Slouching toward Jeopardy!, part 11: Teachers Tournament 2016

Being an alternate for the Teachers Tournament in February, 2016, had some cool perks.  Like the 15 tournament contestants, I would stay in a hotel at the show’s expense (unlike regular contestants, who travel to and stay in LA on their own dime), ride a shuttle to the Sony studios in Culver City, and be present as the five quarterfinal games were filmed on one day.  The second week of shows–the three semifinal games and the two finals–would be taped on a second day in Washington, D.C., in early April, and the ten games would air consecutively in early May.  I would receive a per diem allowance and, if I wasn’t needed to play, a small thank-you check.  My school was great about giving me the time off, counting it as a professional absence, and people were very supportive.  I completed several multiple-page forms (release form, tax forms, teacher information form, a form where you list five fun stories that Alex could ask you about), scanned and emailed them back, and kept studying.

I knew that the overwhelming likelihood was that I wouldn’t play, but I made sure to schedule brunch the weekend before with Gillian, Chris, and Lisa to get their advice–Chris and Lisa because they’d been on the show, of course, and Gillian because we’ve been friends for 30 years, she watches the show regularly, and she gives great advice!  We went over wagering strategy and Chris and Lisa gave me some what-to-expect tips.  I learned that even as an alternate, I’d get to step up to the podium and practice ringing in during rehearsal.

Lisa gave me what I still think of as the best piece of advice: “You can win on Jeopardy! without answering a lot of questions,” she said.  “You feel like you have to answer everything, but you don’t.”  It was more important, she said, not to panic and ring in on questions you don’t know.  (Remember this.  It’s important later.)

The tournament hotel was the Universal Hilton, which is nowhere near Sony Studios, but it was a thoughtful choice because it’s one place in LA that you can stay and actually walk to a major attraction (Universal Studios and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter).  Matt took me there the afternoon before and we walked over to Universal Citywalk, a theme-park-ish outdoor mall, where we spent part of the per-diem check on dinner at Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., a place I had never eaten before or have since.

Falling asleep was surprisingly difficult–I felt keyed up and couldn’t resist playing some online map quizzes, checking my school email, and other activities not conducive to sleep. But, conditioned by my usual 5:30 school-year wake-up time, I also had no trouble waking up the next morning to dress in my hypothetical on-camera outfit and meet the contestant coordinators in the lobby.  They gave us our final pieces of paperwork, checked us in, and loaded us onto a bus.  Here we are!  They didn’t even make me ride in the back!  I sat with Nicole, a high school English teacher from Virginia:

contestants on bus

Photo from Jeopardy! site. According to their caption, they told us, “If you’re excited to be on Jeopardy!, raise your hand!”

Now here are two things that pretty much all Jeopardy! narratives include:

  1. The contestant coordinators/contestant producers are fantastic.

Glenn, Robert, Corina, and their amazing chief, Maggie, made us laugh, cajoled us, encouraged us, and made sure the game is played fair. Everyone is looking out for fairness, both because of the laws around quiz programs, and because of basic decency. However they hire staff on the show and however they run the program day to day, they do it right. Everyone I had anything to do with was delighted to be there. They give money away every day, and that’s their job.  —Glenn Fleishman, on BoingBoing

Maggie in particular is a human amphetamine, and her epic hour-plus pre-game pep talk is sufficiently energizing that it would not be out of place on an episode of Hard Knocks. L.V. Lopez, on Frontier Psychiatrist.

I’ve been looking for this one story which does a particularly great job of describing how Maggie, in particular, takes a bunch of slightly-to-severely-inward nerds and makes them TV-ready, but I haven’t been able to find it.  I just want to add that they–in our case, Maggie, Corina, Glenn, and Aimee–really seemed to get that for each contestant, a day on Jeopardy! is a peak experience, and they never seemed to let on that for them it is a job and maybe someone on staff is being annoying and maybe they’re worried about something outside of work and maybe the coffee was bad that morning.  They were like Bruce Springsteen giving his all to Akron, Ohio–“Howyadoin, Akron!” like there’s no place he’d rather be.

(Which, actually, is kind of true of teaching, also.  You cannot act like one day is Paris and one day is Akron.)

(Akron, please don’t be mad.)

2. The atmosphere is camaraderie, not competition.

Arthur Chu is right: you definitely try your hardest to win, whatever that means to you and whatever that looks like at home.  But almost everyone I know who has been on Jeopardy! has stayed in touch with the people they met on their tape day.  The shared experience makes a powerful bond, maybe particularly because it’s relatively unusual to meet anyone who has had the same experience.  (I’m getting ahead of myself a bit now, but now that I’ve played, I do feel a tiny echolocating ping of familiarity when I meet someone else who has been on the show.)

This is probably extra true of the Teachers Tournament because we also all share a profession and therefore had plenty to talk about from the first minute.  Anyway, here with Alex Trebek is the 2016 group, all of whom followed Maggie’s jocular advice not to let me get anywhere near their coffee, “because if you go down, Nan gets to play!”:

TT Contestants, 2016

I had my eye on Ian, a social studies teacher from the Valley (here on the far right of the back row), because he had been the previous year’s alternate, and I was hypothesizing (hopefully) that he would have an edge as a returning contestant.  We chatted a little and he did seem very calm.  It turned out that he taught at the same charter school as one of my former colleagues.  Another, geographically weirder coincidence: Hannah, a math teacher (on the far right of the front row), had attended a summer institute the previous year with one of my current colleagues.  Terrie, in light blue in front of Alex, taught social studies in Maryland, my home state, and lived in Pennsylvania not far from Gettysburg, where I taught for a year.  And Cory from Connecticut, in the front row, far left, had an MFA in fiction and, like me, would attend the Associated Writing Programs conference in D.C. the following year.

I should mention that not all Jeopardy! contestants really are inward nerds.  Some of us are extrovert nerds.  It’s definitely a teacher type, and one example is Jason, in the back row, upper left.

Or perhaps you remember him at the end of the 2016 Teachers Tournament:

Jason Sterlacci behind $100k score

Of course, that didn’t happen until April, and I had to wait until the episodes aired in May to find out most of what happened that day.  Unlike regular Jeopardy! contestants, who get to watch games from the audience, tournament contestants are sequestered in the greenroom on the first day until it’s their turn to play.  The reason for this is that not only do the winners of the quarterfinal games advance to the semifinals, so do the four highest-scoring non-winners.  To know the scores preceding your game would be an unfair advantage to those who play later, so they’re kept separate.  As an alternate, I would stay in the greenroom until the last three quarterfinalists went onstage, watching movies with the sound turned up so that we couldn’t hear anything revealing from the stage.

First, though, we were instructed to turn off our cell phones and sent three at a time into makeup while Maggie continued our briefing.  She had already, facing backwards on the bus as the driver, Ernie, negotiated a picturesque surface-streets route through Hollywood and the Fairfax district to Culver City, briefed us on the day and on many of the niceties of gameplay, including the rules about what constitutes a complete, correct or incorrect answer; how to give an answer if you’re not sure of the pronunciation (enunciate every letter); and how to write down your Final Jeopardy! answer if you’re not sure of the spelling (represent every sound).  She’d also told a number of stories about tricky rulings and favorite contestants and made us laugh a lot.  Now she and a representative from an outside auditor explained that we had the right to contest a ruling if we thought we’d given the right answer and how to do it (at the next commercial break).  We also met representatives from Farmers Insurance’s Thank America’s Teachers program, which gave $2500 grants to each contestant for use at their schools.

Finally, we trooped out to the set to get briefed on how the light pens and buzzers work, to practice writing our names, and to ring in on a mock game in which Glenn played Alex Trebek and the questions were easy, although not so easy that we didn’t get some wrong.  My first successful ringing-in was in the category NURSERY RHYMES.  The clue, about “Hey Diddle Diddle,” was something like “This ran away with the spoon,” and I said, “What is the fiddle?” instead of “What is the dish?”  Fortunately, they let you practice until you’ve rung in and answered successfully a few times.

Here are some of the things I remember from standing on the stage: People tell you that it’s smaller than it looks on TV, but it was bigger than I expected and the board was farther away.  The buzzer is also larger than I expected and I was most comfortable holding it with two hands.  (There are many schools of thought on how to hold the buzzer.)  Contestants stand on platforms that can be raised and lowered so that everyone’s head is at about the same level regardless of their actual height, and the stage personnel are very concerned that you’ll forget you’re on a platform and fall off, so you get helped down like a Victorian lady descending from her carriage, even if you’re only six inches off the floor.  (Usually right after the extremely calm and kind microphone technician stops you from walking away still attached to the podium by your rehearsal microphone wire.)  Finally, it’s chilly in the studio so that you remain cool and dry.  If you ever watch from the audience, bring a sweater.

Families and friends had been told to arrive at 11:15.  Matt came to watch, and so did Chris and her sister, T.  Chris was also looking forward to seeing Maggie, who had already reminisced with me about Chris’s previous appearances on the show and the Tournament of Champions.  Contestants aren’t supposed to make contact with their families and friends, so they herded us back to the greenroom and let us know that the first three contestants would be Lauren, Dianne, and Chris.  Those three got mics attached (cordless this time, connected to a waist pack by a wire that runs down the back of your shirt–this is why you should not wear a one-piece dress on Jeopardy!), makeup touched up, and a huge round of applause from the rest of us as they headed out to the set.

Aimee quickly distracted us like a babysitter with a bunch of preschoolers by pulling out a stack of DVDs, and we settled in to watch The Princess Bride, enlivened–or ruined, depending on your perspective–by her caustic commentary.  (I have to agree, Buttercup really is a pretty lousy girlfriend.)  We chatted, snacked, made many visits to the bathroom (there are two).  I peeked into the flimsy partitioned-off changing area where, on a normal tape day, the winner changes clothes to preserve the illusion that a day has gone by between games.  (It’s usually more like ten minutes.)  There’s a star on the door that says Jeopardy! Champion,” but inside it’s basically a closet with a chair.

Somehow, the morning went by.  Greg, Jason, and Nicole were whisked away for game two, then Jill, Hannah, and Ian for game three.  Lunch was brought in for the remaining six contestants, our custodian Aimee, and me.  The pizza and sandwiches were good, but I was a little disappointed not to get to go to the Sony commissary, which figures in so many contestant narratives.  Aimee put in a new movie–Iron Man, which was much funnier than I expected–and Maggie came to fetch Pete, Tenaya, and Terrie.  So the final group, and the only one I would get to watch, would be Kaberi, Cory, and Bill.  Once they were standing behind their podiums, Corina sent me into the audience to sit with the rest of the contestants.

Chris, Jason, Jill, and Pete had won their games and would be semifinalists; so would Lauren and Nicole, with scores of $11,000 and $5,000.  The scores for the two runners-up to beat were Terrie’s $1,300 and Tenaya’s $600, but of course Kaberi, Cory, and Bill didn’t know that.  Tournament cut-off scores have varied wildly–Keith Williams has a 2015 chart on his blog, The Final Wager, that shows cut-offs between $4,000 and $18,000 since Season 21–and while it’s rational to aim for $10,000 to $12,000, like so many other things on Jeopardy!, you just can’t know.

I’d actually been in a Jeopardy! audience once before–I’d gone over spring break the previous year, reserving free tickets online for me, my daughter and one of her friends.  I’d taken the online test and wanted to see what the taping was like.  So sitting in the audience was familiar, except that now I was watching people I’d spent the whole day with.  I knew that Kaberi had fallen in love with the Spanish language on a junior year abroad in Spain and taught bilingual kindergarten in Chicago.  I knew about Cory’s young son and Bill’s special-education students.  I wasn’t rooting for any one of them more than the others–I just wanted them all to play well and have fun.

As it turned out, they did.  Going into Final Jeopardy! (category: AUTHORS), Kaberi and Cory were neck and neck at $8,600 and $8,400, but Bill led them both with $13,600.

The clue: She wrote in her journal in 1867 that a publisher “asked me to write a girls’ book.  Said I’d try.” * Kaberi bet modestly, $3000, and raised her score to $11,600.  Cory, an English teacher, made a gutsy bet–all but $2–and it paid off: $16,798.  Bill made a conservative bet of $3601, probably hoping to stay above the cutoff.  He didn’t come up with the answer and dropped to $9,999, but all three of them went on to the semifinals, knocking out Nicole and Terrie.  (Terrie got to go to D.C. as the alternate for the second taping day.)

We all went up onstage and took pictures and milled around.  The semifinalists did interviews for the show’s website.  (All those promos are still here.)  Maggie made sure I took a photo with Alex.

“Would you want to come back for next year’s tournament?” she asked.

“If I have a choice, yes!” I said.

“Well, we’ll see,” she said.  “But we’re looking forward to having you back to play!”

Matt and I went out to dinner with Chris and T before driving back over the hill to collect my stuff from the hotel, and they filled me in on some of the excitements of the games I missed, which I’d have to wait until May to watch.  And then I went back to school, picked up the threads of the semester, and kept going with the usual–teaching, writing, and studying for Jeopardy!.  Nothing more would happen, I was pretty sure, until the beginning of the next season, at least.

This blouse is really too busy for TV, I discovered the following year.

*Louisa May Alcott.

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