My Jeopardy!


By Jeopardy! contestant

Kathy Cassity

Kathy Cassity's Story

(or, "How nursing my baby got me $59,200)
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You may wonder, why is she writing her story for Bill's web site, when he's the guy who yanked away her hopes of a car and a shot at the Tournament of Champions? Well, ours was a friendly rivalry, and as I told Bill, he didn't beat me so much as I beat myself. Besides, I'm too busy (or too lazy) to make my own web site, so it was easier to hitchhike on Bill's instead.

How I got on the show

My parents were Jeopardy regulars, so my memories stretch way back into my childhood and the Art Fleming days. My dad always felt smug when contestants didn't know their geography, and my mom had her laughs when somebody missed a Bible question. After I got married, I continued watching Jeopardy nearly every night until 1992 when we moved to Hawaii. The show airs there at 5:00, and I was either at work or school at that time. Then in September 2000, I gave birth to hungry little fellow who, as luck would have it, liked to eat every day at 5:00 p.m. I started watching Jeopardy again just to keep my mind occupied during feedings, that was how I noticed the ad for the Honolulu contestant search.

I registered at the web site as a lark, not expecting anything to come from it. I was stunned when a few weeks later, I got the call inviting me to the Hilton Hawaiian Village to try out. The tryout was scheduled for four days after my 40th birthday, and I decided this would be an original way to mark the occasion.

The test was harder than I'd expected, and after being clueless on the first three questions, I pretty much gave up. Then I got a question I knew, and things started to flow. This was my first come-from-behind Jeopardy moment, though it wouldn't be my last. About 10% of us passed the test and were invited to do a mock game. I was told I had done well, despite missing a Hemingway question right after telling the panel I was an English major. "We'll call you," they said. (Now when was the last time you believed anyone who said that?) I was told the call could come any time in the next year.

Only a couple of weeks later, Glenn called me on my cell phone to invite me to L.A. for the first week of September. Since I usually only give my number out to my inner circle, I thought at first it was my husband playing a joke. The timing was bad–my husband's a teacher and couldn't leave so early in the semester–but what were the odds of anything like this ever happening again? We decided todo whatever we had to do to make it work. I hadn't been away from my baby for more than two hours, so leaving wasn't easy. I told my baby I'd try to earn him some college money, just to make it worth our while.

Let the Games Begin! "The Mind Goes Blank"

It was luck of the draw as to who would play when, and I did not want to go first. I was intimidated by the calmness of the returning champion, who was the embodiment of serenity next to our nervous, chatty group of twelve new contestants. Naturally, I was picked for game #1 against my fervent wishes. I became a bit calmer as the crew began to prepare me for the game.
My makeup had to be touched up, and since I am five feet tall and would be standing between two tall men, the crew had to experiment with various risers until they were satisfied with my stature. I loved being able to make eye contact with tall guys for once in my life. (I also liked the way this illusion looked when the show aired–although my friends started laughing the minute they saw me. "No way are you as tall as those two guys," one friend said, "they did something to you!")

I botched the first take of my "Hometown Howdy" by omitting to say my own name. I felt like a complete dork. I mean, when does any normal person go around saying, "Hey, Hawaii!" Once that painful moment was over with, the fun began. I stood behind that podium, elevated a foot of the ground, with that annoying little buzzer clasped in my sweaty palm. The lights came on, the famous music started, and Johnny Gilbert began the familiar, "This . . . Is . . . Jeopardy!" I smiled on cue when my name was announced, trying my best not to look goofy. When the sliding glass doors opened and Alex Trebek emerged, I thought, "This could not possibly be happening."

Throughout the day I would have what I called "paper bag moments"–when we watched the shows air three months later, I had an actual paper bag on hand to pull over my head whenever I did something really stupid. The first such moment came on the first question I picked, a Daily Double in "Bill Shakespeare, P.I." This was exactly what I had feared–landing the Daily Double on a literature question, freezing, and making a fool out of myself before my former professors and students. I once read somewhere that you should be careful what you're afraid of because you'll attract that very thing, and I guess there must be something to that theory.

Which Shakespearean character had killed, among others, the Prince of Wales? I hadn't read the history plays since my undergraduate days and never had been very good at keeping all those Roman-numeraled British kings straight). I answered "What is Macbeth," knowing it was probably wrong, as the taunting face of my Shakespeare professor appeared before me like Hamlet's ghost. Now I was in the hole, a place where I did not want to be. I promptly redeemed myself by answering "Who is Macbeth?" on the next question. Later, my friends would tease me about my unsophisticated strategy of "Keep saying ‘Who is Macbeth' long enough and you'll eventually be right.'"

I got off to an early lead but had a couple more paper-bag moments, like saying the colorful sea in "Yellow Submarine" was "The English Channel." (Imagine singing "Sky of blue, and English Channel...") Fortunately I saved my pride by buzzing in on "Who is King Kamehameha?" Since I love both anagrams and mythology, my favorite category in this game was Scrambled Greek Gods, even though I was too slow to figure out that "Hair Depot" was "Aphrodite" before the buzzer. When the showed aired, several people also teased me about my pronunciation of "Uranus," which I had shifted midstream in rather obvious fashion. Somehow, I just couldn't bring myself to say "What is your anus" to Alex Trebek on national television.

My worst paper-bag moment was losing $2,000 on another Daily Double, when I surmised that a venerable group of state leaders had adjourned an important meeting to eat Waldorf Salad. When Alex pointed out that most Americans eat turkey during the last week of November, I uttered a phrase which would apply to every such moment: "The mind goes blank!" My once commanding lead dwindled to a tie, but I got lucky when my opponents took some wrong guesses and I was able to go into Final Jeopardy, "Fictional Places," with a slight lead. I ran some figures with the pencil and paper they give you for wagering calculations, and bet just enough to win if the #2 player managed to double his money. I then promptly wrote my wager onto the electronic screen–with the felt marker. Duh. Maggie had to clean it off for me with Windex so I could do it again, this time with the electronic marker. The crew probably thought I was an idiot savant.

When the question appeared, I felt giddy because I knew immediately that it referred to one of my favorite writers ever, Garrison Keillor, and his fictitious town of Lake Wobegon, a place I knew well since it closely resembled Ballard, the Scandinavian/Lutheran quarter of Seattle in which I grew up. Neither contestant knew the answer, but I would have been safe even if they had. If I thought that seeing Alex Trebek walk onstage was surreal, that was nothing compared to the realization that, despite the paper bag, I would be the winner of Game #1.

Game #2: Three Temperate Zones and a Backstreet Boy

You're told you'll have ten minutes to change your clothes between games, but this time it stretched out to more like thirty. My makeup had to be redone, since the makeup lady decided the "dramatic lip" she'd given me was a bit too dramatic (it had started melting and running down my chin during the "Waldorf Salad" Daily Double). This time when I walked onstage, it was to podium #1. Oddly, I was more nervous this time than I had been in game #1. I didn't want to lose miserably in game #2 and make the first game look like a fluke.

And I was right to worry. If I'd thought playing one game would give me an advantage on the buzzer, I was mistaken. My two opponents in game #2 were exceptionally knowledgeable as well as quick with the trigger finger, and the beginning of this game was characterized by long silences from podium #1. I especially kicked myself for not buzzing in quickly enough on an easy "Bridges" question, "What is the Seine," because had I done so, I would have had one of those rare Daily Doubles that I'd have known intuitively–what river is crossed by Astoria Bridge? (Every kid raised in Washington State remembers singing in grade school music class, "Roll on, Columbia, roll on/Your power is turning our darkness to dawn...")

Fortunately for me, contestant #3 had not gone to grade school in Washington State and had not had to sing that corny song, so she guessed the Hudson–not a bad guess, actually–and I stayed in the game. None of us knew the name of a particular a Backstreet Boy or had even heard of a group called Hanson–an ignorance that the teenage daughters of my friends all found shocking. Still, I managed to go into Double Jeopardy tied with the leader.

My paper-bag moments were fewer. I got lucky with a $2,000 Daily Double on "Sounds the same": "What is produce?" (Thank goodness I didn't blurt out, "What is crop?") This was the only Daily Double I managed to answer correctly in five games. Throughout the day, I would have the recurrent problem of faltering on my own Daily Doubles, while almost always knowing the answers for those belonging to my opponents. I grew to hate that siren sound with a purple passion. I was especially glad to have gotten "Who is Elian Gonzalez," since all my fellow closed captioners and I had captioned that story into the ground. Had I missed that one, I would have been shamed before my professional colleagues.

Once again, I had only a slight lead going into Final Jeopardy, having blown a question about Walden–another book I am supposed to know but haven't read since my undergraduate years. Once again, I would have to make a bold bet in order to pull it off. The category, "Climate Terms," did not concern me since I caption weather reports on the news every day. When I got the question, a scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail popped immediately into my head: "Where'd you get the coconuts? This is a temperate zone!" Once again, my love of comedy saved the day.

Game #3: "How Soon They Forget"

Now I was really nervous. I was also hungry, since it was nearly 2:00 p.m. and I hadn't had much of a stomach for breakfast that morning. And yet again, I was faced with two excellent contestants. I pulled out to a strong early lead, but then the guy at podium #2 seemed to gain instant mastery over the buzzer, and he smoked me on "The Wisdom of Yogi Berra." Although I'm not a major baseball fan, I'd worked around lawyers and judges for enough years to hear lots of Yogi Berra quotes, but contestant #2 just burned that board up. I had another paper-bag moment when I buzzed in on Florence Nightingale, then promptly forgot her name as soon as Alex called on me. I also performed miserably on a category called "Whaazup?" which was about all kinds of flying devices. This wouldn't be so bad, except that my dad had been an aeronautical engineer as well as a keen avionics buff. I was sorry I couldn't do more justice to his memory.

It's funny how your mind works (or fails to work) when you are under pressure. It wasn't until I was at home watching the game three months later that I realized the category "Movie Trailers" was not just teasers for movies, but was about movies with actual trailers in them. Likewise, until I saw this show at home, I failed to notice the internal hints in the "Roman to Arabic numerals" category. (This may explain why I answered "C" for "1000," even though the clue was "Dial this letter for Murder." Yes, dial C for murder. My friends teased that I should have guessed W, for Waldorf Salad. Maybe I need some new friends.)

Truthfully, the only thing that got me this hard-fought game was plain old-fashioned luck. On a category called "How Soon They Forget," we were given the names of three "Survivor" players and asked which one was voted off the island first. Since I'd deliberately avoided watching that show, I had absolutely no idea, but the other two contestants guessed wrong, leaving me with only one possibility. That gave me a chance to ring in on a dreaded Daily Double, this question concerning a certain Kansas senator who resigned in 1996. As a news captioner, I am most ashamed to have missed Bob Dole. How soon they forget, indeed!

I led by only $1,000 going into Final Jeopardy, and won this game by sheer default. The final category was "Historic Heroes," and since two of my best-est friends teach Latin American Studies, I should have known that the man born in 1783 who's a national hero in five countries was Simon Bolivar. My excuse is that the 1783 date put my mind into Europe and the French Revolution, and once I got my mind in a rut, I couldn't get it out in thirty seconds. I was just lucky that my fellow contestants seemed to have gotten into the same situation. Had either one of them answered correctly, and/or wagered less, I would not have survived game 3 and I would have missed our gourmet lunch in the studio commissary.

Game #4: Yahoo!

Lunch was an enjoyable relief after a busy day and three intense games. The food was standard cafeteria issue–I wolfed down a toasted cheese sandwich and nibbled a few French fries–but I enjoyed chatting with Maggie and the remaining contestants, all warm, friendly, intelligent people. Maggie is the person who collects the anecdotes to be delivered to Alex so he can interview you on the air. I'd run out of anecdotes, and we had to come up with something quick. Maggie happened to overhear me telling somebody about the summer we were traveling through Europe, living in a van (down by the river), and the van broke down and my husband had to abandon me in an Italian field with nothing but a table, chair and typewriter. Next thing I knew, Alex was asking me about it on the air. My husband still hasn't forgiven me for that one.

When game 4 began, I felt temporarily rejuvenated. The feeling lasted until I saw the first category, "Scientific Bird Names," soon followed by "Heavyweight Boxing Champions." Fortunately there were also a few categories which were easier for me: "Camilla," "Parker," and "Bowls." I was well up on Camilla, since my father's family lives in Britain and there were always plenty of tabloids around my grandma's place over there. I also received a good swift kick in the pants after the first break when the prizes were announced and third place was a trip to Hilton Hawaiian Village, which is about two miles from my house. The thought spurred me on to attempt a couple of scientific bird names. I felt smug knowing that something with an "Amazones" in it was probably from South America, but my smugness melted away on the next question when I thought that "alba" was Latin for "yellow." (Perhaps I was thinking that albacore and yellowfin tuna are actually the same thing.)

I'd been coming from behind all day, and this was my biggest challenge yet since the guy at podium #2 pulled way, way ahead. But somehow, the thought of staying at the Hilton Hawaiian Village and going home every day to check my mail gave me incredible focus. A devout logophile, I did well in a category called "Words for Words," even though contestant #3 beat me to the punch on "What are contractions?" (My body still remembers very well what they are, thank you!)

And sure enough, I got another one of the dreaded literature questions on which my mind so often goes blank–what is the name of Lady Chatterley's Lover? Nobody else rang in on that one either so there should be no shame, but considering I had written a graduate school paper on this book, you'd think I'd know the guy's name. Then again, I could argue that his name is not what Lady Chatterley's Lover is most famous for anyway. Despite this gaffe, I managed to erase my deficit for good in a category called "By George," though the buzzer rang before we got to the $2,000 George question. (I will always wonder which famous George was lurking behind that lucrative door.) Once again, I would enter Final with a lead, but not enough of a lead to be safe.

The category, "Business and Technology," wasn't my favorite, but once again, I bet as much as I had to, in case the second-place contestant doubled his money. When I saw the question, "This company was formed in 1994 by engineers Yang and Filo, who each considered themselves this," my initial reaction was to panic and run from the stage screaming. I then practiced some deep breathing exercises I had learned in yoga class, and thought, "Stay calm. Think. 1994. Internet. What Internet company is a noun that could apply to a person?"

I waited so long to start writing that I was still scribbling "Yahoo" when the two tympani drums went "boom, boom." One thing I didn't know until I played the game was that those electronic pens actually stop writing when the music stops, and if you haven't finished, you're out of luck. That's why the producers advise us to write down "What" or "Who" in advance of getting the clue, to save time.

When Alex revealed the answer was "Yahoo," I said a grateful thank-you to whoever it was that put that thought in my head at the last minute. But now my nervousness level climbed to a level unlike anything I had ever experienced before.

Game #5: All Good Things Must Come to an End

If this were fiction, the writer would have foreshadowed my demise by having Bill beat me to the buzzer on, "What is Hawaii?" Still, I was proud to beat everyone to the punch on "What is Boeing," since I'm a Boeing brat and, at heart, still a Seattle girl. But more paper-bag moments lay ahead. Once again, I froze on one of those you-should-know-this literary questions, this time about the father of the Italian sonnet, Petrarch (all I could think was "Patriarch").

Then there was a moment of sheer brain freeze when faced with the question of who debated Al Gore at the Apollo Theatre in 2000. Now, I had captioned that very debate. I could see the guy standing there. I could tell you everything about him. Tall. Ex-basketball player. Initials were BB. Heck, I had even thought of voting for him. Everything was there but his name. Fortunately for me, nobody else got it either (something we all laughed about later since all three of us were pretty up on politics). Still, between that, a bad guess on a $1,000 question, and Jaclyn and Bill's stellar performances on the buzzer, I went into Double Jeopardy in third place.

I was relieved by the Double Jeopardy categories, especially the first one, "Books of the Bible," having once been a good little Sunday school girl. Alas, I blurted out "Ruth" even as I meant to say "Esther." Answering this question right could have ultimately saved me the game (as could any one of a number of alternative developments). Bill continued the tradition of Sunday school amnesia a few minutes later when he got the Daily Double in Bible and missed "Lamentations"–a paper-bag moment for him since, as he told me afterwards, he'd had years of Catholic school. Since he'd made a bold bet, at least this put Jaclyn and me back in the game.

My major paper-bag moment was one of those dastardly Daily Doubles when, rushing and not thinking, I blurted out that a kilo is 10 to the 10th power, then babbled incoherently after Alex pointed out my cognitive flaws to the world. Still, once again, I managed to come from behind, helped immensely by a category of Best Oscar Actresses, which, to my amazement, I knew thoroughly. Once more, I would go into Final Jeopardy with a lead that, while substantial, turned out not to be just shy of substantial enough. A mere $1400 more and I would have been safe.

You know the rest of the story. I thought I'd be safe on a category like "Countries of the World." When I saw the word "Hindu," I thought immediately, "I must know this." I've studied India, and my dad's family is from there. I know a bit about Eastern religions. I have friends from South Asia. But when that darn music started playing, my mind went into one of its ruts, and I got fixated on the idea that everything north of India is Muslim and everything east is Buddhist. I first wrote down "India," despite knowing full well it's not a kingdom, then crossed it out and tried "Sri Lanka," knowing that wasn't a kingdom either.

One voice in my head was telling me, "Kathy, you're forgetting something, someplace north." Meanwhile, the voice of my evil twin kept insisting, "No, everything north is Muslim. Everything north is Muslim." Unlike game 4, I forgot all about my yoga breathing (ironic since yoga originated with Hindus–you'd think I'd have taken the hint). Instead, I tensed, and when you tense in this game, whatever knowledge is stored in your brain tends to disappear in the weirdest way.

Eventually, the music stops. I know my mistake the moment Alex references a recent tragedy. How many times did I caption this news story last summer? The face of my good friend, the South Asian reference librarian at U Hawaii, looms before me. Then I see the face of my Nepalese grad school friend, followed by the face of my thesis director and all my relatives. I remember how when I was a kid, my dad scoffed at contestants who missed geography questions and my mom wondered what was wrong with people who missed Bible questions. Even though I'm disappointed, I also find myself realizing it's kind of funny, and that good old phrase comes to mind, "You'll laugh about this someday." This is the ultimate paper-bag moment.

Had the final question been about Heavyweight Boxing Champions, or Scientific Bird Names, I probably wouldn't have been so hard on myself. I suppose it's not unusual for a person to panic when $16,000, a shot at a championship tournament, and a car is riding on a single question. The producer of the web site tells me at least 110 people have choked on game 5 over the years, so I'm certainly in good company. And there's no shame losing to incredible opponents like Bill and Jaclyn. Nor would it have been any shame in losing to any of the incredibly smart, friendly people I played against that day.

Post-Game Wrap

Despite the way it ended for me, it was an incredible run, a fantastic day. I got a better 40th birthday present than I'd ever imagined, and a wild payoff for nursing my baby every day at 5:00 p.m. I also like to think I've done the memory of my parents proud by ending up on their favorite game show, even if I did send both of them rolling in their graves in game #5. I'm sure they're laughing at me from somewhere.

Back at the hotel, I called my husband on his cell phone to report that our son's college fund had received a rather large infusion. This time he thought I was playing the joke on him. I worked off some excess energy in the weight room before mellowing out in the hot tub. Later, a bunch of us contestants found each other in the hotel lobby and debriefed over this most unusual day of our lives. I had dinner that night in Venice Beach with a couple of fellow competitors, along with a bottle of good wine, dessert for everybody (on this day, of all days, I deserved that chocolate), and great conversation.

When I remember that whirlwind, surreal trip to L.A., my favorite moment is the morning after. I'm cruising up Highway 101 toward Santa Barbara, jazz blaring from the radio, the Pacific Ocean crashing to my left. As I come up on Ventura, the fog gives way to sunshine. If this were a movie, I'd be five foot ten and thirty pounds lighter and driving a red convertible instead of a white Geo Metro from Avis. Prize money wouldn't be taxable and there'd be an extra zero at the end of my winnings.

But it's not a movie, it's real life, and I've just won fifty-nine grand, made a bunch of new friends, and I'm off to meet a friend for a leisurely California lunch. At home I've got a terrific husband and an adorable son, but right now I've got the whole day to myself and I'm free. It's September 6, 2001, and the world has never looked so good.

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