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Sun-Times reporter on return to ‘Jeopardy': I didn't want ‘to totally flame out'

CULVER CITY, CALIF. (Oct. 26, 2011) – “Jeopardy!,” America’s favorite quiz show®, is reuniting 15 of its recent champions for a head-to-head competition for a chance to win a quarter million dollars. The 2011 Tournament of Champions, beginning Nov. 2, will feature the show’s recent highest money earners, including the winners of last season’s College Championship and Teachers Tournament. Kara Spak on Jeopardy.

I didn’t think my life as a game-show contestant could get any better after winning five games of “Jeopardy!” and more than $85,000 last year.

I was wrong.

My “Jeopardy!” winning streak qualified me for the show’s “Tournament of Champions,” a two-week trivia showdown in which the last person standing takes home $250,000. The stakes are higher. The questions are tougher.

So are the opponents. How tough?

One quit his job at Amazon to study full time.

Another, Roger Craig, won the most money on a single “Jeopardy!” show: $77,000.

One contestant teaches physics – at Harvard. In his spare time, he writes New York Times crossword puzzles.

Most of them – the doctors, engineers, writers and genius college students – seemed to have played academic quiz bowl.

While it seems at least of few of them spent their youth memorizing vice presidents and state trees, I was dancing with a high school marching band on a football field holding either pompoms or a sequined hat. Still, the show was paying for my plane ticket and a Beverly Hills hotel room and throwing in some spending money. I was determined to have a great time, even if I crashed and burned.

I also was determined to try not to totally flame out. Many of the hard-core “Jeopardy!” fans, who meet on an online message board every day to discuss the show in a unique vocabulary they have created, were down on my performance the first time around. My vast knowledge of ’70s soft-pop lyrics, for example, was not worthy of a five-time winner, they wrote. One person didn’t like my facial expressions; another my attitude.

With a few exceptions, these prognosticators weren’t much kinder going into the Tournament. In a series of statistical charts, one elaborate pyramid graphic and their unfettered opinions, the consensus seemed to be I wouldn’t be advancing past the first round.

But if there’s anything dancing with a hat has taught me, it’s that there’s never a bad time for jazz hands or the element of surprise. I wanted to advance to the semifinal round, which can be done by winning a game or through four “wildcard” spots for the highest earners who do not win outright. I wanted to land on a Daily Double and make it “true,” doubling my money or losing it all, something I wasn’t gutsy enough for the first time around. So I spent an entire year reading about American history, famous economists, British monarchs, popes, art history, Nordic myths, ancient Mesopotamia, classic films, classic literature, often to a classical music soundtrack that came with detailed liner notes to help me remember the works of famous composers.

The one thing I didn’t want was to play ultimate single-game winner Craig in the quarterfinals. His buzzer skills were unbelievable. His knowledge base even more so. Both could keep me from winning or from accruing enough for a wildcard spot.

So, of course, in my quarterfinal game I ended up playing Craig and the whip-smart Brian Meacham, a film preservationist originally from Anchorage, Alaska. Tune in at 3:30 p.m. Thursday on WLS-Channel 7 to see how it went down.