Stephanie Stein, one of the many unfortunate victims fed to James Holzhauer during his run on Jeopardy, wrote about the experience. I’m happy she did, because I’ve often wondered, as I watch the great champions play like destroyers of worlds, what it must be like to be one of those other guys and what sorts of champions those other guys could have become had they gotten to play on any other day.
In a way it sounds like I imagine it would be, feelings that come full circle from I’m so happy I’m here to this guy is not going to do this to me to well, I’m happy to have had this experience, but the sense of hope mixed with resignation even before you’ve heard the first clue seems like something hard to comprehend until you’ve lived it.
The show tapes five episodes every day that it’s on set, and you don’t know which game you’ll be playing until they call your name, minutes before your turn. The rest of the time, all you and your comrades/opponents have to do is watch. It’s supposed to be fun: You’re playing a game. But that morning, it felt like we’d stumbled into a war zone.
Three games went by. In the second one, his final total was $110,914, beating the previous one-game record by more than $30,000. (He has since broken his own record, with $131,127, and has won $1.7 million so far.)
I remember someone joking, “Who’s next into the meat grinder?” I couldn’t decide if I wanted it to be me. At least then the wait would be over. My mother was in the audience, and you’re not allowed to talk to your guests during the taping, but her face said it all.
Lewis Black, a lawyer from Salt Lake City, and I am the first ones out of the trenches after production breaks for lunch. It’ll be a Thursday episode, April 11. We step onto marked-off squares that have built-in elevators that rise up to make it look like we’re all the same height. Lewis and I give each other a look. I try to remember that we’re playing against each other, too, but it doesn’t feel that way. It feels like we’re in this together. And someone, somehow, has got to take this guy down.
It’s not like I didn’t realize that was unlikely. In a strange way, though, the long odds felt liberating. The numbers on the game board stopped being real money and became nothing more than points in a game. A game I was still going to try to win, because Goliath or not, this was my one shot.