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Tim Ifill '03 with Alex Trebek
Tim Ifill '03 with Alex Trebek

The Answer Is: Ford Alums Who Went On "Jeopardy!"

Recently, Chris Kozey ’06 appeared on the popular game show "Jeopardy!". After a little digging we turned up a couple more HC alums who tried their hands at the ultimate trivia game including Tim Ifill '03 (pictured right, with show host Alex Trebek). We asked them about their experiences on the show.

HC: What inspired you to go on "Jeopardy!" ?

Chris Kozey ‘06: I had always been a big fan of the show and had always harbored aspirations of playing on TV instead of at home on the couch. When I found out there was going to be an online test for the next round of auditions, I decided that was probably as good a time as any to give it a shot.

Tim Ifill ‘03: It was something that had been in the back of my mind for a while. I had always loved the show and watched it since I was a kid. Friends occasionally told me to try out, and when I saw an announcement for auditions in Philly, I figured I know about as much trivia as I'll ever know, so I might as well give it a shot.

Bev Schwartzberg ‘84: I coached a quiz bowl team when I was teaching public high school in western Massachusetts (I also played on the show when I was in high school) and my team really encouraged me...in theory, although I don't think any of us thought I, or any other member, would try out. When I came to California in 1992, I thought why not?

HC: What was the selection process like to get on "Jeopardy!" ?

CK: There was the online test of 50 questions, then a group interview consisting of another 50-question test and some mock game play. The crew who holds the auditions/interviews is great, and they really emphasize the fact that the show is a GAME show, not life-or-death. I guess I must have been the right balance of clown and competitor that they were looking for.

BS: Most contestants went to the studio and took a written test. If you passed the written test, you got to stand near the set and play some mock questions. Then you waited to see if they ever called. I went down to LA and took the test and passed. They called me quickly, but I've known lots of people who passed and weren't called, or who didn't pass for several tries (at that point I think you could only try once every six months) and then finally passed the test, got on the show, and did very well.

I was on in 1993, won five times, and was a finalist in the Tournament of Champions. Okay, I missed winning it by one question. But that was still a great experience! Then, a couple of years ago, around the 20th anniversary of the show, they called back all the old champions for a huge extravaganza. Jiminy cricket. That was a little stranger than the first experience, but I still saw some old acquaintances and met some "Jeopardy!" luminaries and have a lot of great stories.

HC: What was your personal preparation process leading up to the filming of the show?

CK: Pub trivia - I guess it's like jogging for your brain. But with pints.

And my girlfriend, Katie, was nice enough to give me an almanac a few days before the show, which I took a good look at prior to taping.

TI: I didn't prepare at all in advance of the show. I spoke with a lot of other contestants who had, but it seemed like an almost impossible task. I just watched the show whenever I could and hoped that I could rely on my many years of experience playing Trivial Pursuit.

BS: I did study, although I can't say it was a particular useful endeavor. But I did have fun making my colleagues quiz me in the car on the way to meetings, and stuff like that.

HC: If you were in some sort of group interview, was there anyone there who just blew your mind with the stuff they knew?

CK: Everybody there was really smart, but I can't recall one question that got answered and blew me away. I probably just wasn't paying enough attention.

TI: Not really. I just assume that I was that guy for everybody else.....

BS: I did meet some lovely people from all walks of life. But honestly, knowing things that no one else knows is not exactly the secret of "Jeopardy!"

HC: How were the facilities where you were filmed? Before the show, did you get the star treatment with great food and champagne?

CK: No champagne, but we did get make-up, which I had not prepared myself for. I'm pretty sure I specifically recall receiving some piece of literature that had big, bold letters saying NO MAKEUP for the men, but I could have just fabricated that completely.

They did have bagels, though, which almost made up for the powder.

TI: They were nice, but I wouldn't go quite as far as saying that I got the star treatment. They shoot five episodes in one day, so there were 12 or 15 of us sharing the green room.

BS: After I was on the Tournament of Champions, there was a little reception (and yes, champagne) on the set, but that was once a year.

HC: What was it like being grilled on a bunch of random stuff in front of an audience of people you didn't know?

CK: My dad, my brother, and my grandmother were in the audience, so I just sort of felt like I was playing for them. I probably felt that way because I knew they would give me hell for the stuff I got wrong, but once the game got going, I was much more focused on the board and just trying to buzz in than worrying about all 47 people in the audience.

TI: It was a little weird. To be honest, though, you're in the studios all day, and the shooting of the show itself happened so fast I barely noticed it. If I could do it over I'd probably try to concentrate more on enjoying the actual show itself more. Plus try to answer more questions correctly....

HC: Tell me about Alex Trebek. Was he all that you expected?

CK: Alex was exactly what I expected because he's exactly the same on and off-camera. He really is that strange brew of odd and detached, yet simultaneously personable. And I found out he has a teenage son. I don't know if the people at Sony are grooming him as a replacement, but I'd like to think so.

TI: I liked him a lot. He's got a really fun job, and you can tell he enjoys it. He interacts a lot with the audience during commercial breaks, and he has a funny kind of mischievous sarcastic streak that doesn't always come out on air.

BS: As a contestant, you don't get to spend time with him. He's good at his job. But since he has reviewed all the answers and questions, they don't let contestants and host mingle before the show. They're very conscious of fair play and I believe there is a lawyer on the set.

HC: Unfortunately, Chris, there was an answer review in your favor, but the delay caused another contestant to get the Daily Double when you should have had control of the board. Do you think this shifted the game out of your favor?

CK: Yeah - I think it definitely did, but that's the nature of the game. You can only do so much as far as reparations go. I have to say, I owe the judges one. Alex told me after the game that he lobbied hard not to give me the money. I didn't know Alex had any pull with the judges, but I'm glad they didn't listen to him.

HC: What happened during commercial breaks? Did you get a chance to talk to the other contestants? What were they like?

CK: The contestants were great - there was a nice esprit de corps that the Sony folks fostered amongst us, which I really appreciated. Commercial breaks were really short, so there wasn't a lot of time to chat, but the judges deliberated for a good 15 minutes or so before deciding to give me credit for that tarmac response, and that was a pretty stressful quarter-hour. There was some strained banter, and the handlers did a bang-up job trying to keep us distracted. I wouldn't have been in the least bit surprised to see a unicycle or juggling or something.

TI: For the most part Alex (we're kind of on a first-name basis) took questions from the audience. I did get to interact with the other contestants a lot, but that was mostly earlier in the day when they were preparing us and we did rehearsals and had lunch together, etc. There were over a dozen others there because it was for a week's worth of shows, and everybody was really nice. You could tell they were all fans of the show and they were really excited to be there. I wasn't really thinking about them as my potential opponents until the show actually started. It seemed more like we were all doing this fun thing together rather than competing against each other.

BS: Commercial breaks are in real time so there's isn't a lot you can do. Get a little pep talk from the producer, have a sip of water, hope you're not sweating like Albert Brooks in Broadcast News.

HC: What was your initial reaction to the categories you got? Were you happy? Ambivalent? In trouble?

CK: I was very happy to see the Augusta Personality and LBJ categories. That computer category screwed me because it was something I think I know a lot more about than I actually do.

TI: Sometimes you watch the show and think to yourself, "man, I would love to have those categories, I would totally dominate!" I was not thinking that during my show.

BS: Can't say I remember any of them in particular. The categories didn't have much effect on me, and probably didn't on other contestants. Unless it's football or opera, the answers are pretty wide-ranging, and often you can guess the right question from the context clues even if you don't have any particular expertise in that area.

HC: How about Final Jeopardy? What did you think of that category? Did you have any specific wagering techniques planned before hand?

CK: I hadn't planned anything regarding the final wager beforehand, but I was really excited about the final category, and I knew I was trailing, so I bet the farm. When the clue came up, I flat out misread it, thinking they were going for a sea to the west of Iceland instead of bordered on the west by Iceland. Since Greenland is a province of Denmark, that would make that answer of the Danish Sea kind of clever, which is what I thought the clue-makers had been going for. But, no. Moral of this story - read the directions, kids. Someday it could save you, oh, about $20,199.

TI: I was excited about the Final Jeopardy category, which had to do with geography. I was pretty far behind at that point, so I had already made up my mind to bet it all even before I saw the category. Plus I had lost a lot of money on a big bet for a Daily Double and figured I had a chance to make up for that.

BS: Just the same as any other question.

Apparently, though, there was apparently some (fan) controversy over one of my bets in the 1993 Tournament of Champions. I'm only glad that that appearance was before the blossoming of the Internet. I really wouldn't have wanted to read people's speculations about my bet, or worse yet, read their emails to me. There is a lot of "Jeopardy!" bulletin board posting and blogging now and I'm just not that obsessed.

HC: How did attending Haverford help or hurt you on the show?

CK: Haverford was wonderful - I can't imagine where I'd be right now had I not been able to meet the people I met and take the courses I took. The Haverford community truly is a unique entity, and I am certain it had something do to with me being on Jeopardy. And we got the Frisbee team a good plug on primetime TV, which was worth the trip to LA.

TI: I'm not sure how big a help it would have been - it's such a different kind of environment. In junior high, the teacher will ask lots of factual questions like, "what year was the Treaty of Versailles signed?" and you'll want to be the first person to raise your hand with the right answer. But that kind of interaction isn't as valued at Haverford. You definitely need to have a command of the facts in the classroom and in your work, but more often they support your arguments, they're not the end in and of themselves. However, even though you don't need to master that trivial knowledge to succeed at Haverford, my coursework did certainly expose me to a wide array of bodies of knowledge in literature, science, history, the arts, etc. that trivial information could be culled from.

HC: Overall, what did you feel about the experience? Was it life changing or not even worth the time you took off school \ work?

CK: I got to say, "I'd like to make it a true daily double, Alex" which had actually been pretty high on my list of things to do (that I probably won't get to do). I had a great time, and call me shallow if you must, but a cool 20 grand would have sweetened the deal.

TI: It was a blast. It would have been nice to take home a big pile of money and be on for multiple shows, but I had a great time doing it and there aren’t a lot of people who can say they've had that experience. The best part was back in Philly the day that it aired and my friends and family took over a bar and watched it on the big screen. It was definitely the most raucous viewing of "Jeopardy!" I'd ever been a part of.

Also, they gave me a thousand dollars, which I was pretty happy with. After the show was shot, I drove up to the National Forest I used to work for in the Sierra Nevadas and visited some friends and did some hiking, so part of the money went to that. I also bought a banjo.

BS: I had a great experience. I reconnected with some old friends and had fun. What more can you ask?

And of course it was worth the time. I don't usually make the same "hourly wage" as I did with my prize money from the show! And even if I hadn't taken home any cash, it certainly still would have been worth it.
I guess [the prize money] gave me a level of comfort while I was pursuing my Ph.D. I still had a job all that time, but I didn't feel that poverty was hounding me at every moment, and no doubt that helped keep me in grad school until I got my degree. I could always pay my rent.

HC: What's next? "Wheel of Fortune" ? "Deal or No Deal" ? "Millionaire" ?

CK: Maybe I could host my own show. Do you think the Career Development Office could make that happen?

Prof. Anita Isaacs (Political Science) and students cross Founders Green after class.

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