by Steven H Silver
When I had heard that I had a Jeopardy! audition, I naturally asked to take the day off of work. I did not tell my boss or co-workers why I needed the time off and they naturally assumed I was interviewing for a job. I figured that if I did poorly at the audition, I wouldn’t have to face a few days of questioning afterwards, and if I did well, I could return to work in triumph. The auditions were held at the Marriott in downtown Chicago. When I arrived, they asked to see our pink confirmation letters. I turned in my glossy confirmation letter on FAX paper and Susanne Thurber, the Senior Contestant Coordinator looked at it and asked what had happened to the letter they had sent me. When I explained the situation, she let me in. The room held about eighty people. We were each given a Jeopardy! pen and a couple of pieces of paper. One of the pieces of paper asked for contact information and five things we could discuss with Alex Trebek if we appeared on the show. The other piece of paper simple had a line for our names and fifty numbered lines where we would be able to write down our answers. Susanne and Glenn Kagan explained that they would be showing us a videotape with fifty questions, each in its own category. We would have eight seconds to write down each answer before the next question appeared. Answers did not need to be in the form of a question and spelling did not count (a good thing for at least one of the answers). They recommended that if you did not know the answer you just skip it rather than try to come back, a technique which they found caused people to lose their rhythm and do poorly on the test. To pass the audition, you needed to answer thirty-five of the questions correctly. I've been asked many times if the questions were difficult, and I have to say that although I didn't think they were, I also passed the test. Seventy of the eighty people I took the test with, however, did not pass, so I guess that objectively they could be considered difficult. In any event, I only remember a handful of the questions. I’ve also been asked how many I got correct, and the answer is that I really couldn’t say. Because there are only two people grading papers and they have to get through eighty of them in about ten minutes, they stop grading a paper as soon as the person has gotten sixteen questions wrong or thirty-five questions right. It is possible that I only got thirty-five questions right, but I think the total was closer to forty-three. While waiting for the Jeopardy! people to return, we filled out our topics for discussion with Alex and talked. I discovered the woman next to me was an attorney who was taking the test for the third time. Very few people made it into the contestant pool the first time they took the test and even fewer managed to make it on the show. Susanne and Glenn returned to the room and called off the names of the qualifiers in random order. As it happened, my group had ten people who passed and I was the tenth name they called. The ten of us were asked to fill out more paperwork, have our pictures taken, and then it was time to participate in a practice game of Jeopardy!. We were divided into groups of three and handed the "lock-out device" or buzzer, which is the bane of so many Jeopardy! contestants. We were told that the trial was simply to see how well we could handle the buzzer and work the board to keep the flow of the game moving along. We were not in competition with the other people holding buzzers. If none of the mock-contestants could answer a question, it would be thrown open to the remaining seven. After we each had our turns to pretend to play Jeopardy!, we went through a small interview, in which we explained who we were, what we did, and what we would do with our winnings if we made it on the show. Eight of the potential panelists explained they would travel, one said he would buy a house in Ireland and become a full time writer (and I was thinking that Jeopardy! just does give out that kind of prize money), and I said I would invest the money to pay for my daughter’s college education (she was one at the time). We were told that we all had qualified and would remain eligible for one year. The show would tape its sixteenth season from June to February. If we were selected, we would receive a call (or e-mail or letter) asking us to be in Los Angeles for our taping date. We would have one month to make our arrangements and it would be entirely up to us to pay for the airfare, hotel, and any other costs incurred. I was so happy that I had passed the audition that I wasn’t even unduly bothered by the flat tire I had as I drove home.