The Who2 Blog

Inside the Brain of a Jeopardy! Contestant

Photo of Pam Mueller looking at a monitor of the Jeopardy game board
“What goes through your mind while you’re playing Jeopardy? Do you get nervous on TV?”
After the sure-fire #1 question of all time (“What’s Alex really like?”), these are two things that Jeopardy! fans often ask. What follows is a chat on the topic between three of us who played in the 2014 Jeopardy! Battle of the Decades Tournament: Dan Melia, Pam Mueller and Fritz Holznagel.  
The tournament brings back Jeopardy! champions from the past 30 years, with a top prize of a cool $1,000,000. We were all veterans of the game: Dan won the 1998 Tournament of Champions, then made it deep into the third round of the Ultimate Tournament of Champions in 2005, losing to Jerome Vered. Pam won the 2000 College Tournament (representing Loyola University) and went to the fourth round of the UToC, also losing to Jerome Vered. Fritz won the 1995 Tournament of Champions and made it to the second round of the UToC. Jerome Vered was not involved. 
All five games for the 1990s week of the Battle of the Decades were taped in one day on January 21st. 
None of us knew who we’d play before the taping began. We were milling around in the Jeopardy! green room when the contestant coordinators called the names for game one: Eddie Timanus, Babu Srinivasan, and Rachel Schwartz. The rest of us trooped out to the studio audience to watch their game. During the commercial break just before Final Jeopardy, Maggie Speak hollered: “Fritz! Dan! Pam! You’re next!”  
© 2014 Jeopardy Productions, Inc.
The three of us went back to the green room to freshen up. On the monitor there we saw the earlier game end with a Final Jeopardy about the 19th-century president who served two full terms with the same VP. (Answer: James Monroe, with VP Daniel Tompkins.) As it happened, all three of us were stumped… a moment which was to play a significant role in our own game.
Ours was a fast and competitive match, and Pam pulled away to the win with a strong run in Double Jeopardy. A few weeks later, we compared notes by email.
Pre-Game Thoughts
Fritz:  First of all, thinking pre-show, did either of you have any preference about which show of the five you might be in? I have a sort of superstition that the first show of any taping day is a good one for me to be in, although I have no idea where I got it — possibly from the Tournament of Champions in ’95. Other than that I didn’t care which game I was in, although I guess I really didn’t want to be one of the three left hanging for the very last game.
While I was studying for the show I somehow got it into my head that I was going to be paired up with Eddie Timanus and Bob Harris.  I didn’t know either of them and there was no particular reason for it that I could tell — I’m not usually given to premonitions. In the end it turned out to be totally wrong, of course. (Maybe that’s why I’m not given to premonitions.) Anyone else have anything like that? 
Pam:  All my games (other than the college finals) have been morning games, so I think I maybe had a vague preference for that, though I definitely didn’t want to go first.  The rational reason for that was that I wanted to see what the difficulty level of the clues would be like, but I think there was plenty of irrationality in that desire as well.  While watching the first game, I suppose I was dismayed with my audience performance in the “go” category (plumbago? lanugo?), but heartened that they weren’t doing so well with it either.  Foreshadowing: seeing how their FJ! went down influenced how I started thinking about wagering for ours….
As for matchups, in September, I said to a friend of mine on Gchat, “I imagine I’ll be against two of Ryan/Fritz, Dave, possibly the fan vote, depending on who it is, or maybe Eddie. I will not be against Brad, Mark, Bob, and possibly Babu.”  So I got one right!  I did not anticipate playing Dan, and given what other champions (Jerome Vered, Bob Harris) have said about having to play him, I thought I was a goner for sure.  I didn’t know as much about you prior to this, but once our bios went up online and I saw you had an extensive website of famous people’s biographies, that was enough to raise my blood pressure a little!
Fritz:  Foreshadowing indeed! Yes, I’m going to be interested to talk about Final Jeop wagering.
Pam, I think we were in about the same place of familiarity with each other. I knew you had gone deep into the Ultimate Tournament of Champions field (impressive) but didn’t know much beyond that. I didn’t see your original college tournament.  I’d heard you say during practice that you were having trouble getting the hang of the buzzer, so when I heard your name called after mine I thought, “I hope she’s still having trouble.”
With Dan I thought, “Here’s hoping we don’t get all Ancient History and Literary Classics.” Dan, I’d read Bob Harris’s book, so I knew the story about you getting married on the Jeopardy set. (Great story.) And, like Pam, I knew your reputation as a tough out.
I had the same thought as you, Pam, about the good side of seeing some questions before going on. When we saw that U.S. Presidents FJ in the green room together, I was actually reassured a little. I thought it was tough but fair — it seemed like something I ought to have known. I was also reassured that none of us knew it. 🙂
Photo of Dan Melia smiling backstage at Jeopardy
Dan:  I didn’t give a lot of thought to whom I might face.  I was almost certain that none of us would face former opponents, so I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t face Claudia or Bob. 
I prefer to play earlier rather than later, though my biggest win was my 5th which came (obviously) late in the day. Nobody else looked like a soft touch, so I was hoping for good categories (opera, medieval literature, potent potables). In spite of the protestations from the J! folk that the first game was “great,” I found it disturbing (an impression largely confirmed now by watching the ’80s games).  The only really good category was the Sean Connery film one which was hard, but clearly doable and well-scaled.  The randomness of the other categories (like a not very well calibrated bar quiz full of “pure trivia”) clearly bewildered all three players a lot of the time.  This observation may have put me in a less than optimal state of mind going into our game (which I thought was not quite as “random” but still kind of goofy).  
Starting the Game
Fritz: What were the categories for our Jeopardy round? I find myself blanking out on some of them. I remember Space Stuff, and World Capitals, and The Last Century (or whatever it was called), and a palindrome category. What am I missing?
Dan: My memories of the play by play in our game are not precise, largely because I got frustrated by the buzzer early and never recovered.  In my better games time has slowed down and the buzzer has listened to me, but this game seemed to make everything go faster. Consequently, I didn’t have to worry about betting strategy since I was toast at the end anyway.  My present consolation is that Jerome [Vered, who appeared in the 1980s games] seemed to suffer from the same problems I did. 
Fritz:  Dan, if you were hoping for potent potables, you must have been as frustrated as I was on “digestif.”  For whatever reason, not getting in on that particular clue bugs me. Sometimes you just feel like a question should be “yours.” Pam, you stole that one and it’s not fair.
And I second what you say about time slowing down (or rather, not). I felt strong in general, but when it came to questions where I had to parse a complicated sequence out, I just felt like I wasn’t quite as flexible or fast as I’ve been in other games. It could be age, for sure, but the phrasing of the questions may have changed subtly as well.
The Buzzer
Fritz:  Let’s talk buzzer. (Er, “signalling device.”) Am I the only person who still waits for the light? I heard people talking as if everyone else goes by feel now. 
Dan:  I tried watching the lights and couldn’t get in, so I tried not watching which worked a little better for a while, but then ceased working too. After that I watched.  Age? Nerves? Who knows?
Pam Mueller photo from the side on the set of Jeopardy
Pam:  As far as I know, the people who are really good at it are going by feel.  In Round 1 of the UToC, though, the delay was SO long that people had to wait for the lights.  That was also, not coincidentally, the round in which I had the most buzzer success, since my pure reaction time is pretty good.  Timing, however, is a whole different story.  I asked Brad about it again after the taping, since his thumb is clearly directly linked to the board, and he (quite rightly) said, “If I understood the buzzer thing, I’d have made more money teaching people how to do that than I ever did on Jeopardy!”  I should also thank him for responding to my rehearsal gripe about the buzzer not being my friend with, “You know, it’s always different during the actual games.”  Wise words.
And here I thought “digestif” was my clue, since my officemate and I ran a once-a-month speakeasy out of our office until we moved to a new building in January.  In my ToC, I felt like Andrew Garen stole “The Princess Bride” from me, though, so I know what you mean!  Sometimes I feel like when you get too excited about a clue, it throws your timing off. (Side note: I was pretty shocked by that “IF” category, as I’m pretty sure it’s the only category I’ve ever run.  I sort of ran one in the UToC, but one response was after another player’s miss, so it didn’t count, applause-wise.)
As for what categories we had… I can’t recall them all either.  There was a poetry one, but I think that may have been in the DJ round.  There was one about books and authors, as I gave the director of “The Hours” rather than the author, and the $1000 clue was some book I have never heard of.  DJ! also had art & artists, and science. Oh, and we started off with lyrics from musicals!
Fritz:  That’s great stuff, thanks. And right, musicals. You know, I’ve always dreamed of getting a “Music Man” question on Jeopardy, because I was in that play with my dad as a kid. So we didn’t get one… but then I watched the ’80s games and *they* had a musicals category, too, and sink my putt if there wasn’t a Music Man question for $2000.  
If only I’d been born 10 years earlier.
Double Jeopardy
Fritz: Let’s talk about that “IF” category, because it’s clearly where the game turned… although it didn’t feel that way to me at the time.  And first, Pam, congratulations for running it. What was your feeling, if anything, while you were running the category? Did you have an eye on the score?  Were you trying to be extra-aggressive? Did you have a special feeling about wordplay categories in general?
Other than the stolen “digestif,” I really regret the Vinson Massif question. It popped into my head somehow as “Vinton Massif” and while I was wrestling that around to Vinson in my head for the briefest moment, you were already on it. That hurt. 
But I have to admit that’s a cool thing about this tournament — I actually felt good and strong, like I brought enough game to win. Even after the game ended I felt like I’d played well. But that wasn’t enough in this company. Absolutely hated to lose, but always nice to be running with the big dogs.
Dan:  I’m pretty hazy on the whole game.  Fritz, you may be right that we were both within striking distance when Pam got on a roll, but it didn’t feel that way to me.  I figured I was lagging too badly to catch up shortly into the second round.  I may be wrong about that.  My memory of the UToC quarterfinal was that Jerome was killing Michael Daunt and me early on, but on seeing the game, I saw that I was actually a little bit ahead going into double Jeopardy.  Then Jerome got both Daily Doubles and Michael and I split the rest evenly, ensuring our doom. 
Fritz:  I find it interesting (and soothing) that all of us feel a little hazy about the particulars of the game. I remember answering the beer can question, but have no idea what the category might have been. “Cylindrical Things”?
Pam:  Fritz, as the counterpart to your feeling that I stole Vinson Massif from you, I spent a split-second too long making sure that “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” was from Jesus Christ Superstar, rather than Godspell (they get tangled in my mind), and you grabbed it! Grrr.
Regarding “IF”s: I wasn’t checking the score or trying to be extra-aggressive; I was just doing what I’d been trying to do the whole time — ring in! I don’t remember the first two clues; I do remember thinking, “What on earth is chiffarobe a portmanteau of?” 
I remember the beer can question, vaguely, only because of the multiple times he asked you to be more specific.  I was ready to jump on it if he ever decided to stop giving you a chance 🙂  No idea on the category, though, either. What was the other Daily Double in that round?
Photo of Fritz Holznagel in the Jeopardy dressing room, smiling for the camera
Fritz:  The other DD was mine, in the Science Timeline category: the answer was Tycho Brahe. 
Weirdly, I don’t have much regret about missing it, maybe because I bet low. I had done a lot of work trying to figure out my weak categories before the show, and they pretty much turned out to be anything having to do with science or botany. It’s gratifying in a perverse way to have that proved out in practice.
Dan and I talked about that clue a little afterwards; I got hung up on Frederick II being Frederick the Great = Prussia = Poland = Copernicus, but there are several holes in that chain if you look very closely. It was one I just didn’t know.  
However, I am quite happy to learn I stole JC Superstar from you. I think you were close to running that category, too.
The Big Bets: Final Jeopardy
Fritz:  All right, let’s talk Final Jeopardy. I just hated the category “Borders” as soon as I saw it — did anyone else? I feel like I’ve missed too many border questions over the years, usually including some combination of Chile, Argentina and Peru or “what nation lies directly west of Uganda?” I just didn’t have a good feeling about it.
Pam, you must have felt somewhat the same. Or were you just banking on me betting for you to miss?
And Dan, did you tell me you’d actually *visited* that border?
Pam:  Yep, I hated it too.  There are SO MANY BORDERS… not to mention historical shifts in borders.  After doing a whole bunch of math (thanks, Fritz!) I realized that I either had to make the mainstream $Fritz*2+1 bet (necessitating a correct answer on my part) or bet hoping that Fritz would get it wrong.  
So, I agonized for a good long while about that (in which situation would I regret losing more? which outcome is more likely? argh….) Seeing all three of them get the first Final Jeopardy wrong did push me toward the zero bet, and so I went for it.  I do hate the fact that I wasn’t “betting on myself” but was rather betting on someone else’s error a little, but at that point, I just needed to make a decision.  I then spent nearly all of the 30 seconds worrying about whether Fritz would get it right or wrong, since at that point, my answer didn’t matter.  I thought either England/Scotland or England/Wales, but somehow split the baby and ended up with Scotland/Wales, though I know full well (at least in every moment other than that one) that they don’t have a border.  
Fritz:  Interesting stuff, Pam. I hear you on the notion of betting on yourself. Clearly, the surest way to win in Final Jeopardy is to “bet it and get it”: make a fat bet and answer it right. The buzzer’s out of play, so show us how much you know!  
But my biggest takeaway from the UToC was that the FJs seemed *much* harder than normal. I went back and counted and only about 50% of contestants got them right for that whole tournament. My own total for all those games was much lower — closer to 33%.  That’s pretty terrible. 
So I came in this time much more prepared to bet zero (or low) unless the category was History, Newspapers, JFK’s Mistresses or some other of my stronger categories. The FJ in the game before ours confirmed that. 
In general, I think that zero betting is an underrated and underexplored Jeopardy betting strategy.  “First do no harm,” to quote, uh, Genghis Khan.  We’ve all seen people big-bet themselves out of wins a thousand times.
If I couldn’t be in first place, I didn’t hate my position: enough to be inside your $Fritz*2+1 wager if you missed and lucky that Dan couldn’t overtake me if I bet low.  Given how the question turned out, I felt good about my bet. But then you made an admirable bet. Somehow I wasn’t surprised to see it revealed — maybe I did have a premonition there. (It’s weird to think that after we made our bets, the game was over. I imagine the staff looking at our bets during the commercial break and starting to fill out the paperwork for Dan and I to be out the door.)
As for the question: I thought it was very tough. I’d never heard of Offa’s Dyke and the name “Offa” doesn’t sound particularly Welsh to my ear. The Welsh name turns out to be Clawdd Offa, which no doubt would have given it away.
Dan: I have indeed visited Offa’s Dyke more than once (it’s kind of unavoidable in N. Wales).  For info see:  Borders in general is a pretty good category for me.  In thinking about world history, maps and how they change is useful, especially in teaching.  [Trick pubquiz question: What were Poland’s borders in 1800?  Answer: it didn’t have any as it had been partitioned amongst the great abutting powers in 1795.] 
Fritz: During the on-camera chat after the show, Alex said something like, “We did give you Hadrian’s Wall,” as if that was a fairly blunt hint. But the way the question was phrased, it didn’t follow to my mind that it must mean British Isles. My not-so-genius path was Hadrian’s Wall = Romans, and dike = Netherlands, could the Romans have possibly built a wall that far up when they were taming the German tribes? Maybe.  
To your Wales/Scotland border point, Pam: I also double-checked later to make sure Germany and the Netherlands actually had a border, and was relieved to see that they do. 🙂
A photo of all 15 contestants on a shuttle bus ride, seen from the front
Final Thoughts
Pam:  Watching the game made it clear that 1) we really forgot a lot about how it all happened, and 2) everyone had a hot streak.  It was a great match.  I regret not ringing in with Wordsworth, but with the questions they’d been asking, I was worried that there was some more obscure “Lake Poet” they were looking for.  I’ve still never heard of Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (though Google tells me right now that it won the Booker Prize).
After the UToC, I posted something on the old Jeopardy boards about needing to learn to be more confident, as that was my biggest downfall then.  I wasn’t doing so well at keeping that lesson in mind coming into this game (I was shocked afterward when Brian Weikle told me that he had expected me to win!) but coming out of it, I may finally be able to see myself as a legitimate competitor.  I promised Dan that if I won the million, I’d go to Offa’s Dyke and send postcards, so we shall see….
Fritz, thanks for putting this discussion together; it’s been fun to hear what everyone was thinking at certain moments.  Thanks also to both of you for a great game!  I wish we’d all had more time to hang out in LA.
Fritz: Yes, it’s striking how much we forgot about specific categories. Go win the million! It was a great game and I’ve really enjoyed looking back at it this way. 
Dan: I loved coming back to the tournament and getting to know everybody. As Brad said in his interview, I’d play every day if they’d let me. 

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Comments ( 2 )

  • Just prior to the tape date I had bought a used copy of “Paddy Clarke, Ha Ha Ha” at the church library. And now, 4 years later, I STILL haven’t read it. 50 cents down the drain unless I can find it.

    • Yes, I hated not being able to pull that one out. I’d seen the book in a bookstore the year before and puzzled over the title. But I just couldn’t remember the darn thing.

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