Dinner with Alex & James

Marcy O’Brien

I don’t actually invite them to join us for mealtime. They just show up at our later-than-usual dinner hour.

Well, in their defense, they don’t know that we eat in front of their Jeopardy game every weeknight.

I’ve been watching Alex Trebek on Jeopardy for 35 years. We record the game so that we don’t have to watch the ads – which reduces the actual play time of the half-hour game show to 22 minutes. So it’s 7:45 when we arrive in the den, plates in hand, to watch the newest phenomenon on competitive television. But there are two fascinating stories playing on the Jeopardy stage these days.

The stage itself is a bit different than when I was lucky enough to grab a contestant slot on the original Jeopardy show in 1967. Art Fleming was the host on the daytime Jeopardy which ran for ten years. And believe it or not, the questions were worth $10 to $50 in Single Jeopardy. A big winner on a good day might take home a couple of thousand dollars, as opposed to the latest record-breaking win by James of over $131,000+ on one recent evening.

I didn’t win anything. Well, there was that encyclopedia. Frankly, I went into it absolutely thrilled that I’d passed the tough written test. But when I met my two opponents, an English professor and a woman who spoke five languages, I was pretty sure I was done for.

I’m halfway decent at geography and was pretty pleased when the subject of U.S. Mountains appeared on the board. I aced the first three in a row – just enough to get on a roll – so I rang in on the fourth also. “Highest peak in the Adirondacks” was the answer on the board. I just stared at it – no clue. Never knew it, never heard of it. The correct response was Mt. Marcy. It was beyond embarrassing.

The modern era’s new champion, James Holzhauer, is a sports gambler from Las Vegas. He admits to spending a lot of time studying and it shows. He’s a brilliant, well-read speculator who is ferocious with geography and yet has proved himself adept at foreign governments, pop music, 19th-century literature, science, history, sports, politics, mathematics, you name it. Obviously a student of the game, he has figured out the timing of the buzzer button and it never hurts to be young – that speedy reaction time is a huge asset.

For a while, Jeopardy ran a senior game much like their high school and college tournaments. It didn’t last and my speculation is that the slower reaction time followed by the instant recall problem doomed it. I had grand thoughts about taking the test again when I saw a few contestants who admitted they had also appeared on the old original version. They performed adequately, but not well. I completely understand. I still know many of the answers. But my “file retrieval system” is slow. I can’t twist my tongue around the info transferring in from the brain fast enough. I do much better on Final Jeopardy when I have 30 seconds to retrieve the winning answer. That seems to be just the right amount of time.

James doesn’t have any such problem. His answers are sitting on the end of his tongue for immediate delivery. Last night he delivered again to the tune of over $130,000. For 22 minutes of work. That’s $5909 a minute.

Wow, I just figured out the hourly rate. I’m not sure that even Bill Gates makes $354,540 an hour. (Since I probably can’t re-qualify for the game, I have to keep myself amused.)

Despite the fact that James has won over $2,250,000 in record time, I don’t think he’ll bankrupt Jeopardy. His lopsided earnings might raise a ruckus with their normal annual budget but the game invented by Merv Griffin (he even wrote the singsong music for Final Jeopardy) has earned gazillions for its owners over the decades.

I know what the lasting appeal of the game is for me, yet I’m always surprised when I discover that friends and acquaintances are also Jeopardy devotees. There are big bunches of us and not just my silver-haired demographic. Even my grandchildren watch it. When I arrived home from a Boston visit last week, I had seen the shows for the weeknights I was gone. Dear Richard had carefully saved the three shows only to be surprised that recording is taking place on both sides of the family.

James has single-handedly kick-started a bump in viewership. Even some of the clubs around town are tuning in at 7:30 to see whether the wunderkind is going to amass another earnings record, remain on top for another night or finally lose his championship. The combination of his vast knowledge and his breathtaking wagers is creating an expanded loyal fan base. He seems to be doing for Jeopardy what Tiger did for the game of golf.

All this excitement is taking place while Alex Trebek, the beloved host of 35 years, is fighting a stage 4 pancreatic cancer. That survival rate is less than 3% over 5 years. He promised to fight it and he is currently responding well. Even National Public Radio is tuning in to his latest miraculous chemo results. He’s been upfront and informative on network news interviews about his health – no whining and no pity, please. “And yes, it’s a rug. We all know the toll that chemo takes on our appearance.” (IT IS a very good toupee). And otherwise, on Jeopardy every night, he’s like an old friend – his comfortable, charming self.

All this makes for a strange juxtaposition for us as we tune in every night. “How does Alex look tonight?” “How’s his walk?… his coloring.” Then James takes off with his fast buzzer – and the game is on.

I do feel bad for the other contestants who had to run into the buzz saw of James’s winning streak. Many have waited for years to “make the show” only to be dismissed by this intellectual giant. I do know a little bit how they must feel but I was only clobbered by a professor and a linguist . . . and a mountain.

So please don’t call us between 7:45 and 8:10 p.m. on weeknights. We’re always busy.

Tonight we’re having pot roast. Pot roast with mashed potatoes, carrots, Alex and James. It’s a tasty combination.

Marcy O’Brien, retired Executive Director of Struthers Library Theatre, can be reached at Moby.32@hotmail.com.