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NewCityNet I Lost On "Jeopardy!"

Crashing and burning on the set of America's toughest game show

By Carl Kozlowski

MAY 17, 1999:  I'm standing before a crowd of 2,000 smart-aleck college students, and they're all laughing at me. I haven't cracked a good joke - at least not intentionally; no, I've just missed a question on "Jeopardy!"

America's toughest game show came to Chicago in April to tape its annual College Championship, at Rosemont Theatre. In the name of security policies even tighter than the Pentagon's, all press have been sworn to secrecy about the winners to avoid ruining the suspense for viewers at home.

In exchange for our vows, reporters are invited to play a round on-stage prior to the high-tension tapings. I'm matched up against a too-perky newswoman from Detroit and a smug young turk from a TV station in Grand Rapids, Michigan. As this is a mini-round, we're only allowed three responses each. Before us looms the show's famously massive wall of TV monitors, hiding questions that will surely make fools of us before the young intellectuals waiting to cheer on their friends from campuses nationwide. We are also surrounded by the show's allegedly $2 million custom-made Chicago set, which features a hideous, barely recognizable sketch of the city skyline and an enormous replica of Rodin's The Thinker wearing an oversized Walkman - for supposed college appeal.

We're also subjected to a mere mortal, unknown substitute for godlike host Alex Trebek, but I'm trigger-happy nonetheless and fire off my buzzer for the first three responses. The first two go well, and I'm soaring with a $700 lead when I decide to take mercy on my media brethren and respond to the cheapest question - $100 - in the easiest category on the board: "Familiar Phrases."

"This is thicker than water," the host reads, the screen beaming ahead of me with the same words. Familiar phrases fly through my mind as I realize in abject terror that I am going to miss the question - badly. "What is oil?" I cry, as a wave of derisive laughter fills the hall. I've never seen actual contestants subjected to such embarrassing cruelty, and to add insult to injury, a crew member discreetly reminds me that I can't even redeem myself because my three questions are up.

The rest of the day is rife with excitement, as an entire second half has to be replayed for only the second time in the show's fifteen-year history (due to a contestant's defective buzzer). The judges also force a forty-minute delay by calling experts in Alaska to determine whether a contestant is correct in equating a husky with a malamute. And when the games are over, Trebek allows the media to approach and bask in his aura of wisdom.

"Tough game there, huh?" he says. "Just remember the magic of this show is that anyone can reveal their intellectual prowess. Sometimes a cab driver will beat a doctor."

And sometimes a reporter can make an idiot of himself. The fine folks at "Jeopardy!" sent me a videotape of my humiliation. It sits unopened.

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