To read part 1 of "Jeopardy!, the Audition, click here
To read part 2 of "Jeopardy!, the Audition, click here
Finally, the time came for the auditions to begin. There were 24 of us aspiring contestants for that audition session. Ours was the middle of three sessions that day in Philadelphia, and that contestant search team was going to be there all week, while a second team was holding auditions in Dallas at the same time. These were the first two of twelve cities the auditions were being held in, which meant that there were a lot of people auditioning for a very limited number of slots.
The first thing we did was to line up to take head shots (baby, I'm a star!). We received our polaroids and headed on into the conference room. The three man search team, an energetic, lively trio, introduced themselves, and got us all pumped up and ready to rock and roll...but they were really doing was setting us up to be smacked down by the first challenge: a 50 question test that was similar in format to the online test we all passed to get the audition in the first place.
Like the online test, the questions appeared on a screen one at a time; however, there were three differences: first, we were all writing the answers rather than typing; second, we didn't have to phrase our answers in the form or a question; BUT third - and most important - instead of fifteen seconds, we only got EIGHT seconds to write down a response before the screen moved on to the next question! Now, I don't know if the degree of difficulty of these questions was harder than on the online test, or if it just seemed that way because of the reduced time we had to answer, but let me tell you something: eight seconds ain't shit when you're trying to come up with trivial, obscure answers to questions in all manner of random categories not of your own choosing, especially when you're in a room full of tense, INtense, competitive smart people all trying to outdo you and make some money. Out of those 50 questions, there were three or four that I absolutely had no clue as to what the answer was, and another 2 or 3 that I absolutely DID know but couldn't think of in those eight seconds. The rest I had answers for, usually almost instantly, which was definitely gratifying. There was one potential problem, though: the very last question was right in my wheel house: "Ag is the chemical symbol for what element?" Aww suki suki now, finally a chemistry question! I had come into this thing hoping, as someone working in the chemical industry, that I'd get at least a few science questions, but question #50 was it for this test. No problem, Ag is the symbol for silver; hell, I was just working with some silver nitrate a few days ago, so I had no doubt about this one. Yet for some reason, I had this nagging feeling that stuck with me for the rest of the day and night that in my haste to get that test over with, I might have written down "gold" instead of "silver". Now I'm not sure whether I actually did, but the paranoia was creeping up in me big time. I could just imagine the conversation:
(Contestant search producer: "Mr. Keel, it says on your application that you are a Chemical Research Associate. So can you tell us why you wrote down gold instead of silver for the last question?
Me: "What? Er...um...huh? I did? Um, see what had happened was...wait, uh, are you sure?")
After our tests were collected, along with our applications, head shots, and a list we had to bring of five facts and stories about ourselves, the search team left the room to grade the tests and look over our information. This gave us time to act like a room full of school kids: "What'd you get for this question? Anybody know the answer to that question? Man, I wish I had about two more seconds to answer that question!" This had the somewhat cathartic effect of making us each realize that we weren't alone in feeling like real dummies after that experience. Everybody seemed to know the answer to a couple of questions that others didn't know, and likewise didn't know the answers to a few questions that other people did know, and there was no one making a claim to knowing all the answers. I think we all were relieved at that...
Once the search team came back into the conference room, tests graded and our paperwork in hand, it was time for the real deal: head to head competition! Before we got started, the guy who seemed to be the top dog on the coordinating team went over the importance of not ringing in too soon on a question, as that locks out your ringer and keeps you from immediately being able to answer. However, it was revealed during a brief Q&A that the lockout is only for a half second, so that if you were quick enough and slick enough with the ringer (which was similar to clicking an ink pen) you could, after the lockout, still ring in on answer if the other contestants were either too slow or had also had lockouts. The importance of personality also was stressed; it wasn't enough to know stuff, you had to present that knowledge in a way that was going to have some appeal on TV. So, armed with that advice, it was time to let the games begin...
We were called up three at a time to play the game as you would on the real show. However, after almost every question, the game would be paused as someone from the team (often more than one of them, or even all of them) offered a critique of the way the question had been played: whether the contestant was loud enough, or sounded confident or enthusiastic enough, or was looking down or off in the distance while giving the answer, whether someone was having issues with the ringer. The critiques were not sugar-coated; the search team was mostly positive, but stern in their assessments.
No scores were being kept, but it wasn't hard to see who was good at the game and who wasn't. Meanwhile the rest of us watched and learned and waited for our chance. When each trio of contestants finished playing, they were interviewed in front of the rest of us. They had to state their names, where they were from, and what they did, after which members of the team would ask them for details about what they did, and questions about things they had written on their applications. After each set of interviews, we all gave a hearty round of applause, and the next group of three contestants were called up.
I was called up somewhere in the middle of the pack, and being me, I worried while I waited about whether their was any significance to the order in which we were being called upon. Was it based on the test scores? The overall package that we turned in? Alphabetical? Completely random? Who knew? No one ever found out their grades, either on the written test or the online test which got us here in the first place, so it was just left for me to sit, observe, worry and speculate. On the other hand, being called up in the middle of the pack was definitely a good thing in term of picking up pointers and learning from the mistakes the people ahead of me had made.
Right front the start I felt in my element during the game. I rang in with perfect timing on two of the first four answers (I got them right) and just missing ringing in first on the other two, both of which I knew. This got me a critique from the team: I was only pushing the ringer once, while my opponents were hitting theirs multiple times. I was lucky to hit the ringer with the perfect timing on the questions I got right, but not so much on the ones I got beat out for (which they could tell from my body language that I knew). I needed to do better with the ringer - much better.
After that it was on! I can see how contestants on Jeopardy! get on a roll; it's not just that they know more than their opponents (although I'm sure that can happen), but that they get into a rhythm with their clicking the ringer that puts them at an advantage. That's what I felt after the critique. It turns out the guy to my left was feeling it too, and we but on a serious battle against each other. I ended up being a little more aggressive, and rang in first a few more times, but my aggressiveness led to two wrong answers, which this other guy quickly jumped on. The third guy - poor thing - got left in the dust. He was able to get a ring in maybe twice (and he answered one of those incorrectly, which I was only too happy to pounce on). All in all, even though no scores were being kept, I did pretty doggone good, and I think I might have had a slight edge on the guy I was duking it out with.
Then came the interviews. Turns out the guy I was battling with is a Harvard grad who had just quit his job to open up a restaurant - in New York City, no less. The third guy was - I think - a teacher, but he seemed so deflated by the beatdown he received, that nothing he said was even remotely memorable. As for my interview, the search team asked questions about my job that gave me the chance to explain what I do with a good amount of detail; and amazingly enough, no one's eyes appeared to glaze over the way they normally do when I try talking about the joys of electrochemical and metallurgical research. I also told the story about my grandson Darius (aka the Hurricane) jumping out of his crib at 2 in the morning and scaring the hell out of me, which got a big laugh...on the way back to my seat after I was done, the guy sitting in front of me - who I talked to while we were waiting to get our head shots, and who turned out to be a news reporter in the D.C. area and who had also been, in his younger days, a DJ at an R&B / Hip-Hop station in upstate New York (a fact which everyone found to be hilarious because this dude looked to be about as old-money preppy whitebread as you could get) clapped me on the shoulder and said, "awesome, man!", which is pretty much exactly how I felt right then (I had even temporarily forgotten about the whole silver/gold worries).
After a few more rounds of head to head competition and interviews, we were done. Nerdy as those folks were, they were an impressive bunch, that had done some interesting things in their lives. But while I hadn't traveled to Europe, or started my own business, or had any unusual hobbies or collections, or built a life-size pinata of myself for my 25th birthday (which someone actually did), there were three things about myself that stood out in that group: #1, I was the only Black contestant in that session, #2, I was the only one in the session doing any work in chemistry, or in the sciences, period (unless you want to count the high school chemistry teacher), and #3, besides the retired college professor, I was the only one who was a grandparent (hell, there might have been only one other person in the room even old to qualify). So it remains to be seen how much all of that will matter...
After I was done, Mike - who did a little sight seeing while I was auditioning - and I went to a sports bar he found. We both decided we wanted to try famous philly cheesesteak sub, so cheesesteaks and beer it was (for the record, the cheesesteaks we had didn't taste any better or different than any other cheesesteak we had ever eaten. Maybe the "movie star" could have picked a better spot, LOL). After that, the road dawgs made our way back to Baltimore, with Mike taking pictures while I took the wheel. The drive back was just as easy as the one going up; the only negative to the trip was the SIX DOLLAR toll we had to pay - in ONE direction - at all toll in our "fair" home state (seriously, Maryland? SIX FREAKIIN' DOLLARS?). Aside from that, it was a great experience - challenging, nerve-wracking, stress-inducing - but in the end, pretty damned fun.
(and yes, I am still worried that I wrote "gold" instead of "silver")