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Who is Dan Donohue?

Communication junior reflects on his Jeopardy College Championship experience

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May 16, 2013

By Dan Donohue, Communication '14

Alex Trebek and Dan Donohue

I got the phone call on Feb. 18 while I was in an RTVF-330 lecture.

Sorry. I’ll start over. What is I got the phone call on Feb. 18 while I was in an RTVF-330 lecture?

“Maybe it’s Jeopardy!” my friend Hannah suggested when I didn’t recognize the area code.

A few people in the class knew I had tried out for the Jeopardy College Championship because I had asked our professor Max Dawson if I could write my final paper on the Jeopardy audition process. (Incidentally, he told me I couldn’t because the focus of the class was reality TV, and if I wanted to write about a game show, I’d have to write about a game show from the era of reality TV -- like the far lesser Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.)

My one unheard voicemail was indeed from Robert James, a contestant coordinator from Jeopardy. Professor Dawson told me I better have something funny to write down in case I don’t know the answer to Final Jeopardy. No hard feelings, but I think maybe that ended up cursing me.

The Audition

I was as surprised as anyone to get that call. I wouldn’t go so far as to use the word “disaster” to describe my audition the previous October, but I wound up stranded without a hotel room in Cleveland (the audition city) because under-twenty-ones can’t check into hotels in the Rock and Roll Capital of the World.

For the audition itself, I was grouped with 20 other hopefuls who had all, like me, passed Jeopardy’s online test in March. When you’re in a situation like this, I think you can’t help but mentally size up your competition. And the general feeling in the room seemed to be that if any one of us was going to get a spot in the College Championship it would be the uniformed cadet from the Air Force Academy.

So how did I -- and two other people from my same audition -- get on the show? If there are any College Jeopardy hopefuls reading this, remember that the audition is an audition. It’s not an interview for that prestigious internship or research assistant position.

They’re going to ask you about the anecdotes you would have for Alex Trebek, so work on your skills as a raconteur. Have some funny, self-deprecating lines ready. And smile a lot. As I told a hopeful applicant on Twitter a few days ago, “Everyone that tries out for Jeopardy is a librarian who’s been to all seven continents and does AIDS research. Be different.”

I’ve been asked a lot about why I wanted to go on Jeopardy. I suppose it goes back to one specific incident in seventh grade. Instead of teaching us lessons one day, the teachers got the whole grade together in the gymnasium and just started reading us trivia questions for fun. And for every question, all 80 or so of us seventh graders gleefully shouted the answer. But then Mrs. Schmitt asked us “the name of a chilled tomato soup traditionally served in Spain.” The whole gym was silent, and I raised my hand and mumbled, “Gazpacho?” (I had heard it mentioned on an episode of The Simpsons a few years previously.)

The rest of the day was a chorus of “How did you ever know that?” and “Are you a genius?” and the like. That was my first indication that, even though I’m a fairly average student, maybe I remember facts differently from everyone else.

When I got back in touch with Robert, we had to go over some paperwork over the phone. “Do you know or have you communicated with anyone who has ever appeared as a contestant on Jeopardy?” he asked. Uh-oh. Yes. I know probably two dozen people who have been on Jeopardy because of my involvement with Quizbowl.

Quizbowl is a question-and-answer game played between teams from high schools and colleges across the country. I give Robert the laundry list of ex-contestants I know through Quizbowl, including the most recent Tournament of Champions winner, Northwestern alumnus Colby Burnett. Robert said he’d have to call me back after he talks to some producers.

I’m in Jeopardy limbo for a week before Robert calls me back and says I can be on the show. And now my preparation begins in earnest. Quizbowl prepared me very well for the information and facts I need to know to be successful on Jeopardy. But Jeopardy’s a very strategic game, and I need to have a strategy.

The Preparation

For the next two months, I study Jeopardy greats like 74-time champion Ken Jennings and Roger Craig, the highest single-day earner in Jeopardy history. When Jennings played, he would let his thumb buzz in before his brain knew the answer and take a guess. I liked that strategy and decided to apply it to my game.

Craig’s strategy, though, was fascinating. He argues that Jeopardy can ask about so many things that studying a bunch of facts and hoping they come up is inefficient because the odds that any single fact you study will come up are slim. Instead, he says, you should get a sense of how well you know what you already know. That way you can make smart wagers on Daily Doubles, which is where the game is often won and lost.

That’s how I prepare for the next six weeks until I fly out to Los Angeles on April 5 for the taping, and I think it’s going pretty well. I was already planning what kind of car I could buy with the $100,000 grand prize to replace my 22-year-old Toyota.

This Is Jeopardy!

College Jeopardy -- unlike the normal, adult Jeopardy -- is an all-expense-paid deal. They flew me out to Los Angeles for a weekend, put me up in a hotel and gave me spending money.

Jeopardy Green RoomI knew nothing about my competition. Our identities had to remain a secret from each other, lest we conspire to cheat or share the prize or something like that, I suppose. All weekend long, I picked out young faces in the hotel and attempted to determine whether they were there for the fitness conference or if they were a Jeopardy nerd like me.

My friend Julian, who’s an actor in LA, showed me around the city to take my mind off things. It was the first time I’d ever been in Hollywood, a place where my radio/television/film degree could very well end up taking me one day. I never did see any of my co-competitors until Monday morning, when the bus arrived to transport us to Sony Studios. Maggie Speak, another Contestant Coordinator, accompanied us on the longest bus ride of our lives. Maggie has one of the most remarkable personalities I’ve ever seen -- she took a bus full of 15 nerds and got us to loosen up on the biggest morning of their lives.

Once we arrived at Sony, it was a whirlwind of makeup and microphones and publicity photos and practice rounds. And somewhere in the middle, I got to talk to my co-competitors over a game of Jenga. I truly believe they all have bright futures as doctors and scientists and lawyers and leaders of men, but the experience was probably a little more special for someone like me, since I’m majoring in radio, television & film. I was on a working TV set! There was a case of Emmy awards just down the hallway. I got to shake hands with the executive producer. I ate lunch in the Sony commissary among writers and producers and talent.

On Monday, we taped the five quarterfinal rounds. Jeopardy tapes five episodes -- a week’s worth -- in a day. Alex Trebek changes suits between episodes to create the illusion that it’s a new day. Jeopardy produces 46 original weeks of programming each year, so Trebek only works 46 days a year. It must be nice.

Because there are wild cards in the College Championship -- that is, contestants who don’t win their quarterfinal but still advance to the semi-final round because they have a high score -- we couldn’t watch any of the episodes that taped before ours, lest we know how much money we need to get a wild card.

We were sequestered like a jury in the same green room that Ken Jennings practically called home back in 2004 during his 74-game win streak. We even had to turn off our phones all day long, which is asking a lot of college students.

Corina Nusu, another contestant coordinator, kept us company in the green room with a wide selection of DVDs to watch. The others chose "Groundhog Day," which is possibly the worst movie to watch when you’re completely cut off from the outside world with no sense of time. I’m grateful that I was called to tape the second episode of the day.

The episode happens in real-time, which means they don’t stop taping for commercials. So when you’re at home seeing a 30-second ad for Gold Bond Medicating Foot Powder, contest coordinators Glenn Kagan and Maggie are rushing up to the stage to give us pep talks and bottles of water.

Alex Trebek steps out into the studio audience -- which, in addition to our families, contains dozens of complete strangers who happened to be touring Sony Studios that day -- and lets them ask him questions during breaks. Alex has a reputation for being somewhat austere on camera, but he’s anything but. “I need a drink,” he joked at one point after misreading a few clues.

The most surreal part was the first time I saw Alex Trebek. Because he has all the questions and answers, we’re completely separated from him until the moment he approaches our lecterns to conduct his interviews with us. I’ve watched him every day for the last several years of my life, so it’s not like being face to face with a very famous person. It’s like being face to face with the most famous person.

My interview went well, which surprised me. My friend Sam, also a religious watcher of Jeopardy, gave me two pieces of advice before I left for LA: “Make sure you have a good interview. Trebek wants you to think he’s there to make you look good, but he’s not. Also, if you get a Daily Double in the single Jeopardy round, bet everything you have no matter what.”

The Quarterfinal Round

The match went by quickly. I bet it all on a Daily Double in the Jeopardy round, and it paid off (thanks, Sam!). I executed my strategy reasonably well the rest of the match, but Jim Coury from Georgetown, with whom I had gone to a Quizbowl summer camp a few summers back, was right on my heels. I led him $15,400 to $14,800 going into Final Jeopardy. The category for Final Jeopardy was CHARACTERS IN SHAKESPEARE, which should be a pretty good category for me. I’ve taken an Introduction to Shakespeare class and an English Renaissance Drama class.

If this were real Jeopardy, the most rational thing to do would be to bet $14,201. That way I would win by a dollar if Jim bet it all. But then again, there are those four wild card spots. I don’t really need to win this game. I had prepared myself for this situation by studying previous College Championships, and I knew my score could very easily get me a wild card. So, I bet small. Only $1,400.

The question was “This character said to represent Shakespeare’s philosophy has a name that means 'fortunate' in Latin.” I was stumped. I scribbled down Benvolio, but I knew it wasn’t right. Both Jim and Kristen -- who was in third place -- came up with the correct answer of Prospero. Of course. Prospero. The main character of "The Tempest," the play I had just written a 10-page essay on for class.

When the episode ended, I found out that my final score of $14,000 put me in the third wild card spot with three episodes still left to tape. Oh well, I thought. I tried. As it turned out though, the next three episodes were very low-scoring or dominated by one player, so I advanced as the third wild card. That night, I went out with my family -- my father, mother and uncle -- to celebrate, but I had to be up early the next morning to do it all over again.

The Semifinal Round

Dan Donohue on JeopardyI found out I’d be appearing in the first semifinal round. Weirdly, I was used to the routine after only one day. But I couldn’t get into a rhythm with the buzzer. The buzzers only get activated after Alex reads the entire clue and a producer flips a switch, so timing -- not necessarily speed -- is everything. And I couldn’t find a Daily Double to save my life.

Going into Final Jeopardy, I trailed Trevor from MIT $11,000 to $19,600. Unlike my first game, this was a pretty cut-and-dry situation. Trevor had to get this wrong, and I had to bet big and get it right. Otherwise, I would go home. I risked all but $2 and got the question wrong.

I can’t say I’m too disappointed. I got $10,000 of prize money for being a semifinalist and the experience of a lifetime. I made sure I asked Robert before I left the set, “Would my being an ex-contestant prevent me from working for you guys one day?” I’m glad to report that his answer was no.

The Aftermath

The most difficult part was keeping the outcome of the tournament a secret from my friends in the month between the April 8 taping and the May 7 airdate. I had to sign a lot of scary paperwork from Sony promising I wouldn’t say a word about whether I won or lost, but that didn’t stop my classmates and coworkers from trying to get it out of me. Of course, my coyness had the unfortunate effect of leading them to believe I had won it all.

A few days after my episodes aired, I got a notification from my phone. It was a Tweet from Roger Craig, the man I modeled my game after. He wanted to let me know he guessed Benvolio, too. Vindication. Sorry. What is vindication?