A Superior Image in 'Jeopardy'


I first took the test in 1993. I didn't pass.

I took it again in '94. I still didn't pass.

Another stab at it this year proved three is not necessarily a charm.

I'm not talking about the bar. I'm talking about the test to qualify for an appearance on "Jeopardy."

My most recent attempt came on a cold winter day. I was one of about 50 potential contestants huddled by the wall of a parking lot at Sony Studios, trying to get warm while anxiously waiting for a representative of the show to retrieve us so we could prove just how smart we are.

You know us--we're the ones who play the game at home, convinced we can compete with any teacher from Des Moines or graduate student from Yale.

Eager to validate my innate intelligence and acquired knowledge of trivia--and to justify the hours spent poring over lists of state and world capitals, Greek and Roman gods and goddesses, planets, inventions and explorers--I fell into line with the other "Jeopardy" junkies and followed the contestant coordinator into the studio where the show is taped.

We each grabbed a sheet of paper with 50 blank spaces, and filled in every other audience seat. After receiving instructions and being warmed up Hollywood-style with off-the-cuff remarks, we poised our pens, ready to meet the challenge.

Only three met it with success.

The 50 questions covered 50 categories, from art to sports to opera to crossword clues for words beginning with L. Served up on video monitors, with the audio provided by Alex Trebek himself (voice-over, not live), all questions were of the show's tougher, $800-to-$1,000 variety. With 10 seconds for each, there was little time to think, and with no written exam to refer to, no opportunity to go back to previous questions.

For me, the beginning of the test was promising: U.S. Authors, Poets, Playwrights, Mythology--dream categories for the holder of a B.A. in English.

Oddly enough, the first category to stump me was Shakespeare: As hard as I tried, I could not remember the name of the friar who married Romeo and Juliet. Friar Tuck? Wrong story. Irving Fryar? Wrong category.


It was downhill from there. About 30 of the questions brought an inner smile. "I know that," I gleefully thought as I jotted down the answers. The other 20 or so queries produced internal reactions ranging from "I should know that," to "I used to know that," to "Who would know that? " I ended up making educated guesses on all but six, and probably batted about .500.

So much for my preparation. Where were the anticipated questions on explorers, planets and capitals? And I knew the capitals. Except for the one they asked: Afghanistan.

On a positive note, my last-minute cramming did result in one correct answer. Thanks to my review of significant scientific discoveries, I could name the monk who pioneered the study of heredity.

But even Gregor Mendel could not save me from failure and a painful personal discovery. I am a fraud. I'm not just one of those people who think they're smart. I actually have pieces of paper to prove it.

Like my high school valedictory address.

Like my college diploma with the words magna cum laude stamped on it.

Like the certificate acknowledging my election to Phi Beta Kappa.

With credentials like these, I am loath to admit, I was unable to summon up the name of the man who composed "Flight of the Bumble Bee."


I'd like to think the missed answers were a result of a too narrowly focused liberal arts education. Or been-out-of-school-too-long syndrome. Or perhaps a brain frozen from lingering in the cold. Anything but lack of smarts.

While waiting for the test results, I wondered if my fellow hopefuls were experiencing the same feelings of information inferiority. Evidently so, I surmised, when I heard the woman in front of me lament about her inability to remember the last name of the actor who recently reprised the role of Amos Burke on TV. "That's so easy," I smugly thought.

But the last laugh was on me. This woman was one of the three people who passed the test.

While she hung around for the next step, a mock round of "Jeopardy," I filed out with the others, contemplating a tryout on "Wheel of Fortune."

Perhaps a game show is just not in my future.

I can take the test again in six months. I'm not ready to turn in my Phi Beta Kappa key just yet.

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