My Jewish Approach to Being on Jeopardy! — The Day Itself

My Jewish Approach to Being on Jeopardy! — The Day Itself

This is Part IV of a larger series about my experiences preparing for and being on Jeopardy! Click below for Parts I, II and III.





Since my tape day is on Wednesday, January 27th, I fly out the day before. I set multiple alarms to wake me up at 6, since I knew I’d have to be downstairs for the shuttle at 7, and so I aim to go to sleep at like 8:30 pm (11:30 New York time). Somehow, I succeed at that, and I sleep really, really well. When I wake up, I go, “Awesome! I slept great, I feel great, and it’s probably like 5:30!” I look at my phone – nope. 3:15 AM.

Luckily, I fall back asleep and finally get up at about 5:15. I take a shower, call my family, have breakfast, and then come down to the lobby with multiple changes of clothes, since they tape five shows a day. All the other contestants are really, really nice, and I think to myself, “I want to win. But if I lose, at least it will be to someone who seems menschy.”

The shuttle takes us to the lot at 8 AM, and they have us turn our phones off. We sign documents, take turns doing make-up, prep our stories for our interview with Alex, and then listen to a briefing from Maggie who goes over some strategy, legal requirements and just try to make us feel good.

“We’re like you’re parents in the school holiday show,” she says. “Even if you don’t have a speaking part, and just carry that snowflake across the stage, we’re going to be so proud of you.” And the coordinators really were terrific – they stand up for us, coach us, and advocate for us.

We then go onto the stage to record our “Hometown Howdies,” and play then two full practice games, with the contestants swapping in and out – the champ, the ten newcomers, and one alternate from LA. When it’s my turn, I realize that my buzzer practice was huge – I am on it, and one contestant even says, “Wow. You’re really fast on that thing.” I’m feeling good.

Parisa, one of the producers, then calls the first two contestants for the “Monday” show, and we all sit in the audience. It is totally surreal, and incredibly fun. Philip makes a comeback in the first show, and wins, and two new people are called for the second show – again, not me. Philip plays great again, and at the end, makes the largest Daily Double in the show’s history that causes the audience to gasp. He gets it right, and I notice a few things – first, I think I can beat him on the buzzer. Second, he’s gutsy, and his gutsiness might work against him. Finally, if I played against him and lost, I wouldn’t feel any shame in losing to him. So I’m kind of hoping I would play against him, and lo and behold, Parisa calls my name for the “Wednesday” show, along with Elena.

I’m getting kind of hungry, so I grab a fruit bar, hit the bathroom, and get my make-up touched up. The three of us walk onto the stage, and as I stand behind the podium, I try to just let it all sink in. “I’m on ‘Jeopardy!’ Wow. Enjoy it, play your game, have fun – and try to win!”

“This..IS…Jeopardy!” I hear Johnny Gilbert proclaim. “Let’s meet today’s contestants. An editor from Santa Barbara, California, Elena Grey-Blanc! A rabbi from Westchester County, New York, Geoff Mitelman! And our returning champion, an educator from Atlanta, Georgia, Philip Tiu, whose 2-day cash winnings total $71,098!”

Yes, Johnny Gilbert reading your name in the way you’ve imagined it in your head is exactly as surreal as you’d expect.

I anticipated that my strategy was that I’d pick a category, start at the $400 clue, and work down, since the Daily Doubles start at the $400 clue, and I could also get a sense of the category. I also wanted to start with my weaknesses, and get those out of the way fast, which was a strategy Bob Harris suggested in Prisoner of Trebekistan. If I hit them early, getting a Daily Double wrong would mean less damage, and if keep my strengths in play to the end, I further increase my score with a correct answer on a Daily Double.

Philip starts by picking “19th Century Novel By Quote” for $1000, and hear the clue, “‘Jaryndyce of’ this residence, ‘said Mr. Kenge.’ ‘A dreary name,’ said the Lord Chancellor.”  I say “Bleak House,” which is right, but when I later watched the show from my couch, I had no idea, and was shocked to see myself ring in and get it right!

As I play, what surprises me was that I am jumping around a lot. I’m not sure why – maybe that’s because the way Philip had been playing, but I was doing that in rehearsal, too. But I also notice I am fast on the buzzer, and getting a ton right. I am, however, INCREDIBLY embarrassed that it takes me as long as it does to get a crossword clue right, since I do hundreds of crosswords a year.

At the end of the first round, just from the clues, I go into Double Jeopardy! with $7400, and am feeling great.

It’s definitely a rush when Alex starts Double Jeopardy! by saying, “Geoff’s in good shape, Elena, let’s see how you do in round two with these categories.” And the categories for Double Jeopardy! are just awful for me. Awful. I had told my wife a few months ago that a few categories might kill me, and two of them were “Botany” and “Pop Music,” so of course I get Tulip Mania and Musicians Autobiographies. The Wright Brothers looks OK, but they had also told us to take that category top to bottom, and I know it will take time to go through those categories, since they would be video clues.

Philip’s starting to creep up on me, and it turns out that the key to the game will be a category called “This is My People,” where they give the names of Native Americans, and we have to name their tribe. I get the $800 “Navajo” clue right and have $11,400 to Philip’s $10,000. I choose the $1200 clue, which is “Crazy Horse.”

I’m pretty sure it’s Sioux. But not sure enough. If I get it wrong, I’d lose $1200, and so not only would I have lost that $1200, I would have had narrowed down the choices, and Philip might have gotten it, giving him $1200 more. I decide to “stay clam.”

Of course, he does ring in, and it is the Sioux, which he gets right, putting him at $11,200. After a $2000 triple-stumper, he then chooses “This Is My People” for $1600 and we all hear the “bi-dew, bi-dew, bi-dew, bi-dew-dew-dew-dew” sound. I knew he’d bet a lot, and he does. “$11,000,” he announces, and Alex says, “You keep doing that! Scaring the daylights out of me!” “Get it wrong,” I keep hoping, “Get it wrong.”

“Cochise, Geronimo,” Alex recites. “I think that’s the Apache,” I think, “Please don’t know that. Please.” As he did throughout his games, it feels like Philip waits a long time to give his answer to the Daily Double. Standing next him, it feels ENDLESS as I keep sending subliminal messages: “Wrong. Get it wrong. Don’t know it. Get it wrong.” “What is…” “Miss it. Miss it. Please.” “…Apache?” “And it keeps working for you!” announces Alex. “Amazing!”

At this point, I simply have to applaud – he’s gutsy and knows a lot. But there’s still time to play, and still time to get the last Daily Double. I had gone in with four goals in descending order of importance, and if I could still meet the highest goal possible, I’d go for that.

The ideal goal: go into Final as a lockout so that Final would be moot. If I couldn’t do that, then go into Final with a lead – 70% of the people who have the lead going into Final win the game. After all, if my opponent has $12,000 and I have $11,995, if we both get it right, I’ll still most likely lose. But if I couldn’t go into Final with a lead, then I’d try to stay alive to have a shot going into Final Jeopardy! And if I couldn’t do that, I’d just enjoy the ride.

With Philip getting “Apache” right, the first goal is now off the table – I am not going to have a lock game (though I probably would have, had he gotten it wrong). But I can still grab the lead if I regain control of the board and hit the second Daily Double. I decide that I need to take more risks, even if it means I might lose, since I want to do more than “not lose” – I want to win.

So when it’s time for “Musicians Autobiographies for $2000,” and the clue is “Out of Sync,” Justin Timberlake jumps into my head, and so I ring in with it. As the words come out of my mouth, I realize it is almost certainly wrong, especially because that was a clue the game before. But again, I was trying to get control of the board, and get the Daily Double, so at that point in the game, I felt that an educated guess was worth it. “No,” says Alex. “Who is Lance Bass?”

Sadly, we never hit that last Daily Double, which might have been just as well, since I would have probably bet everything in a category I didn’t like. So going into Final, Philip has locked me out with $23,800 to my $11,000, and I have locked Elena out of third with her at $1200. There’s no strategy left. I lost – but I played great, and knew I’d end up with $2000.

I don’t even really think about Final Jeopardy!, since it isn’t going to matter, but I do want to try to get it right. There was definitely a part of me that wanted to write, “I lost on Jeopardy!, baby!” but when the category “The French Revolution” appears on the screen, I think, “You know what? $11,000 is a very respectable score. Let me end with that,” so I risk nothing.

The clue comes up:  “The last prisoner moved before the Bastille was stormed, this nobleman left behind the manuscript for his most infamous work.”

I know Voltaire had been imprisoned in the 18th century, so I felt pretty good about that answer. Unfortunately, it’s wrong — it was actually the Marquis de Sade, and there was NO way I would have gotten it. Both Philip and Elena get it right, and as the credits roll, that’s the end. But as we walk off the stage, another contestant comes up to me and says, “You know what? I’m pretty happy the rabbi didn’t know about sadism!”

I sign some final paperwork, and I walk out of the studio with my head held high. I am extremely proud of how I played, and the saddest piece for me is that I can’t go back and play again. It truly was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

That night, though, in the hotel room, I have to play some “what-ifs,” and after some calculations, I realize that I probably still would have lost unless Philip had gotten “Apache” wrong. Here’s why:

First, even if I had hit that second Daily Double, bet everything and gotten it right (which, by the way, would probably have been the wrong move, since even a double up would not have gotten me the lead), I still missed Final and Philip got it.

But even more so, I keep coming back not ringing in on that $1200 “Sioux” clue, which I had known. So what would have happened had I rung in on that? Well, let’s assume the rest of the game would have played out like it did, but I DID ring in on it.

Before the “Sioux” clue, I had $11,400 and Philip had $10,000. If I had rung in on “Sioux,” I would have had $12,600, and probably would have bet $6000 on the Daily Double — I didn’t love the category, but $6000 would have been enough to have opened up a big lead if I was right, but small enough that if I was wrong, I’d still be in strong contention. Since I did know it, it would have brought me up to $18,600 to Philip’s $10,000.

Next, I probably would not have rung in on “Out of Sync” with that big lead, so I would not have lost that $2000, but since my actual final score ($11,000) was $400 less than before “Sioux,” I did have a net loss of $400 outside of those three clues. So my total would have been $18,600 + $2000 (for not missing Lance Bass) – $400 (the net loss of the other clues) = $20,200.

Philip actually ended up at $23,800, but subtract that $1200 “Sioux” clue and the $11,000 Daily Double, and he’d be at $11,600. So going into Final Jeopardy!, I’d have had $20,200 to Philip’s $11,600 — not a lock game. Philip would have still won, and that makes me feel a lot better.

Would I have loved to have said, “I was a Jeopardy! champion!”? Of course. But I can’t control that. I played well, and most importantly, I had an amazing time, and fulfilled a life-long dream.

What more could I ask for?





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