Just Over 20 Questions With Just Under 20 Champions

Since Prisoner
of Trebekistan

introduces a number of other players as eventual friends, I thought you might
enjoy knowing some of them a little better. So I sent out a little game of Twenty Questions to a few of the champs I’m
particularly fond of. (By the way, there
are a few names here you might not recognize from the book; they’re all big
winners on the show, too.)

The following are some representative responses.  I was
surprised by how often our stories are all very similar.  My thanks to
all involved for sharing their experiences, and for allowing me to
share their memories with you.

1. When did you first become a fan of the show, and when did you decide to try out?

Josh Den Hartog: My earliest Jeopardy memory is cheering fanatically
for Eric Newhouse.  See, he was from Iowa, and we were from Iowa, and
it felt good to have one of our own kick the rest of the country’s butt.

Eric Newhouse: I first became interested right around the time Chuck
Forrest came on and dominated the show like no one had before him.

Mike Rooney: When I got back from grad school and was unemployed in
L.A., I had time to sit in front of the TV.  And that’s when I first
saw Dan Melia smile that jolly smile — you know, the one that says
"look, I’m kicking ass and having fun while simultaneously
demonstrating my intellectual superiority."  So I decided to try out
shortly thereafter.

Dan Melia: As things will happen with child/spousal support and the
like, I was seriously upside-down financially for several years and
flirting with bankruptcy as a serious option.  Dara & [son] Daniel
(who was then 11) had urged me to try to get on the show, so I decided
to go down to LA and give it a shot.  When I announced that I was going
to do this, Dara said (with some irony) "So, your plan to get out of
debt is to go on a TV show and win a lot of money?"  I replied, "You
have a problem with that?"

Leslie Shannon: It got to be a family ritual that we would actually
watch Jeopardy! while eating, and eventually our dinners got to
starting right at 7:30 when the show did.

Fred Ramen: In college, people were telling me I should go on the show, but I never thought I was good enough.

Rachael Schwartz: I used to watch the old show with Art Fleming when I
was in grade school.  I would go home for lunch and watch it with my
grandmother.  Amazingly enough, as a six-year-old, I rarely knew any of
the answers.

Leslie Frates: I started watching the show in 1964, during the Art
Fleming days, when I was almost 10.  I even have a 1st edition Milton
Bradley home version of the Jeopardy game that Santa left under the
tree for me at Christmas 1964.  My parents were very accommodating of
their complete nerd daughter.

Eugene Finerman: At age 11, I found myself immersed in questions that
allowed me to test my wits against my vanity.  The onslaught of puberty
did not dilute my devotion; I was perfectly capable of thinking about
both naked cheerleaders and the Punic Wars.

Jerome Vered: I was doing a senior project at USC’s film school,
staying up and piddling around the editing rooms at all hours.  Another
student project was a documentary on the first Tournament of
Champions.  So I’m walking to my editing room and hearing clues being
given by Alex and I’m calling out the answers… The director sticks
his head out of the room and asks me if I’ve seen or heard the footage
before.  No, say I.  Then he says, "You really should try out for this
show. You’d do great."

2. How do you handle pre-show
jitters?  Any green room tendencies you’ve developed?  Chatting
with/avoiding other players?  Thinking/not thinking about the game?

Fred Ramen: The first time I was on I was nervous as hell. I got maybe
three or four hours of sleep the night before — pure nerves — and
wired myself up on caffeine in the green room… After the practice
game I was of course raring to go. However, Dan Melia was the returning
champ… then they called out the players for his fifth game. Not me.

Grace Veach: It’s good that the staff keep us busy with contracts and
stuff to do, or I’d probably be much more jittery.  That was the worst
thing about the day we shared with Wes in the green room — it lasted
forever!  I felt a real bond with you by the time that we’d shared that
whole day, and Wes was incredibly classy as well.

Kate Waits: For the Masters, I brought my crochet.  (I make blankets
for our local battered women’s shelter.)  I didn’t feel all that
nervous, but I kept messing up the pattern.

Leslie Frates: On my first appearance I was a nervous wreck.  When I
walked out onto the stage and saw the lights come on and Alex walk out,
my knees and hands were shaking, and my hands were so clammy they felt
like they were coated with oil from a tuna can.   After the first
break, when Alex interviews the contestants, I felt much more relaxed,
and all the nervousness just oozed out of my fingers, just like when
Novocaine wears off.  Really.

Eugene Finerman: Jitters?  Paranoia.  While in the Green Room, you will
look at your fellow contestants and imagine which of them would
slaughter you.  After all, they are real champions while you, in your
innermost thoughts, know yourself to be only a lucky charlatan.

Jerome Vered: I tend to be chatty.  Not as big a class clown as some,
but I guess I’m more effusive than many.  And bringing candy breaks the

Ben Tritle: I don’t handle pre-show jitters very well… I encountered
a horrid case of flop sweat and nearly went on stage with an
embarrassing wardrobe malfunction.

Leslie Shannon: For my first five shows, I was so terrified that I was
almost trembling with adrenaline.  But once each game started, I was
able to focus absolutely on the questions… However, for my ToC
return, I was much calmer.  In fact, too calm.  I was very aware of the
supporting role that my adrenaline rush had played in my five wins, and
I started getting worried that I wasn’t freaking out at all.  So in the
Green Room, I tried to make myself nervous.

John Den Hartog: The best advice I have for others on pre-show routine
is: don’t drink ANYTHING that day, or you will have to pee about a
BILLION times.  I learned this the hard way.  Luckily, I was able to
survive it and have been fine ever since. 

Eric Newhouse: Watch out for the coffee in the green room.  The very first time I taped I’d probably downed about half the urn.

Mike Rooney: Frequent bathroom visits.  And Power Bars.

3. How were you lucky?

Fred Ramen: in my first game, I got left off the hook by the first place contestant, and ended up a co-champ.

Leslie Shannon: In one of my tournament games, the clue was something
along the lines of: "He became governor of Louisiana in 1704 after
being the first mayor of Detroit."  Miraculously, I had just read about
this very thing while preparing for the Tournament, and so I actually
knew that the response was "Who was Cadillac?"   Otherwise I would have
had no idea.

Grace Veach: I had an important clue about Gen. George McClellan
running for president against Lincoln.  I had just been reading about
elections and thought it was unusual he would run against the man who
had promoted him.

Josh Den Hartog: I had $3500 riding on a Daily Double once.  And then
it asks some question about a gland that causes some particular
disease.  I have never heard of said disease.  Time starts to run
out… I panic, and start to say in my head, over and over…"Think of
a gland, think of a gland…"  Finally, I just spit out "What is the
thyroid?"  It was right.  Without that money, I lose the tourney going
away.  I’ve been fond of the thyroid ever since.

4. What’s your one big question that got away?

Arthur Phillips: Oh, dear God, the Oranjestad Incident.  We shall not
speak of it further.  Everlasting shame.  I can barely say the name
William of Orange without feeling nauseous.

Fred Ramen: I totally whiffed on a Sylvia Plath question despite having
had three consecutive lectures on her the previous semsester at NYU. 
Also, not being able to get in on the Quotable Coolidge categories that
I could have crushed.

Leslie Frates: In the Masters, in a Final Jeopardy to reach the finals,
they wanted President Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book.  I knew it
instantly (Profiles in Courage), and it was the easiest FJ I ever got
in any game I played.   But I had bet puny, and lost.

Leslie Shannon: Bob Verini beat me to a question about the composer of
"Finlandia" (Sibelius, of course) in the Masters Tournament that had me
fuming — I work for Nokia, a Finnish company, and knew that my
colleagues would never forgive me!  However, later in the same game, I
got a question about the SATs, which Bob V. wished he had gotten, since
he used to work for the SAT board.

Jerome Vered: I was playing against Frank Spangenberg and Pam
Mueller… up comes the category "Rossini Operas."  The last one was
about an opera involving the Venetian army.  I ring in immediately, and
then — too fast, too fast — blurt out "Daughter Of The Regiment." 
And I blanch immediately.  I know that was by Donizetti.  I know I’m
f’ed.  Out comes the correct response — "Otello."  I am so pissed.  I
own only one opera on audio cassette.  One.  That opera?  Rossini’s

Kim Worth: Elijah! But I must say; if you’re going to miss a clue, miss
one you could never answer. There’s none of that lying awake in bed
thinking, "I KNEW that!"  No, this was more like stepping off the curb
and getting hit by a cement truck. Fast, quick and painless.

Mike Rooney:  !@#$ing "Crete" Garfield.  And before that, I was bounced
from the 2000 ToC on another FJ, asking for the advisor of Odysseus’s
son, who was of course named Mentor.  I knew what they wanted there,
but drew a hugely frustrating blank.  A few weeks ago, I saw a
biography of James Garfield at the bookstore.  So I flip to the index
and the first reference to Lucretia "Crete" Garfield not only mentions
her nickname but also the fact that before being elected to the
Presidency, the Garfields made their home in… Mentor, Ohio.  And now
you, Bob, who are from Mentor, Ohio, are asking me this.  You bastard.

5. What question did you pull the furthest out of your nether regions?  And how did you get to the answer?

Arthur Phillips: I’ve never seen "The Last Picture Show" and did not
know it was the film that Cybill Shepherd debuted in, so how did I know
from a random video clip that that’s what the movie was?  When you’re
on, you’re on, and knowledge apparently is sent to you from the cosmos.

Leslie Frates: A "Before & After" question, something like "the
dueling vice-president who became the puppeteer who worked with Kukla,
Fran and Ollie."  I remembered once seeing a grainy photo of Kukla,
Fran and Ollie standing next to their creator, Burr Tillstrom.  It hit
me so fast that on the tape my body physically jerks before I ring in: 
"Who is Aaron Burr Tillstrom?".  I’m mighty proud of that one, mighty

Eugene Finerman: In my second game, I actually was trailing as we went
into Final Jeopardy.  The clue was