Recaps, commentary and more from a former contestant and a hopeful one.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Setting the Table

     Tonight's entry is brought to you by one-time champ, caterer Melanie Spratford. She defeated Vince Gatton, who guest-blogged Monday, and was defeated by Cathy Guiles, who is guest-blogging tomorrow night. Cathy's an editor, which should make for some interesting reading!
Melanie Spratford


     Speaking of interesting, feast your eyes on this, from Melanie. As I told her, I have many questions and comments of my own!: 

     I don't put much stock in The Secret. I don't think you can visualize your way out of cancer or to a win on Jeopardy! As a caterer and a former stage manager, however, it is my job to anticipate everything that is going to happen and think through any potential problems.


     It was with this background of neurotic preparation which I approached my appearance on Jeopardy! I prepped for the fairly predictable things: I stared at my list of presidents and their vices. I memorized the current White House cabinet. I took online quizzes that challenged my knowledge of countries of the world. I poured over the Pavlovs. I was my usual, inquisitive, easily-distracted-by-trivia self.
     I also spent an absurd amount of time fixating on less-obvious problems:
  • What will I wear??? The truth is, I went to LA with 10 camera-ready outfits. If you are called to play the first round and you win every game, you could, theoretically play 10 games, and I had no intention of repeating outfits. “Adding a scarf” was not going to be a sufficient option for this clotheshorse! In a related problem, how was I going to build 10 outfits around just 1 or 2 pairs of comfortable shoes?!
  • What if I get something in my eye?? As someone who wears contacts, I'm always just an eyelash or a dust mote away from a bloodshot eye in a tear-stained face. Why don't Ken Jennings and Bob Harris address this critical problem in their books? I asked the makeup artist (twice!) what to do if it happened. She gave me the deeply unsatisfying response “I'll fix it at the commercial break.” The commercial break?! By that point, I could have lost the game by missing an entire round and done so looking like I was crying!
  • What will I eat for lunch? If you have not yet been eliminated, Jeopardy! provides contestants with lunch at the commissary between games 3 and 4. I actually searched the internet for the menu at the commissary in hopes I could pre-select my meal. I reasoned it would be good to have one less thing to think about on the actual day. Unfortunate, I couldn't find the menu online, so I had to settle for telling myself that everyone serves Chicken Caesar Salad and that would be a good, filling, but not-food-coma-inducing lunch. As it turned out, I did not need to worry about this.
     Musing over these potential problems occupied a huge part of my brain in the weeks leading up to my trip to LA. As mentally exhausting as all this fretting was, however, there were actually challenges I had failed to anticipate:
  • Writing my name. I've been doing it since I was a kid so you'd think this would be one of the easier tasks for the day. Not so. After I initially wrote my name on my screen, the contestant coordinators asked me to write it larger so that Alex could read it. On the second try I actually had to think about what I was doing and that focus must have flustered me. My writing was larger but shaky and nearly illegible. They cleared my screen and I tried again. On the third try, there may actually have been a misspelling. They cleared my screen and I tried again. It took me four tries to successfully write my name on my screen. As a friend pointed out, I could have skipped the cabinet members and been better served by spending some time practicing with a Magna-Doodle.
  • Wagering. After I got The Call, I started learning proper wagering strategy and practiced by calculating the optimum FJ wager for each day's contestants. I checked my work on the J!Archive Wagering Calculator and I got pretty good at it. What I forgot, though, was when it came time to do it on the show, I would be standing, under the lights, with competitors on either side, contestant coordinators flitting around, a makeup artist hovering nearby to touch up my shiny bits, and a stealthy woman with a clipboard standing behind me waiting to take my official wager. And I'd be doing my calculations on a ½ sheet of paper with a Sharpie marker. I freaked out. I tend to make simple, arithmetic errors even when I understand the larger algebraic concepts. I went into my first FJ in first place. All I had to do was calculate how much I needed to bet to cover an all-in wager by my nearest opponent and add one dollar. But I got carried away. I started figuring out what I would have if I got it wrong and how much I need to have left over if third place bet it all. I filled my entire paper with calculations. I did all my work again to see if I had made any errors. They gave me another piece of paper. Long after my competitors had locked in their wagers, I was still scribbling away. Afraid I was taking too long, I panicked and started making errors. I tried to take deep breaths and tune out the coordinators' concerned hovering. Finally – finally! – I locked in my wager. To me, it felt like I had taken 15 minutes but my parents say they did not notice any lag from the audience. I know, however, that when I finally locked in my bet, the coordinator standing closest sighed and smiled in relief. A tip to future contestants, don't just practice your wagering. Practice your wagering while you are checking out at the grocery store. Practice your wagering with a ticking timer. Practice your wagering while standing at the bar on a Saturday night. Do not over-estimated your ability to tune out distractions and overcome your nerves.
  • The last thing I didn't prepare for turned out to be the most critical. I never thought about what would happen if I won. I prepared all those outfits but I never really thought about quickly changing into them and heading back out to the Champion's podium. I didn't anticipate the flood of congratulations. I didn't prepare myself for the awkward moment when I would pass the Champion I had just unseated. I didn't think about continuing to play with the same intensity I brought to the first game. Instead, I took my place with solid confidence. All nerves were gone. I chatted comfortably with the coordinators and thanked the makeup artist casually, like a magnanimous movie star who always has her makeup done for her by a stranger. And then my ignorance about hockey was revealed. A least half of the first segment passed by before I even attempted to ring in. At the first break, Maggie took me by the hands and encouraged me “You can get right back in this!” I nonchalantly replied “Oh, I know!” but really, it was already over for me. I would be a one-and-done.
     Other than failing to anticipate the mental stamina required to be a returning champ, I only have one regret. In the DJ round of my second game, I should have gone back to the ballet category. As a kid, I was a dancer for nearly a decade and if you were to make a fantasy board of all my best categories, Ballet would be on it. For some reason, though, I didn't go back to the category when I had the chance. If I had, I would have landed on the Daily Double. I'm a gambler and, at that point, I wouldn't have had much to lose. My bet would have been huge and a correct response would have but me right back in the running. As it was, I stood there screaming “What is the Firebird?” in my head and cursing my own bad board management. Lesson: in third place, half-way through DJ, go to your wheelhouse.
     Ultimately, my experience as a Jeopardy! contestant was incredibly rewarding. Being invited to audition gave me the opportunity for a road trip to Lexington, Kentucky complete with multiple bourbon distillery tours and a visit to the Keeneland Racetrack. The trip to California was a chance to visit the Santa Monica Pier, drive up the Pacific Coast Highway, and dip my toes in the ocean. I met incredibly cool, smart, nice people (Alex Trebek included!). Plus, there was all that immensely fun trivia! It was all that I had hoped for and much, much more than I ever thought to visualize!

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