Being on Jeopardy is Like...

By Torri Still / July / August 1998
November 30th, 2007

Benton is a seasoned competitor, having participated in quiz shows and spelling bees while growing up in Columbia, South Carolina. She says she has often watched Jeopardy! with her parents, but by no means considers herself a fanatic; at Brown, she catches the show infrequently and plays the occasional game on-line at the Jeopardy! Web site. But when she saw a promo last summer for the college tournament, she immediately decided to register. "I always knew the answers when Iwatched it on television,"Benton says. "So I thought, why not?" Soon Benton received a letter saying that her entry had been one of 10 percent picked randomly to try out for the tournament. There was, however, one small catch: Benton was offered the opportunity to audition for a competition among ten- to twelve-year-olds. "I called and told them, `Ah, there might be a problem,'" the nineteen-year-old says with a grin.

Last August, Jeopardy! officials offered her a spot at a tryout in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The questions on the exam, she says, were easy. "I was laid-back about the whole thing. I knew which questions I'd answered correctly and which ones I'd missed." After the exams were hand-graded on the spot, the twelve high-scorers, Benton included, were kept behind for photos and brief interviews. Because tests were also being given at several other locations around the country, only one or two of the Chapel Hill high-scorers would likely make it to Berkeley. "I think I was perfect for them," Benton says. "I'm from the South, and I attend Brown. They needed Southern representation, since geographical diversity is good for ratings."

Geography alone cannot clinch a Jeopardy! bid, however; Benton is quick-witted and focused. As a human biology concentrator at Brown, she served as a Biology 20 teaching assistant during the spring of her junior year; such positions are highly competitive and often filled by seniors and graduate students. A pop-culture junkie who says television- and music-related factoids in particular stick in her mind, she is also a bit of a ham and a skilled impersonator. When Benton recounted her whirlwind weekend at Jeopardy! three weeks after the event, she repeatedly slipped into various characters: the airport shuttle driver who cooed over her destination (Oakland's posh Claremont Resort and Spa, where all staff and contestants were housed); Jeopardy! announcer Johnny Gilbert and his wife, whom the contestants often encountered at the hotel; host Alex Trebek (of course); and, Benton's specialty, the characters from the animated television show South Park. Her imitations of Cartman and the rest of the South Park gang won high praise from her fellow contestants, but they also had a downside. By Sunday, Benton was hoarse.

Adia Benton '99 sits in a makeup chair on a Saturday morning in March, barely tolerating the lavish attention being paid to her face. Around her swarm makeup artists, hair stylists, and production assistants, each of whom adds to the air of organized chaos. Taking deep breaths, Benton tries to remain calm. The layers of foundation are hot and cakey, and her hair is stiff with hair spray, but these are the least of her worries. In a matter of hours, she will appear in front of a national television audience to be tested on her knowledge of everything from chocolate to classical music. Defying the laws of probability, Adia Benton has made it to College Jeopardy!

For this year's college tournament, the familiar Jeopardy! set has been moved to Zellerbach Auditorium, a 2,000-seat hall located in the heart of the University of California at Berkeley's sprawling campus. Makeup and hair in place, Benton and her competitors - fourteen bright-eyed students from such places as M.I.T., the University of Alabama, and tiny Barton College in North Carolina - follow a Jeopardy! staffer with a walkie-talkie through the labyrinth of backstage corridors. On the day of taping, contestants are shielded from family, friends, and reporters; interacting with outsiders could provide an unfair competitive advantage.

On the Jeopardy! set for the first time, the contestants pose for endless publicity shots, squinting into the blinding lights overhead. Nearby, the crew scrambles furiously to fix technical glitches in the giant bank of monitors that display the questions during games. Though the schedule promises that today's taping will start at noon, by 11:30 it is clear this will not happen. The on-camera practice rounds have yet to start, and the audience is still queued up outside the building. "The waiting was killing me," Benton will later grumble.

Warm and boisterous when relaxed, Benton is poised and reserved after being led from the makeup chair to the Jeopardy! set on Saturday morning. She is radiating a steely calm that means business. Unlike the contestants from Stanford, Santa Clara University, and UC-Berkeley, who have stacked the audience with familiar faces, she has but one family friend present to cheer her on.

The five games taped on Saturday are first-round matches that will air over the course of a week in May; the five taped on Sunday are the three semifinal games and two final matches that will air the following week. The winners of the five first-round matches automatically advance to the semifinals; joining them will be the four highest scorers among the nonwinners. Contestants who have not yet played are kept backstage, where they view the film Austin Powers; watching ongoing matches would allow them to figure out how much money they must earn to advance. After the publicity shots and onstage practice rounds, Benton sits backstage, waiting for her name to be called. Later, she recalls that the atmosphere in the contestant waiting room was tense: "There was a lot of food, but everyone was too nervous to eat. One of the contestants was even studying," she says.

Onstage, meanwhile, the technical glitches have been repaired, and two first-round matches go off without a hitch. After an hour-long lunch break, a new audience is ushered in, the lights are dimmed, and good-natured announcer Johnny Gilbert (he of the distinctive "This... is... Jeopardy!" voice) once again takes center stage. He gives the same speech to each new audience, and it never fails to win laughter and applause. "We know when you watch Jeopardy! at home," he booms, "you like to play out loud." He asks the 2,000 people in the audience for their cooperation in remaining quiet during the taping and applauding at the appropriate times (when a contestant hits a Daily Double or sweeps a category, for example).

As a final inspirational tactic, a ten-minute video montage rolls after Gilbert has left the stage. In it, Trebek makes funny faces, reads tongue-tying clues, and makes witty banter with contestants on Celebrity Jeopardy! With the audience now primed, the studio lights go on, the theme music kicks in, the monitors light up with aerial shots of the campus, and taping for the third first-round game gets under way. Benton is the first contestant to be introduced.

Her competition consists of Claire, a Yale sophomore, and local favorite Bryan, a senior at Santa Clara University. Once the three contestants are standing behind lecterns bear-ing their names and college emblems, Trebek enters from backstage, already wearing his third suit of the day. "Even after he came out onstage, Alex didn't seem like a person to me," says Benton. "He remained a flat game-show host. It wasn't all that exciting to see him in 3-D."

What the contestants most fear, aside from the competition itself, is the one-on-one conversation with Trebek that follows the first commercial break. "They instructed us to say, `That's right, Alex,' if we couldn't think of anything else," says Benton. Her chat with Trebek goes relatively well; he asks her about her plans to become a physician and specialize in infectious diseases. The exchange lasts but a few nerve-wracking seconds; Trebek moves on to Bryan after assuring Benton that she has "plenty of time" to decide about the specifics of her career.

The game itself, however, proves problematic for Benton. Though she makes a few runs, Benton stagnates in second or third place throughout the Jeopardy round. By the middle of Double Jeopardy, she has become mired in third place, and appears to have little chance of winning or even scoring high enough for a wild-card slot. Benton says that it was easy to avoid getting too down on herself: she never looked at the scoreboard. "Before the first game, I made a pact with myself to trust my instincts. That's all I could do."

With four questions left, Benton has $2,600, Claire $5,000, and Bryan $8,200. Mastering the zen of pushing the signal button at just the right moment, Benton correctly answers the final four questions of the game, which belong to the categories "20th Century Classical Music" and "Orthodontics." Among the final questions is an audio Daily Double; Benton easily identifies Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" as associated with the Olympics. In a span of two minutes, she has earned $4,600 and moved into second place for Final Jeopardy. She trails Bryan by only $1,000.

After a tense commercial break, during which the contestants sip water and place their wagers, it's time for the final question, from the category "World Leaders": "Unopposed," begins Trebek in his familiar, smooth-as-silk voice, "he was elected to his fifth term as president in 1998; he's been in power since 1959." Benton quickly scribbles down the correct answer - Fidel Castro - as do her two opponents. The game now comes down to the boldness of their wagers. Unfortunately, Benton has risked only $2,200. Bryan has also bet a paltry sum. As the only one of the threesome to bet a significant amount of money, Claire wins.

By the end of the day, Benton knows that in spite of her cautious wager in Final Jeopardy, her score is high enough to secure a place in the semifinals. She spends a relaxing Saturday night with the other contestants at the hotel restaurant and bar. "There was this feeling among the contestants," she says later, "that we're all in this together, removed from the world." In particular, she befriends Cathy from UC-Berkeley, as well as several of Cathy's friends. They will provide Benton with her own cheering section during Sunday's game.

Even though more is at stake, the contestants, now Jeopardy! veterans, are visibly more relaxed for Sunday's matches. Benton's name is drawn for the first semifinal game. Promptly at noon, Johnny Gilbert makes his way to the stage, and the taping process begins once again. Benton knows she is guaranteed $5,000 for making it to the second round, but her eye is still fixed on the $25,000 grand prize and the new Volvo that goes along with it.

Her opponents for this match - Kristen, a junior at Virginia's Mary Washington College, and Alex, a sophomore at M.I.T. - prove formidable. Benton runs into trouble early in the game when she uncovers a Daily Double and, with a gleam in her eye, tells Trebek that she wants to make it a "true daily double" by betting her entire $700. She can't come up with the answer, though, and loses all of it. The loss puts Benton a bit off balance as the show heads into its first commercial break. She finishes the first round in a distant third place.

In Double Jeopardy, Benton does well in several subjects - earning, for example, $1,000 for spelling idiosyncrasy correctly in a "Spell Check" category - but Alex and Kristen jostle for the lead. At one point, Benton is only $500 out of second place, but misses a $1,000 question in "Word Origins," suffering another blow to her confidence. By Final Jeopardy, Benton has $4,000 to Alex's $6,000 and Kristen's $5,400. She is by no means out of the running, but she must answer the final question correctly and wager more boldly than she did yesterday.

Benton will later say she just "blanked out" at this point. In Final Jeopardy, the contestants are asked to identify a substance found both in a Phoenix river and within the name of another state capital. Benton writes "Iron River," Kristen guesses "silver," and Alex is the only one to come up with the correct answer: salt (Salt River, Salt Lake City). He advances to the finals with a score of $10,801. Benton finishes second with $1,999.

Her role in Jeopardy! now that of a spectator, Benton is escorted backstage to the press room, where she munches on trail mix and watches the second semifinal game on a monitor. She sheds no tears over the loss; in fact, Benton is more relaxed and upbeat than she's been all weekend. She cannot resist the temptation to play along with the game on the monitor, even while simultaneously fielding questions about the Jeopardy! experience and slipping in and out of South Park-speak. There was no negative aspect of the weekend, she says, her voice strained from overuse. "Playing the game was fun. It's an expenses-paid trip. But it really has been one of the weirdest experiences of my life." Benton insists that, although she "really wanted that car," she is content with her prize money. "I may have blanked out at the end," she says, "but I blanked out to the tune of $5,000." Not a bad haul for a weekend's work.

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Related Issue
July / August 1998