Non-trivial pursuit

An alum gets his one and only shot at the mother of all quiz shows.

Benjamin Recchie, AB’03

To paraphrase Boromir from The Fellowship of the Ring, one does not simply walk on to Jeopardy!

I am one of those (occasionally insufferable) know-it-alls, the type of person who always seems to know the capital of El Salvador, whether the moon has a magnetic field, and if prairie dogs hibernate. I won a varsity letter for quiz bowl in high school and several hundred dollars on the pub quiz circuit in my 20s. I had even appeared on TV: a quiz show on the PBS affiliate in Columbus, Ohio, during high school and a special episode of Hardball with Chris Matthews in 2002. I am a trivia nerd, and a particularly successful one at that.

Nonetheless, I had tried to get on Jeopardy! three times and failed.

The audition process has three steps. First there is an online test anyone can take, typically given in January. A series of 50 short questions flash on your screen; you type out your answers. I took this test in 2006, 2008, 2010, and 2012.

If you score well, you become eligible for an in-person audition. (I got this far in 2006, 2010, and 2012.) A roving crew of producers sets up shop in hotel conference rooms across the country, calling in groups of 25 to 30 people at a time. (Lucky for me, the auditions in Chicago have been held near my office: once on Navy Pier, twice in a Michigan Avenue hotel just down the street.) The staff takes a head shot and administers a paper test to prove your online score wasn’t a fluke or earned by your sister-in-law on your behalf. Next you play a mock round of Jeopardy! against two other potential contestants, then explain what makes you interesting.

This is perhaps the trickiest part. On a form turned in at the audition, you have to list five brief, interesting facts about yourself so when host Alex Trebek talks to the contestants after the first commercial break, he has something to chat about. (Nobody in television wants a dull interview guest.) Although I consider myself an interesting person, I always had trouble coming up with five brief facts that made me so. I usually resorted to a little creative fiction—for the 2010 audition, I wrote that I wanted not only to learn to fly (true) but also to build my own airplane (not really true, but it helped me stand out). The staff also asked what we would do with the money if we won. Most people said they’d pay off debts or travel; I invented on the spot a long-held desire to visit every national park in the United States.

Then you wait for a phone call. If the producers like you, you’re put in the contestant pool for 18 months. In 2012, of the 100,000 online test registrants, 2,000 to 3,000 were asked to audition. Only 400 would be invited on the show.

Each time I was in this postaudition waiting period, my grandmother asked me at least once a month, “So, have you heard from Jeopardy!?”

“No, Mimi,” I’d say. “But if I do, you’ll be the first person I call.”

When I got the call in December 2012, she was.



I had four weeks to prepare between getting that call and reporting to the Sony Pictures Studios in Los Angeles. I brushed up on certain subjects that came up frequently, such as state and national capitals and characters in Shakespeare plays. Some categories, though, I felt confident enough in my own knowledge to skip studying: military history, science, anything about airplanes. Some categories I would never remember, like sports and popular music, were thus better given up on.

More important than the knowledge was understanding how the clues were constructed. After a few hundred thousand clues over the years, patterns begin to emerge. Certain phrases are almost guaranteed to pay off in a given answer. A “Chinese architect” is almost always I. M. Pei; “Polish composer” is typically Chopin, and so on. Don’t ask yourself, What Chinese architect satisfies the requirements of this clue? Ask yourself, What Chinese architect is the clue writer realistically going to ask about?

To get a feel for the clues, I visited the J! Archive (, an online compendium of almost every clue and response on Jeopardy! since the late 1980s, and watched episodes of Jeopardy! I confess that I rarely watch the show; in Chicago it comes on at 2:30 p.m., when I’m, you know, working. Instead my friend Daniel Lascar, AB’03, TiVo’d the show for two weeks and burned the episodes to a DVD.

Lascar also had a helpful observation: the key to winning is your timing on the buzzer. It isn’t apparent at home, but once Trebek finishes reading a clue, lights on each side of the board turn on. Only then can you ring in. (Early buzzes are punished with a brief lockout.) It’s one thing to shout answers at the TV at home; it’s another to ring in at just the right moment. I watched the recorded shows with a pen in my hand, clicking it when I wanted to buzz in, hoping that preparation would be enough.


Jeopardy! tapes on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, five shows a day. The show doesn’t cover travel costs, but since second place earns $2,000 and third place gets $1,000, most contestants come out ahead. Contestants can bring up to six people with them, but none of my family or friends could go. At the last minute, my self-appointed coach Lascar managed to scrounge up enough time off to watch me perform.

At the hotel where I stayed, I avoided the public areas, paranoid I might have a confrontation with a future competitor. To my relief, everyone was pleasant when we finally met Tuesday morning for our van ride to the studio. We talked about where we auditioned and how many times we had tried. My four attempts were neither the highest nor the lowest in the van.

The Jeopardy! studio turned out to be the one with a 30-foot-tall picture of Trebek on the exterior wall (across from the studio with a 30-foot picture of the Wheel of Fortune wheel; the two shows share a sizable number of staff). We were escorted into the green room, where we filled out tax forms, agreed to keep the results a secret until the show aired, and learned the minutiae of the rules. You can mispronounce a vowel, but not a consonant. Keep a poker face during Final Jeopardy. While in the audience waiting your turn, don’t whisper answers along with the contestants, lest the microphones pick it up.

We each recorded “Hometown Howdies,” promo spots for our local TV station. One was straight: “Hi, I’m Benjamin Recchie from Chicago. Watch me on Jeopardy!” The other was more personalized; we could choose what to say, within reason. I decided to bash some sacred cows: “Hi, I’m Benjamin Recchie from Chicago. Turn off that Cubs game and watch someone who might actually win for a change—me—on Jeopardy!

Next came our interesting stories—we had to come up with eight for the show, not five. A staffer whittled down my list: a trip to Spain I had taken with my stepmother’s family and my postcollege job at Yerkes Observatory hunting killer asteroids.

Finally it was time to play a few practice rounds. The set was smaller than I had imagined and resembled a dance floor from an ’80s club, full of angular plastic surfaces and salmon-colored lights. The producers dispatched us to the podiums to practice ringing in and writing our names on the screens. I printed in block letters for legibility, adding a simple half-arrow underneath as a visual flourish. They also did a screen test for our outfits, which my tweedy sport coat failed for developing a distracting interference problem. No matter: we all had brought five outfit changes just in case, so I swapped the sport coat for a navy blazer.

By 11 a.m. we were seated in the audience, with instructions not to talk to anyone who wasn’t competing. The staff pulled two names at random to challenge the previous week’s winner—not mine. An audience trundled in. (For the morning tapings, a large chunk of the audience was high schoolers from Compton being rewarded with a trip to the studios.) We heard another warning about talking during taping; then the theme music played, the announcer intoned, “This iiiiiis Jeopardy!” and out came Trebek. The game was on.



During the first game, another contestant had to remind me not to whisper answers. We sat there, watching as the people we had just formed a solidarity with tried to beat each other to the buzzer and make small talk with Trebek. At each break, production assistants rushed bottled water to the contestants, mopped sweat from their brows, and checked that the signaling devices were working. Trebek rerecorded any clue he had misread. Occasionally the judges announced that a player’s answer should have been accepted or not, and awarded or deducted a few hundred dollars from their score. Trebek also answered questions from the audience: courtesy of the inquiring minds of the Compton kids, I learned he’s a huge LA Lakers fan, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is really good at Jeopardy!

Early leads dissipated; laggards caught up with a lucky Daily Double or a smart bet in Final Jeopardy. And at the end of the episode, the contestants chatted with the host center stage as the credits rolled. The winner waited for the next episode in the green room. The losers were escorted off the stage. We didn’t see them again.

I didn’t get to play in any of the three episodes before lunch, which we ate in the Sony canteen. I felt highly conspicuous, although given that dozens of nervous game-show contestants ate there each week, I probably blended in.

I wasn’t picked for the fourth game either. At this point, I just wanted to be picked. I didn’t want to come back the next day after another fitful night of sleep. I promised myself if I got on and lost, I’d take advantage of LA and go on a studio tour. That calmed me down.

Finally came game five, the last taping. The staff picked two names out of a hat. “Benjamin,” they called. I hustled to the stage for my appointment with glory.


This iiiiiiis Jeopardy!

My heart was racing.

“Please welcome today’s contestants—”

My grandmother had died two weeks before. How I wished she could see me now.

“—a science writer from Chicago, Illinois, Benjamin Recchie—”

There I was on the screen. My dress shirt looked a little too white against my blue blazer.
—and the host of Jeopardy!, Alex Trebek!”

My hands were cold. My right hand was around the signaling device; my left I put in a pocket to warm up.

I answered my first clue in a category about the Vietnam War (“What is a B-52?”)—an airplane question too, which I felt was a good omen. I got the next Vietnam question right (“What is 1975?”) and picked a new category. By the first commercial break, I looked up and saw I had $4,000. I was in first place.

Trebek came up behind us for our pictures. On the monitor, I could see he wasn’t smiling, more grimacing. I considered razzing him about it but figured he’d probably heard it all at this point.

When taping resumed, he came by to chat. The returning champ, Sam from Kansas City, talked about his one-year-old son’s love of Kansas City barbecue. The other challenger, Kirk from Seattle, spoke about his raccoon problem; he heard you could get rid of them by playing loud music, but this just attracted more. (“Apparently, they were reggae music fans.”) Trebek asked me about Yerkes; I think I went on too long about how exactly one searches for an asteroid.

As the first round continued, Kirk’s score fell to $0 but soon rebounded. I started to lose track of my timing. Was I ringing in too early or too late? Or were my competitors just getting in their groove?

Second commercial break. “We love your energy,” one of the producers said to me. I had fallen behind, but getting a Daily Double or two would launch me ahead again.

The Double Jeopardy round did nothing for me. Kirk found one Daily Double and won $2,000; Sam found another and lost $5,000 on a bad guess. I was having more trouble with my timing. I didn’t ring in once during a whole category on World Series MVPs, my feeble sports knowledge failing me. Once I rang in before I had an answer fully formed; there was silence as I stammered out an incorrect response.



Quickly, the round was over. I looked at the scores and realized there was no way I could win.

Sam and I both had $9,000; Kirk had $18,200. Assuming Kirk didn’t do something stupid, there was no way I could bet enough to pass him. The remaining battle between Sam and me was for second place.

The category was Classic Novels. I felt good about my odds—I’d known every Final Jeopardy answer that day, including one nobody else seemed to know—but if I bet everything and was wrong, I’d be left with zero. In a fit of contrariness, I bet $8,994, figuring everyone would remember me if Sam and I both answered wrong, but I took second place with $6.

We locked in our bets and wrote, “What is” preemptively on our screens. Then the cameras started up and we heard the clue: “In his will, this title guy tells his niece Antonia she should marry a man who knows not ‘about … chivalry.’”

Do you know this one? Because I didn’t.

I grappled for a novel about chivalry; the best I could dredge up was Ivanhoe, which I confess I’d never read. As the 30 seconds ran out and the theme song concluded, I wrote it down and put my faith in my guessing skills.

Sam had written down Don Quixote, which I actually had read but hadn’t occurred to me. “You are correct,” said Trebek. Sam had wagered $4,500, giving him $13,500.

Trebek came to my podium. I tried to look unconcerned. “You answered ... Ivanhoe. No, sorry. And what did you wager?” He looked at my number. “Almost everything,” he said pityingly. “You’re going to be left with six bucks.”

Kirk hadn’t even bothered to answer, and had wisely bet $0, so he took first place with his original $18,200. I had whiffed, and big, walking away with a measly $1,000 for third place.


I would like to say that I took my loss with the equanimity of the Man of La Mancha himself. I did not. Oh, I plastered on a smile for the final credits and made chitchat with Lascar as he drove me back to my hotel, but you can only appear on Jeopardy! once, and I was angry with myself for blowing it. Back in my hotel room, I scrubbed off my stage makeup vigorously, as if I could wash away my shame. I called my wife; she understood, of course, but what about all my friends and family that I had let down? Lascar called and invited me to the hotel bar for a drink. He critiqued my performance kindly, as a good coach should. My trouble with the signaling device was obvious, he said, and I never quite beat my competitors on it. A couple of reasonable guesses had gone wrong; I was unlucky to get saddled with a sports category; my Final Jeopardy gamble hadn’t paid off, either. Chance didn’t go my way, he concluded, but my performance was nothing to be ashamed of. Perhaps it was the whiskey sour I was nursing, but he seemed to have a point.

The next morning at breakfast, I ran into a fellow contestant. She too had been leading early in her game only to lose in the end. “I just had a great experience,” she gushed. “I hope you did too.” I forced a smile and replied that I had.

As I thought about it more, my smile became genuine. In the words of the noted philosopher Gandalf, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” Thinking back to the actual playing of the game, disregarding the stakes, I had fun. I could have stood up there and played practice rounds all day. I’m better off than I was before financially, I got to appear on an iconic TV show before its host retires in 2016, and I’ll forever be able to say things like, “Well, the time I was on Jeopardy! ... ”

Having shaken off that loss, I’ve returned to my native bar trivia circuit. (Last time I went to trivia in the Pub at Ida Noyes, I won $40.) The fundamental truth about being a know-it-all—or a know-it-almost-all—is that money and fame aren’t my motivation: I’ll happily be insufferable for free.


So you want to compete on Jeopardy!
Read stories and advice from alumni contestants.


In real life, Benjamin Recchie, AB’03, admits he is “one of those (occasionally insufferable) know-it-alls.” But can he play one on TV? (Photography by Nathan Keay)