My appearance on Jeopardy! airs in a week. I plan to publish a new post every day between now and then, reflecting on my experience and explaining what it was like to try out for and compete on the show.
I’ve loved knowing things for as long as I can remember. When I was a kid, we had the World Book Encyclopedia at home; I used to take volumes off the shelf and read random articles just for the hell of it. When we went to the library, in addition to the usual picture books or children’s fiction, I checked out books on topics like astronomy or dinosaurs (though I don’t think that’s unique). I remember there was a book about the human body called How & Why that I checked out over and over again, and by the time I’d gotten to middle school, I’d checked out Barron’s Algebra the Easy Way multiple times just for fun. (In my defense, the book is structured around a really fun little narrative about people in a mythical land discovering the rules of mathematics for the first time.)
When CD-ROMs became a thing in the mid-90s, one of the most common pieces of software my parents would buy for me was encyclopedias; I remember what a thrill it was that Compton’s, Grolier’s, and Encarta had actual video clips, available at the click of a mouse, of things like the moon landing or the “I Have a Dream” speech or the operation of the four valves of the heart. When people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I told them I wanted to be a neurosurgeon, presumably because nothing seemed harder and more satisfying to know about than the inner workings of the human brain. I could go on, but this is all just detail in support of what I’ve already said: I’ve loved knowing things for as long as I can remember.
And I’ve loved knowledge-based competitions almost as long. Probably the first such competition I can remember participating in is the spelling bee. I first did spelling bee in sixth grade, when I lost at the school level to an eighth grader, partly because Mr. Fuller mispronounced ‘leviathan’ (we both misspelled ‘taciturn’, and I lost by one word). I don’t remember caring about winning before that loss, but after that loss, I can’t remember ever not being desperate to win. I won the county in seventh grade (spawning an Orlando Sentinel photo caption some of you may remember: “Champion is spelled ‘Balasubramanian’”) and took third at the district level, which feeds to nationals. I repeated my Orange County victory the next year, only to choke catastrophically at districts, where the winner was, of all people, the kid who’d been my runner-up at county both years. I would compete in spelling bees on a couple of other occasions after that — if anyone cares, I took second place in the National Junior Beta Club Convention’s spelling competition in 1998, because I’d never heard of a ’stein’ and second-guessed myself — but spelling bees are something of a young man’s game, and the only league that matters (The Scripps National Spelling Bee) doesn’t let you compete after eighth grade anyway.
Alongside this orthographic melodrama, I was laying the foundations for my appearance on Jeopardy!. The earliest trivia competition I can remember participating in was in Mr. Ricard’s gifted social studies class in middle school. We used to play this game called “Newsbeat”, where the class would be split in two, and Mr. Ricard would moderate a trivia competition that used current events-related questions received via some kind of subscription. I vaguely recall that he sometimes used Trivial Pursuit cards for bonuses (perhaps someone reading this can confirm). The rules were broadly Quiz Bowl-esque, except that Mr. Ricard wielded absolute power to subtract points if kids got unruly (which happened often). I loved every time we played this game over those three years. I loved that the competition was strong, and I hated losing. My most vivid memory from these days is the time that I correctly answered that it took Apollo 11 about three days to reach the moon from Earth, felt confused as my classmates gawked in incredulity, and uttered an honest question that I wouldn’t live down for months: “isn’t that common knowledge?” (I probably deserved every snide remark I received for this particular feat of unintended obnoxiousness.)
At some point in middle school, I also spent a weekend afternoon at the Florida Mall competing in the Mini-Masters Game Show, a traveling kids’ trivia competition of whose existence I’ve been able to find scant electronic evidence. Drew had told me about it and invited me to play, but I ended up having to partner with someone random (I don’t remember why), and we didn’t get very far. The only thing I really remember was that my partner correctly identified a song I’d never heard of as being from the repertoire of Michael Jackson; I don’t remember which song, but I’d bet money that it was something obvious like “Thriller” or “Beat It”. It was on that day that I learned an important lesson: as smart as I thought I was, I had obvious weaknesses that even much lesser competitors would find absurd.
My greatest middle school trivia success came together with Ryan, Marc, and Jay-Ming. We represented our Beta Club in the quiz bowl competition and won the state of Florida, earning us all a trip to the same national convention I mentioned earlier. I don’t remember the details, except that we lost in the first round and were thoroughly dejected. Only my runner-up trophy in the spelling competition saved the trip from being a total waste.
I hung up my quiz bowl hat for the first couple years of high school, since the WPHS team generally only took juniors and seniors. But you can bet that I joined the team when I was a junior, and you can bet that I loved every minute of it. Mrs. Gwinn (requiescat in pace) made that an incredibly fun year, and it was one of my first experiences hanging out with older kids. I learned a lot from, and had a blast with, Chris, Kate, Albert, Dan, and others whose names escape me at the moment; they were cool and they had cars and I felt like such a baller just being associated with them. That was the year I learned that Georges Seurat developed pointillism, that Mussorgsky wrote Pictures at an Exhibition, and that the mysterious art of pen-twirling was not so mysterious after all. An otherwise awesome season was ruined by the fact that we lost in the finals; I was particularly frustrated because Mrs. Gwinn took me out in the second half so she could play the seniors, and I knew a number of the answers that they didn’t get.
Senior year, I became the team captain, and Mrs. Gwinn handed the coaching reins over to Kim, who continued the tradition of taking the game seriously but having a great time along the way. We recruited a new crop of juniors to the team, and a number of my classmates joined up or became more active. It was another exciting and fun-filled season, with long drives across town and many a pit stop at Fazoli’s to keep us entertained. I have a random memory of sharing a pizza with Ryan and Vikas in the parking lot of a rival high school, guffawing about who knows what. Strangely, however, I have almost no memory of the actual competition, though Kim tells me that we again lost at districts (I had romantically remembered that we won). However, she and the coach from Dr. Phillips High decided, for the first time in a while, to field a team for Orange County at the Commissioner’s Academic Challenge at Disney World; Andrew, Dan, and I competed along with Buddy and Derek from DP, and we managed to have a decently fun weekend despite losing in the first round (a theme is emerging here). The highlight of the experience was when I got on stage in the Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Play It! attraction; I lost on the question going for 32,000 “points” (sadly, on a question about PBS children’s shows), fell back to 1,000, and came away with a hat and some commemorative pins. Man, did I love that dramatic music (though it wasn’t the same without Regis).
And then, just like that, it was over. I never joined quiz bowl in college — indeed, I generally felt too busy with schoolwork to do anything extracurricular — though a few of us did compete in intramurals a couple times. And there was the occasional trivia night at The Rose & Crown in Palo Alto. But by and large, my trivia career ended when I graduated from high school, and my heady days of fierce competition to recall the obscurest facts the fastest were but a memory.
Until I tried out for Jeopardy!, that is.