2010 Tournament of Champions wildcard semifinalist: $10,000.
Season 26 5-time champion: $134,801 + $2,000.
Last name pronounced like "buh-LOTE".
Dave was announced as "a base commander" for his first appearance and "the base commander" in his subsequent appearances.
Dave's full name is referenced in the Wikipedia article on Nellis Air Force Base as "Col Howard D. Belote, 99th Air Base Wing".
Dave also made a brief appearance on Season 6, episode 3 of Top Chef on 2009-09-02 "when the elimination challenge calls for feeding the famed Thunderbirds – the Air Force's most elite demonstration team. The chefs are given limited time and supplies to create a plentiful meal for the masses at Nellis Air Force Base. Mark Peel, owner of Campanile restaurant in Los Angeles, guest judges."
Jeopardy! Message Board user name: Colonel Dave
Dave Belote - a Base Commander
Nellis Air Force Base, Las Vegas
December 10, 2009
It's been five days since the whirlwind taping day ... already much of what occurred seems jumbled and blurred in my memory. So-mostly for my sake, to record an incredibly fun experience-but also for Jeopardy! fans who might be mulling an appearance, let me get my memories in order.
First, by way of introduction: I'm Dave Belote, born in Norfolk and reared in neighboring Virginia Beach, Virginia. I attended the University of Virginia, and on a fateful day at the start of my fifth year at UVa, met an Air Force officer recruiter. I thought a four-year hitch in the Air Force would be a great way to give something to the nation, get my feet under me as I got ready to face the future, and might impress a cute brunette Navy brat I'd just started dating. Well, I'm now 24 years into that four-year hitch, and (thank my lucky stars) the cute brunette is still keeping me around. Pam and I have been married for 23 years and have three sons-more on them in a minute.
Coincidentally, we started dating right around the time Jeopardy! was reincarnated with Alex Trebek at the helm. In our quarter century as a family, Jeopardy! has always been somehow in the background as we prepared dinner, ate, or got ready to supervise homework or take kids to extracurricular events. We've moved 16 times around eight states and three foreign countries in that quarter century-but through it all, the family has been shouting trivia in the form of questions, and I always wanted the chance to compete.
That chance came courtesy of the online test. Over the years, I'd tried to connect with contestant searches whenever they came close to my base-I remember sending 65 postcards when the Jeopardy! crew came to Tampa in 1991-but I never got the opportunity to test. Finally, during a posting to the Joint Staff in the Pentagon, I learned of the online test, signed up, and heard absolutely nothing. So, the following year (now January 2008), I took the test again, and for months, heard absolutely nothing. I left the Pentagon in May 2008 for my new posting as base commander at Nellis AFB in Las Vegas. The job is phenomenal (think of me either as a mayor/city manager, or as CEO of a 3,600-member, $600M-a-year corporation), but almost led to missing my Jeopardy! dream: three weeks after taking command, I was offered an audition ... in Washington, D. C.! I immediately wrote back, begging for an audition in Los Angeles, and after a polite "we'll call sometime" reply, heard nothing for months. Then, 5 months after the foregone invitation, and 11 months after taking the test, I got the long-awaited e-mail: be in Culver City on February 11, 2009. Well, you know the result: more waiting!
In the midst of that waiting, fate intervened on my behalf. Bravo TV's Top Chef Las Vegas taped an episode at Nellis in which I introduced the chefs' challenge, enjoyed a fabulous meal with 300 Airmen and their families, and did an impromptu thank-you speech for the competitors. The Jeopardy! producers had emphasized their exclusive rights to contestants' TV appearances, so I dropped them a note just before the Top Chef episode aired-and, 4 days later, got the phone call from Maggie, contestant coordinator extraordinaire. She teased me for a while about Top Chef, then got to business: could I tape in LA on October 14?
That call kicked me into high gear. First, I tried to work a trip to LA for my family, who still live in northern Virginia. Our 21-year-old, Drew, has autism, and we kept him in his familiar high school setting through graduation rather than move him for the 12th time in his life. The tough but correct decision to separate the family has paid off: Drew has his first job, at a national restaurant chain with job support from the state, and Pam has been able to live a dream and go back to nursing school (she's a semester away from becoming an R.N.). However, it meant I couldn't bring Drew to see the taping, which was a major disappointment. He loves Jeopardy!, watches YouTube clips of Johnny Gilbert introducing contestants, and plays the PC version of the game with me whenever I'm home (he picks the categories and dollar values, I supply the questions), but Pam has clinicals on Wednesdays, and neither of our other sons (Mike, a first-year student at UVa, and Matt, a high school freshman) nor my parents could travel with Drew. I consoled myself with the knowledge that one day soon Drew could hear Johnny introduce his dad and figured I'd be solo (in fighter-pilot jargon, "single ship") for my Jeopardy! experience.
My fellow Airmen decided they couldn't let that happen, however. After I coordinated my leave with my senior staff, my public affairs director came to me with a request-he wanted to send a major, a chief master sergeant, and an airman first class to cover their boss's appearance on a national game show. It would be a fun assignment for them, great training for the young airman, and might generate some good press. Maggie approved the request, with the caveat that coverage would be embargoed until after the air date(s), and I had some mutual support. We met in LA the evening before the taping, enjoyed a great meal, and talked a little background and strategy:
Had I done anything to prepare? For better or worse, not really-my job keeps me constantly on the go, I don't have a DVR, and I'm rarely near a TV when KVBC in Las Vegas airs Jeopardy! At best, I caught the occasional 10 PM Jeopardy! rerun on Game Show Network.
What were my best subjects? Government, world affairs, history, geography. I've traveled a lot, and the Air Force has paid for three master's degrees: an MBA (after hours, with tuition assistance), an MA in military history and theory, and an MS in national security strategy (both during sabbaticals for professional education). I'm slowly working on a doctorate in liberal studies at Georgetown, so I'm fairly well read-and, hopefully, my life experience would come in handy during my taping.
Did I have a strategy? Have fun, stay in the moment. I've been in some high-pressure, dangerous situations before-I've got nearly 2000 hours in fighters, plus I commanded the 250 or so Battlefield Airmen in Iraq in late 2004 and early 2005, and oversaw country-wide air support during the Battle for Fallujah in November 2004 (the Marines handled air support in the city itself, while the Air Force protected the flanks)-so I figured I could relax on stage. I also planned to compete with myself rather than my fellow contestants. We have a famous fighter-pilot saying: I'd rather be lucky than good. I was sure every person on stage would be good, so I decided just to play smart, try to work the buzzer well, and try to capitalize whenever luck presented itself.
Finally, what were my goals? Again, have fun, hopefully win a little money, and-in a perfect world-survive to the next taping date, which was 3 weeks later. My parents would be available to bring Drew to LA then, and I thought it would be a hoot to have him hear Johnny Gilbert and see Alex Trebek in person. Drew doesn't say much, but his smile will melt your heart. I wanted to see that smile in the Jeopardy! studio.
Taping day dawned, and I eased into the day. I grabbed a cup of coffee, got showered and dressed, and wandered to the hotel lobby to wait for the Jeopardy! shuttle. After our chief master sergeant snapped a few photos, I wandered over to the crowd of obvious contestants. On some level, we were sizing each other up, but for the most part, we struck up easygoing friendships. My guess from the previous night was spot-on: everyone I met was bright, engaging, and self-confident. I knew I'd need to catch a break or two to do well during the game-but I was instantly sure I'd enjoy spending time with any of my fellow contestants. We wandered onto the bus and headed for Sony, where we were met by Glenn and Corina and escorted into the studio. I tapped a quick text to Pam, then shut down and put away both cell phone and BlackBerry. There would be no contact with the outside world as long as we were contestants in waiting!
The next two to three hours involved makeup, paperwork, briefings, and rehearsal. Maggie spent about an hour going over rules and techniques, all designed to maximize the money contestants can take home and make the show more exciting. Don't leave answers on the board! Don't play for ties! Keep things moving! Now get out there and play a practice game! During the rehearsal, I practiced with the buzzer, and firmed up my approach to the game. I know I'm a synthetic, intuitive thinker (as opposed to a lot of military men and women, who are analytical, discrete thinkers), so I practiced a quick visual scan of the clues as Glenn (standing in for Alex) read them, and tried to develop a feel for the flow of the game. Suddenly, rehearsal was done, and Ryan and Shawna were invited to join returning champ Kimberly on stage for the first game. The rest of us shuffled into the audience, and settled back to watch.
That would be the only game I watched, and it confirmed my hunch that I'd need a good run of luck. Fellow contestant Todd sat beside me, and whispered every question correctly during game play, just as he had during rehearsal. Sure enough, these men and women were good-but luck played the lead role in the game's outcome: after a close contest, the Final Jeopardy! category was Political Philosophy. Who was the only contestant to answer correctly? The Ph.D. candidate in Poly Sci, Shawna, who won with her answer of "the Social Contract." In the audience, I botched it-I guessed The Rights of Man - but Todd nailed it. I think I run about 50/50 on Final Jeopardy! when I watch the show, but I'm usually batting .800 or so in the first two rounds, so I figured I'd better try to rack up as many dollars as I could before getting to Final Jeopardy!
My strategizing ended quickly-suddenly I heard my name called to compete in the next game. Kathleen, an intellectual properties lawyer, and I were moving up to take on Shawna, and things went into a blur. I was excited to take the stage, but realized I'd have to get on a heck of a roll to get Drew out to LA-there were four more games to tape! I pushed that thought to the back of my mind and moved to the #2 position, and then heard the words I waited more than 20 years to hear: THIS ... IS ... JEOPARDY! Alex prefaced the telecast with a story of Shawna's serendipitous but random Final Jeopardy draw on the previous show, then moved briskly to the clues. I honestly don't remember many details from the game; I tried to get in to my "Zen" intuitive style of play, but Kathleen blocked that pretty well by consistently beating me on the buzzer. I think I was in third at the first commercial break, and maybe between rounds; Double Jeopardy! felt like a duel with Kathleen in which we both enjoyed good runs-and then Alex was announcing the Final Jeopardy! category: Phrase Origins. Somehow I had $20,000 to Kathleen's $16 or $17K, and had to determine my wager during the commercial break. I felt good about the category, knew I had to at least double Kathleen's total, and figured what the hell-go for it. I wrote $19,999, locked in the wager, and waited.
As we returned from the commercial, I think Alex reiterated the luck of the draw in category selection-and when he revealed the clue, I saw why. The clue cited 1947's Strategic Bombing Survey (something the Air Force has paid me to study) and highlighted a two-word phrase from the survey that came into the vernacular on 9/11/01. I couldn't write "Ground Zero" fast enough, and there's no way I kept a poker face as Alex announced I'd won with a total of $39,999. Not bad for 22 minutes of air time.
There was no time to rest on those laurels, however. Because I didn't have to change (I was in my service dress uniform), we moved quickly to the third taping. Todd drew the #2 position, immediately to my left, and I thought he was going to run away with the game. Just as he had during rehearsal, he seemed to know everything. When I didn't know an answer, he answered correctly-I was amazed when he came up with "Richie Havens" as the lead act at Woodstock-and when I knew something, he beat me to the buzzer. Just as quickly as in the first game, Alex was announcing "Shakespeare's Women" as the Final Jeopardy! category, but this time I was in the unenviable position of betting from third place. Todd had $20,600 to my $13,200, and I did some fast calculating: I couldn't catch him if he got it right, and I didn't want to tie him. I bet $7401 and hoped for a question that only I'd know.
Guess what? I got it! Alex read a clue about a royal daughter whose name comes from a word meaning "little king," and I had time to work my way to the answer. The first thing to pop into my head as the theme music played was "Ophelia," but I quickly discarded that-I knew Hamlet was the royal son. I asked myself about words meaning king, thought of "rex" and "rei," and came up with "Regan." Because I was third place, Alex revealed my question first-and then I watched both my competitors reveal "Who is Cordelia." Holy smoke! I was a two-time champ with $60,600 in just over an hour, and I'd beaten someone whom I believe was a more talented player than I. I smiled all the way through lunch, and came back ready and raring to go for my third game.
Game three was a runaway. I was on a roll-I knew I'd caught the breaks I needed to get by some supremely talented individuals-and I was relaxed, while my competitors had watched me win twice already and might have tensed up a bit. I realized there are drawbacks to a "Zen" style of play, as I sometimes keyed in on parts of a clue that led me to blurt incomplete and ultimately incorrect answers, or just hesitate-I'm still disappointed that Chris beat me to "73" as Barry Bonds's single-season home run total because I was thinking of his career total. But the glitches didn't hurt me, I was able to get "in the zone" during Double Jeopardy!, hit a couple Daily Doubles in which I bet judiciously despite Alex's emphasis on a "big payout," and I had enough cash to miss Final Jeopardy! and still win handily (Prince Henry was not the 12th-century explorer Alex was looking for-it was Marco Polo).
Game four would be the final show taped that day; the winner would have to return in about three weeks-and both Denise and Sidarth, having waited all day to play, were keen for their chance. Sidarth (a fellow UVa grad, albeit one about 25 years younger than me) wasted no time kicking into an attack strategy-rather than using a smooth, top-to-bottom board clearing tactic, he jumped around, looking for Daily Doubles and trying to scoop up the high-dollar values. Ultimately, I think his ploy backfired. It didn't bother me-it actually freed me to roll through a couple categories like "Who you gonna call" and "Ghostbusters" (he was a toddler as I was watching the movie), and left the final Daily Double until the third-to-last clue. I got to it first-Notable Names for $800-and my Zen technique came through. I glanced at the scores, bet $7000, saw only the words "lieutenant colonel" and "1876," and literally spat out "Who is Custer?" Once again, I had a runaway. I bet only $1800 on "Toys," which we all missed-G.I. Joe was the 1963 Hasbro figure in the clue, not Mr. Potato Head-but so what? I was a 4-time champ, and I'd be coming back for more!
As the production team taped my post-show interview, I realized that I now had the opportunity to share this experience with Drew, and I teared up. I said my thanks to the fabulous Jeopardy! team-led by Alex, who is as gracious and engaging in person as he appears on TV, they're all pleasant, energetic, and fun to be around-changed, and left with my fellow Airmen. It was the first time all day we'd been allowed to speak, or even make eye contact, and they were excited for me-but I begged their indulgence as I made the most fun phone call of my life: to that cute brunette, Pam. Because we're contractually obligated not to tell our results until the air date, I knew we'd need a cover story. I asked her if she wanted the story I'd share with everyone, or the story I could tell her and her alone. She excused herself from choir practice to take the call, and didn't appear to breathe as I told her I'd earned $107,200 in an afternoon and was still reigning champ. In her words, she figured I'd do well-but that was beyond her wildest dreams! After 25 years, I still love to make her smile ... and I get to do the same for our wonderful son, Drew. My parents will fly out with him for the next taping-and our home-based Jeopardy! games will take on a whole new meaning!
Before I pick up my Jeopardy! story, a word of explanation: three weeks passed between taping my fourth and fifth games. Alex went off to the Galapagos Islands-a trip I might, in hindsight, regret-and the contestant coordinators scoured the country for players. I thought about trying to separate my blog entries by game, but that wouldn't accurately reflect my experience, so I've chosen to focus this journal by taping session rather than by individual game.
As it turned out, the three weeks between tapings were both a godsend and a curse. They were great, because I had time to arrange travel for Drew and my parents, who drove to DC to pick him up and fly to LA. However, I had to lie through my teeth around the base-I had scheduled a mobility exercise for the taping date, and had to come up with a reason to leave during the exercise. I let my two-star boss and my front office staff know where I'd be, and told everyone else I had a short-notice business trip to Edwards AFB (about 2 hours from LA). Even worse than forcing me to fib to everyone, the three-week hiatus gave me too much time to think. I realized everything had gone my way; my luck had been unbelievable during the first four episodes. Could I get it started again? Could I live a lifelong dream and become a five-time champ? I was less than successful at clearing my brain, and probably lost a bit too much sleep worried about things I couldn't control.
No matter-the days ticked by, and I flew to LAX to meet my parents and Drew, whose flight arrived almost simultaneously with mine. We checked in to the Culver City Radisson, the hotel that hosts most Jeopardy! contestants, found a Thai restaurant just around the corner, and enjoyed an easygoing evening. Then I committed my most serious mental error of my brief Jeopardy! career and neglected to turn my cell phone off when we went to bed. I knew Nellis AFB was exercising, and that my number was the first to be called for certain exercise events. Sure enough, the phone rang about an hour after I went to sleep-and I lay for what seemed like hours staring at the ceiling. After a while, I read, and at some point finally drifted off to sleep. Boy, was I irritated with myself.
The morning came quickly, and went much as my first taping day had gone. I met the crowd of fellow contestants in the lobby, waiting for the Sony Studios shuttle, but soft-pedaled my previous experience. Of course, it didn't take long for my secret to come out-as we met Glenn and Corina at the studio visitors' center, they greeted me with a "hello, champ" that raised a few eyebrows, and Maggie had me announce to everyone that I'd won 4 times already. I was first to be made up, then settled in for the Jeopardy! rules and tactics briefing. As before, I was completely impressed by my fellow contestants, who were incredibly bright, energetic, and personable. Maggie told us the online test had allowed them to really stock the contestant pool with fabulous players, and I had to agree.
From that pool came Angie and Paul-and the game was on. As we walked onto the stage, I glanced into the audience, and smiled as I saw Drew sitting between my folks. I was a bit jittery, however. It took me 3 tries to get my hometown howdies taped, and I had to laugh at myself. Ice-cold fighter pilot and military leader? Hah! I wanted #5, and I wanted to give my family a good show, and my nerves let me know it. Paul let me know he wanted the game as badly as I did, and we spent the next 22 minutes duking it out. Angie hung right in there, and little separated us as we considered our Final Jeopardy! wagers. I was ahead, so I bet to double Paul's second-place score plus $1, and crossed my fingers that "Literature of the 1800s" would include something I'd read-and when Alex revealed the clue, I smiled. I'd read Dickens, and I'd seen numerous TV, film, and stage portrayals of a character "in whom the spirits of past, present, and future will strive." I quickly scribbled my answer, and then Alex threw us a curve ball, announcing that this character was currently in the news and unique to the season. I completely forgot about the delay between taping and broadcast, and wondered which season he meant. Halloween? Thanksgiving? My bewilderment didn't last long-Angie had the right answer, as I did-and I was a five-time champ who belatedly realized Alex was plugging Christmas and Jim Carrey's new digitally enhanced portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge, due to open a few days after the taping. Wow. The game had been a nail-biter with two brilliant competitors, but I'd squeaked it out.
I had no time to rest. I went back to the green room for a quick make-up touch-up (I'd whacked myself shaving that morning, and the make-up artists did a phenomenal job of covering my bloody upper lip), and I greeted Jove and Sarah. We filed onto stage, and dove into a game even faster and more furious than the previous. Jove was loaded for bear, and I played catch-up the entire game. He was sharp; like Todd back in game #2, he frequently beat me to the buzzer, and steadily stayed in the lead. He played so well that twice I found Daily Doubles, and both times I bet everything-and those two true Daily Doubles ("the ankle" and "yew," an alphabetic homophone prized by British archers) kept me in the game. Suddenly, there's one category left in Double Jeopardy!-the one all of us had avoided, Galapagos Animals, and I'm at least a few hundred dollars behind. Having taken my sons to Sea World a number of times, I knew the difference between seals and sea lions, and got one question right-but Jove beat me to the buzzer on the second-to-last clue, and found the remaining Daily Double. Then things got interesting. The production team stopped the game and told us they were researching an earlier answer: in the "Museums" category, I'd replied "Who is Guggenheim" to a clue about "this man's Bilbao museum"; the writers had intended to highlight architect Frank Gehry, and I lost money on my response. After consideration, however, the production team (as ever, scrupulous about fairness) decided that nothing in the clue restricted the correct response to the architect. Because Guggenheim funded the museum and had it named after him, they credited me with the answer, and I was suddenly leading by $3400. Jove went for the win, bet $4000, and nailed it: the midpoint of the tropics and home of the Galapagos penguin is the Equator. There was just one chance for me to reclaim the lead-the $2000 Galapagos Animals clue-but none of us knew the flightless cormorant by sight or description, and no one rang in. We moved into Final Jeopardy! separated by $600 ($17,800 to $17,200), with Sarah a distant third.
During the commercial break, I worked out my wager. I was comfortable with the category, Historic Americans, and I expected Jove to protect against me by betting to double my score and add a buck. I knew I could win if he missed and I got it right-but the scores gave me a chance to win if we both got Final Jeopardy! wrong. Sarah had $4200, so I bet $8799-far less than the $16,601 I predicted Jove would bet, but enough to have $8401 in case Sarah was the sole contestant to answer correctly. As before, I smiled as Alex revealed the final clue: I keyed on the words "ancestral home Shadwell," "books," "fire," and "Library of Congress," as started to write before Alex was halfway done. You see, at my alma mater, we speak of our revered founder as if he were still alive and about to walk into the room, and I had no doubt about the answer. Also as before, Alex threw a curve ball: he mentioned that Jove had looked puzzled or bewildered as he wrote his response, and I thought "holy smoke-can I pull off another come-from-behind victory?" Sarah had missed-she keyed on Ben Franklin-and after I revealed "Who was Thomas Jefferson," I briefly had the lead with $25,999. But just as he had with his Daily Double, Jove answered correctly-and my run was over. After another knock-down, drag-out fight of a Jeopardy! game with incredible competition, I was exhausted, a little deflated, but happy that my losing effort was a valiant one. I thought I'd done my family and the AF proud with 5 wins and, including my $2000 second prize for this game, $136,801 in winnings.
As I left the stage, Alex and the production team did me a tremendous favor-they brought Drew onstage, and allowed us to have a photo made together. My disappointment of losing faded as I saw the look on my son's face: his eyes were as big as saucers, and he had a grin from ear to ear. How incredibly gracious of Alex, and what a moment for both of us-in Drew's staccato phrasing, he was "inside Jeopardy! with Alex Trebek," and neither of us will ever forget that moment together. I gave Drew the option of sightseeing or watching the remaining three episodes to be taped, and he didn't hesitate: "watch Jeopardy!" We settled in to watch.
Sticking around-which few vanquished contestants did during my winning streak-proved to be bittersweet. Spending the time with Drew doing something he loves was wonderful, as was spending a few hours with my parents. However, I couldn't shake a nagging "what if" feeling, as it felt like the next three games were written for me. Granted, the pressure was off-it's radically different under the lights, with the clock ticking and Alex waiting for your answer-but I'd already proved I could perform under that pressure, and the categories and Daily Doubles were right up my alley, dealing with B-17s and Air Force heroes like Jimmy Doolittle. I wanted to shout out questions that no one rang in to answer, but I resisted the urge-and, unlike many episodes I've watched, I batted 1.000 on the Final Jeopardy clues. I even knew which #1 hit from 1989 had won educators' praise as a "history lesson"-but no matter. I was in the audience, not on stage.
The import of luck, or fate, or karma really hit me about two days later. After a great meal at a fabulous LA restaurant, Campanile, and an early flight for all of us, I jumped right back into my base commander role, and thought my Jeopardy! experience would quickly fade. Not so fast-my eyes snapped open sometime around 2 AM that first night back at Nellis, and my mind was off to the races. If only I'd known what a flightless cormorant looked like, I'd have entered Final Jeopardy! in the lead, I might have won 3 or 4 more games, and might have topped $200,000 in winnings! Had it been another mental error to avoid "Galapagos Animals" for so long? What if we'd cleared that category at the beginning-would I have been able to finish the round in the lead? A little figurative devil popped up on one shoulder tormenting me with what might have been, and I'm sure I lay awake for hours. Finally, however, a little angel popped up on the opposite shoulder to rescue me: did I not remember game #2? In that game, I'd entered Final Jeopardy! in third place against a great player, and I caught the break I needed most: I got a category and clue that worked for me, while my competitor had been so ill at ease with "Shakespeare's Women" that he bet $0. I had been the only contestant to make the right educated guess-King Lear's daughter, Regan-and that single answer turned out to be worth $96,802, as it kept me alive to play four more games. By the same token, Jove caught the break he needed in the "Galapagos" category and capitalized on it. Jeopardy! is a game of fractions of seconds on the signaling devices and winning requires a serendipitous selection of categories-some you'll know, and some you'll blow. I'd had a great run of luck against a bunch of impressive men and women-and most importantly, I'd had a blast. When I drifted back to sleep, I'm sure I was grinning from ear to ear.
What's the moral of the story? Take the online test. If you get an invitation to audition, do it, and relax. If you're invited to play, just go have fun. It took me almost 20 years from the first time I tried to connect with a Brain Bus event, and almost 3 years from the first time I tested online-and playing Jeopardy! was definitely worth the wait!