I Didn’t Want to Win Money. I Avoid Competition. So How Did I End Up on Jeopardy? (Part I)

Sonia SaraiyaPerspectives16 Comments

This story starts at the end: Last week, I watched myself on national television. I was a contestant in regular-season adult Jeopardy!, and I lost spectacularly, but I think I looked pretty good in the process. I had not been looking forward to the viewing party, though.

It’s bad enough that millions of people were going to find out I played the bagpipes in high school (least sexy instrument ever), but I lost: It’s not the ideal ending to an evening of self-aggrandizement. I had been very proud of myself for getting on the show, but the show is really fucking hard, and that’s very clear in my taping. It didn’t help that I lost to this guy, or that this was my carefully worded promo. I was heading straight into the Land of Looking Like a Total Idiot, and most of me embraced the insanity, but some of me was hiding under the covers, waiting for it be March 14.

me on jeopardy

That was me on the TV! Photo courtesy Corey Menscher.

Because, you see, I was almost an unwilling Jeopardy! contestant. You know how you say to yourself, “Well, I can’t possibly turn this opportunity down?” My Jeopardy! experience was that, repeated over and over again. I took the online test in the middle of a breakup and I went to the first callback during a week of paralyzing insomnia. I got the call to attend a taping during my first month in a new city at a new job. The circumstances were far from ideal, but I could not say no.

I think what I’m supposed to say here is that taking chances is always worth it; face your fears, because you never know what you can accomplish; what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger; things that are worth it are hard to get. I am not here to say any such things. I’m not really sure if it is the best course of action to go onto a game show out of inertia. I don’t regret it, but it was intense, psychologically and emotionally. That being said, it certainly provides me stories to tell my grandchildren.

Watching, the episode, actually, was an enormous relief. For one thing, my friends and coworkers were incredibly supportive of my appearance, even though I didn’t win any money. For another, I actually handled myself pretty well on camera. I may have been terrified and sweaty, flubbing answers and wagering wildly, but I looked like I knew what I was doing, which is almost always half the battle. It was also, thankfully, over. This 13-month odyssey, really a twist of fate that accidentally took over my life, is over, and with it, what is hopefully my last foray into the world of game shows.

As with any PR disaster, I made an attempt to control the narrative: I live-tweeted the event. It was actually incredibly reassuring to have some commentary over what was happening, to explain what on earth had happened. These two posts are my final attempt to tell one woman’s very strange story of getting on a game show, and what happened there.

A little backstory, if you don’t mind:

Jeopardy! is the only game show I have ever wanted to be on. Unlike other game shows, it holds a certain cultural cachet; the prize money is comparatively mediocre, after all. And yet the questions are the hardest they are on any game show; the trivia the most obscure; the references the most esoteric. Unlike these overblown commercial enterprises like Who Wants to be a Millionaire and the short-lived The Weakest Link, which trade so much more on lighting, sound effects, and pressure, Jeopardy! is – or, at least, one can believe it is – simply about the purity of knowledge, the purity of knowing things. Jeopardy! is the only game show sophisticated people can admit to watching.

I don’t think it’s even necessary to add that I have been watching Jeopardy!, intermittently, since before I can remember. Every night growing up, we watched the evening news, Wheel of Fortune, and then Jeopardy!, like any honest, God-fearing Americans (never mind that we were an Indian-American family in rural Florida). My sister used to DVR Jeopardy! reruns on the Game Show Network on summer break. In recent years I haven’t owned a TV, so I watch when I catch it.

Jeopardy! is, needless to say a nerd’s game. Nerds everywhere watch along at home and shout questions at the television screen (which, in fact, had been my primary method of participating in Jeopardy! for maybe twenty years of my life). It makes knowing things awesome and worth money, which turns out to not really be true in real life, and which therefore makes Jeopardy! even more awesome.

I have always been excellent at Jeopardy! on the couch. I am the person you do not want to watch the show with because I will shout all the answers to everyone else in the room. It’s not so much that I am so smart, as much as my mind has somehow become a repository and dumping ground for every piece of trivia I’ve ever come across. I’m also not bad at taking tests, which I think is another essential component of Jeopardy! success. You can’t just know the answer, you have to know what the question is asking, which is actually relatively difficult on Jeopardy! most of the time. You’ll notice, if you’re an avid fan, that Jeopardy! clues are often 50 percent information you don’t need to know to know the answer. It’s a way to keep viewers interested, but if you’re playing along, you realize quickly most of the information you’re getting you don’t actually need.

I think I was in high school when I first started getting irritated suggestions from my sister that I should try out, so that I could actually be on the show instead of ruining it from everyone else around me. Honestly, the idea did not completely appeal to me. It looks pretty stressful, and let’s be honest, most of us judge the participants mercilessly. What is that guy wearing? What is up with her voice? How did they get that wrong? How do none of these people know that the answer is obviously The Great Gatsby?? Like I said; it’s a nerd’s game. We get to participate and feel superior, and boy, is that the point.

I would not have gotten on the show if my ex-boyfriend had not pressed me to. He thought I was good and didn’t see why anyone wouldn’t try out. Accordingly, he emailed me letting me know when the online test was. It turned out I couldn’t do two of the times, but I could do the third, Thursday, Feb. 10, at 11 p.m. EST. Jeopardy! takes their shit seriously. The tests are synchronized and they are brutal. 15 minutes for 50 questions, and you have to type in the answers.

I flew through the test sitting at my desk in my pajamas. I remember it was so intense I was sweating, because I was answering questions so fast and yet they kept coming. Out of the 50 questions, I only absolutely did not know the answer to one. Afterwards I compared notes with my ex, and I noticed I got a good portion right, but I literally did not think any more about it.

Then two months later, in April, sitting in my desk at work, I got an email from Jeopardy! asking me for a callback. An “audition,” they called it. The email said I’d done well enough on the online test to merit a second look. As I said – can you really turn something like this down? I rearranged my schedule, and RSVPed yes.

Then, as I mentioned earlier, the week of the audition I got the worst bout of insomnia I’ve ever had in my life. I was sleeping about 2-4 hours a night, at most, and then going in and working full days at my government job. The anxiety had literally nothing to do with Jeopardy!, but I do not think I can fully emphasize what a terrible state I was in. Like, out of it, bleary, slow-witted, terrified, bitter, cranky. I almost didn’t go. I was so strung out that I thought maybe I should take the day off to try to nap instead of go to the audition, which was just going to be stressful and a waste of my time.

It was rather a momentous decision, not to take a nap.

The callback was unexpectedly incredibly fun. The first thing I realized was that everyone there was kind of awesome. There was a crossword puzzle maker, an ex-military teacher, a farmer. It was pretty clear from the start that I was one of the youngest people in the room, though, if not the youngest. The extremely energetic and friendly casters – Glenn and Maggie are the most memorable – managed to keep everyone at ease and keep the entire thing friendly and noncompetitive in the most wonderful way possible. The first thing we did was another 50-question test, I think to ascertain that we actually did know our trivia. Then we all introduced ourselves, and they called us up in groups of three to play mock Jeopardy! games with a portable set of buzzers. I did pretty well with the buzzer and in the questions, and they snapped my headshot and said they might call me back in 18 months but they might not, and literally, they say this, probably you should just forget about it.

It didn’t occur to me until they started asking us chatty questions at our buzzers that we would be analyzed for more than just our correct answers – we’d also have to be somehow appealing on camera. From that realization on, I harbored a nagging suspicion that this was the only reason I managed to get onto the show. Maybe, I thought to myself, they auditioned people not just for winning, but also for losing. Like they rig the questioning somehow, or the podiums, so the person in position #2 always loses. This is not true, but goes to show how flummoxed I was to actually be called back. I spent the entire time looking over my shoulder, wondering why I’d made it so far.

I have a good, solid knowledge base of trivia, I do not deny that. I know many stupid/trivial things. But there were people who had been repeatedly called back at that audition, who by virtue of age and experience must have just known a lot more. But I was not only a young woman of color, which I imagine plays some role into casting decisions, but I was also 25, which is, from what I can tell, significantly younger than most people who try out for the show. I don’t know. I literally don’t know. I could be selling myself incredibly short. But that is a creepy hunch in the back of my head, that I got on the show because I was cute. I don’t deny it – I am cute – but it’s a weird thing to sit with.

Six months later, having moved cities and changed jobs, I checked my phone and saw a missed call from Culver City, California. Who, I thought with some confusion, do I know in Culver City? I listened to the message. And then I freaked the fuck out. My coworkers all stopped what they were doing, because I gasped and covered my mouth with my free hand. “Oh my god,” I said, “I think I’m going to be on Jeopardy!“ There was some confusion, because they had no idea I’d even auditioned, but I walked away to call Corinna, my designated handler (and another very nice woman), with all my coworkers watching me from the corners of their eyes. Corinna answered the phone and repeated what she’d said in her message. I said with some confusion that I thought that day could work. She gave me their standard policy on airfare and hotel rooms, and gave me the number of the hotel I should call, as well as the discount code for contestants. I took note of all of this, and then asked, tremulously, “Does this mean I’m going to be on the show? Is this another callback, or am I going to be on Jeopardy!?”

Corinna must get that question thirty times a day. “Yes. You’re going to be on the show.”

I hung up and I buried my face in my hands, to the complete amusement of my coworkers, who immediately began planning the viewing party.

The thing is, I hadn’t even intended to really get on the show. Taking the test in the first place was just another test; it was a way to show my ex-boyfriend that I did know stuff, you know, whatever. But now, I was going to go on the show, to try to win money? Hysterical laughing/crying about describes what I was going through. On one hand, I felt ridiculously over the moon. I’d been chosen to be on Jeopardy! That’s AWESOME! On the other hand, I was suddenly and stabbingly nervous. I’d been chosen to be on Jeopardy! I could make a complete and total ass of myself, which I do every day, in front of millions of people.

Ultimately the good feeling won out – though, of course, I couldn’t tell anyone! Posting on Facebook could disqualify, Corinna told me – that ruled out any other social networks. I discreetly told a few close friends, but otherwise I had to hold on to this knowledge for several weeks pretty much on my own.

There is something extremely strange about planning to be on a game show. It all seems like a huge joke. Really? I’m booking a hotel in LA near the Sony Pictures Studios so I can be filmed? I’m making my sister skip school so she can see Alex Trebek in person? I’m buying plane tickets so I can be on a show? It’s just not real. It’s not really happening. It seems like this crazy cosmic joke, completely removed from reality.

There are many wise and wonderful people who have prepared for their Jeopardy! appearances. Ken Jennings, probably the most famous Jeopardy! player of all time, apparently studied trivia flash cards. Another player studied which categories came up most frequently and boned up on those. There were a lot of things I could have done, readers. But instead, I did fuck all. A lot of people told me to study, and I ignored them all.  This was probably a mistake.

In my defense, Jeopardy! reserves the right to ask you about pretty much anything. How can you study for something like that? I wanted to go for the experience, and to have fun – but I could not shake the specter of winning. Of needing to win. That’s the problem of playing a game, even if it’s a game you love – somebody has to lose. And losing is not easy. Especially not on television. I think not preparing was my elaborate form of denial – that either my winning the game was meant to be, or it wasn’t, and nothing I could do could affect it. I said before that the entire experience felt like a twist of fate. I felt even then that I could not fight it.

I don’t think that any of this superstitious nonsense is actually true, but it is how I felt. I could not take the idea of trying to win a game show seriously. I could not justify studying for what was ostensibly supposed to be fun. And I couldn’t stand making Jeopardy! about winning, when it was always just answering questions for fun. I don’t mean to belittle anyone who did study, or did win on Jeopardy!, who include some awesome people I was very happy to meet. I just couldn’t do it. Even as the taping date loomed, and I got more anxious, I could not really bring myself to do anything about it.

***

All of a sudden, everything else fell away. I had finished all the necessary paperwork, left work, packed my bag, and was flying to Los Angeles. On the plane I decided I needed to go in with some concrete strategy, and worked out a basic wagering fallback plan. Primarily, I did not want to go negative before Final Jeopardy. That’s always the worst indignity, I think – to be kicked off the show while it’s still in progress. Go big or go home, I wrote in my journal. For a Daily Double, I’d wager half of what I had; for final, I’d wager it all. Why not? It was hardly real anyway.

I got in to LAX late; my parents and sister arrived from separate flights around the same time. We all piled into a rental car and drove to Culver City. I was giddy with seeing my family and being in balmy California, where Santa Anas were blowing hard and it was 70 degrees, in November! I had to check into a really nice hotel, settle down, sleep, and get up at 6am to get on the van to the studio. That would be the first time I met my co-contestants, who would start out as friends and end up competition.

I am not trying to be overly dramatic when I say: I had no idea what I was getting into.

This is part one of a two-part series. The second part will appear Friday, March 23. In the meantime, check out my Storified live-tweets from the broadcast. Feel free to ask me questions in the comments below about anything I’ve mentioned, and I’ll do my best to respond to all of them!

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Sonia SaraiyaI Didn’t Want to Win Money. I Avoid Competition. So How Did I End Up on Jeopardy? (Part I)

16 Comments on “I Didn’t Want to Win Money. I Avoid Competition. So How Did I End Up on Jeopardy? (Part I)”

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  1. Profile photo of Sonia Saraiya
    Sonia Saraiya

    Thank you everyone for the kind words :)

    Because of server issues part two won’t be published until this Thursday, but you’ll see it then!

  2. Profile photo of raine
    raine

    Excellent! You tell the story so well, and I’m in suspense for part II.

    My fiance got called for an audition last year but literally could not rearrange his thesis committee meeting for it. Boooo. He could in theory go again, though. You’re only disqualified for a few years if you don’t get picked after your interview, right? And you can never be on the show again if you’ve been on it once?

    1. Profile photo of Sonia Saraiya
      Sonia Saraiya

      I am not 100% sure about the answers to either of those questions: As far as I know, yes and yes (unless you’re a champion, in which case you can be invited back for the Tournament of Champions).

  3. Profile photo of CherriSpryte
    CherriSpryte

    Ahhhh I can’t wait to read part 2!

    When I was in high school, I was on something called the Long Island Challenge – a local cable channel high school version of Jeopardy, except far more tragic and pathetic than that description could possibly convey. There are many who say that my team’s losing was entirely my fault.

    So yeah! Gameshows! Awesomeness!

  4. Profile photo of Liadan
    Liadan

    Hearing a firsthand account of being a Jeopardy contestant is like the thing I never knew I always wanted. Can’t wait for part two!

  5. Profile photo of [E]SaraB
    [E]SaraB

    I admire your fortitude. I took the test in January, and encouraged everyone else to do it too, but I was secretly relieved to find out that I did not do well. I’m pretty sure that if I were to somehow end up on the show, I would vomit as soon as the little red light on the camera lit up.

  6. Profile photo of shellsncheese
    shellsncheese

    That’s awesome!  I so want to be on Jeopardy someday.  At one point in middle school or high school when I decided this I started memorizing common categories, like world capitals, vice presidents, and greek mythology.  Yup, I was cool back then.  I’m much better at Jeopardy clues then the questions they ask on the test.  That test is stressful!

    I’m proud of you even if you didn’t win!

    1. Profile photo of Opifex
      Opifex

      I second this. I would have totally wimped out. Performing in front of big groups scares the pants off of me. Good for you for being brave enough to go out there and try.

  7. Profile photo of veruna
    veruna

    I watched that episode last week! I was really rooting for you (especially over that guy). I’m glad you were on it. :)

  8. Profile photo of Olivia Waite
    Olivia Waite

    Persephone Jeopardy!  contestants unite!

    Under my non-pen name, I’m a one-day Jeopardy! champion. I’d played along with a calculator growing up, all through high school, and it quickly became clear that I knew everything they could possibly ever ask about Shakespeare. All I wanted out of life at the time was to go on Jeopardy! and have the Final Jeopardy category be Shakespeare.

    It wasn’t — at least, not on the first show, where I won. (A complete fluke.) But on the next show, where I completely tanked and was running a distant third and knew I was going to lose? The Final Jeopardy category was Shakespeare. That was better than the win.

    I like being a one-day champion. I was terrified to keep playing and was relieved when I lost. I liked the trivia and the buzzer, but not the competition.

  9. Profile photo of amandamarieg
    amandamarieg

    I watched that episode with my roommate!!  You seemed like a geeky cool person I wanted to be friends with, which is always a plus on any game show.

  10. Profile photo of Rude And Not Ginger
    Rude And Not Ginger

    This is so great. I know I’ve mentioned it on here before (and people probably want me to shut up about it), but I have both gone to California to watch my sister win at Jeopardy and auditioned for it myself (but I definitely didn’t make it). Jeopardy is something I have a deep, irrational love for. I agree that the online test is surprisingly hard, and the audition is surprisingly fun. Can’t wait to read part 2!

  11. Profile photo of Alex
    Alex

    This is awesome.

    As for intellectual game shows, the winner is clearly Only Connect, the most ridiculous game show ever with the best host and the best premise – Victoria Coren is my goddess. And University Challenge. University Challenge is like lucking into an amazing school and then having the reunion ten years later but you never really had much success and everyone there is speaking French fluently.

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