Who Says It's Only a Game?

For one senior, winning a place on TV's Jeopardy! is no trivial pursuit.

May/June 1998

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Who Says It's Only a Game?

Photo: Rod Searcey

What you need to understand from the outset is fairly simple, if a bit odd. I've had a long and tumultuous relationship with the game show  Jeopardy!

Indeed, the story begins prenatally: Mom and Dad each happened to appear on the show. It was the early 1970s, when Jeopardy! was based in New York and hosted by a guy named Art Fleming. The story would be great if they'd met on the show, but they didn't. Nor did they win. But they did take home some money----in those days you kept your winnings even if you didn't finish first----and I'm told my mother developed an exceptional Art Fleming impression.

Which I guess is genetic, because today I do a fairly strong Alex Trebek, the current host. Ooo, no, surry, surry, no. So close. You were looking for "Chirac," but instead you went with "Mitterand." Ooo, no, surry. In addition to the nightly family Jeopardy! viewings, in fifth grade I landed the coveted Alex role in a "Constitutional Jeopardy!" skit staged for elementary school graduation.

After that, I wanted to be a contestant. Two or three times in high school I sent postcards to the drawing for high school tournament auditions. I never got the nod. Freshman year at Stanford, inspired by a dormmate who'd been on the show, I sent 104 cards, hoping for a College Championship tryout. Once again, I didn't hear back. Last year, I sent one card and was picked. I flew down to L.A. for the day and didn't even make it to the second round.

It seemed like things were finally looking up this year when I flipped open the Daily on February 18 and found Alex smiling up at me from the lower half of page two. Jeopardy! was coming to campus as part of its College Championship contestant search in the Bay Area. Which college will reign supreme? Register for a tryout at the Jeopardy! booth. Tomorrow, 11-3, in White Plaza.

On the way to my 11 o'clock class next morning, I went by to scope out the place. A group of men were unpacking their supplies from a custom-designed RV. There was Alex's grinning face again. This time it was 4 feet tall, plastered on the side of an oversized van dubbed the "Bay Area Brain Bus," looming over a KGO-TV crew as they worked in light drizzle to set up a tent and sign-up table.

When I came back at noon to get into line, I was feeling good, and I guess my confidence showed. "Jesse," said my friend Mark when I arrived, "you're the only person on this line I'm afraid of." Good.

Each "contestant" could choose from five questions, each in a different category. The tougher questions won more valuable prizes. I went for the $500 one, in the category "The 20th Century." In 1990, Elton John, Barbara Bush, and Michael Jackson attended this youth AIDS activist's funeral. Easy. Who is Ryan White? I even remembered to phrase my response as a question. I won a T-shirt.

Mark wasn't the only friend I saw trying out—it seemed like most of Stanford was there. Gautam, my freshman roommate, was sulking. "I got a crappy question," he informed me. "What student would possibly know who lived in Mr. Peebles's Pet Shop in a 1960s cartoon series?" (I did: Magilla Gorilla.) It was nice to see and chat with friends, but disconcerting, too. The more who tried out, the slimmer my chances.

At the end of the day, Gary, the promotions guy from KGO, told me there would be at least 1,500 applicants from the Bay Area. For 150 audition spots, he said. Which would ultimately yield three contestants. I got worried.

Gary said he'd call if I got picked. He never did.

So after all these years, all I've got to show is a T-shirt. But once I graduate, there's always regular Jeopardy! And, as a friend who's married to a five-time champion keeps telling me, the money's better there anyway.

Jesse Oxfeld, '98, is an American studies major from South Orange, N.J.

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