another 50-point written exam to make sure we knew our stuff and hadn't "Googled" our way through the online test. Finally, everyone had an opportunity to play a mock game and answer a few questions about themselves. Before we left, Glenn told us all that "we could consider ourselves in the Jeopardy! pool of contestants for the next 18 months." Little did I know that I would have to wait nearly that long before I heard from Jeopardy! again.

The Call & The Prep

Fast forward again, this time to June 17, 2009, nearly 16 months after my audition. I hadn't thought about Jeopardy!, or even watched an episode, for months and had resigned myself to going through the test/audition process again someday. By a strange coincidence, we had some friends over for dinner the previous weekend and one of them asked me if I had heard anything yet. I told her no, and wasn't expecting to either. A few days later I received the call.

Glenn from Jeopardy! left a message on my voice mail at work to call him back. I was so excited that I listened to his message three more times just to hear it again. I called him back and, after asking me a bunch of legal questions, he invited me to be a contestant in July. I was going to be on Jeopardy!

Glenn said that the show would tape on July 27th and air sometime during the week of September 14th. It would be the first taping of season 26. I looked at my calendar and realized that I had less than six weeks to prepare. The timing couldn't have been worse. I own a garage door company in Minnesota, and we were right in the middle of remodeling our offices and showroom. Finding enough time to manage the remodeling project, get my work done, and spend quality time with my family was already difficult. Now, I had to find time to study too? I shared the exciting news with my employees and warned them that I would be extremely distracted for the next six weeks.

I knew my study time would be limited, so I concentrated on a list of about 20 key subjects (U.S. Presidents, U.S. and world geography, Shakespeare, etc.). Using advice I read from past champion Karl Coryat, the best technique for me was to create word associations for things I wanted to remember - Norwegian playwright=Ibsen, Danish astronomer=Brahe, etc... The fact books I found most useful to prepare were The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy by Hirsch and The New York Times Guide to Essential Knowledge.

The other book that was extremely helpful was Prisoner of Trebekistan by Bob Harris. Bob's book helped me in two ways. First, his explanation of how your memory works helped me develop my own ways to study and retain obscure facts (word association, mnemonic devices, etc.). Secondly, his descriptions of the "behind-the-scenes" action helped me anticipate what would happen when I got to California. I was still nervous when I got there, but at least I knew what to expect.

Going To California

My wife Kay went along with me to California. We checked into the hotel on Monday afternoon and settled in to our room. The next morning I woke up really early, partly from excitement and partly from the time zone difference from Minnesota. I usually wake up at 5 a.m. at home, so I was awake and ready to go at 3 a.m. in California. I got ready for the show, packed my additional outfits, said goodbye to my wife, and headed down to the lobby where I met some other contestants. Within a few minutes of talking to them, I could tell they were really smart and just as nervous and excited as I was.

Our group took the hotel shuttle to Sony Picture Studios where we met up with Glenn and Corina from Jeopardy!, and headed to the green room. The green room really was green - green walls and carpeting, but not very glamorous, and a little cramped with 12 contestants, four contestant "wranglers" and two make-up artists. There was plenty of coffee, so I was happy.

Just as at the audition, the contestant coordinators - Maggie, Glenn, Corina, and Robert -- were awesome. They knew exactly how to help us relax, and their humor put us all at ease. It was their first day back at work after some time off, so they were all excited about the new season starting too. We went through introductions, filled out a lot of paperwork, and took turns getting our makeup done.

Next, we all headed to the set, which was brand new for season 26. We walked through a narrow, dark aisle and suddenly the Jeopardy! set appeared in front of us. I felt like Charlie being led into Willie Wonka's Chocolate Factory, minus the Oompa-Loompas. The blue monitor bank was on the left side of the stage, the contestant podiums were off to the right side, and there were crew members scurrying around the set (kind of like Oompa-Loompas, I guess.)

Rehearsing the show was a blast; it's like playing the game with no pressure. We practiced writing our names with the light pens (it's just like signing your name on a credit card terminal), learned how the signaling buttons work, and even went through a round of Final Jeopardy!, making a practice bet and writing an answer. During the practice game, one of the categories was "Birds." I looked over at Austin, one of the other contestants, who had just shared with me that he was an ornithology grad student at Auburn. I knew exactly what he was thinking - "Why couldn't I get the Bird category during the real game instead of the practice game?"

After the rehearsal, they announced that Elizabeth and Enrique would be the first two contestants, facing returning five-time champion Stefan Goodreau. Since this was the first show of season 26, it had been almost four months since Stefan had taped his last show. The other unusual thing was that all of us new contestants had an opportunity to watch Stefan dominate the competition, because his shows aired the week before we arrived in L.A. No one wanted to face Stefan in the first game - that unenviable task fell to Elizabeth and Enrique. Stefan played well and had the lead going into final Jeopardy!, but Enrique stayed within striking distance and won the game when Stefan guessed incorrectly. All of us remaining contestants let out a collective sigh of relief - we wouldn't have to face Stefan.

In game two, Enrique competed against Dave and Judy, with Judy emerging victorious by being the only one to give the correct Final Jeopardy! answer. We were all clapping for Judy, when suddenly I heard Robert call the next two names - Marcus and Gary. It was my turn to be on the show! Marcus, Judy and I headed to the green room for makeup, a drink of water, and one final chance to use the bathroom.

As I was sitting in the makeup chair, I was thinking about my opponents. Judy had just impressively won her game and was obviously very intelligent, but I was even more worried about Marcus. Marcus was an Air Force Academy graduate and an Air Force helicopter pilot. Not only did he have the knowledge to do well; but, as a helicopter pilot, he had the reflexes to dominate on the buzzer. I hoped that all of the time I had spent playing video games would help me compete.

We headed out to the set and I settled in to the middle podium. Our microphones were hooked up, we wrote our names, and took turns recording our "Hometown Howdies" for our local networks to play back at home. Maggie gave us some final instructions - "clap for the champion (Judy), clap for Alex, and have fun!", and before I knew it the show began.

The First Game

I wish I could remember more details about the actual show, but just a week later it already seems like a dream. Generally, I remember how the show went, but I don't remember any of the categories or clues. I do remember concentrating on one thing - if I wasn't 100% sure of an answer, I did not ring in. The penalty for giving an incorrect answer is too severe - not only do you lose money, but one of your opponents is likely to guess correctly and increase his/her total. I do remember that I was in second place going into Final Jeopardy! The category was Winter Olympics, but I based my bet on my score and not on the category.

When the clue came up (something about this person winning multiple gold medals in the '30s and also being a movie actress), one answer immediately popped into my head - "Who was Sonia Henie?" I quickly wrote it down and enjoyed the think music for a few seconds. Alex read Judy's answer first and she guessed "Esther Williams," which was incorrect. Next he read my answer and it was correct - with my bet I had taken the lead. He moved on to Marcus, and as soon as his answer was revealed (Esther Williams), I knew I had won.

We shook hands with Alex, and each other, and moved to the front of the stage for a few seconds of small-talk with Alex, who was a really nice guy. He seemed to know a lot about Sonia Henie's acting career. I confessed that I had no idea she was an actress! They led us off stage, but instead of rushing to change outfits for the next game, it was time for a lunch break with the remaining contestants.

The Second Game

I barely ate anything at lunch - I was too excited. I did enjoy a nice conversation about indie rock music with Robert and some of the other contestants, which helped me relax and not think about the next game. After lunch we went back to the green room where I changed outfits and they touched-up my makeup. My opponents in this game would be Claxton and Jillian. We all got prepared and headed back to the set.

Both Claxton and Jillian were strong opponents, but I didn't help myself in this game either. I'm not sure if I was overconfident, or reckless, but I started ringing in on clues that I wasn't 100% sure about, and before I knew it I was in the hole. Fortunately, a commercial break stopped the action and gave me a chance to refocus.

During the commercial breaks, Lisa, the makeup artist, would come out to touch up our faces. Early in the day I had warned Lisa about my shiny forehead, and she quickly found out how true that was. She spent so much time working on my forehead that she began to sing "Gary, Indiana" every time she came out. It was a little thing, but I loved it, and it helped me relax before we continued the game.

Again, I remember few details about the game, but I was in second place again going into Final Jeopardy! and made a small bet. When the clue came up, it asked about an English writer, known for writing "nonsense verse." Ding! I knew the answer! It was one of those word association facts I had studied just the night before! Nonsense verse = Edward Lear! I quickly wrote down my answer and enjoyed the think music for a few seconds. Lear was correct, both Claxton and Jillian guessed Lewis Carroll, and I was now a 2-time Jeopardy! champion.

The Third Game

In game three, the final game of Tuesday, I faced Austin and Diane. I quickly changed outfits and went through the routine again - makeup, microphone, new hometown howdy, etc. Game three went like a dream. I had become skilled with the signaling device and felt like I could buzz in whenever I wanted to. I knew the categories and at the end of the Double Jeopardy! Round I had a lock game - neither Austin nor Diane could match my total. It was the perfect ending to a long day. Since it was the final game on Tuesday, I would be coming back on Wednesday morning, along with Marlene and Kelsey, two contestants who had not yet been selected to play. On my way to the dressing room to gather my belongings, Maggie informed me that I was now qualified for the Tournament of Champions.

Not in my wildest fantasies had I expected to win three games, and I had only brought three outfits along with me to L.A. I needed something new to wear on Wednesday morning, so instead of celebrating, my wife and I went shopping for some new outfits. We did have time for a nice dinner at the hotel and went to bed.

The Fourth Game

Waking up on Wednesday morning, I felt great! I was the returning champ and would get to play again today. I got dressed, made sure I had five outfits, and went downstairs to catch the shuttle. Wednesday's contestants were gathering in the lobby and I visited with each of them. I didn't tell them that I was the returning champion because I remember how awkward it seemed for Stefan with our Tuesday group. We went through the same paperwork, rehearsal, and it was finally time for the game to start.

I faced Marlene and John in my fourth game, and right from the start I knew I was in trouble. The categories were obscure and I was having trouble getting my timing down with the signaling device. I was in third place for a good part of the game. John had a great game and it was all I could do to stay within half of his score leading up to the Final Jeopardy! I had clawed my way back into second place, but it didn't matter. I didn't know the answer; John got it correct, and deservedly won the game.

My reign as Jeopardy! champ had come to an abrupt ending, but it was great while it lasted.

The Nerd Herd

The best part of the whole experience for me was the new friends I made. By chance, six of us from the first day's taping, along with some spouses, met up in the hotel lounge and sat down to visit on Wednesday evening. We shared stories and laughs, exchanged email addresses, and our "Nerd Herd" has kept in touch with each other, waiting for our shows to air.

Returning home was hard for both me and my wife. We were both sad that our Jeopardy! adventure was over, and it took us a few days to settle into our normal routines. As I write this blog, it's during that strange time after the taping, but still another month before the shows air. I have this huge secret I want to share with everyone, but I can't. Our friends and family have all kinds of theories about how I did, based upon my answers to various questions, especially, "What did you and Kay do during your free time?" We didn't have any free time, so I told them we went shopping (they don't know that it was for more outfits for the show!)

The show airs locally here in Minnesota at 4:30 p.m., when most people are still at work, so we're going to watch it at my business with my employees and family. We're also planning a big party the following weekend to replay it, and celebrate the experience with our friends. It was a once-in-a-lifetime event and we're going to have fun with it as long as we can.

Thanks to Kay, Sylvie, my family, co-workers, friends, neighbors, and everyone else who was as excited as I was throughout this experience. And thanks to everyone at Jeopardy! - Maggie, Robert, Corina, Glenn, Lisa, Sandy, John, Mitch, Johnny Gilbert, Alex Trebek, and everyone else. You are true professionals.

Gary appeared in the following 4 archived games:
#5752, aired 2009-09-22 Gary Bechtold vs. Jon Korn vs. Marlene Allen
#5751, aired 2009-09-21 Gary Bechtold vs. Diane Armstrong vs. Austin Mercadante
#5750, aired 2009-09-18 Gary Bechtold vs. Jillian Hinchliffe vs. Claxton Graham
#5748, aired 2009-09-16 Judy Nakamura vs. Gary Bechtold vs. Marcus Jackson

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