Game Theory

For me, trying out for a game show proved far more entertaining than actually watching one.

"Try to relax," soothed the taped voice coming from the video monitor. "It’s just a game show." Relax? I wanted to bolt from the room.

I was at the Hilton Hawaiian Village on a humid morning, taking the contestant’s test for the upcoming season of Jeopardy! I’m not some Trebekkie, don’t play the home game, hadn’t even wanted to call the producers. In fact, the thought of appearing on television made me feel positively ill, but, as my husband put it, it was a low-risk way of challenging myself. I enjoy trivia games in general and figured, Why not?

Once you score a slot for the auditions, which I did through a friend of a friend of a former champion, you’re e-mailed a sheet of instructions, none of which included a key part of the directions: the name of the room we were supposed to show up in. I assume this is the first portion of the test. If you can’t locate the auditions and navigate to the Tropics room, you are clearly too stupid to appear on the show.

We were greeted by a contestant coordinator named Maggie. A big-boned, very-L.A. woman, she had a hoarse voice and that "eee-haw!" presentation style you might develop while working as a bartender in a border-town bordello. She warmed us up with a mock round of the game and fielded questions from the hopped-up crowd. When did Alex shave the moustache? How do you become part of the Clue Crew? I’ll take, What the heck are these people talking about?, Alex, for $200, please.

illustration: Tim Foley

"I had to miss school to be here," whispered the young woman next to me, a political science major at the University of Hawai’i. "I’m cutting anthropology."

Jeopardy! has been in syndication since 1984, but its age doesn’t seem to slow it down. Twelve million people in the U.S. watch it daily, and about 50 of them were in the room with me, Jeopardy! pens poised. I suspected that, at home, they had altars venerating Ken Jennings, the software engineer from Utah who wiped the floor with the other contestants for 74 games straight.

We then heard the instructions, which included helpful tidbits such as "Rule No. 2: Be right. A lot." And, "Rule No. 3: Cross your fingers." The test itself was fast: 50 questions, and only 8 seconds per question to answer. It covered everything from geology to phobias, from the bestsellers of 1954 to dancer Rudolph Nureyev—a name I could not believe I yanked out of my brain’s dusty file cabinet. I was starting to feel hopeful that I might pass. Wait … Crap! What if I passed? I’m only moderately outgoing at best—how could I lightly banter with Alex?

Fifteen minutes later, my ego hissed with deflation as I heard I did not, in fact, need to worry about what to wear to Los Angeles. I felt better, though, when it turned out only three out of 50 people had passed. They thanked the rest of us for coming and encouraged us to try again in a year. I don’t think I will—but I’m keeping the pen.