Confessions of a 'Jeopardy!' champion
By Anderson Cooper
Editor's note: Anderson Cooper anchors CNN's "Anderson Cooper 360°," which airs weeknights at 10 p.m. ET. He also is a regular contributor for Details Magazine. This article was published in the June-July 2004 issue.
I wanted Alex Trebek to like me. Really like me.
Pathetic, I know.
The problem was, he seemed completely uninterested. Not unfriendly, just not interested. Like a politician who didn't need my vote.
He appeared moments before the game began. Calm, cool, coiffed. Exactly how he looks on TV.
We shook hands, posed for a picture, then he was gone. On to the next contestant.
For a news anchor, appearing on "Jeopardy!" is a no-win proposition. Lose, and you look dumb. Win, and you've still shown off what you don't know.
Televised testing is the kind of thing they teach you to avoid in anchorman school. Sadly, I never went.
I'd been on a game show once before.
"To Tell the Truth" -- that was the name of it. I was 8 and pretended to be a child bear tamer from the Circus Vargas. I won because Nipsey Russell and Kitty Carlisle Hart voted for me. The real bear tamer got only one vote.
The fact that I remember my score nearly 30 years later probably gives some indication of why I agreed to go on "Jeopardy." I'm competitive, and not in an open, healthy way.
Remember that guy in school who'd always say "Oh, man, I really did badly on that test," when in fact he hadn't? That was me.
Going on "Jeopardy!" wasn't about the money. I know everyone always says that, but it was true.
I was playing for charity. It was one of those dumbed-down, "celebrity" editions of "Jeopardy!" "Power Players," they call it.
I hadn't watched the show in years, but I'd seen "Saturday Night Live's" version of "Celebrity Jeopardy!" and figured, how hard can it be?
The morning of the show I was less confident. I think panicked would be the right adjective. The list of "Power Players" was impressive: Bob Woodward, Peggy Noonan, Al Franken, Kweisi Mfume, Tucker Carlson, Aaron Brown, Maria Bartiromo.
For a moment I considered Googling "brain aneurysm" to see if I could fake one. Instead, I Googled "Jeopardy," looking for tips.
I knew a lot of people watch "Jeopardy!", but I had no idea how enthusiastic the show's fans are. They're like Trekkies, only without the plastic ears.
Online, the consensus seemed to be that it's impossible to cram for the game. Which is, of course, exactly what I did not want to hear.
Past "Jeopardy!" winners suggest a lengthy and time-consuming course of study, focusing on Shakespeare, Greek mythology, American presidents, and royal families. In other words, I was screwed.
There was one nugget of Internet advice that proved useful.
"Jeopardy!" producers tell you to buzz in as soon as a strip of lights on the side of the game board turns on. The lights aren't visible to viewers at home, but contestants can see them very clearly.
Online, however, past players seemed to agree, waiting for the lights is for losers.
To win, they insist, you have to find "the rhythm." "Jeopardy!" players use this phrase with the reverence that "Star Wars" fans use when they talk about "the Force."
Finding the rhythm means concentrating on Alex Trebek's voice. The strip of lights, indicating it's okay to buzz in, blinks on after Trebek finishes reading.
To find the rhythm you have to "be" the producer. It's very Zen: Listen to Trebek's suavely intonated voice, and when he finishes, wait a beat, then buzz.
Succeed, say past winners, and you'll be a split second faster than your opponents because you're anticipating the light, not reacting to it.
Fail, and you'll buzz in too soon, which blocks you from trying again for a fraction of a second. In "Jeopardy!" that's an eternity.
The show was taping in D.C. They'd rented out Constitution Hall and transformed it into a game-show set. A plastic replica of the Lincoln Memorial dominated the stage, a "Jeopardy!" contestant's buzzer wedged in Abe's left hand.
After 20 years and 4,600 episodes, the show is as popular as ever. The auditorium was packed.
They tape a week's worth of shows in just one day, and by the time I got to the set Tucker Carlson had already creamed Bob Woodward and Peggy Noonan. The green room was abuzz because Woodward had missed a question about Watergate.
Al Franken had also beaten MSNBC's Keith Olbermann and CBS's Gretchen Carlson.
Franken was fantastic. Funny, smart, he clearly knew the game. It also didn't hurt that one of the categories was "SNL Presidential History."
At first, being on a game show is like an out-of-body experience. Standing behind the plastic Lincoln, waiting to go on, I felt as if I were watching myself on TV.
I heard them say my name, saw myself wave, saw the buzzer in my hand -- but it all felt as if it were happening to someone else.
"I'll take 'Capitals' for $400."
I was playing against Bartiromo, a business-news anchor for CNBC, and Mfume, a former congressman who is now president of the NAACP.
Nice people, but I wanted to crush them.
"What is Berlin?"
In "Jeopardy!"-speak, I had "control of the board," and it went straight to my head.
I tried to read the clues faster than Trebek did, so when he finished I was ready. I'd wait a beat. Buzz. He kept calling my name.
"Who is Maria Callas?"
Trebek is Canadian, and I'd read online that there is usually one question relating to our neighbor to the north. When in doubt, guess Canada.
"What is Canada?"
By the commercial, I was up thousands. "Does this buzzer work?" Mfume asked jokingly.
Flush with cash and feeling manically magnanimous, I tried to tell him and Bartiromo my secret. "Ignore the lights," I said. "Focus on finding the rhythm."
They looked at me like I was taking this way too seriously.
"Who is Stanley Kowalski?"
As any "Jeopardy!" fanatic will tell you, the opening round is really a warm-up. The big money is made in the second, "Double Jeopardy!" round.
At first I was worried: One of the categories was "N'AA'CP," and here I was up against the civil-rights organization's president. Then Trebek explained that all the answers in this category had double A's.
"What is an aardvark?"
It felt good. I couldn't stop. All the stuff I'd collected from years of watching television came bubbling up. Magilla Gorilla, Andy Griffith, the news, all of it.
My misspent youth didn't seem so misspent.
"Who is Archie Bunker?"
It was all there, beached in my head. Biblical names, world capitals, flotsam and jetsam washed up from years of information overload.
It was a rush. Endorphins, serotonin, adrenaline -- "Jeopardy!" gets all the body's chemicals bubbling.
I started getting careless. Buzzing in on questions I didn't know. Confusing the Tiber River with the Tigris, guessing Lincoln when I should have said John Adams.
But it didn't really matter. By the "Final Jeopardy!" round, there was no way Mfume and Bartiromo could catch up.
I got the "Final Jeopardy!" question wrong, but so did they.
I won. Fifty thousand dollars for the American Heart Association.
I know this is the point where I'm supposed to say that it was nice just to be able to raise money for charity, and while that is certainly true, it was also great to win.
Shallow, I know, but there it is.
Coming down off the "Jeopardy!" high is hard. For days afterward I'd find myself telling random strangers I'd won "Jeopardy!"
"Why don't you print it on your business card?" one friend joked, but the truth is I'd already considered it.
I never did get the chance to speak with Alex Trebek after the game. He was gone as soon as the credits stopped rolling.
Perhaps there'll be a championship round I can play in? Now that I've found the rhythm, it really does seem a shame to let it go.
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