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Report by Jeopardy Contestant,
Jeff Suchard

Opponent of Ken Jennings

Jeff wrote the following journal entry after returning from Sony Pictures Studios on April 23rd, 2004, after watching Ken Jennings plow through 10 contestants and handily win all five games taped that day. Jeff ended up being a holdover contestant that day.

I find myself in a most unusual position. Unlike the other J! contestants who arrived on 4/23/04 with no inkling that a multiple-day winner was the returning champion, I now have almost four months to reflect on my upcoming game against Ken Jennings. (Well, to be exact about it, the holdover contestants from 4/22/04 did know about Ken’s excellent record, but they had only one day to meet their fate.) The experience is similar, I suppose, to 18th century French aristocrats lining up for the guillotine, or to Christians waiting their turn to face the lions in the Colisseum.

If it weren’t for the fact that they would probably never invite me back to be a contestant, I find myself tempted to decline to return. In a morbid way, I am almost hoping that I will contract some non-critical illness or be lightly injured before the next J! taping, and will then have a valid excuse for delay tactics. Or maybe Ken will become ill…or his flight will be inordinately delayed, or even crash…but these thoughts are too evil, and certainly undeserved. Ken is a bright young man who is perfectly admirable. He happens to have developed the optimal way to play the game of JEOPARDY! and is getting rewarded for his prowess.

I am angry some days, because I see my latest adulthood dream shattering. I have wanted so much to be on J! for so long. You only get one shot as a contestant ever, and now when I finally have this opportunity, it no longer appears that I have a fair chance. But “fair” is not really the right word. I do not think that Ken or the J! producers are cheating in any way. But I do not seem to have the chance I would have had if anyone but Ken were the returning champion. He is a savant, a juggernaut, one of the best trivia game contestants ever. With anyone else as champion, I would give myself about a 50-60% chance of winning on J! on any given day. But against Ken, I would optimistically place my chances at 30% (very optimistic, mind you), and that is assuming a set of categories that is not particularly unfavorable for me, as happens in about one of every four or five shows.

Some days I am upset with the JEOPARDY! producers for changing the rules about returning champions. Certainly, five days’ worth of monetary winnings and a car or two is all anyone deserves for being smart and quick. More than five days seems great when you think it can happen to you, but more than ten or twenty seems excessive to me now, although I am sure this is just a manifestation of “sour grapes”. Did the producers ever consider that a player like Ken might exist? Probably not. What will happen if he wins more than an entire season’s run of shows? He could conceivably go for several years without losing a game. It will become increasingly difficult to even find contestants for him to compete with. One of the primary lures to get contestants to try out is that each believes they might win a significant amount of money; if that prize no longer seems achievable, the number of people trying out will diminish and may even dry up.

As best as I can construct the timeline in my head, I was invited to be on the show after Ken had begun his winning streak. The devil on my shoulder tells me that they needed some more cannon fodder quickly, before the word got out that a truly formidable champion was on the show. Could it be that they extended the taping schedule in order to put as many unsuspecting contestants through the grinder before they can see their competition? The angel on the other shoulder tells me that they are searching for a giant-killer and the contestant coordinators think that I can do it: my wife is going with this theory, although I am skeptical. I know I got 42 or 43 out of 50 correct on the tryout test and did very well in the mock game and interview. But doesn’t everyone who makes it as a contestant do well on the interview, or else they wouldn’t be invited? And there must be plenty of people who scored in the high 40s on the test…and they probably don’t even consider the number once you get a passing score of 35 correct. It’s too hard to believe that they were looking for a giant killer when they picked me. Was it just my dumb luck to try out for J! at the wrong time?

I also dwell on this interesting tidbit: two other potential contestants did not have to play against Ken because they knew him from college trivia competitions. My understanding is that they were not Ken’s team-mates, but his rivals from other colleges and universities. I understand the need to avoid any appearance of impropriety, but this may be going too far. In what manner would a match-up of these contestants and Ken be improper? There is no reason for them not to play their hardest to beat Ken, and no reason for Ken not to try his hardest to beat them. They are not related to Ken, nor should they have any financial connections with him either. They may have some notion of which categories their opponents are strong or weak in, but since the choice of clues is not determined by the contestants it is difficult to see how this scrap of knowledge could be used to any advantage. Wait a minute! A cousin of mine was a contestant on J! just over a month ago and must, therefore, have played against Ken and lost – should I claim that I should be held over until Ken is done to avoid any potential appearance of impropriety based on this point?

Some days, though, I feel I do have a reasonable chance playing against Ken. He’s not winning because he knows everything; I saw him respond incorrectly. He is winning because he hits the signal button first. The clues he doesn’t get are simply because he rings in even if he isn’t sure of his response; but even then, he can figure it out about 80% of the time. Heck, if I could ring in first about 80% of the time, I could win too…anybody could. If I can only learn the trick to doing this in the next few months, I will stand a decent chance. How does he do it? I asked him point-blank if he waits for the light (therefore implying that he has insanely fast reflexes nobody but a teenage video-game afficionado could replicate) or simply times his actions to anticipate the light. He said that he doesn’t even know anymore how he does it. I don’t think he was lying or trying duck the question, and I must therefore assume that he just “gets in the groove” and correctly anticipates the light based on timing. Thus, the only good thing to come out of my delay before taping is that I will have time to practice. Maybe it’s time to get to Radio Shack and make myself a signal button system.

Ruminations on JEOPARDY! (starting the week of 8/10/04)

I just taped my long-delayed J! show yesterday; this is intended to be a record of my thoughts while they are still fresh in my mind.

The paperwork from the show indicated that the contestants were to meet at 0830 in the parking garage at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City. This is about an hour’s drive from my home if the traffic is not too bad, although it often is during morning rush hour in LA. I barely made it in time for the last taping I was invited to (4/23/04) at 0900, so I wanted to get there early this time. I wondered a bit about the earlier starting time, but suspected that it was in response to Ken’s dominance of the game - maybe to allow the other contestants more practice time with the buzzers, which turned out to be correct. I had planned to leave my house at 0630, but didn’t leave the driveway until 0650. A few days beforehand Julie had purchased several new changes of clothes for me to wear on J! (4 shirts and 4 matching ties), which was both optimistic and practical. We debated which outfit I should wear that morning. She had initially suggested a more sedate ensemble for the first show, while I suggested that we pick the magenta shirt with a striped tie, since I might not win the first game and get a chance to change into anything else. Julie was constantly telling me that she thought I would win, probably to boost my own confidence, but I had already estimated my chances of beating Ken at about 25-30% and this never swayed very much. Considering how many of the other contestants had done against Ken, I think that my estimate shows a good measure of confidence in myself.

The drive went fairly well until about 5 miles to the freeway exit I was looking for. I practiced my “Hometown Howdy” [“I’m Jeff Suchard from Orange County, and I brought along my “Thumb of Doom”. Someone is going to get their *** kicked today on JEOPARDY!, so tune in to see if it is me or Ken] and my response to the interview question I though Alex Trebek would ask [re: bites from dead rattlesnakes] several times on the way. In between practice speeches I listened to a news radio station, which warned me of an accident right in the area where I was headed. So when the traffic slowed to a crawl, I exited the freeway and headed in the general direction of the studio. I called my wife via cell phone and she was able to find my route on and guide me there just in time. Parking is not that easy, since they have all guests park on the 4th level or above, and everyone wants the very first spot. I found a spot on the 5th level at ~0835 and bounded down the stairs, hoping I wouldn’t be late. Fortunately, the “Nerd Bus” hadn’t left yet. Glenn Kagan checked my name off the list (I was next-to-last) and I took a seat in front.

I introduced myself to the guy in the next seat, who informed me that Ken was seated in the back of the bus. I told him I knew Ken would be here, since I was the holdover contestant from the last taping in April. Right after I introduced myself to my neighbor, some of the other contestants started introducing themselves to each another, as if they hadn’t done this yet: odd. I had hoped to get to the studio well before Ken, so that I could try to fool the other contestants into thinking that I was the returning champion. OK, so maybe it’s not that funny, but I thought I could be amusing as a cheap joke.

The scene in the green room was interesting. A few contestants asked Ken for autographs, and another wanted to make sure she could get a stuffed animal in her picture taken with Alex Trebek. This was certainly more of a “touristy” atmosphere than on my prior taping day, when most everyone was simply shocked to learn that Ken had won 43 games already. Most of the conversation centered around Ken and his celebrity status, and I reminded him that we (the contestants from the prior taping day) had warned him about the notoriety he would receive. For instance, I had suggested over lunch that he change his phone number before any of his episodes aired. Ken mentioned that he was particularly admired by grandmother-aged women, who found him irresistibly cute. I told Ken that I had been hoping all summer that he would not return, maybe because his wife would be sick of all the stalkers: a possibility I had estimated at about 5%. When a framed picture fell from a shelf and very lightly struck a female contestant on the head, she joked that she was certain Ken was responsible (possibly through telekinesis) and that he should be thrown off the show for assault. And speaking of getting thrown off the show for improper behavior…they told us at the prior tape date that Ken’s wife had gone out for a meal with some member/members of the J! staff, and that such fraternization was not allowed. I suppose the producers had already judged that this would not disqualify Ken.

Susanne Thurber explained the rules to us and we were told that we would practice two whole J! games on the set between all 13 of us. I think we only did one whole practice game when I was there in April. We rehearsed our “Hometown Howdies” and my comment about kicking *** drew a big laugh. My wife and daughter prepared a Ken voodoo doll (pins stuck in one of Barbie’s blonde nephews) that I had brought along in my folder of papers. Someone asked about the doll, and I showed it around, which also seemed to amuse everyone. I hoped that I might be able to throw Ken off a little by subtle intimidation, although I knew it wasn’t too likely it would affect his game-play. I felt confident that I probably had the best chance out of anyone in that room to beat Ken and I wanted him to know it too, without actually coming out and saying it. Several contestants talked about how people would ask them about what study materials J! had sent them [Answer: none]. Two female contestants even stated that studying was a futile task and they hadn’t done any. It took a lot of restraint for me to not contradict them, but I thought it would just make me look like a jackass. Not only should you study the factual materials, but you also need to practice game mechanics and strategy, particularly wagering on Daily Doubles and in Final Jeopardy if you stand any chance of beating an excellent player like Ken. For instance, if you don’t know the “two-thirds rule” you are at a significant disadvantage.

We went onto the sound-stage, resulting in the expected comments about how it looks bigger/smaller/different than on television. I stepped right up to podium #2, right next to Ken at podium #1 for the demonstration about how the buzzers and light-pens work. The stage manager asked us to write our names, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that the computer automatically centered your name on the screen after you were done. He also asked us to make a wager and respond to a mock Final Jeopardy clue about Explorers (we were given the category, but no clue). The guy at podium #3 wrote “Columbus” (I think), I wrote “Vasco de Gama” [so you know that I knew the answer to that $2000 clue later on], and Ken wrote “Rick James” (who had just died a couple of days earlier). I explained that joke later to the guy from podium #3, since he hadn’t read the newspaper in several days. This same guy, a FedEx deliveryman, impressed the heck out of me in one of the practice games.

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