2010 Tournament of Champions quarterfinalist: $5,000.
Season 26 4-time champion: $91,900 + $1,000.
Ryan won $36,000 on two episodes of ABC's 500 Questions on 2016-05-26 and 2016-05-27. He eliminated Nathan Kaplan on Nathan's question 24 and survived a challenge from fellow 2010 ToC'er Terry Linwood. He was eliminated by fellow 2010 ToC'er Liz Murphy on question 51.
Ryan appeared on two episodes of NBC's Who's Still Standing? on 2012-01-02 and 2012-01-09. He competed in the speed round on the second episode and was the last person standing, winning $32,000.
Ryan won $30,000 on Who Wants to be a Millionaire on 2017-09-27 & 2017-09-28.
Last name pronounced like "CHAY-fee".
Jeopardy! Message Board user name: mrbungle
Sister's Jeopardy! Message Board user name: mrbungle's militant sis
Ryan Chaffee - a Tutor
Los Angeles, California
December 23, 2009
I think that for most of the people who luck out and win a game of Jeopardy!, winning a game of Jeopardy! is something they have been wanting for a long time, for a lot of deep reasons. I think this is also the case for the people who manage to get on Jeopardy! but who do not luck out and win. And that knowledge was the only downside of the fulfillment of my Jeopardy! dream.
While growing up, I had two non-family-member heroes. One was San Diego Padres catcher Benito Santiago. The other was Jeopardy! legend Frank Spangenberg. My dad is a tall, brunette-mustachioed police officer. Just like Frank. There is definitely some unconscious conflation of my dad and Frank Spangenberg going on for me. Now my hero is Sigmund Freud. For what it's worth.
While growing up, I watched Jeopardy! with my dad every day after school. The other main activity I shared with my dad was sports. I played baseball, football, and hockey growing up. I played for years and years and years and I was of average ability and I knew my dad wished I was better and I wished I was better because I knew he wished I was better and we tried things like getting me eyeglasses because maybe that's why my hitting ability wasn't better, but the glasses didn't help. And so after tenth grade I quit sports to play guitar and sing in a high school rock band nerdily named Syzygy. But my dad and I kept playing Jeopardy!
One year in the early 1990s, my dad and I drove from home in Andover, Minnesota, to a hotel in Kansas City, Missouri, because that was the Midwest location where Jeopardy! was testing for the teen tournament.
Months earlier, I had mailed a stack of postcards to Culver City and subsequently received a letter on official Jeopardy! letterhead that was clearly a form letter but was signed by Alex Trebek. I framed it.
I hung it on my wall. I do not have it with me now, but I know where it is. The letter began something like, "Congratulations! Your postcard was selected, buddy! You get to have your dad drive you all the way down to Kansas City so you can get destroyed by the fifty-question written test! Yay!" I don't think that is exactly what the letter said, but that is what it should have said, because that is what happened.
When I told my dad that I was going to stop playing sports, he was disappointed, but he was okay with it. After the Kansas City debacle, he was similarly okay with that not working out. But I was not. My pre-Syzygy youth was dominated by sports, misty water-colored memories of Kirby Puckett and Minnesota Twins championships and hundreds of thousands of baseball cards. Over the years, I have stopped caring about sports (a process that began with the 1993 departure of the Minnesota North Stars and concluded with Gary Anderson's missed field goal in the 1998 NFC Championship Game). And eventually I left Minnesota for New Haven, and then New Haven for New York, and then New York for Los Angeles. But my dad and I kept playing Jeopardy!
I first took the Jeopardy! online test on Thursday, November 9th, 2006. I told my dad. I qualified for the in-person audition on Friday, December 8th, 2006. I told my dad. They told me and everyone else at the in-person audition that we were officially entered into the Jeopardy! contestant pool. I told my dad. Then he told everyone he knows and has met since his birth that his son is going to be on Jeopardy!
After two years and no call, I took the Jeopardy! online test for a second time on Thursday, January 29th, 2009. I qualified for the in-person audition on Thursday, March 12th, 2009. I told my dad, but I was way more explicit this time about the particulars of the scenario: being in the contestant pool DID NOT mean I would appear on Jeopardy!; it meant I COULD be called to appear on Jeopardy!, if only they judge me pretty enough.
In the intervening months, while playing couch-Jeopardy! games against my roommate Boomie (who, by the way, is currently up 168 games on me--his trivia river runs way deeper than mine), I regularly made the joke that the reason Jeopardy! was not calling was because it is all just a horrible beauty contest, and since I could not possibly compete with the impossibly dazzling beauties that they trotted out on stage day after day, I should abandon hope of ever receiving the call.
On Thursday, August 27th, 2009, I received the call. I told my friend and new roommate Blake. I called my friend David. I called my former roommate Boomie, now living beside a pool on a cliff. (He is single and ready to mingle, ladies! What don't you get about that?!) I called my dad. And I knew that for the third time he would be telling everyone he has met since his birth that his son is going to be on Jeopardy! But this time it would be true.
The call came from Maggie. Maggie's job title is "Contestant Producer." But that does not really describe what Maggie does. Because what Maggie does is give you overflowing gulps from the vast well of her lifeforce. She is like a free dispenser of Arrakis spice. She is an always-open bar of Qi cocktails. Maggie daily takes frightened little camera-unready nerdlings into her mothering embrace and, through the power of her mania and her love and her shrill generosity of spirit, turns them into Jeopardy! contestants ready for their close-ups, Mr. DeMille. The inhabitants of Jeopardy!land make it the amazing place that it is. Robert and Glenn and Corina and Mitch the Mic Man and everyone you meet there is doing a job. But each does his or her job in a way that makes you feel like his or her job is to make your appearance on Jeopardy! the most special and wonderful experience of your life.
As a Los Angeles-area contestant, I was required to serve a five-game term as an alternate contestant. Of all the preparation I did for Jeopardy!, sitting on the bench for five games was the most essential, not only because I was able to experience and acclimate myself to the game-day rollercoaster of emotions, but because I learned from the on-set practice games that I could not read the questions on the game board and would have had to play entirely by ear if I had been a real contestant on one of those days. Due to an irrational aversion to medical professionals, I was basically still using the same glasses that my dad had forced me to get to improve my batting over a decade ago.
I overcame my aversion, and I got new eyeglasses. Well before I actually appeared on the show, Jeopardy! was responsible for a dramatic improvement in my quality of life by making me be able to see the world clearly.
I had about a month to prepare for my for-real appearance. I had already read Bob Harris's "Prisoner of Trebekistan" and Ken Jennings's "Brainiac" and "Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac." I acquired "The New York Times Guide to Essential Knowledge," which is an amazing book for trivia heads, but whose scope is way beyond what was reasonable to tackle within the time frame. So I turned to Forrest & Lowenthal's "Secrets of the Jeopardy Champions." Just the right size. Also I played many, many games on j-archive.com, and my friend Adam played Alex by reading me questions from many games on j-archive.com, and I forced Blake to play j-archive.com-Alex when I was drunk after bar-trivia nights, and David tivo'd the daily games of Jeopardy! and angrily yelled "Ryan!" when I played stupidly, and my old college roommate Nick with whom I had not connected in years daily sent me beautifully crafted Jeopardy!-style questions that he made up, and Boomie left me messages like this on my voicemail: "The founder of the Boy Scouts was Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Girl Scouts was Juliette Gordon Low, the writer of 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic' was Julia Ward Howe, the writer of 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' was Harriet Beecher Stowe, and her brother was Henry Ward Beecher, an abolitionist."
Another thing I did to prepare was spot former Jeopardy! champion Bob Verini at an LA-area pub-trivia championship at a downtown bar and grille and ambush him and shake his hand so that I would have "the luck of Verini" on me. This turned out to be an indispensable part of the preparation process, and I recommend ambushing Bob Verini to any aspiring Jeopardy! competitors out there.
The news that my dad and my sister Becky were flying out to Los Angeles for my Jeopardy! appearance dramatically increased the stress I felt in the weeks leading up to my Jeopardy! appearance. The day before my Jeopardy! appearance, I had to work from 5:00am until 1:00pm, then I met up with my dad and my sister for a meal in Westwood, then we went back to their hotel and my sister played j-archive.com-Alex for me and my dad to play a few games just like the old days. Shortly before I parted company for the evening with my dad and my sister, I was at the height of my nervousness, until I shared with them this joke that I recently invented:
Q: What do you call the person you substitute into the bowling match when you need more pins made of poop?
A: A PinChitter.
Then I told them a few more jokes involving poop and the stress sort of went away and I went home.
My dad has always been way into birds. Two games before my game, there was a Final Jeopardy! question about birds that I knew the answer to (thanks to my dad) and that all three contestants missed. If I had been playing that game and had gotten that question, my dad would have been so proud! In the game right before my game, there was an entire category of bird questions. And the Final Jeopardy! was about Kurt Vonnegut, my number-one favorite author during high school. And I didn't get to play that game either! Being a very religious man (I am Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, AND Zoroastrian), I am quite superstitious, so I regarded these as very ill omens indeed.
All I wanted was one win. I was off on the buzzer timing at the beginning. But the luck of Verini was with me, and I got the hang of it, and it was all a huge blur. But it happened. And it was everything I hoped it would be and more.
My first Daily Double response ("Ellery Queen") was information acquired directly from the pages of "Secrets of the Jeopardy Champions." And I successfully deployed the Daily Double strategy that I had planned, which was to neutralize them rather than to let the outcome of the game depend on them. I guess I see now that that is sort of a stupid strategy (as David pointed out to me), since it only works if you manage to hit all the Daily Doubles (which I magically did, thanks to the luck of Verini!), but whatever.
As much as having my dad and sister (and friends Aaron, Adam, Berco, Blake, Boomie, Brinton, Brower, David, Jeff, Mr. Gordon, and Soo) in the audience made the whole affair more stressful, it made the win all the more satisfying when it happened.
My biggest regret from this game was somehow performing very well in a "Comic Book Villains" category. I was never into comic books growing up (I was a baseball card collector, dammit, and thus considered it my duty to beat up "comic bookies"). But as I unfortunately possess the hair style and physical dimensions of "The Simpsons"' Comic Book Guy, I am sure that I have more than a few unflattering comparisons to look forward to. My friend Brinton stepped up and made the first unflattering comparison between me and Comic Book Guy right after game one. So thanks for that, Brinton.
My sister was apparently so nervous during the game that she was unable to bring herself to watch most of it. Also, she was crying hysterically and breaking out into hives.
My dad was very proud of me.
I had already checked off the biggest checkbox on my Jeopardy!
checklist. Mission accomplished, as far as I was concerned. The second game was similarly a blur, though I remember being aware that I was playing much sloppier than I wanted to play.
For the second game in a row, I got the right answer in Final Jeopardy! but wagered nothing. This was the plan going in. I have been working for a while now on convincing myself that I do not care about money--or at least that I do not love money. Money is just money. So that was part of it. But the bigger motivation was to make it clear (to myself, at least) that a desire to acquire money had nothing to do with my desire to become a Jeopardy! champion. It was completely about the honor of becoming a Jeopardy! champion, and in my head, a mechanical bet of as much money as I could get away with betting without jeopardizing the win would have detracted from the purity of the win. I know this makes me weird. My friends have fully informed me of this. But it's the way I feel.
During the interview portions of the games, Alex never asked me about the one item that Robert had highlighted on my "personal stories" card (about how during my youth I successfully lip-synched "Weird Al" Yankovic songs in county fair talent shows). Before game three, Robert asked me for another "personal story" to add to the card, and I told him about how during college I was in an improvisational comedy group that performed an improv version of Jeopardy! I asked Robert whether it would be okay to mention the name of my college comedy group, because the group is still going strong, some of my friends in the audience had been in the group with me, and I wanted to mention the name of my college comedy group on national TV. But when Alex asked me about it, his phrasing and my response kind of took the interview in a weird direction, and I don't think I ever got around to mentioning the name of my college comedy group. Anyway, the name of the group is The Yale Ex!t Players. They are hilarious.
One day while my friend David was watching Wheel of Fortune, a woman contestant said, "I'd like to solve the puzzle... HOT PASTRAMI SANDWICH," and she was right and won a lot of money. David told me about this, and we agreed that "Hot Pastrami Sandwich" is one of the best correct game show answers ever. So when I bet my zero dollars in the Final Jeopardy! of this game, I decided to go for it. And to go it one better by pluralizing it. Check. Yet another checkbox on my checklist.
After game three, I went with David to a department store to buy a new blazer, since I had worn one of my blazers during the first game and my other blazer during games two and three. The suit guy at the department store informed me that they did not have any blazers in my fatness, and I would have to go to a huge-man's store in Beverly Hills if I hoped to find the type of girthywear I was looking for. So I decided to just stick with the alternating blazers situation.
For games four and five, my friends in the audience all dressed like me, which is to say they all dressed up in "Ryan costumes" of heavy metal t-shirts and black shorts and black shoes with white socks. So that was touching.
Going into this whole experience, I felt like the strongest advantage I would have over the average Jeopardy! opponent would be my knowledge of hard-science/math material. And I never got a single hard-science/math category. Then in this game, my very strong opponent hit all the Daily Doubles. My luck was slipping...
But the luck of Verini held out for one more game. I finally ran an entire category. Check. Finally pulled out a huge come-from-behind surprise victory. Check. My Jeopardy! dream checklist was nearly finished.
Finally managed to "make it a true Daily Double." Check. Checklist complete.
And then the luck ran out. And I got pummeled on the buzzer. And that's how it ends. And it could have happened in the first game, but it didn't happen until the fifth game. And for that, I will be forever grateful. Thank you, Bob Verini!
Prior to game four, fellow contestant Stephen approached me and said, "So that guy Matt seems really strong. You should beat him. Then you should lose to me." He was joking, of course. I played along with the joke and replied, "You got it."
So it went.
I plan to be at home with my family in Minnesota the week of Christmas, which is when most of these episodes will air. It is extra special for me that I lost on Christmas Eve, because I try to make it a tradition of doing something to jokingly "ruin Christmas for the family again this year." This will be my best ruining of Christmas for the family yet!
I love trivia. Because it is part of knowledge and it is a form of truth and it is inexhaustible. Even after you know all the U.S. presidents... and all the vice presidents... and all the cabinet secretaries... there's always the cabinet secretaries' pets. Which would be a ridiculous, just absurd set of information to know. I do not think I will manage to get around to cabinet secretaries' pets for another four or five years, minimum.
Now that I do not care about sports any more, I often jokingly make fun of my friends who do care about sports by referring to sports as "the thing where you gotta get the ball in the place to get the points." My friend Jeff started countering by jokingly making fun of trivia as "the thing where you gotta know the thing that other people don't know to get the points." After he watched me win $90,000 for "knowing the thing that other people don't know," he said he would not be able to make fun of me any more for being into trivia. But becoming a Jeopardy! champion still has nothing to do (for me) with winning the money. Trivia is a means of honoring my father, it is a way for me to order the world, and it is one of the lenses through which I have chosen to experience life.
In conclusion: HI, MOM! I'm sorry I have not yet mentioned you in my Jeopardy! Winners' Blog entry. You are the best and I love you very much. And hi, Jill and Andy. I love you two too.