I’ve had a bucket-list goal for a long, long time: to be a contestant on “Jeopardy!”
The dream always felt a bit far-fetched: According to the show, only 3% of people who take the online test even make it to a live audition. But I went through the whole process anyway, in the fall of 2020 and winter of 2021 — two tests, an audition, an interview, a mock game. I did it all, but didn’t think much of it.
Then, on Sept. 8, 2021, I got a call from a California area code I didn’t recognize. It was “Jeopardy!” and I was going to be on the show.
In a heartbeat, my nightly “Jeopardy!” ritual got more serious. I had to really learn this game — when to answer, how to wager, what subjects I excelled in (word games, pop culture, languages, American history) and which ones needed work (geography, ancient history, sports, World War I). And as I watched night after night last fall, Matt Amodio was dominating. He seemed unstoppable. How would I ever even come close to beating that guy?
In case you don’t keep up with extra-nerdy news, this 38th season of “Jeopardy!” has been dominated by super winners — people like Amodio, Jonathan Fisher and now Amy Schneider, who recently crossed the $1 million-winnings threshold and is the first woman to do so in the history of regular season play.
My tape days were Oct. 4 and 5, so I had less than a month to cram in as much information as possible. I worked so-called Jeopardy “Pavlovs” (when a clue mentions a “Chinese architect” the response is most likely I.M. Pei) and learned when to buzz in (always after the host finishes reading the answer.)
[O]n Sept. 8, 2021, I got a call from a California area code I didn’t recognize. It was “Jeopardy!” and I was going to be on the show.
But other thoughts crept into my head that dizzying month, too. What if I say something embarrassing? How will I do my makeup for TV? And the most toxic and intrusive thought: Would people make fun of the way I look?
It's a common obsessive thought process for people with a history of eating disorders like me. I couldn’t stop thinking about what I would wear. Why wouldn’t my brain focus on all the things I needed to learn, rather than the fit of my blouse? Every time that spiral lured me in, my people — and my therapist — fished me out. I stayed focused on world capitals, and the rivers of Europe and Asia.
Before long, I was on an airplane, heading west to Los Angeles, California. My mom came, too. She insisted I shouldn’t go alone; who would be there to hug me when I got back from the taping?
My first day of taping was a Monday. I put on my favorite outfit: a black sweater with a bow and sheer sleeves, a green pleated midi skirt and a pair of black flats that would be swapped out for nude suede heels. I called it "librarian chic."
I took a Lyft to the studio, where I met my competition: young professionals, retirees, a lawyer, a composer ... but no Matt Amodio. Maybe I did stand a chance. Though there was one contestant who seemed more comfortable than the rest. Because that’s the thing about “Jeopardy!” — you play until you lose, so there's always a champion in your midst. And there she was, her hair in a soft, strawberry blonde bob, a dainty string of pearls around her neck and a quiet but warm smile: Amy Schneider.
Amy had won a few games the week before, so she was back to defend her title. We didn’t know that she was on the precipice of her history-making streak.
The rest of the day went by in a blur: rehearsals on stage, hair and makeup done by pros rather than my inexperienced hands. I decided to style my hair in a braid that made me feel a little badass, hoping it would give me some confidence.
Everything in "Jeopardy!" is done by chance, even in rehearsal, so you never know who you'll play against or even what podium you'll stand behind. Unless you're the champ, of course. And Amy knew where to stand, when to buzz in, how much to wager, how to search the board for Daily Doubles and how to chat with our host, Ken Jennings, without her voice getting shaky.
The contestants sat together in the audience, clapping and supporting each other. One by one, Amy trounced them all.
I finally got my chance the next day. It's amazing how your mind reacts to an adrenaline rush. I can only remember bits and pieces: a few right answers, all of my wrong ones; chatting with Ken Jennings about my rabbit, Falafel; buzzing in extra hard on a clue with the correct response, "What is a coxswain?" (those early mornings at Community Rowing paid off!)
I lost to Amy Schneider, but now, I want her to keep winning. I want her to keep breaking records.
But ultimately, it was Amy's day. I missed the Final Jeopardy question (19th Century Lit, response: "What is ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame?’"), but it didn't matter: Amy breezed by fellow constant Nysanth and me.
It was over. I said my goodbyes, got in a Lyft, met my mom in the hotel room and cried. Was she ashamed of me because I came in third? "How could I ever be ashamed of you?" she assured me.
Six weeks later, my parents, brother, best friend and I watched as my game of "Jeopardy!" aired right there on television. And to my surprise, I got a lot more questions right than I remembered.
I’d actually been so anxious about my game that I hadn't been able to watch "Jeopardy!" since I taped my episode, but watching it with my loved ones, hearing them cheer and scream with glee, made me realize just how much I love the game. How much fun it was. How unbelievable it had all been. Sure, I got a few creepy or mean messages, but they were overshadowed by the love so many showed me — friends from high school, college professors, former coworkers, even family living abroad. It was overwhelming in the best way.
Amy's still at it, winning game after game — 30 in a row at last count. She's an incredible player, navigating the board like she's been doing it her whole life. She's also handled the absolutely vile comments she's received on social media from bigots and narrow-minded jerks with grace and strength.
I lost to Amy Schneider, but now I want her to keep winning. I want her to keep breaking records. I'm rooting for her with my whole heart. And as cheesy as it sounds, being a part of Amy’s winning streak — even as someone she defeated — is an honor.
But I'll never forget the first lines of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" for as long as I live.